Time to axe the Anglo-Saxons?

13 mins read

Rethinking the ‘migration period’

Did ‘the Anglo-Saxon migrations’ take place, and were Romano-British leaders replaced by those of Germanic descent? Susan Oosthuizen’s new book, The Emergence of the English, is a call to rethink our interpretations of the 5th and 6th centuries AD, reflecting on whether many of the assumptions we make about the period are actually supported by evidence. Interpretations that cannot be upheld should be discarded, she says, and all viable alternative interpretations should be explored for the strongest arguments to be identified. Chris Catling reports.

A circular pendant and gold and glass beads, coming from Grave 70 at Street House - a 7th-century cemetery near Loftus
Who were the Anglo-Saxons? This circular pendant and gold and glass beads come from Grave 70 at Street House – a 7th-century cemetery near Loftus (see CA 281). [Image: Steve Sherlock]

In the early 1970s, cherished ideas about the character of Roman Britain were systematically challenged by a generation of archaeologists who rejected the simple story they had inherited of armed conquest, rule from Rome, and the conversion of primitive Celts – dressed in nothing but woad and a torque – into Latin-speaking, bath-addicted, villa-dwelling Roman citizens who dined off Samian platters, drank watered-down wine, and ate food flavoured with fish sauce. Instead, they insisted that Romanisation began long before the Claudian invasion of AD 43, that it had many regional variations, and that it took many different forms over the 350-year period of Roman occupation. But they also argued that much of Britain lay outside the main sphere of Roman influence, and that life for many people in Roman Britain changed little from what they had known before – and, yes, they continued to drink beer.

The young Turks who set about challenging old paradigms did not, on the whole, follow this thinking through to the post-Roman period, however. A deep fault-line divides the study of Roman and early medieval archaeology, which is reflected in books on Roman Britain that frequently stop at AD 410 (with a ritual nod to a few outlying beacons of Romanitas, such as Wroxeter and Birdoswald). Judged by the norms of Romano-British archaeology, the post-Roman period looks like a catastrophe from which it took centuries to recover, and whose study is made frustratingly difficult because of this so-called ‘cliff edge’, after which we lack dateable mass-produced pottery and coinage.

Elaborate mosaics were added to Brading Roman villa on the Isle of Wight in the 4th century – but shortly afterwards, the complex appears to have been repurposed  as a place for drying and malting grain
Elaborate mosaics were added to Brading Roman villa on the Isle of Wight in the 4th century [Image: Barry Cunliffe]
Elaborate mosaics were added to Brading Roman villa on the Isle of Wight in the 4th century – but shortly afterwards, the complex appears to have been repurposed  as a place for drying and malting grain
The complex at Brading Roman villa appears to have been repurposed as a place for drying and malting grain shortly after the mosaics were added (CA 280). [Image: Barry Cunliffe]

The fact that so many of the fine mosaic-floored villa buildings are subdivided for multiple occupation or adapted for use as forges, barns, industrial workshops, and corn-dryers could be seen as evidence of the constructive reuse of redundant buildings. Instead, it is usually cited to show the depths to which post-Roman culture had declined by comparison with the ‘golden years’ when Britain shared in the Hellenic-influenced culture of the Roman world. Reviewing events across the Empire during this period, one recently published book summed up Britain in the post-Roman period in a sentence: invaded by Anglo-Saxons who slowly conquered more and more of Britain, displacing the native British population who retreated, defeated, into Wales.

Little by little, though, evidence has begun to accumulate to demonstrate that this is far from adequate as an account of the complexities of the period. Nobody who saw the outstanding Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library earlier this year (see CA 346) could continue to believe that Britain was cut off and isolated from mainstream late antique culture. Indeed, John Blair’s review of the abundance of new evidence from metal-detectorist finds and developer-funded archaeology in his book Building Anglo-Saxon England (CA 343) found no evidence for economic decline. Instead, he showed that eastern England had a thriving economy based on mass-produced commodities and trade with neighbours around the North Sea basin. He also teased out different regional patterns of agriculture, settlement, building type, and trade.

In the same vein, Susan Oosthuizen’s study The Anglo-Saxon Fenland (CA 332) argued that the carefully balanced systems of Fenland agriculture and the traditions of common-land management that are recorded in later medieval documents must represent continuity, evolution, and adaptation rather than upheaval, with no environmental evidence for the rewilding of the Fens from scrub and tree growth or from the neglect of drainage systems.

She went further and suggested that there is little evidence for the idea that Britain was a land of warring gang leaders, with proto-kings fighting each other for territory and supported by loyal kin and retainers. Although territorial names from the period do sometimes include personal names, most are based on topography and suggest that people identified not so much with a leader as with the land they inherited, inhabited, and cultivated, and over which they exercised individual and collective property rights. It looked to her as if most of Britain’s population, descended from earlier inhabitants, continued to farm the same landscapes in much the same ways as their ancestors had done over preceding centuries.

A rectangular post-built hall under excavation by Oxford Archaeology at Horcott Pit, Fairford, Gloucestershire. Early medieval buildings may have been more ephemeral than Roman ones, but they were not necessarily any less elaborate (CA 343). [Image: John Blair]


Susan Oosthuizen has now returned to the topic with a short but punchy polemic (The Emergence of the English), arguing that much of what we think we know about the Anglo-Saxon period is based on too many unfounded assumptions about the period – in particular that there was substantive north-west European immigration, that Germanic leaders replaced the late Romano-British elite, and that material culture and linguistic changes are necessarily evidence of either. To make progress in understanding this period, she argues, we need to re-evaluate these premises in order to establish their solidity. If they cannot be substantiated, they should be rejected. And if more than one interpretation of the evidence is possible, all should be tested in order to find the one that most robustly fits the available data.

Her alternative proposition is that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that 5th- and 6th-century Britain evolved through a process of adaptation and innovation from a late Roman base, not as a result of imported cultural practices imposed by Germanic elites on a subject people. Echoing ideas put forward by Neil Faulkner and James Gerrard, Susan argues that the withdrawal of Roman administration might initially have increased stability and have had beneficial effects, for instance, because of a reduction in the demand for tax. The widespread conversion of arable land into pasture that characterises this period is evidence of a shift from high-intensity to lower-intensity forms of agricultural production, with lower labour and capital costs – as well as a response to climate change. Farmers were able to retain a greater proportion of their own produce, and the elite were able to retain a greater proportion of the peasants’ surpluses because they themselves no longer had to render a share to the state.

There is evidence from documentary sources, too, for stability and continuity. St Patrick, born and brought up in Cumbria but kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a 16-year-old slave c.AD 406, describes his Latin-named father, Calpurnius, as a Roman citizen, owner of a villa estate, and a local aristocrat of some standing – in particular, as a decurion (a member of a Roman city council with important public responsibilities) and a deacon in the Christian church. Patrick was brought up speaking vernacular Latin, and identified Britain and Christianity as Roman; in contrast with the Irish, whom he deemed barbarians and pagans. His life does not suggest that he felt insecure or that his family needed to defend themselves or the region from attack. Indeed, his reminiscences took for granted the continuity of Romanised rural life in north-west Britain in the early to mid-5th century.

The supposed gravestone of St Patrick in Downpatrick, Ireland. He was born in Cumbria in the 5th century and his reminiscences of his upbringing took for granted the continuity of Romanised rural life in north-west Britain at this time [Image: August Schwerdfeger]

St Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, visited Britain in 429 and reported that ‘this very opulent island enjoyed peace with security on several fronts’, confirming St Patrick’s account. There is no hint of chaos or instability, no evidence for substantive invasion by Germanic warriors, nor for conquest from north-west Europe. Gildas, often quoted as the key source for the idea of a Britain in chaos, in fact describes the early 6th century as having a functioning legal system with courts and jails, an ecclesiastical hierarchy with clergy and bishops, and monastic houses with abbots and monks. Military command structures remained intact, and administration was still organised along Roman lines. What Gildas most disliked was the evidence he saw for new administrative, legal, social, religious, and political structures emerging and diverging from Roman norms, not the lack of such structures.

What these various narrative sources appear to show is that Romano-British institutions survived but were evolving, that the agricultural sector remained peaceful and productive, and that trade with the North Sea was growing in volume and importance. But there was also continuing close contact with the Mediterranean world and with the Church in Rome.

This reconstruction of a 10th-century house at the Weald and Downland Museum, Singleton, West Sussex, is based on timbers recovered from waterlogged deposits in London. The use of removal pegs to hold the structure together suggests these buildings were designed to be erected and disassembled for  ease of movement and transport: a sophisticated design.
This reconstruction of a 10th-century house at the Weald and Downland Museum, Singleton, West Sussex, is based on timbers recovered from waterlogged deposits in London. The use of removal pegs to hold the structure together suggests these buildings were designed to be erected and disassembled for ease of movement and transport: a sophisticated design. [Images: John Blair]

Susan reminds us, too, that ‘it would be surprising had there not been migration into (and out of) Britain at this period, since there has been a constant flow of people into and out of the islands since the last Ice Age.’ What remains unknown is whether more or fewer people moved to Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries, and whether the proportions of those arriving from north-west Europe changed. Ambiguous as the data can be, there is a growing archaeological consensus that the evidence from isotopic analysis and ancient and modern DNA is inconsistent with what one would expect from models of large-scale invasion or conquest. Additionally, assimilation of immigrants among existing communities is suggested by studies of isotopes in dental enamel from burials of the period. Incomers are only identifiable by these means: they are otherwise invisible – having been buried in the same orientation, with the same rites, and with the same kinds of grave goods as their neighbours, among whom they are intermingled.


In light of this evidence, Susan suggests that the premise underlying many interpretations of the period – in particular that cultural change in post-Roman Britain was the consequence of Germanic immigration – now seems untenable, and she argues forcefully against the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to describe the period. First, because it lumps together the millions of people already living in Britain with the very much lower numbers of immigrants of diverse backgrounds – who came from North Africa, the Mediterranean, and all parts of Europe (not least from Ireland), and who cannot have brought with them one common culture or language. And second, because the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ unthinkingly imposes an interpretation on the data by assuming the dominant role of Germanic migration in the emergence of post-Roman Britain, contrasting native British populations with Germanic incomers. Instead of the period’s current tripartite division into early, middle, and late Anglo-Saxon, she suggests the adoption of such terms as ‘late antique’ (AD 400-650), ‘early medieval’ (AD 650-850), and ‘pre-Conquest’ (AD 850-1100).

Susan offers an alternative analysis based on the proposition that the stability of the agricultural economy depended on each household’s rights of private property over its farmland and its rights in shared natural resources (held in common and governed by a defined number of other households), such as open pasture and woodland. If there had been a hostile or violent transformative change in land ownership between the late 4th and late 8th centuries, you might expect that to be reflected in changes to the agricultural landscape, such as the overwriting of existing field layouts with new fieldscapes, cutting across the grain of the older systems. Without assimilation or integration, old and new might appear as two different morphological forms side by side. Could incomers simply take over from existing owners, adopting their homesteads and field systems wholesale? That would require an almost instantaneous transfer to strangers – who probably spoke a different language – of boundaries defining property rights and the subtle knowledge of the locality necessary to manage soils, topography, drainage, and access for successful pastoral or arable farming.

Map - the rights of common in the medieval East Anglian fenland preserve 5th- and 6th-century territories of communities or ‘folk’, in which a number of contiguous ‘vills’ shared an exclusive area of fen grazing. The head of each pin shows the location of a settlement, and the sharp end marks the fens in which its men could graze their animals. The names of these polities were recorded by the mid- to late 7th century.
Rights of common in the medieval East Anglian fenland preserve 5th- and 6th-century territories of communities or ‘folk’, in which a number of contiguous ‘vills’ shared an exclusive area of fen grazing. The head of each pin shows the location of a settlement, and the sharp end marks the fens in which its men could graze their animals. The names of these polities were recorded by the mid- to late 7th century. [Image: Susan Oosthuizen]

In fact, although there was some abandonment of land, the persistence of prehistoric and Romano-British field layouts and boundaries into and beyond the 5th century was the norm rather than the exception. The remarkable continuity in many places between the 5th and the 17th centuries in ecology and in patterns of common rights suggests that most political change across the post-Roman centuries was either short-lived or adaptive and evolutionary, not revolutionary or transformative. There is little evidence of landscape restructuring or of Romano-British communities being reduced to servile status by a new Germanic elite. Instead, most households lived in the same kind of houses as their neighbours, used the same kind of goods, and farmed the same patterns of fields in the same sorts of ways.

No matter what the political conditions, the day-to-day preoccupation of most people throughout history has had to be focused on generating a sufficient volume of food and other goods to support their households from one day to the next. Leaders and territorial names come and go, but farming and food production depend on persistence and repetition as well as the ability to reproduce the same crops over and over again. Interruption could be catastrophic – a household that neglects to plough, sow, and harvest, as well as manage its flocks and herds, might not survive to try again next year. Life depended on stability and long-term maintenance of the environment.

Over 1,500 fragments from the Staffordshire Hoard come from a 7th-century helmet, which was recently reconstructed (CA 349). the original is thought to have been inspired by roman military headgear. [Image: David Rowan/ Birmingham Museums Trust


The material culture of the period is often described as northern European, in contrast to the Mediterranean influence evident in Roman Britain. Yet brooches that we describe as ‘Germanic’ can be seen in museums all over the former Roman Empire – indeed, even in Rome itself. The style has a much wider distribution than the term implies. Recent research – for example, by Toby Martin – has demonstrated that brooches that look Germanic may have been imported initially, but became increasingly popular and were then reproduced by local craftsmen, evolving over the 6th and 7th centuries into better designed and more complicated insular forms that were worn across England: an index of regional taste and fashion, not of immigrant ethnicity.

Also frequently quoted as evidence of domination by migrants rather than assimilation is the emergence of the English language. Models to explain this have so far depended on the idea that Old English was imposed by ruling Germanic elites, that speaking Old English was a basic requirement for career progression, and that Old English speakers enjoyed a privileged position under the law. Not only is there no evidence to support such models, but there was no group of people – dominant or otherwise – who brought English to Britain as a ready-formed language. Unlike the close-knit group of Normans who conquered England in 1066 and who all spoke the same language, the 5th- to 7th- century migrants spoke many different languages and dialects.

Anglo-Saxon’ artistry from a 7th-century bed burial. This shield-shaped garnet pendant is from the Street House cemetery
Anglo-Saxon’ artistry from a 7th-century bed burial. This shield-shaped garnet pendant is from the Street House cemetery (CA 281) [Image: Steve Sherlock]

Bede lists the languages spoken in early 8th-century Britain as Old English, British Celtic, Irish, Pictish, classical Church Latin, and vernacular spoken Latin. He assumes that many people could speak two or three languages, and notes that almost everyone could speak vernacular Latin (something that is borne out by the fact that there are more Latin elements in English place-names and more Latin loanwords in English than from any other source). English may have developed as an insular language through an amalgam of several languages and dialects with a syntax that is partly Germanic, partly British, and a vocabulary that readily borrows words from all the languages spoken by the people of Britain at this time. Increasingly, linguists are characterising English as a contact language – emerging from the interaction of different languages – rather than the imposed language of a dominant class.


To understand this period better, Susan Oosthuizen argues for an approach that distinguishes between historical processes that took place over the short-, medium-, and long-term, and the complex intersections between the three (see the figure below).

This image depicts C. S. Holling’s model of environmental resilience adapted for interpreting change in post-Roman England. It shows how the interaction of continuities and long-term changes with faster events is seen as new social and cultural expressions
This image depicts C. S. Holling’s model of environmental resilience adapted for interpreting change in post-Roman England. It shows how the interaction of continuities and long-term changes with faster events is seen as new social and cultural expressions

Fast changes – some with temporary effects, others with medium- or longer-term consequences – might include the withdrawal of the Roman administration and army, the Justinian plagues, and attacks from Picts, Scots, and ‘Saxons’. Meanwhile, change across the medium term is most visible in the evolution of Romano-British institutions (such as the judiciary, army, and church), in the languages of Roman Britain, and in the conversion of arable land into pasture in the face of climatic decline and changing economic demand.

Slow adaptation to new conditions might be represented by the agricultural economy, by traditions of common property rights in woodland, pasture, and other natural resources, by their collective governance, and by the social relations both imply. Assumptions of what it meant to be ‘Roman’, and traditions of craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibility, may also have been transformed slowly.

This map demonstrates how the North Sea and the rivers that flow into it form a region encouraging water-borne contact between Scandinavia, Germany, Denmark, and the Low Countries. The dots represent the locations of IKEA stores in England in 2018. Without documentary evidence, the distribution of the stores, and the dissemination around them of their goods, might be interpreted as evidence of Swedish colonisation of late 20th- and early 21st-century Britain; and the concentration of goods in the stores as central places designed to state and preserve the immigrants’ Swedish identity.

In this, Susan’s book offers the possibility of rethinking the history of the post-Roman period and our understanding of the emergence of the English – an approach that is not based on the assumption that change comes from outside and is imposed. One image in the publication sums up the weakness of the contrary argument with wry humour. A map of the distribution of IKEA stores close to English rivers with access to the North Sea could lead future archaeologists to conclude that Britain was colonised by Sweden during the late 20th century. Will they see the popularity of IKEA goods in British homes as evidence of colonisation, and will they conclude that the 100,000 Swedes living in London in 2018 arrived as a consequence of their employment by IKEA?

Further reading
Susan Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English, Arc Humanities Press, ISBN 978-1641891271, £16.95.

This article appeared in issue 355 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.


  1. IKEA: hmm. Well, if in two thousand years time people are able to say that the emergence of IKEA stores in England coincided with the beginning of a two-hundred year period at the end of which the entire population of lowland Britain was speaking Swedish, with English speakers pushed into the western highlands, they might actually have a point. If they could further show that there was almost no linguistic interchange of vocabulary between the two groups, that might seem to reinforce it. And if those Swedish speakers had left a literary legacy that described their migration from Scandinavia and their struggles to establish kingdoms in Britain, that would pretty much clinch it. But if in two thousand years time everyone was still speaking English, they’d probably conclude that the English had simply developed a taste for Swedish furniture, i.e. they’d probably have enough sense to interpret the evidence correctly.

    What makes me more than a little suspicious of all variants of the language-adoption-by-acculturation thesis is the absence of a single historically confirmed example (i.e. one that took place in a period with adequate historical records to judge). In every other case, language replacement happens only in two situations: 1) Where an incoming group establishes a language community themselves by arriving in sufficient numbers that they eventually overwhelm the previous language groups (i.e. either push them away, kill them deliberately, or introduce environmental factors that cause their deaths); some of the rump original population end up speaking the new language, but it’s essentially a population replacement. Examples: the English in New England, the British in Australia and New Zealand, the French in New France. 2) Where an incoming group is smaller in number but decisively more powerful, and is able to impose a framework of administration and control that allows them to impose their language, whether through an education system or through language laws that prohibit use of the native language. Examples: the English at various times in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Note that even in the most extreme and long-lasting example of mode 2, that of Ireland, replacement was not fully achieved even after 750 years of trying. And note also that where the imbalance of numbers between the incomers and natives is sufficiently great, the incomers don’t even try, e.g. the Romans in Britain, the Normans in England, the British in India and West Africa etc. Instead, the incomers’ language simply becomes a lingua franca that sits alongside the original language without ever replacing it because, while there is vocabulary interchange, the rulers’ language is never adopted as a native language. Only a vanishingly tiny proportion of the hundreds of millions of speakers of English today in India, for instance, could be said to be speaking it as a native language. For the rest, it is not what their parents spoke to them at home as a child, and it’s not what they speak at home to their children.

    In Britain in the 5th-7th centuries the paucity of historical sources doesn’t allow us to be so clear, but what’s very obvious is that the emergent English kingdoms had nothing like the kind of organizational infrastructure in that period to impose their language on a native population through an education system or the workings of a government administration — even to state the condition is to realize how far-fetched it is. Yet nothing short of that would have achieved the job. So what we’re left with is something that is clearly much swifter and more fundamental — some variant of mode 1.

    The various attempts that have been made, in the face of this conclusion, to imagine that most of lowland Britain was *already* speaking some form of Germanic language, long before any historical reference to such a migration, is clearly a post-hoc rationalization in a desperate attempt to preserve a theory that, in any other circumstances, would be considered wildly fanciful.

  2. The fringe claims in this book are simply out of step with the now enormous evidence, especially from archaeogenetics, that there was a significant migration in the 5th – 8th centuries of Germanic-speaking migrants from the continent into eastern and southern Britain. The migrants mixed with the larger native Celtic Briton population, but still left a notable genetic and cultural impact. Ancient DNA in studies from 2016 clearly show a marked genetic change between Iron Age and Roman period Celtic Briton remains and remains from the Anglo-Saxon period.

    Beyond the overwhelming genetic evidence, the author surprisingly ignores a great deal of linguistic and historical evidence. Strangely, there is a claim made here that the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes spoke “many different languages and dialects”. This is at best an exaggeration, or at worst completely false. All these four major tribal groups are known to have been, without a doubt, very closely related linguistically and culturally. In fact, their language was likely a common proto-language with only minor dialect variation. Old English would only diverge from the Old Frisian and Old Saxon on the continent in subsequent centuries. By the time of the Vikings in the 9th century, Old English was even to a significant degree still mutually intelligible with Old Norse. Considering Anglo-Saxon homelands (Saxony, Angeln, Jutland, Frisia) were geographically adjacent to one another, it is absurd to claim that they would have spoken highly divergent languages or dialects or have been culturally that different from one another. Given that Bede was writing in the 8th century about the affairs of the “old Saxons” on the continent, there clearly was still contact, mutual comprehension and knowledge about their ancestral homeland. For that to be the case, Bede and other Saxons and England must have had descended from a migration event still within fairly recent memory among such writers. But more importantly, the Saxons in England could still communicate with the Saxons on the continent; thus it is unlikely that dialects in England were that different either. Clearly, given the dominance of the Angles and Saxons among the migrants, and the closeness of all the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, Anglo-Saxon is an appropriate ethnic identified for the union and interaction of Anglian and Saxon polities Most importantly, the closest living languages to English to this day are the Frisian languages and Low Saxon/Low German. The relation is so close that it had to occur during the Germanic migrations period, when the West Germanic languages are known to have begun substantially diverging. If there wee West Germanic speakers in Britain centuries earlier, the linguistic divergence between Old English and Old Frisian would have been much greater, and likewise between the modern languages. This whole claim of English arriving from some large mixture of Celtic, Latin and Germanic languages in England at the time is completely unsupported. There is barely any Celtic influence on Old English or modern English. Latin influence on old English was also very minor. The major changes to English came centuries later after the arrival of Anglo-Saxon, and mostly from Old Norse, Old Norman (Norman French) and Ecclesiastical Latin. Linguists who refer to English as a contact language are referring to Middle and Modern English, NOT Old English. Old English was extremely close, almost indistinguishable, from Old Frisian and Old Saxon. The fact Old English was so little influenced by Celtic and Latin, and the fact that the Germanic migrants did not adapt vulgar Latin, like was the case with all Germanic elites in other parts of western Europe where they settled, is a major piece of evidence for a substantial migration and dominance of new Germanic migrants and a new political elite.

    I am also surprised at the ignorance of the book, and the article, of the overwhelming evidence for major and regular conflict between Celtic Briton polities and all of the neighbouring Anglo-Saxon polities throughout the 5th – 9th centuries. All of the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which bordered British Celtic territory – Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria – are recorded with having numerous and constant battles in the time period with Celtic Britons from Dumnonia in the southwest all the way up to Rheged in southern Scotland. Celtic Britons, Gaels and Picts also frequently allied with one another against Anglian Northumbria. Such a threat from a singular kingdom seems strange, and clearly there was a marked changes from Celtic speaking polities to unify against a common, non-Celtic enemy. There was also construction of massive earthworks, by both Celtic Britons and Anglo-Saxons, as defensive barriers against one another – Offa’s Dyke, the Broadclough Dykes and the Wansdyke.

    And where is the acknowledgement of the Celtic Briton refugees created by the conquests of Celtc Britons by both Wessex and Mercia? There were waves of Celtic Britons who fled to Brittany, and as far as Galicia in Spain (the colony of ‘Britonia’), during the 5th – 8th centuries and established new colonies there, bringing their British Celtic language (modern Breton) with them.

    Another area ignored by this book is the change in religion. Christianity had taken root in large degree among the Celtic Britons by the end of the Roman period. And there was clearly a subsequent change in this, with Germanic paganism becoming common in eastern and southern Britain right at the time of the Anglo-Saxon arrival. The centre for Christianity at the time was not in eastern England, but in Celtic strongholds like Wales, Rheged (Cumbria) – where St. Patrick was from – and the southwest. How could there have been a sudden shift to Germanic paganism in the more Romanized parts of eastern Britain if there was not an arrival of Germanic pagan migrants?

    Finally, the claim that St Germanus arrived in a Britain that was “stable and peaceful” is not supported by the accounts of his visit to Britain I do not know why the author omitted this, but Germanus was recorded to have led a group of native Britons to a victory against Pictish and Saxon raiders, at a mountainous site near a river. And even Germanus largely visited areas in the western parts of Britain, the Celtic strongholds, and not the areas in the east at the time where Angles and Saxons had mostly settled.

    I really am bewildered by the contents of this book, and article, by the inaccurate claims and outright ignorance of the massive current evidence, especially genetics and linguistics, for Germanic migrants in line with the Anglo-Saxon period between the 5th – 8th centuries.

    • FYI: St. Patrick’s birthplace is UNKNOWN, even which of the Romano-British cities his father held office in, and collected taxes for, or his grandfather served as a deacon, is unstated. The name of villa / estate he was captured by Irish-Scoti raiders is stated in his confession, but its location is UNKNOWN. The return and campaign of Magnus Maximus in Britannia, to push the Irish-Scoti slavers out of Wales and Lancashire and the Picts out of Cumbria survives, from the late 4th century, and contemporary with Patrick’s enslavement, though the need to push them out of Britannia rather suggests Pax Romana was no more.

      • Evan Bartlett is absolutely right. The Jutes, Saxons, and Angles are so culturally similar that the Britons and Welsh could not tell them apart in their writings.

        Also, even wargamers, digging through the sources and what we know, can’t tell them apart either. The Picts, Welsh, and Scotti fight different enough to each other, they speak different enough languages.

        The Angles, Saxons, Jutes… Not so much.

  3. The recent DNA analysis (Oxford settlers) suggests powerfully that a maximum of 30% sometimes far less depending on the area so not a wholesale replacement at all.

    • Why is it desperate to consider the possibility that English might have been spoken in the East of Britain before the Roman conquest. Conventionally similar languages are spoken around the North Sea with the exception of Britain. It is reasonable to ask why this should be so. Or, adopt the simpler idea that it was spoken here. I would suggest that welsh etc were spoken more or less where they are now or were in historical times. The East West division of Britain, existing for millennia has been commented on many times and has manifested itself in conflict and religious difference.

      • Edwin, not sure if you meant the *Roman* conquest, which would push it back several centuries further than even arch-immobilists like Francis Pryor have proposed. But to answer your question in a way that covers both the 1st century and the 5th, there are several points. In no particular order:
        1) No contemporary source mentions a Germanic people living in Britain before the 5th century.
        2) The Notitia Dignitatum in the late-4th/early-5th century describes a series of fortifications on Britain’s eastern coast, the litus Saxonicum, as being to deter incursion by Saxon raiders. Why would they build forts to defend against people who, in your theory, had arrived centuries before?
        3) Proper names (personal names as recorded in contemporary sources, and geographical names as preserved in the landscape, which are the only indigenous language elements to survive from pre-5th century Britain) show that populations in the south and east of Britain spoke Brythonic languages, just like those in the north and west.
        4) No cultural artefacts recovered archaeologically in Britain from before the 5th century suggest that any of them shared more cultural affinity with continental Germanic peoples than with other British peoples.
        5) There is no evidence of an east-west division of Britain you mention before the 5th century. There are tribal boundaries of the pre-Roman ethnic groups, which may or may not have still had some significance in the 5th century, but none of them map onto an “east-west division”. There is a certain element of upland-lowland division, as there is in all pre-modern societies (uplands tend to be more sparsely populated and more resistant to centralizing polities) but this provides no evidence that lowland peoples were Germanic speakers.
        6) The great language problem of the Adventus Saxonum is the lack of vocabulary interchange between the Germanic language that became English and the Brythonic language that became Welsh. Any time that different language groups live alongside one another for any length of time, they *always* adopt elements of each other’s vocabulary as loanwords. This simply didn’t happen in Britain. I’m sure you can appreciate that to suggest Germanic-speaking peoples were in Britain even earlier than the 5th century — and thus living alongside Brythonic speakers for even longer — makes this problem, already an insurmountable obstacle to the immobilist thesis, *even more* problematic, not less so.

  4. on’t forget the Big Justinian Plague. There must have been a substantial reduction of Britons -and a lot of space for the Saxons.

  5. The book don’t convince me. If only a small number of germanic populations came to England, why did all the local population (no matter if celtic or roman) abandoned christianity and adopted paganism? And stoped using writing? I don’t deny that pockets of celtic/romanic populations would survive the invasions fro a while with their identity and be absorved latter. But the book goes to far.

  6. I have to agree with Jonathan Dore.

    I look up the meanings and origins of words all the time, and I have never seen a single word in English that used to be Celtic. They’re all Latin, Greek, Germanic, or French.

    Why does the author of this article not think it’s weird that the Germanics conquered Latin speaking people, only to end up speaking Latin and Romantic languages… but English replaced the language of the Romano-Britons? Why do so many words for status or position, have a sister word in Scandinavia?

    Why is the King not called a Rex?

  7. As an amateur historian I read SO and many other books (Hastings Pryor) in good faith and great interest .

    During my reading I discerned a lack of rigour and amount of conjecture that seemed at times ludicrous based on what I thought I knew. However the consistency amongst them started to get me thinking all I ( thought) knew could be wrong . They were after all professional in their field?

    I’ve recently read new study ie dna data from burial sites ( Anglo Saxon migration and early English gene pool )
    which seems to kill these now obviously constructed fantasist theories dead. I’d like to know why they
    came about in the first place .

    It’s a tragedy for British free thought that European academics were the ones that made this happen ( above dna study ) As a buyer of any
    book on Celts and early Britain I could get my hands on I feel duped. ( maybe I’ve answered my own question;)

    Interestingly the word Celt doesn’t appear in SO writing .
    Are they trying to achieve the same result as their ancestors or trying to eradicate any misplaced shame they may hold. If so I forgive you ( yes I’m Welsh ) or is it based on some political ideology.

    He who controls the present controls the past
    But please gentle people It IS intellectuals DUTY to ensure truth wins . PLEASE .

    Is this the case in English academia now or is politicisation meaning they form their new truths .

    I’d genuinely like to understand their motivation for inventing such tosh ( as a group ) and as an amateur buyer of so many books can I have my money back .

  8. When I spotted reference to apartheidt in her book I had red lights flashing and assumed, here we have a liberal South African with a bee in her bonnet and qurestioned her objectivity, assumed a bias towards little immigration. (I’m of the left and loathe apartheidt, etc, and at the same want rigorous, evidence based reseach). Now what I’ve just typed might stretch credulity for some but my scepticism was prompted further by the ludicrous IKEA analogy. I don’t think anyone doubts we’re mongrels, it’s that some historians cannot seem to bear the thought that there was substantial A-S migration. The People of the British Isles Survey of Oxford University and Welcome Trust suggested 38% in Eastern/S Eastern England and – a more recent, as I remember, German analysis put the immigrant % higher still (into the 40%s?) My favourite history research dictum is, ‘Don’t let your imagination run ahead of the evidence’.

  9. Although highly contentious, the author’s suggestion is too fascinating to ignore. Why couldn’t the truth be somewhere in between? For mine, the most intriguing fact is how rapidly locals and immigrants melded customs indicating that any conflict between the two groups could not have left deep scars. @ Jonathan Dore, there is at least one more means by which language may be adopted from abroad and this is taking place even in the contemporary world: good business. With Rome on the decline, the language of the ascendent Germanic societies with their burgeoning trade volumes would have been the must know language to teach the kids. This remains the case for English today, the closest the world has to a Lingua Franca. One does not always have to resort to rape and pillage to be influential.

  10. ….to continue, what begins as a common tongue becomes a national identity. The findings of the recent DNA survey of the UK lead by Peter Donnelly support this point. The Welsh, although genetically diverse, share a distinct national bond based on shared language and culture. What goes for the Welsh could just as easily apply to the English.

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