Wednesday, July 15, 2020

6th Century Britain – Questions without Answers

By Gareth Griffith

In the age of Google, at a time when physicists are unlocking the secrets of the universe, when there are answers to almost every question, it seems churlish of history to present us with what used to be called “The Dark Ages.” Yet, in respect to Britain at least, that description would still appear to be appropriate for the period between the departure of the Romans, in AD 410, and the 7th century.

Particularly sparse is our knowledge of the 6th century, when the native written evidence is confined to Gildas’ The Ruin of Britain. Gildas was a monk and, as it is often said, his purpose was not to write history but to present a moral and polemical tract addressed to the British kings of his time. It is not known exactly when he wrote, although it likely to have been in the mid-6th century. There is controversy over that issue and also about the interpretation of what he wrote, as discussed, for example, by Guy Halsall in Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (OUP, 2013).

Statue of Gildas - Wiki Commons attribution

That is not to say that archaeologists and historians are completely in the dark about this period of British history, but it is to suggest that the speculative theories and histories of the age have the feel of a parlour game about them – where five archaeologists and five historians are sent out of the room and return with 11 theories of the Anglo-Saxon take-over of lowland Britain. Ideas about how certain Angles and Saxons arrived at and settled one area or another – the Hwicce for instance on the Welsh borders – can be amusingly reminiscent of the brilliant Monty Python sketch, Wrong Way Norris.

Relatively little is known, therefore, about 6th-century Britain and much of what is believed to be known is contested. In terms of literary evidence, according to Peter Heather:
“To supplement Gildas, there are a few more or less contemporary references to events in Britain in continental sources, and some very late, wildly episodic materials gathered together in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” (Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe, Macmillan, 2009, p 272) 
There are more questions than answers, some large, others more specific: Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become British? What was the scale of the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain? Was there a mass migration? Is that process best described in terms of conquest and invasion or more as a transfer of elites, with the indigenous population remaining more or less in place?

Possible 5th-century migration pattern Wiki attribution

In attempting to answer such questions, historians have tended to follow the prevailing fashions of historical analysis. The nineteenth century and beyond leaned heavily on the conquest and invasion model, in some cases as evidence of the superiority of Teutonic peoples over their Celtic counterparts. (B Ward-Perkins, “Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become British?” English Historical Review (2000), pp 513-533) As new aerial archaeological techniques revealed evidence that contradicted that model, the view fell into disfavour after 1945, to be replaced by versions of the elite-transfer theory.

From the view that the Anglo-Saxons basically wiped out or expelled the native British population, the pendulum swung towards the displacement of British landowning classes by an Anglo-Saxon warrior elite, led by those who had served as mercenaries in the Roman occupation of the island. It is a caricature admittedly, but we had replaced blood and iron with something approximating a hippy land-grab. It may be that DNA analysis supports that view, whereby the indigenous population remained in place, merely exchanging one ethnic ruling class for another.

A perennially vexing issue for that account relates to language: as Ronald Hutton writes: “If genetics and landscape studies indicate a basic continuity of population all over Britain…linguistic studies do not.” (Pagan Britain, Yale University Press, 2014, p 295). The contrast with the continent, with France in particular, is profound in this regard. To quote Hutton again:
“Old English replaced both the main languages of Roman Britain – the native Celtic one and the official Latin one – completely in the areas that later became England. It did so, moreover, while taking on virtually no loanwords from either tongue.” (p 295) 
In lowland areas at least, 6th century Britain appears to have witnessed “an absolute and abrupt discontinuity of language and culture,” events which, according to Hutton, are “commonly the hallmark of genocide…” (p 296)

The Aedui chief Dumnorix, Museum of Celtic Civilization, Bibracte
The British may have dressed similarly

Rather than deciding between contrasting viewpoints, Hutton’s main concern is to highlight the problems and discontinuities of evidence and interpretation. Calling it “an extreme state of affairs,” he points out that, in this instance, the material data drawn from archaeology and the textual and linguistic evidence do not fit: “In the case of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the two are at present bewilderingly adrift…” (p 297) One is reminded of the comment made by Nicholas Higham in 1994, in reference to the issue of conflicting evidence, that “it has become obvious that archaeologists are capable of producing an almost infinite succession of models, each of which is more or less incapable of either proof or refutation.” (The English Conquest, Manchester University Press, p 2)

In his 2009 book, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe, Peter Heather draws together the known and the probable facts of the matter. Like Hutton, he accepts that the key questions about the extent and nature of Anglo-Saxon immigration are not answered in any straightforward way by either the archaeological or historical evidence. (p 275) Nor does he think that DNA testing is likely to fill the gap. Decisively rejected by Heather is the “ethnic cleansing” model, which in his view was not remotely possible given the probable number of people involved, perhaps as many as three to four million. But then, there is the linguistic evidence to be considered, which leaves the argument “more than a little stuck.” (p 277 and p 297)

From this starting point, Heather proceeds to confront from what he calls “the intellectual impasse between mass migration and elite transfer originally generated by the limitation of the traditional historical and archaeological evidence.” (p 277) Taking a comparative perspective, he draws upon evidence from the migrations of the period on the continent, which leads him to several conclusions. One is that the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain was a long-term process, a “predatory population flow” that occurred over many generations. A related conclusion is that, notwithstanding the obvious transport difficulties, this gradual migration flow included women and children.

Still, by AD 600 the native British population was likely to have outnumbered the newcomers, possibly by a ratio of around 1:4. With the Frankish model before him, Heather’s argument is that an adequate interpretation of Anglo-Saxon migration must combine elements of mass migration, sufficient to establish linguistic and cultural change, with elements of the elite model, whereby land ownership shifted decisively in favour of the incomers and where the mass of the indigenous population, formerly landed or otherwise, were left to accommodate themselves to these new arrangements of subservience.

Of course, none of this is to maintain that the transformation of lowland Britain was peaceful. It is argued that, from the earliest times, the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons perceived themselves as races apart, with Bryan Ward-Perkins commenting:
“…when both peoples came to summarize their dealings with each other, the picture is straightforward and consistent. Two distinct and hostile peoples fight for the same territory; one of them comes by ship from overseas, and gradually expands its power by conquest; the other resists, with greater or lesser success, and awaits the moment when the invaders can be slaughtered and their defeated remnants driven to their boats and 'sent home' over the sea.” (“Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become British?”, p 516) 
To offer my own historical speculation, it seems likely that the Anglo-Saxon takeover was messy and that it varied from one local area to another, in particular as between what is now south-east and south-west England. Whereas a version of the elite-transfer model may apply to the south-east where the scale of armed resistance from the British may have been minimal in the aftermath of the Roman departure, the story in the south-west may have been quite different, with the Saxon advance being marked by a series of pitched battles until they reached what is now the Bristol Channel towards the end of the 6th century. Admittedly, that account may be disputed. On its behalf, it is at least broadly consistent with the account we find in the traditional interpretation of Gildas and with the admittedly sketchy and episodic entries for the period from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet, from the earlier period of
Anglo-Saxon settlement. Wiki Commons attribution link

Clearly, not everything in those sources can be accepted at face value. But some things ring truer than others. For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a major battle fought in AD 577 just north of modern day Bath. There is no other source for the battle which, if true, broke the land-bridge that existed between the Celtic people of modern day Wales and those of Devon and Cornwall. Possibly, the entry which says that three British kings were killed in the battle, those of Bath, Gloucester and Cirencester, can be discounted as a form of aggrandising propaganda on the part of the West Saxons. It is possible. On the other hand, as Heather acknowledges, it is also possible that these events were recalled with “outlined accuracy.” He writes:
Sometimes, too, the events even make sense against the landscape, notably the battle of Deorham in 577, which is said to have brought Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath under Anglo-Saxon control. A visit to the site, now the grounds of Dyrham Park just outside Bath, is enough to show you why. Set on high ground, it dominates the territory around.” (p 272) 
What is beyond question is that the Britons did not relinquish the western regions of the Island to the Anglo-Saxons without a long struggle. If the details are lost to us, the outline is clear enough. The reported Battle of Dyrham occurred over 150 years after the Romans left Britain, which, if true, suggests concerted resistance on a significant scale.

[This post is an Editor's Choice archive post, originally published on EHFA on 7th June 2018]


Gareth Griffith was born in Penmaenmawr, North Wales, and now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife Sue. His career has encompassed teaching, research and writing, including many years working as the manager of research for the parliament of New South Wales. These days, when Gareth isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, music, dark Scandi film and TV, and Dark Age Britain. Although Gareth left Wales at the age of twelve, Wales never left him, and its landscape and history loom large in his imagination and his storytelling.

Find Gareth on his website:
and on Twitter: @garethgriffith_

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