A Hole in Britain’s History

Hi folks, I hope this post finds you all well. Today I delve into a subject that struck me while writing my post about the Kingdom of Rheged. That is, that there seems to be a two-century hole in the popular record of Britain’s history. I noted this while researching what year should be considered the beginning of the “Anglo-Saxon” age. What I found was surprising.

Being fairly familiar with Britain’s ancient history, I expected most resources to have the Anglo-Saxon period starting around the end of the 6th century, for reasons I’ll explain later. There should be nearly two centuries between the end of Roman Britain and the beginning of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

I tend to double-check my facts a lot when writing these posts to see the variations of different ideas. I have a lot of books, but for quick answers to general questions, you can’t beat the Internet, right? Well, I did a search on “beginning of Anglo-Saxon era in Britain” and clicked on the first link. It was for the British Broadcasting Company’s History page. Should be great place for British history. Here’s what they had to say:

The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for 600 years, from 410 to 1066, and in that time Britain’s political landscape underwent many changes.

Wait… 410 is when the Britons, abandoned by the Roman military, finally had enough, threw out the remaining Roman magistrates and “took their governance upon themselves.” Yet, the BBC’s webpage makes it sound as if Rome left Britain in 410, and Germanic tribes from the continent began moving into a basically unpopulated island, replacing “the Roman stone buildings with their own wooden ones”.

Looking for missing history of Britain

There’s no mention of the British kingdoms that arose from the breakup of the former Roman provinces. What about Powys, Gwynedd, Rheged, Dyfed, and others? What of Vortigern, and Ambrosius Aurelianis, Maglocunus, Gildas, and many other Britons, not to mention Arthur (uncertain as his existence may be)? What of the battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons, recorded by both peoples? There is clearly much more to the story than most people are hearing about.

I started looking through other sources and found much the same. Wikipedia’s entry for “History of the British Isles” makes the slimmest mention with “Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were formed and, through wars with British states, gradually came to cover the territory of present-day England.”

The UK’s Historical Association website’s tagline is “The voice for history”. It offers details and resources for lesson plans to teach Britain’s history. Three pages talk about this era: “The End of Roman Britain“, “Saxon Settlers in Britain“, and “Anglo-Saxons: a brief history“. Once again, almost no mention of the indigenous Britons. Only in the “brief history” page do they devote three meager sentences to the British resistance, and one of those has incorrect information.

Even a very popular British history podcast that I very much enjoyed had barely any reference to the culture and history of the “Post-Roman” Britons. When I asked the host about some particulars, I was surprised by his rather hostile and dismissive response, referring to the limited information about this era.

So, why do I think that the Anglo-Saxon period begins near the end of the 6th Century? Well, we have contemporary and near-contemporary reports about the Briton’s struggles. Around the end of the 5th century or beginning of the 6th, we know that the Britons won a decisive victory at Mount Badon that stopped the Anglo-Saxon advance for at least 50 years. I portray this event in my second novel in The Arthurian Age series, The Strife of Camlann.

About the mid 500’s, Cynric and his successor, Ceawlin, begin expanding their young kingdom, Wessex, and come into conflict with the Britons of the west country. The wars continue into the 7th century and beyond, but I think the key moment comes in 577 (according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). Ceawlin deals a crushing defeat to the Britons at the Battle of Deorham. The British kings of three important British cities, Cirencester, Gloucester, and Bath, are slain, and Wessex expands to the Bristol channel. This cuts off the Britons of Wales from the Britons of Devon and Cornwall, and further weakens the Britons’ ability to resist the Anglo-Saxon expansion.

Battle of Dyrham (Deorham) in 577 AD between Britons and Anglo-Saxons
Battle of Deorham indicated by the red X.

This separation was severe enough that it caused the Celtic Brittonic language to begin diverging into Welsh and Cornish. A similar separation of the Britons of southern Scotland and northern England from Wales resulted in Cumbric. Eventually Cumbric and Cornish would become extinct.

There is no doubt that the historical record is thin for the fifth and sixth centuries. This is why I like to call it the “Dark Ages”: little light is shed on the events of the era. But there is plenty that we do know of and it’s worth knowing, because the struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and Britons is an amazing story, and an important part of Great Britain’s history. With a dearth of good online sources available, I hope my books and posts can expose more people to this fascinating era.

Thanks for stopping by, and as always, I’d love to get feedback and questions on my posts and my books. And if you do pick up The Retreat to Avalon or The Strife of Camlann, please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or both. It really helps us struggling authors. 😊

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2 thoughts on “A Hole in Britain’s History”

  1. I suppose a wish for continuity is why they date the period from 410. Certainly the actual history seem mostly ignored. It is difficult for those of use who “live” in that time period to understand but historians like Stenton and Myres seemed unable to wait for the AS to arrive and their impatience betrayed them. To be fair they did not have the benefit of archaeology and modern scholarship.

    There is little work on the transition in the lives who moved from agricultural labourers, Humiliores, on an estate to smallholders on their own plots and the inevitable conflicts between those who considered themselves inheritors of Imperial goodies and those who did not. Seen more bloodily on the Continent where those estates survived under new part ownership.

    Reply
    • Agree, though it seems the information on modern websites, which more people reference now, could be updated to match the actual history. It’s a shame. It really is a fascinating time.

      Reply

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