Sub-Roman Britain

From New World Encyclopedia
Barbury Castle, sixth century hill fort, near Swindon, in South West England

Sub-Roman Britain is a term derived from an archaeologists' label for the material culture of Britain in Late Antiquity. "Sub-Roman" was invented to describe the pottery shards in sites of the fifth century and the sixth 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, there were also "Saxons" (the British term for all the incomers) in Britain at this time and gradually the latter assumed more control. The Picts in northern Scotland were also outside the applicable area.

While the history of Roman Britain is reasonably well covered by contemporary sources, this period is steeped in myth, especially myth surrounding the person of King Arthur, which may have some basis in fact. This body of material represents the desire to establish continuity between the stability, peace and order of Roman rule and the next, more turbulent phase of Britain's history. Arthur establishes an ideal that stands for the very spirit of the land, which yearns to see justice maintained, good defeat evil and yesterday's values passed on to future generations. During a later age, the Roman legacy was used to justify Britain's own acquisition of an Empire and attitude of civilizational superiority. In contrast, the legacy of Sub-Roman Britain had more to do with the ideals of equality and justice, which may, in the end, have inspired Britain to grant freedom and independence to many of her colonies voluntarily, although some had to fight to achieve this.

Meaning of terms

The period of Sub-Roman Britain traditionally covers the history of England from the end of Roman imperial rule in the very early fifth century to the arrival of Saint Augustine in 597 C.E. The date taken for the end of this period is arbitrary in that the Sub-Roman culture continued in the West of England and in Wales. This period has attracted a great deal of academic and popular debate, in part because of the scarcity of the source material, and in part because historians argue that the events - in terms of invasion, settlement and resettlement - that took place within this particular time forged the beginnings of 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, that is Britain south of the Forth-Clyde line. The history of control of the area between Hadrian's Wall and the Forth-Clyde line is unclear. 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.

Written accounts

Statue of Saint 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 Confession of Saint Patrick and Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae ("On The Ruin Of Britain").[1]. 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 they are not directly relevant to British history, such as Gildas' letters on monasticism.

Patrick's Confessio 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' De Excidio Britanniae 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 defense. 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.[2] 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 Saint Germanus and his visit(s) to Britain, though again this text has received considerable academic deconstruction.[3] 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 eighth 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.[4] There are also documents giving Welsh poetry (of Taliesin and Aneirin) and land deeds (Llandaff charters) that appear to date back to the sixth 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 fictionalized account in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.[5] 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 "Saints Lives" relating to Celtic clerics are early, but most are late and unreliable. Saint Thadeus is described as visiting a Roman villa at Chepstow while Saint Cuthbert visited deserted Carlisle.

Archaeological evidence

The nations of Sub-Roman Britain, 500 C.E.

Archaeology provides further evidence for this period, though of a different nature than that provided by documents. In the Sub-Roman period there seems to have been a preference for using less durable materials than in 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. Archaeology has shown the continuity with Roman education, trade with the Mediterranean and with Celtic art.

Ruins of Tintagel, associated in legend with King Arthur.

Excavations of settlements have revealed how social structures might have been changing, and the extent to which life in Britain continued unaltered in certain aspects into the early medieval period. Excavations have taken place on hilltops, the so-called "Hillforts," towns 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. 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[6] which showed evidence of metalworking. Alcock also led the excavations at South Cadbury[7]. Many other sites have now been shown to have been occupied during the Sub-Roman period, including Birdoswald and Saxon Shore forts. Excavations in many towns have shown signs of occupation, particularly Wroxeter. "Sunken Featured Buildings" are associated with the Saxons and occur in some Roman towns.

Work on field systems and environmental archaeology has also highlighted the extent to which agricultural practice continued and changed over the period.[8] 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. 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.[9]

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.[10]



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[11] 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 fifth century Britannia formed part of the Western Roman Empire under Honorius. 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 which took 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 Honorious apparently sent letters to the cities of Britain telling them to fend for themselves, though this is sometimes disputed. 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, a class struggle between peasants and land owners and a coup by an urban elite. 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 Saint Germanus' visits. Feuding kingships replaced the centrally governed Roman provinces.

Gildas says that a "council" was convened by Vortigen 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 500 C.E., 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 540 C.E., Gildas gives a preliminary account of the History of Britain but the earlier part is in error. He castigates five rulers in western Britain - Constantine of Dumnonia, Aurelius Caninus, Vortipor of the Demetae, Cuneglassus 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 of each type.

In the late sixth century there was another period of Saxon expansion, starting with the capture by Wessex of Sarum in 552 C.E. 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 :-

  • Bryneich - in Northumberland, it was eventually taken by the Angles of Bernicia.
  • Dumnonia - southwest England, mainly Devon and Cornwall but also at least parts of Somerset and Dorset.
  • Dyfed - south west Wales
  • Ergyng in south west Herefordshire, northern Monmouthshire and the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.
  • Gwent, Brycheiniog and Glywysing - in south Wales
  • Powys - mid Wales
  • Gwynedd - north Wales
  • Elmet - in south western Yorkshire
  • Rheged - Cumbria and Lancashire
  • Ebrauc -around York and northern Yorkshire
  • Strathclyde - including the sub-kingdom of the Selgovae
  • Gododdin - centered on Trapain Law in Lothian

There were also areas that became Saxon kingdoms:-

  • Bernicia - became the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Bernicia then Northumbria.
  • Deira - Became the Anglian kingdom of Deira and then Northumbria.
  • East Anglia - including Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk
  • Kent
  • Hwicce in most of Gloucestershire outside of the Forest of Dean.
  • Sussex
  • Middlesex
  • Wessex - formed from Saxon areas in the upper Thames valley and around Southampton (including Isle of Wight).
  • Mercia - centered on Repton
  • Northumbria - formed from Bernicia and Deira


Officially the Roman Empire was Christian at the start of the fifth 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 by the Saxons from cremation to inhumation. Although the arrival of Saint Augustine is traditionally seen as the significant Christianizing event for the Saxons, a bishop had already arrived in Kent with the king's wife and Saint Columba had preached to the northern Saxons (Angles?). Other Saxons remained pagan after this time.

In 429 C.E. 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 to have made a second visit to England later.

In the north Whitehorn is said to be the earliest church in Scotland, being founded in the fifth century by Saint Ninian. Corotius (or Ceretic) was a Christian king who was the recipient of the letter from Saint 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.

Angle, Saxon and Jute migration

The famous Sutton Hoo helmet, seventh century

Linguistic evidence

Linguistics is a useful way of analyzing the culture of a people, and to an extent political associations, in a period. A review of the Brythonic language changes during this period is given by Kenneth H. Jackson[12] Studies into 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 has previously been that Old English has little evidence of linguistic contact. However, some scholars are suggesting that there is more evidence in the grammar than in the lexicon. 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) 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 suggest continuity of settlement, while some place names have names of pagan German deities. Names of British origin are usually 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. One possible indication of British survival was the remnant of a Bythonic derived numeric system that was used by shepherds for counting sheep. This remained in use up to the early twentieth century, in parts of Northern and Central England.

Epigraphic evidence from surviving inscriptions on stones provide another source of information on the settlements of Britons and "Saxons" in this period. Celtic inscribed stones occur in western England and Wales that relate to this period and the CISP project[13] has been set up, at University College London, 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, and some in an unknown language.)

Germanic dialects replaced Latin or Celtic in the eastern part of England.

Genetic evidence

Recent work analyzing the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA of people now living in Britain and on the continent has provided some insight into how population movements might have occurred during the Sub-Roman period. A 2002 study from University College London was interpreted as showing that there may have indeed been substantially large scale Anglo-Saxon migration to central and eastern England (accounting for 50–100 percent of the population at the time in Central England).[14] However a more complete study in 2003[15] indicates that this result had other interpretations and that there may have been substantially less Anglo-Saxon migration to other regions of England, and that the transition between England and Wales is more gradual than the earlier study suggested. The study also provides evidence that all areas of the British Isles have some pre-Anglo-Saxon genetic component. It was also unable to find discernible difference in the Y-chromosomes of the presumed modern day source populations of Anglo-Saxon and the later Danish Viking settlers, thus the survey registered both sets of chromosomes as belonging to the same group. Further when the study included the samples from Friesland used by Weal et al. (2002) as a source population for Anglo-Saxons, it found no statistical difference between these samples and the North German/Danish group. All continental samples were statistically different to British samples. On the other hand the principal components analysis showed that samples from Friesland, although closer to the North German/Danish samples, were somewhat closer to the British samples than the North German/Danish samples were[16]

Fresh interpretation of the above genetic evidence by Stephen Oppenheimer in The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story and new DNA sampling (Y-chromosome and mtDNA) by Bryan Sykes for his book Blood of the Isles suggest that the contribution of Anglo-Saxons and other late invaders to the British gene pool may have been very limited, and that the majority of English people (about two-thirds) and British people (about three-quarters) descend from palæolithic settlers that migrated from the western European Ice Age refuge,[17] this observation may support the idea of an ancient relationship between the populations of the Atlantic façade of Europe, though the eastern and south eastern coasts of Great Britain do not belong to this zone.[18] Sykes and Oppenheimer claim that even in the east of England, where there is the best evidence for migration, no more than ten percent of paternal lines may be designated as coming from an “Anglo-Saxon” migration event and that in the same English regions 69 percent of male lines are still of aboriginal origin. Stephen Oppenheimer instead postulates a possible pre-Anglo-Saxon genetic relationship between the modern populations of England (especially the south and east) and the people living on the opposing North Sea regions, indicating a much older pre-Roman Germanic influence in south and east England. There is some evidence that Y chromosome Haplogroup I, which occurs at similar frequencies around the North Sea coast may represent a mesolithic colonization rather than an Anglo-Saxon migration as is contested by other researchers. This haplogroup represents a migration from the Balkan refuge that may have travelled along inland European rivers rather than by the Atlantic coast.[19]

Oppenheimer also postulates that the arrival of Germanic languages in England may be considerably earlier than previously thought, and that both mainland and English Belgae (from Gaul) may have been Germanic-speaking peoples and represented closely related ethnic groups (or a single cross channel ethnic group).[20]

Extent of the migrations

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".[21] 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 pardigram. Though fewer scholars would now utilize this argument, the traditional view is still held by some historians, Lawrence James recently writing that England was 'submerged by an Anglo-Saxon current which swept away the Romano-British.'[22]

The traditional view has been deconstructed to a considerable extent since the 1990s. At the center of this is a re-estimation of the numbers of Anglo-Saxons arriving in Britain during this period. A lower figure is now generally accepted, making it highly unlikely that the existing British population was substantially displaced by the Anglo-Saxons.[23] The Saxons are thus seen as a ruling elite with acculturization of the local population. Thus "Saxon" graves may be of Britons.

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.[24] It is perhaps better not to think of this in terms of modern decolonization. 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 Theodor Mommsen (1817 - 1903), was that Rome left Britain.[25] This argument was substantiated over time, most recently by A.S. Esmonde-Cleary.[26] 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.[27] 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. The evidence from land use suggests a decline in production, which might be a sign of population decline.[28]

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").[29] However, there is clear linguistic evidence for close contacts between the southwest of Britain and Brittany across the sub-Roman period.[30]

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.. 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." Non-Anglo-Saxon kingdoms began appearing in western Britain, which are first referred to in Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae. To an extent these kingdoms may have derived from Roman structures.[31] 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 Saint Ninian's monastery). Chance discoveries have helped document the continuing urban occupation of some Roman towns such as Wroxeter and Caerwent. 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.[32] Though there is little contemporary written evidence for this, and 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 skepticism of academics. The Arthurian myth represents Arthur as defending the Roman legacy as Anglo-Saxons invaded.

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. In addition to defending the Roman legacy, which Britain would continue to regard as her own, Arthur and his chivalrous knights of the Round Table symbolized a spirit of common striving to uphold the good against the bad, justice over injustice and to do so in this world, without waiting for the next one.

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.[28] Michael Jones suggests that declining agricultural production from land that was already fully exploited had considerable demographic consequences.[33]

Population changes

It is thought that the population of Britain decreased after the Roman period from perhaps three million to about half this. The reduction seems to have been caused by the environmental change above but perhaps also by plague and smallpox (around 600 C.E., the smallpox spread from India into Europe).[34] It is known that the Plague of Justinian entered the Mediterranean world in the sixth century and first arrived in the British Isles in 544 or 545, when it reached Ireland. 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 percent between 550 and 700. It has also been suggested that the plague affected the Britons more than the Saxons because of their trading links to the Mediterranean.[35]

According to a new study, an apartheid-like system existed in early Anglo-Saxon England, which prevented the native British genes getting into the Anglo-Saxon population by restricting intermarriage and wiped out a majority of original British genes in favor of Germanic ones. According to research led by University College London, Anglo-Saxon settlers enjoyed a substantial social and economic advantage over the native Celtic Britons[36] who lived in what is now England, for more than 300 years from the middle of the fifth century.[37][38][39]

Stephen Oppenheimer (2006) maintains that all invasions since the Romans have had very little impact upon the gene pool of the British Isles, and that its inhabitants nearly all belong to the same genetic group as the original prehistoric inhabitants of the Isles. He says that most people on the Isles are genetically similar to the Basque peoples of northern Spain, from 90 percent in Wales to 66 percent in East Anglia (named after the Germanic Anglo-Saxons, in England. Archaeologists have uncovered Celtic artifacts in England dating from later times than the supposed Anglo-Saxon 'apartheid' of Britons was believed to take place. Areas around the Pennines still retained a strong Celtic culture, a prime example being the speaking of the Cumbric language until late into the twelfth century, and the Cornish language even longer, until the eighteenth century. Celtic traditions and words have survived even until today, such as Cornish, Cumbrian and Lancashire wrestling, the Northumbrian smallpipes and many placenames (such as Pen-y-Ghent in Yorkshire). The influx of Irish immigrants into English cities such as Manchester (where 35 percent of the population are believed to be of Irish descent), during the Irish Diaspora, could be seen as a reversal of the displacement of Celtic peoples from England.


The Roman period of British history would later be viewed as foundational for the development of British identity, especially after the start of Britain's own imperial phase. The Sub-Roman period, however, also became critical in terms of the development of British identity. Arthur represents both continuity with the Roman period and discontinuity, since the legends and myths surrounding him are also of Celtic origin. Tradition, however, links Arthur solidly with the Roman legacy, depicting him as fighting to preserve the order and peace of Roman Britain; he was a "Rome-oriented, past oriented Celtic" king who "tried hard to maintain Roman standards of law and order and probably used old-fashioned Latin … as a mark of status."[40] Arthur and his knights represent goodness and light in the face of the surrounding darkness as the old order collapses. Yet the Anglo-Saxons against whom Arthur is said to have struggled would later make the Arthurian legacy their own. Anglo-Saxons could embrace the myth because that it symbolized the very spirit of the land, the desire for peace and goodness. The Arthurian legacy was revived during Britain's imperial age, just as was Britain's Roman legacy. Michael Wood comments:

The Victorian Arthurian legends were a nostalgic commentary on a lost spirit world. The fragility of goodness, the burden of rule and the impermanence of empire (a deep psychological strain, this, in 19th-century British literary culture) were all resonant themes for the modern British imperialist knights, and gentlemen, on their own road to Camelot.[41]

The Arthurian myth linked even newcomers, such as the invading Normans with a symbolic past with which they could identify. The way in which the legacy of the Sub-Roman period has been associated with the ideals of peace and order as well as with freedom may have modified the impact of Britain's Roman legacy. The Roman legacy informed Britain's notion of her civilizing mission, and was used to justify imperial expansion. In contrast, the legacy of Sub-Roman Britain had more to do with the ideals of equality and justice which, in the end, resulted in Great Britain granting freedom and independence to many of her colonies voluntarily, although some had to fight to achieve this.

See also


  1. K. R. Dark. 2000. Britain and the end of the Roman Empire. (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus. ISBN 9780752414515), 32-37.
  2. Philip Bartholomew, 1982. Fifth-Century Facts. Britannia 13:260.
  3. Michael Jones and John Casey, 1988. The Gallic Chronicle Restored: A Chronology for the Anglo-Saxon Invasions and the End of Roman Britain. Britannia 19:367-398.
  4. David Dumville, 1977. Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend. History 62:173-192.
  5. Geoffrey. 2007. Geoffrey of Monmouth: the history of the kings of Britain: an edition and translation of De gestis Britonum (Historia regum Britanniae). (Arthurian studies, 69.) (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press. ISBN 9781843832065).
  6. Leslie Alcock. 1963. Dinas Powys; an Iron Age, Dark Age, and medieval settlement in Glamorgan. (Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1963)
  7. Leslie Alcock, S.J. Stevenson, and Chris Musson. 1995. Cadbury Castle, Somerset: the early medieval archaeology. (Cardiff, UK: University of Wales. ISBN 9780708312759)
  8. J. Davey, 2004. The environs of South Cadbury in the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods. BAR British Series. 365:43-54.
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  17. There are thought to have been three human population "refuges" in Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum. Stephen Oppenheimer. 2006. The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story. (London, UK: Constable and Robinson. ISBN 9781845291587), 102–103.
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  26. A. Simon Esmonde Cleary. 1989. The Ending of Roman Britain. (London, UK: Batsford. ISBN 9780713452754), 161.
  27. Jones, 1996, chapters 4 and 7.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Davey. 2004. page 50.
  29. Gwenaël le Duc. 1999. The Colonisation of Brittany from Britain: New Approaches and Questions. Celtic Connections: Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Celtic Studies. Volume One. Black, Gillies and Ó Maolaigh East Linton, UK: Tuckwell Press. ISBN 1898410771.
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  31. Dark, 2000, 150–192.
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  33. Jones, 1996, 186-243.
  34. Stefan Riedel, 2005. Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination. Proceedings (Baylor University Medical Center) 18(1): 21–25. Retrieved November 21, 2008.
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  40. Rodney Castleden. 2000. King Arthur the truth behind the legend. (London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780203159347), 113.
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ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Alcock, Leslie. 1963. Dinas Powys; an Iron Age, Dark Age, and medieval settlement in Glamorgan. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press.
  • Alcock, Leslie. 1972. "By South Cadbury is that Camelot …" the excavation of Cadbury Castle 1966-1970. London, UK: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 9780500390115.
  • Alcock, Leslie. 1973. Arthur's Britain: history and archaeology AD 367-634. London, UK: Allen Lane. ISBN 9780713902457.
  • Alcock, Leslie, S.J. Stevenson, and Chris Musson. 1995. Cadbury Castle, Somerset: the early medieval archaeology. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales. ISBN 9780708312759.
  • Bartholomew, 1982. Fifth-Century Facts. Britannia 13:260.
  • Castleden, Rodney. 2000. King Arthur the truth behind the legend. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780203159347.
  • Collins, Rob, and James Gerrard. 2004. Debating late antiquity in Britain AD 300-700. BAR, 365. Oxford, UK: Archaeopress. ISBN 9781841715858.
  • Cunliffe, Barry W. 2004. Iron age Britain. London, UK: B.T. Batsford. ISBN 9780713488395.
  • Dark, Kenneth, 1992. "A Sub-Roman Redefense of Hadrian's Wall" in Britannia 23. pages 111-120.
  • Dark, K. R. 1994. Civitas to kingdom: British political continuity, 300-800. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press. ISBN 9780718514655.
  • Dark, K. R. 2000. Britain and the end of the Roman Empire. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus. ISBN 9780752414515.
  • Davies, Wendy. 1978. An early Welsh microcosm: studies in the Llandaff charters. London, UK: Royal Historical Society. ISBN 9780901050335.
  • Davey, J. 2004. The environs of South Cadbury in the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods. BAR British Series. 365:43-54.
  • Dumville, David N. 1977. "Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend," History 62:173-192.
  • Esmonde-Cleary, A. Simon. 1989. The ending of Roman Britain. London, UK: Batsford. ISBN 9780713452754.
  • Fouracre, Paul. 2005. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 1, c.500-c.700. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521362917.
  • James, Lawrence. 2002. Warrior Race. London, UK: Abacus. ISBN 9780312307370.
  • Jones, Michael E. 1996. The end of Roman Britain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 9780801427893.
  • Jones, Michael, and John Casey, 1988. T"he Gallic Chronicle Restored: A Chronology for the Anglo-Saxon Invasions and the End of Roman Britain." Britannia 19:367-398.
  • Hamerow, Helena, 2005. "The earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms." 263-287. 265. in Paul Fouracre. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 1, c.500-c.700. 2005.
  • Higham, Nicholas J. 1993. Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons. London, UK: Seaby. ISBN 9781852640224.
  • Higham, Nicholas J. 1994. The English conquest: Gildas and Britain in the fifth century. Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press. ISBN 9780719040795.
  • Lapidge, Michael, and D.N. Dumville. 1984. Gildas: new approaches. (Studies in Celtic history, 5.) Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press. ISBN 9780851154039.
  • Morris, John. 1973. The Age of Arthur; a history of the British Isles from 350 to 650. New York, NY: Scribner. ISBN 9780684133133.
  • Myres, John. 1960. Pelagius and the End of Roman Rule in Britain. Journal of Roman Studies 50:21-36.
  • Nennius, and John Morris, ed. and translator. British history and the Welsh annals. London, UK: Phillimore. ISBN 9780850332971.
  • Oppenheimer, Stephen. 2006. The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story. London, UK: Constable and Robinson. ISBN 9781845291587.
  • Pryor, Francis. 2004. Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons. New York, NY: Harper Collins. ISBN 0007181868.
  • Radford, C.A.R. 1985. Tintagel Castle. London, UK: English Heritage. ISBN 9781850741183.
  • Snyder, Christopher A. 1998. An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A.D. 400-600. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 9780271017426.
  • Stenton, F. M. 1973. The Anglo-Saxons, republished as Frank M. Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England: Reissue with a new cover 3rd ed. (Oxford history of England) Oxford University Press, USA, 2001. ISBN 0192801392.
  • Sykes, Bryan 2006. Blood of the Isles: Exploring the Genetic Roots of Our Tribal History. Bantam, ISBN 0593056531.
  • Thomas, Charles. 1993. Book of Tintagel: Arthur and archaeology. London, UK: B.T. Batsford. ISBN 9780713466904.
  • Thompson, E.A. 1977. "Britain, AD 406-410." Britannia 8: 303-318.
  • Winterbottom, Michael, ed. 1978. The ruin of Britain, and other works. London, UK: Phillimore. ISBN 9780847660797.
  • Wood, Ian. 1987. "The Fall of the Western Empire and the End of Roman Britain," Britannia 18:251-262.
  • Zosimus, Ronald Ridley trans. 1982. New History. Canberra, AU: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies. ISBN 9780959362602

External links

All links retrieved February 26, 2023.


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