The Britons, also known as Celtic Britons or Ancient Britons, were Celtic people who inhabited Great Britain from the British Iron Age into the Middle Ages, at which point their culture and language diverged. They spoke the Common Brittonic language, the ancestor to the modern Brittonic languages.
The earliest evidence for the Britons and their language in historical sources dates to the Iron Age. After the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century, a Romano-British culture emerged, and Latin and British Vulgar Latin coexisted with Brittonic. During and after the Roman era, the Britons lived throughout Britain. Their relationship with the Picts, who lived north of the Firth of Forth, has been the subject of much discussion, though most scholars now accept that the Pictish language was related to Common Brittonic, rather than a separate Celtic language.
With the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement and Gaelic Scots in the 5th century, the culture and language of the Britons fragmented and much of their territory was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaels. The extent to which this cultural and linguistic change was accompanied by wholesale changes in the population is still a matter of discussion. During this period some Britons migrated to mainland Europe and established significant settlements in Brittany (now part of France) as well as Britonia in modern Galicia, Spain. By the 11th century, remaining Brittonic Celtic-speaking populations had split into distinct groups: the Welsh in Wales, the Cornish in Cornwall, the Bretons in Brittany, and the people of the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”) in southern Scotland and northern England. Common Brittonic developed into the distinct Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton.
The earliest known reference to the inhabitants of Britain seems to come from 4th century BC records of the voyage of Pytheas, a Greek geographer who made a voyage of exploration around the British Isles between 330 and 320 BC. Although none of his own writings remain, writers during the time of the Roman Empire made much reference to them. Pytheas called the islands collectively αἱ Βρεττανίαι (hai Brettaniai), which has been translated as the Brittanic Isles; he also used the term Pretannike. The peoples of these islands were called the Πρεττανοί (Prettanoi), Priteni, Pritani or Pretani. The group included Ireland, which was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra “sacred island” as the Greeks interpreted it) “inhabited by the race of Hiberni” (gens hibernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, “island of the Albions”. The term Pritani may have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who possibly used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was originally compiled by the orders of King Alfred the Great in approximately 890, and subsequently maintained and added to by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th century, starts with this sentence: “The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad, and there are in the island five nations: English, Welsh (or British, including the Cornish), Scottish, Pictish, and Latin. The first inhabitants were the Britons, who came from Armenia, and first peopled Britain southward.” (“Armenia” is possibly a mistaken transcription of Armorica, an area in northwestern Gaul including modern Brittany.)
The Latin name in the early Roman Empire period was Britanni or Brittanni, following the Roman conquest in AD 43.
The Welsh word Brython was introduced into English usage by John Rhys in 1884 as a term unambiguously referring to the P-Celtic speakers of Great Britain, to complement Goidel; hence the adjective Brythonic referring to the group of languages. “Brittonic languages” is a more recent coinage (first attested 1923 according to the Oxford English Dictionary) intended to refer to the ancient Britons specifically.
In English, the term “Briton” originally denoted the ancient Britons and their descendants, most particularly the Welsh, who were seen as heirs to the ancient British people. After the Acts of Union 1707, the terms British and Briton came to be applied to all inhabitants of the Kingdom of Great Britain and its empire.
The Britons spoke an Insular Celtic language known as Common Brittonic. Brittonic was spoken throughout the island of Britain (in modern terms, England, Wales and Scotland), as well as offshore islands such as the Isle of Man, Scilly Isles, Orkneys, Hebrides and Shetlands. According to early mediaeval historical tradition, such as The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica were colonists from Britain, resulting in the Breton language, a language related to Welsh and identical to Cornish in the early period and still used today. Thus the area today is called Brittany (Br. Breizh, Fr. Bretagne, derived from Britannia).
Common Brittonic developed from the Insular branch of the Proto-Celtic language that developed in the British Isles after arriving from the continent in the 7th century BC. The language eventually began to diverge; some linguists have grouped subsequent developments as Western and Southwestern Brittonic languages.
Western Brittonic developed into Welsh in Wales and the Cumbric language in the Hen Ogledd or “Old North” of Britain, while the Southwestern dialect became Cornish in Cornwall and South West England and Breton in Armorica. Pictish is now generally accepted to descend from Common Brittonic, rather than being a separate Celtic language. Welsh and Breton survive today; Cumbric became extinct in the 12th century. Cornish had become extinct by the 19th century but has been the subject of language revitalization since the 20th century.
Throughout their existence, the territory inhabited by the Britons was composed of numerous ever-changing areas controlled by Brittonic tribes. The extent of their territory before and during the Roman period is unclear, but is generally believed to include the whole of the island of Great Britain, at least as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus, and if the Picts are included as Brittonic speaking people as they more usually are, the entirety of Great Britain.
The territory north of the Firth of Forth was largely inhabited by the Picts; little direct evidence has been left of the Pictish language, but place names and Pictish personal names recorded in the later Irish annals suggest it was indeed related to the Common Brittonic language rather than to the Goidelic (Gaelic) languages of the Irish, Scots and Manx; indeed their Goidelic Irish name, Cruithne, is cognate with Brythonic Priteni. Part of the Pictish territory was eventually absorbed into the Gaelic kingdoms of Dál Riata and Alba, which became Scotland.
The Isle of Man, Shetland, Hebrides and the Orkney islands were originally inhabited by Britons also, but eventually became respectively Manx and Scots Gaelic speaking territories, while the Scilly isles and Anglesey (Ynys Mon) remained Brittonic and the originally Brittonic Isle of Wight was taken by Anglo-Saxons.
In 43 AD, the Roman Empire invaded Britain. The British tribes opposed the Roman legions for many decades, but by 84 AD the Romans had decisively conquered southern Britain and had pushed into Brittonic areas of what would later become northern England and southern Scotland. In 122, they fortified the northern border with Hadrian’s Wall, which spanned what is now Northern England. In 142 AD, Roman forces pushed north again and began construction of the Antonine Wall, which ran between the Forth-Clyde isthmus, but they retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall after only twenty years.
Although the native Britons south of Hadrian’s Wall mostly kept their land, they were subject to the Roman governors, whilst the Brittonic-Pictish Britons north of the wall remained fully independent. The Roman Empire retained control of “Britannia” until its departure about AD 410, although some parts of Britain had already effectively shrugged off Roman rule decades earlier.
Shortly after the time of the Roman departure, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons began a migration to the eastern coast of Britain, where they established their own kingdoms, and the Gaelic speaking Scots migrating from Dál nAraidi (modern Northern Ireland), did the same on the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man.
At the same time, some Britons established themselves in what is now called Brittany. There they set up their own small kingdoms and the Breton language developed there from Brittonic Insular Celtic rather than Gaulish or Frankish. A further colony, Britonia, was also set up at this time in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain.
Many of the old Brittonic kingdoms began to disappear in the centuries after the Anglo-Saxon and Scottish Gaelic invasions; The regions of modern East Anglia, East Midlands, North East England, Argyll and South East England were the first to fall to the Germanic and Gaelic Scots invasions; The kingdom of Ceint (modern Kent) fell in 456 AD, Linnuis (which stood astride modern Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire) was subsumed as early as 500 AD and became the English Kingdom of Lindsey, Rhegin (essentially modern Sussex and eastern Hampshire) was likely fully conquered by 510 AD, Ynys Weith (Isle of Wight) fell in 530 AD, Caer Colun (essentially modern Essex) by 540 AD.
The Gaels arrived on the north west coast of Britain from Ireland, dispossessed the native Britons and founded Dal Riata which encompassed modern Argyll, Skye and Iona between 500 and 560 AD. Deifr (Deira) which encompassed modern day Teeside, Wearside, Tyneside and Humberside fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 559 AD and Deira became an Anglo-Saxon kingdom after this point. Caer Went had officially disappeared by 575 AD becoming the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, Gwent and its capital Caer Gloui (Gloucester) was divided in 577 AD, handing Gloucestershire and Wiltshire to the invaders, while the westernmost part continued to exist in modern Wales, Caer Lundein encompassing London, St. Albans and parts of the Home Counties fell from Brittonic hands by 600 AD, Bryneich which existed in modern Northumbria and County Durham with its capital of Din Guardi (modern Bamburgh) and which included Ynys Metcaut (Lindisfarne) had fallen by 605 AD becoming Anglo-Saxon Bernicia.
Caer Celemion (in modern Hampshire and Berkshire) had fallen by 610 AD. Elmet, which covered much of modern Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire and likely had its capital at modern Leeds, was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in 627 AD.
Pengwern, which covered Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, was largely destroyed in 656 AD with only its westernmost parts in modern Wales enduring. AD, and it is likely that Cynwidion which had stretched from modern Bedfordshire to Northamptonshire, fell in the same general period as Pengwern, though a sub-kingdom of Calchwynedd may have clung on in the Chilterns for a time. Novant which occupied Galloway and Carrick was soon subsumed by fellow Brittonic-Pictish polities by 700 AD. Aeron which encompassed modern Ayrshire was conquered into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria by 700 AD.
Some Brittonic kingdoms, such as Rheged, which at its height encompassed much what is today Strathclyde, Cumbria, Northumberland, the Scottish borders, Lancashire and modern Greater Manchester and had a capital at Cair Ligualid (Carlisle), were able to successfully resist these incursions for some time, before the eastern part peacefully joined with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia–Northumberland by 730 AD, and the west was taken over by the fellow Britons of Ystrad Clud.
Similarly, the kingdom of Gododdin, which appears to have had its capital at Din Eidyn (modern Edinburgh and encompassed parts of modern Northumbria, County Durham, Lothian and Clackmannanshire endured until approximately 775 AD before being divided by fellow Brittonic Picts, Gaelic Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
The Kingdom of Cait, covering modern Caithness, Sutherland, Orkneys and Shetlands was conquered in 871 AD, similarly, the Kingdom of Ce which encompassed modern Marr, Banff, Buchan, Fife and much of Aberdeenshire disappeared in 900 at the hands of the Gaelic Scots AD. Fortriu the largest Pictish kingdom which covered Strathearn, Morayshire and Easter Ross had fallen by approximately 950 AD to the Gaelic Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Other Pictish kingdoms such as Circinn ( in modern Angus and The Mearns), Fib (modern Fife), Fidach (Inverness and Perthshire), Ath-Fotla (Atholl) had also fallen by the beginning of the 11th century AD.
The Brythonic languages in these areas was replaced by the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaelic, although this was likely a gradual process in many areas.
The kingdom of Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde) was for some time a large and powerful Brittonic kingdom which endured until the end of the 11th century, successfully resisting Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic Scots and later also Viking attacks. At its peak it encompassed modern Strathclyde, Dumbartonshire, Cumbria, Stirlingshire, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll and Bute and parts of North Yorkshire, western Pennines, and as far as modern Leeds in West Yorkshire.
The Britons also retained control of Wales, Cornwall and south Devon (Dumnonia), as well as northwest England and parts of Scotland, where kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd endured. Dumnonia was effectively partitioned during the 9th century AD, the north becoming Anglo-Saxon Devonshire while he south remained in the hands of the Britons as Kernow (essentially modern Cornwall).
Wales was divided among varying Brittonic kingdoms, the foremost being Gwynedd, Powys (including Clwyd and Ynys Mon (Anglesey), Deheubarth (originally Ceredigion, Seisyllwg and Dyfed), Gwent and Morgannwg (Glamorgan. Some of these Welsh kingdoms initially included territories further east, for example Powys included parts of modern Merseyside, Cheshire and The Wirral and Gwent held parts of modern Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, but had largely been confined to the borders of modern Wales by the beginning of the 12th century.
However, by the beginning of the 12th century, the Anglo-Saxons and Gaels had become the dominant cultural force in most of the formerly Brittonic ruled territory in Britain, and the language and culture of the native Britons was thereafter gradually replaced in those regions, remaining only in Wales, Cornwall, parts of Cumbria, Strathclyde, eastern Galloway and Brittany.
The Brittonic-Pictish polities in Scotland and northern England gradually fell to the English and Scots; with the Kingdom of Strathclyde (Strath-Clota) being the last of the Brittonic kingdoms of the north to fall in the 1090s, when it was effectively divided between England and Scotland.
Cornwall (Kernow, Dumnonia) had certainly been largely absorbed by England by the 1050s, although it retained a distinct Brittonic culture and language. Britonia in Spanish Galicia seems to have disappeared by 900 AD.
Wales and Brittany remained independent for some time however, with Brittany finally being absorbed into France during the 1490s, and Wales united with England by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 in the mid 16th century during the rule of the Tudors (Twdyr), who were themselves of Welsh heritage on the male side.
Wales, Cornwall and Brittany continued to retain a distinct Brittonic culture, identity and language, which they have maintained to the present day. The Welsh language and Breton language remain widely spoken, and the Cornish language, once close to extinction, has experienced a revival since the 20th century. The vast majority of place names and names of geographical features in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany are Brittonic, and Brittonic family and personal names remain common.
During the 19th century, a large number of Welsh farmers migrated to Patagonia in Argentina, forming a community called Y Wladfa, which today consists of over 1,500 Welsh speakers.
In addition, a Brittonic legacy remains in England, Scotland and Galicia in Spain, in the form of often large numbers of Brittonic place and geographical names. Some examples of geographical Brittonic names survive in the names of rivers, such as the Thames, Clyde, Severn, Tyne, Wye, Exe, Dee, Tamar, Tweed, Avon, Trent, Tambre, Navia and River Forth. A number of place names in England and Scotland are of Brittonic rather than Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic origin, such as; London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Carlisle, Caithness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Barrow, Exeter, Lincoln, Dumbarton, Brent, Penge, Colchester, Durham, Dover, Leatherhead and York.
The Franks (Latin: Franci or gens Francorum) were a collection of Germanic peoples that originated in the lands between the Lower and Middle Rhine in the 3rd century AD and eventually formed a large empire dominating much of western and central Europe during the Middle Ages.
During ancient times some Franks raided Roman territory, while other Frankish tribes joined the Roman troops of Gaul. The Salian Franks lived on Roman-held soil between the Rhine, Scheldt, Meuse, and Somme rivers in what is now Northern France, Belgium and the central and southern part of the Netherlands. The kingdom was acknowledged by the Romans after 357 AD.
They became a powerful ally of Rome, providing many imperial generals, and integrated remarkably well into Roman society, speaking Latin fluently, obtaining Roman citizenship, and being often promoted by the emperors to consular ranks (including senators) for their competence.
Following the collapse of Rome in the West, the Frankish tribes were united under the Merovingians, who succeeded in conquering most of Gaul in the 6th century, which greatly increased their power. The Merovingian dynasty, descendants of the Salians, founded one of the French monarchies that would absorb large parts of the Western Roman Empire. The Frankish state consolidated its hold over the majority of western Europe by the end of the 8th century, developing into the Carolingian Empire.
With the coronation of their ruler Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 AD, he and his successors were recognised as legitimate successors to the emperors of the Western Roman Empire. As such, the Carolingian Empire gradually came to be seen in the West as a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire. This empire would give rise to several successor states, including France, the Holy Roman Empire and Burgundy, though the Frankish identity remained most closely identified with France.
After the death of Charlemagne, his only adult surviving son became Emperor and King Louis the Pious. Following Louis the Pious’s death however, accordingly with Frankish culture and law that demanded equality among all living male adult heirs, the Frankish Empire was now split between Louis’ three sons.
This led to the creation of independent Kingdoms, which would later become known as the Kingdom of France, the Holy Roman Empire (itself evolving eventually into the German States, and then Germany), the Low Countries (which would later break-up into the Kingdom of Belgium, Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), Switzerland, and the northern Italian city-states that would later become part of the Kingdom of Italy.
In the Middle Ages, the term Frank was used in the east as a synonym for western European, as the Franks were then rulers of most of Western Europe.
The name Franci was originally socio-political. To the Romans, Celts, and Suebi, the Franks must have seemed alike: they looked the same and spoke the same language, so that Franci became the name by which the people were known. Within a few centuries it had eclipsed the names of the original tribes, though the older names have survived in some place-names, such as Hesse, which originates from the Chatti tribe.
Following the precedents of Edward Gibbon and Jacob Grimm, the name of the Franks has been linked with the word frank in English. It has been suggested that the meaning of “free” was adopted because, after the conquest of Gaul, only Franks were free of taxation. It is traditionally assumed that Frank comes from the Germanic word for “javelin” (such as in Old Englishfranca or Old Norsefrakka). There is also another theory that suggests that Frank comes from the Latin word francisca meaning “throwing axe”. Words in other Germanic languages meaning “fierce”, “bold” or “insolent” (German frech, Middle Dutchvrac, Old English frǣc and Old Norwegianfrakkr), may also be significant.
Eumenius addressed the Franks in the matter of the execution of Frankish prisoners in the circus at Trier by Constantine I in 306 and certain other measures:Ubi nunc est illa ferocia? Ubi semper infida mobilitas? (“Where now is that ferocity of yours? Where is that ever untrustworthy fickleness?”). Feroces was used often to describe the Franks.
Contemporary definitions of Frankish ethnicity vary both by period and point of view. A formulary written by Marculf about 700 AD described a continuation of national identities within a mixed population when it stated that “all the peoples who dwell [in the official’s province], Franks, Romans, Burgundians and those of other nations, live … according to their law and their custom.” Writing in 2009, Professor Christopher Wickham pointed out that “the word ‘Frankish’ quickly ceased to have an exclusive ethnic connotation. North of the River Loire everyone seems to have been considered a Frank by the mid-7th century at the latest; Romani were essentially the inhabitants of Aquitaine after that”.
Two early sources that describe the origin of the Franks are a 7th-century work known as the Chronicle of Fredegar and the anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written a century later.
The author of the Chronicle of Fredegar claimed that the Franks came originally from Troy and quoted the works of Vergil and Hieronymous, and the Franks are mentioned in those works, by Hieronymous. The chronicle describes Priam as a Frankish king whose people migrated to Macedonia after the fall of Troy. In Macedonia, the Franks then divided. The European Franks reached Francia under King Francio, just as Romulus went to Rome. Another branch, under King Turchot, became the Turks. Fredegar stated that Theudemer, named king of the Franks by Gregory, was descended from Priam, Friga and Francio.
Another work, the Gesta, described how 12,000 Trojans, led by Priam and Antenor, sailed from Troy to the River Don in Russia and on to Pannonia, which is on the River Danube, settling near the Sea of Azov. There they founded a city called Sicambria. The Trojans joined the Roman army in accomplishing the task of driving their enemies into the marshes of Mæotis, for which they received the name of Franks (meaning “savage”).
A decade later the Romans killed Priam and drove away Marcomer and Sunno, the sons of Priam and Antenor, and the other Franks.
In 292 Constantius, the father of Constantine I defeated the Franks who had settled at the mouth of the Rhine. These were moved to the nearby region of Toxandria. Eumenius mentions Constantius as having “killed, expelled, captured [and] kidnapped” the Franks who had settled there and others who had crossed the Rhine, using the term nationes Franciae for the first time.
The Salians, who eventually became the Merovingians, were first mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus, who described Julian‘s defeat of “the first Franks of all, those whom custom has called the Salians,” in 358. He promoted them to the status of fœderati within the Empire. The 5th century Notitia Dignitatum lists their soldiers as Salii. Jordanes, in Getica mentions the Riparii as auxiliaries of Flavius Aetius during the Battle of Châlons in 451: “Hi enim affuerunt auxiliares: Franci, Sarmatae, Armoriciani, Liticiani, Burgundiones, Saxones, Riparii, Olibriones …” The Riparii may not have been the Ripuarian Franks, as they do not appear for certain under that name until their final subjugation by Clovis I.
The Franks are mentioned in the Tabula Peutingeriana, an atlas of Roman roads. It is a 13th-century copy of a 4th or 5th century document that reflects information from the 3rd century. The Romans knew the shape of Europe, but their knowledge is not evident from the map, which was only a practical guide to the roads to be followed from point to point.
In the middle Rhine region of the map, the word Francia is close to a misspelling of Bructeri. Beyond Mainz is Suevia, the country of the Suebi, and beyond that is Alamannia, the country of the Alamanni. Four tribes at the mouth of the Rhine are depicted: the Chauci, the Amsivarii (‘Ems dwellers’), the Cherusci and the Chamavi, followed by qui et Pranci (‘who are also Franks’). The Tabula was probably based on the Orbis Pictus, a map of twenty years’ labour commissioned by Augustus and then kept by the Roman’s treasury department for the assessment of taxes. It did not survive as such. Information about the imperial divisions of Gaul probably derives from it.
Claudius Ptolemy‘s two maps of Germany portrayed Germania Inferior on the left bank of the Rhine, which was populated by Germanics, including those who had occupied the region before the Romans, and Magna Germania on the other side of the river, which acted as the Roman frontier. Tensions between the Empire and the Franks existed because of this artificial division: the Franks saw no reason why they should be kept from settling on either side of the river and eventually they convinced the Emperors to allow this to happen.
The topography of the mouth of the Rhine was even more troubling: the Rhine divided far inland into a fan of outlets, in which there was a significant settlement area, the island of Batavia. The Romans diverted the Rhine into the Yssel through a canal, which emptied into an inland lagoon. After the construction of the canal, Batavia was left under Roman jurisdiction, although it was settled by Germanics.
Ptolemy’s maps reflect generally the same tribal names as the Tabula Peutingeriana, except that the Tabula does not mention the Sicambri. This difference suggests that, in the few decades between the Ptolemaic map and the Tabula, the Sicambri were absorbed by the Franks.
The Romans held Lacus Flevo and all the marsh and riverland to the south. The Frankish confederation probably began to coalesce in the 210s, north of the Roman province called Germania Inferior which had been settled earlier by Celticised Germanic immigrants, known to Julius Caesar as the Belgae (among them, the notable Tungri). Along the Rhine itself were a number of cities constituting the interface between Roman and Germanic civilisation. Germanics who settled south of the Rhine without Roman authority were punished.
Franks interested in reoccupying the Roman-controlled left bank of the Rhine marauded these Romans to the south by land and sea using the tactics of forced marches and surprise attacks. During the 3rd century, the Franks attempted to appropriate Batavia to the south of Lacus Flevo. This time the Romans allowed them to stay, settling them in Toxandria (near modern Antwerp), where they became an independent maritime power known as the Salians, or “maritime people”.
Other Franks, from Mainz to Duisburg, raided across the Rhine and at some point acquired the name Ripuarians, or “river people”. Both groups remained politically distinct until Clovis, a Salian and a member of the Merovingian dynasty, unified Francia.
The Franks were described in Roman texts both as allies (laeti) and enemies (dediticii). About the year 260 one group of Franks penetrated as far as Tarragona in present-day Spain, where they plagued the region for about a decade before they were subdued and expelled by the Romans. In 287 or 288, the Roman Caesar Maximian forced the Salian leader Genobaud and his people to surrender without a fight. Maximian then forced the Salians in Toxandria (the present Low Countries) to accept imperial authority, but was not able to follow on this success by reconquering Britain.
Some decades later, the Salian Franks controlled the River Scheldt and were disrupting transport links to Britain in the English Channel. Although Roman forces managed to pacifiy them, they failed to expel the Franks, who continued to be feared as pirates at least until 358, when, according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, Julian the Apostate allowed the Franks to settle as foederati in Toxandria. By the end of the 5th century, the Salian Franks had largely moved to a territory (what is now the Netherlands south of the Rhine, Belgium, and northern France), where they formed a kingdom that eventually gave rise to the Merovingian dynasty.
Merovingian kingdom (481–751)
Numerous small Frankish kingdoms existed during the 5th century around Cologne, Tournai, Le Mans, Cambrai and elsewhere. The kingdom of Tournai eventually came to dominate its neighbours, probably because of its association with Aegidius, the magister militum of northern Gaul. A Frankish king, Childeric I, fought with Aegidius in 463: historians have assumed that Childeric and his son Clovis I were both commanders of the Roman military in the Province of Belgica Secunda and were subordinate to the magister militum.
Clovis later turned against the Roman commanders, defeated Syagrius in 486 or 487 and then had the Frankish king Chararic imprisoned and executed. A few years later, he killed Ragnachar, the Frankish king of Cambrai, and his brothers. By the 490s, he had conquered all the Frankish kingdoms to the west of the River Maas except for the Ripuarian Franks and was in a position to make the city of Paris his capital. He became the first king of all Franks in 509, after he had conquered Cologne. After conquering the Kingdom of Soissons and expelling the Visigoths from southern Gaul at the Battle of Vouillé, he established Frankish hegemony over most of Gaul, excluding Burgundy, Provence and Brittany, which were eventually absorbed by his successors.
Clovis I divided his realm between his four sons, who united to defeat Burgundy in 534. Internecine feuding occurred during the reigns of the brothers Sigebert I and Chilperic I, which was largely fuelled by the rivalry of their queens, Brunhilda and Fredegunda, and which continued during the reigns of their sons and their grandsons. Three distinct subkingdoms emerged: Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy, each of which developed independently and sought to exert influence over the others. The influence of the Arnulfing clan of Austrasia ensured that the centre of political gravity in the kingdom gradually shifted eastwards to the Rhineland.
The Frankish realm was reunited in 613 by Chlothar II, the son of Chilperic, who granted his nobles the Edict of Paris in an effort to reduce corruption and reassert his authority. Following the military successes of his son and successor Dagobert I, royal authority rapidly declined under a series of kings, traditionally known as les rois fainéants. After the Battle of Tertry in 687, each mayor of the palace, who had formerly been the king’s chief household official, effectively held power until in 751, with the approval of the Pope and the nobility, Pepin the Short deposed the last Merovingian king Childeric III and had himself crowned. This inaugurated a new dynasty, the Carolingians.
Carolingian empire (751–843)
The unification achieved by the Merovingians ensured the continuation of what has become known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian Empire was beset by internecine warfare, but the combination of Frankish rule and Roman Christianity ensured that it was fundamentally united. Frankish government and culture depended very much upon each ruler and his aims and so each region of the empire developed differently. Although a ruler’s aims depended upon the political alliances of his family, the leading families of Francia shared the same basic beliefs and ideas of government, which had both Roman and Germanic roots.
The sons of Louis the Pious fought a civil war after Louis’ death, which ended when the Frankish lands were divided between them. Charles the Bald was given West Francia, which would later become France, Louis the German received the eastern lands, which would later become Germany and Lothair I was given Middle Francia, which consisted of Lotharingia, Provence and Northern Italy. Middle Francia was not united, and by the next generation it had disintegrated into smaller lordships, which West Francia and East Francia fought for control over.
Participation in the Roman army
Germanic peoples, including those tribes in the Rhine delta that later became the Franks, are known to have served in the Roman army since the days of Julius Caesar. After the Roman administration collapsed in Gaul in the 260s, the armies under the Germanic Batavian Postumus revolted and proclaimed him emperor and then restored order. From then on, Germanic soldiers in the Roman army, most notably Franks, were promoted from the ranks.
A few decades later, the Menapian Carausius created a Batavian–British rump state on Roman soil that was supported by Frankish soldiers and raiders. Frankish soldiers such as Magnentius, Silvanus and Arbitio held command positions in the Roman army during the mid 4th century. From the narrative of Ammianus Marcellinus it is evident that both Frankish and Alamannic tribal armies were organised along Roman lines.
After the invasion of Chlodio, the Roman armies at the Rhine border became a Frankish “franchise” and Franks were known to levy Roman-like troops that were supported by a Roman-like armour and weapons industry. This lasted at least till the days of the scholar Procopius (c. AD 500 – c. AD 565), more than a century after the demise of the Western Roman Empire, who wrote describing the former Rhine army as still in operation with legions of the style of their forefathers during Roman times.
The Franks under the Merovingians melded Germanic custom with Romanised organisation and several important tactical innovations. Before their conquest of Gaul, the Franks fought primarily as a tribe, unless they were part of a Roman military unit fighting in conjunction with other imperial units.
At this time the Franks, hearing that both the Goths and Romans had suffered severely by the war … forgetting for the moment their oaths and treaties … (for this nation in matters of trust is the most treacherous in the world), they straightway gathered to the number of one hundred thousand under the leadership of Theudebert I and marched into Italy: they had a small body of cavalry about their leader, and these were the only ones armed with spears, while all the rest were foot soldiers having neither bows nor spears, but each man carried a sword and shield and one axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at a signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men.
His contemporary, Agathias, who based his own writings upon the tropes laid down by Procopius, says:
The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is very simple … They do not know the use of the coat of mail or greaves and the majority leave the head uncovered, only a few wear the helmet. They have their chests bare and backs naked to the loins, they cover their thighs with either leather or linen. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this. At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached. They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapons except the double edged axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long. They can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin, and also in hand to hand combat.
While the above quotations have been used as a statement of the military practices of the Frankish nation in the 6th century and have even been extrapolated to the entire period preceding Charles Martel‘s reforms (early mid-8th century), post-Second World War historiography has emphasised the inherited Roman characteristics of the Frankish military from the date of the beginning of the conquest of Gaul.
The Byzantine authors present several contradictions and difficulties. Procopius denies the Franks the use of the spear while Agathias makes it one of their primary weapons. They agree that the Franks were primarily infantrymen, threw axes and carried a sword and shield. Both writers also contradict the authority of Gallic authors of the same general time period (Sidonius Apollinaris and Gregory of Tours) and the archaeological evidence.
The Lex Ribuaria, the early 7th century legal code of the Rhineland or Ripuarian Franks, specifies the values of various goods when paying a wergild in kind; whereas a spear and shield were worth only two solidi, a sword and scabbard were valued at seven, a helmet at six, and a “metal tunic” at twelve. Scramasaxes and arrowheads are numerous in Frankish graves even though the Byzantine historians do not assign them to the Franks.
The evidence of Gregory and of the Lex Salica implies that the early Franks were a cavalry people. In fact, some modern historians have hypothesised that the Franks possessed so numerous a body of horses that they could use them to plough fields and thus were agriculturally technologically advanced over their neighbours. The Lex Ribuaria specifies that a mare’s value was the same as that of an ox or of a shield and spear, two solidi and a stallion seven or the same as a sword and scabbard, which suggests that horses were relatively common. Perhaps the Byzantine writers considered the Frankish horse to be insignificant relative to the Greek cavalry, which is probably accurate.
Composition and development
The Frankish military establishment incorporated many of the pre-existing Roman institutions in Gaul, especially during and after the conquests of Clovis I in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Frankish military strategy revolved around the holding and taking of fortified centres (castra) and in general these centres were held by garrisons of milities or laeti, who were former Roman mercenaries of Germanic origin. Throughout Gaul, the descendants of Roman soldiers continued to wear their uniforms and perform their ceremonial duties.
Immediately beneath the Frankish king in the military hierarchy were the leudes, his sworn followers, who were generally ‘old soldiers’ in service away from court. Some historians have gone to the length of relating their oath-making to the later development of feudalism. The king had an elite bodyguard called the truste. Members of the truste often served in centannae, garrison settlements that were established for military and police purposes. The day-to-day bodyguard of the king was made up of antrustiones (senior soldiers who were aristocrats in military service) and pueri (junior soldiers and not aristocrats). All high-ranking men had pueri.
The Frankish military was not composed solely of Franks and Gallo-Romans, but also contained Saxons, Alans, Taifals and Alemanni. After the conquest of Burgundy (534), the well-organised military institutions of that kingdom were integrated into the Frankish realm. Chief among these was the standing army under the command of the Patrician of Burgundy.
In the late 6th century, during the wars instigated by Fredegund and Brunhilda, the Merovingian monarchs introduced a new element into their militaries: the local levy. A levy consisted of all the able-bodied men of a district who were required to report for military service when called upon, similar to conscription. The local levy applied only to a city and its environs. Initially only in certain cities in western Gaul, in Neustria and Aquitaine, did the kings possess the right or power to call up the levy. The commanders of the local levies were always different from the commanders of the urban garrisons. Often the former were commanded by the counts of the districts. A much rarer occurrence was the general levy, which applied to the entire kingdom and included peasants (pauperes and inferiores). General levies could also be made within the still-pagan trans-Rhenish stem duchies on the orders of a monarch. The Saxons, Alemanni and Thuringii all had the institution of the levy and the Frankish monarchs could depend upon their levies until the mid-7th century, when the stem dukes began to sever their ties to the monarchy. Radulf of Thuringia called up the levy for a war against Sigebert III in 640.
Soon the local levy spread to Austrasia and the less Romanised regions of Gaul. On an intermediate level, the kings began calling up territorial levies from the regions of Austrasia (which did not have major cities of Roman origin). However, all the forms of the levy gradually disappeared in the course of the 7th century after the reign of Dagobert I. Under the so-called rois fainéants, the levies disappeared by mid-century in Austrasia and later in Burgundy and Neustria. Only in Aquitaine, which was fast becoming independent of the central Frankish monarchy, did complex military institutions persist into the 8th century. In the final half of the 7th century and first half of the 8th in Merovingian Gaul, the chief military actors became the lay and ecclesiastical magnates with their bands of armed followers called retainers. The other aspects of the Merovingian military, mostly Roman in origin or innovations of powerful kings, disappeared from the scene by the 8th century.
Strategy, tactics and equipment
Merovingian armies used coats of mail, helmets, shields, lances, swords, bows and arrows and war horses. The armament of private armies resembled those of the Gallo-Roman potentiatores of the late Empire. A strong element of Alanic cavalry settled in Armorica influenced the fighting style of the Bretons down into the 12th century. Local urban levies could be reasonably well-armed and even mounted, but the more general levies were composed of pauperes and inferiores, who were mostly farmers by trade and carried ineffective weapons, such as farming implements. The peoples east of the Rhine – Franks, Saxons and even Wends – who were sometimes called upon to serve, wore rudimentary armour and carried weapons such as spears and axes. Few of these men were mounted.
Merovingian society had a militarised nature. The Franks called annual meetings every Marchfeld (1 March), when the king and his nobles assembled in large open fields and determined their targets for the next campaigning season. The meetings were a show of strength on behalf of the monarch and a way for him to retain loyalty among his troops. In their civil wars, the Merovingian kings concentrated on the holding of fortified places and the use of siege engines. In wars waged against external foes, the objective was typically the acquisition of booty or the enforcement of tribute. Only in the lands beyond the Rhine did the Merovingians seek to extend political control over their neighbours.
Tactically, the Merovingians borrowed heavily from the Romans, especially regarding siege warfare. Their battle tactics were highly flexible and were designed to meet the specific circumstances of a battle. The tactic of subterfuge was employed endlessly. Cavalry formed a large segment of an army, but troops readily dismounted to fight on foot. The Merovingians were capable of raising naval forces: the naval campaign waged against the Danes by Theuderic I in 515 involved ocean-worthy ships and rivercraft were used on the Loire, Rhône and Rhine.
In a modern linguistic context, the language of the early Franks is variously called “Old Frankish” or “Old Franconian” and refers to the West Germanic dialects of the Franks prior to the advent of the Second Germanic consonant shift, which took place between 600 and 700 CE. After this consonant shift the Frankish dialect diverges, with the dialects which would become modern Dutch not undergoing the consonantal shift, while all others did so to varying degrees and thereby became part of the larger German dialectal domain.
The Frankish language has not been directly attested, apart from a minute amount of runic inscriptions found within contemporary Frankish territory such as the Bergakker inscription. The distinction between Old Dutch and Old Frankish is largely negligible, with Old Dutch (also called Old Low Franconian) being the term used to differentiate between the affected and non-affected variants following the aforementioned Second Germanic consonant shift.
A significant amount of Old Frankish vocabulary has been reconstructed by examining early Germanic loanwords found in Old French as well as through comparative reconstruction through Dutch. The influence of Old Frankish on contemporary Gallo-Roman vocabulary and phonology, have long been questions of scholarly debate. Frankish influence is thought to include the designations of the four cardinal directions: nord “north”, sud “south”, est “east” and ouest “west” and at least an additional 1000 stem words.
Art and architecture
Early Frankish art and architecture belongs to a phase known as Migration Period art, which has left very few remains. The later period is called Carolingian art, or, especially in architecture, pre-Romanesque. Very little Merovingian architecture has been preserved. The earliest churches seem to have been timber-built, with larger examples being of a basilica type. The most completely surviving example, a baptistery in Poitiers, is a building with three apses of a Gallo-Roman style. A number of small baptistries can be seen in Southern France: as these fell out of fashion, they were not updated and have subsequently survived as they were.
Jewelery (such as brooches), weapons (including swords with decorative hilts) and clothing (such as capes and sandals) have been found in a number of grave sites. The grave of Queen Aregund, discovered in 1959, and the Treasure of Gourdon, which was deposited soon after 524, are notable examples. The few Merovingian illuminated manuscripts that have survived, such as the Gelasian Sacramentary, contain a great deal of zoomorphic representations. Such Frankish objects show a greater use of the style and motifs of Late Antiquity and a lesser degree of skill and sophistication in design and manufacture than comparable works from the British Isles. So little has survived, however, that the best quality of work from this period may not be represented.
The objects produced by the main centres of the Carolingian Renaissance, which represent a transformation from that of the earlier period, have survived in far greater quantity. The arts were lavishly funded and encouraged by Charlemagne, using imported artists where necessary, and Carolingian developments were decisive for the future course of Western art. Carolingian illuminated manuscripts and ivory plaques, which have survived in reasonable numbers, approached those of Constantinople in quality. The main surviving monument of Carolingian architecture is the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, which is an impressive and confident adaptation of San Vitale, Ravenna — from where some of the pillars were brought. Many other important buildings existed, such as the monasteries of Centula or St Gall, or the old Cologne Cathedral, since rebuilt. These large structures and complexes made frequent use of towers.
A sizeable portion of the Frankish aristocracy quickly followed Clovis in converting to Christianity (the Frankish church of the Merovingians). The conversion of all under Frankish rule required a considerable amount of time and effort.
Echoes of Frankish paganism can be found in the primary sources, but their meaning is not always clear. Interpretations by modern scholars differ greatly, but it is likely that Frankish paganism shared most of the characteristics of other varieties of Germanic paganism. The mythology of the Franks was probably a form of Germanic polytheism. It was highly ritualistic. Many daily activities centred around the multiple deities, chiefest of which may have been the Quinotaur, a water-god from whom the Merovingians were reputed to have derived their ancestry. Most of their gods were linked with local cult centres and their sacred character and power were associated with specific regions, outside of which they were neither worshipped nor feared. Most of the gods were “worldly”, possessing form and having connections with specific objects, in contrast to the God of Christianity.
Frankish paganism has been observed in the burial site of Childeric I, where the king’s body was found covered in a cloth decorated with numerous bees. There is a likely connection with the bees to the traditional Frankish weapon, the angon (meaning “sting”), from its distinctive spearhead. It is possible that the fleur-de-lis is derived from the angon.
Some Franks, like the 4th century usurper Silvanus, converted early to Christianity. In 496, Clovis I, who had married a Burgundian Catholic named Clotilda in 493, was baptised by Saint Remi after a decisive victory over the Alemanni at the Battle of Tolbiac. According to Gregory of Tours, over three thousand of his soldiers were baptised with him. Clovis’ conversion had a profound effect on the course of European history, for at the time the Franks were the only major Christianised Germanic tribe without a predominantly Arian aristocracy and this led to a naturally amicable relationship between the Catholic Church and the increasingly powerful Franks.
Though many of the Frankish aristocracy quickly followed Clovis in converting to Christianity, the conversion of all his subjects was only achieved after considerable effort and, in some regions, a period of over two centuries. The Chronicle of St. Denis relates that, following Clovis’ conversion, a number of pagans who were unhappy with this turn of events rallied around Ragnachar, who had played an important role in Clovis’ initial rise to power. Though the text remains unclear as to the precise pretext, Clovis had Ragnachar executed. Remaining pockets of resistance were overcome region by region, primarily due to the work of an expanding network of monasteries.
The Merovingian Church was shaped by both internal and external forces. It had to come to terms with an established Gallo-Roman hierarchy that resisted changes to its culture, Christianise pagan sensibilities and suppress their expression, provide a new theological basis for Merovingian forms of kingship deeply rooted in pagan Germanic tradition and accommodate Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionary activities and papal requirements. The Carolingian reformation of monasticism and church-state relations was the culmination of the Frankish Church.
The increasingly wealthy Merovingian elite endowed many monasteries, including that of the Irish missionary Columbanus. The 5th, 6th and 7th centuries saw two major waves of hermitism in the Frankish world, which led to legislation requiring that all monks and hermits follow the Rule of St Benedict. The Church sometimes had an uneasy relationship with the Merovingian kings, whose claim to rule depended on a mystique of royal descent and who tended to revert to the polygamy of their pagan ancestors. Rome encouraged the Franks to slowly replace the Gallican Rite with the Roman rite. When the mayors took over, the Church was supportive and an Emperor crowned by the Pope was much more to their liking.
As with other Germanic peoples, the laws of the Franks were memorised by “rachimburgs”, who were analogous to the lawspeakers of Scandinavia. By the 6th century, when these laws first appeared in written form, two basic legal subdivisions existed: Salian Franks were subject to Salic law and Ripuarian Franks to Ripuarian law. Gallo-Romans south of the River Loire and clergy remained subject to traditional Roman law. Germanic law was overwhelmingly concerned with the protection of individuals and less concerned with protecting the interests of the state. According to Michel Rouche, “Frankish judges devoted as much care to a case involving the theft of a dog as Roman judges did to cases involving the fiscal responsibility of curiales, or municipal councilors”.
The term Frank has been used by many of the Eastern Orthodox and Muslim neighbours of medieval Latin Christendom (and beyond, such as in Asia) as a general synonym for a European from Western and Central Europe, areas that followed the Latin rites of Christianity under the authority of the Pope in Rome. Another term with similar use was Latins.
Modern historians often refer to Christians following the Latin rites in the eastern Mediterranean as Franks or Latins, regardless of their country of origin, whereas they use the words Rhomaios and Rûmi (“Roman”) for Orthodox Christians. On a number of Greek islands, Catholics are still referred to as Φράγκοι (Frangoi) or “Franks”, for instance on Syros, where they are called Φραγκοσυριανός (Frangosyrianos). The period of Crusader rule in Greek lands is known to this day as the Frangokratia (“rule of the Franks”). Latin Christians living in the Middle East (particularly in the Levant) are known as Franco-Levantines.
During the Mongol Empire in the 13-14th centuries, the Mongols used the term “Franks” to designate Europeans. The term Frangistan (“Land of the Franks”) was used by Muslims to refer to Christian Europe and was commonly used over several centuries in Iran and the Ottoman Empire.
The Chinese called the Portuguese Folangji 佛郎機 (“Franks”) in the 1520s at the Battle of Tunmen and Battle of Xicaowan. Some other varieties of Mandarin Chinese pronounced the characters as Fah-lan-ki.
During the reign of Chingtih (Zhengde) (1506), foreigners from the west called Fah-lan-ki (or Franks), who said they had tribute, abruptly entered the Bogue, and by their tremendously loud guns shook the place far and near. This was reported at court, and an order returned to drive them away immediately, and stop the trade.
— Samuel Wells Williams, The Middle Kingdom: A Survey of the Geography, Government, Education, Social Life, Arts, Religion, &c. of the Chinese Empire and Its Inhabitants, 2 vol. (Wiley & Putnam, 1848).
The Mediterranean Lingua Franca (or “Frankish language”) was a pidgin first spoken by 11th century European Christians and Muslims in Mediterranean ports that remained in use until the 19th century.
Examples of derived words include:
Frangos (Φράγκος) in Greek
Frëng in Albanian
Frenk in Turkish
al-Faranj, Afranj and Firinjīyah in Arabic
Farang, Farangī in Persian, Faranji in Tajik.
Ferengi or Faranji in some Turkic languages
Feringhi or Firang in Hindi and Urdu (derived from Persian)
Phirangee in some other Indian languages
Parangiar in Tamil
Parangi in Malayalam; in Sinhala, the word refers specifically to Portuguese people
Barang in Khmer
Feringgi in Malay
Folangji or Fah-lan-ki (佛郎機) and Fulang in Chinese
Farang (ฝรั่ง) in Thai.
Pirang (“blonde”), Perangai (“temperament/al”) in Bahasa Indonesia
In the Thai usage, the word can refer to any European person. When the presence of US soldiers during the Vietnam War placed Thai people in contact with African Americans, they (and people of African ancestry in general) came to be called Farang dam (“Black Farang”, ฝรั่งดำ). Such words sometimes also connote things, plants or creatures introduced by Europeans/Franks. For example, in Khmer, môn barang, literally “French Chicken”, refers to a turkey and in Thai, Farang is the name both for Europeans and for the guava fruit, introduced by Portuguese traders over 400 years ago. In contemporary Israel, the Yiddish word פרענק (Frenk) has, by a curious etymological development, come to refer to Mizrahi Jews and carries a strong pejorative connotation.
Some linguists (among them Drs. Jan Tent and Paul Geraghty) have suggested that the Samoan and generic Polynesian term for Europeans, Palagi (pronounced Puh-LANG-ee) or Papalagi, might also be cognate, possibly a loan term gathered by early contact between Pacific islanders and Malays.
Woodruff, Jane Ellen; Fredegar (1987). The Historia Epitomata (third book) of the Chronicle of Fredegar: an annotated translation and historical analysis of interpolated material. Thesis (Ph.D.). University of Nebraska.
Cerdic (/ˈtʃɜːrdɪtʃ/) is cited in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a leader of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, being the founder and first king of Saxon Wessex, reigning from 519 to 534. Subsequent kings of Wessex all had some level of descent claimed in the Chronicle from Cerdic.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cerdic landed in what is today Hampshire in 495 with his son Cynric in five ships. He is said to have fought a Brittonic king named Natanleod at Natanleaga and killed him thirteen years later (in 508), and to have fought at Cerdicesleag in 519. Natanleaga is commonly identified as Netley Marsh in Hampshire and Cerdicesleag as Charford (Cerdic’s Ford). The conquest of the Isle of Wight is also mentioned among his campaigns, and it was later given to his kinsmen, Stuf and Wihtgar (who had supposedly arrived with the West Saxons in 514). Cerdic is said to have died in 534 and was succeeded by his son Cynric.
The early history of Wessex in the Chronicle has been considered unreliable, with duplicate reports of events and seemingly contradictory information. David Dumville has suggested that Cerdic’s true regnal dates are 538–554. Some scholars suggest that Cerdic was the Saxon leader defeated by the Britons at the Battle of Mount Badon, which was probably fought in 490 (and possibly later, but not later than 518). This cannot be the case if Dumville is correct, and others assign this battle to Ælle or another Saxon leader, so it appears likely that the origins of the kingdom of Wessex are more complex than the version provided by the surviving traditions.
Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that Cerdic is purely a legendary figure, and had no actual existence, but this is a minority view. The earliest source for Cerdic, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was put together in the late ninth century; though it probably does record the extant tradition of the founding of Wessex, the intervening four hundred years mean that the account cannot be assumed to be accurate.
Descent from Cerdic became a necessary criterion for later kings of Wessex, and Egbert of Wessex, progenitor of the English royal house and subsequent rulers of England and Britain, claimed him as an ancestor.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a pedigree tracing Cerdic’s ancestry back to Wōden and the antediluvian patriarchs. Kenneth Sisam has shown that this pedigree resulted from a process of elaboration upon a root pedigree borrowed from the kings of Bernicia, and hence prior to Cerdic himself it has no historical basis.
Curiously, the name Cerdic is thought by most scholars to be Brittonic – a form of the name Ceretic – rather than Germanic in origin. The name derives, ultimately, from the British name *Caraticos. This may indicate that Cerdic was a native Briton, and that his dynasty became Anglicised over time. This view is supported by the potentially non-Germanic names of some of his descendants including Ceawlin, Cedda and Caedwalla.
Cerdic’s father, Elesa, has been identified by some scholars with the Romano-Briton Elasius, the “chief of the region”, met by Germanus of Auxerre.
J.N.L. Myres noted that when Cerdic and Cynric first appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in s.a. 495 they are described as ealdormen, which at that point in time was a fairly junior rank. Myres remarks that,
It is thus odd to find it used here to describe the leaders of what purports to be an independent band of invaders, whose origins and authority are not otherwise specified. It looks very much as if a hint is being conveyed that Cerdic and his people owed their standing to having been already concerned with administrative affairs under Roman authority on this part of the Saxon Shore.
Furthermore, it is not until s.a. 519 that Cerdic and Cynric are recorded as “beginning to reign”, suggesting that they ceased being dependent vassals or ealdormen and became independent kings in their own right.
Summing up, Myres believed that,
It is thus possible … to think of Cerdic as the head of a partly British noble family with extensive territorial interests at the western end of the Litus Saxonicum. As such he may well have been entrusted in the last days of Roman, or sub-Roman authority with its defence. He would then be what in later Anglo-Saxon terminology could be described as an ealdorman. … If such a dominant native family as that of Cerdic had already developed blood-relationships with existing Saxon and Jutish settlers at this end of the Saxon Shore, it could very well be tempted, once effective Roman authority had faded, to go further. It might have taken matters into its own hands and after eliminating any surviving pockets of resistance by competing British chieftains, such as the mysterious Natanleod of annal 508, it could ‘begin to reign’ without recognizing in future any superior authority.
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.
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”.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Based on Jones & Mattingly’s Atlas of Roman Britain (ISBN978-1-84217-067-0, 1990, reprinted 2007); Mattingly’s Imperial Possession ( ISBN978-0-14-014822-0, 2006); Higham’s Rome, Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons (ISBN1-85264-022-7, 1992); Frere’s Britannia (ISBN0-7102-1215-1, 1987); and Snyder’s An Age of Tyrants (ISBN978-0-631-22260-6) — 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.
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
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.
The phrase which mentions 40 years has been subject of much scholarly discussion. See Battle of Badon for more details.
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”)
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