The Settlement of the English



This chapter deals with the origins and social conditions of our Teutonic forefathers in the years when they were leaving their homes in Germany and conquering fresh ones in Britain. In the year 731 A.D. Bede, an English monk, who spent almost all his life of sixty-two years in the monastery of Jarrow, near the mouth of the Tyne, completed his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” In it he tells us whence the invaders came, He says –

“The invaders belonged to three of the most powerful nations of Germany, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight. From the Saxons, that is, from the land now called Old Saxony, came the East Saxons, the South Saxons and the West Saxons. From the Angles, that is, from the country called Angeln, which is said from that time to this to have remained uninhabited, and lies between the territories of the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles and the Mercians, and all the races of the Northumbrians, that is, the tribes that dwelt on the north side of the River Humber, and the other nations of the English.”

On the east coast of Schleswig Holstein there is a district still called Angeln lying between the Flensburg and Schlie Fiords. This is only a small part of the district which Bede mentions. The land which our Angle forefathers abandoned was one of marked contrasts. it stretched across the peninsula from the North Sea to the Baltic. On the east coast were softly undulating hills of no great height ; off the shore lay islands. In the poem Beowulf, the scenes of which are laid partly on the Danish island of Zealand, we read how the hero and his companions, as they sailed among the islands, beheld “sea cliffs gleaming, hills towering, headlands stretching out to sea.” Thus an Angle standing on the hills of his east coast must have viewed fine scenery. On the west or North Sea coast it was different. There low-lying shores sloped so gently to the sea, that land and water passed into one another imperceptibly. Tides rolled up over vast stretches of sand and mud to make islands at high water of outstanding hummocks, which rejoined the mainland at the ebb.

To the north of the Angles lay the Jutes, who occupied a country similar to that already described, and endowed the peninsula with its name Jutland.

“According to Bede the Jutes lay in Jutland to the north of the Angles. Archaeologists question this. The have dug into the English graves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and have examined the jewellery and pottery contained in them. The jewellery and pottery of the Jutes differ very much from those of the other two tribes. If Bede is correct, then similar pottery and jewellery should be found in northern Jutland ; but they are not. Contents of Jutish graves in England resemble the contents of graves which have been excavated in the Rhine valley between Coblenz and Dussedorf, and to the east of this. It seems possible, therefore, that here, on the Rhine, and not in north Jutland, lay the early homes of the Jutes. Bede tells us one thing, and the Jutish warrior, speaking from his grave, seems to tell another. At present we know not which is right. See E. Thurlow Leeds, “The Archaeology of the Anglo-Saxons Settlement.”

settlements, however, seem to have been thickest between the Weser and the Elbe, on the edge of the moorlands and heaths, which rise above these rivers.

Evidence for the political and social conditions of these Teutonic peoples is to be found in the Germania of the Roman historian Tacitus and in Anglo-Saxon poems like Beowulf and Widsith. The Germania is a general description of Teutonic tribes. it does not mention the Saxons or Jutes, and has little to say directly  about these Angles. It was written in 97 or 98 A.D., and as the Teutonic conquest of Britain did not commence until about 450 A.D., what its author has to say of Teutonic tribes is by that time three and half centuries out of date for our purpose. In this chapter we shall make little use of it.

Beowulf, on the other hand, describes Teutonic deeds and personages of the late fifth and early sixth centuries, when conquerors were still pouring into Britain. It was composed by a pagan Teuton, and sung in many a pagan banqueting hall. It takes its name from a heroic chieftain, Beowulf, a prince of the Geatas, a tribe who lived in southern Sweden. Its scenes are are laid  in that country and also in the Danish island of Zealand, which lies between Sweden and Angeln, the old name of the Angles. The description which it gives of the manners and customs of the Geatas and of the Danes is probably true of the manners and customs of the Angles also, for all these peoples were Teutons and dwelt hard by each other. The Angles learned the poem, and carried it with them to Britain, when they migrated thither. At some time after the conversion of the English to Christianity, perhaps in the time of Bede, it was written down by some Angle scholar who loved old tales. Since its writing down it may have been revised several times by forgotten English editors before it took the shape in which we know it. Consequently it may give us rather a blurred picture of pagan society in the days when the Angles lived in Anglia, and had not yet conquered England.

Widsith, like Beowulf, was first composed on the continent in pagan days. This poem tells of Widsith, a wandering minstrel, and of the many tribes and chieftains which he professed to have seen. It seems to cantina passages which date back to the fourth century. Like Beowulf, it may have been modified by its editors in such a way as to destroy to some extent its value as evidence for the migration times. None of our authorities can be absolutely relied on when we are searching out the customs of the Teutonic tribes at the time when Britain was becoming England.

There is, however, one outstanding feature of Teutonic society which is vouched for in all our authorities, Germania, Beowulf and Widsith, and that is the war band or Comitatus. Famous chiefs gathered round them from far and near bodies of young warriors, who were attracted by their wealth or prowess, and swore to do their bidding to the death. They were the chief’s “table-fellows,” his “warrior-band,” his “hearth-fellows,” his “gesiths,” or companions of the chase, or over the ale horn. for him they fought, not for their country ; patriotism, as meaning love for native land, was a virtue unknown to them. To take service with a foreign lord and fight on his behalf against the land of one’s birth was no disgrace. To find a lord, and, having found him, to serve him with passionate devotion in all causes, right or wrong alike, to emulate his deeds, to present to him the spoils of one’s prowess, and, in the event of his death in battle, to stand till the end across his body, was to fulfil a large chapter in the Teutonic code of honour. to fail him was to be branded in all lands with cowardice, almost the one fault which no Teuton could forgive. To lose him was to lose everything, but to serve him well was to win all that life had to give. The lord also had his part to do. He provided food and sleeping room in his hall, and for faithful service he gave meet reward. When a gesith or follower grew into well-set manhood he expected to receive an estate whereon to live.

If the poem Beowulf is a safe guide, gesiths received as equipment not merely bright shields, grey-tipped spears of ash, horses and saddlery, but also costly helmets inlaid with gold and surmounted with boar figures, shining corselets of hand-wrought links of steel, swords of famous names, and ornaments of gold and silver. But excavation in the burial mounds of pagan England points to the conclusion that only the greater chiefs and the highest of their gesiths can have had mail shirts or crested helmets. The armour of the rank and file is illustrated by the spoil of many a grave ; for the same instinct that caused mourners of mediaeval times to hang a knight’s armour above their tomb led our pagan ancestors to bury their dead in full war dress. Across the warrior’s legs they placed his shield if linden wood covered with leather, and strengthened at its centre with a boss of iron. Wood and leather have long since decayed, but the bosses have in many cases survived to find places on the shelves of our museums. The helmet was conical in shape. An iron band surrounded the head ; from this rose iron ribs, uniting at the summit. The spaces between were filled in with plates of iron or wood or horn. Of other defensive armour, such as breastplate or greaves of steel shirt, the commoner had none. By his side was placed his spear of ashen shaft 7 feet/2.1m long, tipped with an iron point, and shod with an iron ferrule. Much rarer is the sword from 3 to 3 1/2 feet/0.9m to 1.06m long, “broad, double-edged and acutely pointed.” To carry it was apparently a mark of honour. Instead of it the old English usually carried a two-edged dagger about 18 inches/0.45m long, called a “seax,” from which the Saxons are said to have derived their name. Javelin, bow and sling area all known, but are far from common.

it was bands of gesiths thus equipped that made the Saxon name a terror in the third  and fourth centuries. In the bog of Nydam in Schleswig remains have been found of boats which possibly resemble those in which they made their descents on the coasts of Britain and Gaul. It has been found possible to restore fully only one of these craft. Its timbers are of oak, bound together with rivets of iron. The breadth is 10 1/2 feet/3.2m, the length 75 feet/22.8m. There are 14 rowlocks on each side. The crew must have, therefore, totalled 30 men at fewest, and if the oars were double-banked, which is possible amidships, 50 men may have been carried as a full complement. No traces have been found of a mast. Only daring seamen would have attempted to cross the North Sea in such a craft, but the crossing once accomplished, the boat seems fitted for use on the slow-moving rivers of eastern Britain.

The Teutonic invaders were equally at home on sea and land. They were sailors and soldiers both, and as handy with on oar as with a spear. They knew the North Sea and the Baltic in the gentlest and fiercest moods, and loved them in both. Fear of the sea seems to have been unknown among them. At any rate, it does not appear in their poetry. Sidonius Apollinaris, a bishop of Gaul in the days when the barbarians were breaking up the Roman Empire, wrote of the daring of the Saxons.

“They know the dangers of the ocean as men who are everyday in touch with them. In the midst of tempests, and skirting the sea-beaten rocks, they risk their attack with joy, hoping to make profit out of the very storm.”

Early English poetry of the migration time is steeped in seafaring experience. The poems without doubt were composed by seafarers for an audience of seafarers, and the bard who declaimed them in the warm hall at night time, while his friends passed round the beer mug by firelight and torchlight, was often a sailor himself. In the poem Seafarer he sang to them of the “gannet’s bath,” of the haunting cry of the seamew, of “strait watch kept at night upon the prow, when the vessels rushed along the rocks, and feet were pinched with cold, and fettered by the frost,” of “storms that smote on crags,” and of nights when it snowed from the north. But despite all he cried aloud the sailor’s longing to be afloat again.

“For the harp he has no heart, nor for having of the rings,                                                                                                                                Nor in woman is his weal, in the world he’s no delight,                                                                                                                                          Nor in anything whatever save the tossing o’er the waves!                                                                                                                                      O for ever he has longing, who is urged towards the sea.”

Even after death the ocean claimed these men. The poem Beowulf tells how the dead chieftain, Scyld, was placed upon his ship, which was allowed to carry him out to sea alone. And Beowulf’s own dying request was that his cremated ashes should be placed in a cairn upon the promontory of Hronesness, “that seafaers in time to come may call it Beowulf’s barrow, those who on distant voyages drive their foamy barks over the scowling flood.” His last thought was of the sae, and of the sea in the angry mood in which he loved most to sail upon it

The life on land of the fighting aristocracy is depicted in Beowulf. Young princes travelled to foreign courts to find friends and manners. They sought opportunities to win fame in battle either with their own kind or with savage monsters like the scaly Grendel, of which Beowulf tells. Their nights were up to feasting, to draining the ale-can, and to hearkening to songs of minstrels. A worthy performer with harp and voice found favour from kings. “Whose maketh songs of praise shall have everlasting praise under heaven,” says Widsith. When feast and song were over Beowulf tells how the hall was prepared for rest.

They cleared away the bench boards ; the hall were strewn throughout with beds and bolsters. At their heads they set the shields, the bright bucklers ; there on the bench over each prince plain to be seen was the towering helmet, the ringed mail coat, the shaft of awful power. Their custom was that they were constantly ready for war whether at home or in the field, whatever the occasion on which their liege lord had need of their services.”

The picture has its dark side. Fulsome compliments that no modern stomach could endure were openly passed in public, even when men were sober. Men boasted over the mead bowl of quite impossible deeds. When beer stirred their ruffian souls swords were drawn against kinsmen. When a pattern prince like Beowulf could boast in his dying hour that he had not sworn many false oaths we may be pardoned for supposing that faith were not over-well kept by the majority. “Knife-hatred” starting up between son-in-law and father-in-law, or between nephew and uncle, was no rare occurrence.

But this dark side is not the predominating one, neither is it the one which our forefathers loved. They worshipped passionately such qualities as honour, faithfulness, courage and generosity, and tales which illustrated these found an eager audience. Vices they certainly had, such as brutality, drunkenness and love of destruction, but they wreaked most of these upon their enemies ; they practiced virtues for their friends with a most reckless disregard for self. If the chief, Beowulf, was the ideal of many audiences, he was no ignoble one. When his king died his widow offered him the kingdom, not trusting that her young son, now that his father was dead, could hold the throne against his foreign foes. But no persuasion by queen or by her people could induce Beowulf to supplant his master’s helpless boy. “But he supported him among the people with friendly counsel, love and honour, till he grew older and ruled over them.” Here was chivalry. Most certainly it was loved by audiences in the mead hall, as heartily as the triumph of virtue over vice is loved by the galleries of our present day theatres. Place pagan Beowulf and his peers by the side of Christian Alfred, the highest type of English kingship, and they suffer little by comparison. The test is a severe one. Alfred had much that Beowulf lacked. But both had noble standards of conduct, and nobly followed them.




The chief literary authorities for the invasion and conquest of Britain by the English tribes in the fifth and sixth centuries are Gildas, Bede, Nennius and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We turn eagerly to them for an account of the greatest event in English history, and are bitterly disappointed at the meagre information they afford.

Gildas was a British monk. He was born about the year A.D. 500, and his work “The Ruin of Britain” was written in Latin between 545 and 547, about a hundred years after the English Conquest began. Its author had actually talked with Welshmen who had been victorious in one stage of the struggle against the English invaders. But unhappily for us he did not intend his work to be a history. His object was to write “an admonitory pamphlet” ; he desired to warn the Britons of his own time that God would punish their sins. He intended to prove this from Scripture, but first of all he says he will endeavour, God willing to say something about the history of his country. So in a very few pages he gives a blurred picture of the conquest by the English. Scientific narration of facts is beyond him ; fiery denunciation is this peaceful monk’s strong point. To him the Saxons are “whelps from the lair of a savage lioness,” “wild Saxons of accursed name, hated by God and man.” But we must be thankful for what we can get from him, and bear with him for his modesty, for he likens himself to Balaam’s ass, which drew its master’s attention to the wrath God.

In his description of the years from the end of the Roman occupation to 449 he seems to be concerned more with events in the north and west than in the south-east. He writes that after Britain had separated from the Roman empire ;-

“The terrible hordes of the Picts and Scots eagerly came forth out of the tiny craft in which they sailed across the ocean valley. . . . Differing partly in their habits, yet alike in one and the same thirst for bloodshed, and in a preference for covering their villainous faces with hair rather than their nakedness of body with clothing, these nations seized the whole northern parts of the land as far as the Wall.”

(The Scots sailed across from Ireland, But no one can understand why Gildas makes the Picts come from overseas. They lived in Scotland or Pictland at that time and, of course, could attack the wall by land.)

Gildas pours contempt upon the army that was gathered to defend the wall ; it was slow to fight, unwieldy for flight incompetent by cowardice, and careless in keeping a guard. His criticisms are certainly exaggerated. But the upshot was a British defeat, abandonment of the wall and the cities behind it, cruel massacres, pillagings and famine. For years (Gildas is not prodigal of dates) Scots and Picts held the land and pillaged it, until a remnant of Britons, who had lain among the mountains in  caves an defiles and thickets, issued out, and apparently drove the foemen once more beyond the wall. This victory cannot be dated.

After this Britain seems to have enjoyed some years not only of peace from foreign foes but of prosperity. Although Gildas says nought upon the point, it is probable that many Roman towns, especially those of the south, such as Calleva Atebatum (Silchester), Verulamium (St Albans), Londinium (London), Durovernum (Canterbury) and Aquae Sulis (Bath) were still standing. But many towns of the north and west must have been laid in ruins by this time. Still, we may possibly conclude that down to the year 449 no barbarian invaders had yet settled permanently in Britain. There must have been bravery and military capacity of no mean order existing still among the Britons, for invaders were terrible foes.

But a second stage of invasion was at hand, when permanent settlement of a more dreadful enemy than Pict or Scot was to commence. Teutonic tribes had raided the country many a time before this, but we are now at the point when they began to settle in it ; Britain is about to become England. Gildas does not mention the date, but Bede gives it as 449. Gildas says :-

“There came a winged rumour to the ears of all, that their old enemies the Picts and Scots had arrived, determined first to destroy from one end of the country to the other, and then settle in it.”

In dreadful fear a prince, whom Gildas merely calls “proud tyrant.” but whom we know to be Vortigern, king of south-east Britain, called in the “wild Saxons of accursed name” to repel the northern foes.

“Then there breaks forth a brood of whelps from the lair of the savage lioness in three ships of war. They sailed out, and at the direction of the unlucky ruler first fixed their dreadful talons in the eastern part of the island. To these the mother of the brood sends out a larger load of accomplices and curs, which sails over and joins its vile comrades.”

The subjects of Vortigern supplied these mercenaries with provisions, and these, says Gildas, “closed for a time the dog’s maw.” Later they threatened that, if larger supplies were not given, they would lay waste the whole island.

“They made no delay to follow up their threats with deeds. For the fire of righteous vengeance, caused by former crimes, blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men. And as it devastated all the neighbouring cities and lands, it did not cease after it had been kindled, until it had burnt nearly all the surface of the island and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue. In this way all the settlements were brought low with the frequent shocks of the battering rams. The inhabitants, along with the bishops of the church both priests and people, whilst swords gleamed on every side and flames crackled, were together mown down to the ground, and, sad sight! there were seen in the midst of streets the bottom  stones of towers and of high walls, sacred altars, fragments of bodies covered with clots, as if coagulated, of red blood, all in confusion as if in a kind of horrible winepress. There was no sepulture of any kind save in the ruins of houses, or in the entrails of wild beasts and birds.”

Some of the wretched remnant were seized on the mountains and killed; others yielded themselves as captives; others fled to parts beyond the sea;

“others trusting their lives to high hills and to dense forests and rocks of the sea, remained in their native land, but in terror. At last after a certain length of time the cruel robbers returned to their homes.”

A little less straining after literary style, an avoidance of metaphors, a date or two, and a sprinkling of names would have added vastly to the value of this part of Gildas; but even as it stands it shows the horror of the time. The land seems to have been swept with destruction from the North Sea to the estuaries of the Severn and Dee. Towns which had hitherto escaped were desolate ruins after this foray. The wide extent of territory covered, the destruction of walled cities, and the migration to Armorica (Brittany), which was one result of the invasion, all prove that the attack was carried out by a large host. Much of Roman religion, Roman civilisation and Latin speech which had survived the earlier inroads, must have now been destroyed in the “fire that blazed from sea to sea.”

How long this condition of things lasted we cannot tell. Gildas, with exasperating indefiniteness, says that ” after some time” the robbers went home. This probably means that some of the host retired to Germany with their booty, and that others withdrew to lands in the midlands or east of Britain, which they had acquired by force or treaty, and where they had established permanent homes with their wives, children, slaves and cattle, which they had brought with them from Germany.

According to Gildas the Britons then began to contend on more equal terms with their foes. Ambrosius Aurelianus appears, “who alone of the Roman race chanced to survive in such a storm” From the time of his appearance onward says Gildas-

“the Britons were sometimes victorious and sometimes the enemy. This continued up to the time of the siege of Badon Hill, where almost the last great slaughter was inflicted on the rascally crew.”

It was probably at this time of more equal contest that we must place the victories of Arthur, the famous British chieftain of romance. The victory of Baden Hill may possibly have taken place at Bath, or at Mount Baden in Dorset, in 500 A.D. By this time al the ground which lies east of the Pennine range, of the Severn valley and of a line, drawn from the mouth of the Severn to some point on the coast of Dorset, must have been in English hands.

From 500 A.D. to the date at which Gildas wrote (545 to 547) there was again peace from foreign foes, but the Britons spent their energies, according to Gildas, in civil strife amid their ruined houses. The monk closes his historical preface with lamentations over deserted cities, the disappearance of truth and justice and the “vast multitude that daily rushes to hell.”

Poor as Gildas’ account is, we shall never have a better from so early a source. It is more valuable than the accounts that have come down to us from or other authorities, Bede, Nennius, and the first writer of the Chronicle.

Bede, known as “The Venerable,” was a monk of Jarrow in the county of Durham. he was an Englishman, and lived in the eighth century. Among many other volumes he wrote in Latin about 731 an “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” which is the most valuable document in the history of Anglo-Saxon times. It was written nearly three centuries after the commencement of the English Conquest. But when we look to Bede for a gathering up of English oral traditions still surviving from that great time we are again disappointed. His mind must have been full of them, for in monasteries of the eighth century harpers sang songs about pagan heroes of the migration time, but he seems to have considered the doings of pagan Englishmen, and the sons which commemorated them, as of little account. Thus it comes about that Bede, the father of English history, who was in close contact with the great deeds of our ancestors in the first century and a half after their settlement, has told us almost nothing about them. The valuable part of his work does not commence till 597. His account of the invasion and conquest is based for the most part on that of Gildas, and adds but little to what we know already.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle professes to tell us more, and in reality tells us less. Its earliest compiler was separated by 400 years from the days of the conquest, and what he gives us is bare, unintelligible, and even contradictory. Modern historians look with grave suspicion at all the early entries of the Chronicle. It is clear that knowledge of the origins of some kingdoms had perished altogether from the memory of man at the date (circa 900 A.D.) when the first writer of the Chronicle lived, and that next to nothing at all was known of the rest. What is contained in the very scrappy entries conflicts very seriously with what is told us by Gildas, and therefore, for present purposes, is best left alone.

The last remaining authority mentioned is Nennius, a Welsh monk, who wrote in Latin a “History of the Britons” about 796. The modesty with which this man comes forward to give a history of the misfortunes of his own race, to some extent disarms criticism.    He says:-

“I have to this day hardly been able to understand even superficially, as was necessary, the sayings of other men. But since I had rather myself be the historian of the Britons than nobody, I humbly entreat my readers whose ears I may offend by the inelegance of my words that they will listen with candour to my history. . . . It is better to drink a wholesome draught of truth from a humble vessel than poison from a golden goblet, and I hope the prayers of my betters will be offered up for me in recompense for my labours. I have gathered together all that I could find, not only in the Roman annals, but also in the chronicles of the holy fathers and in the annals of the Scots and Saxons and from ancient traditions.”

He bids us winnow out the chaff from what he writes, and lay up the wheat in our memories. It is good advise, but it is not easy to distinguish his facts from his romances. It is Nennius who gives us the oft-quoted tale of Vortigern, the British king, and of Hengist and Horsa. Those who want to read it again can do so in an English translation. Where it disagrees with Gildas, the latter must be accepted.

To a certain extent archaeology can revive memories of the bygone times of the English Conquest. It tells of ruined villas, of marks of fire on tessellated pavements, of holes dug through decorated floors, of hacked and battered remains of sculpture, of wells filled with all the rubbish of sacked towns and camps, of crocks containing buried treasure, of skeletons found in hypocausts, and so on. No one can doubt that the English invaders had a great love of destruction for its own sake. As we stand on the grass-grown lands which lie within the empty walls of Silchester, a vision rises before us of Calleva Atrebatum, that fair and pleasant town given over to be the lair of wild beasts. The Basilica is roofless, its pillars are level with the ground. The Forum and the streets are grass-grown. Temple and church alike are abandoned to an age-long silence ; the image in the former lies prone. Some smith has left the tools and products of his art, his business, anvils, pincers and other articles to be covered for nearly 1500 years. The town baths are filled with rubbish ; the drains are stopped up. Plaster ceilings are falling to the floors.

It is the same elsewhere. Part of the site of Verulamium has become a swamp ; the rest of the quarry for the Englishmen who live where the modern town of St. Albans now stands. Not a single invalid is to be seen in the streets of Aqua Sulis (Bath) ; the swimming bath is filled with rubbish and masonry.

An English poet of some early date, perhaps the seventh century, has supplied us with a picture of the ruin wrought by his ancestors in a Roman town ; perhaps ha had seen Bath :-

“Wondrous is it wall of stone. Weirds have shattered it !