Rewriting the Dark Ages - Sarah Woodbury

Rewriting the Dark Ages

A new theory has been working it’s way through the archaeological literature that there was no Saxon ‘invasion’ of Britain after the fall of Rome.  The theory states that “9th century Anglo-Saxon propaganda distort [ed] the records for the turbulent 5th and 6th centuries. . . . Rather than Briton versus Anglo-Saxon – as in the myth of Arthur – was it simply a murderous struggle between rival British warlords?”

The theory, at least in this article, is based on a lack of primary sources of the era.  This is an interesting argument, but there are a number of sources that suggest it isn’t accurate.

First:  written evidence, which the article claims to be scarce, is far more prevalent than at first appears–it’s just that the sources are not necessarily British.  This site on the ruin and conquest of Britain, details, in chronological order, some other sources that speak of the Saxon invasion:


Claudian, 401 AD:

When I (Britain personified) too was about to succumb to the attack of neighbouring peoples — for the Scots had raised all Ireland against me, and the sea foamed under hostile oars — you, Stilicho, fortified me (c.398). This was to  such effect that I no longer fear the weapons of the Scots, nor tremble at the Pict, nor along my shore do I look for the approaching Saxon on each uncertain wind.

Prosper of Aquitane, 410 AD:

The multitude of the enemy so prevailed that the strength of the Romans was extremely diminished. Britain was devastated by an incursion of the Saxons. The Vandals and Alans wasted parts of Gaul; Constantine the usurper kept a hold on the remainder. … Finally, the very Rome, the head of the world, was horribly exposed to the depredation of the Goths.

Zosimus, 411 AD:

They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces of Britain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

St. Patrick to Coroticus, 455 AD:

With my own hands I have written and composed these words to be … sent to the soldiers of Coroticus. I do not say my fellow citizens nor to fellow citizen the holy Romans, but to fellow citizens of the demons, because of their evil actions. Like the enemy they live in death as allies of the heathen Irish and Picts and apostates. These blood thirsty men are bloody with the blood of innocent Christians, whom I have begotten for God in countless numbers and have confirmed in Christ!

On the day after the neophytes, clothed in white, had received the chrism (its fragrance on their brows as they were butchered and put to the sword by those I have mentioned), I sent a letter with a holy priest whom I had taught from early childhood … the letter requested that they should grant us some of the booty and the baptized prisoners that they had captured; they roared with laughter at them. …

What should I do, Lord? I am very much despised. See, Your sheep are torn to pieces around me and are carried off, and by the raiders I have mentioned, on the aggressive orders of Coroticus. Far from God’s love is the man who delivers Christians into the hands of Irish and Picts….

… the church mourns and weeps for its sons and daughters who so far have not been put to the sword, but have been carried off and transported to distant lands …; and there freeborn men have been sold, Christians reduced to slavery — and what is more as slaves of the utterly iniquitous, evil and apostate Picts.

Sidonius to Namatius, 480 AD:

… the saxons give the impression that every member of the crew in their high-prowed ships is the captain, so accustomed are all of them both to issue and to obey orders, to teach and to learn piracy. … As an enemy they are unsurpassed in brutality. They attack without warning, but when sighted, slip away. They despise those who bar their way and destroy those they catch unaware; they are invariably successful in pursuit and in escaping. Shipwreck, far from terrifying them, is an exercise in seamanship. … They gladly endure the danger of a rock-bound coast if it enables them to achieve surprise. Moreover, when ready to unfurl their sails for the voyage home from the continent to set sail for home, it is their custom on the evening of their departure to sacrifice one in ten of their prisoners by drowning or crucifixion, performing a rite which is all the more tragic for being due to superstition, and distributing to the collected band of doomed men the iniquity of death by the equity of lot. Such is the nature of their religion.


Second, there is no linguistic relationship between English and Welsh.  As I blogged a few days ago, the Britains of the Roman era and the Dark Age period spoke something similar to the Welsh we know today, with many words borrowed from the Latin.  Welsh has also borrowed many words from English.  But English has borrowed few if any words from Welsh.  If the Saxons really had advanced slowly into Britain, not laid it waste or conquered huge tracts of land wholesale, there would be linguistic evidence of it.  But there’s not.

Think of the Norman Conquest.  It was a group of Normans who spoke French, who never outnumbered the Anglo-Saxons.  They conquered them fully, however, over the course of less than 100 years.  Over the next several hundred years, the ruling class continued to speak French, until the 13th century.  At that point, there was a shift to adopt a modified English, heavily borrowing from the French, but still distinctly English.  If the Welsh had been more numerous than the Saxons, something similar should have happened.   What did happen was much more like the English subjugation of the New World, however, but with even fewer loan words from Native American languages than modern Americans use.

2 Replies to “Rewriting the Dark Ages”

    1. Thanks! I think the linguistic evidence is particularly interesting and makes me really wish we knew more than we do.

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