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The Germanic invasions of Britain

Distribution of the Germanic tribes
Old English kingdoms
Dialects of Old English
Archaeology and Old English

Before the coming of the Germanic tribes in 450, there were raids along the southern shore of England by Saxons. Porchester Castle, near Fareham in Hampshire, is a very well preserved example of the Saxon Shore Forts which the Romans built in the 4th century.

The withdrawal of the Romans from England in the early 5th century left a political vacuum. The Celts of the south were attacked by tribes from the north and in their desperation sought help from abroad. There are parallels for this at other points in the history of the British Isles. Thus in the case of Ireland, help was sought by Irish chieftains from their Anglo-Norman neighbours in Wales in the late 12th century in their internal squabbles. This heralded the invasion of Ireland by the English. Equally with the Celts of the 5th century the help which they imagined would solve their internal difficulties turned out to be a boomerang which turned on them.

Our source for these early days of English history is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written by a monk called the Venerable Bede around 730 in the monastery of Jarrow in Co. Durham (i.e. on the north east coast of England).

According to this work — written in Latin — the Celts first appealed to the Romans but the help forthcoming was slight and so they turned to the Germanic tribes of the North Sea coast. The date which Bede gives for the first arrivals is 449. This can be assumed to be fairly correct. The invaders consisted of members of various Germanic tribes, chiefly Angles from the historical area of Angeln in north east Schleswig Holstein. It was this tribe which gave England its name, i.e. Englaland, the land of the Angles (Engle, a mutated form from earlier *Angli, note that the superscript asterisk denotes a reconstructed form, i.e. one that is not attested).

Other tribes represented in these early invasions were Jutes from the Jutland peninsula (present-day mainland Denmark), Saxons from the area nowadays known as Niedersachsen (‘Lower Saxony’, but which is historically the original Saxony), the Frisians from the North Sea coast islands stretching from the present-day north west coast of Schleswig-Holstein down to north Holland. These are nowadays split up into North, East and West Frisian islands, of which only the North and the West group still have a variety of language which is definitely Frisian (as opposed to Low German or Dutch).

The indigeneous Celts of Britain were quickly pressed into the West of England, Wales and Cornwall, and some crossed the Channel in the 5th and 6th centuries to Brittany and thus are responsible for a Celtic language — Breton — being spoken in France to this day, although Cornish, its counterpart in south-west England, died out in the 18th century.

The Germanic areas which became established in the period following the initial settlements consisted of the following seven ‘kingdoms': Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. These are known as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. Political power was initially concentrated in the sixth century in Kent but this passed to Northumbria in the seventh and eighth centuries. After this a shift to the south began, first to Mercia in the ninth century and later on to West Saxony in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Distribution of the Germanic tribes

The Germanic tribes in England show a characteristic distribution almost from the very beginning. The Jutes, according to legend led by the brothers Hengest and Horsa (both words mean ‘horse’), settled in Kent (the name is Celtic) probably having made their way via the coast of present-day Belgium. The Saxons settled in the remaining area south of the Thames and on the Isle of Wight. They were to remain there and found a kingdom which obtained practical sovereignty over England in the late Old English period and which was known then as West Saxony from which the name Wessex is derived (the same holds for Sussex and Essex). North of the Thames the Angles settled. This large area can be further subdivided. North of the Humber was a region which represented an amalgamation of two former Celtic kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira. Between Humber and Thames lay the area of Mercia. This was bounded on the west by Wales along what is called Offa’s Dyke after King Offa (757-796) and on the east coast by the area of East Anglia.

Offa’s Dyke in Wales

Course of Offa’s Dyke

Old English kingdoms

In the beginning of the Old English period, Kent was the centre of political and cultural influence in England. This situation lasted for about 150 years with a Kentish king (Ethelbert) ruling over all of England south of the Humber at one stage. In the seventh and eighth centuries matters changed and at least cultural influence shifted to the north of England. The main reason for this was the establishment of centres of learning in northern England, notably on the island of Lindisfarne (noted for the Old English version of the gospels), at Wearmouth and at Jarrow where the venerable Bede lived and worked.


Old English ‘kingdoms’ around 600

Old English ‘kingdoms’ around 800

The (extreme) northern part of Britain was Christianised before the south, probably from Ireland via Scotland. Ireland was in the centuries up to the Viking invasions a centre of learning and a source of missionaries for Europe. In Scotland monasteries with Irish or Irish-trained monks had been established, for example on the island of Iona (see above). Christianity and hence learning then spread southward at least in the foundation of monasteries which were centres of learning. In the eighth and early ninth centuries political influence moved southwards and lay in the hands of the Mercians until 825 when the then Mercian king was overthrown by a West Saxon. The first of a long line of West Saxon kings with their seat in Winchester was Egbert. Of all these the most prominent in a cultural sense is Alfred who if not himself a great scholar was at least responsible for the flowering of learning in Wessex in the late ninth century and for the rise of the West Saxon dialect of Old English as a koiné (dialect used as a quasi-standard in those areas outside its own native one).

In many treatments of history in the Old English period, reference is made to the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy after the sevens ‘kingdoms’ which are recognised to have existed during this time: 1) Wessex, 2) Sussex, 3) Essex, 4) Kent, 5) East Anglia, 6) Mercia, 7) Northumbria.

Dialects of Old English

The dialects of Old English are more or less co-terminous with the regional kingdoms. The various Germanic tribes brought their own dialects which were then continued in England. Thus we have a Northumbrian dialect (Anglian in origin), a Kentish dialect (Jutish in origin), etc. The question as to what degree of cohesion already existed between the Germanic dialects when they were still spoken on the continent is unclear. Scholars of the 19th century favoured a theory whereby English and Frisian formed an approximate linguistic unity. This postulated linguistic entity is variously called Anglo-Frisian and Ingvaeonic, after the name which Tacitus (c 55-120) in his Germania gave to the Germanic population settled on the North Sea coast. Towards the end of the Old English period the dialectal position becomes complicated by the fact that the West Saxon dialect achieved prominence as an inter-dialectal means of communication.


For the development of Old English culture an important step was the Christianisation of the south of England. This did not take place (at least to any great extent) in the manner one might imagine, i.e. from the north, or indeed from Ireland. Early Irish saints like St.Columba (see above) were restricted in their influence to Ireland and Scotland. It is true that Aidan was sent to Northumbria and was involved in founding the monastery at Lindisfarne (634), but the activities of Saint Augustine who was dispatched by Gregory I (540-604, the author of the Cura Pastoralis ‘Pastoral Care’ an early devotional work) to christianise England antedated those of Aidan by a full generation. He arrived with a group of missionaries in 597 in Kent and convinced the then king Ethelbert to be baptised. The mission proceeded well for Augustine and in 601 he was made Archbishop of Canterbury, this leading to the official establishment of the christin church in England. The pre-Viking atmosphere was favourable in England to ecclesiastical scholarship and in the 7th and 8th centuries many scholars and teachers of note are to be found, such as Aldhelm (640-709) and of course Bede (673-735) who was the greatest representative of the Benedictine monastery of Jarrow. He is the author of many works of general scientific interest and is the first English church historian (see above). The most notable scholar after Bede is Alcuin (735-804) who favoured contacts with the continent and helped to prevent the English church of the time from becoming isolated.

Archaeology and Old English

Sutton Hoo


Excavation work at Sutton Hoo in 1939


Location of Sutton Hoo, east/north-east of Ipswich with a burial mound on the site

Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge in Suffolk is a location where two burial grounds from the sixth and early seventh centuries were found. The ship burial site from the early seventh century was exacavated in 1939. It is the major archaeological site from the Old English period. It offers us information about the cultural practices of the Anglo-Saxons and is invaluable because not so much is known about these from written documents.

Apart for the ship used in the burial, the site contained many artefacts which were laid into the graves of individuals buried there. This common practice meant that military items such as swords and helmets were put into the graves as well. Other more everyday items were also buried, e.g. drinking horns, as well as metal artefacts connected with clothing, e.g. buckles and clasps, which survived well because of the material they were made of. These items were often quite ornate and hence have an artistic value. The designs used for these items are reminiscent of contemporary Celtic design found on artefacts in Ireland.


Buckle found at Sutton Hoo

Shoulder Clasp found at Sutton Hoo

Ship burial in the Germanic world

The practice of ship burial would seem to have been widespread in the Germanic world and other examples have been found. The most well preserved is probably the Oseberg Viking Longship which was found in a burial ground near Oslo at the beginning of the 20th century


The Oseberg Viking Longship in the Museum of Oslo, Norway

Another ship burial site with a significant find is from Haithabu near the city of Schleswig in the most northerly German state-province of Schleswig-Holstein.


The Longship at Haithabu, Schleswig-Holstein, north Germany

The Staffordshire Hoard

The largest ever hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold was found near Lichfield, south Staffordshire in July 2009. It is believed that the roughly 1,500 items stem from the 7th to 8th centuries in an area once in the Kingdom of Mercia. The items are currently being conserved and catalogued.