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5th-6th centuries: who were the invaders of Britain?


The Anglo-Saxons arrived in England in about 455.   What do we mean when we speak of kings and kingdoms in Britain in the early centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule?   They were not organized like the Roman Empire, which had laws and whose rulers and governors administered by the written word, only occasionally having to resort to violence to enforce their demands.   To become remotely governable, Anglo-Saxon, the language, had to be rendered into an alphabet.


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:


Remigius of Reims baptizes Clovis, first King of the Franks, c 525, foumder of the Merovingian dynasty - Grandes Chroniques de France, Maître du couronnement de Charles VI.  http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84472995/f32.image.r=grandes%20chroniquess%20de%20france.langFR


The deposition of Childeric III, last of the Merovingian kings.   This line of monarchs is known as the 'Long Haired Kings', the length of their hair figuratively denoting their strength and valour.   In this picture, Childeric is tonsured in preparation for a monastic life, but this public act must also have been symbolical of the demise of the dynasty. From the book 'Bien Connaitre les Généalogies des Rois de France', Jean-Charles Volkmann. Originally from 'L'Histoire de France Populaire', Henri Martin, 1876.



The 'New Rome', Aachen Cathedral North View, the Emperor Charlemagne's 'private chapel', which can still be seen in this German city.   It is octagonal (the same shape as the imperial crown), and was built about 800.   It is now incorporated in the Gothic cathedral, built in about 1350:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aachen


This illustration of Pope Zacharias, who recognized Pippin's succession as King of the Franks after Childeric's deposition is from 'The Lives and Times of the Popes' by Chevalier Artaud de Montor, New York: The Catholic Publication Society of America, 1911.   It was originally published in 1842.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Zachary_Illustration.jpg


Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'Historia Regum Britanniae' in which Vortigern meets the young Merlin, who explains that an underground fight between red and white dragons is causing Vortigern's fortress to collapse.   The scene is fictional, like most of the 'Historia', but demonstrates that even 600 years after his death, Vortigern was remembered as the last British king who fell before the first Anglo-Saxons.



Medieval bridge over the River Medway at Aylesford, Kent, where the British were finally defeated in the south-east by the Anglo-Saxons.   Vortigern may have died in the battle or shortly after.   There was no bridge in the fifth century and the crossing would probably have been a ford.   " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aylesford


Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_II_greets_NASA_GSFC_employees,_May_8,_2007_edit.jpg


Diana Princess of Wales: 



President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) who said: 'It is time for us to realize that we're too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams.



A gold solidus of Emperor Valentinian I (r in Rome, 364-75), who skillfully preserved northern Italy from barbarian (Goth) invasion



Imperial portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Leo I, the Thracian, at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France. 



Charlemagne instructing his son, who succeeded to his father's throne as Louis the Pious; such sobriquet or nicknames were not necessarily flattery.   This Emperor was deeply religious, which did not stop him, or most other rulers of the time and since, from dealing harshly and terminally with his enemies.   Weak rulers got overthrown, still do, though nowadays in the democracies are likely to be free to write their memoirs afterwards.



Dress of Roman Lictor: Rome was an empire built on written law and even Caligula got the Senate to enact law that was intended to be drastic before he carried out his action, although emperors sometimes had occasion to legalize an act retrospectively.   Here, the Lictor holds the fasces (pron 'faskez') representing the ability of the State to use coercion to secure obedience.   All states use coercion which is why, for example, folk who defraud the British Treasury of tax are likely to spend time in jail.   The word 'fascist' emanates from the fasces of the Roman Senate.   Note that inside the sticks (representing corporal punishment) is an axe representing capital punishment:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Lictor_Clothes.png


Detail of a miniature of Archbishop Arundel preaching about the wrongs done to Henry of Lancaster.  http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=37305


Marriage between two Roman citizens; mural of a sarcophagus in the Museum of Capodimonte, near Naples, Italy.  



Justinian, Emperor of the  Roman (Byzantine) Empire (r 525-65), centring on Constantinople.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justinian_I

Theodora, wife of Justinian (above), Empress of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire.   Until their last gasp in 1453, emperors in Constantinople always called themselves - on their coins, in their laws - Roman emperors, claiming a direct line back to Julius Caesar, Augustus, and other great predecessors.   It is historians much later who called them Byzantine emperors and the empire the Byzantine Empire, after Byzantium, the former name for Constantinople.   After the Fall of Rome in 411, we shall call them Byzantine emperors.  This and the foregoing picture are contemporary mosaic creations from the  Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, the headquarters of the Byzantine emperor in Italy. 



Statue of Pepin, or Pippin the Younger in Wurzburg, Germany.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pepin_the_Short


Le dernier des Mérovingiens (the last of the Merovingians) by Évariste Vital Luminais http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childeric_III


Pope Zacharias visiting the Lombard king Rachis, who reigned from 744 to 749, and briefly again in 756-7.   The Lombard (north Italian) ruler was besieging Perugia, in central Italy.   No doubt the Pope, aware of how close to Rome King Rachis was, thought that a friendly visit would do no harm at all



Coronation in 751 of Pippin the Younger by Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz.   Boniface was probably born in Crediton, Devon, and we shall meet him later.  He was probably the most important Christian evanelist in this period. 



Kirk Douglas, founder of a modern dynasty of actors:



Donald_Trump, founder of a modern dynasty with interests in worldwide hotel chains: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Trump


The Empress Theodora and her court, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ravenna_San_Vitale_Todora.jpg


Organized government: John II Komnenos, Byzantine Emperor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_II_Komnenos

A reconstruction of a Roman Villa at Borg.   Although this work was carried out in Germany, Roman villas appear to have followed a 'masterplan', the main variation being their size:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Villa_Borg,_Germany_(9291225215).jpg


Hypothetical costumes of Anglo Saxon warriors: 



Depiction of Æthelwulf, King of Wessex and father of Alfred the Great, by an unknown 18th-century artist .



Modern representation of an Anglo-Saxon thegn taking an oath of fealty to his war leader or king, cover scanned from a Hachette book 'Life in the time of the barbarian kingdoms':  https://www.pinterest.com/pin/396105729697309276/


Richard Wagner (1813-83), the great composer whose operas harked back to the ancient German past with operas such as Lohengrin, part of the Ring Cycle, Tannhauser, Tristan and Isolde, perhaps most famously The Valkerie.   He became the composer of choice of the Nazis in between 1933 and 1945.   He founded the Beyreuth Festival in the Bavarian town of that name with support from King Ludwig II in 1876, a festival that continues every three years and is still run by his descendants.   Like most people, Wagner was also a maker of a dynasty:



A tentative map of the Hwicce kingdom in the south-west Midlands:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hwicce_kingdom.png

A coin believed to have been minted by Guthrum, Alfred the Great's great Viking enemy, whom Alfred evetually defeated.   Guthrun was recognized as some sort of king in East Anglia, was baptized, with King Alfred as his sponsor, and took the name Aethelstan:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guthrum


 Statue of Queen Bertha of Kent, Aethelberht's wife, daughter of Charibert, King of the Franks.   Statue by Steven Melton photographed by Les Willis; stands on Lady Wootton's Green at Canterbury: 



Charibert I, King of the Franks; a much later portrait by Jean-Jospeh Dassy (1796-1867); may be seen at the Palace of Versailles, Musée National du Chateau et des Trianons, France:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charibert_I


Rædburh, niece of the Emperor Charlemagne, who married Ecgberht, King of Wessex (r 802-839), a very good marriage for one of a number of English kings at this time, principally of Mercia and Northumbria.   By this marriage she was the mother of King Aethelwulf and grandmother of King Alfred the Great: 



Ecgberht. King of Wessex, See Raedburh immediately above:  http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egbert_of_Wessex


The remains of what has been identified by archaelogists as a bathhouse at Vindolanda, an important Roman station or fort, on Hadrian's Wall: 



An English field today, laid out as if it were an agricultural unit in the early medieval period:  http://theelysiumtheatrecompany.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/the-history-and-archaeology-of-medieval-england-part-one/


A map showing the disintegration of Roman rule in Britain, 383-410:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/End_of_Roman_rule_in_Britain


A representation of St Bede translating the Gospel according to St John by J D Penrose (c 1902): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bede


Fourth century Chi-Rho fresco from Roman Villa at Lullingstone, Kent, which contains the only known Christian paintings from the Roman era in Britain.   A Chi-Rho image is one of the earliest forms of christogram, super-imposing the two capital letters 'chi' and rho (XP) to form the word Christ in Greek:




Episode transcript:


What was meant by historians fifteen hundred years ago when they wrote of kings and kingdoms? 


Today, most people around the world see the British kingdom - the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - as the super-kingdom, its throne occupied by the super-royal, its inheritance the natural order of things.   This order is hardly questioned outside Britain, and not very much inside, now that Princess Diana's character is better known, and she increasingly becomes an historical figure.   Even the outpouring of grief for her in 1997 was hardly about getting rid of the kingdom - for some, it was no more than jumping the succession to exclude Prince Charles - although the worst opinion poll for him at the time was down to 64% in favour of his succeeding his mother - a rating that an incumbent prime minister or American president would give his right arm for. 


The word 'kingdom' is used in several ways in the early Anglo-Saxon centuries.   First, it is used of the Roman Empire, as in, 'and Martianus and Valentinian succeeded to the kingdom,' a line quoted from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the last Episode.   It is also used of Rome's successor state, the Eastern Empire, based on Constantinople, from the fifth century.   Finally, it is used of the Western, or Holy Roman Empire, established by Charlemagne in 800, with its capital at Aachen, western Germany. 


The three Roman empires have features we can recognize as being organized government.   All were continuous until their fall.   Their kings or emperors inherited written codes of law, to which they added, or they wrote their own law codes.   They ruled by writ, or by writing, so there were bureaucracies of literate men to make imperial law effectual.


Because law was written down, educated men knew what was lawful and what was not, and the elements would have reached all society.   Indeed, the existence of established bureaucracies enabled government to function in those inevitable periods when a hopeless king inherited the throne.   The gathering of taxes was a daily component of people's lives.   The royal authority was transmitted by a clear descent either in a family, or by marriage into a ruling family, and exercised by what are sometimes called today apparachiks, who had a vested interest in the continuity of their jobs and power, as such people still do.

There were exceptions.   An important one was Justinian, Emperor of the East at Constantinople, in the sixth century.   He re-conquered much of Italy and North Africa, produced a law code, reformed his Church, and is magnificently commemorated with his wife Theodora in two mosaic reliefs at Ravenna, his capital in Italy.  In the West, there is Charlemagne himself, who created the Holy Roman Empire by continuing conquests begun by his father.   He was the son of Pippin the Short, who had been mayor of the palace to the Merovingian kings of the Franks, later the French.   For the previous century, the Merovingian family had feuded, and the mayor of the palace became the power in the land.   Charles Martel, whom we met in Episode Three as the victor of Poitiers, against the Muslims, in 732, was mayor of the palace.   His son Pippin deposed Childeric III, the last Merovingian king of the Franks.  


What Charlemagne's father Pippin lacked in family descent, he got from Rome when Pope Zacharias gave his blessing to regime change, to employ the modern expression   Ever practical, Rome supported the power on the ground, and Pippin became king.  All of these rulers were also protectors of, and were protected by, a Christian Church, one of whose tenets was Christ's exhortation to 'render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's' - although the predicate, 'and unto God that which is God's,' was usually forgotten in the dynastic cut and thrust of politics.   Custom, respect, and even tyranny tend to support religion.   Nothing much changes.       


For dynasties today read political families and parties, media and banking empires, or the dynasties of stage and screen, where aristocracies thrive, and whose individual names easily drop off the tongue in our modern world.   In the early centuries AD, emperors succeeded to great empires and cities, and could mobilize money and labour to beautify them in brick and carved stone and fabulous interiors over many years.   Charlemagne began at Aachen, and we are left, more than twelve hundred years later, with the remains of the symbols of his power and magnificence.   Display is a critical attribute of monarchy. 


Kingdom is also used indiscriminately in chronicles because it was not always easy to find the correct word for a warlord's sphere of authority.   So when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that 'Hengest and Aesc his son succeeded to the kingdom,' it cannot mean that they succeeded to anything remotely as organized as the Roman Empire had been when Britannia was a province, or as organized as the kingdom of Wessex had become by King Alfred's death in 899.    When the Romans left Britannia at the end of the fourth century, the remains of the tax system would have died instantly, the rule of written law would have atrophied over perhaps a longer period, and the better off Romano-Britons would have repaired to their villas to become the sitting ducks of warlords, who led the conquest of the island At the Edge of the World in the fifth century.   


Kingdom seems to have been a convenient term that everyone would have understood, and was probably applied to any area under the domination of a leader of a band of armed men, whose chief was usually referred to as a 'king.'   Similarly, 'princes of the Angle race' are unlikely to have had the same meaning in the fifth century as at the end of the ninth, when the Chronicle was begun, and when being 'of the Blood' had become legally relevant to the succession.   Even before King Alfred's reign, male members of the king's family were called 'aethlings' - what we might call 'royal highnesses' - literally, they were 'throne-worthy.'   Alfred himself was the youngest of King Aethelwulf's four sons, each of whom in order of seniority succeeded peacefully to Wessex.  


Royalty in the sense of lawful descent was well known and cherished among the pagan German incomers of the fifth and sixth centuries, but leadership was also based on whether one was a successful warlord.   Within a chieftain's family, there would very likely have been a member or two who was ready to fill a vacancy - or even to create one.  

As the chronicler, William of Malmesbury, puts it: 'sedition always has adherents.'   The literature of the German Romantic movement, from the 1780s, harked back to this ancient past, and was disseminated to all through Wagnerian opera.  We also come across men described as kings of the Hwicca people in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, of Lindsey, in Lincolnshire, of Elmet, in west Yorkshire.   We shall meet Guthrum, King Alfred's mortal Viking enemy, who is called king, but it is hard to say whether he was a real king - in a period when kingship was becoming more than merely a warlord.  


Perhaps another test of an established monarchy in these early centuries after Rome is from whom their kings were descended and whom they married.   The first Christian king of Kent, Aethelberht, had married Bertha, daughter of the Christian King Charibert, of the Franks.   A power struggle in Wessex at the end of the eighth century obliged the future King Ecgberht to seek protection at Charlemagne's court in Germany, where he married the Emperor's great niece Raedburh. Ecgberht eventually succeeded to Wessex in 802 and reigned until 839.  


In Blood Royal, Charles Mosley describes this king as ancestor of every royal and princely house in Europe - surely, genealogy was the crucial element that made true kingship.   Bede himself seems not always to be of one mind on whether an area was a kingdom or a province: he often speaks of his own Northumbria as a province.  The opening annals of the Winchester version of the Chronicle tell us other things about Britain at this time of flux.  


The Britons, under Vortigern, were experiencing challenges to their authority from the Picts of Caledonia (modern Scotland).   Rome, the former imperial power, was unable to help him and Vortigern turned to the Angles in southern Denmark for assistance.  The last of the regular relief of Roman garrisons in Britain took place in about 381, and the Chronicle suggests that a power vacuum was left behind.   We do not know how far Vortigern's authority ran, but possibly as far south as Kent because this is where Hengest and Horsa are said to have landed in 449.   Remember, they had come at first to help the British king.   There are likely to have been British leaders in other parts of the country, and Vortigern may have enjoyed a kind of overlordship of the former Roman province.  


At first, the Anglo-Saxons were helpful against the Picts, but they soon turned against their British hosts, describing them as 'worthless' and the land as excellent.   Reinforcements were sent for from Angeln, north Germany, and Vortigern must have been overthrown in a battle at Aylesford, Kent, against the Anglo-Saxons because Hengest and Aesc succeeded to the kingdom.   We know that Horsa was killed, but there is no mention of the death of Vortigern, who may also have died at about the same time.  


Two years later, the Britons abandoned Kent, after a battle at Crayford, where four thousand were killed, and they withdrew to London.   The story of the arrival of Hengest and Horsa in the Chronicle is thought to have been taken from Bede who gives us the traditional displacement of the German settlers around the England:         These newcomers were from the three most formidable races of Germany, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes.  


From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight and those of the province of the West Saxons opposite the Isle of Wight who are called Jutes to this day.   From the Saxons - that is the country now known as the land of the Old Saxons - came the East, South, and West Saxons.   And from the Angles - that is the country known as Angulus, which lies between the provinces of the Jutes and Saxons and is said to remain unpopulated to this day - are descended the East and Middle Saxons, the Mercians, all the Northumbrian stock (that is those people living north of the river Humber), and other English peoples.  


Their first chieftains are said to have been the brothers Hengest and Horsa.   The latter was subsequently killed in battle against the Britons, and was buried in East Kent, where the monument bearing his name still stands.   They were the sons of Wictgils, whose father was Witta, whose father was Wecta, son of Woden, from whose stock sprang the royal house of many provinces.  Although Bede's disposition of the invaders has been attacked over the years, it has proved very durable.  

There are many stories from the fifth and sixth centuries which speak of persistent invasions of England.   Some tell how the invaders fell out and fought one another, and as late as the eighth century, Bede despairs that the kingdoms within England, particularly his own Northumbria, were never weaker than when family members fought one another. 


A nation speaks one language and we learn from the Peterborough manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the languages of Britain were English, British, Welsh, Scottish, Pictish, and Book Language. Book Language meant Latin.   Cornish or West Welsh may also have been a spoken language.   Since this list is taken from Bede, it seems likely that these languages were those commonly spoken in different areas of Britain in the first quarter of the eighth century, when he was writing. 


Perhaps English had become the prevailing spoken language in the lands of the Anglo-Saxons by the end of the ninth century when the Chronicle was begun.  This theme continues in the next Episode with the 'naming' of England. Some of the symbols of nationhood that originated in our period and have been adapted into our modern age might be unexpected.


Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain



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