Did the Anglo-Saxons invade Britain?
This is a question that has been debated for a long time. There is a lot of research on this subject and it depends on the time period and the school of thought that the author was using to what their answer is. There is good evidence used on both sides of the debate and there is no clear answer. Or is there?
I had always believed that the concept of a Saxon invasion was outdated and something that came from the tale of Hengist and Horsa. An origin story like any other which showed more about the people who wrote it than an account of the actual events. While at University I was taught about the spread of the Anglo-Saxons and swiftly fell into the no invasion camp. Recently I have been reading around the subject and wondered if there was indeed merit to both ideas. Could we perhaps suggest that both ideas had merit and there was an amount of invasion and an amount of peaceful settlement?
Campbell in his overview book The Anglo-Saxons seems to err on the side of an invasion at first reading. This book was published in the 90’s so when I was at university it was not especially old for an overview text. He cites some good evidence from the writings that are left from the period. I was left thinking that the agendas in the writing may well lead to an argument for invasion no matter which side the writer fell on (Briton or Saxon).
The Norman invasion is a well-documented occurrence, so is the creation of Danelaw. Both of these saw large swathes of the British countryside turned over to one ruler in a relatively short space of time. The Anglo-Saxons did not form a single unified kingdom. There were many and varied kingdoms that were much more tribal in nature. Early Anglo-Saxon archaeology shows a technology level similar to that of the Romano-British populations from the Iron age. There is Also the Issue of the disparate groups that are still identified. There are the Angles, The Jutes and the Saxons. Doubtless there would have been smaller tribal groups in these larger groupings.
Campbell also mentions some sources from the later Roman empire that talk of British groups fighting Saxon invaders. Indeed, the whole of the western Roman empire was fighting a variety of groups of Germanic origin until its eventual collapse in the 5th century. if the British were organised in such fashion surely we would see a lot more evidence for an invasion. perhaps even some records similar to those of the Viking invasions in later years.
If we look at the evidence of place names we can see that there are many that are Saxon in origin and many that are British at least in part. While we could compare this to the Scandinavian influence in the Danelaw areas of Britain does it not seem odd that an invasion would leave so much intact. Indeed, the names of some places are developed from the Saxon word for foreigner. If it were the case that these societies didn’t integrate then surely such names would be redundant as the indigenous population would have pushed to keep a native name.
I have looked through some of the genetic studies and they also suggest that there was an intermingling of the cultures.
I do wonder whether the views of an invasion come from a concept of a homogenous Anglo-Saxon culture that arrived rather than the disparate tribal groups with loose similarities. Could we, therefore, compare the migration of the angles, Saxons and Jutes to the migrations of people within the Bronze age? Essentially tribal groups that were moving to another place. Also aligned with this is the thought of Britannia as a province and a single entity rather than separate tribal groups especially as there are separate British kingdoms throughout the Saxon documentation.
It is an interesting concept to ponder and there will be follow-up posts about these subjects. In the mean time please do comment, answer the short questionnaire and sign up to the website for further updates.