Saxon spear heads
Saxon spear heads

But before we follow the story of the conquest we may consider the character of the invading hordes. The group of tribes known by the three names Saxons, Angles, and Jutes all belonged to the Teutonic stock; the Jutes perhaps being nearer akin to the Gothic and Scandinavian branch than to the German. It is doubtful whether there was any real distinction between Angles and Saxons other than the designation of the territory from which they started.They, at any rate, were thoroughly German, and there is no legitimate ground for doubting that their development while still on the European continent was on the lines depicted in the Germania of Tacitus.

Kinship and the tribe
The basis of the German community was kinship, whether real or fictitious; that is to say, the tribe regarded itself as an aggregate of families having a common ancestry. The tribesmen were freemen, which meant that they owned the soil of their settlements; that they had the right to carry arms, and the right of attending the assemblies, local or tribal, which were the courts of justice and the parliaments of the village, the district, the tribe, and the tribal federation.

Kingship was an institution which was apparently only beginning to develop sporadically among the frontier tribes in the time of Tacitus. Normally there was no king, but there was a recognised aristocracy of high-born families, from among whom a war-lord was appointed with the approval of the tribal assembly when the tribe went to war. The tendency, however, was for the war-lord to retain his authority when the war was over; and next, for the office itself to become hereditary in the family, though without recognition of the rule of primogeniture.

Germanic culture
The German had two main occupations, fighting and agriculture. Instead of concentrating in cities, like the Aryans of the Mediterranean regions, the tribes were collections of agricultural communities; and besides the free tribes­men there was a subject or servile population, mainly consisting of captive foes or their offspring, who had no rights and no property of their own. It is matter of dispute whether in the fifth century the land occupied by each community was already looked upon as the permanent property of the individual households or was regarded as the common property of the community, the individual family being entitled only to the produce of that portion annually allotted to it.

Now in the fifth century the tribes from the east were pressing upon the western tribes, and the western tribes were pressing upon the barriers of the Roman Empire. We have already seen that those who lived by the sea were starting upon a career of freebooting and piracy, even as early as the end of the third century, and that Saxons were joining with Picts and Scots in raiding Roman Britain in the latter half of the fourth century.

Up to this time and for some while longer they were satisfied with raiding for booty, and did not begin to attempt territorial conquest across the sea precisely as happened with the Danes and Norsemen four centuries afterwards. But it would seem that even in the earlier half of the fifth century the need for expansion on the one hand, and the pressure from the east on the other, impelled adventurous spirits to seek not only booty but new lands to settle in.

This migratory movement, however, was not that of a consolidated nation, or at first even of consolidated tribes, but of adventurers who as warlords gathered kindred spirits to their standards, and set forth to carve out new dominions for themselves in lands which offered a tempting prey to the spoiler.

Hengist and Horsa
Such a land was Britain after the Roman evacuation. The idea that the Britons had wholly forgotten all that pertains to the art of war under the Roman dominion is not tenable, for the legions in the country were largely recruited from the Britons themselves. But the withdrawal of the Romans left the country without any centralised government. It fell back on the traditional Celtic system of petty principalities, generally incapable of consistent united action, and thus it became a prey to the invader.

There is no reason to throw over the tradition which brings Hengist and Horsa to Kent as the hired allies of a British chief, prince, or king. When the growing anarchy had revealed itself, it was natural that the new comers should have taken up the idea of making themselves masters of the soil and calling fresh volunteers to their aid.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age