Did the Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Britain Really Happen?

The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain is one of the landmark events in the history of England. But did the Anglo-Saxons really invade?

Oct 14, 2023By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education
did the anglo saxon invasion happen
King Edgar with the Virgin Mary, St Peter, Christ in Majesty and angels, in Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v, via British Library

 

For centuries, the island of Britain was inhabited by Brythonic Celts. The Celtic language is still present in Britain today but is confined almost entirely to Wales. The vast majority of people living in Britain today do not speak a Celtic language. Rather, they speak English, a Germanic language.

 

How did this situation come to be? For about one and a half millennia, it has been believed that vast numbers of Germanic peoples — the Anglo-Saxons — invaded Britain after the Romans left. But in recent decades, this understanding has been called into question. Many scholars now argue that the Anglo-Saxons did not invade at all.

 

The Traditional Narrative of the Anglo-Saxon Invasion

anglo saxon homelands settlements
Anglo-Saxon Homelands and Settlements, by mbartelsm, 2020, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Before we can really analyze the validity of the objections, we first need to understand what the traditional narrative actually is. In the sixth century, a prominent religious figure named Gildas  wrote a work called On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. According to this book, the Britons were struggling to defend themselves from raids by the Picts and the Scots after the Romans had left their island. Therefore, a tyrant who reigned over the Britons at that time (called Vortigern in later records) invited over Germanic mercenaries to help defend Britain. These mercenaries were the Anglo-Saxons. They were given a portion of land in the east of Britain as well as resources in exchange for their services. But over time, they demanded more resources.

 

The Britons did not comply with these demands, so eventually, the Anglo-Saxon mercenaries rebelled. They laid waste to the British settlements and devastated the country as far as the western sea. This all took place in the fifth century, before the campaigns of a British leader called Ambrosius Aurelianus, whose battles are dated to about 480.

 

The Objection of Lack of Violence and Destruction

anglo saxon burial ground cemetery buckinghamshire
Photo of a large Anglo-Saxon burial ground in Buckinghamshire, via the BBC

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

One of the main objections to this traditional narrative is the fact that there is very little evidence of violence in the archaeology of this era. Gildas’ descriptions make it clear that the Anglo-Saxon conquest was very violent. He describes how human body parts littered the streets of devastated towns, and how many of those who attempted to flee were “murdered in great numbers.” Yet according to archaeologists, there is very little evidence of this. Of the period from 400 to 600 CE, only about 2% of the human remains uncovered showed signs of death from a bladed weapon. This statistic has been used to argue that Gildas’ descriptions are simply fiction, or at least grossly exaggerated.

 

Similarly, there is a lack of archaeological evidence of the physical destruction of buildings and settlements in this period. Gildas does specifically state that the invaders destroyed towns and that the tops of towers lay in the streets. There is an apparent lack of agreement between his descriptions and the reality uncovered by archaeology.

 

The Objection from Continuity

anglo saxon urn fifth century
Anglo-Saxon urn, fifth century, via the British Museum

 

Another objection to the traditional narrative of the Anglo-Saxon invasion is the issue of continuity. Modern research has revealed that there was considerable continuity between Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon Britain. This continuity is evident in a variety of ways. For example, certain pieces of Anglo-Saxon pottery have been found to have been made using techniques that were known by the Britons, but not the Anglo-Saxons. This means that Britons must have been involved in the production of such pottery, showing that at least some Britons lived alongside the Anglo-Saxons. Supporting this is modern genetic research, which shows that a considerable percentage (possibly the majority) of the DNA of modern English people actually comes from the Britons. This disproves the idea that the Britons were entirely slaughtered or driven out of their territory.

 

In line with this, archaeology has shown that field layouts generally continued uninterrupted through the period of the Anglo-Saxon migration. This has been used to argue that there could not have been an invasion.

 

How Much Violence Should We Expect?

anglo saxon burial woman cradling baby
Anglo-Saxon grave containing a woman cradling a baby, fifth or sixth century, Lincolnshire Wolds, via the BBC

 

These are the main objections, but do they stand up to scrutiny? Firstly, let us consider the statistic about violence. Does the fact that only 2% of remains uncovered from the period from 400 to 600 display signs of violence prove that there was no invasion? Simply put, the answer is no. For one thing, the traditional narrative itself explains that the Anglo-Saxons were given land in the east of the country. So we would not expect to find any evidence of violence in the area in which they initially settled.

 

But from there, archaeology shows that Anglo-Saxon material culture spread across a large portion of Britain in a very short time. It covered a substantial portion of what is now England before the turn of the sixth century. If the traditional narrative is correct, then the fighting would have occurred, by definition, only at the border regions between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons.

 

gilling sword anglo saxon 9th century
Gilling Sword, ninth century, via the Yorkshire Museum, York

 

Therefore, we should not expect to see much evidence of violence within a large portion of England that the Anglo-Saxons occupied within just a matter of decades. Any violence would only have occurred during the conquest of that land, but not afterwards. The conquest of that land only took up a very small part of the period from 400 to 600. Thus, it is hardly surprising that so few remains from within that period display signs of violence.

 

Furthermore, the rapid spread of the Anglo-Saxons in the 400s would not necessarily have left much evidence of violence anyway. Gildas explicitly describes the fact that bodies were left on the streets to rot or be eaten by animals. This being the case, probably the majority of people killed in the invasion did not receive a proper burial. The fact that those slaughtered had “no chance of being buried” is actually something that Gildas specifically notes. Therefore, their remains are not available for archaeologists to study.

 

Comparisons with the Roman Conquest

roman britain campaigns first century
Map of the Roman invasion of Britain in the first century CE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Roman invasion is well documented, so it is useful to compare it to the Anglo-Saxon invasion. The Romans invaded Britain rapidly, starting in 43 CE and occupying essentially the full extent of Roman Britain by the end of the first century. Their conquest was even faster than the spread of Anglo-Saxon culture demonstrated by archaeology. So an important question arises: How much evidence of continuity do we see in the case of the Roman conquest of Britain?

 

The answer is that we see substantial continuity. The Romans did not wipe out the Britons or completely drive them out of their territory. What happened was what usually happened throughout history. The invaders attacked and defeated the native armies, and then the settlements from which those armies came capitulated by necessity. In fact, we know from contemporary records that even entire tribes capitulated to the Romans, sometimes before any battles had even been fought. What we certainly do not see is evidence of the entire island going up in flames. So why should we demand that kind of evidence to accept the historicity of the Anglo-Saxon invasion?

 

artist impression camulodunum roman city britain
An artist’s impression of the Romano-British city of Camulodunum, via visitcolchester.com

 

The same issue applies to the continuity of pottery techniques and field layouts. When the Romans invaded Britain, the vast majority of the population did not change. Thus, we obviously find continuity with pre-Roman Britain throughout all levels of Roman Britain. Once again, this is exactly what would have logically happened in the Anglo-Saxon invasion. The only way to have entirely avoided continuity with Roman Britain would have been for the Anglo-Saxons to have utterly wiped out all of the natives. But such an event is extremely rare in conquests throughout history.

 

There is no reason at all to conclude that total genocide is the only possibility aside from the Anglo-Saxons not having invaded at all. Obviously, there is an enormous spectrum between those two options. Using the same logic used in arguments that the Anglo-Saxon invasion never happened, we could argue that the Roman invasion never happened either. Such a conclusion, of course, would be absurd.

 

Contemporary Accounts of the Anglo-Saxon Invasion

saint germanus auxerre selby abbey
Depiction of Saint Germanus of Auxerre, Aidan Hart, 2019, via aidanharticons.com

 

With these objections discarded, the contemporary evidence makes it clear that there really was an Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. Although Gildas is the source that is most commonly used for this event, there are two earlier sources. One is the Life of St Germanus, written by Constantius of Lyon in about 480. This describes the visit of Germanus of Auxerre to Britain in about 430. During his visit, there was a battle between the Britons and the Saxons (aided by the Picts). This contemporary document shows that the Saxons really were in Britain, battling against the Britons, in the fifth century.

 

Our other source, the Gallic Chronicle of 452, predates even the Life. This records a list of events up until the time in which it was written. The entry for the year 441 records the following:

 

“The Britains, which to this time had suffered from various disasters and misfortunes, are reduced to the power of the Saxons.”

 

This chronicle, written barely more than a decade after the year of this entry, states clearly that Britain had become subject to Saxon rule by 441. This description clearly has nothing to do with a peaceful migration, and certainly not a mere adoption of culture. It is the description of a conquest.

 

What Can We Conclude About the Anglo-Saxon Invasion?

sutton-hoo-helmet-steven-zucker
Sutton Hoo helmet, seventh century, British Museum, London, photo by Steven Zucker, via smarthistory.org

 

In conclusion, we have seen that many researchers in recent decades have fought back against the traditional narrative of an Anglo-Saxon invasion. The arguments are mainly based on the perceived lack of violence and the evidence of continuity found in the pertinent era. But the lack of violence can be explained partly by the fact that the majority of the conquest occurred very quickly.

 

Furthermore, Gildas explicitly notes that most people who were killed were not buried, so obviously archaeologists are not able to study those bodies. This issue, as well as the objection of continuity, is also easily cleared up by a comparison with the Roman conquest. That event did not wipe out the Britons or erase their culture. Therefore, rejecting the Anglo-Saxon invasion based on this sort of evidence is not a stance that holds up to scrutiny. The fact that the Anglo-Saxons really did invade and conquer is shown by two contemporary documents, particularly the Gallic Chronicle of 452.

Author Image

By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.