The First Arrival of the Invaders


( Pegwell Bay, Ebbsfleet, Richborough Castle, Aylesford, and other places in Kent/Cantwara ).

At the time when the east and south coasts of Britain first began seriously to be invaded by our forefathers from across the North Sea, our country was a very well-behaved and orderly part of the Roman Empire; yet beyond Hadrian`s Wall it was still a place of hostility towards the Romans, but within our highly cultured British forefathers, who were Christians and who were very proud of being Roman citizens, contemptuously regarded the invaders both as heathens, which they certainly were, and as savages, which as certainly they were not.

The British upper classes in those days were thoroughly Romanized, were partly of mixed “Roman” blood, and spoke the Latin tongue; and throughout the country there was that same degree of civilization, prosperity and comfort, which was to be found in other parts of the Empire. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that they regarded the new-comers as barbarians, especially as the actual invasions were preceded by piratical raids of a freebooting character. A Roman poet described these new enemies as “fierce beyond other foes, and cunning as they are fierce: the sea their school of war, and the storm their friend”; and the contemporary British writer, Gildas, calls them “cubs from the lair of a barbarian lioness.”

This Gildas is largely responsible for the spreading of the idea that the invaders were a barbarous people. He speaks of “the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and man”, and he describes in terrible words the slaughter they perpetrated, he being their bitter enemy. Nevertheless, the weapons, utensils, jewellery, and other objects left by the first Anglo-Saxon settlers proved beyond doubt that they were a people of high culture; and their early conversion to Christianity, which was completed without the martyrdom of a single missionary, and the beauty of the lives of many of their first princes and holy men, show that they were very far from being savages.

The piratical raids which preceded the main migrations began as early as the last years of the Third Century A.D.; and by the year 368 A.D., they had become so frequent and so audacious that a great Roman General, Theodosius, was sent to Britain with a large army to meet the menace, and succeeded in driving the raiders back across the sea. All along the coast from Norfolk to the Solent there were now great forts, where troops were stationed to guard the shores against attack – you may see them still standing at Yarmouth, Richborough, Pevensey, Portsmouth, and elsewhere; and by the beginning of the Fifth Century the famous Second Legion, Augusta, which was recruited on the Rhine, had been transferred from South Wales to Kent, while a mixed collection of Belgians, Gauls, Dalmatians, and other auxiliary forces was spread along the menaced coast, it being the Roman custom to garrison each province of the Empire with regiments from another province, the British troops, therefore, being then stationed for the most part abroad.

It is very possible that a certain number of “Saxons” had already settled in East Anglia in the Fourth Century, or even in the Third; for in Suffolk and Essex there is a smaller proportion of Celtic or British place-names than in any other part of the country, which suggests a longer foreign occupation of those parts. Moreover, we have the curious fact that around Boulogne and in certain other areas of the French coast there are many pure Saxon place-names to be found, such as Bazingham, Ballinghem, Erringhem, and Masinghem, corresponding to the Anglo-Saxon place-names Bassingham, Ballingham, Erringham, and Massingham in England; and as no such Saxon settlement in France is known to history, the inference is that it took place in very early times, which leads one to suppose that certain settlements in England are also of early date.

Be this as it may, at last there came the days when the Roman armies began to be withdrawn from Britain to fight the battles of rival Emperors on the Continent, and to meet the menace to Rome itself; and when the raiders discovered that the defence of the coast had thus been weakened, they renewed their onslaughts on a larger scale. At the same time the country was attacked by tribes from beyond the great wall of Hadrian which ran across Cumberland and Northumberland from sea to sea, and by piratical bands from Ireland; and thus the British people had to organize themselves to meet invasion on all sides without the aid of Rome.

The tale which the history of this period has to tell is one of the long drawn-out struggle of the Romanised Britons to beat off these attacks, to uphold their comfortable civilization and their time-honoured institutions, and to maintain themselves as a part of the crumbling Roman Empire; and since we today are descended from both defenders and attackers, we may watch the ding-dong fight with divided interests, and may freely give credit to both sides for the bravery and persistence they displayed.

The lands from which the Germanic invaders came lay along those sea-girt shores which pass from Denmark through Schleswig to the Netherlands. To the Roman these tribes had long been known as “Saxons,” but actually they belonged to three nations – the Jutes in the north, the Angles in the middle, and the Saxons in the south, while it seems likely that a fourth people, the Frisians from the neighbourhood of Holland, were also involved. Of these peoples the Angles, or Englisc/English, appear to have been the most powerful; and the comparatively modern term “Anglo-Saxon” may be said to have been designed to indicate that while they all belonged to the tribes loosely described as Saxons, the Anglians element played the most important part in the movement.

The first definitely known group of these people to come to Britain not as raiders but as adventurers prepared if necessary to stay, consisted to three shiploads of Jutes who are said to have been exiled from their own country, and, indeed, seem to have been living for some time near the mouth of the Rhine, and who, under the leadership of two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, arrived out of the blue about the year 450 A.D., when Valentinianus III was Emperor. They landed in Pegwell Bay, Kent, at the spot called in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Ypwinesfleot, and now named Ebbesfleet; but the sea since then has receded, and between that place and the present beach there is a mile`s breadth of reclaimed land across which runs the main road from Sandwich to Ramsgate.

Here in those days, there was a navigable waterway cutting right through to the estuary of the Thames, and at high tide the water completely separated the rising ground of Thanet (where now stand Westgate, Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate) from the mainland of Kent. Away to the left, across this channel, or across the narrow fairway and the broad mud-flats laft there when the tide ebbed, stood the Roman fortress of Rutupiae upon a sandy hillock. The ruins of this stronghold, now called Richborough Castle, are still to be seen; but in the days when those three ships grounded upon Ebbsfleet beach, the mighty walls towered up as a landmark for miles/kms around, and the officer commanding the British troops stationed therein must soon have sent over to ascertain the newcomers` business.

The outcome is well known. Tradition has it that Hengist and Horsa offered their services to King Vortigern, who was a vassal of Rome and was the chief man in Britain at the time, and made a bargain with him by which they were to receive payment and land to live on in Thanet, and in return were to fight for him against all other invaders. Soon these Jutish adventurers sent over the sea for their wives and families, and presently numerous shiploads of them arrived. It was only twenty years or so since the Second Legion had been withdrawn from Kent to the Continent; and as this famous force had been recruited from the Rhine, Vortigern may well have thought that he was fortunate to have been able to replace them by me of much the same breed. With this second company came Hengist`s daughter, whose beauty so attracted the British ruler that he married her, after which, it may be supposed, her father had considerable influence at court.

A few years later, probably about 455 A.D., Hengist quarrelled with Vertigern, and his whole force swarmed out of Thanet into Kent, no doubt capturing the fortress of Rutupiae at the outset. The British were taken by surprise; and the invaders, who seem to have contemplated the capture of all East Kent, had reached the Medway, some 45 miles/72Kms from Thanet, before any real resistance was offered. Here, however, a pitched battle was fought at the old Roman ford over the river, three miles/5Kms from Maidstone, where now stands the picturesque little town of Aylesford and its Fourteenth Century bridge.

The struggle seems to have ended in a British victory, for though Categirn, the son of Vortigern, was killed on the one side, Horsa perished on the other; and Hengist was obliged to march his army back towards Thanet. At a spot on the sea-coast, described as the place of the Inscribed Stone, doubtless because there was here a large Roman inscription, and possibly represented by the modern Stonar, near Deal, he was again defeated, and retired to Thanet.

Two years afterwards, in 457 A.D., he made a more successful invasion of the Kentish mainland, and before his death, some 30 years later, he had gradually overrun the greater part of the country of Kent, and had there established an undisputed Jutish realm of which he himself was ruler, his capital being at Durovernum, renamed Cantwarabyrig, “the city of the men of Kent,” now called Canterbury. The opposing troops had been driven back to the neighbourhood of London; but it seems that large numbers of the original Cantii, that is to say the British tribe whose name is still preserved in the words Kent, Canterbury, etc., were suffered to remain on their lands, for reference seems to be made to them in an early Kentish code of laws, and to this day the people of Romney Marsh, the Weald, and certain parts of the south coast of the country, reveal a pure British strain, whilst much of the pottery found in the invaders` graves in Kent can be seen to have been made in the succeeding generations by Roman-British workmen.

Such was the course of the first of the Germanic settlements in Britain; and in the next chapter will say of the conquests in other parts of Britain.