Sub-Roman Britain

Sub-Roman Britain
Barbury Castle, 6th century hill fort, near Swindon, in South West England

Sub-Roman Britain is a term derived from an archaeological label for the material culture of Britain in Late Antiquity: the term "Sub-Roman" was invented to describe the potsherds in sites of the 5th century and the 6th century, initially with an implication of decay of locally-made wares from a higher standard under the Roman Empire. It is now often used to denote a period of history. Although the culture of Britain in the period was mainly derived from Roman and Celtic sources, there were also Saxons settled as foederati in the area, originally from Saxony in north-western Germany, although the term 'Saxon' was used by the British for all Germanic incomers. Gradually the latter assumed more control (see Anglo-Saxon England). The Picts in northern Scotland were also outside the applicable area.


Meaning of terms

The period of sub-Roman Britain traditionally covers the history of what is now England from the end of Roman imperial rule in the very early fifth century to the arrival of Saint Augustine in AD 597. The date taken for the end of this period is arbitrary in that the Sub-Roman culture continued in the West of England (see Cornwall and Cumbria) and in Wales.

This period has attracted a great deal of academic and popular debate, in part because of the scarcity of the written source material, and in part because historians argue that the events—in terms of invasion, settlement and resettlement—that took place in these years forged the national identities that would prevail within the British Isles over the coming centuries. The term Post-Roman Britain is also used for the period, mainly in non-archaeological contexts; "sub-Roman" and "post-Roman" are both terms that apply to the old Roman province of Britannia, i.e. Britain south of the Forth-Clyde line. The history of the area between Hadrian's Wall and the Forth-Clyde line is unclear (see Rheged, Bernicia). North of the line was an area inhabited by tribes about whom so little is known that we resort to calling them by a generic name: Picts.

The term "Late Antiquity", implying wider horizons, is finding more use in the academic community, especially when transformations of classical culture common throughout the post-Roman West are examined; it is less successfully applied to Britain at the time. The period may also be considered as part of the early Middle Ages, if continuity with the following periods is stressed. A range of more dramatic names are given to the period in popular (and some academic) works: the Dark Ages, the Brythonic Age, the Age of Tyrants, or the Age of Arthur.[1]

Written accounts

Statue of St. Patrick at the Hill of Tara, Ireland.

There is very little extant written material available from this period, though there is a considerable amount from later periods that may be relevant. A lot of it deals with the first few decades of the fifth century only. The sources can usefully be classified into British and continental, and into contemporary and non-contemporary.

Two primary contemporary British sources exist: the Confessio of Saint Patrick and Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain).[2] Patrick's Confessio and his Letter to Coroticus reveals aspects of life in Britain, from whence he was abducted to Ireland. It is particularly useful in highlighting the state of Christianity at the time. Gildas is the nearest to a source of Sub-Roman history but there are many problems in using it. The document represents British history as he and his audience understood it. Though a few other documents of the period do exist, such as Gildas' letters on monasticism, they are not directly relevant to British history. Gildas' De Excidio is a jeremiad; it is written as a polemic to warn contemporary rulers against sin, demonstrating through historical and biblical examples that bad rulers are always punished by God - in the case of Britain, through the destructive wrath of the Saxon invaders. The historical section of De Excidio is short, and the material in it is clearly selected with Gildas' purpose in mind. There are no absolute dates given, and some of the details, such as those regarding the Hadrian and Antonine Walls are clearly wrong. Nevertheless, Gildas does provide us with an insight into some of the kingdoms that existed when he was writing, and to how an educated monk perceived the situation that had developed between the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons.

There are more continental contemporary sources that mention Britain, though these are highly problematic. The most famous is the so-called Rescript of Honorius, in which the Western Emperor Honorius tells the British civitates to look to their own defence. The first reference to this rescript is written by the sixth-century Byzantine scholar Zosimus and is located randomly in the middle of a discussion of southern Italy; no further mention of Britain is made, which has led some, though not all, modern academics to suggest that the rescript does not apply to Britain, but to Bruttium in Italy.[3][4][5] The Gallic Chronicles, Chronica Gallica of 511 and Chronica Gallica of 452, says prematurely that "Britain, abandoned by the Romans, passed in to the power of the Saxons" and provides information about St Germanus and his visit(s) to Britain, though again this text has received considerable academic deconstruction.[6] The work of Procopius, another sixth-century Byzantine writer, makes some references to Britain though the accuracy of these is uncertain.

There are numerous later written sources that claim to provide accurate accounts of the period. The first to attempt this was the monk Bede, writing in the early 8th century. He based his account of the Sub-Roman period in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (c.731) heavily on Gildas, though he tried to provide dates for the events Gildas describes. It was written from an anti-Briton point of view. Later sources, such as the Historia Brittonum often attributed to Nennius, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (again written from a non-Briton point of view, based on West Saxon sources) and the Annales Cambriae are all heavily shrouded in myth and can only be used as evidence for this period with caution.[7] There are also documents giving Welsh poetry (of Taliesin and Aneirin) and land deeds (Llandaff charters) that appear to date back to the 6th century.

After the Norman Conquest there were many books written that purport to give the history of the Sub-Roman Period. These have been influenced by the fictionalised account in Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain". Therefore they can only be regarded as showing how the legends grew. Not until modern times have serious studies of the period been undertaken.

Some "Lives of Saints" relating to Celtic clerics are early, but most are late and unreliable. St. Thaddaeus is described as visiting a Roman villa at Chepstow while St Cuthbert visited deserted Carlisle.

Archaeological evidence

Archaeology provides further evidence for this period, though of a different nature than that provided by documents. Archaeology suggested to Richard Reece that the depopulation of Roman towns and the development of villa and estate organization was already a feature of the 4th century.[8] The fifth and sixth centuries in Britain are marked by a sharp discontinuity in town life, perhaps always a somewhat artificial Roman imposition on the landscape, dependent on imperial military requirements and requirements of administration and tax collection; the exceptions are a handful of sites: Londinium, Eboracum, and in spite of the loss of their Roman names, Canterbury, Wroxeter[9] and possibly Cambridge, but the discontinuity in the episcopate, "the institution most responsible for the survival of towns in Gaul", as H. R. Loyn observes, speaks against town survival in Britain.[10] The Roman villa system, represented by some five hundred archaeological sites, did not survive either; unlike Gaul, in Britain not a single villa name survived into the Germanic period. It may be possible that the villa system did not survive the disastrous Pictish incursions of 367 and following years.[11]

In the sub-Roman period, building in stone came to an end; buildings were constructed of less durable materials than during the Roman period. However, brooches, pottery and weapons from this period have survived. The study of burials and cremations, and the grave goods associated with these, has done much to expand the understanding of cultural identities in the period.[12] Archaeology has shown some evidence of continuity with Roman education, trade with the Mediterranean and with Celtic art.

Excavations of settlements have revealed how social structures might have been changing, and the extent to which life in Britain continued unaltered in certain pockets into the early medieval period. Excavations have taken place on hilltops, the so-called "Hillforts", Castra and monasteries. Work on towns has been particularly important in this respect. Work on the hill-forts has shown evidence of refurbishment in this period as well as evidence of overseas trade. One of the earliest major excavations was at Tintagel (Radford 1939). Rectangular structures were uncovered which were interpreted as a monastery together with much Mediterranean pottery. Later re-interpretation suggests that it was a princely stronghold and trading post. Another important excavation was at Dinas Powys (Alcock 1963) which showed evidence of metalworking. Alcock also led the excavations at South Cadbury (Alcock 1995). Many other sites have now been shown to have been occupied during the sub-Roman period, including Birdoswald and Saxon Shore forts.

Work on field systems and environmental archaeology has also highlighted the extent to which agricultural practice continued and changed over the period.[13] Archaeology, however, has its limits, especially in dating. Although radio-carbon dating can provide a rough estimate, this is not accurate enough to associate archaeological finds with historical events. Dendrochronology is accurate enough to do this, though few suitable pieces of wood have been uncovered.

Roman coins findings clearly indicate the areas of biggest "romanization" and presence in Roman Britain

Coins would normally prove the most useful tool for dating, though this is not the case for sub-Roman Britain since no newly-minted coins are believed to have entered circulation after the very early fifth century.[14]

There is some archaeological evidence for Anglo-Saxons and Britons living on the same site. For example, in the cemetery at Wasperton, Warwickshire, it is possible to see one family adopting Anglo-Saxon culture over a long period.[15]



Because of the sparse evidence for the period, many interpretations are possible. These have ranged from those taking all the sources at their face value (e.g. Alcock 1971, Morris 1973, Ashe 1985) to later ones discounting fully the non-contemporary sources. It is clear that any interpretation can only be tentative and dates more so.

At the start of the 5th century Britannia formed part of the Western Roman Empire under Honorius[16] However, signs of decline were already appearing and some Saxons may already have been in England as mercenaries. Roman troops were withdrawn by Stilicho in 402, and bulk coin payments ceased around this time. In 406 the army in Britain revolted, electing three successive "tyrants" the last of whom took the remaining troops to the continent. He became a joint emperor as Constantine III but was defeated and subsequently executed in 411. Meanwhile there were barbarian raids on Britain in 408 but these seem to have been defeated. After 410 Honorius apparently sent letters to the cities of Britain telling them to fend for themselves, though this is sometimes disputed. The withdrawal of Roman legions did not put an end to the Roman culture of the "lost province", which still remained part of the Roman cultural world, as Britons self-identified as Roman.

From the middle of the fifth century the Germanic raiders altered their intentions towards the island and began to settle in the eastern river valleys.[17] Later civil wars seem to have broken out, which have been interpreted either as being between pro-Roman and independence groups or between "Established Church" and Pelagian parties (Myres 1965, Morris 1965), a class struggle between peasants and land owners (Thompson 1977, Wood 1984) and a coup by an urban elite (Snyder 1988). A recent view explored by Laycock[18] sees Britain violently fragmenting at this time into kingdoms based on British tribal identities. However, mostly life seems to have continued as before in the countryside and on a reduced scale in the towns as evidenced by the descriptions of Germanus' visits. Feuding kingships replaced the centrally governed Roman provinces.

Gildas says that a "council" was convened by Vortigern to find ways of countering the barbarian threat, which opted to hire Saxon mercenaries following Roman practice. After a while these turned against the British and plundered the towns. A British leader Ambrosius Aurelianus fought against them, in a number of battles apparently over a long period. Towards the end of this period there was the Battle of Mons Badonicus, around AD 500, which later sources claimed was won by King Arthur though Gildas does not identify him. Subsequent to this there was a long period of peace. The British seem to have been in control of England and Wales roughly west of a line from York to Bournemouth. The Saxons had control of Northumberland as well as East Anglia and South East England.

Writing in Latin perhaps about AD 540, Gildas gives a preliminary account of the history of Britain but the earlier part (for which other sources are available) is severely muddled. He castigates five rulers in western Britain - Constantine of Dumnonia, Aurelius Caninus, Vortipor of the Demetae, Cuneglasus and Maglocunus - for their sins. He also attacks the British clergy. He gives information on the British diet, dress and entertainment. He writes that Britons were killed, emigrated or were enslaved but gives no idea of numbers.

In the late 6th century there was another period of Saxon expansion, starting with the capture by Wessex of Sarum in AD 552 and including entry into the Cotswolds area after the Battle of Deorham, though the accuracy of the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for this period has been questioned. This activity seems to have separated the Britons of the South West England (known later as the West Welsh) from those of Wales. (Just after the period being discussed, the Battle of Chester seems to have separated the latter from those of the north of England.) At the end of this period of British history the Britons were still in control of about half of England and Wales.



Various British kingdoms existed at some point in the period. Some changed their names and some were absorbed by others. At times some of the kingdoms were united by a ruler who was an overlord, while wars occurred between others. During the period the boundaries are likely to have changed. The major ones were:

There were also areas that became Anglian or Saxon kingdoms:-

  • Bernicia - the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia before joining with Deira to become Northumbria
  • Deira - the Anglian kingdom of Deira before joining with Bernicia to become Northumbria (most of modern Yorkshire)
  • East Anglia - including Suffolk and Norfolk
  • Kent
  • Hwicce - in most of Gloucestershire outside the Forest of Dean
  • Sussex
  • Essex - including Middlesex and Surrey
  • Wessex - formed from Saxon areas in the upper Thames valley and an area of Jutish settlement around Southampton (including Isle of Wight)
  • Mercia - centred on Repton
  • Middle Anglia - east Midlands, later joined with Mercia
  • Northumbria - formed from Bernicia and Deira


Officially the Roman Empire was Christian at the start of the 5th century, but there is evidence of rural pagan temples being refurbished at the start of this period in western England. However, most temples seem to have been replaced eventually by Christian churches on the same site or nearby. "Celtic" churches or monasteries seem to have flourished during this period in the British areas, such as that at Glastonbury, but the "Saxons" were pagan. This led to a great antipathy between the peoples. Many Roman cemeteries continued into much later times, such as that at Cannington, Somerset. In the east there was a gradual transition among the pagan Saxons from cremation to inhumation. Although the arrival of Saint Augustine is traditionally seen as the significant Christianising event for the Saxons, a bishop had already arrived in Kent with the king's Merovingian wife, and St Columba had preached to the northern Saxons (Angles?). Other Saxons remained pagan after this time.

In AD 429 a British Deacon Palladius had requested support from the Pope in Rome to combat Pelagianism. Bishops Germanus and Lupus of Troyes were sent. During this time it is alleged that Germanus, a former military commander, led the British to the "Halelujah" victory, possibly in Wales. Germanus is said[by whom?] to have made a second visit to England later. Participation by a British bishop at a synod in Gaul demonstrates that at least some British churches were in full administrative and doctrinal touch with Gaul as late as 455.[19]

In the north Whithorn is said to be the earliest church in Scotland, being founded in the 5th century by St Ninian. Corotius (or Ceretic) was a Christian king who was the recipient of the letter from St. Patrick. His base was Dumbarton Rock in Strathclyde and his descendant Riderch Hael is named in the "Life of St Columbus". Riderch was a contemporary of Aedan mac Gabrain of Dal Riata and Urien of Rheged, as well as of Aethelfrith of Bernicia. Unlike St Columba, Kentigern the supposed apostle to the Britons of the Clyde, and alleged founder of Glasgow, is a shadowy figure.

Anglo-Saxon migration

The famous Sutton Hoo helmet, 7th century

Linguistic evidence

Linguistics is a useful way of analysing the culture of a people, and to an extent political associations, in a period. Bede in Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (completed in 731) wrote that "currently, [there are in Britain] the languages of five peoples, namely that of the Angles (English), the Britons (Welsh), the Scots (Gaelic), the Picts and the Latins" (HE 1.1).[20] A review of the Brythonic language changes during this period is given by Kenneth H. Jackson[21] Studies of Old English, P- and Q-Celtic and Latin have provided evidence for contact between the Britons, the Gaels, and the Anglo-Saxons. The general consensus is that Old English has little evidence of linguistic contact. Some scholars have suggested that there is more evidence in the grammar than in the lexicon, though this is challenged by many.[22][23][24][25] Latin continued to be used for writing but the extent of its use for speech has been much disputed.

Similarly, studies of placenames give clues about the linguistic history of an area. England (except Cornwall and Cumbria) shows little evidence now of Celtic in its placenames. There are scattered Celtic placenames throughout, increasing towards the west. There are also Celtic river names and topographical names. The place-name and linguistic evidence has been explained by saying that the settlement of Anglo-Saxons, being politically and socially dominant in the south and east of Britain, meant that their language and culture also became dominant. Names with a Latin element may suggest continuity of settlement, while some place names have names of pagan Germanic deities. Names of British origin may be taken as indicating survival of a British population, though this may not be so. Names based on the Anglo-Saxon word for the British, wealh, are also taken as indicating British survival. An example is Walton meaning settlement of the British[26] and this name is found in many parts of England, though it sometimes means Wall-town.[27]

Epigraphic evidence from surviving inscriptions on stones provide another source of information on the settlements of Britons and the Anglo-Saxons in this period. Celtic inscribed stones occur in western England and Wales that relate to this period and the CISP project has been set up to record these and provide information online. In the northwest the inscriptions are written in runes and provide information on the settlement of Angles. (Inscriptions in northern Scotland are in ogham, some in an unknown language.)

Extent of the migrations

Two contrasting models of the end of sub-Roman Britain have been characterized by Richard Reece as "decline and immigration" and "invasion and displacement".[28] It has long been held that the Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in large numbers in the fifth and sixth centuries, substantially displacing the British people. The Anglo-Saxon historian Frank Stenton in 1943, although making considerable allowance for British survival, essentially sums up this view, arguing "that the greater part of southern England was overrun in the first phase of the war".[29] This interpretation was based on the written sources, particularly Gildas but also the later sources such as the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede, that cast the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons as a violent event. The placename and linguistic evidence was also considered to support this interpretation, as very few British place-names survived in eastern Britain, very few British Celtic words entered the Old English language and the migration of Brythonic language and peoples from south-western Britain to Armorica, which eventually became Brittany. This interpretation particularly appealed to earlier English historians, who wanted to further their view that England had developed differently from Europe with a limited monarchy and love of liberty. This, it was argued, came from the mass Anglo-Saxon invasions. While this view was never universal — Edward Gibbon believed that there had been a great deal of British survival — it was the dominant paradigm. Though many scholars would now utilise this argument, the traditional view is still held by many other historians, Lawrence James recently writing that England was 'submerged by an Anglo-Saxon current which swept away the Romano-British.'[30]

The traditional view has been deconstructed to a degree (a considerable degree in some circles) since the 1990s. At the centre of this is a re-estimation of the numbers of Anglo-Saxons arriving in Britain during this period. A lower figure is sometimes accepted, which would mean that it is highly unlikely that the existing British population was substantially displaced by the Anglo-Saxons.[31] The Anglo-Saxons are suggested to have formed a ruling elite with acculturisation of the local population if the lowest of figures are used. Thus some "Saxon" graves may be of Britons though many scholars would disagree with this interpretation.[32][33][34][35][36]

End of Roman Britain

Various dates of the end of Roman Britain have been advanced, from the end of Roman currency coinage importation in 402, to Constantine III's rebellion in 407, to the rebellion mentioned by Zosimus in 409, and the Rescript of Honorius in 410.[37] It is perhaps better not to think of this in terms of modern decolonisation. The dating of the end of Roman Britain is complex, and the exact process of it is probably unknowable.

There is some controversy as to why Roman rule ended in Britain. The view first advocated by Mommsen was that Rome left Britain.[38] This argument was substantiated over time, most recently by A.S. Esmonde-Cleary.[39] According to this argument, internal turmoil in the Roman Empire and the need to withdraw troops to fight off barbarian armies led Rome to abandon Britain. It was the collapse of the imperial system that led to the end of imperial rule in Britain. However, Michael Jones has advanced an alternative thesis that argues that Rome did not leave Britain, but that Britain left Rome.[40] He highlights the numerous usurpers who came from Britain in the late fourth and early fifth century, and that a supply of coinage to Britain had dried up by the early fifth century, meaning administrators and troops were not getting paid. All of this, he argues, led the British people to rebel against Rome. Both of these arguments are open to criticism, though as yet no further developments have been made in understanding why the end of Roman Britain occurred.

However, the violent nature of the period should not be overlooked, and it is likely that this period was a time of endemic tension, alluded to in all of the written sources. This may have led to the deaths of a substantial number of the British population. There are also references to plagues. Laycock (Britannia the Failed State 2008) suggests tribal conflict, possibly even starting before 410, may have sliced up much of Britain and helped destroy the economy. The evidence from land use suggests a decline in production, which might be a sign of population decline.[41]

It is clear that some British people migrated to the continent, which resulted in the region of Armorica in northwest Gaul becoming known as Brittany. There is also evidence of British migration to Gallaecia, in Hispania. The dating of these migrations is uncertain, but recent studies suggest that the migration from southwestern Britain to Brittany may have begun as early as AD 300 and was largely ended by 500. These settlers, unlikely to be refugees if the date was this early, made their presence felt in the naming of the westernmost, Atlantic-facing provinces of Armorica, Kerne/Cornouaille ("Kernow/Cornwall") and Domnonea ("Devon").[42] However, there is clear linguistic evidence for close contacts between the southwest of Britain and Brittany across the sub-Roman period.[43]

In Galicia, in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, another region of traditional Celtic culture, the Suebian Parochiale, drawn up about 580, includes a list of the principal churches of each diocese in the metropolitanate of Braga (the ecclesia Britonensis, now Bretoña), which was the seat of a bishop who ministered to the spiritual needs of the British immigrants to northwestern Spain: in 572 its bishop, Mailoc, had a Celtic name.[44] The settlers had brought their Celtic Christianity with them but finally accepted the Latin Rite at the Council of Toledo in 633. The diocese stretched from Ferrol to the Eo River. In Spain, the area has sometimes been dubbed "the third Britain" or "the last Britain".[45]

Non-Anglo-Saxon kingdoms began appearing in western Britain, which are first referred to in Gildas's De Excidio. To an extent these kingdoms may have derived from Roman structures.[46] However, it is also clear that they drew on a strong influence from Hibernia, which was never part of the Roman Empire. Archaeology has helped further the study of these kingdoms, notably at sites like Tintagel or the South Cadbury hill-fort.

In the north there developed the British kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd, the "Old North", comprising Ebrauc (probable name), Bryneich, Rheged, Strathclyde, Elmet and Gododdin. Fifth and sixth century repairs along Hadrian's Wall have been uncovered, and at Whithorn in southwestern Scotland (possibly the site of St Ninian's monastery). Chance discoveries have helped document the continuing urban occupation of some Roman towns such as Wroxeter and Caerwent.[47] Continued urban use might be associated with an ecclesiastical structure.

Western Britain has attracted those archaeologists who wish to place King Arthur as a historical figure.[48] Though there is little contemporary written evidence for this, archaeological evidence does suggest a possibility that a Romano-British king might have wielded considerable power during the sub-Roman period, as demonstrated by the creation of sites such as Tintagel and earthworks such as the Wansdyke. Such interpretations continue to attract the popular imagination and the scepticism of academics.

While pushed back politically and linguistically, British scholars and ecclesiastics had a significant impact on the Anglo-Saxon newcomers through literacy, ecclesiastical social constructs and historical memory of the Roman period in Britain, particularly after the Christianizing of the Anglo-Saxons by Augustine. Coming from a fully oral cultural background the Anglo-Saxons were heavily influenced by the more developed Christianized and literate culture of the Britons. British scholars were often employed at Anglo-Saxon courts to assist in the management of the kingdoms. Through this process, British culture was re-introduced to those parts of Britain lost to the British politically. The epitome of this process is the adoption of the legendary British war leader, King Arthur, as the national hero of the English, due to the literary work of Welsh historians.

Environmental change effects

There is evidence for climate change in the fifth century, with conditions turning cooler and wetter. This shortened the growing season and made uplands unsuited to growing grain. Dendrochronology reveals a particular climatic event in 540.[49] Michael Jones suggests that declining agricultural production from land that was already fully exploited had considerable demographic consequences.[50]

Population fluctuation

Theories for reduction


Slaves were the engine of both the economy and the army in the Roman Empire. Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary, with some estimating that approximately 30% of the population of the Empire in the 1st century was enslaved.[51] The Germanic region was one of the main sources of slaves. The business of selling slaves was mostly carried out by wholesale dealers, who followed the Roman armies. There was a reduction of sources for procurement of slaves after the expansion phase, and afterwards (around 210 AD) there was a significant increase of piracy in the North Sea region that helped the Empire partially resolve the problem. Pirates often attacked villages in that area, capturing people for ransom or to sell as slaves.

Under Diocletian, the Ius Colonatus was a reform of the slavery system introduced around 286 AD (similar to later Serfdom). This provided a set of rights for slaves and improved their living conditions. The owners of slaves paid a tax to prevent the recruitment of slaves in the army. This led to a germanisation and barbarisation of the army, as the tax was used to recruit mercenaries. The island was hardly defensible, so the Romans were forced to keep 3 or 4 legions in place to defend it. After the Battle of Adrianople the Foederati reforms extended the practice of subsidizing entire barbarian tribes in exchange for them providing warriors to fight in the Roman armies. The Hospitalitas reform involved the granting of a third of the land (or fees) of a region to barbarians who had invaded those lands. In return, these people declared loyalty to the Emperor and provided military support, whilst retaining their independence. If the theory is correct Germanic peoples may have been resident in Britain before and after these reforms.

Between the third and fifth century many people living around the borders of the empire were displaced by raids by the Huns; this was the period of highest movement of Germanic populations towards the island.

Plague of Justinian

The population of Britain may have decreased after the Roman period by between 1.5 and 3 million. This reduction may have been caused by environmental changes or by plague and smallpox (around 600 AD, the smallpox spread from India into Europe).[52] It is known that the Plague of Justinian entered the Mediterranean world in the 6th century and first arrived in the British Isles in 544 or 545, when it reached Ireland.[53] It is estimated that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 100 million people across the world. It caused Europe's population to drop by around 50% between 550 and 700.

Anglo-Saxon settlement

According to research led by University College London, Anglo-Saxon settlers could have enjoyed a substantial social and economic advantage over the native Celtic Britons[54] who lived in what is now England, for more than 300 years from the middle of the 5th century.[55][56][57] However, this scenario, assuming that the Anglo-Saxons were just Germanic Ingaevones, has been questioned.[58][59][60]

Archaeologists have uncovered Celtic artifacts in England dating from later times than the supposed Anglo-Saxon 'apartheid' of Britons was believed to take place[citation needed]. Areas around the Pennines still retained a strong Celtic culture, a prime example being the speaking of the Cumbric language until late into the 12th century, and the Cornish language even longer, until the 18th century. Celtic traditions and words have survived even until today, such as Cornish, Cumbrian and Lancashire wrestling and many placenames (such as Pen-y-Ghent in Yorkshire).

Minor migrations theories

The traditional view about the numbers of Anglo-Saxons arriving in Britain during this period has been deconstructed. Incoming people uniting with the existing population could explain why the island conquest was as slow and incomplete as it was, and why the island was exposed to external attacks by Danish pirates and Normans, as well as other issues about the population composition .

Stephen Oppenheimer theories

Stephen Oppenheimer, basing his research on the Weale and Capelli studies, maintains that all invasions since the Romans have had very little impact upon the gene pool of the British Isles, and that its inhabitants from prehistoric times belong to an Iberian genetic grouping. He says that most people on the Isles are genetically similar to the Basque peoples of northern Spain, from 90% in Wales to 66% in East Anglia (named after the Germanic Anglo-Saxons), in England. Oppenheimer suggests that the division between the West and the East of England does not begin with the Anglo-Saxon invasion but originates with two main routes of genetic flow — one up the Atlantic coast, the other from neighbouring areas of Continental Europe - which happened just after the Last Glacial Maximum. He reports work on linguistics by Forster and Toth which suggests that Indo-European languages began to fragment some 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. He claims that the Celtic languages split from the Indo-European earlier than previously suspected, some 6000 years ago. He claims that the English language split from the Germanic before the Roman period, and became the English that was spoken by the tribes of what is now England, long before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon.[61][62]

In its summary of their article 'Who were the Celts?' the National Museum of Wales note "It is possible that future genetic studies of ancient and modern human DNA may help to inform our understanding of the subject. However, early studies have, so far, tended to produce implausible conclusions from very small numbers of people and using outdated assumptions about linguistics and archaeology."[63]

See also


  1. ^ John Morris, The Age of Arthur (1973) is his title for a popular history of the British Isles from 350 to 650.
  2. ^ Discussion in Ken Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, (Stroud: Tempus, 2000), pp.32-7
  3. ^ Birley, Anthony Richard The Roman Government of Britain OUP Oxford (29 Sep 2005) ISBN 978-0199252374 pp.461-463
  4. ^ Halsall, Guy Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 Cambridge University Press; illustrated edition edition (20 Dec 2007) ISBN 978-0521434911 pp.217-218
  5. ^ Discussion in Martin Millett, The Romanization of Britain, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and in Philip Bartholomew 'Fifth-Century Facts' Britannia vol. 13, 1982 p. 260
  6. ^ Michael Jones and John Casey, 'The Gallic Chronicle Restored: A Chronology for the Anglo-Saxon Invasions and the End of Roman Britain', Britannia 19, (1988), pp.367-98; R.W. Burgess, 'The Dark Ages Return to Fifth-Century Britain: The 'Restored' Gallic Chronicle Exploded', Britannia 21, (1990), pp.185-195
  7. ^ David Dumville, "Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend", History 62, (1977), pp.173-92
  8. ^ , "Town and Country: The End of Roman Britain", World Archaeology 12.1, (June 1980:77-92); Simon T. Loseby, "Power and towns in Late Roman Britain and early Anglo-Saxon England" in Gisela Ripoll and Josep M. Gurt, eds., Sedes regiae (ann. 400-800), (Barcelona, 2000:319-70 (on-line text) makes a strong case for the discontinuty of urban life.
  9. ^ Philip Barker's excavation in the Baths Basilica at Wroxeter, (1975) is noted by R. Reece, "Town and country: the end of Roman Britain", World Archaeology, 1980.
  10. ^ H.R. Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd ed. 1991:15f: "it is altogether unlikely that organized town-life can have survived through the troubles of the fifth and sixth centuries. Gildas lamented the destruction of the twenty-eight cities of Britain, and there is no reason to doubt the essential truth of his statement" (p16).
  11. ^ Loyn 1991:16f.
  12. ^ See discussion in A.S. Esmonde Cleary, "The Roman to medieval transition" in Britons and Romans: advancing an archaeological agenda. ed. S. James & M. Millett, (York: Council for British Archaeology, 2001)
  13. ^ John Davey, "The Environs of South Cadbury in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Periods" in Debating Late Antiquity in Britain AD300-700. ed. Rob Collins & James Gerrard, (Oxford: British Archaeological Review, 2004)
  14. ^ A.S. Esmond Cleary, The Ending of Roman Britain, (London: Batsford, 1989), pp.138-139
  15. ^ Helena Hamerow, 'The earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms' in The New Cambridge Medieval History, I, c.500-c.700. ed. Paul Fouracre, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.265
  16. ^ [1] [2].
  17. ^ H.R. Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd ed. 1991:3.
  18. ^ Laycock, Britannia the Failed State 2008.
  19. ^ H. R. Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd ed. 1991:3.
  20. ^ in praesenti … quinque gentium linguis, … Anglorum uidelicet, Brettonum, Scottorum, Pictorum et Latinorum
  21. ^ See Kenneth Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain: A Chronological Survey of the Brittonic Languages, (Edinburgh, 1953) for a traditional introduction
  22. ^ Roberts, Ian G.. 'Verbs and diachronic syntax: a comparative history of English and French Volume 28 of Studies in natural language and linguistic theory Volume 28 of NATO Asi Series. Series C, Mathematical and Physical Science'. 
  23. ^
  24. ^ Hickey, Raymond. 'Early Contact And Parallels Between English and Celtic.' in 'Vienna English Working Papers'. 
  25. ^ van Gelderen, Elly. 'A History of the English Language'. 
  26. ^ Hamerow, H. 1993 Excavations at Mucking, Volume 2: The Anglo-Saxon Settlement (English Heritage Archaeological Report 21)
  27. ^
  28. ^ Reece, "Models of continuity", Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 8 1989:231-36, p.234.
  29. ^ F.M. Stenton, The Anglo-Saxons, 3rd edition, (Oxford: University Press, 1973), p.30
  30. ^ Lawrence James, Warrior Race, (London: Abacus. 2002), p.30
  31. ^ Michael Jones, The End of Roman Britain, pp.8-38.
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^ Andrew Tyrrell, Corpus Saxon in Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain by Andrew Tyrrell and William O. Frazer (London: Leicester University Press. 2000)
  37. ^ See for instance E.A. Thompson, 'Britain, AD 406-410', Britannia 8, (1977), pp.303-18 and P. Bartholomew, 'Fifth-Century Facts', Britannia 13, (1982), pp.261-70
  38. ^ See discussion in Michael Jones, The End of Roman Britain, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp.256-7
  39. ^ Esmonde-Cleary, The Ending of Roman Britain, p.161
  40. ^ Michael Jones, The End of Roman Britain, esp. chapters 4 and 7
  41. ^ Davey, The Environs of South Cadbury, p50
  42. ^ Gwenaël le Duc, "The Colonisation of Brittany from Britain: New Approaches and Questions" in Celtic Connections: Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Celtic Studies. Volume One. ed. Black, Gillies and Ó Maolaigh, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1999), ISBN 1-898410-77-1
  43. ^ Wendy Davies, "The Celtic Kingdoms" in The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume I, c.500-c.700. ed. Paul Fouracre, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp255–61
  44. ^ Fletcher, Saint James's Catapult, ch. 1, note 61.
  45. ^ "San Rosendo, bispo dunha Igrexa direfente nunha Galicia distinta" (Galician), La Voz de Galicia
  46. ^ Ken Dark, Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, pp.150–192
  47. ^ Roger White and Philip Barker, Wroxeter: Life and Death of a Roman City, (Stroud: Tempus, 1998)
  48. ^ Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology AD 367–634, (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, 1971), ISBN 0-7139-0245-0; Francis Pryor, Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons. (Harper Collins, 2004), ISBN 0-00-718186-8
  49. ^ Davey, 'The Environs of South Cadbury', p.50
  50. ^ Jones, The End of Roman Britain, pp.186-243
  51. ^ Welcome to Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to History
  52. ^ Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination
  53. ^ 6th-10th century AD
  54. ^ English and Welsh are races apart
  55. ^ Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England
  56. ^ Ancient Britain Had Apartheid-Like Society, Study Suggests
  57. ^ 'Apartheid' slashed Celtic genes in early England
  58. ^ Germanic invaders 'did not bring apartheid' to Anglo-Saxon Britain
  59. ^ Germanic Invaders may not have ruled by apartheid
  60. ^ John Pattison, Is it necessary to assume an apatheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England? Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 275(1650), 2423-2429, 2008.
  61. ^
  62. ^ Oppenheimer, S. (2006). The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story: Constable and Robinson, London. ISBN 978-1-84529-158-7.
  63. ^ "Who were the Celts? ... Rhagor". Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales website. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. 2007-05-04. Retrieved 2009-10-14. 


Further reading

  • Alcock, Leslie (1963) Dinas Powys. Cardiff: University of Wales Press
  • Alcock, Leslie (1971) Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology AD 367 - 634. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press ISBN 0-7139-0245-0
  • Alcock, Leslie (1972) By South Cadbury is that Camelot. London: Thames and Hudson
  • Alcock, Leslie et al. (1995) Cadbury Castle, Somerset: the early Medieval Archaeology. Cardiff: University of Wales Press
  • Collins, Rob & Gerrard, James (eds.) (2004) Debating Late Antiquity in Britain AD 300-700, Oxford: British Archaeological Review
  • Dark, Kenneth (1992) "A Sub-Roman Redefense of Hadrian's Wall" in Britannia, 23, pp. 111–120
  • Dark, Kenneth (1993) Civitas to Kingdom: British Continuity 300-800. Leicester University Press
  • Dark, Kenneth (2000) Britain and the End of the Roman Empire Stroud: Tempus
  • Davies, Wendy (1978) An Early Welsh Microcosm: Studies in the Llandaff Charters. London: Royal Historical Society
  • Dumville, David N. (1977) "Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend", in: History, 62, pp. 173–92
  • Esmonde-Cleary, A. S. (1989) The Ending of Roman Britain. London: Batsford
  • Fouracre, Paul (ed.) (2005) The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume I, c.500-c.700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Jones, Michael E. (1996) The End of Roman Britain Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  • Higham, Nicholas (1992) Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons. London, Seaby
  • Higham, Nicholas (1994) The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century. Manchester University Press
  • Jones, Michael (1996) The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  • Lapidge, Michael & Dumville, David (1984) Gildas: New Approaches. Woodbridge: Boydell
  • Morris, John (1973) The Age of Arthur
  • Morris, John (1980) Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals. Chichester: Phillimore
  • Morris, John (gen. ed.) Arthurian Period Sources volumes 1-9, general editor: John Morris, Phillimore & Co, Chichester (includes full text of Gildas & Nennius, St Patrick material and various annals and charters)
  • Myres, John (1960) Pelagius and the End of Roman Rule in Britain. In: Journal of Roman Studies, 50, 21-36.
  • Pryor, Francis (2004) Britain AD: a Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons. London: Harper Collins ISBN 0-00-718186-8
  • Radford, C. A. Ralegh (1939) Tintagel Castle. London: H.M.S.O. (Reprinted by English Heritage 1985)
  • Ridley, Ronald (1982) Zosimus: New History. Sydney
  • Snyder, Christopher (1996) An Age of Tyrants. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press
  • Thomas, Charles (1993) Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology. London: English Heritage
  • Thompson, E. A. (1984) St Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain. Woodbridge: Boydell
  • Winterbottom, Michael (ed.) (1978) Gildas, The Ruin of Britain and Other Works. Chichester: Phillimore
  • Wood, Ian (1987) "The Fall of the Western Empire and the End of Roman Britain", in: Britannia vol. 18, pp. 251–262.

External links

Preceded by
Sub-Roman Britain
410– circa 550
Succeeded by
The Heptarchy

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