The Origins of Saxon England - Sarah Woodbury

The Origins of Saxon England

In recent years there has been some controversy regarding the origins of Saxon England. From the evidence of the written record, the dominance of the English language, and the distribution of Saxon place-names across the landscape, the assumption throughout most of history was that it came about through a series of invasions.

However, in some contemporary scholarship, the use of the word ‘invasion’ or even ‘migration’ has fallen out of favor. Not only is it posited that there was no Saxon invasion at all–justified in part by the fact that we have found no massive battlefields–but that there was not even a migration. The Saxon conquest was, rather, a cultural takeover where the native British people remained living in all the same places throughout Britain, but gave up their language, culture, religion, traditions, and place names in order to adopt the culture of the peoples of Northern Europe. Over the course of a few hundred years, they were no longer culturally British (Welsh) at all, but Saxon, even if biologically they remained British.

Proponents of this theory have included Francis Pryor, Stephen Oppenheimer, and Susan Oosthuizen, who wrote a 2019 book, The Emergence of the English. In it, she argues, similarly to her predecessors, that there was no substantive Northern European immigration into England, that Germanic leaders did not replace the Romano-British elite, and that, while material culture and linguistic changes took place, they are not evidence for either. She punctuates her argument by comparing the influence of Anglo-Saxon culture to the distribution in 2018 of Ikea stores in Britain. In so doing, she suggests that future archaeologists might be as confused about the influence of Northern Europeans in Britain in the 21st century as we are about their influence in the early middle ages.

This ignores the fact that British culture, language, traditions, and laws disappeared in the early middle ages and were replaced by that of Northern Europeans, while the Ikea stores are a tiny Swedish element within the modern English cultural landscape.

Until very recently, as evidenced by a proliferation of news articles, television programs, and videos, this theory caught the imagination of the popular press, to the point that it was almost a truism that there never was a Saxon invasion of England.

From the start, I was highly skeptical of the theory for a number of reasons. To begin with, there are many historical sources that describe invasions of Britain by people from Northern Europe, whom history refers to as Anglo-Saxons, or simply, Saxons. Please keep in mind that I’m using the word ‘invasions’ in the plural because I don’t mean a top-down conquest like the Roman or Norman invasion of England, but a series of incursions by smaller groups of Saxons that amounted in the end to a much larger whole.

When the Romans marched away from Britain in 410, they had dominated the legal, military, and social structure of Britain for 400 years. Their departure left the native people of Britain ill equipped to deal with new Saxon invaders.

Zosimus, a Greek historian living in Constantinople, noted that:
[The barbarians] reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some parts of Gaul to such straits that they … armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians.…

From the Gallic Chronicle in the mid 400s
“The British provinces, which up to this time have suffered various catastrophes and misfortunes, yielded to the power of the Saxons.”
Perhaps the most cited quote is from Gildas, writing in the 6th century AD who describes British enjoys who set out for Rome in a quest for help which never came. In particular, the last letter was written in the mid 400s to a Roman consul: To Agitius [or Aetius], thrice consul: the groans of the Britons. […] The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.

Gidas writes further: The Romans … informed our country that they could not go on being bothered with such troublesome expeditions. … Rather, the Britons should stand alone, get used to arms, fight bravely, and defend with all their powers their land, property, wives, children, and, more importantly, their life and liberty.

Gildas is discounted by many proponents of the contemporary theory of cultural change because he was not contemporary with the events, and some of his facts and timelines are not entirely accurate.

More recently, however, archeological studies and DNA evidence have at last once again undermined the idea that there was no Saxon influx into Britain. In a study published just in September 2022, researchers presented their own DNA research, along with samples from more than 20 cemeteries along England’s eastern coast, all of which definitively indicate there was, in fact, a rapid, large-scale migration from Northern Europe, beginning by 450 C.E. at the latest. “Some Anglo-Saxon sites look almost 100% continental European, and the only explanation is a large number of people coming in from the North Sea zone. With that population shift came huge cultural changes, including the elimination of the Celtic language of Brythonic in favor of Old English. For that change alone to occur, a significant number of Germanic speakers would have had to flood into lowland Britain.”

While it is true that there wasn’t a single, massive Saxon invasion as some legends of history might suggest, it seems that the most reasonable explanation for the origin of Saxon England is that successive waves of Saxon settlers arrived on British shores and displaced the native Britons, pushing them into the less desirable lands in the north and west. By 700 AD, the conquest of England was complete, and the language, culture, and laws of the whole of England were Saxon.

And then, of course, came the Danes. But that’s a different story.

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