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A map showing the general locations of the Anglo-Saxon peoples around the year 600

The early Anglo-Saxons invaded and settled on parts of Sub-Roman Britain (mostly later England) in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, during the European "migration period". The various kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy emerged in the course of the 6th century: the kingdoms of Kent, Northumbria (Bernicia and Deira) and Lindsey probably along pre-existing boundaries, while the westerly kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia show little sign of continuity.

The traditional division of the immigrants into Angles, Saxons and Jutes comes from the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum by Bede. However, historical and archaeological research has shown that a wider range of Germanic peoples from the coasts of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland and Southern Sweden also moved to Britain in this era.[1]

Brittonic language and culture, and the political power of the Britons, were displaced in these areas over time, but remained in Wales, Cornwall, and for a time in the Hen Ogledd or "Old North", an area that is now Northern England and Southern Scotland. During this period displaced Britons also fled to the continent, establishing Brittany in Armorica and Britonia in Galicia.



Linguistic evidence

Linguistic evidence can be interpreted as a marker of the cultures that have influenced given regions. [2] Study of Old English has shown no evidence of a Celtic language substratum. Some scholars have suggested that there is more evidence in the grammar than in the lexicon[citation needed], though this is challenged by many [3][4] [5][6]. Latin continued to be used for writing but not in everyday speech.

Similarly, studies of placenames give clues about the linguistic history of an area. England (except Cornwall) shows little evidence now of Celtic in its placenames. There are scattered Celtic placenames throughout, increasing towards the west. There are also Celtic river names and topographical names. The place-name and linguistic evidence has been explained by saying that the settlement of Anglo-Saxons, being politically and socially dominant in the south and east of Britain, meant that their language and culture also became dominant. Names with a Latin element suggest continuity of settlement, while some place names have names of pagan Germanic deities. Names of British origin are usually taken as indicating survival of a British population, though this may not be so. Names based on the Anglo-Saxon word for the British, wealh, are also taken as indicating British survival. An example is Walton meaning settlement of the British[7] and this name is found in many parts of England.

Epigraphic evidence from surviving inscriptions on stones provide another source of information on the settlements of Britons and Saxons in this period. Celtic inscribed stones occur in western England and Wales that relate to this period and the CISP project has been set up to record these and provide information online. In the northwest the inscriptions are written in runes and provide information on the settlement of Angles. (Inscriptions in northern Scotland are in ogham, some in an unknown language.)

Genetic evidence

Recent work analysing the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA of people now living in Britain and on the continent has provided some insight into population movements during the sub-Roman period. A 2002 study from University College London (Weal et al.) was interpreted as showing the possibility of large scale Anglo-Saxon migration to central and eastern England (accounting for 50–100% of the population at the time in Central England). [8] However, a more complete study in 2003 (Capelli et al.) suggests that there may have been substantially less Anglo-Saxon migration to other regions of England, and that the transition between England and Wales was more gradual than the earlier study suggested. The study also provides evidence that all areas of the British Isles have some pre-Anglo-Saxon genetic component. It did not identify a discernible difference in the Y chromosomes of the presumed source populations of Anglo-Saxons and the later Danish Viking settlers, thus the survey registered both sets of chromosomes as belonging to the same group. Further, when the study included the samples from Friesland used by Weal et al. (2002) as a source population for Anglo-Saxons, it found no statistically significant difference between those samples and the North German/Danish group. All continental samples were statistically different to British samples. On the other hand the principal components analysis showed that samples from Friesland, although closer to the North German/Danish samples, were somewhat closer to the British samples than the North German/Danish samples were[9]

Others interpret the above genetic evidence differently. Stephen Oppenheimer in The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, and new DNA sampling (Y-chromosome and mtDNA) by Bryan Sykes for his book Blood of the Isles suggest that the contribution to the British gene pool from Anglo-Saxons and other late invaders may have been very limited, and that the majority of English people (about two-thirds) and British people (about three-quarters) descend from palæolithic settlers who migrated from the western European Ice Age refuge;[10] this observation may support the idea of an ancient relationship between the populations of the Atlantic façade of Europe, though the eastern and south eastern coasts of Great Britain do not belong to this zone.[11] Oppenheimer states that the majority of the British gene types stem from paleolithic Iberia.

Sykes and Oppenheimer claim that even in the east of England, where there is the best evidence for migration, no more than 10% of paternal lines may be designated as coming from an "Anglo-Saxon" migration event and that in the same English regions 69% of male lines are still of aboriginal origin. Oppenheimer postulates a possible pre-Anglo-Saxon genetic relationship between the modern populations of England (especially the south and east) and the people living on the opposing North Sea regions, indicating a much older pre-Roman Germanic influence in south and east England. There is some evidence that Y chromosome Haplogroup I, which occurs at similar frequencies around the North Sea coast, may represent a mesolithic colonisation rather than an Anglo-Saxon migration as is argued by other researchers. This haplogroup represents a migration from the Balkan refuge that may have travelled along inland European rivers rather than by the Atlantic coast.[12]

Oppenheimer also postulates that the arrival of Germanic languages in England may be considerably earlier than previously thought, and that both mainland and English Belgae (from Gaul) may have been Germanic-speaking peoples and represented closely related ethnic groups (or a single cross channel ethnic group).[13]

Extent of the migrations

It has long been held that the Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in large numbers in the fifth and sixth centuries, substantially displacing the British people. The Anglo-Saxon historian Frank Stenton in 1943, although making considerable allowance for British survival, essentially sums up this view, arguing "that the greater part of southern England was overrun in the first phase of the war".[14] This interpretation was based on the written sources, particularly Gildas but also the later sources such as the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede, that cast the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons as a violent event. The placename and linguistic evidence was also considered to support this interpretation, as very few British place-names survived in eastern Britain, very few British Celtic words entered the Old English language and the migration of Brythonic language and peoples from south-western Britain to Armorica, which eventually became Brittany.[15]

This interpretation particularly appealed to earlier English historians, who wanted to further their view that England had developed differently from Europe with a limited monarchy and love of liberty. This, it was argued, came from the mass Anglo-Saxon invasions. While this view was never universal — Edward Gibbon believed that there had been a great deal of British survival — it was the dominant paradigm. Though many scholars would now challenge this argument, the traditional view is still held by many other historians, Lawrence James recently writing that England was 'submerged by an Anglo-Saxon current which swept away the Romano-British.'[16]

The traditional view has been deconstructed to a degree (a considerable degree in some circles) since the 1990s. At the centre of this is a re-estimation of the numbers of Anglo-Saxons arriving in Britain during this period. A lower figure is sometimes accepted, which would mean, if this viewpoint is believed, that it is highly unlikely that the existing British population was substantially displaced by the Anglo-Saxons.[17] The Saxons are thus seen as a ruling elite with acculturisation of the local population. Thus "Saxon" graves may be of Britons though many scholars would disagree with this interpretation [18] [19] [20] [21] [22].

Invasion period kings

The following semi-legendary 5th and 6th century kings are credited with establishing the first Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England:

See also


  1. ^ Collingwood, R. G.; et al (1936). "The English Settlements. The Sources for the period: Angles, Saxons, and Jutes on the Continent". Roman Britain and English Settlements. Oxford, England: Clarendon. pp. p 325 et sec. 
  2. ^ See Kenneth Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain: A Chronological Survey of the Brittonic Languages, (Edinburgh, 1953) for a traditional introduction
  3. ^ Roberts, Ian G.. 'Verbs and diachronic syntax: a comparative history of English and French Volume 28 of Studies in natural language and linguistic theory Volume 28 of NATO Asi Series. Series C, Mathematical and Physical Science'. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Hickey, Raymond. 'Early Contact And Parallels Between English and Celtic.' in 'Vienna English Working Papers'. 
  6. ^ van Gelderen, Elly. 'A History of the English Language'. 
  7. ^ Hamerow, H. 1993 Excavations at Mucking, Volume 2: The Anglo-Saxon Settlement (English Heritage Archaeological Report 21)
  8. ^ Michael E. Weale, Deborah A. Weiss, Rolf F. Jager, Neil Bradman and Mark G. Thomas (2002), Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration, Molecular Biology and Evolution 19:1008–21. Retrieved 4 May 2006
  9. ^ A Y Chromosome Census of the British IslesPDF (208 KiB) (2003), Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman and David B. Goldstein Current Biology 13(11):979–984; DOI 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7. Retrieved 4 May 2006.
  10. ^ There are thought to have been three human population "refuges" in Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum. Oppenheimer pp102–103.
  11. ^ Cunliffe, 1995. Iron Age Britain p7. ISBN 0-713-48839-5
  12. ^ Oppenheimer 2006:166-169.
  13. ^ Oppenheimer 2006, pp268–307.
  14. ^ F.M. Stenton, The Anglo-Saxons, 3rd edition, (Oxford: University Press, 1973), p.30
  15. ^ Lawrence James, Warrior Race, (London: Abacus. 2002), p.30
  16. ^ Lawrence James, Warrior Race, (London: Abacus. 2002), p.30
  17. ^ Michael Jones, The End of Roman Britain, pp.8-38.
  18. ^ Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf and Heinrich Hark (pdf). Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England. Royal Society. Retrieved 21 January 2010. 
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ Andrew Tyrrell, Corpus Saxon in Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain by Andrew Tyrrell and William O. Frazer (London: Leicester University Press. 2000)
  • James, E. (2001) Britain in the First Millennium, London: Arnold
  • Henson, Donald (2006) The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons, Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books


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