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Did the Anglo-Saxon Invasion Really Happen?

Updated on May 22, 2020
Caleb Howells profile image

Caleb has been researching ancient British history for years and has published a book on the origins behind the tales of King Arthur.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet. How did the Saxons arrive? Through peaceful migration, or through invasion?
The Sutton Hoo Helmet. How did the Saxons arrive? Through peaceful migration, or through invasion?

In recent decades, there has been a trend among scholars to claim that there was not really a full-scale, Anglo-Saxon invasion in the fifth and sixth centuries. Rather, they claim, there was just a semi-peaceful migration with a few conflicts here and there. This obviously has a huge impact on the study of Dark Age Britain, as it concerns the era in which Arthur and his father were supposed to have lived and fought the Saxons.

There was a recent BBC documentary called King Arthur's Britain: The Truth Unearthed. This documentary was primarily about the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and it went through numerous different pieces of evidence that supposedly proved that there was not an invasion, but a migration and integration of cultures. Let's examine this supposed evidence in detail and see how well it stands up to scrutiny.

The Lack of Violence

One specific detail mentioned in the documentary is that, apparently, the number of skeletal remains from this period which display signs of violence is less than 2% (for the purpose of this discussion, let's simplify things and say it's precisely 2%). That doesn't sound like much. But what does this statistic actually show? Well, consider the fact that the armies that would have fought in the Anglo-Saxon invasion (if it really happened) would have been composed primarily of men. We should not really expect to see many signs of violence among the female remains. So to get an accurate idea of how much violence was really occurring in this era, it would be logical to remove the female remains from the statistics. So if we take away 50%, then the 2% of remains that show evidence of violence actually becomes 4%.

However, we also need to take away the children from the equation, because as with the women, we would also not expect the Saxon armies to have been composed of children. So taking away the skeletal remains of children from the calculation would probably remove another 50% at least, though probably more given that each couple probably had multiple children. So now the 4% should actually be, most likely, about 10% or more.

So even though only 2% of skeletal remains display signs of violence, the percentage of remains of those whom we would actually expect to contain said signs of violence (i.e. the adult men) is +10%. And that is quite high. In addition to that, consider the fact that a huge proportion of men slain on the battle field probably received no burial whatsoever and just became food for animals or rotted away. So that 10% only includes the bodies that were actually preserved, which is likely only a relatively small fraction of those who were actually slain in battle.

It should be clear now that even though 2% sounds small at first, the above-mentioned facts demonstrate that this figure is actually in perfect agreement with the notion that there was an invasion.

Cultural Integration
Another piece of evidence mentioned in the documentary is the fact that certain works of pottery found among ostensibly Germanic sites were created using native processes, which indicates that there were actually natives living there among the culturally-Germanic villages. This was taken as evidence, again, that there was no real invasion but just a migration and integration of cultures. Is this valid? Well, let us take by way of example the well-documented Roman invasion. This absolutely was an invasion. The Romans attacked Britain, invaded with large armies, and took over the country. Did they wipe out the natives? No, they did not. Did they totally erase all of the previously-present native British culture? No, they did not.

The Romans came, took over the country, imposed their society and culture and way of living on the native Britons - the native Britons, for their part, continued living where they were but now with new overlords. With that situation, obviously we see innumerable examples of native British customs being continued into the Roman era.

The documentary presents a false dichotomy, in that it claims or at least implies that there was either a wholesale massacre of the native Britons, or there was no invasion. This is obviously absurd. The fact that there is some evidence of native British pottery-making techniques within Germanic villages simply shows that the natives were not all massacred. Instead, the Saxons invaded and conquered, imposing their society and culture and way of living on the native Britons, as the Romans had done centuries before them. Obviously there were still Britons living in towns that are now recognised as culturally-Germanic. In fact, if the Roman precedent is anything to go by, there may well have been plenty of 'Germanic' villages that were entirely inhabited by natives Britons, and this would do nothing at all to contradict the invasion theory.

DNA Evidence
Similarly to the previous point, an argument was made that there was no invasion on the basis that Anglo-Saxon DNA does not constitute the major part of the DNA found in the population inhabiting England. And in fact, DNA studies have shown that people are very closely grouped to how they were in pre-Saxon, and indeed pre-Roman, times. This shows that the natives were not wiped out, nor, perhaps, were particularly forced out of their area of the country.

The refutation for this point is exactly the same as it was for the previous point. An invasion does not mean a totally annihilation. To say that the Saxons invaded and took control of huge parts of Britain does not mean that they wiped out the natives, any more than saying that the Romans invaded and took control of huge parts of the country means that they wiped out the natives. In fact, it is most revealing to note that the DNA studies revealed that the population of Britain is basically still divided into the tribal areas that existed before the Roman era. Yet we know that the Roman invasion happened. This being the case, it is evident that a large-scale invasion by a foreign force does not necessarily change the population dynamic of the country.

Another point that should be noted is that these DNA studies primarily use mitochondrial DNA, which passes through the mother's line, not the father's line. So these studies are basically just seeing whether or not the line of descent through females changed due to the Saxons or not. With this fact in mind, it should be pointed out that it was not uncommon for an invading force to keep the women as wives even if they wiped out the men. So that would contribute to explaining the DNA studies, though as mentioned in the previous paragraph, an invasion does not necessarily mean a massacre of the male natives anyway (just a defeat of their armies).

Conclusions
On the other hand, what evidence is there that a proper invasion did take place? One such piece of evidence is the written testimony of the Gallic Chronicle of 452. For the year 441, this reports that Britain had fallen under the power of the Saxons. This is a contemporary record, and as such is an incredibly valuable source. It wholly supports the later written evidence, such as that from Gildas or Bede (both of whom should not be dismissed in their own right anyway).

It is absurd to dismiss the whole corpus of surviving written evidence on the weak basis that there is no evidence of a total genocide of the native Britons. Sure, maybe the later records such as Gildas and Bede are exaggerated (we know that Gildas was not writing a history, but was writing a message that was meant to motivate his readers). But that does not mean that the fundamental fact that there was an invasion of Anglo-Saxons who took over much of the country is a lie. There is good evidence of its veracity, and more could be written in support of it, though this article is written primarily to refute the apparent negative evidence.

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