Britain's Settlement by Anglo Saxons and Scots

Britain’s Settlement by Anglo Saxons and Scots

This part of the new History curriculum requirement covers the period between when the Romans left the British Isles, up to the first Viking incursions. This can be a difficult and confusing period to teach without prior experience due to the many cultures, people and regions involved, so we’ve put together some information to help you decide how to approach the topic.

Ideas for study given on the Government’s website are:

Other topics that could be used within and around these include:

Dateline: 410AD to 793AD


The original inhabitants of Britain were various continental proto-celtic tribes who migrated here after the last ice age. Though there was much infighting, invasion and counter-invasion, several distinct branches of the celtic people developed including the Picts, Scots (Gaels) and Britons.

Invasion and conquest meant that Britain was part of the Roman Empire by 43AD. Roman Britain covered the South Coast up to Hadrian’s Wall in the north. Behind this wall were the woad-painted Caledonians, or Picts (literally Painted Ones), whom Rome had failed to subdue and therefore shut them out instead.

In approximately 410AD the Romans officially had to go home. Rome itself was under attack from the east European barbarian tribes and the sprawling Empire was collapsing under its own weight. The Romans told the Romano-British to “look to their own defences” against the raiders that were coming in from the northern Picts, and from the eastern Germanic tribes from what is now Denmark, Germany and the Low Countries. These were the people who were to become the Anglo-Saxons.

This period is very hard to evidence due to lack of written documentation, hence why it has become known as the “Dark Ages”. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the abandoned Romano-British leader Vortigern asked two Saxon mercenaries, Hengist and Horsa, to come and help in the fight against the Picts from the north. They then sent word home about the richness of the British land, and lead an invasion of their own people from northern Germany and Denmark.

These invaders were the Angles (from southern Denmark/Northern Germany), Saxons (Northern Germany), Jutes (Denmark) and Frisians (Low countries – Netherlands and Belgium). (Note that the names given to countries here reflect the modern names for the areas referenced).

The raiders eventually decided to settle. The Angles settled the north and central parts of England, the Saxons settled Essex, Sussex, Middlesex and Wessex (Lands of the East, South, Middle and West Saxons respectively) and the Jutes and Frisians settled Kent, the Isle of Wight and some of Hampshire (which would later become part of Wessex).

This caused the original inhabitants to gradually be pushed south, west and north, out of the areas the Germanic tribes were settling. These people ended up in Cornwall, southern Scotland and Wales, which is why those areas retain the old British languages. In fact the word “Welsh” is the Saxon word for “foreigner”, and the Scottish insult “Sassenach” is a corruption of the word “Saxon”.

Meanwhile, at approximately the same time that the Germanic tribes started colonising England, the Picts were suffering from an influx of Scots. The Scotti came from Ireland and were the descendents of the Picts who had invaded Ireland from Scotland in approximately 200AD! So the Irish Scots began colonising the land of the Scottish Picts, which they called Dal Riata. At this point, what we call Scotland was divided into 4 Kingdoms: Dal Riata (West – Scots), Pictland (North – Picts), Strathclyde (Central/South – Brythonics/Britons), and Bernicia (South East) which was populated by Angles and would later become part of Northumbria.

England, meanwhile, was slowly coalescing into the 7 separate Kingdoms throughout the 6th and 7th centuries, creating Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex. Wales and Cornwall remained the retreat of the original Britons. The Anglo Saxon kingdoms over the next hundred or so years gradually, through conquest and politics, became the four larger kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and East Anglia. And this is how it stayed until the Viking invasions began in the late 8th Century.

Religion:

The Anglo-Saxons (by which we mean the Germanic invaders, even though they also include Jutes and Frisians) were Pagan, whereas the Romano-British had been converted to Christianity somewhere around the 4th Century along with the rest of the Roman Empire.

The Anglo Saxon Gods were essentially the same as the later Norse Gods of the Vikings (being, after all, of the same root stock), and as they say, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Odin was known as Woden, Thor as Thunor, Tyr as Tiw, etc. The Celtic people had already abandoned their own Gods like Cernunnos (Herne), Lugh and Sulis, except for parts of Wales where their Gods hung on a little longer.

A programme of conversion to Christianity was soon foisted upon the new settlers by Pope Gregory, who was not keen to lose the British Isles to Paganism once more. After the marriage of the King of Kent to a Christian Frankish (French) Princess, he could make inroads and sent a mission in 597 to begin the Re-Christianisation of Britain. This was also assisted by the still-Christian influence of the Irish, Scotti and Welsh.

It was not, however, a straightforward process and there was some resistance to the change. The various Kingdoms swung back and forth between Paganism and Christianity throughout the 7th Century until King Arwald of the Isle of Wight became the last Anglo Saxon King to die a Pagan in 686AD.