The Birth of Anglo-Saxon England


By Jennifer Paxton, The Catholic University of America

After the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, they wanted to turn around and evangelize the still pagan continental Germans, partly because they were conscious that these people were distantly related to them. In short, the Anglo-Saxons ‘remembered’ their connection to the continent. This connection made the Anglo-Saxons who they were and laid the foundations for modern England.

A painting of an Anglo-Saxon king surrounded by his counselors.
The Anglo-Saxon ancestors are related to the Germanic settlers. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Cemeteries of Germanic Settlers

What do we know about who the Germanic settlers considered themselves to be? The best evidence we have for answering this question comes from cemeteries, where the settlers practiced both cremation and inhumation, that is, burial in the ground. The bodies were buried fully clothed, so a lot of bits of clothing and accessories have survived, particularly metal pieces like buckles and jewelry. 

The most important thing to say about these cemeteries is that they are all different from each other. No single set of grave goods was standard across cemeteries, or even within the same cemetery. What we can conclude from this is that these settlements were not part of a wider cultural realm that had a distinct identity. 

In other words, eastern England was ‘not’ settled by one single group of migrants. Everybody was mixed together. Only much later did their identities coalesce around particular kingdoms in what we now call Anglo-Saxon England. 

This article comes directly from content in the video series England: From the Fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Using DNA to Study Populations

DNA does not support the claim that the newcomers replaced the indigenous inhabitants. There are two main ways that DNA can be used to illuminate the study of ancient populations. One is by recovering and analyzing the DNA from human remains. The other is to study the DNA of modern populations in order to work back to what those populations must have been like in the past.

For example, a recent study that analyzed the DNA recovered from cemeteries in eastern England revealed that there was intermarriage between settlers and newcomers from the earliest days of the settlement. The same study claimed that Germanic migrants contributed something between 25 and 40% of the DNA of modern British people, though the proportion is higher in the east, where the migrants initially settled, than it is elsewhere.

There are some recent studies, though, that have suggested an intriguing possibility that the Germanic newcomers crowded out native British men in the competition to reproduce. A comparison of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on by the mother, with the DNA in Y chromosomes, passed on by the father, reveals a gender imbalance. There is a higher proportion of Germanic male DNA and native British female DNA than would be accounted for by chance.

Germanic Warriors as Mercenaries

An image of Anglo-Saxon coin brooch
The archaeological evidence provided by Anglo-Saxon brooches suggests that Germanic warriors were probably used as mercenaries. (Image: PHGCOM/Public domain)

If we read between the lines of the 6th-century monk and writer Gildas’s story about mercenaries, it might preserve the memory of the Romano-British authorities inviting Germanic warriors to come to Britain to help protect them against other, more menacing barbarians. Perhaps the unnamed chieftain and council he cited represent the make-shift administration of Britain that had taken over, faute de mieux, when the Romans had withdrawn in 410 AD. 

There is even some scant archaeological evidence to support the use of Germanic warriors as mercenaries in Britain. Some brooches were found at an early 5th-century site in Dorset called Hod Hill that were clearly continental and Germanic in style. 

This is far to the west of any of the sites where Germanic settlers could be found, so it’s possible that the owners of those brooches were, in the words of one historian, “used as muscle by the local Roman population”. 

Tracing the Ancestry

One of the striking things about this period is how long the memory of the migration lasted. These settlers did not forget their roots. The Anglo-Saxon descendants retained a memory of their continental origins many hundreds of years after they settled in Britain. 

The various Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies claimed to trace the ancestry of their kings back to the continent. Anglo-Saxon lore was filled with tales of heroic ancestors who had come from Europe and settled in Britain. The adventus Saxonum or ‘arrival of the Saxons’ was seen as a key turning point in English history. And contact between the Germanic settlers in Britain and their continental cousins clearly continued. 

The Anglo-Saxons ‘remembered’ their connection to the continent in a way that streamlined the actual experience of the small, diverse bands of settlers, and as a result, so have we, until recent scholarship helped to penetrate the layers of fascinating myth and legend that developed to make the adventus Saxonum into a great adventure.

Common Questions about the Birth of Anglo-Saxon England

Q: Why did the Anglo-Saxons want to evangelize the continental Germans? 

After the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, they intended to turn back and preach Christianity to the continental Germans who were still pagans. This was because the Anglo-Saxons knew that these people, the continental Germans, had a distant relationship with them.

Q: Was eastern England settled by one single group of migrants?

After examining cemeteries belonging to the Germanic immigrants, archaeologists found that the settlements of these people weren’t part of a wider cultural realm with a definite identity. As a result, it can be said that eastern England wasn’t settled by one group of immigrants.

Q: What are the two main ways that DNA can be used to illuminate the study of ancient populations?

One way is by recovering and analyzing the DNA from human remains. The other is to study the DNA of modern populations in order to work back to what those populations must have been like in the past.

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