Silver-gilt sword pommel from Crundale Downs from the British Museum
Silver-gilt sword pommel from Crundale Downs, Kent, Museums No. 1894,1103.1 © Trustees of The British Museum

Anglo-Saxons – Peaceful or Barbaric?

The Anglo-Saxons were according to differing political agendas either peaceful immigrants or barbaric warriors. But what were they really? New research brings us perhaps closer to an answer

Around 410 the Romans officially abandoned Britain and withdrew across the cannel. Traditionally this vacuum was believed to be filled with a wave of barbarian incursions of foremost Angles, Saxons and Jutes pressuring the locals – the Britons – into either slavery or migration if not downright killing them in precursor to something akin to Rwanda. This was the official edition of the truth as presented by the few precious more or less contemporary historical sources – foremost Gildas and later Bede. This version was generally accepted until the 1980s.

Contrary to this archaeologists and revisionist historians have of course laboriously worked to show how much more fluid and complex the story was.

  • This was not a story of cultural destruction: Roman lifestyle did live on, although in highly contained pockets and less urban settings.
  • Britons were not wholesale ejected from their former homeland, but continued to live on and farm the land in the traditional manner.
  • The Angles and Saxons were not alone: Frisians were amongst them. And anyway their “ethnic identity” was a later construct established through what became known as the process of ethnogenesis.

All-in-all a paradigm of catastrophe and wholesale cultural destruction was exchanged with a more “friendly” whiggish perspective on the so-called “English Settlement”. In this it was believed that Saxons, Angles and Britons took peacefully part in a new post-Roman multi-cultural society built through commerce, agrarian innovations and the gradual re-Christianization taking place after 597. In late 20th century England, where large contingents of immigrants had to be accommodated, the political agenda was obviously not to reflect upon the cultural consequences of any large-scale import of “others” with an alien culture and religion. Accordingly this was here as elsewhere in Europe denied to have taken place in the 5th and 6th centuries. (It was the same period in which the Vikings turned into peaceful merchants and tradesmen, who only occasionally were tempted by the odd outlying monastery!)

In the 21 century, however, we are right now witnessing millions of Syrian and Iraqi fugitives trying to reach safe havens away from the terror carried out by a group of max 10.000 combat troops aroused by the rhetoric of ISIS. Financed through extortion rackets and slavery they are inflaming young radical warriors from Birmingham to Mosul and bathing responsible politicians in cold sweat.

Does it sound familiar? Whatever the answer to this question is, it has increasingly become obvious that the Anglo-Saxon academic pendulum has swung back again.

Thus a spat of recent articles and books tries once-again to tackle these difficult questions: What was the real character of the “English Settlement”? How many immigrants did it take to implement the Anglo-Saxon cultural take-over of England? And what happened to the Britons?

Cultural hegemony acchieved through small-scale immigration and acculturation

The more traditional view is presented by the authors, Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan, of (an otherwise splendid book on) The Anglo-Saxon World. Following a thorough examination of the available sources – onomastic, archaeological, archaeogenetic and paleobotanical – the authors conclude that “on balance scientific approaches tend to favour an “English Settlement” characterised as much by acculturation as migration, and with a majority of the population indigenous.

They believe that the cultural impact of a small a group of well-armed erstwhile pirates, later mercenaries and finally conquerors were able in a time of crisis (post AD 400) to amass huge amounts of Roman silver and other wealth, thus bolstering a cultural and socio-political hegemony over a group of indigenous people hitherto held in contempt and in slavery by their former masters, the Romans. The reasons for limiting the immigration to minor cadres of Angles and Saxons are that so-far archaeo-genetic studies have not been able to prove a shift in the composition of the population (although the authors admit, that evidence of this is still scarce). Other evidence is the peculiar form of organisation of the life of the Angles and Saxons centring on the mead-halls of minor chieftains holding on to their local power-positions through the “invention” of an Anglo-Saxon heritage and tradition held in unison with their compatriots and perhaps kin-group and not least visualized in their elaborate furnished burials from AD 550 and onwards. This decentralised mode of organisation helped to impregnate localities with this new and attractive way of life thus inducing the locals to forget everything including their mother tongue.

Massive Immigration

Opposed to this is the view presented by the archaeologist Heinrich Härke in a recent article in a book written on “Altertumskunde” published in connection with the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Reallexicon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. This article represents the latest summation of his more critical thinking as it has been voiced over the years. An English summery of his thinking may be found in an article published in Medieval Archaeology.

Reacting against the general idea of “immobilism” and “wanderungsfeindlichkeit” exposed by the indigenous Anglo-Saxon scholars of the 20th century, he is a great believer in the evidence presented by the new studies of DNA and stable isotopes. In a series of careful reflections he comes to the conclusion that the post-Roman population of Britain was around 1 mill people. Analyses of the Y-chromosoms of the present-day population indicates a presence of an influx of immigrants with a Frisian, German and Danish ancestry between 24.4 – 72.3 %. This study must for a number of reasons be considered highly tentative (part of this influx may represent “vikings” and questions remains about the impact of mutations of chromosoms etc.); these reservations are shared by Higham and Ryan. However a study of isotopes from the burials at West Heslerton and other as yet unpublished studies demonstrates that the percentage of immigrants was between 17 and 20 % in these localities. According to Härke this fits very well with an analysis of the percentage of warrior-graves in Anglo-Saxon burial fields compared to the number of male graves without weapons. A preliminary survey of 47 cemeteries, with some 1500 male graves were analysed in detail, comparing the archaeological, artefactual and biological data of burials with and without weapons. This analysis has shown that 47% of all male graves were fitted with weapons. A conservative evaluation by Härke is that 20 % of buried males may have belonged to the group of “warriors” indicating an influx of Anglo-Saxons of about 200.000.

The Boat from Nydam, AD 310 -
Boat from Nydam, AD 310 – 320. From: The Musuem at Schloss Gottorp, Schleswig, Northern Germany

Is that at all viable, asks Härke and answers yes! Insofar as the influx might have come over a long time-period (and that is demonstrated by the gradual development of burial-customs), 200.000 people over a period of 100 years equivalate a yearly influx of 2000 persons and between a 100 and 200 yearly transports across the channel using ships like the Nydam-Boat or Sutoon-Hoo. Though Härke does not mention it, it is a fact that precious though the Nydam-boats are, they are “loners”. Excavations of the many Viking-boats in Roskilde have shown how diverse the types were. Further it does not take much imagination to believe that some of these Anglo-Saxons were able to sequester Roman ships (fitted with sails) and enslave their captains. There was without doubt a continuous to-and-fro across the channel – even in the darkest moments of the “Dark Ages”.

Finally Härke mentions a third point, which may have had an impact. If the Britons were considered non-persons by both the Romans and later the Saxons, as Higham and Ryan also believes, it is highly unlikely that they were able to reproduce at the same rate as the more favoured ruling classes. Scientists have talked about an apartheid – system and what it might have contributed to the gradual cultural takeover.

In conclusion Härke states that the specific cultural profile of Anglo-Saxon England came about through a complicated process of ethnogenesis fostered by the cultural interplay between 100.000 and 200.000 immigrants from Southern Denmark, Northern Germany and Friesland and the indigenous Britons, who between 500 and 600 gradually became subsumed and enculturated to the way of life and worldview of their superiors. He believes that this process was at an end around 700.

So what were the Anglo-Saxons? Peaceful Immigrants or Barbaric Warriors? The reader is hereby cordially invited to revisit the question and ponder it in view of what is happening in Syria, Iraq and Libya right now. As is well-known, the past is a foreign country and “good” to think with.

Karen Schousboe


The Anglo-Saxon World
By Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan
Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2013, pp. 70 – 111

Die Entstehung der Angelsachsen
By Heinrich Härke
In: Altertumskunde – Altertumswisseschaft – Kulturwissenschaft: Erträge und Perspektiven navn 40 Jahren Reallexocon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. RGA-E-Band 77, pp. 429 -458.
De gruyter 2012, Berlin and Boston.

Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis
By Heinrich Härke
In: Medieval Archaeology 2011, Vol. 55 No. 1 pp. 1-28




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