10 : From Britons to Saxons


West Stow. A Recreation of a Saxon village.

This post  will (I hope) complete my effort to track the population of this sceptred isle. In future posts, I will turn back to the evolution of the landscape through the Middle Ages and beyond.

These are the Dark Ages, so-called not because they were particularly gloomy, but because we don't much about them, filling the gaps by superimposing our current notions on how things are organized around kings, nations and regular armies.

The reality was almost certainly more chaotic. It might be better to think of early England as being a bit like the Congo with weak or non-existent central control, quite tribal with strong family loyalties, informal invasions, lots of refugees and the odd wandering, plundering warlord.

It all started with what appears to have been the takeover of much of this part of the country by a consortium of tribes whose business plan was international expansion. 

Procopius, a historian in the embers of the Roman Empire and thus nearer the action than Bede referred to the inhabitants as being 'Angles, Frisians and Britons. The story of what followed that was taught when I was a kid, was based on the contemporary writings of Gildas, a British monk with an axe (!) to grind.  He tells us that after the Roman administration and defence of the country disintegrated, it came under sustained attack from its neighbours. The local rulers sought help in resisting undeodorised and brutish pagan tribes from across the North Sea. But they simply took advantage, shoving the hapless, insufficiently religious and degenerate Britons into the far west. 

Around this time, to add to the misery, the population was scythed by the varmints responsible for the Black Death a thousand years later. I alluded to this in my previous post. 

Several centuries later another unreliable monkish chronicler, Bede, fingered the perpetrators as Angles, Saxons & Jutes, Germanic tribes who among other things bequeathed us a language. 

In any event, the latest research suggests that it was a good deal more complicated than that. For a kick-off, it is possible that some of the pre-Roman 'Belgic' tribes were Germanic and that this substantial minority would have been added to both by further immigration and the mercenaries and others who arrived with the Romans and who were given land in reward.

Neither is it clear that the Britons in the South East were shoved out. Before the use of genetic evidence and more advanced archaeological techniques, this idea was supported by the apparent absence of Brythonic place names. 

It now appears that for the most part the newcomers arrived as small groups, sometimes bringing the wives, kids and Aunty Hilda, and they lived alongside and occasionally married the locals. The idea that they went on an extended bout of recreational ethnic cleansing is also simplistic. 

Why did they come? Every explanation is contested. The 'push' factor might have been the arrival in Europe of Attila and the Huns, a band suffering from acute drought in their eastern European homelands and who decided to try gigging further west. The tribes they displaced also shuffled westward and some set off for our shores, rather than fall off the North Sea cliffs like lemmings. The 'pull' factor might have been space for all, the population of Britain having been much reduced for the reasons already referred to; but there is evidence of depopulation in other parts of Northern Europe as well. 

Scarier Atilla (A Contemporary Photo) 

The evidence, based in part on genetic research but also on the scanty early records, is that in some places there was conflict and in others there wasn't. And it wasn't the case that a comprehensive Saxon takeover promptly followed a Roman withdrawal. There are hints that St Albans remained in local control for a long time afterwards, and records indicate show Britons coming second in a dust-up near Aylesbury, some 150 years later. 

The overall result seems to have been a mixed population, but how this developed and the nature of the relationship between the groups isn't clear. The English called the Britons 'Wealas' (as in Welsh) which could mean both foreigner (which is ironic!) and slave. Slaves were an important part of their economy. Nowadays, we all think we know what defines a slave. Working for no pay other than a roof over your head and enough to eat makes you a slave. Not earning enough from your daily toil to pay the rent or eat properly, leaves you free! Maybe they simply gauged their (mis)fortunes differently. 

Neither is the place name argument conclusive. While Olde English names predominate, many others seem to pre-date both the Saxons and Romans. Thames itself is one example, London and Chiltern might be others. And maybe we have more Anglo-Saxon place names because the Saxons were keener on creating hamlets and villages? Or do names like Wallington, Waltham and Wallington remember surviving settlements of the 'Wealas'? 

It is complicated by the lens through which we view the past. We tend to identify people by the place they come from, but another possibility is that the settlers identified themselves by the place that they ended up living in. This is quite common. For instance London, north of the Thames, was part of Mercia for a long time and the locals seem to have called themselves Mercians. But Mercia was a political creation, not an ethnic one. The name comes from the Latin word for a border, in this case the Welsh Borders. (Offa, builder of the eponymous Dyke, was a Mercian King. He supposedly had a base at Great Offley on my Lilley Valley Cycle Route and is buried in Bedford). 

An Offa coin 

This short YouTube video gives a good and short summary of the changing pattern of control. Link: England through the ages

If you want a bit more detail on the pagan English period, I found this article useful. 

Link: The Pagan Saxon Period

Scary Saxons? Nice lawn! 
The next major influx was the arrival of Vikings, the nasty Norsemen with horned helmets. There is certainly plenty of evidence of them touring and sometimes settling in Eastern parts, but it seems that as time passed the arrivals were increasingly more likely to be farmers than raiders, came from what is now Denmark and didn't wear horned helmets. Eventually, a treaty between Alfred (blue corner, Saxon) and Guthrum (red corner, Viking)  divided up the country. This is what it said about boundaries:

"First as to the boundaries between us. [They shall run] up the Thames, and then up[e] the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, and then up the Ouse to Watling Street". 

The only known 'real' Viking Helmet. No horns. 

Watling Street is roughly what is now the A5. It was a Roman Road, so presumably still in use, and it tells us that the area the Vikings controlled and maybe settled was to the East of our region. Even there, while its ruling elite might have changed, it doesn't follow that the population was also wholly transformed. Nothing new about that. All over the world, countries are still run by ethnic minorities within them. 

On your travels, when you stand by the River Lea, look eastwards across the water and see if there are more blonds there. Maybe it isn't just the Essex way! 

During the later period, the increasingly mobile population waxed and occasionally waned, affected by changes in the agricultural economy, labour shortages after the various plagues and ever-increasing mobility afterwards. 

So who were the people living hereabouts as the clock ticked towards the arrival of William the Conq. and his garlic-munching mates?   Whatever you make of it all, the end result in human terms is a mixture albeit with a much greater proportion of people from across the water than you would have found in the West of the country. Is that surprising? Will be able to disentangle our own Irish, Eastern European, Asian or African roots in five hundred years' time?  I doubt it. 

I enjoy both a ripping yarn and undermining silly 'blood and soil' narratives. But let's face it, when 'God gave the land to the people', he could usefully have been a tad clearer about which land and which people he was referring to. 

How did they live? As you might expect, they were basically huts and there is nothing readily visible left of them. Thankfully, the patient digging of the archaeologists has resulted in some well-informed recreations so if you want to see what they would have looked like, check out these websites or, better still, pay the places a visit.   

Butser Ancient farm  (Stone Age to Iron Age) 

Flag Fen   (Bronze Age Britons) 

West Stow Saxon Village  (Early English) 

We might have to rely on these wonderful projects to get up close and personal with these ancient ancestors of ours, but their collective impact on the overall landscape should not be underestimated. Even if their cities didn't get anywhere near emulating Byzantium or even Londinium, they built many of the smaller towns and other settlements and ploughed a lot more land. Their legacy, albeit faded, can be seen almost everywhere if you look hard enough. 

So on we go and after this diversion into the people, I can return to the landscape.      (Link)The Lay of the Land


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