The Early History of Anglo-Saxon England and the Germanic People


By Jennifer Paxton, The Catholic University of America

The story of the formation of Anglo-Saxon England is told by the 6th-century monk and writer Gildas and the great 8th-century historian known as the Venerable Bede. Like Gildas, Bede is a critically important historian of medieval Britain, and for the longest time, historians had few other resources to draw upon other than what these two men said.

Saint Augustine and the Saxons
Historians have told different stories about the arrival of the Saxons. (Image: Joseph Martin Kronheim/Public domain)

Gildas’s Story: How the Saxons Invaded Britain

The medieval story begins with Gildas, who wrote in the mid-6th century, so we should keep in mind that his account dates from about a century later than the events he describes. Gildas recounts that an unnamed Romano-British chieftain, whom he calls a ‘proud usurper’, with the help of a vaguely defined council of men, invited ‘the fierce and impious Saxons’ to come to Britain to help repel northern invaders in exchange for a generous subsidy. 

It is unclear whether Gildas actually provided the name of the chieftain, since some manuscripts provide the name ‘Vortigern’, and others do not.

The warlords began inviting more compatriots to join them, and when they grew dissatisfied with their pay, they broke the agreement with the Britons and plundered their lands instead. The warlords, of course, never left.

Gildas sees these newcomers to Britain as nothing short of a calamity. Gildas had motivations to do so though. He was a monk who was writing primarily to criticize the secular authorities under whom he lived. He believed that the leaders of Britain were failing in their duty to promote Christianity, and he blamed everything on them, so the main point of his story is that letting in these newcomers was just one more way in which the rulers had messed up.

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.

Bede and the Arrival of the Germanic People

Two centuries later, we get Bede’s version of the arrival of the Germanic peoples, and it has grown in the telling. In Bede’s version, the protagonists are named. The ruler is now definitely called Vortigern, and he is specifically referred to as the king of the Britons, so he has received a promotion. 

The Germanic mercenaries have also acquired names: Hengist and Horsa—and a famous genealogy—because they are said to be great-grandsons of Woden, the most important pagan Germanic god. Most of the rest of Bede’s story is taken directly from Gildas.  

So Bede’s version has simplified the story but provided new details. Everyone now has names, including the arriving peoples, whom Bede calls the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. 

Features of Bede’s Story

We don’t know where Bede got these details, but it seems clear that over the two centuries between Gildas and Bede, oral tradition had probably done its usual work of sanding and polishing, making the story easier to grasp. 

Moreover, the political perspective had flipped. Writing from one of the flourishing new kingdoms wrought by the Anglo-Saxon transformation, Bede views the initial migrations in a wholly positive light.

Bede’s story is satisfyingly clear and simple, but almost certainly wrong, or at least misleading. For one thing, the Jutes are a problem. Scholars are no longer sure there really were people known as Jutes on the continent. 

Tacitus’ Germania

A statue of Tacitus the historian
Tacitus wrote the Germania in the late 1st century AD. (Image: Pe-Jo/Public domain)

In the late 1st century AD, Tacitus wrote the Germania, one of the first studies in the history of Germanic peoples, but again, we see him cling to simplistic narratives. He describes the Germans as hulking brave warriors all with red hair and blue eyes, who practice sexual self-restraint and fidelity to their wives. 

Despite never traveling in Germania himself, Tacitus constructs a myth of the ‘noble savage’ around the Germans, contrasting them with the Romans of his own day, whom he feels to be turning away from the high standards of their past. 

The problem is that these ethnic designations are extremely vague. What made someone a ‘German’? It’s very hard to tell. Tacitus incorrectly claims that the Germanic peoples are ethnically ‘pure’, arguing that the northern climes are so inhospitable, no immigrant or outsider would choose to move and intermarry there. Yet he himself divides up the Germanic peoples into various tribal groupings, so he certainly does not regard them as unified in a political sense.

So ‘Germanic’ was more a term of convenience, with the only common denominator being that these are people who spoke dialects from the Germanic family of languages, and they lived, broadly speaking, in northern Europe.  

Interaction with the Romans

The Romans had been familiar with peoples they call the Germani since the time of Julius Caesar. In fact, it was a migration by two Germanic tribes called the Cimbri and the Teutones that touched off Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, because the arrival in Gaul of these Germanic newcomers destabilized the political situation among the various Gaulish tribes and provided a pretext for Caesar to intervene. 

Given their long history on the borders of the Empire, the Romans and Germans interacted frequently, and often violently. Yet despite periodic hostilities, trade between Germans and Romans was also extensive, and this trade had a very important effect on Germanic society, just as it had on Celtic society in the period before Caesar. 

Many historians argue that it was the growing prosperity resulting from trade with Rome that caused the stratification in Germanic society that allowed for the creation of large tribal confederations with powerful rulers. In a sense, the Romans created the monster that eventually overthrew them. 

Common Questions about the Early History of Anglo-Saxon England and the Germanic People

Q: How did the Saxons invade Britain in Gildas’s story?

According to Gildas, the British rulers enlisted the help of the Saxons to confront their northern enemies. The Saxons came to Britain to repel the enemies in exchange for generous subsidies. But because they were not satisfied with their pay, they broke their agreement and looted British lands for their wages.

Q: What was Gildas’s motivation to think of the newcomers as a calamity?

Gildas was a monk who always wrote in criticism of secular authorities. According to him, these rulers were not trying to promote Christianity, and that’s why he blamed them for everything. Gildas considered the arrival of the German newcomers as one of the things that the rulers had messed up.

Q: What is the difference between Gildas and Bede’s storytelling?

Even though Bede tells the story of the arrival of the Germanic newcomers based on the same story as told by Gildas two centuries earlier, their stories are somehow different. For example, characters have names in Bede’s version, and the story is simplified despite including more details. However, his version of the story has its flaws.

Keep Reading
What Happened to Britain After the Romans Left?
How the English Settlers in Ireland Became Irishmen
Martyrs and Monks