On the Anglo-Saxon: His Origins

A Brief Overview of the Early History of Albion

William Blake, Albion Rose

When in Rome…

Britain, first called Ἀλβιών by the Greeks, Albionis by the Roman Avienus, and Albi̯iū by the Britons (the root “albho” meaning “white”1), was first inhabited by the Celtic Britons, who were comprised of various tribes whose names in many areas survive in the titles of contemporary counties (e.g. “Devon” from the Dumnonii tribe). In 43 A.D., Albion came under the rule of the Roman Empire, and the land then became “Brittania.” Despite resistance, famously in the form of Boudicca of the Iceni sacking Londinium, Roman troops secured the southern territory which was separated from Scotland to the north by Hadrian’s Wall, built by the eponymous emperor. The Romans built aqueducts and roads which have survived to the present day, and they held fast against the onslaught of the Celts, hence Boudicca’s eventual execution. By 410 A.D., however, the strain of the Western Empire’s economic collapse forced Roman troops to withdraw, pleas from Britons to the famed Roman general Flavius Ætius went ignored, and it is from the fifth century onwards that England fell beyond the protection — and domination — of Rome.

The Two Horses

After the departure of the Roman troops in the fifth century, various kingdoms arose once again in Brittania, just as they had prior to Caesar’s eyes falling upon her. What also grew in number was the number of Germanic settlers coming to Brittania; among them the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, though collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons. Amid the kings who filled the power vacuum left by an absent Rome was Vortigern, circa 450-500 A.D.. Plagued by attacks from the Picts to the north and the Irish to the northwest, he enlisted the service of the Saxon mercenaries Hengist and Horsa2 in resisting them. However, after successfully repelling the Picts and seeing the weakness of Vortigern, the two Saxon brothers, whose banner bore the white horse of the Aryans, turned upon their host, killing his son, and exiling Vortigern in 473 A.D. to Wales in the west where he later died.3

The eighth century monk, Bǣda, or Saint Bede the Venerable, writing in the first book of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, expands further upon the two brothers:

The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa. Of whom Horsa, being afterwards slain in battle by the Britons [Vortigern], was buried in the eastern parts of Kent, where a monument, bearing his name, is still in existence. They were the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vecta, son of Woden; from whose stock the royal race of many provinces deduce their original.

Thereupon the kingdom of Kent was established, and the seeds of England — “Angle-land” — were sown.

Not Anglii, But Angels

Britain circa 600.png

A century later, in the year 596 A.D., Augustine of Canterbury began his mission at the command of Pope Gregory I to convert the by-and-large pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.4 Common legend goes that Pope Gregory had been inspired to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity after an encounter with enslaved boys whilst in Rome. Struck by their unusually fair skin and hair, he asked the slavemaster where the boys had come from, to which he was told Britannia, and that they were of the Anglii (Anglo-Saxons). It was then that Pope Gregory apparently exclaimed, “Non Anglii, sed Angeli.” — “Not Anglii, but Angels.”

Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896; Non angli sed angeli

Such a legend may seem quaint but trivial; however, this had profound influence three centuries later on the legendary scholar-king, Ælfred the Great. For although Christianity had become the predominant religion of the Anglo-Saxons, they remained within distinct kingdoms. These small kingdoms, which constantly fought oneanother, were easy prey for the Vikings.

War from the Northeast

From around 800, there had been waves of Danish raids on the coastlines of the British Isles. In 865, instead of raiding, the Danes landed a large army in East Anglia, with the intention of conquering the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England.5 And the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were easy prey for the monstrous Danes. As Norman Cantor describes in The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760,

The numbers of the invaders were not great in comparison with the size of the native population and aside from a few loan-words which entered into the terminology of politics and law (for example, wapentake for hundred) they left no tradition behind them. But the immediate consequence of their onslaught was a catastrophe for churchmen and kings. The great centers of learning in Yorkshire, including Jarrow, were obliterated, and monastery after monastery was sacked by these savages as they moved invincibly forward to conquer all of England. By 870 only the kingdom of Wessex in the southwest remained unconquered…

It was reading Bede’s work which confirmed to Ælfred that he must unite the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under one banner, not only to repel the then-ongoing Danish attacks, but to unite them under one God, as per Pope Gregory’s actions in sending a mission to England — surely an act of divine providence.

Victory in the Southwest

Following retreat to the Somerset Levels and much prayer, Ælfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun, and then, pursuing them to Chippenham, he starved them into submission. There he forced the Danish king, Guðrum, to sign the later-titled Treaty of Wedmore which cut the country in two between the Anglo-Saxons in the southwest, and the Danes who established Danelaw to the northeast.

By the tenth century, Æthelstan, a descendent of Ælfred, had become king over the whole of England in effectively abolishing Danelaw. Just over a century after his death, however, another kind of Norsemen succeeded where the Vikings failed.

1. J.T. Koch, Celtic Culture, pg. 38-39.

2. Names respectively meaning “stallion” and “horse.” Also see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hengist_and_Horsa#Germanic_twin_brothers_and_divine_Indo-European_horse_twins

3. Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniæ, chapter XXIII

4. Although Christianity had come to Britannia via the Roman Empire, and many of the native Britons were Christian, the Germanics who had invaded Britannia were pagans.

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danelaw


4 thoughts on “On the Anglo-Saxon: His Origins

  1. Have you read Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins? Fascinating book on the prehistory of Britain. While he doesn’t go into the genetics, it is interesting to note how little British, or even English genetics are Anglo-Saxon. It seems that there is a large, continuous, substrate of Celtic, or whatever you want to call the people who have lived in England for thousands of years. The Romans and the Vikings left almost no trace. It comes to about 30% overall Anglo-Saxon genetics, with higher percentages the further east you go, and less the further west you go. The overwhelming amount of English genetics comes from the people who have been there for thousands of years, with a more recent and smaller admixture of a closely related people 1500 years ago.

    The land of Albion was shaped, molded, and cultivated by the people of Albion, and the people of Albion have been shaped, molded, and cultivated by the land. The two, land and people, are intertwined, and damn those who want to tear them apart.

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