The Invention of Anglo-Saxon England

courtesy of Wikipedia

In my previous post, I discussed the traditional narrative of the end of Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon “conquest”.

In it, I wrote;

“My assessment here is that the commonly accepted narrative of Angles, Saxons and Jutes arriving under elites, bent on conquest, is wrong and that these elites only emerged from agrarian settlements once immigration had established itself. Furthermore, I would suggest that the actual identities of the “Angles, Saxons and Jutes” are a process of deliberate creation by newly emergent elites during the 7th century, and that these ethnic identities were manufactured in along with the claimed ancestries that the various new Anglo-Saxon elites constructed to claim traditional rights of leadership.”

I thought that I would expand upon this because it needs explanation.

Much of what we know about how the Anglo-Saxons saw their past comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a document that exists today only as copies of lost originals. It is commonly thought that the Chronicle was started in 9th century Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great.

As with all ancient texts, one needs to look at the contents critically and seek corroboration elsewhere. Also, as is common in such texts, the contents can be read as panegyric rather than as simple objective reporting. The Chronicle is biased towards Wessex, hardly a surprise as the texts were the product of the Wessex kingdom.

Another key text is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This was composed in the 8th century and is primarily concerned with the triumph of Roman Christianity over the native Celtic Church. It is written from the perspective of a Northumbrian writing in such a way as to promote the importance of the Northumbrian kingdom over that of Mercia.

Therefore, without going into too much analysis of these texts, we can see that history written during this period served the purpose of supporting the claims of various dynasties and royal lineages.

So, if we assume that in the early period, the Germanic arrivals in Britain were not the rapacious warbands of traditional narratives, where do we begin?

As I said before, it is my contention that the separate identities of Angles, Saxons and Jutes were a product of peoples who had already settled in Britain. Specifically, they were a product of social differentiation and the development of ruling elites.

In the 12th century Historia Anglorum of Henry of Huntingdon we first encounter the idea of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, or Seven Kingdoms. These were named as being East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Kent, Mercia and Northumbria. This division was somewhat arbitrary as it did not include any of the post-Roman British, Irish and Pictic political entities that also existed. It also ignores many smaller Germanic polities which were later absorbed by the more powerful kingdoms.

So, what we see when looking at what was to become England is a patchwork of small political units, some of which were able to expand and dominate over the centuries before the Norman Conquest at the expense of others.
So, how did these “kingdoms” develop?

I would suggest that by the later 6th century, the early Germanic arrivals began to become stratified into social hierarchies, based upon wealth from trade and conquest, as well as from the extraction of surpluses from farms.

As elites began to emerge, those elites would draw upon claimed ancestries to bolster their authority and right to rule. We see a similar process elsewhere. Most king lists throughout antiquity originate from mythological and legendary beginnings. We see this in the Near East, in pre-Classical Greece, in Rome and among the barbarian confederations of Late Antiquity.

If we take the example of Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic King of Italy, he claimed descent from the Amals, allegedly one of two “royal” houses of the ancient Greuthungi and Tervingi.

However, we have no real evidence that this family ever actually existed at all past one or two generations. What we have is a claim to ancestry. However, Theodoric was a successful leader and a great warrior. If he was able to proclaim his illustrious ancestry, who would nay-say him, particularly if association with the Great Amal would lead to personal advancement, power and wealth?

It seems to me that the rulers of these early Germanic-speaking settlers in post-Roman Britain most likely followed a similar process and invented spurious ancestries for themselves. Once a leader emerged who commanded a band of warriors and who was successful and was able to extract tribute from those he dominated, he would then be able to claim that his right to rule was not based merely upon the power and success of his fighters but also upon his descent from some legendary figure from the past. After a couple of generations, who would be able to argue that the local elite was not really from a notable family that had been powerful since time immemorial. After a century of such claims, the evidence would be almost unassailable, especially once the ruler was able to employ chroniclers, issue coins and frame laws, often invoking Roman titles such as Dux or even Imperator.

Once the ruling elite was able to claim descent from the ancient “kings” of the Jutes or Angles, or some similar group of people, it was then possible to claim that the people over which his family ruled were also descended from the ancient Jutes or whatever and they they had accompanied his illustrious, but totally spurious ancestor across the sea in his ships to carve out his kingdom by wresting it in battle against the degenerate remains of the once-mighty Romans of Britain.

We can see this something of this in the claimed history of the Royal House of Wessex. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cerdic was the founder of the House of Wessex, arriving in Britain at the end of the 5th century with five ships of followers, who fought the British and gained lands. However, as I have already mentioned, the Chronicle dates from 9th century Wessex and was written during the reign of Cerdic’s supposed descendent, Alfred the Great.

Can we say, given the intervening four centuries, that the authors of the Chronicle were writing actual history or merely reporting on legend? Even the name Cerdic seems odd. It is not actually a Germanic name, it is a corruption of the British Caradoc, or Caractacus in Latin. Also, the Chronicle gives Cerdic a spurious family tree that stretches back to the Germanic God Woden.

I would suggest that the Saxon House of Wessex may well have arisen, not from a conquering Germanic warlord, but from a British ruler who gathered a mixture of British and Germanic people around him and who was able to create a unified political entity that was a fusion of locals and immigrants.

If this is the case, perhaps what we see in the development of the Englisc people is a process of cultural blending, with emergent rulers using their personal prestige to promulgate invented pedigrees that claimed origins in the dim and distant past in a presumed (and possibly imaginary) European mainland homeland.

A similar question mark must be placed over the existence of Aelle of Sussex, supposedly a 5th century Saxon who fought the British and created a South Saxon kingdom which was powerful enough to claim a imperium over the other Germanic “kingdoms” of 5th century Britain.
The earliest mention we have for Aelle is in Bede and later in the Chronicle. He is not mentioned at all by Gildas, who would have been his near-contemporary.

That is not to say that there was no South Saxon leader who was able to create some kind of political unit in what is now Sussex, merely that we should look closely at the sources and, in my opinion, take a minimalist approach to their veracity.


2 thoughts on “The Invention of Anglo-Saxon England

  1. this approach is so more realistic that the historic vieuw based on myths.
    But the downside is that it is more boring then fabled heroic stories.
    As a history teacher one would not become very populair telling the class that they are more likely to decent from “illigal immigrants” of the 5th century, not much unlike those of the 21th century, then of coonquering heroes.

    • Well, as a history teacher, one is supposed to deal in facts rather than myths, surely? In any case, the concept of legal and illegal immigration is pretty much a 20th century one, wouldn’t you say? Nation states didn’t exist in the 5th century and, in the period of the 5th and 6th centuries populations were far more fluid, because of the huge movement of peoples. The very concept of ethnicity was also a fairly fluid concept, with people being liable to assume whatever ethnic trappings seemed the most appropriate to the circumstances in which they found themselves. I’d say that you could build some fascinating history lessons around the construction of national origin myths and the purposes to which these could be deployed, both nowadays and in the past. One might also have some interesting discussions around assumed ethnic identities as opposed to modern nationalities.

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