The Anglo-Saxon story might be said to commence proper with the withdrawal from Britain of the Roman legions 409-10. Of course, there were raids by the Saxons prior to that date, bear witness the stone walled fortifications built, the 'Saxon shore defences' (Litus Saxonicum) of the late 3rd century. The problem was not to go away!
Let us firstly investigate that race of people, some of whom were possibly mercenaries here in the employ of the Romans. Where did they come from? Bede states that they came from the three powerful nations of the Germans; that is, from the Saxones, Angli, and the Iutae. You could do no worse than read the book by the Venerable Bede entitled “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” and Penguin Books have published it in paperback form. It gives an interesting insight to those early days, so recently always referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’. Of the early history of the Saxons, Angles and the Jutes, the Saxons are the least obscure. Tacitus does not mention them, but Ptolemy, probably following a lost authority of the late first century, places them on the neck of the Cimbric peninsula, in the modern Holstein. Two hundred years later Roman writers regarded them as the typical German enemy, and to the Roman world of the fifth century the Saxons were outer barbarians untouched by Roman influences which were already affecting life of even the eastern Franks. Gaul on the south of the Channel would have seemed an easier place to settle, their coastal defences seem to have been less formidable than the Litus Saxonicum per Britanniam. The Saxons were trying to establish themselves in northern Gaul in the mid-four hundreds and in 463 under their king Eadwacer they took possession of Angers, but they were dislodged by Childerich, king of the Franks, acting as an ally of the empire. It seems perfectly probable that the stream of Saxons were diverted to Britain by the extension of Frankish power along the coast of Gaul in the reign of Clovis, and after the defeat of Syagrius in 486 the Franks were definitely the masters of northern Gaul and there was no opportunity for the settlement of other Germanic peoples.
Certainly in the days of Gildas (500-570) our islands were at peace, but within a few years of his death the ‘invaders’ had broken out from the beach heads within which they had been contained for fifty years and were pressing hard against the British kingdoms. Cerdic and his son Cynric had landed on the shores of Southampton water in the last decade of the 5th century and then subsequently pressed northwards into Wiltshire and the area of the middle and upper Thames, then westwards into Gloucestershire and Somersetshire. In the south-west the Saxons had reached the Severn in 577 and finally the defeat of three British kings at Dyrham in that year by Cuthwine and Ceawlin gave the Saxons Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath.
It is generally accepted that the native population of both Britons and Romans were much decimated by a great plague or pestilence (i) (the plague of Justinian, similar to the Black Death in the 14th century, spread by infected fleas/rats), which appears to have spread from seafaring traders from continental Europe bringing the infection with them (542-3). The Plague of Justinian is thought to have killed between 30 million and 50 million people as it swept through Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe - virtually half the world's population at the time. There is evidence of piles of bodies laying on unswept roadsides and streets in British towns and cities, and the native population being thus weakened the advantage swung in the incoming Saxons favour. Briton and Saxon were not unequally matched and the Briton had the advantage of fortified sites unassailable by the enemy, and they had cavalry. Disease therefore seems to have been the deciding factor in the rise in fortunes of the Saxons and this is discussed by Wacher in his book (ii). Also the Britons were at a disadvantage as they had no reinforcements, but the Saxons could call on more overseas help from their people. To cut a long story short this colonisation continued but not without some reversals. The story continued with the Gregorian mission of 597 and the ongoing piecemeal Christianization of Britian. Or perhaps one might say the re-Christianization, since religious toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire was proclaimed by the Edict of Milan in 313, enabled by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great (272-337).
The ensuing history of these islands was complex and torrid, and included much later raids and settlement by Vikings and then by Danes. Anglo-Saxon monasteries were sacked and burnt and the local population slaughtered/enslaved. This may explain rebuilding over time at ancient places such as Jarrow, and Stow-in-Lindsey and other monastic sites.
Notes and references.
i. A History of Medieval Europe, by R.H.C.Davis. Publisher. Longmans, Green & Co. London 1957. pages 61-2.
ii. The Towns of Roman Britain, by John Wacher. 1974. pages 417-20.
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