Adventus Saxonum: A Brief Look at the Birth of England

Believe it or not, London wasn’t built in a day. If you ever visit, you’ll occasionally notice some ancient ruined walls around the perimeter of the central city. This is because London was once part of the Roman Empire and it was called ‘Londinium,’ in case you ever wondered where the name ‘London’ came from.

Statue of Trajan in front of a section of the Roman wall, Tower Hill.

Statue of Trajan in front of a section of the Roman wall, Tower Hill.

Emperor Claudius declared the island of modern-day Britain part of the Roman Empire in 43 A.D. and introduced theaters and paved streets. It is roughly estimated that Londinium had a population of over 30,000 people. Historians argue over the general population of the British Isles at that time, but it is estimated to have been between one and four million.

However, politics in Britain were weak. The Romans were more focused on their southern and eastern territories, and the Roman occupation of Britain was not even for civilians, it was primarily for military. As Roman soldiers faced constant battles against numerous barbaric tribes, on top of an economic collapse, the British cause was deemed (for lack of a better description) “not worth it.” Roman soldiers of Britain were ordered to return to Rome by Emperor Honorious in either 409 or 410 A.D. The natives of Britain, the Britons, were told they were on their own and that they needed to defend themselves from the now vicious invaders.

When the Romans withdrew from Londinium in 410, it left the land open to invasion from barbaric tribes that the Romans had been too busy to ward off. Ultimately, several Germanic warrior-like groups primarily invaded and settled around the Eastern parts of the country, such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who had started their invasions and settlements long before Roman withdrawal.

This, the Adventus Saxonum, was the beginning of England.

That is the Latin term used to describe the invasions of England by Germanic peoples, first used by Gildas in ca. 540 A.D. People from the North desperately needed new land. Continental Europe had become far too populated and the region experienced an ongoing series of marine transgressions, which caused floods that left layers of clay all over their land, causing heavy blows to their already-scarce crops and making the land inhabitable between 350-700 A.D. As a result, people left their homes, and emigrated elsewhere.

Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).

Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys (France).

Gildas (500-570), a native Briton and a British cleric, authored De Exicidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which gives us some of the only narratives of the post-Roman history of Britain. This work is the only substantial source of information of this period written by a near-contemporary. He gives us an overview of Roman occupation from its conquest under the principate to the then-present era. He describes the “Groans of the Britons,” in which the native Britons make one last request for aide against the now-dominating invaders from the evacuated Roman military.

Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae in which Vortigern meets the young Merlin, who explains that an underground fight between red and white dragons is causing Vortigern's fortress to collapse.

Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae in which Vortigern meets the young Merlin, who explains that an underground fight between red and white dragons is causing Vortigern’s fortress to collapse.

Tradition tells us that the Saxons (as well as other tribes) first entered Britain in large quantities as part of a deal to protect the native Britons from the Picts, Gaels, and other tribes that were deemed dangerous to the Britons’ post-Roman society at the time. This deal is depicted in the Historia Brittonium, as well as De Exicidio et Conquesto Britanniae, in which the British King Vortigern allowed Germanic warlords to settle their people in exchange for their services as mercenaries. Vortigern was convinced to offer them more land, thus resulting in the beginning of a mass Germanic settlement in Britain.

Europe by the end of the 5th Century.

Europe by the end of the 5th Century.

Although he never mentions who led the Britons into battle, Gildas then mentions the victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, a victory attributed to King Arthur in later sources.

It is said that the Saxons were slaughtered at the battle of Mons Badonicus, and Britain reverted to Romano-British rule. The 8th-century English historian Bede argues instead that the Saxon invasions continued after the battle of Mons Badonicus, along with invasions from the Jutes and the Angles, which resulted in a complete change of leadership in the entire Southeastern part of Britain. Ultimately, the Angles and the Saxons that had already settled would merge and form Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Four separate Saxon realms emerged: Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, and Wessex.

anglo-saxon_kingdoms

The Kings of Wessex would be the ones to eventually unite the country into the eventual Kingdom of England. Alfred the Great (849-899) became King of Wessex in 871 and remains famous for defending his kingdom against Viking attempts at conquests, which made him the dominant ruler out of all the other kingdoms. Following his victories, especially against the Danes (or ‘heathens’ as they became known), he became the first King of the West Saxons to style himself as King of the Anglo-Saxons. This would be the norm until 1066.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage, England.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage, England.

According to historians Peter Hunter Blair and Simon Keynes in An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, nothing suggests that there was a larger presence of Angles than there were Saxons. However in Medieval English, people referred to themselves as ‘Engles,’ and in Latin it was ‘Angli.’ The name Englaland eventually became England and was used regularly by the 11th century.