The Coming of the English

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This is part of my sporadic (proposed) series of articles on the Anglo-Saxon period of England’s history for role players. Again, there will be nothing geared to specific systems nor will there be any scenarios. My intention is to do exactly what it says on the tin (all right, in the title) and give a short history of the early period of English settlement in order that GMs have a flavour of the period and give them ideas for their own scenarios and campaigns.

In this article, “English” refers to Angle, Saxon and Jute settlers and their descendants, “British” refers to Celtic and Romano-Celtic natives. Anglo-Saxon sources frequently refer to the latter as “Welsh” i.e. foreigners.

It should be noted that the sources are often contridictory; the early English were illiterate and the accounts of the early days of English settlement were written either much later, or by their British enemies or both. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is not internally consistent; it is actually a collection of annals written at different times by many different people. What follows, therefore is not the history of the origins of England as the early accounts are now more legend than hard facts but it will be a history and that will suffice for our purposes.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle two brothers, Hengest and Horsa, were invited to Britain by the British King Wurtgurn in 449 CE. Nennius also refers to Vortigern inviting them to Britain “four hundred and forty seven years after the passion of Christ”. Nennius also describes them as being exiled from Germany and refers to Vortigern ceding the Isle of Thanet to them in exchange for them fighting for him which suggests that they had been recruited as foederati in the Roman style. The reason for the exile is not given but it is possible that they were driven out by marauding Huns.

As is common with mercenary soldiers and their paymasters, it would appear that there was a falling out over payments. Nenius states that the Britons could no longer afford the payments and looked for a way to break the peace. Bede states that it was the foederati who effectively broke the agreement by trying to extort larger payments. It is interesting that Bede blames his fellow English for the breakdown of the agreement. It could be that it is true. It could also be that the Angle King of Northumbria for whom he wrote the history, wanted to see the Jute men of Kent put in a bad light. Bede also saw the pagan Germanic tribesmen as the instrument of God’s punishment of the christian British for their sins. Gildas also appears to share this view but it is often difficult to pick the meat out of his rants. Quite why either churchman believed that God would reward his enemies is not made clear. I suspect that Gildas, who lived in the sixth century CE and thus close to the events, was expressing his anger at the sometimes incompetant British leaders in the style that came most naturally to him. Bede was probably looking for divine sanction for his ancestors’ invasion of Britain.

Nennius claims that Vortigern became besotted with Hengest’s daughter and ceded the whole of what was to become Kent to him for her and records that the local king Guoyrancgonus was less than pleased with this development. This tells us something about the British system of government at this time, indicating that Vortigern was a High King on the Irish model and it would seem likely that, as Nennius also records, he simply did not have the right to make this sort of concession.

Although not recorded, it seems likely that such unconstitutional action on Vortigern’s part would have provoked a rebellion against him. Gildas does remark that the British were much better at civil war than fighting their external enemies. This would have made Vortigern far more dependant on his English allies and he would have needed them to put down any such rebellion.

Whatever the cause, by the 450’s British and English were fighting each other, the British being led by Vortimer, Vortigern’s son. At first things went well for the British and they pushed the English back to the Isle of Thanet. At some point it would appear that Vortigern had had a change of heart re his English allies. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has him fighting with Hengest and Horsa in 455 and Nennius says that his advisers convinced him that Hengest was not to be trusted. Reinforcements from across the North Sea prevented the English from being completely overun. During one battle in 455 (either the Battle of Epsford or Aylesford) Vortimer’s brother Catigern and Horsa were both killed. Shortly afterwards Vortimer also died but Nennius does not give the cause.

According to Nennius Hengest offered to make peace with Vortigern and when he agreed, held a feast to celebrate. However the English smuggled in daggers and when Hengest gave the word, assassinated the British leaders, with the exception of Vortigern himself who was ransomed for the territory that was to become the lands of the South, East and Middle Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede and Gildas all fail to mention this particular act of perfidy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also fails to mention the huge territorial gains; it records the beginnings of the occupation of what was to become Sussex as taking place in 477 so it is possible that this incident is an invention either by Nennius or one of his sources.

The death of two (or more if Nennius is to be believed) of their leaders may have knocked some of the fight out of the British. Certainly Hengest felt sufficiently confident to proclaim himself King of Kent in 455, (possibly with his son Aesc as some kind of co-ruler since the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that he “took to the kingdom with his son Aesc.”) and two years later had pushed the British back to London after defeating them at the Battle of Crayford.

Further battles take place in 465 and 473 in both years the “Welsh” are defeated. The capture of booty but not of territory is mentioned so it is possible that Hengest was consolidating his rule in territory already ceded to him.

As noted above, in 477 the Britons’ problems got worse. According to the Chronicle, Aella came to Britain with three ships. His three sons Cymen, Wlenking and Cissa are recorded as being present. I assume that this order is the order of birth, making Cymen the oldest but Aella was succeeded as king by Cissa. Whatever their ages, Cissa’s brothers vanish from history, the Chronicle does not record the manner or even the year(s) of their deaths. The landing is given as being at a place called Cymenshore. The British met them in battle but were defeated and driven into Andred’sley wood.

Aella and his army fought with the British again in 485 near Mecred’s-Burnsted. No victory is mentioned in the Chronicle this time so it is reasonable to assume that the result was inconclusive at best.

The Chronicle records that Aesc “succeeded to the Kingdom” in 488 and reigned for twenty-four winters. The cause of Hengest’s death is not recorded but bearing in mind that he was already a minor leader when he came to Britain in 449, had a son considered worthy enough to be a co-ruler in 455 it seems probable that he must have been in his sixties at the very least at the time of his death which makes him ancient by fifth century standards. It is likely that simple old age carried off the first English warrior-king.

An apparantly uncontested succession suggests that Aesc had considerable support from his father’s followers. He is not recorded as taking part in any further battles so it is possible that he and his followers decided to remain within the bounds of Hengest’s kingdom and enjoy the fruits of their conquest. This is understandable as he was likely to have been close to fifty at his succession which is fairly old by the standards of the time. Perhaps, after a lifetime of battle, he felt he deserved a little peace. His long reign confirms his wisdom on a personal level but the quarter century of inaction allowed other English kingdoms to become established in the surrounding territory, confining Kent to roughly the boundaries of the modern county plus south-east London. In the long run Kent was unable to maintain its independence as a result of Aesc’s policy. Other sources have him succeesded by Octa who reigned from 512 to 540 before being succeeded by Ermenric.

It is possible that during this period Kent became temporarily subservient to Sussex; the 827 entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists Aella, King of the South Saxons, as the first Bretwalda. Bede states that he was overlord of all the English south of the Humber. Of the traditional Heptarchy*, only Kent and Sussex existed at this time so it was possible that he was receiving tribute from short lived kingdoms whose very names have been lost to history.

He and his son Cissa led a siege of Andred in 490 and were evidently victorious as they are recorded as massacring all the inhabitants.

Around this time, the English suffered their most serious reverse, the Battle of Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus). The English invaders were roundly defeated by the British under the leadership of the Romano-Briton Ambrosius Aurelias. Later tradition handed this victory to Arthur. Both Gildas and Bede say this battle took place forty four years after the invaders first arrived in Britain. (It should be noted that Gildas was likely to have been Bede’s reference for this figure.) This would place the battle in 493. Regretably for consistancy, Gildas also added that it took place in the year of his birth, which was AD 504. For GMing purposes, any year in the period 493-504 would not be inconsistent with the facts. At the same time, players will not be able to rely on their knowledge of the period to predict when it takes place in the campaign world. Unfortunately they will know the outcome. Sometimes I see the attraction of fantasy campaign worlds.

Given that this was the period of Aella’s Bretwaldaship, he would have been the English leader. He survived the battle and ruled the South Saxons until 514 but the comprehensive defeat cannot have done his standing much good. Apart from the defeat itself, much of Britain was reconquered by the British and most of his vassal’s kingdoms vanished from the map. It is significant that there was to be no other Bretwalda for a century.

In 495, according to the Chronicle Cerdic and his son Cynric landed with five ship-loads of followers at a place called Cerdic’s-ore. This entry was evidently written centuries after the event as it lists at least four hundred years of successors. The writer evidently regarded Cerdic as a Saxon leader but the problem with taking this at face value is that “Cerdic” had always been a Celtic name. It is likely, therefore, that Cerdic was a Briton and had initially been the loser of one of the civil conflicts that so infuriated Gildas. It would seem that he had not accepted defeat gracefully but had gone into exile, assembled a mercenary Saxon army and returned to continue the dispute.

Reading between the lines, it is possible that he was subservient to Aella at this time as he did not become King of the West Saxons until 519.

It is clear that word of Britain’s combination of comparitive wealth and political weakness was getting back to mainland Europe as more and more Germanic adventurers were arriving in search of gold and land. In 501 one Porta, his sons Beda and Mela, and two shiploads of supporters landed at what is now Portsmouth.

In 508, Cerdic and Cynric defeated a British army of five thousand led by Natanleod, the king of the area around Charford.

More evidence that Cerdic and Cynric were not Saxons is the Chronicle’s entry for 514: “This year came the West-Saxons into Britain”, implying that this was the first time this any of this group had landed. No connection wth Cerdic is mentioned at this point though they did come ashore at the same place as had Cerdic nineteen years earlier. Three shiploads of them came ashore, led by Stuff and Wihtgar, and promptly defeated the locals. It is quite possible that they were extra muscle hired by Cerdic because having conquered the Isle of Wight in 530, Cerdic handed it to Stuff and Wihtgar in 534.

It is possible that he needed their support when, after their victory at Mons Badonicus, the resurgent Britons were threatening to overrun his conquests.

His former overlord had died in 514 and had been succeeded as King of the South Saxons by his son Cissa. According to the medieval historian Roger of Wendover he ruled until 590. A reign of 76 years seems unlikely enough in itself but remember that he had arrived in Britain with his father in 477. Even if he had been a babe in arms this would make him 113 years old at the time of his death. It is much more likely that he had been old enough to fight in battle, i.e. about 12 or possibly older, on arrival. This would make him 125 years old at his death and thus the longest-lived human being in history. This seems totally improbable and it is possible that Cissa was succeeded by another Cissa and the two later became conflated into one. Another possibility is that Roger had misread or mistranslated an older document.

If your RPG campaign contains a fantasy element, there is a third possibility; that Cissa had unnaturally prolonged his life through some foul sorcery, or possibly entered a pact with the gods, or was blessed (and cursed) by them as the Viking Starkkad supposedly was centuries later.

Roger of Wendover records that Aescwine founded the Kingdom of the East Saxons in 527. Roger claims that Aescwine ruled for 60 years, which while an unusually long time, at least puts Aescwine in the normal human range even if he was pushing 30 when he commenced his kingship. He was succeeded by his son Sledd who ruled for ten years. None of this is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which appears only to have recorded the names of minor rulers when they interacted with the major players in some significant way.

Similarly, the Chronicle fails to record the early kings of East Anglia. The Historia Brittonum records the first East Anglian King as being Wehha (or Guecha). Roger of Wendover gives the first king as being Wehha’s son Wuffa who ruled from 571 to 578 and was succeeded by his son Tyttla.

In 547 the Angle leader Ida united various English war-bands and defeated the British leader Dutigern. From his fortified base on the site of the modern Bamburgh Castle he founded the kingdom of Bernicia (formally the British kingdom Bryneich) and ruled it for twelve years. Further south, the kingdom of Deira was established in 580 when the Celtic rulers of Ebrauc Gwrgi and Peredur were killed. According to the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), they were betrayed by their own men. The Celtic city Cair Ebrauc became the Angle Eoforwic. Bernicia and Deira were united to form the Kingdom of Northumbria by Aethelfrith in 592.

According to Roger, Mercia was founded by Credda in 585, although according to the Chronicle the first Mercian king was Penda in 632. It is possible that Credda founded a smaller kingdom such as that of the Middle Angles which grew to become Mercia.

 

KINGS OF KENT
 
 

 

Hengest 455 – 488

Aesc 488 – 512

Octa 512 – 540

Aermenric 540 – 565

Aethelbert 565 – 616 (Third Bretwalda)

 

 

KINGS OF THE SOUTH SAXONS (SUSSEX)
 
 

 

Aella 477 – 514 (First Bretwalda)

Cissa 514 – 590

 

 
KINGS OF THE WEST SAXONS (WESSEX)
 

 

 

Cerdic 519 – 534

Cynric 534 – 560

Ceawlin 560 – 591 (Second Bretwalda)

Ceol 591 – 597

 

KINGS OF THE EAST SAXONS (ESSEX)
 
 

 

Aescwine 527 – 587

Sledd 587 – 597

 

KINGS OF BERNICIA
 
 

 

Ida 547 – 560

Aella 560 – 588

Aethelric 588 – 592

 

KINGS OF EAST ANGLIA
 
 

 

Wehha ? – 571

Wuffa 571 – 578

Tyttla 578 – ca600

 

KING OF THE MIDDLE-ANGLES ??
 
 

 

Creda 585 – ?

 

 

 

 

 

* the Seven Kingdoms, i.e. Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria

 

SOURCES USED
 
 

 

 

(1) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Avalon Project translation. The entry for 449 notes that the “men of Kent” are descended from Jutes. From the website http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/angsax/ang05.htm
(2) Nennius, Historia Brittonum.Translation used from the site http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk
(3) Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation Books I & II, Internet Medieval Sourcebook version, prepared for the internet by Alexander Pyle of the Colorado State University

(4) Gildas. He refers to the “proud tryrant Gurthrigern (Vortigern)” making the original treaty with the Saxons. Hengest and Horsa are not mentioned by name but no other Saxon leaders’ names are given either. From the website http://www.webmesh.co.uk/gildas4.htm1

(5) John Morris, The Age of Arthur. Phillimore & Co. 1977

(6) Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum. Translation by J.A.Giles. Well actually, I used excerpts from this work which are to be found on the web

 
 
 

 

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