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Adventus Saxonum

(‘Saxon raiders off Beachy Head, southern England 445 AD’ by Robert Sulley[1])


In Britain, the 5th and 6th centuries AD are where things really kick off[2]. The Roman province of Britannia, which encompassed the landmass of modern day England, Wales and parts of Southern Scotland, fell apart in the early 5th century. We go from Romano-Christian civilisation to an age of uncertainty. The central administration collapsed which meant that nothing could be produced, soldiers didn’t get paid and Britain’s defences were wide-open.

It is incredibly difficult to gauge the extent to which the people of Roman Britannia saw themselves as British, Roman or Romano-British. It is also certainly the case that different parts of Britain underwent different degrees of ‘Romanisation’. However, it is safe to say that the breakdown of the provincial government, and the wider collapse of the Western Roman Empire, would have caused many to analyse, and perhaps rethink their identity. Enter: the Anglo-Saxons.

The term Anglo-Saxon is a misnomer for this period. They are only labelled as such in later documentary accounts when identities and kingdoms were more established. At the time of the migrations though, they can be simply viewed as culturally-Germanic migrants who hailed from various tribes and chiefdoms across North-western Europe. Any sense of a shared Anglo-Saxon identity came later, which is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that there were some 7 different ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms during the 6th and 7th centuries. This is hardly what we might call a unified people, but they all emulated aspects of Germanic culture, and appear archaeologically distinct from what came before. What makes the story interesting at this point is that we now have two broad but distinct identities in Britain: Germanic and Romano-British (or possibly just British?). Whether they got along or not is the subject of another blog post, but suffice it to say that, through a process of either assimilation or expulsion, the Anglo-Saxons came out on top and went on to claim vast territories across Southern Britain. And where did the Anglo-Saxon expansion stop? Far, far west; broadly in the area that came to be known as Wales. And what was the Old English word for foreigner? Wealas.

So now you see just how important the 5th and 6th centuries were for informing who we are today. Whether you consider yourself interested in the past of not, about 1500 years ago events were happening which would go on to influence your very sense of identity. If the Dark Ages hadn’t happened, we might have never had the concepts of English or Welsh. The course of history would have been completely different.

Studying the origins of modern European states? Yeah, I can get excited about that.


[1] Courtesy of ‘England and English History’ [Accessed online at http://www. englandandenglishhistory.com/anglo-saxon-history/adventus-saxonum-449-ad-the-coming-of-the-englisc].

[2] Please see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StpbhwYtkF4 for a suitable metaphor.

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