Invasions of the British Isles

Invasions of the British Isles

Invasions of the British Isles have occurred throughout modern history. Indeed, the various nations comprising the British Isles were invaded several times; by the Romans, Scandinavians, the French, and one another.

This page currently covers invasions from 2000 BC up to the Siege of Leith in 1560.


Prehistory and antiquity

Celtic invasions

Roman invasions

In 55 BC, Celtic Britain was in turn invaded, this time by the Romans under Julius Caesar. Caesar's two invasions did not conquer Britain, but established it as a major trading partner of Rome. However, the Roman emperors wished to extend their domain to the island, and invasions were planned. A botched attempt was made under the insane emperor Caligula.[1]

Caligula's uncle and successor, Claudius, was the first emperor to oversee a successful invasion. He used as an excuse the pleas for help that came from the Atrebates, Celtic allies of Rome, and landed an army near present-day Richborough.[2] The initial landings were unopposed, and the Celts delayed in responding to the invasion. When, under their leaders Caratacus and Togodumnus, they did, they were too late and were defeated in several battles, most notably that of the River Medway.[1]

Claudius arrived himself, bringing up to 38 war elephants with him.[2] When the Celts were finally defeated and Caratacus forced to flee to Wales, Claudius returned to Rome.

In the early AD 60s, the Celtic tribal queen Boudicca led a bloody revolt against Roman rule. While the governor Suetonius was pursuing a campaign on the isle of Anglesey, Boudicca, angered by maltreatment at the hands of the Romans, urged her people to rise up.[3] They did, and marched on Camulodonum (now Colchester), where many former Roman soldiers had settled.

The Romans in Camulodonum were massacred after a brief fight. Meanwhile, the Legio IX Hispana (Ninth Legion) had been sent south from Lindum (now Lincoln) to put down the revolt. It failed to arrive in time, and, when it encountered the Celts, was annihilated. The battle, however, may have enabled Governor Suetonius to arrive in Londinium (London) with a small Roman army. Despite the pleas of the civil officials,[4] Suetonius marched out of the city with his troops, knowing that any stand would be disastrous. Boudicca sacked London and pushed on to Verulamium (now St. Albans), which was also razed. Suetonius had gathered a large enough army, however, to do battle on the Roman road Watling Street. Boudicca was defeated, and Roman rule was restored to Britain.

Germanic invasions

As the Roman Empire declined, its hold on Britain loosened. By AD 410, Roman forces had been withdrawn, and small, isolated bands of migrating Germans began to invade Britain. There seems to have been no large "invasion" with a combined army or fleet,[5] but the tribes, notably the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, quickly established control over modern-day England.

Invasions of England (793–1284)

Viking raids and invasions

In 793, Viking raiders landed near the monastery on Lindisfarne Island and looted it.[6] This began more than two centuries of Viking incursions into England, which was then divided into several kingdoms.

In 866, the Viking chief Ragnar Lodbrok fell into the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria.[7] Aella allegedly had Ragnar thrown into a snake pit.[citation needed] Ragnar's enraged sons, taking advantage of political instability in England, recruited the Great Heathen Army, which landed in Northumbria that year. York fell to the Vikings, but Aella, together with forces from rival English kingdoms, attempted to retake the city. He was unsuccessful, however, and was captured by the Vikings, who executed him, possibly as punishment for Ragnar's murder.[7][8] By 1000, the Vikings had overrun most of England and had even conquered parts of Ireland. In Wessex, King Alfred the Great managed to hold off the Vikings during his lifetime, but the Norsemen managed to unite much of England with Norway and Denmark in the eleventh century,[7] during the reign of the Danish king Canute.

When Canute died, however, he was succeeded by the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor. Edward managed to reign until his death in 1066, when he was succeeded by the powerful Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson. Harold's accession, however, was not unanimously embraced. To the north, the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada invaded England, to be defeated by an army commanded personally by Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge. Harold, though, faced an even more serious threat in the south—the Normans.

Norman conquest of England

Duke William of Normandy had held Harold prisoner for a time in 1064, and had extracted a promise from him to the effect that Harold was bound to support William in any attempts the latter would make to claim the English throne. William was angered by Harold's accession, and set about gathering an invasion army. William, having gathered together an army and a fleet to transport it, landed in Pevensey Bay in the late summer of 1066. Harold, having just defeated Hardrada in the north, marched his troops back south, where, exhausted, they encountered William near Hastings.

During the battle that followed, William's forces suffered heavy casualties but managed to rout Harold's infantry.[9] However, Harold and his housecarls stood firm, despite a torrent of arrows fired at them by William's archers. Soon after Harold was hit by an arrow and killed, the housecarls were overwhelmed by William's victorious soldiers. William was crowned in London by the Archbishop of York, then set about restructuring the English government and imposing the feudal system on the nobility.

The Danish invasion of 1069–70

William's rule was not yet secure and a number of revolts against the Normans took place, notably in the North of England and East Anglia. A large Danish army arrived in England in 1069 to support an uprising in the North. Though there was no direct fighting between the Danes and William's army which he led north in December 1069, the Danes were forced to make a truce. After overwintering, the Danish force sailed on to attempt to join the rebels in East Anglia but succeeded only in the sacking of Peterborough. In June 1070, they returned to Denmark.

First Barons' War

When the Norman King Richard I was mortally wounded during fighting against the French in 1199, his brother John succeeded him. John continued the war against King Philip II of France, whose forces overran much of the English territory in France, including Normandy.

After John's second attempt to invade France failed, his nobles forced him to agree to the Magna Carta in 1215. However, the king disregarded the charter's contents, and the barons rose up against him and appealed to the heir to the French throne, the future Louis VIII, to replace John as king. The first French troops arrived in November 1215, with 240 knights and a similar number of infantry following in January 1216.[10] In May 1216 Louis himself arrived with his army and moved quickly to capture London. There was little resistance when the prince entered London and at St Paul's Cathedral, Louis was proclaimed King with great pomp and celebration in the presence of all of London. Even though he was not crowned, many nobles, as well as King Alexander II of Scotland (1214–49), gathered to give homage.

The French took a number of castles in Southern England including Winchester in June, Chichester and Reigate Castles, and began a major siege of Dover Castle.[11] John died in October and was succeeded by his son, Henry and Louis' support began to wane as barons who had grievances with John took the opportunity to make peace with the new king.[12] The French abandoned the siege of Dover Castle in November but the campaign continued in the south-east. In early 1217, the focus shifted northwards, culminating in a major French defeat at the Lincoln in May. In August, a fleet carrying French reinforcements was defeated off Sandwich. Louis realised that the cause was lost and in September 1217 signed the Treaty of Kingston, leaving the country later that month[13]

The war, and the invasion, left England with few territories in France but with the Norman Plantagenet dynasty still on the throne.

Invasions of Wales (793–1284)

Llywelyn II secured the recognition of the title Prince of Wales from Henry III with the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267. Later however, a succession of disputes, including the imprisonment of Llywelyn's wife Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, culminated in the first invasion by Edward I.

As a result of military defeat, the Treaty of Aberconwy exacted Llywelyn's fealty to England in 1277. Peace was short lived and, with the 1282 Edwardian conquest, the rule of the Welsh princes permanently ended. With Llywelyn's death and his brother prince Dafydd's execution, the few remaining Welsh lords did homage for their lands to Edward I.

Invasions of England and Wales (1284–1513)

Scottish Wars

Anglo-Scottish relations were generally poor throughout the Middle Ages. Edward I's attempts to become feudal overlord of Scotland after the death of Alexander III in 1286 led to a long struggle for Scottish independence. Significantly, in 1295 it led to a long running alliance with France, later known as the Auld alliance.[14] Warfare between the English and the French would therefore provide a strategic context of many of the major Scottish invasions of England, in particular in 1346, 1385 and 1513.[15] French troops were also involved in the Scottish invasion of England in 1464, during the Wars of the Roses.

The Weardale campaign 1327

The Neville's Cross Campaign 1346

The Franco-Scottish invasion of 1385

In May 1385, a French force led by admiral Jean de Vienne sailed from Sluys to Leith in Scotland. It consisted of at least 1000 men-at-arms plus servants and crossbowmen, and carried 50,000 gold francs as gifts for the Scots nobility [16][17] A joint attack on the North of England was planned but there was considerable disharmony between the Scots and French contingents. Eventually a joint force invaded England in July and succeeded in taking the castle at Wark.[18] However, an English relief army was approaching and the Franco-Scottish force fell back before them to Edinburgh, which was burned by the English on August 11. Admiral de Vienne led his men on a counter attack on the English West March, launching an assault on Carlisle on September 7.[19] The assault failed and the French force fell back into Scotland harried by English forces. De Vienne returned to Edinburgh hoping to over winter but morale among his army was failing and many determined to return home to France, despite the lateness of the season.

The Flodden Campaign 1513

In 1508, a warden of the Scottish East March was murdered by an English Northumbrian.[20] Taking advantage of the political crisis caused by this incident, the French king, whose nation was at war with the English king, Henry VIII, convinced James IV of Scotland to invade his southern neighbor.

Since King Henry was in France campaigning, Queen Catherine of Aragon organized an English army and placed it under the command of the elderly Earl of Surrey. The army marched north and met James' forces at Flodden. James surprised the English by leading his centre in a wild charge against Surrey's, but the English stood fast and repulsed the Scots, unhorsing and killing James.[20] The battle ended in an English victory.

The Hundred Years' War

Franco-Castilian raids on the English coast 1374–80

There were numerous French raids on the English coast during the Hundred Years' War. Few of these had the scale, or purpose, of invasions. Perhaps the closest was the overrunning of the Isle of Wight by a French fleet commanded by Jean de Vienne in August 1377.[21] Some more significant French operations do warrant mention, however.

French invasions of the Channel Islands

In March 1338, a French force landed on Jersey, intent on capturing the island.[22] Although the island was overrun, the main fortification on the island, Gorey Castle, remained in English hands.[23] The French remained until September, when they sailed off to conquer Guernsey, Alderney and Sark. In 1339 the French returned, allegedly with 8000 men in 17 Genoese galleys and 35 French ships. Again they failed to take the castle and, after causing damage, withdrew. The English were able to recapture Guernsey in October 1340 but the French held out in Castle Cornet until 1345.[24]

In July 1373, Bertrand du Guesclin overran Jersey and besieged Gorey Castle. His troops succeeded in breaching the outer defences, forcing the garrison back to the keep. The garrison came to an agreement that they would surrender if not relieved by Michaelmas and du Guesclin sailed back to Brittany, leaving a small force to carry on the siege. Fortunately for the defenders, an English relief fleet arrived in time.[25]

The French would not succeed in capturing Jersey during the Hundred Years War, but did capture Gorey Castle in the summer of 1461, allegedly as part of a secret deal between Margaret of Anjou and Pierre de Brézé to gain French support for the Lancastrian cause. The island was held by the French until 1468, when Yorkist forces and local militia were able to recapture the castle.[26]

The invasion threat of 1386

From December 1385, Charles VI of France began to prepare for an invasion of England, assembling ships in the Low Countries and Brittany.[27] Preparations continued all through the spring and summer of 1386, with the assembly of large quantities of stores, equipment and men. Amongst the stores assembled was a large prefabricated wooden fort, 3000 paces long, with walls 20 ft (6m) high.[28] The English responded by raising forces of men-at-arms and archers, who were stationed on the coast from the Humber to Cornwall. Originally intending to attack in August, Charles put back the date to October, and early in the month joined his fleet in Flanders. However, he persuaded by his admiral, the Duke of Berry, to postpone the attack to the following year. A smaller scale expedition was planned for the summer of 1387 but it came to nothing[29]

The French Invasion of 1405

In July 1404, Owain Glyn Dwr signed a treaty with the French by which they recognised him as Prince of Wales.[30] This led to a French expeditionary force landing in South Wales in February 1405 to support Glyn Dwr's forces. In August these were reinforced by a further expedition of 2500 men. The combined army campaigned in Pembrokeshire, destroying Haverfordwest and capturing Carmarthen.[31] According to the French historian Monstrelet, they then invaded England and for eight days faced the English army of Henry IV at Woodbury Hill. No battle however occurred and the Franco-Welsh force returned to Wales.[31] Although some of the French returned home in November, most overwintered. Attempts were made to bring French reinforcements in 1406 but these were intercepted by the English fleet. The remaining French troops were withdrawn sometime during the year.[32]

The overthrow of Richard II 1399

In October 1398, Henry Bolingbroke had been exiled for ten years by Richard II. In February 1399, Henry's father, John of Gaunt, had died and in March 1399, Richard had declared that Henry's inheritance was forfeit and that he was a traitor, permanently banished from the realm.[33] Richard had then, in what was to prove a major strategic error, proceeded with his army to Ireland. This gave Henry the opportunity a chance to return to England and, on 4 July 1399, he landed with a small force at Ravenspur.[34] From there, he marched into the Lancastrian heartlands of Yorkshire, building his forces. At Bridlington, he was joined by the Earl of Northumberland and his son Henry Percy. The army marched southwards and on 20 July reached Leicester. Meanwhile, Richard's regent, Edmund, Duke of York had raised an army and was in Hertfordshire. The Duke of York had little desire to fight, however, and detached himself from the army, met Henry at Berkeley Castle on 27 July. Henry then marched his army to Bristol, where Richard's major supporters had gathered to await his return from Ireland. The castle rapidly surrendered and Richard's chief counselors were promptly executed.[35]

In the meantime, Richard had returned from Ireland, landing in Milford Haven in South Wales. However, fearing a plot, he had abandoned his army and fled to North Wales where he had stronger support. However, support was not forthcoming and at the beginning of August, Henry and his army were at Chester while Richard with a few men held Conway Castle. Henry sent a force under the Earl of Northumberland to capture Richard, which they did by a trick on 15 August.[36] Richard was taken to London and on 29 September was forced to abdicate. On 30 September Henry was proclaimed king at Westminster Hall, the first of the Lancastrian kings.[37]

The Wars of the Roses

England was spared invasion during the Hundred Years' War against France and Castile, but it was plagued by 32 years (1455–1487) of civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. The Lancastrian branch of the House of Plantagenet, which had overthrown the direct royal line in 1399, was embroiled in fighting against the Yorkist wing of the dynasty.

The Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was deposed twice during the wars and was murdered after the second deposition. He was replaced by the Yorkist claimant, Edward IV, who ruled until his death. He was succeeded by his young son, Edward V, who, along with his brother, was placed in the Tower of London,[38] where he disappeared under suspicious circumstances. The main benefactor of Edward's disappearance was the boys' regent and uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was then crowned king.[38]

In exile in Brittany, Henry Tudor, a distant relation of the Lancastrians, gathered a small, mainly mercenary army and mounted an invasion of Wales in 1485. Welshmen, Lancastrians, and disaffected Yorkists rallied behind Tudor, whose forces encountered Richard and the royal army at Bosworth Field on August 22. Richard was killed during the fighting, and his forces lost the battle.[38]

Tudor was crowned king as Henry VII, and, after defeating Yorkist rebels in 1487, established the House of Tudor as the sole English ruling dynasty.

Perkin Warbeck

The pretender Perkin Warbeck made three attempts to invade England. The first, on 3 July 1495, occurred at Deal. Warbeck had arrived on a fleet of ships provided by Maximillian I. An advanced force of supporters and Flemish mercenaries was put ashore to attempt to raise local rebellion. Local forces however, defeated the landing party, killing 150 and capturing 163.[39] Warbeck himself did not land.

The second invasion came in September 1496. Warbeck had been received in Scotland in January 1496 and James IV supported him in an invasion of England later in the year. Unfortunately for the invaders, there was again no local support for Warbeck and the invaders soon returned across the border.

The third, and most successful, invasion took place in Cornwall in September 1497. In May and June 1497, there had been a revolt against Henry VII in Cornwall. This had been suppressed following the rebel's defeat at Blackheath. However, there was still sufficient dissatisfaction that when Warbeck arrived with a small force, he was accepted by many locals as Richard IV and soon raised a force of up to 8,000 rebels.[39] With this army, he besieged Exeter. The fighting, over two days, was bloody, with the rebels making assaults on North and East gates. One or both gates were penetrated but the attackers were driven out after fierce street fighting. 3–400 rebels are alleged to have been killed during the attack.[40] With the failure of the attack, the rebel army withdrew to Taunton. By this time, however, a royal army was approaching and the morale of the rebels began to crack. Warbeck fled on 21 September but was captured at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire.[39]

Invasions of Ireland

Viking raids and invasions

Norman invasions 1169–72

Scottish Invasion of 1315–8

Invasions of Scotland

Viking raids and invasions

While there are few records, the Vikings are thought to have led their first raids in Scotland on the holy island of Iona in 794, the year following the raid on the other holy island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria.

In 839, a large Norse fleet invaded via the River Tay and River Earn, both of which were highly navigable, and reached into the heart of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu. They defeated Eogán mac Óengusa, king of the Picts, his brother Bran and the king of the Scots of Dál Riata, Áed mac Boanta, along with many members of the Pictish aristocracy in battle. The sophisticated kingdom that had been built fell apart, as did the Pictish leadership, which had been stable for more than a hundred years since the time of Óengus mac Fergusa. The accession of Cináed mac Ailpín as king of both Picts and Scots can be attributed to the aftermath of this event.

The Wars of Independence

Following the disputed succession of the Scottish crown on the death of Alexander III, Edward I led an English invasion in 1296, sacking Berwick upon Tweed and subjugating Scotland. The following year the Scots rose under the leadership of William Wallace.[41] They decisively defeated the English in the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and began a brief invasion of northern England. Edward rushed north with his army and inflicted a crushing defeat on Wallace at Falkirk. Wallace was captured and executed afterward. Further campaigns by Edward in 1300 and 1301 led to a truce between the Scots and the English in 1302. After another campaign in 1303/1304, Stirling Castle, the last major Scottish held stronghold, fell to the English, and in February 1304, negotiations led to most of the remaining nobles paying homage to Edward and to the Scots all but surrendering. However, the Scots rose again under their new king, Robert the Bruce, and routed[42] the army of Edward II during the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Peace was concluded in 1327.

In 1332, Edward III of England supported the claims of Edward Balliol to the Scottish throne. Balliol led an invasion, and following his success at Dupplin Moor, Edward III also moved north. By 1333, much of Scotland was under English occupation, with eight of the Scottish lowland counties being ceded to England by Edward Balliol. In 1334, Edward III invaded again, but he accomplished little and retreated in February 1335 having failed to bring the Scots to battle. He and Edward Balliol returned again in July with an army of 13,000, and advanced through Scotland, first to Glasgow and then Perth, where Edward III installed himself as his army looted and destroyed the surrounding countryside. In May 1336 an English army under Henry of Lancaster invaded, followed in July by another army under King Edward. Together, they ravaged much of the north-east and sacked Elgin and Aberdeen, while a third army ravaged the south-west and the Clyde valley. Philip VI of France announced that he intended to aid the Scots by invading England, prompting Edward's retreat. By late 1336, the Scots had regained control over virtually all of Scotland. Although the war continued until the Treaty of Berwick in 1357, the English did not return to Scotland.

The Rough Wooing

In 1542 the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, acceeded to the Scottish throne. Henry VIII of England sought a dynastic marriage between Mary and his son Edward. An initial proposal was agreed, but due to internal divisions between pro-France and pro-English factions, the Scots rescinded the agreement. War broke out and the English army sacked Edinburgh in May 1544. The battle of Ancrum Moor the following year led to the English withdrawal. After Henry's death and the installation of Protector Somerset, the English returned, defeating the Scots at the battle of Pinkie in September 1547. They established a base at Haddington and put much of southern Scotland under military rule.

In response, the Scots requested aid from the French, and French troops arrived at Leith in 1548. The Treaty of Norham ended hostilities in 1551, although the French remained until the Siege of Leith in 1560, when they were ejected by combined Protestant Scottish and English forces. This latter period of the conflict is sometimes referred to as a proxy war, fought by Scottish factions on behalf of France and England.


  1. ^ a b Invasion Britain
  2. ^ a b Claudian Invasion of Britain. Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  3. ^ Boudicca's Revolt. Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  4. ^ Churchill, Winston (1956). The History of the English Speaking People, Volume I, The Birth of Britain.
  5. ^ Section 36. The Anglo-Saxon Conquest Of Britain. Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  6. ^ The Holy Island of Lindisfarne – The Viking Attack. Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  7. ^ a b c History of Viking Northumbria. Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  8. ^ Churchill (1956)
  9. ^ Harold Godwinson – King Harold II of England. (2010-06-17). Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  10. ^ Longmate (1990), pp262-5
  11. ^ Longmate (1990), p271-2
  12. ^ First Barons War, 1215–1217. Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  13. ^ Longmate (1990), p.295-6
  14. ^ Macdougall (2001), pp.15–25
  15. ^ Macdougall (2001), pp.40–1, 49–51,116–8
  16. ^ Jager (2004), p.41,43
  17. ^ Longmate (1990), p.341
  18. ^ Jager (2004), p.46
  19. ^ Jager (2004), p. 48
  20. ^ a b Battle of Flodden Field 1513. Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  21. ^ Longmate (1990), p.337
  22. ^ Watts (2007), p.8-17
  23. ^ Ford (2004), pp. 18–25
  24. ^ Ford (2004), p. 22
  25. ^ Ford (2004), p. 23
  26. ^ Watts (2004), pp. 16–17
  27. ^ Longmate (1990), p. 343
  28. ^ Longmate (1990), p.344
  29. ^ Longmate (1990), pp.348-9
  30. ^ Davies (1997), p.192-3
  31. ^ a b Davies (1997), p.194
  32. ^ Davies (1997), p.195
  33. ^ Mortimer (2007), pp 159–164
  34. ^ Mortimer (2007), p.171
  35. ^ Mortimer (2007), p.176
  36. ^ Mortimer (2007), pp.177–9
  37. ^ Mortimer (2007), pp186-193
  38. ^ a b c The Battle of Bosworth. Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  39. ^ a b c Gunn (2004)
  40. ^ The assault on Exeter
  41. ^ Retrieved on 2010-10-19.
  42. ^ Retrieved on 2010-10-19.


  • Churchill, Winston. The History of the English-Speaking Peoples. 1, "The Birth of Britain". 
  • Davies, R.R. (1997). The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 192–3. ISBN 0192853368. 
  • Ford, Douglas (2004). "Gorey Castle". Medieval History (Harnois) (8): 18–25. ISSN 17412285. 
  • Gunn, S.J., ‘Warbeck, Perkin [Pierrechon de Werbecque; alias Richard Plantagenet, duke of York] (c.1474–1499)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 accessed 14 Oct 2010
  • Jager, Eric (2004). The Last Duel. London: Century. ISBN 0712661905. 
  • Longmate, Norman (1990). Defending the Island. London: Grafton Books. ISBN 0586208453. 
  • MacDougall, Norman (2001). An Antidote to the English. East Linton: Tuckwell Press. ISBN 1862321450. 
  • Mortimer, Ian (2007). The Fears of Henry IV. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 9780224073004. 
  • Watts, Karen (2004). "Brothers in Arms?". Medieval History (Harnois) (8): 8–17. ISSN 17412285. 

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