Saxon arrow heads
Saxon arrow heads

Now, as to the course of the conquest, there is a considerable difference between the Anglo-Saxon tradition, as it survived in Wessex to be written down in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the ninth century, and the British tradition current in the middle of the sixth century as set forth by Gildas little more than a hundred years after the conquest began. The Chronicle describes a very gradual conquest effected by successive hosts of invaders who established a footing at different points along the whole coast line at various dates through a long series of years. Gildas describes, on the other hand, a sudden storm devastating the country from end to end. Yet the two stories can be reasonably reconciled in a manner which accords with such evidence as excavation gives us. Probably there was a storm which swept over the whole east and south in the latter half of the fifth century, in the course of which the Roman cities were permanently ruined.

Battle of Mount Badon
The force of the flood was broken by a rally of the Britons and the great victory of Ambrosius Aurelianus at Mount Badon, which appears to have taken place at some date between 493 and 516. [Ed. This batle has often been associated with King Arthur - and may indeed be a source of the original Arthurian legends - legends of a powerful Romano-British war leader who helped (temporarily) stem the tide of the invading newcomers.] The wave rolled back, but the territory was only partially reoccupied, the British being incapable of a constructive reorganisation; and there followed the more systematic organisation and advance of the kingdoms set up by the Teutonic invaders on the coasts from the Forth to the Isle of Wight.

Jutes, Angles, and Saxons
Now we may conveniently apply the name English which ultimately predominated to the whole group of the Teutonic invaders, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. Saxons and Jutes entered upon the new land by way of the coast of Essex, the Thames, Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire; while the Angles established themselves along the east coast above Essex up to the estuary of the Forth. From these bases they drove their way inland, sometimes as independent units, sometimes recognising a common war-lord. No confidence can be placed in the names attributed to the legendary leaders of the various bands.

6th century Kingdoms
It is probable that even Cerdic, the legendary ancestor of the House of Wessex, is mythical. But when we have reached the second half of the sixth century we find a number of fairly distinguishable English states definitely in being. In the south are the kingdoms of Kent and Sussex, while Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, like Kent itself, seem to have been occupied by Jutes. North of the Thames mouth lay the East Saxons, to the west of them the Middle Saxons (Middlesex); and we must place the nucleus of the West Saxon kingdom Wessex to the westward, upon the Thames valley, in preference to supposing that their advance was made from Hampshire or Dorsetshire. North as far as the Wash was East Anglia with the Lindiswaras (Lindsey) between the Wash and the Humber, and inland the Middle Angles and the Mercians. And north again from Humber to Tees was the Angle kingdom of Deira, and from Tees to Forth that of Bernicia.The whole of the west was still occupied by British principalities or, beyond the Solway, by Gaels, Picts, and Scots; while between Celts and English lay the still debatable land which half a century before had been devastated but not permanently held by the English.

By common consent of all the old authorities it was the practice of the English to extirpate the Britons; that is to say, very few of them were spared to become slaves, though doubtless the women were not exterminated with such ruthlessness as the men. In the light of modern inquiry it has been maintained that sundry characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon social system point not to extermination but to the establishment of a servile population retained to cultivate the soil for the benefit of their Teutonic masters.

On the other hand, it is claimed that these English institutions can reasonably be explained as developments having their origin in a free society. Moreover, the indubitable truth remains that throughout the English kingdoms practically every trace of the Celtic or Latin languages and the established Christianity disappeared altogether; and the conquerors were influenced by them no more than Europeans have been by the language or religion of primitive races in Australia, Africa, and America. But it is a conspicuous fact that in every other portion of the Roman Empire, however completely overrun by Teutons, the language and religion of the conquered dominated those of the conquerors.

Where Goths or Vandals, Franks, Burgundians, or Lombards ruled as masters over Latinised Celtic peoples the Celtic and Latin elements ultimately predominated, and France,Spain, and Italy have remained Latin nations. Outside of the British Isles, wherever the Teuton has amalgamated with a conquered race in historic times, he has to all intents and purposes ceased to be a Teuton; and it is a commonplace that even in Ireland the Norwegian and Norman conquerors became thoroughly Hibernicised, even as the Norsemen became Gaelicised in the Hebrides. In view of this it seems incredible that any large proportion of the conquered Britons should have survived among the Teutonic conquerors during the fifth and sixth centuries without giving them even a tincture of Latinity or Christianity, even though we must admit that the Latinising of the Britons had only been of a very superficial character.

The Heptarchy
It will be seen that nothing which at all cor­responds to what is called the Heptarchy in England - a name which applies to the division of the country into seven substantial states - was the outcome of the English conquest. The varying mutations and absorptions of the many petty kingdoms did result in a seven fold division in the course of the seventh century,at the time when Theodore of Tarsus organised the English episcopate; but there was no time when England could be regarded as being made up definitely of seven kingdoms with permanently recognised boundaries.

Even more vague was the division of the regions still held by the Celts, who were either already Christians at the time of the English invasion, or became very generally Christianised during the fifth and sixth centuries. After the battles of Deorham and Chester the Celts south of the Solway were in three separated districts - the south-western peninsula called Damnonia, Wales, and Cumbria, between the Mersey and the Solway.

Strathclyde and Dalriada
This last, with the northern district west of the Clyde, later formed vaguely the kingdom of Strathclyde. The Scots were established in Dalriada, which is roughly Argyle and the southern isles, and the Pictish kingdom covered the rest of the highlands. It is probable that the Celts between the wall of Hadrian and the Forth, who had never been Latinised, held their own against, or combined with, the Angle invaders to a much greater extent than to the south of the Tyne.

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