The Anglo-Saxon Settlement of England

The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain describes the process which changed the language and culture of most of what became England from Romano-British to Germanic.

The Germanic-speakers in Britain, themselves of diverse origins, eventually developed a common cultural identity as Anglo-Saxons. This process occurred from the mid-fifth to early seventh centuries, following the end of Roman power in Britain around the year 410. The settlement was followed by the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the south and east of Britain, later followed by the rest of modern England.

The available evidence includes the scanty contemporary and near-contemporary written record, and archaeological and genetic information. The few literary sources tell of hostility between incomers and natives.

They describe violence, destruction, massacre and the flight of the Romano-British population. Moreover, there is little clear evidence for the influence of British Celtic or British Latin on Old English. These points have suggested a very large-scale invasion by various Germanic peoples. In this view, held by the majority of historians until the mid to late twentieth and twenty-first century, much of what is now England was cleared of its prior inhabitants. If this traditional viewpoint were to be correct, the genes of the later English people will be overwhelmingly inherited from Germanic migrants.

Angles, Saxons and Jutes Invade England.

However, another view, probably the most widely held today, is that the migrants were relatively few, centred on a warrior elite. They then dominated a process of acculturation to their own language and material culture. Archaeologists have found that settlement patterns and land-use show no clear break with the Romano-British past, though there are marked changes in material culture. This view predicts that the ancestry of the people of Anglo-Saxon and modern England would be largely derived from the native Romano-British. The uncertain results of genetic studies tend to support this prediction.

Even so, if these incomers established themselves as a social elite, this could have allowed them enhanced reproductive success (the so-called ‘Apartheid Theory’). In this case, the prevalent genes of later Anglo-Saxon England could have been largely derived from moderate numbers of Germanic migrants. This theory, originating in a population genetics study, has proven controversial, and has been critically received by a number of scholars.

By 400, the Roman provinces in Britain (all the territory to the south of Hadrian’s Wall) were a peripheral part of the Roman Empire, occasionally lost to rebellion or invasion, but until then always eventually recovered. That cycle of loss and recapture collapsed over the next decade. Eventually around 410, although Roman power remained a force to be reckoned with for a further three generations across much of Gaul, Britain slipped beyond direct imperial control into a phase which has generally been termed “sub-Roman”.

Hadrian’s wall in the 21st Century.

The history of this period has traditionally been a narrative of decline and fall. However, evidence from Verulamium suggests that urban-type rebuilding, featuring piped water, was continuing late on in the 5th century, if not beyond. At Silchester, there are signs of sub-Roman occupation down to around 500, and at Wroxeter new Roman baths have been identified as Roman-type.

The writing of Patrick and Gildas (see below) demonstrates the survival in Britain of Latin literacy and Roman education, learning and law within elite society and Christianity, throughout the bulk of the 5th and 6th centuries. There are also signs in Gildas’ works that the economy was thriving without Roman taxation, as he complains of luxuria and self-indulgence. This is the 5th century Britain into which the Anglo-Saxons appear.

Historical evidence

Surveying the historical sources for signs of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, and the people, assumes that the words Angles, Saxons or Anglo-Saxon have the same meaning in all the sources. Assigning ethnic labels such as “Anglo-Saxon” is fraught with difficulties and the term itself only began to be used in the 8th century to distinguish “Germanic” groups in Britain from those on the continent (Old Saxony in present-day Northern Germany).

Early sources

The Chronica Gallica of 452 records for the year 441: “The British provinces, which to this time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced to Saxon rule.” The Chronicle was written some distance from Britain. There is uncertainty about precise dates for fifth-century events especially before 446. This, however, does not undermine the position of the Gallic Chronicles as a very important contemporary source, which suggests that Bede’s later date for ‘the arrival of the Saxons’ was mistaken. In the Chronicle, Britain is grouped with four other Roman territories which came under ‘Germanic’ dominion around the same time, the list being intended as an explanation of the end of the Roman empire in the west. The four share a similar history, as they were all given into the “power of the barbarians” by Roman authority: three were deliberately settled with German federates and though the Vandals took Africa by force their dominion was confirmed by treaty.

Procopius states that Britain was settled by three races: the Angiloi, Frisones, and Britons, each ruled by its own king. Each race was so prolific that it sent large numbers of individuals every year to the Franks, who planted them in unpopulated regions of its territory. Writing in the mid-sixth century, he also states that after the overthrow of Constantine III in 411, “the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time under tyrants.”

Obverse and reverse of a Roman coin depicting Constantine III.

Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britannia

In Gildas’ work of the 6th century (perhaps 510–530), De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, a religious tract on the state of Britain, the Saxons were enemies originally from overseas, who brought well-deserved judgement upon the local kings or ‘tyrants’.

The sequence of events in Gildas is interesting:

  • After an appeal to Aëtius (the Groans of the Britons) the Britons were gripped by famine while suffering attacks from the Picts and Scoti; some fought back successfully, leading to a period of peace.
  • Peace led to luxuria and self-indulgence.
  • A renewed attack was threatened by the Picts and Scoti, and this led to a council, where it was proposed and agreed that land in the east would be given to the Saxons on the basis of a treaty, a foedus, by which the Saxons would defend the Britons in exchange for food supplies. This type of arrangement was unexceptional in a Late Roman context; Franks had been settled as foederati on imperial territory in northern Gaul (Toxandria) in the 4th century, and the Visigoths were settled in Gallia Aquitania early in the 5th century.
Angle, Saxon and Jute distribution in south-east England.
  • The Saxon foederati first complained that their monthly supplies were inadequate. Then they threatened to break the treaty, which they did, spreading the onslaught “from sea to sea”.
  • This war, which Higham called the “War of the Saxon Federates”, ended some 20–30 years later, shortly after the siege at Mons Badonicus, and some 40 years before Gildas was born.
  • There was a peace with the Saxons who returned to their eastern home, which Gildas called a lugubre divortium barbarorum—a grievous divorce from the barbarians. The “divorce settlement”, Higham in particular has argued, was an improved treaty from the British viewpoint. This included the ability to extract tribute from the people in the east (i.e. the Saxons) who were under the leadership of the person Gildas called pater diabolus.

Gildas used the correct late Roman term for the Saxons, foederati, people who came to Britain under a well-used treaty system. This kind of treaty had been used elsewhere to bring people into the Roman Empire to move along the roads or rivers and work alongside the army. Gildas called them Saxons, which was probably the common British term for the settlers. Interestingly Gildas’ use of the word Patria, when used in relation to the Saxons and Picts, gave the impression that some Saxons could by then be regarded as native to Britannia.

Britain for Gildas was the whole island; ethnicity and language were not his issue, he was concerned with the leaders’ faith and actions. The historical details are, as Snyder had it: “by-products from his recounting of royal-sins”. There is a strong tradition of Christian writers who were concerned with the moral qualities of leadership and Gildas joined these. He used apocalyptic language: for example the Saxons were “villains”, “enemies”, led by a Devil-father. Yet Gildas had lived through, in his own words, an age of “external peace”, and it is this peace that brought with it the tyrannis—”unjust rule”.

Gildas’ remarks reflected his continuing concern regarding the vulnerability of his countrymen and their disregard and in-fighting: for example, “it was always true of this people (as it is now) that it was weak in beating off the weapons of the enemy but strong in putting up with civil war and the burden of sin.” However, after the War of the Saxon Federates, if there were acts of genocide, mass exodus or mass slavery, Gildas did not seem to know about them. Gildas, in discussing the holy shrines, mentioned that the spiritual life of Britain had suffered, because the partition (divortium), of the country, which was preventing the citizens (cives) from worshipping at the shrines of the martyrs. Control had been ceded to the Saxons, even control of access to such shrines. The church was now ‘tributary’, her sons had ’embraced dung’ and the nobility had lost their authority to govern.

Gildas described the corruption of the elite: “Britain has kings but they are tyrants; she has judges but they are wicked”. This passage provides a glimpse into the world of Gildas, he continued: “they plunder and terrorise the innocent, they defend and protect the guilty and thieving, they have many wives, whores and adulteresses, swear false oaths, tell lies, reward thieves, sit with murderous men, despise the humble, their commanders are ‘enemies of God'”; the list is long. Interestingly, oath breaking and the absence of just judgements for ordinary people were mentioned a number of times. British leadership, everywhere, was immoral and the cause of the “ruin of Britain”.

Romano-Britons were driven out of England by the Anglo-Saxons.

Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum

Gildas and other sources were used by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, written around 731. Bede identifies the migrants as Angles, Saxons and Jutes, reporting (Bk I, Ch 15) that the Saxons came from Old Saxony (Northern Germany) and the Angles from ‘Anglia’, which lay between the homelands of the Saxons and Jutes. Anglia is reasonably taken to be the old Schleswig-Holstein Province (straddling the modern Danish-German border), and containing the modern Angeln. Jutland was the homeland of the Jutes, and the coast between the Elbe and Weser rivers (modern German state of Lower Saxony) is the Saxon area of origin.

Angles, Saxon and Jute settlements 400-500AD.

Crucially, Bede seems to identify three phases of settlement: an exploration phase, when mercenaries came to protect the resident population; a migration phase, which was substantial, as implied by the statement that Anglus was deserted; and an establishment phase, in which Anglo-Saxons started to control areas, implied in Bede’s statement about the origins of the tribes. This analysis of Bede has led to a re-evaluation, in terms of continuity and change, of Bede’s “Northumbrian” view of history and how this view was projected back into the account of the latter two phases of settlement; and a possible overhaul of the traditional chronological framework.

The concept of Bretwalda originates in Bede’s comment on who held the Imperium of Britain. From this concept, historians have inferred a formal institution of overlordship south of the Humber. Whether such an institution existed is uncertain, but Simon Keynes argues that the idea is not an invented concept. The Bretwalda concept is taken as evidence for a presence of a number of early Anglo-Saxon elite families. Whether the majority were early settlers, descendant from settlers, or especially after the exploration stage, were Roman-British leaders who adopted Anglo-Saxon culture is unclear, but the balance of opinion is that most were migrants. Notable gaps include: no-one from the East or West Midlands is represented in the list of Bretwaldas, and there is some uncertainty about the dates of these leaders.

Bede’s view of Britons is partly responsible for the picture of them as the downtrodden subjects of Anglo-Saxon oppression. This has been used by linguists and archaeologists who have produced genocidal, slavery and bloody invasion settlement theories. Bede’s derogatory depiction of the Britons is influenced by what he had read in Gildas, which had also sought to understand God’s will. For Gildas, the Saxons represented God’s scourge, and he saw the horrors of the Saxon as God’s retribution for the sins of his people. Bede focused on this point and extended Gildas’ vision by portraying the pagan Anglo-Saxons not as God’s scourge against the reprobate Britons, but rather as the agents of Britain’s redemption. Therefore, the ghastly scenario that Gildas feared is calmly explained away by Bede: any rough treatment was necessary, and ordained by God, because the Britons had lost God’s favour, and incurred his wrath. Bede is not using ethnicity in the same manner as a modern reader. Windy McKinney observes, “Bede’s use of (ethnic terminology) was much more mutable: tied to the expression of tradition and religious ideas, to the loyalty of a people to authority, and subject to change as history continued to unfold. Therefore, it is a moot point whether all of those whom Bede encompassed under the term Angli were racially Germanic”. Indeed, Bede himself may not have been an ethnically ‘pure’ Angle.

Folio 3v from the Petersburg Bede. The Saint Petersburg Bede (Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18), a near-contemporary version of the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.

Tribal Hidea

The Tribal Hideage is a list of 35 tribes that was compiled in Anglo-Saxon England some time between the 7th and 9th centuries. The inclusion of the ‘Elmet-dwellers’ suggests to Simon Keynes that the Tribal Hideage was compiled in the early 670s, during the reign of King Wulfhere, since Elmet seems to have reverted thereafter to Northumbrian control.

It includes a number of independent kingdoms and other smaller territories and assigns a number of hides to each one. A hide was an amount of land sufficient to support a household. The list of tribes is headed by Mercia and consists almost exclusively of peoples who lived south of the Humber estuary and territories that surrounded the Mercian kingdom, some of which have never been satisfactorily identified by scholars. The document is problematic, but extremely important for historians as it provides a glimpse into the relationship between people, land and the tribes and groups into which they had organised themselves.

The individual units in the list developed from the settlement areas of tribal groups, some of which are as little as 300 hides. The names are difficult to locate: places like East wixna and Sweord ora. What it reveals is that micro-identity of tribe and family is important from the start. The list is evidence for more complex settlement than the single political entity of the other historical sources.

Anglo-Saxon Chroni

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an historical record of events in Anglo-Saxon England which was kept from the late 9th to the mid-12th century. The Chronicle is a collection of annals that were still being updated in some cases more than 600 years after the events they describe. They contain various entries that seem to add to the breadth of the historical evidence and provide good evidence for a migration, the Anglo-Saxon elites and various significant historical events.

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle.

The earliest events described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were transcribed centuries after they had occurred. Barbara Yorke, Patrick Sims-Williams and David Dumville among others have highlighted how a number of features of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the 5th and early 6th centuries clearly contradict the idea that they contain a reliable year-by-year record Stuart Laycock has suggested that there may be information from the early period that can be used on the basis that: the obvious glosses and fictions should be rejected (such as the information about Porta and Portsmouth); the kernel behind some entries might contain a truth (such as the sequence of the events associated with Ælle of Sussex); and whilst the dates are uncertain, Laycock believes some of the 6th century events may describe real situation. However presenting evidence for the Anglo-Saxon settlement from a chronicle such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is uncertain and relies heavily on the present view of which entries are acceptable truth. As Dumville points out about the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “medieval historiography has assumptions different from our own, particularly in terms of distinctions between fiction and non-fiction”.

“Saxon” political ascendancy in Britain

A re-evaluation of the traditional picture of decay and dissolution Post-Roman Britain has occurred, with sub-Roman Britain being thought rather more a part of the Late Antique world of western Europe than was customary a half century ago. As part of this re-evaluation some suggest that sub-Roman Britain, in its entirety, retained a significant political, economic and military momentum across the fifth century and even the bulk of the sixth. This in large part stems from attempts to develop visions of British success against the incoming Anglo-Saxons, as suggested by the Chronicles which were written in the ninth and mid-tenth century. However, recent scholarship has contested the extent to which either can be credited with any level of historicity regarding the decades around AD 500.

5th Century Saxon Emigration.

The representation of long-lasting British triumphs against the Saxons appears in large parts of the Chronicles, but stem ultimately from Gildas’s brief and frustratingly elusive reference to a British victory at Mons Badonicus – Mount Badon. Nick Higham suggests, that the war between Britons and Saxons seems to have ended in some sort of compromise, which conceded a very considerable sphere of influence within Britain to the incomers. According to Higham;

The most developed vision of a ‘big’ sub-Roman Britain, with control over its own political and military destiny for well over a century, is that of Kenneth Dark, who has argued that Britain should not be divided during the fifth, and even the bulk of the sixth, century into ‘British’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural and/or political provinces, but should be thought of as a generally ‘British’ whole. His thesis, in brief, is to postulate not just survival but continuing cultural, political and military power for the sub-Roman elite, both in the far west (where this view is comparatively uncontroversial) but also in the east, where it has to be imagined alongside incoming settlements. He postulates the sub-Roman community to have been the dominant force in insular affairs right up to c.570.

Kenneth Dark’s argument for continuing British military and political power in the east rests on the very uneven distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and the proposition that large gaps in that distribution necessarily represent strong British polities which excluded Anglo-Saxon settlers by force. Cremation cemeteries in eastern Britain north of the Thames begin during the second quarter of the fifth century, backed up by new archaeological phases before 450. The chronology of this “adventus” of cremations is supported by the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which states that wide parts of Britain fell under Saxon rule in 441. However, this did not result in many Brittonic words entering Old English. It seems therefore that no large-scale interaction occurred between incoming “Germanic” communities and numerous indigenous Brittonic speakers of equivalent social rank. If such interaction had been widespread, then we might have expected far greater language borrowing both in terms of structure and vocabulary.

‘Romano-Brittonic’ peoples’ fate in the south-east

The most extreme estimation for the size of the Anglo-Saxon settlement suggests that some 80% of the resident population of Britain were not Anglo-Saxon. Given that, explanation has been sought to account for the change in culture of the Britons to one where by the 8th Century the majority of people in southern Britain saw themselves as heirs to the Anglo-Saxon culture.

Edward Augustus Freeman, suggests that the Anglo Saxons and the Britons were competing cultures, and that through invasion, extermination, slavery, and forced resettlement the Anglo-Saxons defeated the Britons and consequently their culture and language prevailed. This view has influenced much of the linguistic, scholarly and popular perceptions of the process of anglicisation in Britain. It remains the starting point and ‘default position’, to which other hypotheses are compared in modern reviews of the evidence. Widespread extermination and displacement of the native peoples of Britain is still considered a viable possibility by certain scholars. Our best contemporary source, Gildas, certainly suggests that just such a change of populations did take place. However, Freeman’s ideas did not go unchallenged, even as they were being propounded. In particular, the essayist Grant Allen believed in a strong Celtic contribution to Englishness.

hleomæg wesiKs


  1. A sample of this discussion can be seen on the television series Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain, particularly the discussion between Francis Pryor and Heinrich Härke.
  2. Based on Jones & Mattingly’s Atlas of Roman Britain (ISBN 978-1-84217-067-0, 1990, reprinted 2007); Mattingly’s Imperial Possession ( ISBN 978-0-14-014822-0, 2006); Higham’s Rome, Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons (ISBN 1-85264-022-7, 1992); Frere’s Britannia (ISBN 0-7102-1215-1, 1987); and Snyder’s An Age of Tyrants (ISBN 978-0-631-22260-6) — the sources are cited in the image legend — Locations of towns (fortified and unfortified) are given on p. 156, with tribal civitates and coloniae specified on p. 154, of Atlas of Roman Britain. Specification of the Romanised regions of Britain are also from the Atlas, p. 151. The “Departure Dates” are found in the cited sources, and are generally known. The Pictish, Saxon, and Scoti raids are found in the cited sources, as is the date of the Irish settlements in Wales. Frere suggests (p. 355) that it was the Irish who sacked Wroxeter c. 383. The locations of the Irish settlements is from the locations of inscription stones given in File:Britain.Deisi.Laigin.jpg as of 2010-10-11, which cites its sources of information.
  3. Throughout this article Anglo-Saxon is used for Saxon, Angles, Jute or Frisian unless it is specific to a point being made;”Anglo-Saxon” is used when specifically the culture is meant rather than any ethnicity. However all these terms are interchangeable used by scholars
  4. By the waning years of the Roman Empire, Britain was earning a special reputation as a “province fertile with tyrants”. These tyrants dominate the historical accounts of the 5th and 6th centuries and the work tells us much about the transition from magisterial to monarchical power in Britain.
  5. The phrase which mentions 40 years has been subject of much scholarly discussion. See Battle of Badon for more details.
  6. From patrius (“of or pertaining to a father”), from pater (“father”), and cognate with Ancient Greek πατριά (patria, “generation, ancestry, descent, tribe, family”) and πατρίς (patris, “place of one’s ancestors”)
  7. The sudden and drastic change from Romano-Britainto Anglo-Saxon Britain was once widely accepted as providing clear evidence for a mass migration from continental Europe and the near-complete replacement of the indigenous population in England


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