7/13/2011

The Germanic Conquest

About the year 449 an event occurred that profoundly affected the course of history. In that year, as traditionally stated, began the invasion of Britain by certain Germanic tribes, the founders of the English nation. For more than a hundred years bands of conquerors and settlers migrated from their continental homes in the region of Denmark and the Low Countries and established themselves in the south and east of the island, gradually extending the area they occupied until it included all but the highlands in the west and north. The events of these years are wrapped in much obscurity. Although we can form a general idea of their course, we are still in doubt about some of the tribes that took part in the movement, their exact location on the continent, and the dates of their respective migrations.
The traditional account of the Germanic invasions goes back to Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bede in his Ecdesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, tells us that the Germanic tribes that conquered England were the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles. From what he says and from other indications, it seems possible that the Jutes and the Angles had their home in the Danish peninsula, the Jutes in the northern half (hence the name Jutland)
THE HOME OF THE ENGLISH
Note. The location of the Germanic tribes that invaded
England is still a matter of dispute. The above map
presents the traditional view, based upon the rather late
testimony (eighth century) of Bede. An alternative opinion
places the Angles on the middle Elbe and the Jutes near the
Frisians.
and the Angles in the south, in Schleswig-Holstein, and perhaps a small area at the base. The Saxons were settled to the south and west of the Angles, roughly between the Elbe and the Ems, possibly as far as the Rhine. A fourth tribe, the Frisians, some of  whom almost certainly came to England, occupied a narrow strip along the coast from the Weser to the Rhine, together with the islands opposite. But by the time of the invasions the Jutes had apparently moved down to the coastal area near the mouth of the Weser, and possibly also around the Zuyder Zee and the lower Rhine, thus being in contact with both the Frisians and Saxons.
Britain had been exposed to attacks by the Saxons from as early as the fourth century. Even while the island was under Roman rule these attacks had become sufficiently serious to necessitate the appointment of an officer known as the Count of the Saxon Shore, whose duty it was to police the southeastern coast. At the same time the unconquered Picts and Scots in the north were kept out only at the price of constant vigilance. Against both of these sources of attack the Roman organization seems to have proved adequate. But the Celts had come to depend on Roman arms for this protection.
They had, moreover, under Roman influence settled down to a more peaceful mode of life, and their military traditions had lapsed. Consequently when the Romans withdrew in 410 the Celts found themselves at a disadvantage. They were no longer able to keep out the warlike Picts and Scots. Several times they called upon Rome for aid, but finally the Romans, fully occupied in defending their own territory at home, were forced to refuse assistance. It was on this occasion that Vortigern, one of the Celtic leaders, is reported to have entered into an agreement with the Jutes whereby they were to assist the Celts in driving out the Picts and Scots and to receive as their reward the isle of Thanet on the northeastern tip of Kent.
The Jutes, who had not been softened by contact with Roman civilization, were fully a match for the Picts and Scots. But Vortigern and the Celts soon found that they had in these temporary allies something more serious to reckon with than their northern enemies. The Jutes, having recognized the weakness of the Britons, decided to stay in the island and began making a forcible settlement in the southeast, in Kent.3 The settlement of the Jutes was a very different thing from the conquest of the island by the Romans. The Romans had come to rule the Celtic population, not to dispossess it. The Jutes came in numbers and settled on the lands of the Celts. They met the resistance of the Celts by driving them out. Moreover the example of the Jutes was soon followed by the migration of other continental tribes. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle some of the Saxons came in 477, landed on the south coast, and established themselves in Sussex. In 495 further bands of Saxons settled a little to the west, in Wessex.4 Finally in the middle of the next century the Angles occupied the east coast and in 547 established an Anglian kingdom north of the Humber. Too much credence, of course, cannot be put in these statements or dates. There were Saxons north of the Thames, as the names Essex and Middlesex (the districts of the East Saxons and Middle Saxons) indicate, and the Angles had already begun to settle in East Anglia by the end of the fifth century. But the entries in the Chronicle may be taken as indicating in a general way a succession of settlements extending over more than a century which completely changed the character of the island of Britain.

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