The Dark Beginning of British Ancestry: Anglo Saxons, Myths and the Literary Ethnogenesis

Soma Biswas

Assistant Professor of English, Balagarh Bijoy Krishna Mahavidyalaya

Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Britannia was once the warring grounds of Germanic tribes who vandalised and terrorised the land until the Anglo Saxons, a coherent identifiable set of them settled down to give England its national identity that has prevailed since antiquity. They came as raiders but their name endures etched on the land itself. It was Bede who in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) divided the Germanic Conquerors into Angles, Saxons and Jutes though it is an oversimplification as there were other tribal groups like the Vandals, Frisians and the Suebians. The Saxons were infamous pirates that terrorised both sides of the English Channel. They were a savage group of barbarian mercenaries who lived for glory and gold constantly waging wars. Their reputation as great warriors made them excellent recruits for the Roman army. As such they record their early arrivals in England as soldiers employed by the Romans during the invasion of 55 AD. The decline of the Roman rule and the weakness of the post imperial British authorities were the reason behind large scale settlement of the Anglo-Saxons. Their native settlements stretched along the inhospitable coastline of the North Sea were flooded and they were forced out of their known land and they joined the hordes of barbarians on the move. Migration brought with it hardships, more battles and exile. The promising land of Britain lay across the turbulent North Sea which was the North western edge of the Roman Empire. For 400 years the Romans have ruled Britain with an iron fist but when the Barbarians attacked Rome itself they decide to abandon the Island to defend the Roman heartlands leaving Britain vulnerable to several attacks from several Northern tribes which are mainly thought to be the Picts and the Scots. According to Bede it was around 449 AD the Germanic warrior brothers Hengist and Horsa led their troops across the English Channel on the bequest of the then British king Vortigern to provide military assistance but soon the mercenaries revolted against the king thus setting in motion the juggernaut that displaced and marginalised the native Britons supplanting their long established culture with that of the Anglo Saxons. They forever changed the cultural, linguistic and political contours of Britannia driving the native inhabitants to what is now known as Wales and Ireland to the west and the north-west and bringing in a huge Germanic influx to the island. There were two great invasions subsequently, one by the Vikings in the late eighth century and the Normans in the eleventh century but a prime difference between these two invasions and that of the continental mercenaries in the Fifth Century is that they didn’t intermix with the natives and simply displaced them and their culture. Very few traces of their language and culture survive in the Anglo Saxon period. Politically there came the establishment of Heptarchy: among the seven kingdoms were Kent formed by the Jutes, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria formed by the Angles and Essex, Sussex and Wessex formed by the Saxons. However, after repeated annexure and unification of kingdoms, by the mid ninth century England was divided into just four kingdoms, Northumbria in the north, Mercia, East Anglia in the east and Wessex in the south.

In the second half of the Ninth century the Norse from Scandinavia started invading Europe and it was the Danes who wrought havoc throughout Western Europe. From the end of the Eighth Century to the ninth Century there were frequent raids of the Vikings and the Danes but eventually the Danes turned conquerors and they faced major resistance from Wessex when Alfred the Great ascended the throne. Wessex remained the only independent Saxon kingdom and after successive battles in 878 AD he made a truce sundering England into a West Saxon sphere of dominance in the southwest and the “Danelaw” in the northeast. Alfred carried out a series of military and cultural reforms, like building a fleet of ships to fight the Danes at sea and a network of forts called burhs that consolidated the foundation of the Anglo Saxon kingdom further enhanced by his son Edward the Elder (ruled 899-924), and his descendants in the tenth century to expand across the Danelaw and metamorphose Wessex into England. In this respect Edward’s son Athelstan played a major role who in as early as 927 AD extended Anglo Saxon rule over Northumbria and proved his dominance over the Northern kings for more than a decade. His kingdom can roughly be estimated to be the size of modern England. He is best noted for his exploits at the Battle of Brunanburh. As celebrated in various annals, poems of the time Athelstan captured the imagination of an age as the exemplar of the kind of Christian king and hero who had conquered the Danelaw and created England. By 954 AD all of England was ruled by Alfred the Great’s descendants. For 600 years until the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD the political landscape was mapped by Anglo Saxon dominance and it gave the English people their forebears and their ethnic identity.

Much debate has raged regarding the oversimplification of the English ancestry. This complex process of ethnogenesis has been simplified and to a certain extent expounded and propounded by the remnant writings of the era, the earliest literary relics of the old English period. A thing to be noted about this ethnogenesis is that it is to a large extent a religious phenomenon and it is intrinsically involved with the success of the Christian missionaries converting the pagan kings who brought with them their people into the folds of the Church. Though the Teutonic tribes had a shared interest of fortifying their supremacy over the native Britons but it proved inadequate to create a united Anglo Saxon kingdom. So while these pagan tribes kept squabbling amongst themselves, Christianity helped in shaping up this embryonic English nation. It was in 597 AD that Augustine, the special emissary from Rome set foot on the island with the sole intention of converting the Angles. Among the Germanic tribes the Angles may have been the most numerous and the powerful and it was the name that the founder of Anglo Saxon Christianity fastened upon the nation. It was the venerable Bede who in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People demonstrates how after hundred years of conversion of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, these warring tribes of Germanic people made up a single nation gens Anglorum under a single church if not under a single king. Anglo saxon origins specially the Bedan inheritance came to be expressed within the historical model of Christendom. Bede was the first to articulate the idea of the English people. He treated the inhabitants of lowland Britain, whether Saxons, Jutes or Angles, as one English nation. The conversion of ‘Angles’ to ‘angels’ by Gregory mentioned by Bede facilitated the process of creating the idea that the English were the chosen race and which they have clung to for centuries. The venerable Bede himself a monk thus helped in cultivating the idea of an emerging race under the foster care of Christianity but it also revealed a kind of political overlordship. But it was infact much later in the Tenth Century, with the invasions of the Vikings and the Danes that the Anglo Saxon kings united to a certain extent, politically and religiously and it was the Wessex dynasty that emerged victorious not only in this political and military battle but also in its ideological front.

The multiple Germanic forebears had shared a common culture, institutions and ethnic identity that gave to England a racial unity leading to political centralization. The articulation of Anglo Saxon ideology conflated race and national character as an explanation for the triumph of English history. This attractive view of national identity played a major role in the construction of a national origin myth; a distinct race favored by God surviving the Norman Conquest to keep alive their libertarian traditions, the Anglo Saxons, once the favorite of political radicalism, now confirmed the stability and continuity of English history. This myth had the profoundest effect in the future. The most powerful expression of the Anglo Saxon myth led to the advocacy of the Anglo Saxon mission which was to civilize the uncivilized, impose order and to settle the uninhabited regions of the earth with men and women of its own kind. These racial views were not merely intellectual constructs for they had political consequences as well which inevitably produced a sense of racial superiority among the governing class.

Archaeological and historical studies cannot create a real, unified, unchanging group of ethnic English but a series of powerful and dominant myths were propounded through literature. English ethnicity was invented through binding together a set of disparate tribes and threads of meaning. The dynastic histories and the history of migration and settlement of the Anglo Saxons were written down later in the seventh and eighth centuries and this ethnogenesis is a deliberate construction for political and cultural reasons and even though these narrations may have a kernel of truth yet they are not reliable reconstructions. Historia Brittonum, a ninth century Welsh-Latin historical compilation, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum in the eighth Century and Gildas’s sixth-century polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae provide a sketch of the history of the origin of British people.  In ca 731 Bede misplaced the story of Hengest and Horsa which was further elaborated upon later in Historia Brittonum. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the primary source of the early history of Britain contains stories that are often considered as “historicised etymologies”. The annals written in vernacular language was created much later in the ninth Century and multiple manuscripts copies were made and send to different monasteries and these were independently updated and the scribes who wrote it often selected and omitted events and even dating of events is inaccurate. It has often been viewed as a propaganda of the Wessex dynasty inaugurated by Alfred the Great who is generally thought to have instigated its composition. Rejecting the chronicle is easy but when so little historical information is available of the period attempt should be made to use whatever is available with due caution. The authentication of the foundation accounts of the fifth and sixth centuries of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is bound to raise controversy but more than the narratives are the genealogies that the Anglo Saxons constructed in the later seventh and eighth centuries. It is also when they recreated the past seeing the insular establishment as a simple matter of migration and conquest. Even Germanic historical legend like Beowulf was highly important to the Anglo-Saxons who were more and more concerned with establishing royal genealogies linking them with their continental ancestors and thereby strengthening their legitimacy.

National identity contains historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads which are often mythic. But even if all the myths and falsifications are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness” which is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. In short the English are the descendants of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders, who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today. The ancient chronicles and the study of language and literature sketch such a picture of the origin of the British population.


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Laycock, Stuart. Britannia- The Failed State: Tribal Conflict and the End of Roman Britain. UK: History Press, 2012. Web

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Soma Biswas is an Assistant Professor of English, Balagarh Bijoy Krishna Mahavidyalaya


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