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The Romans Abandon Britannia (History in a Nutshell No.3)

Updated on November 8, 2018
Stephen Austen profile image

History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.

This is my third article in a series of 'short histories' which will outline important historic events that have shaped the world, in as brief a space as possible. It's history, in a nutshell.

Why did the Romans Leave Britain?

The year that dates the end of the Roman occupation of Britannia is given as 410 AD. Their historical involvement with the British Isles had lasted almost 500 years. But why did the Romans give up on Britain? To understand that, we must remember that the Roman Empire had been vast and covered most of the known world of the day, dominating most of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Maintaining such a vast Empire in ancient times, with ships that relied on wind and sail, and armies which used cavalry and foot soldiers to get from place to place as fast as possible, was a mammoth task. Hordes of barbarians had been plaguing Europe for generations, and now their strength and numbers had grown. They were pouring into Gaul (France) and now into Italy itself. The very gates of Rome were under threat of invasion.

At this period in Roman history, the Empire was governed by two rulers, the brothers Arcadius and Honorius. Arcadius ruled over the Eastern Empire, and Honorius over the Western Empire. Their own story alone would take up a lot of space, so we will get to the point; these two joint Roman emperors were unable to cope with the barbarian invasions, and as Britannia was so far away from Rome, it was hardly worth maintaining anymore. The Roman garrisons stationed in Britannia were recalled. Every available soldier was needed to defend Rome itself.

Attribution: H.A. Guerber
Attribution: H.A. Guerber | Source

New Invaders Come to Britain

Without Roman forces controlling things in Britain, many of the old hatreds amongst the British tribes came to the fore again. They were divided, as always, into factions and little kingdoms. However, by now, most of the inhabitants were Romanized, and many were likely to be of mixed Celtic and Roman heritage, or Romano-Celts. But they needed defence.

This opened the country up to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes; many of these tribes were invited over to Britain as mercenaries, to defend the little kingdoms of the British. These peoples came from Germany, Denmark and Holland. But there was likely to be other motivation for these newcomers, being that the land was fertile and good for agriculture and settlement. A significant year for this influx of foreigners, was 449 AD according to the monk, the Venerable Bede, who wrote about these events some two hundred years later in the 7th Century AD.

The Anglo-Saxons

As these races took over land through settlement or conquest, they gave birth to what we historically call the Anglo-Saxons. The British race of Celts, then Romano-Celts was changing again, and now with the mix of principally Germanic blood and the addition of Danish and Dutch, they were becoming effectively a new people; we must now think of them as Anglo-Saxons.

Let us recall that large numbers of the original inhabits, the Celts, had vacated the eastern half of Britannia during the Roman Conquest, and had secreted themselves in the north-western mountains of Scotland and Wales, and also the south-west in Cornwall and Devon. The peoples that had stayed in the eastern, southern and middle parts of Britain and had become Romanized, were now becoming Germanic.

New Rulers

At the time of the influx of the Germanic mercenaries (and then later, as invaders) Britain was ruled in part by an enigmatic king known to us as Vortigern. He was possibly a man of mixed Celtic and Roman descent, and took over more or less after Roman rule in Britannia ceased. He was regarded as a 'high king' or overall leader. However, another leader, of Roman descent, named Aurelius Ambrosius was also in command of his own loyal band of followers.

By around the year 455 AD the Germanic migrations to Britain had increased considerably, and it is now that two German kings known as Horsa and Hengist appear. At first, they and their armies were invited as mercenaries by Vortigern and Ambrosius, to fight against the invasions of the Picts and Scots from Scotland, who had taken the opportunity to invade now that the Roman legionaries were no longer guarding the strongholds that they had erected. As an example, Hadrian's Wall (completed around 128 AD which the Emperor Hadrian had built to separate Scotland from northern England) was no longer garrisoned with Roman troops, and so the Scots and Picts could now cross straight into the southern parts of Britain.

Attribution: Sir Edward Parrott - "The Pageant of British History"
Attribution: Sir Edward Parrott - "The Pageant of British History" | Source

However, desiring land and kingdoms of their own, Horsa and Hengist now warred against the British rulers and their armies in Kent, in the south of the country. It is during this period that the legend of King Arthur began. It is likely that Arthur was also, like Vortigern, a Romano-Celtic king, who fought against the Germanic invaders to preserve the Romanized way of life in Britain. We are now, of course, in the period known as the 'Dark Ages.' This epithet simply means that we do not know much about this time period ~ hence it is 'dark' to our knowledge. Therefore, the legend of King Arthur emerged from a period which is largely unknown to us historically. But, like all legends, there must be some elements of truth involved.

The Name, England

It is unclear exactly when Britannia or Britain was first called England. Such names, of course, tend to develop slowly over a period of time, until they enter into common parlance; but we do know that the invading peoples called the Angles, lent their name to the nation of England. These Germanic migrations and invasions continued, until once more, the original race of the inhabitants changed and blended with the newcomers.

King Aelle (sometimes written as Ella) was the first of the Saxon kings to become Bretwalda or 'high king' over southern Britain, in Sussex. Bretwalda literally means 'King of the Britons.' This was around the year 475 AD. By 495 AD the Saxon ruler Cerdic invaded Britain and took over as 'high king' becoming ruler of the area known as Wessex, which covered much of southern England. King Alfred, known as 'The Great' would claim descent from the House of Cerdic almost four hundred years after these events.

The name of Wessex takes its name from the land of the 'West Saxons.' Similarly, Essex is the land of the 'East Saxons.' Sussex is the land of the 'South Saxons' and Middlesex as part of London, was the land of the 'Middle Saxons.' East Anglia means the land of the 'East Angles' which was once the habitation of queen Boudicca of the Icini tribe. So, the Germanic invaders had established themselves in England, and now great swathes of land were named after them.

Gradually, the invaders took over, reducing the surviving Celts and Romano-Celts to servitude or even slavery, and only those who escaped further into the Welsh mountains, as their predecessors had done, or to the south-west of England, were free of the new rulers and their foreign ways, customs and beliefs. It is likely too, that many of the Romano-Celts were already Christian, as the Emperor Constantine had accepted and recognised the religion, around 313 AD, almost one hundred years before the Romans officially departed from Britain. The Germanic tribes, bringing their Teutonic paganistic beliefs and practices with them, would have been unwelcome by many in the island. Once again, the British people were changing; they were slowly becoming the future race that we know as the English.

Attribution: By English Kingdoms - Mike Christie
Attribution: By English Kingdoms - Mike Christie | Source

© 2018 S P Austen


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    • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

      S P Austen 

      4 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

      Thanks so much, Steve.

      Without history, where would we be? It has shaped all that we are today.

      Best Wishes,

      S.P. Austen

    • profile image

      Steve Pakozdy 

      4 months ago

      I always wondered why the Romans left England. Now I know. Things certainly were unstable with all the invading tribes and warrior nations vying for control. I enjoyed this rare piece of history....

    • Stephen Austen profile imageAUTHOR

      S P Austen 

      19 months ago from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

      Thanks Jakob, I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.

    • Jakob Bach Jensen profile image

      Jakob Bach Jensen 

      19 months ago from Denmark

      a very interesting article, very enjoyable to read.


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