Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Old English: A Historical Background - From Groaning To Invasion

 (Author's note:  History is a wide ranging discipline which in some senses can be fluid as we learn new things and in some cases is solid as we choose to interpret events and findings in light of our own day, not the day in which it happened.  Individuals spend their whole lives studying these things.  My very concise overview is meant as nothing more than that:  an overview to give background.  All errors and omissions remain my own.) 

Once upon a time in the not too long ago, English School children and those that derived their existence from English history learned that the Anglo-Saxons invaded the island of Britain in 449 A.D., where they effectively moved in and took over everything.

As usual, the truth is somewhat less well defined.

Map of Britain 450-475 A.D. - Source

Whether the Romano-Britons of 446 A.D. heard a response from the Emperor about the status of their land (The Groans of The Britons) or not is not recorded for us.  What is recorded is that actions that they took, which suggests the response was either "Look to your own defenses" or simply no response at all. So look to their own defenses they must.

The ongoing rebellion of the already hired Anglo-Saxons meant that hiring additional Angles and Saxons might not be a good idea.  The shadowy figure of Vortigern appears again when, to repel an attack of Picts to the North, he hires a different set of Germans, the Jutes (perhaps so-named from the Jutland peninsula) to assist.  We have the names of these leaders, Hengist and Horsa, although we have no idea if they really existed or were mythical figures (the word "hengist" in Anglo-Saxon is one word for "horse").  

Hengist and Horsa may not have been real.  Their landing in Kent likely was.

It does not seem that they were allies of Vortigern for long.  In 455 A.D. they are recorded as fighting with Vortigern.  Hengist was allegedly slain; Vortigern also falls out of the few records we have of him, perhaps slain as well.  

Map of Britain 475-500 A.D. - Source

From these humble beginnings, the true invasion of Britain commenced.

Initially the Romano-Britons had a hard go of it.  Theirs initially is a history of defeats of four battles over 25 years (456 A.D to 473 A.D.) - which perhaps makes sense if we look at the wider historical record:  the invaders (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) had the ability to come and go at will and seek allies as their highway, the sea, was to their backs; the Romano-British had no such ability.

And then, something of a miracles happened: There was a Romano-British resurgence.

Map of Britain 500-550 A.D. - Source

All of our written knowledge of this comes from the monk Gildas, writing in the 550's A.D.  He states that a leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man he calls the Last of Romans in Britain, born to a family that "had worn the purple", lead a counterstroke and heavily defeated the combined Germanic armies at a battle called Mons Badonicus.  We do not know where this battle was, or specifically when it was, (although Gildas writes that even in his day, there was still peace from this battle, so the estimates run from 486 A.D. to 516 A.D), or even what the impact was from the battle, except that it halted the advance of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes for a generation.

Ambrosius is a mystery as well:  we know nothing about him, his origin, or his ultimate fate.  We do know of him from legend, as his is the most likely origin story for King Arthur.

Map of Britain 550 - 575 A.D. - Source

But the tide, once started, could not be turned back.  In 552 A.D., the Saxons won a victory at Old Sarum.  in 556 A.D. they won again at Barbury.  In 571 A.D. they won again, taking parts of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire.  In 577 A.D. they took Glouceaster, Circenceaster, and the old Roman town of Bath.  They pushed north as well, winning parts of Northumbria in 590 A.D. and engaging directly with and defeating the Scots in 603 A.D.  By the time of St. Augustine's visit in 597 A.D., most of the middle and Southern part of Roman Britain had been conquered.

Map of Britain 575 - 600 A.D. - Source

What of the remaining Romano-British?  Some of them fled - first likely farther west into what would become Cornwall and Wales.  Some fled even further; the Byzantine historian Procopius writes from Byzantium that word of refugees fleeing from Britain to the old Roman province of Amorica reached their ears.  The province, depopulated by previous invasions and plague, became the province of Brittany (and explains why a Celtic language still exists in France).  The immigrants brought not only their language but their names as well:  Two of the Atlantic provinces were name Cornouaille ("Cornwall") and Domnonea (Devon), reflecting very directly where they had come from.


But for the Romano-Britons, this would begin their long, slow retreat the Celtic Fringes of Europe.  The future of Britain, or as it was coming to be known, Engle-land, would belong to the invaders, who would have little understanding of the history that had come before them, coming to believe that giants had built the great ruins they wandered among; it was impossible that men could have done such a thing.

Works cited:

Blair, Peter Hunter:  Roman Britain and Early England 55 B.C. - A.D. 871.  WW Norton and Company:  London, 1991.

Nicolle, David:  Arthur And The Anglo-Saxon Wars.  Osprey Publishing:  Hong Kong, 1984

Alcock, Leslie:  Arthur's Britain.  Penguin:  Great Britain, 1971

Wikipedia:  Amorica, Groans of the Britons


  1. Thank you for this TB. I've had various historical tidbits scattered about my brain for years, and you've managed to help me put those pieces together.

    Your mention of the ruins and giants in the last paragraph is especially intriguing, but I think the most appropriate takeaway is that invaders and conquerors never seem to regard the history of their object of desire.

    1. You are welcome Leigh - Frankly, this is fun (also, a lot of work).

      The ruins and giants is not totally an original thought with me. There is an Old English poem entitled "The Ruin" in which the author ponders a Roman ruin and about those that built it.

      Invaders and conquerors more often than not plough under the history in their quest to conquer, and replace it with their own.

  2. Nylon124:00 AM

    A solid informative post TB from this old history major. Let's hear it for Osprey Publishing!

    1. Thank you Nylon12! I worry I am excluding too much in this very high level review (ah well, I can always go back).

      Osprey Publishing books are always on my list of every used book store I go to. They are not all of the same quality, but they are a reliable go-to source of history.

  3. Fascinating look at a very interesting period of history.

    1. Thanks Sarge (high praise coming from you)! It is hypnotically interesting, and there is so much that I feel like I am not covering (my knowlege, for example, of the Celtic speaking peoples that became the Cornish and Welsh and the lowland kingdoms of Strathclyde and Cumbria is almost nil).

  4. If only there was enough time to do a deep dive like this into the history of every country!

    1. That's why this dovetails so nicely with genealogy. People can't help but uncover regional history as they research their ancestral origins.

    2. Ah Ed, if only we were independently wealthy and could spend the time. It is like a very good form of drug addiction.

      A very large part of my pre-U.S. arrival family on my paternal side was from England, but that is about all we know.

    3. Leigh, on my mother's side we have some level of evidence that we were descended in some form from one of the border clans between England and Scotland (on the Scottish side) and from another branch served as the hereditary war chiefs to one of the Lords of County Claire Ireland. Things like that make me all the more interested.

  5. Anonymous9:17 AM

    I would suggest a DNA test. What I had been told by aunt (b 1894) from grandmother who arrived at age 2 in 1852 was entirely incorrect. Son was curious so we both took the test. This was followed by meeting 2 unknown brothers at age 54. No longer an only child! A member of that family sent me our lineage dating back hundred of years. Only interesting piece was my 9X great grand loaned the money to build the Mayflower. And sometimes family lore bears out fruit.

    1. I have played with the idea off and on but never taken the plunge. From historical records, we can get back to at least the early 19th Century with a passenger log from Ireland.

  6. One of the courses I took as an undergrad was the second in a five semester series, History of Medieval Philosophy. Introduced as "Welcome to the worlds most boring course", it was anything but boring to me. He also said in that introductory lecture that there was a medieval tradition we could all appreciate, that the first lecture of a course was the "lectura brevis", and he turned us all out early.
    What became clear in the class was that the "dark ages" are only seen as such from our perspective, in that we have so little written record passed to us. A fascinating little book I can recommend is How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. St. Augustine features large in the story, as well as St. Patrick, and gives a good account of why the Irish have featured missionary work so much, from Roman times to the present day (my elementary years having Irish priests and nuns in abundance).
    While the Romans never occupied "Hibernia", the cross-cultural influences went every which way over the centuries in the chaotic history of the British Isles.

    1. Greg, I have that book and have enjoyed it very much (he says to himself; should probably add it to the re-read pile this year). We owe a great debt to not only the Irish but the entire monastic community, which provided much of what we have left of the Ancient World.

      Even in reading the books of the Ancient World, we find how much was lost. Diogenes Laertes in his book Lives of Eminent Philosophers lists volumes and volumes written by ancient philosophers which are lost to the ages.

      Which, by the way, is yet another reason I fear modern technology. We are very close to having the power go out an losing 4000 years plus of civilization, locked in web servers and on hard drives that would not be able to be accessed.


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