The Romans in Britain
Before we can explore why the Anglo Saxons came to Britain, we need to discuss who inhabited Britain before the Anglo Saxons.
It was in 55BC when Julius Caesar arrived on the shores of Britain. Arriving initially with a small contingent of two legions and then returning the following year with a larger force of five legions and 2000 cavalry. Caesar was not welcomed with open arms by all the Britons on either of these occasions. Indeed he was met by a fierce band of Celtic warriors who adorned their naked bodies in blue woad and were prepared to fight for their lands against this foreign foe.
It could be argued that aside from establishing effective trade links, little else was achieved by Caesar in Britain. However, his contact with the British and the establishment of alliances with a number of British kings did pave the way for one of his predecessors, Claudius who would eventually establish an enduring Roman presence in Britain from 43 AD. By the 4th Century, The Roman Empire was in a serious decline. The Roman General Magnus Maximus was declared Emperor in 383, which did not impress the current residing Emperor Gratian. The two rival claimants plunged the Empire into war. In 387 Maximus made an attempt to invade Italy itself and had taken many of the Roman soldiers who were posted in Britain with him.1
Britain was weak and vulnerable without the protection of Rome. The Britons suffered a relentless attack from the Picts who inhabited the lands of Southern Scotland. The Britons appealed to Rome for aid, and assistance was granted to fight back the Picts.
Barbarians from the Germanic lands, known as the Visigoths led by their King, Alaric I sacked Rome in the year 410. Alaric’s troops entered the city, the central power base of the mighty Roman Empire and claimed large amounts of booty in a well-orchestrated attack.2 All the while, the Picts launched their assaults on the Britons, who again appealed for aid. However, Rome’s thoughts were far removed from the tiny outreaches of its Empire. The response to the British was to ‘look after yourself.
The Arrival of the Saxons
Gildas, (writing in the decades following these events) tells us that the Britons decided to take action:
“Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nationGildas, Translation by J.A. Giles, On The Ruin of Britain (De Excidio Britanniae), https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1949/pg1949.html
The Britons had invited to their shores a band of mercenaries.
Gildas tells us that they arrived in 3 ships. Bede writing in the early 8th Century gives us a little more detail:
“Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany Saxons, Angles, and Jutes.”A.M. Sellar (trans.), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, (Oxford, 1907), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38326/38326-h/38326-h.html
According to Gildas and Bede, the three groups, who are later designated as The Saxons or ‘the Anglo Saxons were invited into Britain for the sole purpose of fighting off the Picts. However, both authors describe the Saxons as desirous for more once they had been paid for their services. These mercenaries turned on their hosts:
“Then, having on a sudden entered into league with the Picts, whom they had by this time repelled by the force of their arms, they began to turn their weapons against their confederates. At first, they obliged them to furnish a greater quantity of provisions; and, seeking an occasion to quarrel, protested, that unless more plentiful supplies were brought them, they would break the confederacy, and ravage all the island; nor were they backward in putting their threats in execution. …
They plundered all the neighbouring cities and country, spread the conflagration from the eastern to the western sea, without any opposition, and covered almost every part of the devoted island. Public as well as private structures were overturned; the priests were everywhere slain before the altars; the prelates and the people, without any respect of persons, were destroyed with fire and sword; nor was there any to bury those who had been thus cruelly slaughtered.“A.M. Sellar (trans.), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, (Oxford, 1907), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38326/38326-h/38326-h.html
From amongst the Germanic tribes, two leaders emerged – Hengst and Horsa who arrived in Britain in around 450. Yet the Saxons were not the only ones to find heroes amongst their ranks.
The Britons Unite!
Both Gildas and Bede tell us that the British united under a figure named ‘Ambrosius Aurelianus’. Gildas tells us that his parents were ‘adorned with the purple’ indicating that Ambrosius was of Roman stock. (The ‘purple’ was a reference to the colour worn by the Roman Emperors). This figure is said to be the basis of the legendary King Arthur. The source, The History of the Britons or Historia Brittonum often attributed to the author Nennius writing in the 9th century described Arthur as the victor on twelve separate occasions in his campaign against the Saxons. His final victory was at Badon Hill in c.500:
“In this engagement, nine hundred and forty men fell by his hand alone…“J.A. Giles (trans.) Nennius, History of the Britains, (Cambridge, 2000), p. 23.
Yet despite the efforts of the Britons, the Saxons continually received reinforcements from their Germanic homelands. And eventually, the Britons were subdued.
The dates for all of this activity are rather sketchy, however, we can put together an estimated timeline of events based on the evidence we have.
|c. 360||Germanic tribes come to England to raid. Some settle and remain in the South of England|
|383-388||The reign of Emperor Magnus Maximus|
|410||The sack of Rome by the Visigoths led by Alaric I|
|410||The British appeal to Rome for help against the Picts, Emperor Honorius refuses assistance|
|429||Germanus of Auxerre leads the Britons to victory against Saxon raiders|
|446-453||‘The Groans of the Britons’ The British appeal for Roman aid once again to battle the Picts and are refused|
|c. 449||Vortigern invites the Saxons to Britain to defeat the Picts|
|455||Hengst and Horsa fight against Vortigern at Aylesford, Kent. Horsa is killed|
|c.500||Battle of Badon Hill – The Britons are victorious under Ambrosius Aurelianus|
|c.540||Gildas writing ‘The Ruin’|
So the Germanic tribes – the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes were soon to become known collectively as the Anglo Saxons.
Keep an eye out for more content and for more posts on the Anglo Saxons soon!
Magnus Maximus, R. S. O. Tomlin, https://www-oxforddnb-com. P. Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, (Princeton University, 2012), p. 294.