c.450. Traditional date for the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain

This date, and the whole idea of a sudden onslaught of "Anglo-Saxons" on post-Roman Britain in the mid-5th century, is a vast oversimplification. Saxon pirates may have been raiding the shores of Britain already by 365; in 367 there was a Roman military officer in charge of a series of fortresses along the south-eastern coast, and by the end of the century the coast itself was called the Saxon Shore. There may also have been Saxons among the defenders of late 4th-century Britain: the German names of two of the Roman commanders (Fullofaudes and Fraomar) make it clear that members of some Germanic tribes were on the Romano-British side.

Information from the 5th century is scarce. Constantius's Life of St Germanus notes that the saint helped the British to win a victory against a combined force of Picts and Saxons, in a visit which Prosper of Aquitaine's Chronicle dates to 429. The Gallic Chronicle, written probably shortly after 452, notes a severe Saxon raid on Britain in about 410, and the fall of Britain to the Saxons, after many troubles, in 441. It would be fascinating to learn what tidings reached the near-contemporary chronicler in the south of France to make him believe that Britain had fallen: the tales of refugees, perhaps, fleeing for their lives, or the sudden cessation of contact or trade with Britain which might result if the Saxons took the coastal settlements and blockaded the Channel. Without more details, though, this source is too far away from events to be more than an index of how widely-known and serious were the Saxon troubles in Britain.

For more discursive accounts of the Anglo-Saxon arrival we must turn to later British and English sources. The earliest source is Gildas, who wrote in the 6th century the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, "Of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain"; this is primarily a lament for the sins of contemporary British rulers, but it includes some historical background. Gildas says that some time after an unsuccessful appeal for help to the Roman consul "Agitius", the Britons, fearing a return of their old enemies, the Irish and the Picts, agreed to give land to the Saxons on condition that they beat back the raiders. The Saxons came first in three ships, landing on the east side of the island, and later a second and larger group arrived. For a long time they received their wages and did their work, but eventually they demanded greater rewards, and plundered "the whole island" when they were refused. Gildas pictures the Saxon conquest as divine vengeance for earlier sins of the Britons, and is manifestly uninterested in names or dates or historical precision. It is true that the Irish and the Picts, as well as the Saxons, did raid late Roman (and presumably sub-Roman) Britain; it is also plausible that some Saxons may have been employed as defenders of Roman Britain, as we know some other Germanic peoples were. But elsewhere Gildas is clearly rearranging material to suit his polemical ends (we know the Saxons were already raiding Britain in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, but Gildas omits all mention of this to introduce them as agents of divine vengeance in the mid-5th century), or straying into legend (the arrival of the Saxon invaders in three ships parallels origin stories told of the Picts, the Irish, the Goths and the Continental Saxons). His account, though influential as narrative, cannot be trusted as history.

In the 8th century, the English writer Bede added dates to Gildas's account. In his Chronica Maiora of 725 he tried to put Gildas's events into a sequence of Roman imperial reigns, and since Gildas notes that "Agitius" was thrice consul and there was a Roman military leader, Aetius, who received a third consulship in 446, Bede dates the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to the following reign, of Marcian and Valentinian (450-57). Bede was using A.D. dating in his Historia Ecclesiastica of 731, but instead of giving a specific year, he repeats his statement that the coming of the Saxons happened in the seven-year reign of Marcian and Valentinian, which he states (erroneously) began in 449. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the end of the 9th century repeats Bede's statement under its annal for 449, and it is a simplification of that which has given us the supposed date "449" for the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. But it seems that Bede was only trying to make sense of Gildas, and since the result contradicts a nearly-contemporary source (by which the Saxons had conquered Britain by 441, nearly ten years before they were first "invited"), the date c.450 for the "Coming of the Anglo-Saxons" has no real historical authority. Nonetheless, from the 8th century to the 20th, c.450 was the approximate received date for the invasion. Bede himself is not consistent: elsewhere in his History, he dates events with the phrase "about [x] years after the English came to Britain", and in three cases he seems to be calculating from a date of 446/47 rather than 449-56. The later Historia Brittonum, on uncertain authority, notes that an Irish abbot who visited Ripon in 753 discovered that there they dated the arrival to 453.

A recent and skeptical review of the archaeological evidence (Hines, "Philology, Archaeology and the adventus Saxonum vel Anglorum") notes that while the overall sequence of the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England is clear, it cannot be dated with the precision historians would desire. It seems that there were only a handful of sites containing "Anglo-Saxon" artefacts datable to before the middle of the 5th century. There was then a considerable expansion in the area covered by Anglo-Saxon sites and in the density of such sites over the second half of the 5th century and the first half of the 6th. In other words, Anglo-Saxon influence became much more visible on the ground in the second half of the 5th century, and if the "Coming of the Anglo-Saxons" is defined as the point where they achieve significant influence rather than their first arrival, c.450 may be as good a date as any. It is still an oversimplification, however, and "the second half of the 5th century" more accurately reflects our current knowledge.

"Saxons", "Anglo-Saxons", and "English" have been used interchangeably for the Germanic invaders of England. In a famous passage towards the beginning of his History (I.xv), Bede states that the people of the Angles or Saxons came from three strong Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. There were doubtless many other peoples involved: Bede himself gives a longer list towards the end of his History (V.ix), naming the Frisians, the Rugini, the Danes, the Huns, the Old Saxons and the Boructari (probabaly Franks); a 6th-century Byzantine historian, Procopius, thought that Britain was inhabited by Britons, Angles, and Frisians. But the fact that contemporaries tended to refer to them indiscriminately as "the Angles" or "the Saxons" suggests that these two groups were predominant. The compound "Anglo-Saxon" appears in some Continental sources as a vague synonym of "Angles" or "Saxons", or as a term to differentiate the Saxons in Britain from those on the Continent (Pohl pp.21-2), but it is introduced in England as a term meaning "all of the English" at King Alfred's court at the end of the 9th century.

R. Burgess, "The Dark Ages Return to Fifth-Century Britain: The 'Restored' Gallic Chronicle Exploded", Britannia 21 (1990), pp.185-95

J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons (London: 1982)

J. Cotterill, "Saxon Raiding and the Role of the Late Roman Coastal Forts of Britain", Britannia 24 (1993), pp.227-39

S. Frere, Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, 3rd edn (London: 1987)

N. Higham, The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth Century (Manchester: 1994)

J. Hines, "Philology, Archaeology and the adventus Saxonum vel Anglorum", Britain 400-600: Language and History, edd. A. Bammesberger and A. Wollmann (Heidelberg, 1990), pp.17-36

W. Pohl, "Ethnic Names and Identities in the British Isles: A Comparative Perspective", in J. Hines (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (Woodbridge: 1997), pp.7-32

P. Sims-Williams, "Gildas and the Anglo-Saxons", Cambridge Medieval Celtic Society 6 (1983), pp.1-30

P. Sims-Williams, "The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle", Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41

F. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn (Oxford: 1971), pp.1-18

c.450 to c.550. Prehistory of Anglo-Saxon England

While it seems clear that there was a strong Anglo-Saxon presence in Britain starting in the second half of the 5th century, for the first hundred years or so it is impossible to put together a detailed and reliable account of what was going on.

Gildas, writing in the mid-6th century, provides a near-contemporary account, but few details. He notes that after the initial Saxon revolt, which rampaged unchecked over the whole island, some of the Britons surrendered, some fled overseas or into the deep forests, and some eventually got together under the leadership of the Roman commander Ambrosius Aurelianus. After this, victories went sometimes to the Saxons, sometimes to the Britons, until the battle of mons Badonicus. This was pretty much the last British victory, and Gildas seems to tell us it took place in the year of his birth, 44 years before he wrote. Elsewhere Gildas tells us that access to many of the shrines of British saints had been cut off by the "partition with the barbarians", so it seems likely that large parts of what would become England were already in Anglo-Saxon hands in his day.

This account is plausible, but it must be remembered that at least in its earlier sections Gildas's history is sometimes wildly inaccurate or deliberately changed to make his polemical points more clearly (see entry on c.450). We have no independent evidence of the existence or nationality of Ambrosius Aurelianus, though he may well be the historical model for the legendary King Arthur. Since we do not know when Gildas was born or when he wrote his De Excidio, we cannot date the battle of Mount Badon, nor can we locate it. Archaeological evidence does however show that Anglo-Saxon artefacts were found over much of England by the early 6th century, and in much greater concentrations by the mid-6th century, which corroborates Gildas's statement that several parts of Britain were inaccessible because of the barbarians. Gildas's statement that some Britons fled overseas is also supported by evidence of British settlers from Holland to Spain, though the densest area of settlement was the peninsula of Armorica, which became Brittany.

Bede, from his vantage point in the 8th century, repeats Gildas's account but otherwise adds very little between the coming of the Anglo-Saxons in the mid-5th century and the coming of the Roman missionaries to convert them at the end of the 6th. We can only imagine what Bede might have told us about the pagan past if he had wished: his focus in his Ecclesiastical History is almost exclusively on the English Church and on Christian English kingdoms.

The 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives more dates, mostly of the arrivals of Saxon war-parties, their fights with the British, and the succession to the new-founded Saxon kingdoms of Kent, the West Saxons, and the South Saxons. While there are details here, they cannot be accepted as reliable: since the Saxons would have been illiterate from the invasions in the 5th century until their conversion in the 7th century, the dates and details are at best a matter of traditions and later guesswork. Very close parallels between the West Saxon and Kentish stories (not only following the same framework, but allowing the same number of years between events) strongly suggest that one was copied from the model of the other, which would mean that almost half of this part of the Chronicle could be dismissed outright. Further problems with the chronology of the West Saxon entries (which suggest that a set of annals originally starting in the mid-6th century was rewritten to begin in the late 5th) and the cast of characters of the Kentish entries (many of whom seem to be semi-divine figures of myth rather than real people) will be dealt with in separate entries on the legendary foundations of these kingdoms (see c.450 to 512 and 495 to 594)..

Some other Chronicle entries, by which arriving Saxons give their names to local settlements, look suspicious for another reason. While it is possible that a chieftain called Port arrived in 501 and landed at Portsmouth which was named after him, it is more likely that the name Portsmouth derives from Latin portus, "harbour", especially since no other Englishman was ever called Port. While there were other people called Wihtgar, the Wihtgar who is said to have arrived in 514 and was eventually buried at Wihtgaraburg on the Isle of Wight is most probably a later invention or misunderstanding, since Wihtgaraburg does not in fact mean "Wihtgar's fortress" but "the fortress of the inhabitants of Wight". A more prosaic explanation probably also lies behind the name of the Netley Marshes, which are said to be called after a British king Natanleod who was killed there in 508: since "Natanleod" bears no relation to any known British personal name, the marshes are probably so named because they are wet (OE næt, "wet" + leah, "meadow"). Such invention of past heroes based on misunderstood place-names is not limited to the Chronicle: Bede claims that Rochester was named for one of its chieftains called Hrof (HE, ii.3), whereas in fact we can see that the English form of the name is derived from the earlier British form which means not "Hrof's settlement" but "the bridges of the stronghold". Not all of the characters in early Chronicle entries can be dismissed as mistaken explanations of place-names, but it is likely that Port and Natanleod and Wihtgar, at least, are figments of later fiction rather than of 6th-century fact.

This leads inevitably to the question of that much more famous shadowy 6th-century character, King Arthur, who is supposed to have led the Britons successfully against the Saxons. His existence also seems to be confirmed by chronicles: the Annales Cambriae state that he fought at Mount Badon in 516 and died with Medraut (Mordred) at Camlann in 537. Further, the 9th-century Historia Brittonum lists twelve of his battles, leading up to his victory at Mount Badon. However, it seems that at least for the 6th century the Annales Cambriae are no more contemporary than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the two Arthurian entries were probably added in the 9th or 10th centuries. The Mount Badon annal seems to be based on the Historia Brittonum, and both are undermined by the fact that Gildas in the 6th century attributes this victory to Ambrosius Aurelianus rather than to Arthur. Gildas could have been mistaken, but a closer examination of "Arthur's" twelve battles shows good reason to re-attribute another seven to other people or situations, which suggests that famous battles came to be attributed to Arthur regardless of who originally fought them. Two of the remaining four "Arthurian" battles appear from other early sources to be entirely mythical, one a fight against werewolves and one a battle in which trees are magically animated to fight. It may then be that Arthur was originally a legendary hero of folklore who fought supernatural battles, and came to be seen as the greatest of heroes (a reference to a hero who strove valiantly "but was not Arthur" in a poem about a 6th-century battle would make sense in this context), and eventually had various "historical" battles attached to him. The Irish folk-hero Fionn underwent a similar transformation, from a mythical beginning to association with the defence against the Viking invasions of Ireland. [A thorough investigation of the historicity of Arthur, with detailed bibliography up to 1997, appears at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~tomgreen/arthur.htm.]

J. Campbell (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons (London: 1982), pp.23-7

O. Padel, "The Nature of Arthur", Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (1994), pp.1-31 [more comments and bibliography up to 1997 appear on Thomas Green's web page at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~tomgreen/arthur.htm]

P. Sims-Williams, "The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle", Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41

B. Yorke, "The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the origins of Wessex", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.84-96

c.450 to 512. Legendary foundation of Kent

Bede names the British ruler who "first" invited the English, Vortigern, and reports that the leaders of the Angles, or Saxons, were called Hengest and Horsa. Bede adds that a monument to Horsa still exists in eastern Kent, and that the kings of Kent were descended from Hengest's son Æsc, from which it is normally deduced that Hengest and Horsa landed in Kent. In fact, Bede does not say what land they held, and if they were imported to deal with Irish and Pictish incursions as Gildas suggests, they might more plausibly have been settled in the north of Britain. But later tradition claimed them as Kentish, and saw them landing at Ebbsfleet in Thanet (so the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum).

The Ravenna Cosmographer, writing perhaps at the same time as Bede, says that the Saxons arrived in Britain led by their prince Ansehis. This name looks like a blundered Continental form of Æsc and suggests that in one version of the story it was Æsc, not Hengest and Horsa, who led the Saxons to Britain. This raises the possibility that Hengest and Horsa were mythical founding figures, divine twins like Romulus and Remus, rather than real people. (Pairs of brothers with alliterating names also led migrations in accounts of the Lombards and Vandals; see Turville-Petre, p.274.) The Old English poem Beowulf includes cryptic references to a character called Hengest, perhaps a Jute, who played a key role in a dispute in Frisia between the Danes and the Frisians. This Hengest might afterwards have led his band of followers across the sea to Britain, but the existence of an alternate tradition that the Saxons were led to Britain by Æsc, and the fact that the kings of Kent trace their descent to Æsc, not to his more famous father Hengest, suggests that Hengest and his brother Horsa (who is not named in the Frisian conflict) were added on to the Kentish royal genealogy to give the later Kentish kings a link with the legendary Germanic past. This process of improving the king's pedigree can be seen at work in the West Saxon royal genealogy, which in the 7th century probably went back to Woden (Bede, HE, i.15); but by the 9th century had been extended back from Woden through several other Germanic heroes and then into Biblical figures and finally to Adam (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 855; see further Sisam).

On closer inspection, Æsc seems no more secure as a historical figure than Hengest and Horsa. Jordanes, writing a history of the Goths, notes that the people at the head of the Gothic genealogies are called demigods, that is Ansis, because of their victories. Ansis is another Continental variant of Æsc, and if as seems likely "Æsc" is a word meaning "divine hero" rather than the name of a real person, we are faced with the embarrassing possibility that Æsc might himself have been a later addition to the royal genealogy, and that the first sixty years of Kentish history, from the landing in about 449 to Æsc's death in 512, carefully recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, are completely fictitious.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hengest and Horsa landed in or shortly after 449, at the invitation of Vortigern. In 455 they fought against Vortigern at Aylesford, and Horsa was killed and Hengest and Æsc succeeded to the kingdom. In 456 Hengest and Æsc fought the Britons at Crayford, and after a great slaughter the Britons deserted Kent and fled to London. In 465 Hengest and Æsc defeated the Britons at Wippedesfleot (unidentified), and in 473 again at an unnamed place. In 488 Æsc succeeded to the kingdom (and presumably therefore Hengest died), and he was king of the people of Kent for 24 years.

It should be noted that Æsc succeeds to the kingdom twice, once in 455 and once in 488: this rouses further suspicions that the account is an attempt to graft together different origin legends. It is also unfortunate that the same pattern, a landing (449) followed six years later by the establishment of a kingdom (455) and almost forty years later by the death of the father and the passing of the kingdom to his son (488), is repeated exactly in the account of the foundation of the West Saxon kingdom (494/5, 500, and 534; for West Saxon complications see entry on 495 to 594). It seems unlikely that the two kingdoms developed at so precisely the same rate, and one or both accounts should probably be dismissed as origin legend instead of sober history. It is worth noting that a similar sequence of four battles (three of them named, and one of these leading to Horsa's death) appears in the account of the foundation of Kent in the Historia Brittonum, but in that case the battles end not with the flight of the Britons but with the defeat and flight of the English. The tradition that there were four battles in the early history of Kent is thus well established, but already in the 9th century it has been taken out of whatever historical context it may have had and used to support opposing pro-English and pro-British views of the past. Eleven hundred years later, we have no means of saying which interpretation is correct, if indeed the four battles were ever part of history and not just part of origin folklore like the arrival in three ships.

The history of Kent that we can actually recover begins not with Hengest and his son Æsc in the mid-5th century, but with Irminric and his son Æthelberht in the mid-6th (see entry on c.575).

N. Brooks, "The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.55-74

P. Sims-Williams, "The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle", Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41

K. Sisam, "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies", Proceedings of the British Academy 39 (1953), pp.287-348

J.R.R. Tolkien, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode (London: 1982)

J.E. Turville-Petre, "Hengest and Horsa", Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953-7), pp.273-90

B. Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: 1990), pp.25-27

c.450 to 651. Foundation of Northumbria

Bede notes that Northumbria was originally two separate kingdoms (HE, iii.1), Deira (north of the river Humber but south of the Tyne) and Bernicia (north of the Tyne). Genealogies survive for both Deira and Bernicia, taking both royal lines back to Woden. In the first half of the 7th century the two kingdoms became one, ruled by descendents of Ida of Bernicia until the second half of the 8th century (see entry on 759).

In the earliest dated reference to a member of either royal family, Bede notes that Ida took power in 547 and ruled for twelve years (HE, v.24). However, comments attached to earlier members of the genealogies of both Bernicia and Deira suggest at least legendary beginnings back in the 5th century. For the Bernicians, a 9th-century manuscript adds to a report of Ida of Bernicia's accession in 547 that Ida's grandfather Oessa was the first to arrive in Britain (Dumville, "Chronicle-fragment", p.314). A rough guess at two generations back from 547 would put Oessa's arrival towards the end of the 5th century. The Deirans claimed an even earlier beginning: the Historia Brittonum's version of the genealogy of the Deirans (?61) states that Soemel, the great-great-great-grandfather of Ælle of Deira (who was king in 597) separated Deira from Bernicia. Five generations from Soemel to Ælle would probably put this division in the mid-5th century, before the arrival of the English Bernicians, which would mean that Soemel separated Deira from British control (Dumville, "Origins", p.218). Though the exploits of Oessa and Soemel are not recorded before the 9th century and may well be fictitious, archaeological evidence does confirm that there were already Anglo-Saxons in Northumbria by the third quarter of the 5th century, long before Ida began to rule (Hines, pp. 26-7).

Whatever the arrangements were before Ida, he remains the first known Northumbrian king. There is a Bernician regnal list copied into an early manuscript of Bede's History, which lists the kings from Ida to Ceolwulf (729-37), and gives the number of years each reigned (see Hunter Blair). From this list we can deduce the following reigns for the kings from Ida to Æthelfrith, and these reign-dates are almost all that is known of the earliest Bernician kings:

Ida, 547-59
Glappa, 559-60
Adda, 560-8
Æthelric, 568-72
Theodric, 572-9
Frithuwald, 579-85
Hussa, 585-92
Æthelfrith, 592-616

There was probably a similar list for Deira, but since the Deiran line came to an end in the 7th century there would be less cause to preserve it, and all that remains is three entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: that in 560 Ælle succeeded to Northumbria and ruled for 30 years, that in 588 (not 590, as one might expect) Ælle died and Æthelric reigned for 5 years, and that in 593 Æthelfrith succeeded to Northumbria. This is clearly muddled, not only because Ælle should have died in 590 if he ruled for 30 years from 560, but also because Bede states that Ælle and Æthelfrith were both reigning north of the Humber when Æthelberht of Kent greeted the Roman missionaries in 597 (Bede, Chronica Maiora, entry 531, extracted at Miller, p.41). Bede's authority that Ælle was in power in 597 should be preferred over the Chronicle's assertion that Ælle died in 588 (and, implicitly, also in 590). The Chronicle entries are probably based on a regnal list which stated that Ælle reigned for 30 years, and then Æthelric reigned for 5 years, and then Æthelfrith took over Deira, but without knowing the date of Æthelfrith's conquest it is impossible to say when Ælle's reign should begin. (For a likely explanation of how the Chronicle arrived at Æthelfrith's accession in 593, and so put Æthelric's accession in 588 without recognizing the inconsistency with Ælle's accession in 560, see Miller, pp.46-7.) All we can say for certain about the Deiran kings before Edwin is that Ælle (Edwin's father) was ruling c.597.

The political situation in Northumbria was extremely fluid in the first half of the 7th century, with sometimes two separate countries, sometimes a united Northumbria under a Bernician ruler, and once a united Northumbria under a Deiran ruler. Æthelfrith of Bernicia (592-616; q.v.) was the first known ruler of all Northumbria, and Edwin of Deira succeeded him to the whole kingdom (616-33; q.v.). Shortly after the division of the kingdom on Edwin's death (see entry on 633) both kingdoms were reunited under Oswald of Bernicia (634-42); after Oswald's death in 642 there were again separate rulers until Oswiu of Bernicia ordered the killing of Oswine of Deira in 651. While there may have been sub-kings of Deira for the next thirty years or so, Oswine was probably the last independent king of a separate Deira, and so with hindsight we can say that Northumbria became a single kingdom under Bernician control in 651.

Though Northumbria may have been a single country from the mid-7th century, political fluidity remained something of a Northumbrian characteristic, as can be seen in the rapid changes of ruler (and dynasty) in the second half of the 8th century (see entry on 758), and the freedom with which the Northumbrians seemed to choose between English and Viking kings in the mid-10th century (see entry on 947-54).

J. Hines, "Philology, Archaeology and the adventus Saxonum vel Anglorum", Britain 400-600: Language and History, edd. A. Bammesberger and A. Wollmann (Heidelberg, 1990), pp.17-36

P. Hunter Blair, "The Moore Memoranda on Northumbrian History", in C. Fox and B. Dickins (edd.), The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge: 1950), pp.245-57

D. Dumville, "A new chronicle-fragment of early British history", English Historical Review 88 (1973), pp.312-4

D. Dumville, "The Anglian collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists", Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), pp.23-50

D. Dumville, "The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background", in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.213-22

M. Miller, "The dates of Deira", Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979), pp.35-61

477 to 491. Legendary foundation of Sussex

The foundation of Sussex is described in the suspect 5th-century section of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, according to which Ælle and his three sons (Cymen, Wlencing, and Cissa) land with three ships in 477 at Cymenesora (near Selsey Bill), and in the same year fight the Britons and kill many of them and drive others into the Weald. In 485 Ælle fights the Britons near the bank of the river Mearcredesburna (unidentified), and in 491 he and his son Cissa besiege the Roman fort near Pevensey and kill all the British inhabitants. Nothing more is told of Ælle or of his sons, though the place-names Lancing and Chichester seem to go back to the names of Ælle's sons Wlencing and Cissa.

The folkloric arrival in three ships, and the inclusion of people whose sole function seems to be to give their names to local settlements, suggest that these Chronicle entries should be treated as later fiction rather than recorded fact (see entry on c.450 to c.550). However, archaeological remains do suggest there were Anglo-Saxons at least in the eastern part of Sussex in the 5th century, and Bede in the 8th century notes "Ælle King of the South Saxons" as the first of a list of powerful English kings (HE, ii.5). It is possible then that Ælle was one of the early leaders of the South Saxons, and remembered as such in Bede's day. However, there is no way of determining when the historical Ælle reigned or what his sphere of influence was. There is no surviving royal genealogy for the South Saxons, and beyond a brief mention of a fight between Ceolwulf of Wessex and the South Saxons in 607 we know nothing of their fortune until their re-emergence into narrative history in the 660s (see entry on 661).

M. Welch, "The kingdom of the South Saxons: the origins", in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.75-83

495 to 594. Legendary foundation of Wessex

The very beginnings of the chronology of Wessex present a puzzle, in that key events are recorded twice, under different years. The West Saxons (once called "Cerdic and Cynric" and once "the West Saxons") arrive at Cerdicesora in 495 and in 514. They found the kingdom in 500 and in 519, fight against the Britons in 508 and 527, and Cerdic dies and Cynric succeeds in 516 and 534. These duplicated events are all 18 or 19 years apart, which may be significant because later Christian scribes sometimes recorded annals on Easter tables of 19-year duration, and an obvious way of backdating events would be to put them in an earlier 19-year cycle (see Harrison, pp.127-8). That seems to be what has happened here, perhaps to make the West Saxon line seem older and therefore grander, just as genealogies were sometimes extended backwards by adding more noble ancestors (see entry on c.450 to 512). More recent work by David Dumville, working from all the variants of reign-lengths given in the Chronicle and elsewhere, suggests that immediately behind the sources available to us there is a version which placed the beginning of Cerdic's reign in 527?540, most probably in 537/8 (see Dumville, pp.50-51); since this is another 19 years on from 519, the suspicion must be that the West Saxon entries in the Chronicle were in fact backdated by 19 years twice, and the original dates were probably closer to:

Cerdic: 538-54
Cynric: 554-81
Ceawlin: 581-88
Ceol: 588-94
Ceolwulf: 594-611

After Ceolwulf's reign the variations that exist tend to be limited to a year or two, and this is probably because the next king, Cynegils, was baptized in 635 and after that literate clerics will have been available to keep records from then on.

What with all the chronological dislocation that seems to have gone on, it seems a fairly hopeless task to put the Chronicle's catalogue of battles from 508 to 592 into this revised and shortened framework. In any case, some of them are probably later inventions to explain place-names (such as the 508 battle when "Natanleod" was killed, although Netley Marshes are more likely so named for OE næt, "wet"), and some are at places which can no longer be identified (such as Cerdicesleag, where Cerdic and Cynric are supposed to have fought in 527). Others are fights against the Britons at times and places where the archaeology demonstrates the Anglo-Saxons were already well established (such as Old Sarum, where Cynric is supposed to have defeated the Britons in 552, though Anglo-Saxon material appears in the area at least half a century earlier, see Yorke, p.32). The battles dealing with the Isle of Wight are dealt with separately (see entry on 514 to 544). Of the rest, Cynric and Ceawlin are said to have fought the Britons in 556 at Barbury, Ceawlin and Cutha to have fought Æthelberht of Kent in 568 at Wibbandun (see entry on 581?588), Cuthwulf (Ceawlin's brother) to have fought the Britons in 571 and Ceawlin and Cuthwine (his son) to have fought the Britons in 577 (discussed below), Ceawlin and Cutha (? for Cuthwulf) to have fought the Britons in 584 at Feþanleag (perhaps another battle invented for the place-name, as it means "battle-field" or "troop-field"), and a great (internecine?) battle to have been fought at Woden's Barrow in 592, at which Ceawlin was driven out, a year before his death. Only two of these battles, that between Ceawlin of Wessex and Æthelberht of Kent, and that at Woden's Barrow in which Ceawlin was driven out, emerge unscathed from this sifting, and both should probably be redated (the fight with Æthelberht to 581?588, and that at Woden's Barrow to 587 or 588). (For a later battle at Woden's Barrow, see entry on 715.)

The two battles placed by the Chronicle in the 570s are interesting because they look as though they are deliberate inventions reflecting later political realities. In 571 Cuthwulf fights the Britons at Biedcanford (unidentified), and captures the four towns of Limbury, Aylesbury, Bensington and Eynsham. In 577, Ceawlin and Cuthwine fight the Britons at Dyrham, and kill three British kings, Conmail, Condidan and Farinmail, and capture the cities of Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath. These entries have been used to map the progress of West Saxon advance against the Britons, but this is unsound because archaeological evidence shows that most of these areas were already surrounded by Anglo-Saxons long before the 570s (see Sims-Williams, pp.31-2). Sims-Williams further notes that the use of English (rather than British) names for the four places captured in 571 suggests anachronism, and wonders whether the annal may have been fashioned by a West Saxon chronicler some time after the later battle in 779 between Cynewulf of Wessex and Offa of Mercia in which Offa captured Bensington (see Sims-Williams, pp.32-3). A similar backdated pro-Wessex political statement can be seen in the annals dealing with the Isle of Wight, in which the founders of Wight (Jutes, according to Bede) are said to be nephews of the West Saxon Cerdic, which is extremely unlikely (see entry on 514 to 544). The three British kings supposedly slain in 577 cannot be identified as 6th-century individuals, though Sims-Williams points out that Condidan, probably for Welsh Cynddylan, matches the name of a Welsh ruler in the Wroxeter region who was killed in the mid-7th century, and suggests that behind the 577 annal there might be a Welsh triad naming British kings killed by the English torn out of context (see Sims-Williams, pp.33-4). Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester are in the territory of the Hwicce, which over the 7th and 8th centuries becomes a Mercian province, but in 628 Cynegils and Cwichelm of Wessex fought Penda of Mercia for Cirencester, and seem to have lost. The annal for 577, then, may also reflect a West Saxon chronicler's belief of who should have owned the land at some later point rather than a reflection of who actually held it in the 6th century.

D. Dumville, "The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List and the Chronology of Early Wessex", Peritia 4 (1985), pp.21-66

K. Harrison, The Framework of Anglo-Saxon History to AD 900 (Cambridge: 1976)

P. Sims-Williams, "The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle", Anglo-Saxon England 12 (1983), pp.1-41

B. Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (London: 1995)

514 to 544. Legendary foundation of the Isle of Wight

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that Stuf and Wihtgar fight the Britons in 514, that Cerdic and Cynric capture the Isle of Wight in 530 and kill some men at Wihtgaraburg, that Cerdic and Cynric give Wight to their kinsmen Stuf and Wihtgar in 534, and that Wihtgar dies and is buried at Wihtgaraburg in 544. This is almost certainly a tissue of later invention: written sources for the verifiable history of the Isle of Wight only take up the story in the 660s (see entry on 661).

One problem with the story is that the name of the character Wihtgar seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the placename Wihtgaraburg (Wihtgaraburg, perhaps originally Wihtwaraburg, means "fortress of the inhabitants of Wight", not "Wihtgar's fortress": see entry on c.450 to c.550). Another problem is the genetic association of Stuf and Wihtgar (using these probably made-up names as shorthand for "the Anglo-Saxon founders of the Isle of Wight") with the West Saxon royal line, since Bede states that the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight in his day are Jutes. Archaeology confirms this association with Jutish Kent rather than with Saxon areas (see Yorke, pp.88-89), as does the presence of what can only be the Latin name for the Isle of Wight, Uecta, in the Kentish genealogy recorded by Bede (HE, i.15). So we might more readily expect the founders of Wight to be linked with Hengest's line.

It is very likely that the association with the West Saxons arose at some point after King Ceadwalla of Wessex captured the Isle of Wight in 685, which Bede reports somewhat disapprovingly (HE, iv.16, and see Yorke, p.89). The connection had definitely been made by the late 9th century, when Asser notes in his biography of King Alfred (contemporary with the first appearance of the Chronicle) that Alfred's mother traced her descent to Stuf and Wihtgar. Asser (correctly) notes that they are Jutes, but also (implausibly) maintains that they are the nephews of Cerdic. It may be that the Jutish founders of Wight were "attached" to the West Saxon royal house to give Alfred's mother Osburh higher standing, either during the marriage or afterwards when Alfred's father Æthelwulf brought home a Frankish princess as his second wife. The children of the first wife may well have felt a need to bolster their claim by proving that they too were royal on both their father's and their mother's side.

c.548. Frankish embassy to Constantinople claims authority over Anglo-Saxons

Procopius notes that a Frankish embassy to Constantinople of about this time included a number of Angles, as part of the proof that the Franks ruled over Brittia. This is the most explicit evidence of the Frankish claim to overlordship in England to have survived. Earlier, some of the laws of the Frankish king Clovis (481-511) argue at least cooperation between Frankish and Kentish systems, and the Frankish king Theudebert (534-48) claimed jurisdiction over the Eucii (in this context, plausibly the Jutes of Kent) in a letter to the Emperor Justinian. Some poems of Venantius Fortunatus and letters of Pope Gregory suggest that claims continued to be made late into the 6th century. (See Wood, "Before and After", p.47.)

That there was Frankish influence on 6th-century Kent can clearly be seen in the archaeological remains (see Brooks, p.64), and also in the way that one of the kings of Kent was given a decidedly Frankish name, Irminric, and that his son Æthelberht married a Frankish princess (see entry on c.575). Æthelberht's son Eadbald seems to have married another Frankish noblewoman, and Æthelberht's daughter Æthelburh to have sent her children into the protection of the Frankish king Dagobert I (629-39) on the death of her husband Edwin of Northumbria (see Wood, Merovigian Kingdoms, p.177). However, none of this clearly amounts to evidence of Frankish overlordship or control. The fact that Frankish control is omitted from English written sources is irrelevant, because the episode might be considered embarrassing and best forgotten by English historians, but without clearer evidence it must remain an open question whether the Franks actually controlled parts of England or whether they simply claimed to do so.

N. Brooks, "The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent", The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London: 1989), pp.55-74

I. Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751 (London: 1994)

I. Wood, "Before and After the Migration to England", in J. Hines (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (Woodbridge: 1997), pp.41-64