What Happened to Britain After the Romans Left?

From the lecture series: The Early Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, PhD, The College of William and Mary

A generation before the sack of Rome in 476, Roman culture and civilization in its British territories had dwindled to an almost negligible point. What happened to Britain after the Romans left?

Canterbury Cathedral Cloister, Kent, United Kingdom
The cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Built in 597, this is one of the oldest and famous Christian structures in England. (Image: Digalakis Photography/Shutterstock)

Roman Withdrawal from Britain in the Fifth Century

Following the barbarian crossing of the Rhine in the winter of 406–407, Roman military units in Britain rebelled and proclaimed one of their generals, who happened to be named Constantine, to be the new emperor.

Learn More: Barbarians and Emperors

Roman coin bearing the portrait of Constantine III
Roman coin bearing the portrait of Constantine III. (Image: Classical Numismatic Group/Public domain)

This Constantine, known as Constantine III, withdrew virtually the whole of the Roman army from Britain around 409, both to fend off the barbarians who had recently entered the Roman Empire, and to fight for control of the western half of the empire. The Roman army never came back in any force to Britain, and those few Roman units left behind were unable to do much when barbarians began to attack Roman Britain.

Attack of the Barbarians on Roman Britain

Map Showing the End of Roman Rule in Britain
Map showing the end of Roman rule in Britain. (Image: User:Notuncurious using several other references/Public domain)

With a remarkable sense of timing, barbarians started attacking right around the departure of the Roman army. It seems quite possible that someone had tipped them off that no one was watching this part of the empire any more; some of those who attacked in the first half of the 5th century had a long history of raiding this portion of the Roman Empire.

Learn More: Being a Roman Briton

Such were the Scotti of Ireland and the Picts from Scotland, who had regularly been crossing over into Roman territory. However, some other groups who did not have a long history of attacking Britain began to do so in the first half of the 5th century: the Angles and the Saxons of northwestern Germany, and the Jutes from southern Denmark.

Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in Fifth Century Britain

Map showing Britain peoples circa 600
Map of Britain in 600, showing the location of various different peoples. (Image: User:Hel-hama Vectorization of File:Britain peoples circa 600.png drawn by User:IMeowbot border data from CIA, people locations from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1926 edition, with clarifications supplied by en:User:Everyking per references used in en:Penda of Mercia. Anglo-Saxon coastline from Hill, ‘An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England’ (1981)/Public domain)

In 408, either just before or just after the Roman army had withdrawn, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began first to raid Roman Britain, and then to settle in certain areas. Indeed, the boundaries of modern England roughly correspond to the territories that were going to be settled by the peoples called, for the sake of convenience, the Anglo-Saxons.

This is a transcript from the video series The Early Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

By 600, the Anglo-Saxons had established several independent kingdoms within territories that had once been Roman. For example, there was a kingdom of Wessex, which comes from the West Saxons; Sussex is where the South Saxons lived; and perhaps the most famous of them, Northumbria.

Anglo Saxon House in Britain
A typical Anglo-Saxon dwelling called a Grubenhaus. Anglo-Saxons were Germanic peoples who worshipped Norse gods. (Image: dun_deagh – Flickr: Grubenhaus, Gearwe, Bede’s World, Jarrow/Public domain)

The Anglo-Saxons were not total strangers to Britain. Some had served in the Roman army even before 408, and the Anglo-Saxon mercenaries serving in Roman Britain may have notified their ethnic relatives back in Germany that the Roman army had left: “This would be a good time for us to move into this part of the world.”

The Anglo-Saxons who came to England at this time were barbarians, as Romans would have defined them. They spoke Germanic languages, they were still pagans worshiping Norse gods such as Thor and Odin, and they were illiterate as well.

Learn More: Being Anglo-Saxon

King Arthur and the Battle of Mt. Badon

The indigenous Celtic population of Britain resisted the coming of the Anglo-Saxons as much as it had resisted the coming of the Romans, and had about as much luck as they had had against the Romans.

It is possible, but by no means certain, that a British war leader by the name of Arthur resisted the Anglo-Saxon migration and won a notable military victory against the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Mt. Badon around AD 500; notable, but not sufficient to stem the flood of Anglo-Saxons that were coming to Roman Britain.

Learn More: The Origins of King Arthur

However, Arthur is one of the most shadowy figures in early medieval history; the later legends that were attached to him were quite out of keeping with his contemporary reputation, at least as best as we can reconstruct that reputation from the written record. Scholars are fairly certain, based on contemporary evidence, that the Battle of Mt. Badon took place, and that the Britons won, for once, against the Anglo-Saxons.

However, we do not know where Mt. Badon was. We have no contemporary evidence to suggest that Arthur was at the Battle of Mt. Badon. There is no contemporary reference to Arthur as a king either, and our earliest detailed evidence concerning Arthur and his alleged activities is from the 9th and 10th centuries, in documents written long after Arthur’s alleged lifetime.

Iron Age Forts - Badbury in Dorset
The remains of an iron-age fort called Badbury in Dorset—one of the chief contenders for the location of the Battle of Mt. Badon. (Image: Pasicles/Public domain)

It is possible that the written records of the 9th and 10th centuries reflect accurate oral traditions about Arthur’s activities and had been passed down since the early 6th century. However, whenever a historian tries to invoke oral tradition as a piece of evidence, it generally means there isn’t hard evidence or an explanation. If you stick to strictly contemporary sources of the 6th century, there’s very little evidence at all about Arthur and his activities.

We do know that not all the Celts chose to fight the Anglo-Saxons; there was a fairly substantial migration of Celts from Anglo-Saxon territories to northwest France in Brittany.

The Scotti and the Kingdom of Dál Riata

Map showing the Kingdom of Dál Riata
The Kingdom of Dál Riata (Green) and the neighboring Picts (Yellow). (Image: By en:User:Briangotts – Copied from en:Image:Dalriada.jpg/Public domain)

While the Anglo-Saxons were migrating to Britain from the south and east during the first half of the 5th century, other groups decided to take advantage of the situation, especially the Scotti from Ireland. They began to settle, though not in the same numbers as the Anglo-Saxons, along the west coast of Britain, and they established a number of small kingdoms for themselves, the most important of which was going to be the kingdom of Dál Riata.

This helps to explain why Scotland is in the British Isles while the Scotti hail from Ireland. The Scotti who settled there went on to conquer Scotland from the Picts, with Scotland deriving its name from them.

Roman Economic Impact on Britain

As for some of the broader consequences of these developments, it has to be noted that Britain experienced a relatively short, sharp, unsurprising break with the Roman past. Romans had come to Britain relatively late. They didn’t conquer it until the 1st century AD, and they had not put down deep roots at the time of the Anglo-Saxon migrations.

When the Romans came to Britain, they transformed its economy. Before the Romans came, the only region of Britain to use coins as a form of economic exchange was the far southeast, due to its relative closeness to the continent and because most manufacturing was very localized. The Romans introduced the use of money in every land they conquered, building large towns wherever they went, and creating a large-scale, integrated economy.

A few important centers began to manufacture pottery, for example, for the rest of Britain, and because pottery shards tend to survive fairly well on the archaeological record, much of what we know about the British economy is based on pottery.

Learn More: Paradigm and Paragon—Imperial Roman Baths

The Collapse of the Roman British Economic System

By about AD 450, this economic system had broken down completely. The Britons reverted to small-scale, localized manufacturing of pottery, for example. The use of coins as an economic medium was abandoned.

There’s something unusual about many of the coins found in Britain. They have small holes punched in the top of them. If you couldn’t buy anything with them, you punched a hole in your coin and wore it as a necklace or as an earring. Money was turned into decoration rather than used as a form of economic exchange.

Town life, too, dwindled fairly quickly in Britain, and by 450 it was essentially dead in Britain. The towns had been abandoned, the public buildings had been abandoned, no longer serving the functions they once had, and only a few squatters remained within any Roman town. Squatters often took up residence in odd places—the bottom of baths very often—indicating no one was filling up the baths anymore. They had simply ceased to serve the function they once had.

This abandonment of habitations that you could find in towns also occurred, to a lesser extent, in the countryside, where there is evidence of fairly substantial abandonment of Roman villas during the first half of the 5th century. The relative speed of this break with the Roman past, after only a couple of generations, and the degree of this break would have important long-term consequences for British history.

From “Britannia” to “Angleland”

Among these consequences was a change of name. Britannia, the Roman name for Britain, became an archaism, and a new name was adopted. “Angleland,” the place where the Angles lived, is what we call England today.

Latin did not become a common language anywhere in the British Isles. Instead, the Germanic language of the conquerors became the standard vernacular.

There was also an important linguistic change that had no parallels on the continent. While Francia lost its Roman name and took its name from the Franks, people there still spoke a Romance language derived from Latin. But Latin did not become a common language anywhere in the British Isles. Instead, the Germanic language of the conquerors became the standard vernacular. Old English is a Germanic language; modern English today is still a Germanic-based language. In lands that the Romans had never conquered, Scotland or Ireland, Celtic languages were spoken instead. This fundamental linguistic change did not occur elsewhere in the western half of the Roman Empire.

Learn more about the beginnings of English

The Disappearance of Christianity in Angleland

But perhaps the most remarkable break with the Roman past in Anglo-Saxon England concerned religion and the fate of Christianity. On the rest of the European continent, non-Christian invaders adopted the religion of the former Roman peoples over whom they were ruling, and the barbarians became Christians.

Anglo-Saxon England is different in this respect: It would appear that the local population abandoned Christianity and adopted either their own paganism or the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons who ruled over them. Christianity persisted only in the Celtic borderlands, in Ireland and Scotland. There’s no evidence of Christian activities taking place in Anglo-Saxon England by the beginning of the 6th century.

Learn More: Gods and Their Cities in the Roman Empire

During this period, the loss of Christianity in this part of the former Roman Empire saw the disappearance of literacy as well as of written records.

During this period, the loss of Christianity in this part of the former Roman Empire saw the disappearance of literacy as well as of written records. What we know about Anglo-Saxon England and this period is derived almost entirely either from archaeology or from accounts written after Christianity was reintroduced, often dating hundreds of years from the events they purport to describe, from Celtic authors living in Scotland or, perhaps, Ireland, which was somewhat removed in time and space from Anglo-Saxon England.

However, Christianity was not gone from Anglo-Saxon England forever. It was later reintroduced, and the fact that it had to be reintroduced by missionaries is good evidence that it had died out within Anglo-Saxon territories.

Pope Gregory the Great Tries to Re-Establish Christianity

Portrait of Pope Gregory I
Gregory I became pope in 590. (Image: by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Public domain)

In 597, missionaries dispatched by Pope Gregory the Great arrived from the European continent. According to tradition, some Anglo-Saxon youths wound up in Rome in the late 6th century, and they were spotted by Gregory the Great because they stood out from the local population: They were fair-skinned, they had light hair, and they looked rather different from the people in Rome.

Learn More: Imperial Politics and Religion

Gregory the Great asked, according to tradition, “Who are these people?” He was told they were Angli—Angles from Britain, and Gregory the Great supposedly made a famous pun: “No, they don’t look like Angli—they look like angeli to me”—angels rather than Angles.

Saint Augustine of Canterbury - statue in front of Palermo Cathedral, Italy
Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. (Image: Tupungato/shutterstock)

Regardless of whether this was what Gregory the Great said, he did send missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England, and the effort was spearheaded by Augustine of Canterbury. He arrived in the southeast of England, specifically in the kingdom of Kent, where an Anglo-Saxon king by the name of Ethelbert had a Christian wife. Thus Augustine was able to enjoy a certain amount of success in converting Ethelbert and his followers.

In general, the missionaries did not encounter a great deal of resistance to their efforts, but the Anglo-Saxons were often quick to relapse into their paganism. At the first sign of problems, such as bad weather or a military defeat, they would often decide that the problem occurred because they had converted to Christianity, and then return to their former religious beliefs. Missionaries often found themselves converting the same people again and again in an attempt to get the conversion to stick.

St. Patrick and Columba

Although Augustine had some success, the most successful missionaries operating in Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th century were not from the continent. They were Irish missionaries who, largely on their own, decided to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Ireland had been substantially Christianized by about 500, thanks to the activities of St. Patrick. St. Patrick was a Christian kidnapped by Irish raiders, and after being set free, he had returned to Ireland to preach Christianity in the 430s. The Irish were responsible for converting many of the people in Britain to Christianity.

Saint Columba converting the Picts
Saint Columba converting the Picts. (Image: By J. R. Skelton (Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton; 1865–1927) (illustrator), erroneously credited as John R. Skelton – Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, Scotland’s Story/Public domain)

The most famous Irish missionary was someone by the name of Columba, and he was personally responsible for converting many of the Picts of Scotland. In 563, Columba founded a famous monastery on an island off the west coast of Scotland named Iona; Iona became the base for successful conversions of the Anglo-Saxons.

It took several generations for Irish missionaries coming from the north and west, and continental missionaries coming from the south and east, to get Christianity to stick, but by about the 660s, the Anglo-Saxons stopped the practice of going back to their pagan beliefs.

The Resurgence of England in the 7th Century

The spread of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th century meant more than just a change of religion. It set in motion a chain of events that were a catalyst for other important changes. One, a good one for historians, was the reintroduction of literacy: Missionaries brought reading and writing with them to the Anglo-Saxons, and this increased our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history dramatically.

Opening page of the 7th century Law of Æthelberht
The first Anglo-Saxon law code. (Image: Ernulf, bishop of Rochester – Rochester Cathedral Library MS A. 3. 5 (Textus Roffensis), folio 1v/Public doain)

The first Anglo-Saxon law code was put together by Ethelbert, who had been converted by Augustine of Canterbury. Christianization also, to a certain extent, stimulated the re-establishment of towns and cities in Anglo-Saxon England. When bishops arrived in Anglo-Saxon England, they were required by canon law, or church law, to reside in towns. You could not live in the countryside and be a Christian bishop except in far-flung areas such as Ireland, where canon law was not always enforced.

Learn more about Christianization and economic change

Bishops would take up residence in abandoned Roman towns such as Canterbury and bring with them their episcopal entourage. They would have priests and deacons with them, and these bishops and their households formed a sufficient market to attract people to come and live once again in the abandoned Roman towns and provide the services these religious officials needed. As a result, there is evidence of relatively substantial habitation once again in these Anglo-Saxon towns and cities, and of economic activities associated with urban environments.

A good sign of this was the reintroduction of the minting of coins in Anglo-Saxon England, which resumed in the late 7th century, and was a sign that Anglo-Saxon England was, once again, enjoying a monetized economy as opposed to a purely barter one.

Common Questions About Britain After the Romans Left

Q: Who was in power when the Romans left?

There was a great spread of Angles, Saxons, and Franks after the Romans left Britain, with minor rulers, while the next major ruler, it is thought, was a duo named Horsa and Hengist. There was also a Saxon king, the first who is now traced to all royalty in Britain and known as Cerdic.

Q: What did the Romans call England before it was England?

Before England was called “England,” it was called Roman Britain.

Q: Who was in England first?

A group of Germanic tribes called the Anglo-Saxons were the first inhabitants of what is known as England.

Q: Who discovered England?

England has a first explorer on record named Pytheas of Massalia who circumnavigated the islands.

This article was updated on July 29, 2020

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