The Anglo-Saxon Conquest

The Anglo-Saxon Conquest

As recorded in the previous chapter, the county of Kent was the first part of Britain to fall into the hands of the invaders from across the North Sea; its conquest by the Jutes being apparently complete at the death of Hengist in 488 A.D., He, however, does not seem to have ruled as an actual king, for the Kentish royal house was known as that of the Oiscings, and was named after Oisc who was a son or grandson of Hengist. The great-grandson of Oisc, by the way, was Athelbert I, who reigned over Kent from 560 A.D., to 616 A.D. and it was he who welcomed St. Augustine on his coming to Britain in 597 A.D., and was baptised by him into the Christian faith, which will relate later on.

So much for Kent. Meanwhile, in 477 A.D., a band of adventurers – Saxons this time, not Jutes – under their chieftain, Aella, established themselves on the low-lying headland of Selsey Bill, or rather on that part of it which has now disappeared under the encroaching sea, and, marching inland, captured the ceaster, or fortified city, of Regnum, which was renamed after Aella`s son Cissa, whence its present name, Chichester, is derived. For the next dozen years or so these Saxons worked their way slowly eastwards along the coast, past the later towns of Bognor, Worthing, Brighton, and Eastbourne; and at last, in 490 A.D., they stormed and captured the Roman-British fortress of Anderida, the Pevensey Castle of today, between Eastbourne and Bexhill, and disgraced themselves by putting to the sword the heroic garrison which had held out so long against Jutes and Saxons.

It does not seem that the little kingdom they thus created extended for the present much further inland than the line of the South Downs, but it formed the foundation of the county of Sussex, a name which signifies the South Saxons` land.

Meanwhile, a horde of jutes, following the example of their kinsmen who had settled in Kent, swarmed into the Isle of Wight, the ancient Victis, and established themselves also on the shores of the mainland, across the Solent and Spithead, apparently capturing the Roman-British fortress of Portus Adurni, now Porchester Castle, behind Portsmouth. These people were known as the Meonwaras, and the name still survives in the village of Meonstoke and East and West Meon, a dozen miles/19kms or more inland from Portsmouth.

West of this little state, another group of Saxons, arriving probably just before 500 A.D., founded the afterwards famous Kingdom of Wessex, that is to say the land of the West Saxons. It is thought that the traditional founders of this realm, Cerdic and his son Cynric, are mythical, and that the first historical king of these West Saxons was Ceawlin, who began his reign in 56 A.D., but, be this as it may, the traditional date of Cerdic`s arrival, 495 A.D., may be accepted as approximately that of their original invasion, and added to this, they seem to have belonged to several different tribes, for they are sometimes called Gewissae, which means “allies” or “confederates.” The present King, George V, by the way, is 45thin descent from Ceawlin.

Encouraged by the success of hteir countrymen in this southern part of Britain, further multitudes of Saxons attacked the east coast north of the estuary of the Thames, across the water from the Jutish territory in Kent; and by about 500 A.D., they seem to have taken possession of a great part of the later county of Essex, a name which means the land of the East Saxons. It is true the Aescwin, the first king of this new realm, is stated to have begun his reign in 527 A.D., but there is reason to suppose that the invasion of this area must have taken place a generation earlier than that.

These Saxons must have captured the Roman-British fortress of Othona, the ruins of which are still to be seen at Bradwell-on Sea, 16 miles/26kms north-east of Southend, and the city of Camulodunum (Colchester) was probably in their hands; but London and its neighbourhood seem still to have been held by the British.

So far, all the invaders had come over from the old Saxon lands between the mouths of the Rhine and the Elbe, for, as was said in the previous chapter, the Jutes who captured Kent and the Isle of Wight seem to have been living in the Netherlands, near the Rhine, in exile from their original home in Jutland. But now the tales of the conquest of the rich lands of Britain had spread northwards into Schleswig, where the Angles lived; and these people began to try their luck across the sea.

In two groups they landed on that great headland called after them East Anglia, the northern section establishing the state known as that of the North Folk, now called Norfolk, and the southern section peopling the territory named after them the land of the South Folk, or Suffolk. This was the country of the British tribe of the Iceni, of whom Boadicea had once been queen; and in it were three great fortresses – Branodunum (Brancaster) in the north, Felixstowe in the south, the ancient name of which is not known, and Gariannonum between these two, the ruins of which can still be seen near Yarmouth. All these must have passed into the hands of the invaders, and the British must have been driven back to a line many miles/kms from the coast.

Meanwhile, further bands of Angles had been endeavouring to gain a footing on the coasts of Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire; and here two states were presently founded, that in the north being called Bernicia, and the other, south of the Tees, being named Deira; but it was not until many years later that they become actual kingdoms. Yet other Angles soon penetrated into Lincolnshire, and founded a state now known as Lindsey, while others spread inland and established the kingdom of Mercia, (“Borerland” or “Marches”), which gradually pushed westward into what we now call the Midlands, but for the present was confined to the eastern side of the country.

By the beginning of the Sixth Century the British had been fighting these invaders more or less continuously for nearly 50 years, and they had lost to them all the north-east coast line, and the “hinderland” at certain points, the main parts of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex, and the southern parts of Sussex and Hampshire; and though this length of time shows that the invasion was no walk-over, as is generally supposed, we may assume that the British armies were much disheartened.

Than, suddenly, there was a revival. A great Roman-British leader arose, probably none other then Artorius, the King Arthur of our legends; and under his generalship twelve battles are said to have been fought with the invaders. The last of these was that of Mons Badonis or Badonicus, an unidentified place, apparently in Somerset, whither the West Saxons had made a raiding incursion. This engagement is to be dated either to the year 500 or to 516 A.D., more probably the latter, and it resulted in an overwhelming victory for the British. The Saxons were slaughtered by the thousand, and those who escaped deemed themselves fortunate to be able to cling on to the bare sea-coast and ont ot be driven altogether out of the country.

The British man of letters, Gildas, writing in 545 A.D., states that up till that year the invaders had not captured any territory from the defenders since the battle of Mons Badonis; but the respite did not last very long, and by 550 A.D., or so the advance began again.

The East Saxons, reinforced by hosts of new immigrants, overwhelmed London and pushed up the Thames Valley, where the state of the Middle Saxons (Middlesex) was founded; the South Saxons crossed the South Downs and captured all Sussex; and the West Saxons passed up into Wiltshire and Hampshire, absorbingthe Jutish settlers in and opposite the Isle of Wight, and laying the British population of Dorset under tribute. In the north, too, the Angles pushed inland, and Bernicia rose to great importance under its first King, Ida, whose accession is dated to some time just before 550 A.D. the fighting with the British was here desperate, and at one time the Angles were very nearly driven into the sea. Meanwhile, Mercia was ever pushing westwards into the heart of the Midlands.

Such was the first phase of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain; and by about the year 570 A.D., when what maybe called the second phase begins, the warfare had lasted 120 years – four whole generations – and the British were then in control of about three quarters of the island, while in the conquered quarter as many of them as had voluntarily remained or had been captured, had become slaves of the victors.

In the case of the Angles, or Englisc/English, there had been a complete migration of the whole race – men, women, and children – from Schleswig to the north-eastern side of Britain; and Bede states that in his time (the Eight Century) the former country still remained deserted and uninhabited. But in the case of the Saxons, the migration was not so wholesale: it had at first more the nature of a military invasion and occupation; and hence one may suppose that the south of England today has preserved a stronger British strain than has the north-east.

The second phase of the invasion was introduced by an advance of the West Saxons into the regions north of the Thames in 571 A.D., and this was followed by a push towards the Bristol Channel when somewhere about 580 A.D., a great battle was fought at Dirham, a little village some ten miles/16kms east of Bristol, in which the British leader, Candidanus whom one may call the last of the Romans, was slain, and his army utterly routed. The cities of Bath, Cirencester, and Gloucester fell to the Saxons; and soon the south-western counties had passed out of British control.

Meanwhile the whole of the north-western side of Britain from Glasgow down to Warwick, constituted a British state known as Strathclyde, which lay parallel with the eastern regions held by the Angles; but in 603 A.D., Aethelfrith, the Anglian King of Northumbria, captured Chester, and drove a wedge into the British territories, separating Wales from Lancashire and the north. In 633 A.D., however, Penda, King of Mercia, the new Saxon state formed in the Midlands, joined forces with the British under Cadwallon, and, defeating the Angles of Northumbria, at Hatfield, near Doncaster, pushed them back to the east coast; but in the following year Cadwallon was defeated and killed, and soon the British Kingdom of Strathclyde had lost all its territory south of Westmorland.

Thus, at the end of the Seventh Century, of all England only Cumberland and Westmorland in the north, and Cornwall and a part of Devon in the south, were purely British. These areas, together with all Wales, remained unconquered, but the rest of England was in Anglo-Saxon hands; and at this juncture, after nearly 200 year of warfare, we may leave the long and complicated story of the conquest, and turn our attention to various incidents and events connected with particular parts of the country where actual remains of this epoch are still to be seen.