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5th century: King Arthur and the first Anglo-Saxons


England wasn't always known as England, nor Scotland known as Scotland.   Ireland was known as Hibernia.   Wales as Wallia.   How did the early English, Scots, Welsh, Irish learn?   How did they measure time?   Who was King Arthur?   Did he exist?   Hengest and Horsa, two brothers, are the legendary Anglo-Saxon leaders who arrived in 455 and defeated the British king Vortigern at the battle of Aylesford, in Kent.


Written and presented by Robert Smith, Chairman of the Manorial Society of Great Britain - www.msgb.co.uk






Written and presented by

Robert Smith


Voice over

Barney Powell

Rebecca Cooper


Music production &

Original music

Simon Roberts

(Lyric media group)


Original film footage

Ian Phillips


Picture editor

Roberto Ekholm


Asst picture editor

Guilfre Jordan


Associate Producer

Ian Phillips



Antonio Parente


Picture sources:


Anglo-Saxon king with his armour bearer -



Sutton Hoo Helmet, about 625, British Museum permanent displays -



The Feast of Attila, painted in 1870 by the Hungarian Mor Than, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, based on a fragment of Priscus.   There is no indication of what the feast was meant to mark or why Mor Than chose such an arcane subject - perhaps Attila's conquest of Rome in 411



First page of the heroic poem Beowulf by an unknown author between about 620 and 800.   This important document of Anglo-Saxon literature may originally have been recited from memory, and only later transferred to the written page - Cotton Vitellius A. xv, British Library, London -



An Eckert projection of the world showing areas of global warming.   The darker (pinkish) shades indicate higher temperatures and, we are told, illustrate how much warmer temperatures became in the first decade of this century, compared with those between 1951 and 1980.   Blue indicates areas where temperatures appear not to have increased and some fell.   Grey areas are those where temperatures were not recorded.   Analysis by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York City, using data from meteorological (weather) stations around the globe.   This image was made by Robert Simmon, Nasa Earth Observatory Image of the Day -



René Descartes, early 17th century French philosopher, his most famous dictum being cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am -



The Last Supper, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan; executed between 1495 and 1498, commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.   Very little of the original has survived after many copious repairs and the putting through of a door (centre white frame) in 1652.   The refectory was used by Napoleon Bonaparte as an armoury during his Italian campaign in 1796, then as a prison, and was bombed by the Allies in 1943, during the Second World War.   Preservation has also been made particularly difficult as this picture was evidently experimental because Leonardo used oil paint, as opposed to tempera which is much better suited to plaster.   Tempera is a powdered medium comprising egg yolk and water to form an emulsion, and works well on walls: eg the Sistine Chapel which features in this documentary -



A modern interpretation of the Creation, perhaps Big Bang is better for some viewers -



A London Newsstand - never has so much information been available to so many people; all the more reason to sift it carefully.   Photographs, film footage, and voices can be simply faked in the privacy of anyone's bedroom with a bit of cheap technology so we are all on our guard -



Global Warming  as above


Kalahari Bushmen, on the South Africa-Namibia border, starting a fire by hand using a stick against a thicker piece of wood, and some dry grass, to create friction and eventually flames.   Many of us boys in Britain did this tedious experiment and most of us, one suspects, quickly turned to a box of matches.   Tribal aboriginal areas are now few, confined mostly to this desert, parts of Borneo (in Indonesia), and the Amazon jungle.   Should they be left to themselves, or should they be 'civilized'? -



Creation  as above


Indulgence -



Rene Descartes as above


This map of the migrations has been put together  using St Bede's account in his History of the English Church which he wrote some 300 years after the event; however, there is evidence that the original settlers came from many of these continental locations -



Map invasions -



Scandinavian countries: Holstein, now a province of Germany, lies just south of the Jutland peninsula, comprising most of mainland Denmark.   Angeln, sometimes called Saxony, is where Angles, Saxons, and Jutes seem to have had their homeland before crossing the North Sea to England in the fifth and sixth centuries -



Hengest and Horsa, legendary founders of Anglo-Saxon England, from A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence by Richard Verstegan (1605); 'The Arrival of the First Ancestors of Englishmen out of Germany into Britain' -



King Arthur presides at the Round Table with all of his Knights and guests.   Picture by Michel Gantelet, 1472, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.   Nothing is known of a real King Arthur and he only gains his famous reputation in The Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century; and it was not until the the next century that he is given a Round Table in a continuation known as Roman de Brut by Wace -



The Battle of Mons Badonicus, said to have been fought in about 500, when the British, under King Arthur, defeated an army of Saxons or Angles.   It is not known where Mons Badonicus was located, and the story of Arthur's involvement originates with Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, almost seven centuries later -



Illuminated 15th century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae (Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain) showing Vortigern and Ambros watching a fight between two dragons -



'Sir Mordred' (1902), who betrayed Arthur, by H J Ford, from the book of the same date, King Arthur: The Tales of the Round Table, by Andrew Lang, Longmans, New York -



Arthurian knights Galahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.   Tapestry woven by Morris & Co.   Wool and silk on cotton warp.   This was one of a series of tapestries whose overall appearance was conceived by William Morris.   This panel was designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. 1895-96, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.



The Last Supper as above


A Sword Called Excalibur by Tamnguyenk.



A 'Round Table' in the medieval Great Hall, at Winchester, England; picture by Christophe Finot -



Joseph_of_Arimathea is sometimes painted at the foot of the Cross as Jesus has just died.   He took the body from Golgotha, which he cleaned, and wrapped in white raiments, before sealing it, as he thought, with a large bolder, in a stone cave on the Mouth of Olives.   The empty tomb was discovered on what Christians know as Easter Sunday, when Christ showed Himself for the first time after His Resurrection to Mary Magdene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, according to the Gospel of St Matthew.   Joseph of Arimathea is said to have taken the Holy Grail to a place of safety, which has never been found, and this has given rise to many books and, more lately, films about quests for the Holy Grail.   In the last 10 years, a tomb sarcophagus has been found on the Mount of Olives, in Israel, which some ancient history archaeologists have suggested could be the biblical tomb -



Arthur's Seat, at Holyrood, Edinburgh, is often mentioned as one of the possible locations for Camelot, the legendary castle and court of the Romano-British warrior-chief, King Arthur.   Tintagel, on the Cornish coast is another, though not shown in this Episode -



Map showing Charlemagne's territorial additions (in light green) to the Frankish Kingdom - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlemagne


Saint Gregory of Tours, 19th century statue by Jean Marcellin, the Louvre, Paris -



Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern; from Robert de Boron's 13th century story -



Attila  as above


The sea rolls in during high tide at Beachy Head, the Cliffs of Dover, near where Jutes may have landed.   Filmed by Ian Phillips.


Modern map, using sources, such as St Bede, to show the routes that may have been taken by the Jutes from Angeln in about 575 -



Saxon wars -



St Bede -



First page of Beowulf as above


British kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy, in about 800 -




Episode transcript:


In the centuries we are covering, the ideas people had about their place in history - even among the elite - was severely limited in ways we can hardly conceive today.   Even a rudimentary education gives us a grasp of spacial time.  


If we add to modern elementary education television - whether through drama, documentary, or news; if we add books, magazines, newspapers; and if we add the worldwide web, we seem to know a lot about other people and other places.  

We all have some knowledge of history, science, religion - a sense of the past, present, and future, whether it is the Nazis, global warming, or religion, however crumpled, inadequate, and prejudiced our knowledge and perceptions are.  

Many of us see ourselves as modern and as belonging to a world community.   Sadly, almost nothing is known of the 'ordinary people' in the Anglo-Saxon age, or in any age until recently.  

Anthropologists will correct me, I'm sure, but the closest we are able get to the early medieval mind's sense of time and place might now only be found among the bushmen of the Kalahari or the tribesmen in what is still inaccessible of the Borneo jungle.


I do not believe that I have read a better explanation of our ancestors' expectations a thousand years ago than in an essay by David Lowenthal in Manifestations for History:


  Memorable events marked past epochs, but private and public affairs for the most part seem seemed driven by immutable forces and desires.   The imagined future mirrored the past.   For the Christianized West, time began with the Creation a few millennia back; time would end with the Second Coming and Judgment Day.  

  Most thought that momentous date is no farther in the future than the Creation in the past.   The terrestrial secular span elicited little curiosity about times past.   And it evoked little speculation about the future.   Few expected earthly progress or improvement.   Hopes and fears, prayers and often bequests addressed not this world, but that to come.


Even if you can get your head round that, like me, you may feel utterly perplexed because we simply cannot disentangle our own experience of the knowledge we have gained in our short lives, and what we think we know now, and really get into our ancestors' minds all those years ago.    

We invariably begin by thinking of other people - whether alive or dead - by reference to ourselves, our own experiences, which the 17th century French philosopher, Rene Descartes, realized was usually wrong.  

One of the aims of history is to try to disentangle ourselves from what we think we know, and then make a stab at what people might have known or thought a thousand years ago.   We can accept David Lowethal's synthesis, or not, because it is just his view of the way human beings thought of their place then.   What we mustn't do is to read history backwards.


I said that we had a long trek ahead of us before we reached the Norman Conquest, and we shall start, therefore, with a much earlier conquest of the southern shores of the island of Britain.  

Who were these Anglo-Saxons, this English race - if we can call them that - who had by the 11th century built an effective monarchical government whose writ, by contemporary lights, ran to all corners of the kingdom?  

The ethnic terms, Angles and Saxons -  later grouped as the Anglo-Saxons - tend to be used for the period roughly from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century to the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066.


The term the 'English' was known during the Anglo-Saxon period and first used by Bede in the title of his History of English Church in the eighth century.   He is the first to have written the word 'England' and may have been the first to use it, or it may already have entered common spoken usage.  

English is derived from 'Angel' and 'England' from 'Angeln' in modern Holstein, which was part of Denmark fourteen hundred years ago.


Some viewers will have heard of Hengest and Horsa, two brothers, who came to Kent in the fifth century and started a colony, said to be the beginning of the Germanic invasion of England.   This movement or wanderings of people sometimes attracts the German word, Volkswanderung.  

First, we must sadly dispense with one heroic figure as an historical figure.   He is the British King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.   He first appeared by name in the chronicle of Nennius in the early ninth century.  

This author has Arthur fighting 12 battles against the Anglo-Saxons in the late fifth century, the most significant being at Mons Badonicus, whose location is unknown.   Mons Badonicus, apparently a battle fought in about 500, is mentioned in the sixth century chronicle of St Gildas, a Briton living in Wales, but Arthur does not feature in his text.  

The legend of Arthur gained its momentum from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bishop of St Asaph, in Wales, whose History of the Kings of Britain was written in the 1130s, 600 years after he is said to have lived.  


In this, Arthur is fighting in France against the Romans where he has a glorious victory.   Geoffrey has him dying at home, in battle against his treacherous nephew Mordred.   Camelot and his kingdom collapse.   It is Geoffrey's exciting writing style and his imagination by which the romance gained European attention.  

The French added the story of Sir Lancelot's adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere and the Quest for the Holy Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper).   The story of Merlin and of Arthur's withdrawing the magic sword Excalibur from the stone in the lake - a feat at which all previous men had failed - proved that he was the true king.  

It was a 13th century French poem by Robert de Borron.   It has been suggested that the stories of the Knights of the Round Table inspired King Edward III to found the Order of the Garter in the following century, while the late fifteenth century saw the publication of Le Morte Darthur, which despite its title, is in English by Thomas Malory.  


Modern-day Winchester claims, not too seriously, to have the top of the Round Table on display in its medieval hall.   The romantic ruins of Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, are claimed to be the site of the legendary Camelot and continue to attract visitors.  

A pseudo-history and film about the Holy Grail have very recently broken box office records and been a best seller.   One wonders what Joseph of Arimathea, to whom by tradition the Grail was given by Jesus, would make of it all?

There may have been a Briton in the fifth-early sixth centuries, a war leader, it has been speculated by R G Collingwood, or a mercenary, trained in the Roman use of heavy cavalry who fought off Saxon inroads into south-west England, or Angle inroads into the north and east.  

And that is the point: was he a Briton from the West Country, from Wales, from Lowland Scotland?  For there are numerous places which may have been named after him, like Arthur's Stones, Arthur's Round Tables, Arthur's Chairs and Seats.   There were probably other martial men in Britannia, known as feodaries, who had been hired and trained by the Romans.  

Some may have seen an opportunity to profit by offering protection to wealthy Romano-Britons.   In northern France, known as Neustria, there was some kind of rearguard Roman general, or emperor, known as Syagrius.   His imperium had disappeared without trace by the later years of the fifth century.  

We hear of him from the important Frankish chronicle of St Gregory of Tours, France, who would have been a contemporary.   Syagrius would have had commanders, some attracted by pay or booty, from foreign places, such as Britain.   Possibly, the arthurian legends spring from one of these who returned to British shores.


To return to our two invaders, Hengest and Horsa.   They may also have been legendary, except that they appear clearly as the first to arrive from north Germany in a history and became the precursors of the Anglo-Saxons.  

They were apparently invited by Vortigern, King of Britain, to help him to fend off the Picts, who lived in eastern Scotland, but six years later the brothers had turned against their employer and Hengest seized the kingdom.   The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records these matters:


  443(AD):  Here the Britons sent to Rome and asked them for help against the Picts, but they had none there because they were campaigning against Attila, King of Huns; and then they sent to the Angles and made the same request to the princes of the Angle race.


  449:  Here Martianus and Valentinian succeeded to the kingdom (of Rome) and ruled seven years.   And in their days, Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, King of the Britons, sought out Britain in the landing-place which is named Ebba's Creek, at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.  

  The king ordered them to fight against the Picts, and they did so and had victory wheresoever they came.   They then sent to Angeln and ordered them to send more help, and tell them of the worthlessness of the Britons and the excellence of the land.   They then sent them more help.   These men came from three tribes of Germany: from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, from the Jutes.  

  From the Jutes came Cantware and the Wihtware - that is the tribe that now lives on (the Isle of) Wight - and that race is Wessex which they still call the race of Jutes.   From the Old Saxons came the East Saxons and South Saxons and West Saxons.   From Angeln, which has stood waste ever since between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians, and all the Northumbrians.


            455:  Here Hengest and Horsa fought against Vortigern the king in a place which is called Aylesford, and his brother Horsa was killed.   And after that Hengest, and Aesc his son, succeeded to the kingdom (that had been Vortigern's).


This information has been taken from Bede, who was compiling his History almost two centuries later.   Bede may have had access to manuscripts long since lost, and may also have been heir to an oral tradition, which flourished in Scandinavia for centuries , as we shall see.  

The French historian Marc Bloch, in the first volume of his Feudal Society, is most useful on the value of oral tradition in history.   Hengest is also a warrior's name in the epic poem Beowulf, written in English sometime between 680 and 800.  

Could the unknown author of Beowulf be referring to a real person who was, indeed, called in as an ally by Vortigern?


In the next Episode, we shall investigate what we mean, in these formative years, by kings and kingdoms.


Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain



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