The Conquest of Britain by the English

The Conquest of Britain by the English


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 he had seen Bath :

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

Broken are the burg-steads! Crumbled is the giants’ work.

Fallen are the roof beams; ruined ate the towers;

All undone the door-pierced towers; frozen is the dew on their plaster.

Shorn away and sunken down are the sheltering battlements.

Underneath of old age! Earth is holding in its clutch

These the power wielding workers; all forlorn are they, forlorn in death are they!

Many  were the mead halls, full of mirth men,

Till the strong willed Wyrd* whirled that all to change!

In a slaughter wide they fell, wofull days of bale came on;

Famine death fortook fortitude from men;All their battle bulwarks bare foundations were!

Who set up again the shrines! So the halls are dreary,

And  this courtyard’s wide expanse! From the raftered wood work

See the roof has shed its tiles! To ruin sank the market place.

There the stone courts stood; hot surged the stream,

With a widening whirling; and a wall enclosed it all

With its blossom bright. There the baths were set

Hot within their heart; fit for health it was!”