The renowned helmet of the Sutton Hoo burial (reconstruction by the Royal Armouries).
By Periklis Deligiannis
[This article is actually a synopsis of a sub-chapter of my book ‘The Celts‘, Periscope publ., Athens 2008, unfortunately available only in Greek]
The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain started around the middle of the 5th cent AD. After the first Saxon victories, the Britons were reorganized and had gone on the offensive against the invaders led by a succession of skilful Supreme rulers (under the military office of the Duke that is Dux Bellorum according to the Roman terminology) of the 5th-6th centuries, such as Voteporix, Ambrosius Aurelianus and the enigmatic Arthur, who managed to effectively repel the invaders.
‘King’ Arthur may have been a historical personality, possibly a descendant of Artorius Castus – a much earlier Roman commander in Britain – and prince of the Dumnonii tribe/civitas in South-western Britain. Arthur or more correctly, the possible historical figure that he represents, was not the ‘King of the island’ but rather the Supreme commander/ruler of the Britons. But he probably was the king of his own people/former civitas; probably Dumnonia. It is believed that his royal residence was in South-western Britain, perhaps in the royal fortress excavated at Cadbury. From there he was undertaking military and political action in all the Briton territories as far as the Antonine Wall in the North. The philological and archaeological data indicate that he managed to repel the Anglo-Saxon advance. According to the chroniclers, he defeated the Saxons in twelve major battles, killing many of them. Arthur managed to repel the Pictish and Irish raiders as well. He achieved his greatest victory in the Badonicus hill fort (Mount Badon, around 516 AD) on the Anglo-Saxons. After this victory, Arthur’s ruling influence was extended to some of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, as well as to the Bretons of Armorica in modern north-western France.
Archaeology confirms the Briton victories on the Anglo-Saxons around 500 AD. In the first half of the 6th century the Saxon advance stopped, the burials of the barbarian warriors raised sharply, while large groups of Anglo-Saxons returned to Germany, apparently frustrated by the Celtic victories. The superiority of the Briton army against the invaders probably relied to its armored cavalry, a legacy of the Late Roman army in Britannia. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons were almost entirely infantrymen.
Britain in the 6th century (suggested or approximate boundariess). The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are noted in red, the Briton kdms in black, the Irish in blue and the Pictish in brown. In the 7th cent., the Angles of Bernicia, Deira and Lindsey were united in the large kingdom of Northumbria. Bernicia, Deira and then Nortumbria destroyed and conquered the Briton kdms of Bryneich, Ebrauc, Elmet and South Rheged. Mercia conquered South Elmet and a part of Luitcoyt. The territory of Lundein (London) was annexed mainly by Essex (East Saxons) and East Anglia, and Regia by Sussex (South Saxons). Finally Wessex joined by the Gewissae (possibly descendants of Germanic soldiers of Rome), managed to destroy and annex the Briton kdms of Glouvia, Cerin and Atrebatia, pressing hard towards Dumnonia (possibly Arthur’s homeland). A part of the Dumnonii had already fled to Armorica founding the colony of Domnonee.
The typical Celtic weaknesses of dissent and indiscipline gave an advantage to the Anglo-Saxons. The Germanic invaders used to be also indisciplinable and with a tendency to dissent, but not as much as the Briton and Romano-Briton rulers. The early medieval sources indicate that many Briton warlords envying Arthur’s power, were unruly to his commands and they often rebelled and fought against him or against each other. Arthur, most likely betrayed by many Briton rulers, confronted the Saxon invaders or/and some rebellious relative of him in a battle, in which he was killed; probably in the battle of Camlann, 537 or 539 AD. Soon the Celts faced a new calamity. A new plague that had occurred in the Mediterranean about 542 and killed nearly half the population of Constantinople, reached Britain through maritime trade. The British had many more victims than the Anglo-Saxons, because they maintained commercial relations with the Mediterranean countries. On the other hand, they had very few or no contacts with the Germanic invaders who thus were not seriously exposed to infection. Arthur’s legendary death and the plague probably caused the collapse of the Briton resistance. In 660 AD, a century later, the advancing Anglo-Saxons had conquered almost the entire territory of modern England.
Many or most of today’s researchers and historians tend to agree that the Saxons did not ‘exterminate’ or expel most of the natives from the conquered lands, as it was usually believed almost until the third quarter of the 20th century. They turned them into taxpayer serfs who provided income, laborers and military recruits for the victors. Archaeology of weapons has proved that a number of Celts were incorporated into the Saxon armies. The explanation of this phenomenon is the sharp social inequality of the feudal type in Briton society, which drove many common people to joining the invaders, in whom there was no such sharp social inequality yet. The same situation existed at the same time across the entire old Western Roman Empire, where many slaves, serfs and people in debt were joining the invading barbarians against the Roman aristocracy. An analogous case of reluctance of a Celtic people to resist the invaders, took place in 57-50 BC in Gaul where due to the same social inequalities many Gauls had chosen to join the Roman invaders or remain neutral.
The Britons who were expelled or killed seem to had been mainly the Romanized ruling class of South-eastern Britain and its dependants. The mass of the population and a small portion of the nobility remained in their homes and rapidly adopted the Germanic language, the habits, the traditions and the ethnic names of the conquerors in order to overcome ethnic discrimination. The original Anglo-Saxons outside the coastal enclaves in which they landed initially, formed a dominant minority in the conquered areas. This view, supported by many researchers and ‘bio-historians’ (Bryan Sykes, P. Wilcox, T. Ch. Edwards, Simon Schama to name just some of them) has also been proved by the biological research based on the study of mitochondrial DNA and the haplogroups of the modern populations. However there are still many who question the conclusions of the so-called bio-historians – L.L. Cavalli-Sforza and Bryan Sykes being some ‘pioneers’ on this kind of research – considering them to be of limited accuracy, relevance or importance.
However, the view on the origins of the modern English people mainly from the pre-Saxon population is supported additionally by the demographic correlations. I will try to approach a solution to the problem by making some demographic calculations. Frere in his work on Roman Britain (1967) estimated its population in around 2,000,000. Collingwood (1939) had previously assumed, rather arbitrarily, a population of 500,000. Hollingsworth (1969), an expert in ancient/medieval demography rejects both of these estimates – the first as too high and the second as too low – considering that the figure of the Romano-Briton population was somewhere in the middle. Following his view, an estimate of a population of 1-1.5 million Britons in the 3rd-4th centuries AD is much reasonable. Thus in the 5th century the figure of 1,000,000 seems the most likely, falling because of the Roman decline. This estimate is possibly not consistent with the figures of the warriors of the Briton armies reported by the chronicles, which number at most a few hundred warriors per army. However, it should be noted that the effective Briton combatants were rather few, because of the three centuries of Roman rule which prevented the use of weapons by the natives due to the great revolt of Queen Boadicea (Boudicca). Because of this situation, only a few Britons were skilled warriors. Most of the professional soldiers of the Roman Empire, legionaries, cavalrymen, auxiliaries and others, who were guarding and protecting the island, had left it since the early 5th century. Conversely, the Anglo-Saxons were experienced fighters almost in their entirety. It seems that a large part of the Celtic people did not provide combatants due to their social status, and were indifferent for the Saxon advance, sometimes even promoting it.
The loss of the Mediterranean peoples because of the aforementioned plague is estimated to have reached at maximum the 33 % of their total population. Britain due to her geographical position and cold climate was not struck so much by the plague, so the disease would probably had exterminated 20 % or 25 % of the Briton population, mainly in the urban centers. Thereby especially the Romano-Britons (living mostly in the cities and the towns) would had suffered the largest losses. Furthermore, the medieval sources do not report any mass extermination by the plague. It is evident that even if a good number of Celts were killed or expelled by the Saxons, or died from the plague, those who remained in their homes as serfs were numbering several hundreds of thousands. On the other hand, the barbarians generally had very small populations. For example, Vives has estimated the free Visigoth population at 80-100,000 (including their women and children) when they settled in Spain, while the Ostrogoths numbered approximately 100,000 in AD 489. The Vandals and the Alans who settled in Africa, numbered 80,000 along with their slaves, and only 15,000 of them were warriors. The Saxon or Jute mercenary group of Hengist and Horsa crossed the Channel aboard three boats, thereby numbering about 100-150 people and not all of them being warriors.
The tribal territories of the four main Anglo-Saxon tribes (including the Frisians), namely Jutland and the contemporary coast of the Northern Netherlands and North-western Germany, cover an area of 50,000 sq. km. By calculating their population based on Russell’s estimate (1958) that the free barbarian homelands north of the Greco-Roman World had an average population density of 2 people per sq. Km., the conclusion is that the four main Anglo-Saxon tribes had a total population of around 100,000. However, even this figure seems excessive for those sparsely populated areas. It should be noted that the metropolitan Saxons had not yet expanded to modern central Germany, in the districts of the Brukteri (Boruktuari), the northern Cherusci and other tribes which later were incorporated to the Saxon tribal union. Even if we assume that half of the metropolitan Anglo-Saxons settled in Britain which is very likely, and if we add to them the small groups of Franks, Thuringians, Danes and others that joined them, the total number of the Germanic invaders in Britain could not have exceeded 60,000 along with the women and children. At least the migration of the Jutes and the Angles in Britain was a large one because their compatriots who remained in Jutland and modern Sleswig-Holstein were weakened enough to be gradually absorbed by the Danes. Considering specifically the Angles, it seems that almost the entire tribe migrated to Britain.
On the other hand, it has been proved archaeologically that after the aforementioned Briton victories, a number of Anglo-Saxons returned to their homelands. Additionally, the metropolitan Saxons became powerful enough to annex large areas of central Germany. Finally, we must take into account the large losses of the Anglo-Saxons on the British battlefields as evidenced by their numerous burials, while some would have died because of the plague that struck the Britons. These factors reduce significantly the number of the Anglo-Saxons who remained in Britain and survived there (less or much less than 60,000). On the other hand, I must point out that these early conquerors and dominants had many children in Britain, many more than the Britons. They had many children with their Anglo-Saxon wives but mostly with their Celtic ‘wives’, concubines and female serfs, due to their barbarian polygamy and the rapes of the native women that were probably a usual phenomenon. After all they could support many children being the dominant people. The Celts could not.
Considering all these evidence, calculations and estimates, I suggest that the genuine Anglo-Saxons and their offspring were in a rate of at least 15 % and at most 25 % of the population of the conquered areas (subsequent England). The rest of the inhabitants were the Germanized natives. Later, this Anglo-Saxon ruling class suffered heavy casualties during the wars between its kingdoms (Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, Essex, Kent and others) due to the fact that they were the ‘warrior cast’, and even more numerous deaths during the invasions of the Vikings and the Normans (793-1070) who really tried to exterminate them. Additionally, during the bloody invasion and early rule of the Normans (1066-1100) thousands of genuine Anglo-Saxon refugees settled permanently in mainland Europe. Some of them reached even Constantinople and Russia serving the Byzantine emperor and the Rus warlords as mercenaries.
The Britons who fled from the conquered lands, found shelter in the areas that later became Wales, Cumberland (Cumbria), Scotland and Brittany in France. The Bretons of France are descended from Briton refugees who had fled to Armorica where they joined their Gallic kinsmen and some Sarmatian Alans. The modern Breton language is of Brythonic/Briton origin, not Gallic.
SOURCES AND MODERN BIBLIOGRAPHY
• Nennius: Historia Britonnum, Translated by J. A. Giles.
• Gildas: The ruin of Britain and other works, translated by M. Winterbottom, London, 1978
• The Annals of Wales (B), translated by John Spear.
• Frere Sh., Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, Harvard University Press, 1967.
• Russell J. C., Late Ancient and Medieval Population, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: American Philosophical Society, 1958.
• Collingwood R. G., Myres J. N. L., “Roman Britain and the English Settlement”, The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 29, 1939.
• Hollingsworth T.H., Historical demography, New York 1969.
• Ashe G., The discovery of King Arthur, London, 1995.