The Sun Never Sets on the Anglo-Saxons (part 2)
The genetic impact of the Anglo-Saxon conquest and how Britain became England
Related: Part 1, Britain’s final triumphant wave of genetic conquerors.
Julius Caesar was the first Roman general to make landfall in Britain, but his sojourn was to be brief, almost a false start. Rome left Britain’s fractious tribes to their own devices again until the reign of the accidental Emperor Claudius. He sent legions across the English Channel nearly a century after Caesar’s expedition, hoping to add luster to his reign by the conquest of the misty, distant land.
Roman rule in Britain across nearly four centuries was nondescript. It was not a particularly rich province, on the geographical margins and abutting cold, barbarian lands. The Romans never conquered Scotland and Ireland because they were even poorer than Britain, though they did periodically send punitive expeditions against the Pictish tribes of the north who were given to raiding Imperial territory. Though Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, rose to this position in York in 306 AD after his father died amid a campaign against the Picts, the Roman world never saw a ruler of British origin. Unlike the legions of the Rhine in the first century or those of Pannonia in the third century (from which Constantine’s family had emerged), British armies were never kingmakers in Imperial politics. After 410 AD, the official Roman military presence ended when the legions left for the mainland with the Western Empire collapsing under its own weight. Britain disappeared from the Imperial records, no longer even a backwater Roman outpost.
The nearly two centuries between the withdrawal of the legions and the arrival of Christian missionaries from Rome are hidden in shadow and defined by myth. In the early 5th century, Britain had been like any Roman province, its countryside dominated by villas and urban elite life centered around cities like York, Bath and London. The Latin-speaking ruling class worshiped and patronized Roman gods like Mithras, Isis and Christ. But the rural areas, dominated by peasant farmers, were still heavily Celtic, both in speech and pagan belief. The myth of King Arthur, the native British ruler with a patina of Roman culture, who fought pagan Saxons to a standstill springs from this semi-historical grayland, as the Isles regressed back into misty prehistory defined by oral culture. Historians still debate whether Arthur was a real Romano-British king. These debates are unlikely to ever be settled, as the oldest Arthurian legends derive from Welsh folklore that reflects the oral culture of post-Roman Celtic Britain. There are no historical annals of the time that can shed light on the role of imagination in embellishing the grains of truth.
By 600 AD, if it had indeed ever existed, the world of Arthur, depicted as occupying an equipoise between Roman civilization and Celtic barbarity, was gone. By then, tribes speaking Germanic dialects dominated most of the island of Britain. The Angles occupied the largest expanse, the north, center and east of the island, while the Saxons were ascendant in the southwest and the Jutes ruled the tiny kingdom of Kent in the far southeast. The native Celts, Britain’s original Britons who were holdovers from Roman times and prior, clung to the island's far western edge. These tribes would eventually mature into the medieval kingdoms of Wales and Cornwall. In the far north, lay Celtic kingdoms like Rheged, Gododdin and Elmet, doomed to be conquered by the Angles in the early 7th century, and now recalled only as legends in Welsh folktales and leaving behind Scottish names like Wallace, derived from the word Welsh.