Invasion? What Invasion?
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Introduction As you may know from the popular histories, the Romans left Britain at 'ten past four on a wet Tuesday afternoon', and those unlucky enough to be left behind were forcibly supplanted by a wholesale invasion of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Yet, does this widely accepted version of events make any real sense? OK, before attempting to explain our 'hypothesis' further, please disregard the references to the time and weather as it should be fairly obvious that they were complete fabrications. That said, when watching popular television documentaries and listening to the bold statements of 'subject matter experts' (self-styled or otherwise), we do sometimes wonder just how long it would take for such 'facts' to gain their own credibility with the general public if repeated often enough? And that got us thinking - just how sure are we of the assertion that Germanic invaders ousted and replaced the entire population, social structure, economy and language of Romano-Britain post AD 500? To be fair, the popular invasion theory has been largely supplanted by theories of mass migration across Europe in 5th- and 6th-centuries AD. Yet there remains the feeling that even this explanation is still woefully inaccurate and increasingly unsupportable. This is especially true as the traditionally accepted historical accounts, of Gildas and Bede for example, are re-evaluated in the light of modern scientific techniques in archaeology, linguistics, and even genetics.
Changing views Improved archaeological techniques have revealed a continuity of occupation at various ancient sites across the UK, even though for convenience finds still tend to be catalogued as 'Bronze Age', 'Iron Age', 'Roman' or 'Anglo-Saxon'. A superb example is Dominic Powesland’s extensive geophysical surveys and subsequent excavations at West Heslerton in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Over the last two decades, the archaeology team’s investigation has produced an extraordinary account of continuous occupation from the Bronze Age into the 5th/6th-century AD. Significantly, there is little - indeed no - evidence of an 'Anglo-Saxon invasion'.
Foremost amongst the proponents of a rethink is Dr Francis Pryor, who has openly challenged a historical orthodoxy that has held sway since Bede’s 8th-century Historia Brittonum ('History of the Britons'). In his book 'Britain AD', Dr Pryor argues that a flourishing indigenous culture endured through the Roman occupation of Britain and the so-called 'Dark Ages'. Drawing on his archaeological expertise, Dr Pryor asserts that the alleged Anglo-Saxon invasion after the fall of Roman Britain never happened in the way we think. So what did happen? Can the study of genetics, for example, reveal the truth, or at least produce evidence to counter the persistent invasion theory.
Who are the Britons? Despite their obvious proximity, Britain and Ireland are so thoroughly divided in their histories that there is actually no single word to refer to the inhabitants of both islands. Historians teach that they are mostly descended from different peoples: the Irish from the Gaels, and the English from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded from northern Europe and drove the Britons to the country's western and northern fringes. Yet, genetic studies of DNA throughout the British Isles are edging toward a different conclusion. Many geneticists are struck by the overall genetic similarities, leading some to claim that both Britain and Ireland have been inhabited for thousands of years by a single people that have remained in the majority, with only minor additions from later invaders like Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Norwegians and Normans. The implication that the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh have a great deal more in common with each other, at least from the geneticist's point of view, is unlikely to please many desperate to maintain the distinction. The genetic evidence is still under development, however, and because only very rough dates can be derived from it, it remains difficult to convincingly weave evidence from DNA, archaeology, history and linguistics into a coherent picture of British and Irish origins.
Arguments from genetics That has not stopped the attempt. Stephen Oppenheimer, a a British paediatrician, geneticist and writer, simply believes the historians' account is wrong in almost every detail. In Dr Oppenheimer's reconstruction of events, the principal ancestors of today's British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque. On the basis of the available genetic data, Dr Oppenheimer believes no single group of invaders is responsible for more than 5% of the current gene pool. Estimates by the archaeologist Dr Heinrich Haerke suggest that the Anglo-Saxon invasions, beginning in the 4th-century AD, added about 250,000 people to a British population of one to two million. Dr Oppenheimer notes this figure is larger than his, but considerably less than the substantial replacement of the British population assumed by others. As a comparison, Dr Haerke has calculated that the Norman invasion of AD 1066 introduced not much more than 10,000 people.
Importantly, Dr Oppenheimer's population history of the British Isles does not rely solely on genetic data but includes the dating of language changes by methods developed by geneticists. Currently the techniques are not generally accepted by historical linguists, who have already developed but largely rejected a dating method known as glottochronology. Geneticists, having recently plunged into the field, argue that linguists have been too pessimistic and that advanced statistical methods developed for dating genes can be applied to languages. For example, the work by Dr Peter Forster, a geneticist at Anglia Ruskin University, argues that Celtic is a much more ancient language than previously supposed, and that Celtic speakers could have brought knowledge of agriculture to Ireland, where it first appeared. Accordingly, Dr Oppenheimer agrees with Dr Forster's argument, based on a statistical analysis of vocabulary, that English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, and - this is the key - was spoken in England before the Roman invasion.
The mother tongue? Tradition has it that 'English' developed in England, from the language of the Angles and Saxons, about 1,500 years ago. Yet Dr Forster argues that the Angles and the Saxons were both Germanic peoples, originating from the Scandinavian region (Vikings?), who began raiding Britannia ahead of the accepted historical schedule. They did not bring their language to England because an embryonic 'English', in his view, was already spoken there, probably introduced before the arrival of the Romans by tribes such as the Belgae, who were resident on both sides of the Channel. The Belgae may have introduced some socially transforming technique, such as iron-working, which may have led to their language supplanting that of the indigenous inhabitants. Dr Forster stresses, however, that he has not yet identified any specific innovation from the archaeological record that would wholeheartedly support this theory. The point is, however, that the inhabitants of Britain were not isolated from Europe but shared a cultural heritage, technological innovation, trade and, it seems reasonable to assume, a common language - for trading if nothing else.
A common linguistic origin Germanic is usually assumed to have split into three branches: West Germanic, which includes German and Dutch; East Germanic, the language of the Goths and Vandals; and North Germanic, consisting of the Scandinavian languages. Dr Forster's analysis shows English is not an off-shoot of West Germanic, as usually understood, but is a branch independent of the other three, implying a greater antiquity. Historians have traditionally assumed that 'Celtic' was spoken throughout Britain by the time the Romans arrived. Dr Forster, however, estimates that Germanic split into its four branches some 2,000 to 6,000 years ago. If correct, this increases the likelihood that the 'Celtic' associated with Britain may have been misidentified and was instead the fourth branch of the Germanic language tree. As argued by Dr Oppenheimer, the apparent absence of 'Celtic' place names in England (words for places are particularly durable) supports the theory. From one who is uncomfortable with the hackneyed Anglo-Saxon history of Britain, the continuity of a Germanic based language seems to make more sense. It suggests that, during the Roman period at least, Latin was probably a convenient veneer - the lingua franca essential for commerce and, importantly, the government of diverse peoples possessing a multitude of languages, dialects, and so on across the Empire. With the waning of Roman influence and the breakdown of trade links across a fragmenting Empire, the persistent underlying Germanic language of the Britons simply supplanted Latin. Moreover, it seems sensible that the migration of other Germanic speaking peoples into western Europe would have encouraged, if not demanded, a resurgence of a common language for trade and intertribal relations.
An argument won? Archaeology, linguistics and, more recently, genetics are providing evidence of a cultural continuity in Britain incompatible with theories of invasion or widespread population displacement. Increasingly the British appear to have a Germanic heritage independent of the Anglo-Saxon history created by medieval writers encouraged for political or religious reasons to present a common origin. So, if the people of the British Isles have a shared genetic heritage, with their differences consisting only of a regional flavouring of Gaelic in the West and of northern European in the East, might that draw them together? There is, however, little prospect that the geneticists’ findings will reduce cultural and political differences amongst Britons. Genes, as Dr Oppenheimer says: 'have no bearing on cultural history...There is no significant genetic difference between the people of Northern Ireland, yet they have been fighting with each other for 400 years.' A quote by Dr Bryan Sykes, another Oxford geneticist is very telling: '[The Celtic cultural myth] is very entrenched and has a lot to do with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish identity; their main identifying feature is that they are not English.' Importantly, Sykes agrees with Dr Oppenheimer that the ancestors of 'by far the majority of people' were present in the British Isles before the Roman conquest of AD 43. The emerging evidence and new theories reveal that the Saxons, Vikings and Normans had a minor effect, and much less than some of the medieval historical texts would indicate. So, an Anglo-Saxon invasion...what invasion?