Britain’s prehistory: The Germanic invasions  (410 – 1066)

Britain’s prehistory: The Germanic invasions (410 – 1066)

One reason why Roman Britannia disappeared so quickly is probably that its influence was largely confined to the towns. In the country­side, where most people lived, farming methods had remained unchanged and Celtic speech continued to be dominant.

The Roman occupation had been а matter of colonial control rather than large-scale settlement. But, during the fifth century, а number of tribes from the north-western European mainland invaded and settled in large numbers. The newcomers were warlike and illiterate. We owe our knowledge of this period mainly to an English monk named Bede, who lived three hundred years later, but his story of events has been proved generally correct by archaeological evidence. Bede tells that the invaders came from three powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. The jutes were later considered no different from the Angles and Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon migration gave the larger part of Britain its new name, England, “the land of the Angles”. These Anglo-Saxons soon had the south-east of the country in their grasp. In the west of the country their advance was temporarily halted by an army оf (Celtic) Britons under the command of the legendary King Arthur (King Arthur provides а wonderful example of the distortions of popular history. In folklore and myth he is а great English hero, and he and his knights of the round table are regarded as the perfect example of medieval nobility and chivalry. In fact, he lived long before medieval times and was а Romanized Celt trying to hold back the advances of the Anglo-Saxons – the very people who became `the English’!). Nevertheless, by the end of the sixth century, they and their way of life predominated in nearly all of England and in parts of southern Scotland. The Celtic Britons were either Saxonized or driven westwards, where their culture and language survived in south-west Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.The strength of Anglo-Saxon culture is obvious even today. Days of the weekwere named after Germanic gods: Tig (Tuesday), Wodin (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday), Frei (Friday). New place-names appeared on the map. The first of these show that the earliest Saxon villages, like Celtic ones, were family villages. The ending –ing meant folk or family, thus, for example, “Hastings” is the place of the family Hasta. Ham means farmton means settlement. Birmingham, Nottingham or Southampton, for instance, are Saxon place-names.

The Anglo-Saxons established a number of kingdoms, some of which still exist in country or regional names to this day: Essex (East Saxons), Sussex (South Saxons), Wessex ( West Saxons), Middlesex (Middle Saxons), East Anglia ( East Angles). By the end of the three largest kingdoms, those of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, were the most powerful.

The Anglo-Saxons had little use for towns and cities. But they had а great effect on the countryside, where they introduced new farming methods and founded the thousands of self-sufficient vil­lages which formed the basis of English society for the next thousand or so years.

The Saxons created institutions which made the English state strong for the next 500 years. One of these institutions was the King’s Council, called the Witan. The Witan probably grew out of informal groups of senior warriors and churchmen to whom kings had turned for advice or support on difficult matters. By the 10thcentury the Witan was a formal body, issuing laws and charters. It was not at all democratic, and the King might decide to ignore the Witan’s advice. But he knew it might be dangerous to do so. For the Witan’s authority was based on its right to choose the kings, and to agree the use of the King’s laws. Without its support the king’s own authority was in danger. The Witan established a system which remained an important part of the king’s method of government. Even today, the king or queen has a Privy Council, a group of advisors on the affairs of state.

The Saxons divided the land into new administrative areas, based on shires, or counties. They remained the same for a thousand years. Over each shire was appointed a shire reeve, the king’s local administrator. In time his name became shortened to “sheriff”.

The Anglo-Saxons were pagan when they came to Britain. Chris­tianity spread throughout Britain from two different directions during the sixth and seventh centuries. It came directly from Rome when St Augustine arrived in 597 and established his headquarters at Canterbury in the south-east of England. It had already been intro­duced into Scotland and northern England from Ireland, which had become Christian more than 150 years earlier. Although Roman Christianity eventually took over the whole of the British Isles, the Celtic model persisted in Scotland and Ireland for several hundred years. It was less centrally organized, and had less need for а strong monarchy to support it. This partly explains why both secular and religious power in these two countries continued to be both more locally based and less secure than it was elsewhere in Britain through­out the medieval period.

Britain experienced another wave of Germanic invasions in the eighth century. These invaders, known as Vikings (a word which probably means either “pirates” or “the people of the sea inlets”), Norsemen or Danes, came from Scandinavia (Norway and Denmark). In the ninth century they conquered and settled the extreme north and west of Scotland, and also some coastal regions of Ireland. Their conquest of England was halted when they were defeated by King Alfred of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex (King Alfred was not only an able warrior but also а dedicated scholar and а wise ruler. He is known as `Alfred the Great’ – the only monarch in English history to be given this title. He is also popularly known for the story of the burning оf the cakes. While Alfred was wandering around his country organizing res­istance to the Viking invaders, he traveled in disguise. On one occa­sion, he stopped at а woman’s house. The woman asked him to watch some cakes that were cooking to see that they did not burn, while she went off to get food. Alfred became lost in thought and the cakes burned. When the woman returned, she shouted angrily at Alfred and sent him away. Alfred never told her that he was her king.). This resulted in an agreement which divided England between Wessex, in the south and west where Alferd was recognized as king, and the `Danelaw’ in the north and east where Viking rule was recognized..

However, the cultural differences between Anglo-Saxons and Danes were comparatively small. They led roughly the same way of life and spoke two varieties of the same Germanic tongue (which combined to form the basis of modern English). Moreover, the Danes soon converted to Christianity. These similarities made political uni­fication easier, and by the end of the tenth century England was one kingdom with а Germanic culture throughout.

Most of modern-day Scotland was also united by this time, at least in name, in а (Celtic) Gaelic kingdom.