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How should we nowadays understand the Anglo-Saxon 'Invasions' of lowland Britain?

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Introduction

How should we nowadays understand the Anglo-Saxon 'Invasions' of lowland Britain? There is considerable uncertainty about the transition from a 'Romano-British' society to a predominantly 'Anglo-Saxon' society that occurred in most of lowland Britain between the fourth and sixth centuries; indeed, since we must rely on a very few writings, supplemented by fragmentary archaeological and philological evidence, it is questionable to what extent we can hope to 'understand' the period. Nevertheless, by considering the different types of evidence in relation to each other, we can reach tentative conclusions. I do not propose to analyse in detail the precise chronology of the period: the basic outline, upon which Gildas and archaeological evidence agree, is that, after Roman and sub-Roman leaders invited mercenaries from the Continent in the fourth and fifth centuries, these mercenaries rebelled. Joined by others from the Continent, they settled across southern and eastern Britain over subsequent centuries. This expansion was not uniform: there were periods of British success (such as after Mons Badonicus) and some British kingdoms (such as Elmet) survived in lowland Britain for some time. While there is important debate about the origin of the Anglo-Saxon immigrants and the timing of their arrival, the central matters of historiographical dispute nowadays concern the scale of the Anglo-Saxon immigration and the extent to which the Britons survived the adventus Saxonum, the expression often used for the Anglo-Saxon 'invasions'. The question is whether this adventus (literally "arrival") was a full-scale 'invasion', which comprehensively demolished or displaced the Britons, or a smaller 'elite migration', which involved changes in leadership and language, but allowed considerable continuity with the sub-Roman period. The tendency has been to see these as strict alternatives, with historians like Stenton and Myres taking the former view and Arnold, Hodges and Higham adhering to the latter. However, I shall argue that the survival of many Britons and substantial Anglo-Saxon immigration are not mutually exclusive; Hamerow points at such a conclusion, without exploring it fully. ...read more.

Middle

The third reference is primarily to battles fought by Aethelfrith's war bands. Without doubt, battles did occur across Britain, with examples including Old Sarum, Beranbyrg, Biedcanford, Catraeth, Wodnesbeorh and Mons Badonicus (of which the last two were British victories). However, we may doubt the extent of their impact, since, as Gododdin and Beowulf imply, battles were generally fought between relatively small aristocratic forces. Evidence of extreme British hostility to the Anglo-Saxons (such as Gododdin) was probably written primarily for aristocratic consumption and need indicate neither that the general rural population was unduly hostile to the Anglo-Saxons nor that the mass of the British population was in some way wiped out. Since Gildas's readership would presumably have realised if he had fabricated recent events, we should accept that at least some cities were attacked and were "in ruins and unkempt";5 however, we should neither attribute the decline of the towns entirely to the Anglo-Saxons nor overstate the significance of attacks on British towns. Following the departure of the Romans, the towns declined as economic and administrative centres; this is suggested by the dark soil mentioned above. The attacks of the Anglo-Saxons were not therefore the sole cause of the decline of the towns. Moreover, in examining continuity, the emphasis should, as Finberg argues, be on the countryside, where the majority of people lived. The evidence of the towns (which, in any case, do show some signs of continued British influence) should not lead us to conclude that the British population was seriously damaged by the adventus. A possible reason why towns were sites of conflict was that they would be more likely to have defences, which might encourage British resistance; it is quite probable that the general rural population was 'conquered' without widespread violence. It has been claimed, notably by Stenton, that the almost total absence of British words from the English language and the small number of British place names indicate that the British population was totally overwhelmed. ...read more.

Conclusion

because there were so many people of these races.9 This would help to limit the net growth of the population of Britain, and the hint that there was overcrowding only lends weight to the argument that there was large-scale Anglo-Saxon immigration. How appropriate is the word 'invasions' when referring to the adventus Saxonum? In one sense, the term is quite apt: it suggests a large movement of people, and it seems reasonable to posit relatively large-scale immigration to Britain. The traditional historiographical interpretation viewed the destruction of the British population as the logical corollary of this immigration, but we must now question this claim, in the light of the substantial elements of continuity with the sub-Roman period that can be deduced: the destructive connotations of the word 'invasions' therefore render it inappropriate in this context. There were indeed many important changes in Britain, not least the replacement of the Brittonic language with English. However, these changes need not indicate the replacement of ethnic Britons with ethnic Saxons: in the light of the continuities that are apparent, it is preferable to see the changes as the result of acculturation for social advancement. The resultant changes were such that it was probably often hard to distinguish between Britons and Saxons. Therefore, although there were aspects of continuity, it would be a mistake to try to force the whole period into a straitjacket of continuity. The stark choice that Finberg presents with the title "Continuity or Cataclysm?" is not particularly helpful: although this was a period of transformation, with significant elements of continuity, this transformation probably did not involve widespread violence for most ordinary rural Britons, as 'cataclysm' would imply. We should therefore understand the adventus Saxonum quite simply as 'the arrival of the Saxons', and neither imbue our translation of the expression with the idea of extensive violent replacement of Britons with Saxons, as the word 'invasions' might imply, nor deny, as Higham does, that a large migration of people from the Continent to Britain occurred. ...read more.

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