The Birth of the Saxon Kingdoms

The period following the Roman withdrawal was one of gradual turmoil and civic breakdown, although St Patrick, writing some ten years after the Roman departure noted that, in the towns at least, some order continued and civil taxes were still being collected and services maintained. The drift was however, towards a return to tribalism with many people leaving the larger towns and returning to the more easily defended hill forts. The power vacuum thus created was to be filled by the Anglo Saxons.

These people were first recorded in 98AD, by the Roman historian Tacitus who describes them as worshippers of the Goddess Nerthus the Earth Mother.

This was no single unstoppable wave of invaders, more of a gradual process. The Romans would doubtless have used these peoples as auxiliaries in their British garrisons and many would have settled in Briton at the end of their service. It would be natural for some of their kin to join them over a period and add to the established settlements.

The Anglo Saxons
The name has now come to mean the Germanic peoples who established themselves in Britain in the wake of the Roman departure and covers the three main tribes, the Angles from the Angeln peninsula, the Saxons from Saxony and the Jutes from Jutland and the Frisian coast, although there were others. Over time the Angles created the northern kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria, the Saxons, those of Essex, Sussex and Wessex, while the Jutes settled Kent and parts of Hampshire. 

We have read earlier how the high king Vortigern also invited warriors from these tribes to come to Briton to bolster his defence against northern raiders, offering land to them as payment, including a large part of the Briton kingdom of Ceint (Kent) which was handed over to them much to the anger of the Gwyrangon, its ruler. Thus many had already settled here and would have had regular contact with their European kin. The word would have soon got out that Britain without the Romans was easy prey and the wild Germanic warriors would have crossed the North Sea to join their fellows on a piecemeal basis, joining the existing settlements and, as their strength grew, moved out to see what the land had to offer.

Having established themselves in the south east of the country, the Anglo Saxon invaders ranged westwards and northwards, driving the Britons to the margins, the mountains, the forests and islands, while some left the country altogether and crossed the water to Armorica, (Brittany) and northern Spain where they re-established a Celtic culture in Broceliande that mirrored the Cornish model from whence it sprang.

The Anglo Saxon warrior was armed with a spear between five and nine feet long, the shorter being used for throwing. The more prosperous might also carry a sword although these being craft-made weapons made by the slow process of pattern welding, that is, the repeated heating and hammering together of metal strips, made their cost prohibitive to most until the improving quality of iron ore meant that swords could be produced more cheaply. For defence he wore a mail shirt reaching to his knees under which he would wear a padded leather jacket.

The mail shirt, or byrnie, was made of hundreds of iron rings about a third of an inch in diameter welded and riveted in rows and could weigh up to 25 pounds. This gave protection from slashing blows, but could be penetrated by spears and arrows. He would also carry a limewood shield covered in leather and usually rimmed with iron. In battle this would be used in the standard formation of the shieldwall or “bordweall” where the warriors stood in line with shields overlapping and spears pointing forward. This formation, reminiscent of the Roman version, remained the standard infantry tactic for centuries and would have been known to Dark Age commanders through the writings of Roman military strategists like Vegetius who described them in some detail.

Vegetius also recommended the wedge as a tactic to break up a shieldwall. This was often used by the later Viking invaders who would mass in front of a shieldwall in a wedge shaped column and attempt to punch a hole in the wall through which men could pour and outflank the enemy. They compared this to a charging boar and called it “svinfylking”.

Horses were used by the Anglo Saxon forces for scouting and pursuing defeated enemies, but primarily for transport on the march.
By 500AD, a number of Anglo Saxon mini kingdoms had come into existence in the south east corner of the country. It is known that the Saxon Aelle landed at Cumenosara near Selsy Bill and fought off a much larger native force. He established a kingdom of the South Saxons (Sussex) around 477AD and held it despite fierce opposition from the Britons. Another battle was fought at Mearcredesburna, meaning something akin to “Stream near the agreed frontier”, possibly the Cuckmere on the Sussex/Hampshire border. The outcome of the battle is unknown, but as the Chronicle was Saxon biased, we may assume that the invaders lost.

A major battle was fought at Pevensy in 491AD which is said to have ended with the Saxons slaughtering the Britons “to the last man”. From this base he ranged wide with fire and sword driving the Britons ever westward and northward. The writer Bede records Aelle as the first king to have overlordship over other Anglo Saxon kingdoms. We know that the fighting was by no means one sided and that the Britons under various leaders fought many battles to stem the tide of newcomers, culminating in the battle of Mount Blaydon (or Badon) where the victorious Britons imposed a truce on the invaders that reputedly lasted for fifty years.

Next to arrive was the Saxon Cerdic who, with his son Cynric, landed with three keels (ships) near the modern Southampton, which he called Hamwic, in 495AD. The word wic coming from the Latin vicus which means a place and is still used today in centres such as Norwich and Ipswich. The Chronicle tells that he “fought the Welsh on the same day”. His name has a British rather than German origin and it is believed that his mother was Celtic and either emigrated from Britain or was from one of the Celtic tribes in Gaul.

Interestingly, the Chronicle refers to Cerdic as an Eolderman and it is possible that his people had settled in the area in the Romano British era to form part of the Roman defence of the Saxon Shore and he seized the moment to gain power following the defeat of the Saxons at Mount Badon. Furthermore, it was only in 519AD that the Chronicle records that he “began to reign” suggesting that he ceased to be a dependant vassal or Ealdorman and became a king in his own right. Either way, all the English monarchs, plus many European royal houses are said to descended from him.

We next hear of Cerdic when in 508AD he reputedly fought and killed a British king named Natanload, plus five thousand of his warriors at Netley in Hampshire. He thereafter named the conquered territory Nanleaga, meaning “wet wood”. He went on to capture Winchester and erected a heathen temple on the smoking ruins of the old church. He consolidated his position until in 519AD he again fought and defeated the Britons at Cerdicesford (Charford), dating his reign as king of the West Saxons (Wessex) from this time.

He expanded his territory by invading the Isle of Wight in 530AD and defeating its inhabitants in a fight at Wihtgaraesburh, (Wihtgars Fort) now known as Carrisbrook, the name of the island stemming from the fort’s Jutish builder.  It is thought that Cerdic died in 534AD and was succeeded by his son Cynric who set about expanding his rule in the captured territories. The Britons did not give up their lands easily however and fought him again at Searobyrig (Old Sarum) in 552AD and later at Beranburh, now identified as Barbary Camp, where Cynric and his son Ceawlin won another great victory.

There must be doubts about the dates given in the Chronicle for these events. If Cynric really did arrive with his son at the turn of the sixth century and if he fought at Netley, it is unlikely that he would still be wielding a sword some 45 years later! This is another example of how carefully the Chronicle must be interpreted in its dating, due to the cyclical nature of its writings that seem to repeat every nineteen years, a device used by the writers to calculate the true date of Easter.

It must also be remembered that it was written from an Anglo Saxon perspective and makes very little reference to the lives and times of the indigenous population. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory, writing respectively some six hundred and one thousand years later, record a parallel Britain whose kings lived, fought and died during the time of Cerdic and Cynric. Much of their work is taken from the writings of Nennius and other Welsh scribes and inevitably has a British/Celtic slant.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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