After the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, first spurred by the Visigothic sack of Rome in AD 410 followed by the collapse of the western Empire in AD 476, a cloud of darkness overcame the island of Britain. Very little writing or culture emerged as the world of the Britons became immersed in constant war. The bloody and murderous assaults were regularly perpetrated by the Picts and the Scots as they overran Hadrian’s Wall and fought the kingdoms of the Britons. However, a growing threat also emerged from the East: the seafaring Germanic warring culture known as the Saxons. Amidst this hazy picture of anarchy, Winston Churchill notes, there were four windows into a “dim and coloured glass” offering us a glimpse into what truly happened between the Britons and the Saxons: Gildas, Bede, and then much later, the Historia Britonium, and the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The first writer who documented the destruction of Britannia by the Saxons was Gildas “The Wise.” In the 6th century, he penned a diatribe from the perspective of the Britons entitled De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (or “On the Ruin of Britain”). Gildas was a monk and his Latin text is composed of a series of sermons condemning many of the political and religious leaders of post-Roman Britain. In contrast, nearly 200 years later, from the perspective of the invaders, the Saxons, came the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede was a provincial Anglo-Saxon monk from Northumbria, born in 673. He was sophisticated and well-educated and his chronological history is sober and reflective, with just a hint of contempt for early Britain. Still the haze enveloping this epoch makes it difficult to discern truth from fiction. Hundreds of years later Geoffrey of Monmouth celebrated this era for its fabled aristocracy, chivalry, Christian faith, knights and ladies and so on. Out of the cloud of this mist emerged the legend of King Arthur, a defiant British king who upheld the chivalrous customs of his ancestors while defending his kingdom against the Saxons. King Arthur was made popular in the chivalric romance tradition, and his story is echoed in the writings of Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory.
How did the Saxons ultimately succeed over the Britons? After many years of coastal raids along the British isle, Gildas writes of how a naive king of the Britons, King Vortigern (“Mighty king”), was in need of military support to defend against the Picts and the Scots. Finding no help from Rome, he regrettably called upon the Saxons, led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Vortigern fatefully invited them to the British island like a Trojan Horse being led across their network of coastal defenses. The Saxons were lured with the promise of payment in exchange for military support. However, in the absence of Roman bureaucracy, payment was difficult, slow, and not always accurate. Money became a growing bone of contention between the Britons and the Saxons. Thus, the Saxons soon turned their swords against the Britons, and eventually an all-out war erupted. Whole towns were sacked and entire populations were horrendously murdered across the entire island. Scores of Saxons flooded into Britain. The invaders were merciless, running naked through the countryside, sparing none, slaughtering all. Where once stood walls and roads, now sat piles of human bodies, toppled architecture, and scattered limbs with blood lining the roads and villas. However, at the Battle of Mount Badon (late 5th or early 6th century), one lone British royal hold-out secured a victory under the military guidance of Ambrosius Aurelianus around AD 490. But by the end of the 6th century, almost everything south of Hadrian’s Wall had been completely re-populated by Saxons.
From the opposite perspective, Bede tells us of three primary Germanic groups who invaded Britain: the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. They were a mostly egalitarian people without kings, ruled by blood and kin. They were part of the greater diaspora of Germanic tribes, forever the enemies of Rome. Their German homeland lay on the plains between the River Elbe to the east and the River Ems to the west in a region still known as “lower Saxony” (Neidersachsen) in present-day northern Germany. For the Saxons, the tribe was the family unit and money was the supreme law, and the position of king grew in purpose and authority following their invasion of Britain. Upon the takeover of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons began creating feudal hierarchies intended to dominate their subordinates. Saxon leaders began referring to themselves as rex (“king”) and new laws were created. Much of the ethnographic information on the Germanic tribes, like the Saxons, comes down to us in the writings of the late Roman aristocrat, Tacitus because the Saxons were illiterate.
The Saxons had no cities and they disliked close neighbors. They lived in a smattering of hamlets throughout the countryside. Their houses were made of wood and their garb was simple, muted.
There is a rousing debate that continues to this day between whether the invading Saxons wholly exterminated the native Britons or instead intermingled and reproduced with at least some of them. I tend to agree with the latter -there is enough evidence to suggest the Saxons kept some living Welsh noblemen on their lands, and they likely took some British women as concubines. However, the overwhelming majority of the Britons were wholly massacred by the Saxon incursion.
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the writings of Gildas, the Venerable Bede, Historia Britonium (perhaps written by Nennius), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Tacitus, and Geoffrey of Monmouth.