Aerial view of the Burghal Hidage site of Wallingford with the Thames in partial flood. Outline of the Saxon ramparts and ‘Alfredian’ streetplan is clear.Image courtesy of the Environmental Agency, Author provided
By Stuart Brookes
Senior Research Associate in Archaeology, UCL
The Last Kingdom – BBC’s historical drama set in the time of Alfred the Great’s war with the Vikings – has returned to our screens for a second series. While most attention will continue to focus on the fictional hero Uhtred, his story is played out against a political background where the main protagonist is the brooding and bookish mastermind Alfred the Great, vividly portrayed in the series by David Dawson.
A Battle of the Somme on British soil? It happened on Palm Sunday, 1461: a day of fierce fighting in the mud that felled a generation, leaving a longer litany of the dead than any other engagement in the islands’ history – reputed in some contemporary reports to be between 19,000 – the same number killed or missing in France on July 1 1916 – and a staggering 38,000.
The battle of Towton, fought near a tiny village standing on the old road between Leeds and York, on the brink of the North York Moors, is far less known than many other medieval clashes such as Hastings or Bosworth. Many will never have heard of it.
Almost one million Britons alive today are of Viking descent, which means one in 33 men can claim to be direct descendants of the Vikings.
Around 930,000 descendents of warrior race exist today – despite the Norse warriors’ British rule ending more than 900 years ago.
A genetic study carried out by BritainsDNA compared the Y chromosome markers – DNA inherited from father to son – of more than 3,500 men to six DNA patterns that are rarely found outside of Scandinavia and are associated with the Norse Vikings.
Amateur Vikings process around their longboat during the annual Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Most of this article is actually a part of my published book The Celts, Athens 2008, unfortunately available only in Greek.
At about the same time when the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanics were landing in Britain and beginning the conquest of the territories which later became England (5th cent. AD.), one of the strongest Irish tribes, namely the Scots, were migrating to the opposite coast of Caledonia (northern Britain), founding the kingdom of Dal-Riada (or Dal-Riata). It has been hypothesized that in reality this colonization involved Scottish mercenaries (a Scot dynasty) who were to be used by the Britons as a buffer against the Pict raiders, like the earlier migration of the Votadini. The Picts (the “painted ones” in Latin because they retained the ancient Celtic custom of using body tattoo before the battle) were a pre-Celtic people of Caledonia, who at that time was almost Celticized and had incorporated most of the other tribes of the region. Τhey were calling themselves the Cruthni. The Britons generally used the Roman doctrine of dealing with barbarian peoples by turning one against another.
In Ireland, which has never been threatened by the Romans, the local Celtic tribes and dynasties fought each other for power. Some warlords managed to greatly expand their influence and it became a custom to be enthroned on the sacred hill of Tara.
Until the early 20th century, most researchers believed that the Anglo-Saxons were the principal ancestors of the modern English nation and the English are basically a Germanic people, on the hypothesis that their ancestors exterminated the native Celts or expelled them to the periphery of the island. Since then, the sciences of archaeology, genetics, anthropology and others demonstrated that this is not true. The English originate mainly from the indigenous population of the British Isles (as the neighbouring modern Celtic peoples) who first adopted the Celtic language due to cultural interaction with the Continent, and then adopted the Anglo-Saxon language because of the Germanic conquest. The same applies to the origins of the modern French people, the Spanish, the Walloons and others, who originate mainly from the pre-Celtic population of each country, who was Celticized mainly through cultural interaction and later Latinized because of the Roman conquest. The majority of the population of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the 7th century onwards, consisted of Germanized Britons who spoke the language of the conquerors and now called themselves ‘Saxons’. Their leading class consisted mainly of genuine Anglo-Saxons and some Germanized ex-Celtic aristocrats. The original Saxons were the majority only in some small coastal enclaves where they originally landed.