What have the Saxons ever done for us?

A late Lenten look at the adventus

In a forthcoming video on my channel, I have occasion to say, “I do not (any more than do Francis Pryor and Susan Oosthuizen), credit the Anglo-Saxon invasion-and-replacement mythos.” (I may add that I am likewise unconvinced of the traditional view of the “Claudian” Roman arrival in Britain, tending rather to agree with Sir Barry Cunliffe, Martin Henig, John Manley, J. G. F. Hind, and others -including Cassius Dio and Suetonius, for that matter –, that they were invited in by one side – that of Verica of the Atrebates – in one of the endemic tribal wars of the Iron Age population: here, against Caratacus and his Catuvellauni; and landed at Chichester or Portsmouth, say.) I shall, as usual, explain.

I am very much not a scientist. I am most certainly not a geneticist, let alone an archaeogeneticist. It is a commonplace observation that most of those who go to law school do so for the express purpose of avoiding mathematics and science for the rest of their lives, and being able to treat the rest of their lives as an essay question. On the other hand, my having degrees in politics; philosophy (which in my day required courses in formal logic); and law (which in my day required courses in evidence, not in feelings), has had some knock-on effects, not least for me as a writer of history. I do not for a moment deprecate the scholarship and accomplishments and results obtained by such geneticists as Brian Sykes and Mark Thomas – and of Cristian Capelli and his team. What I am a little dubious about are the various interpretations which have often been made of these results … usually by others who are not geneticists, let alone archaeogeneticists.

Never mind the formal fallacy involved: these interpretations assume facts not in evidence. I therefore, as counsel, object. Now, this is a matter on which I have had many discussions, in our capacity as historians, with my colleague, publishing partner, and nonfiction coauthor, GMW Wemyss, although we are not currently contemplating a work concentrating on this period. Nonetheless, I can do no better than to hand over to him, by quoting a passage from his most recent novel, Ordinary Time, in which his learnèd – if infuriating, and infuriatingly ducal – character, the Duke of Taunton, is discussing these issues with the colleagues and students of his wife the Duchess, a celebrated historian-archaeologist in her own right.

‘… Yellworthy: hele-worthig, hidden. That whole area of the Vale wants a careful survey.’

‘That’s a Saxon name enough,’ said one of the juniors, much daring: the new-minted Dr Jane Kitching. ‘Yet you mentioned vicinal ways, earlier, and ancient droveways, and Romano-British continuity in an essentially Iron Age landscape.’

‘And you from Lincolnshire,’ smiled the duke. ‘Angels and ministers of Dominic Powlesland defend us.

‘Genetics is perhaps an exact science. Its interpretation, however…. One can’t really distinguish a bunch of Sixth Cee Angles from a lot of Danes in the Eighth Cee comin’ from The Angle, or even tell the Norse from the Normans in the Eleventh – speakin’ of Lincs; and that’s assumin’ a lack of trade contacts with the Continent in peaceful times: sailors gettin’ bastards in every port, a few families settlin’ here for commercial reasons, refugees, et hoc genus omne, damn it all. Christ aid! By the Iron Age, the tribes of Britain may’ve – may have – been mostly “Celtic” in culture and in tongue – “Celtic” has always been a language group, not an ethnicity –, but damn me if half of ’em weren’t half-Continentals already, particularly in East Anglia and Kent: fathered by the fathers of Saxons and Frisians to come. Never mind the future Norse, the East Ridin’ was home to the Parisi, an Arras Culture groupin’ likely related t’ the Gallic Parisii. The Belgae are … the Belgae; and the Suessiones likewise held a cross-Channel lordship, and the Cantiaci were Gauls, as the Atrebates may have been: “Britanniae pars interior ab eis incolitur quos natos in insula ipsi memoria proditum dicunt, maritima ab eis, qui praedae ac belli inferendi causa ex Belgio transierunt (qui omnes fere eis nominibus civitatum appellantur, quibus orti ex civitatibus eo pervenerunt) et bello illato ibi permanserunt atque agros colere coeperunt. Hominum est infinita multitudo creberrimaque aedificia fere Gallicis consimilia, pecorum magnus numerus”: the interior of Britain’s inhabited by the Ancient Native Brits, the coasts, by Gaulish plunderers and invaders who stopped on; they are many, their houses are Gaulish, and they’re up to their oxters in oxen.

‘It’s all in Caesar, damn it all, and – though I ain’t one of Old Baldy’s admirers –, Caius Iulius, the Bithynian bugger’s bum-boy, was not a bad ethnographer – includin’ in his recordin’ the kinship of Gauls and Jerries. D’ y’ recall? He was told, he says, “… plerosque Belgos esse ortos a Germanis Rhenumque antiquitus traductos propter loci fertilitatem ibi consedisse Gallosque qui ea loca incolerent expulisse, solosque esse qui, patrum nostrorum memoria omni Gallia vexata, Teutonos Cimbrosque intra suos fines ingredi prohibuerint”, – which caused ’em to swagger ever after –; and, “Apud eos fuisse regem nostra etiam memoria Diviciacum, totius Galliae potentissimum, qui cum magnae partis harum regionum, tum etiam Britanniae imperium obtinuerit”:most of the Belgae were Germans who’d crossed the Rhine of old, settlin’ in Gaul because the land was better, drivin’ the natives off, and were the only people who’d fought off the Teutons and Cimbrians when Jerry had overrun the rest of Gaul; and in livin’ memory, Diviciacus, the biggest boss in Gaul, had been king of the Suessiones who were the Belgae’s neighbours, and ruled the region and parts of Britain as well.

‘If ever there were an adventus, it was in or before the Iron Age, damn me. God damn m’ soul – sorry, Padre –, don’t anyone read Ptolemy nowadays? Or Strabo?

‘The idea of a purely “Celtic” Iron Age population’s silly enough; the notion that “the Romans” were a pack of Italians is simply bollocks. Leavin’ aside the auxiliaries – Gauls of every description, Batavians, Tungrians, Dalmatians, Menapii, Moesians, Dacians, Cugerni, Nervii, Thracians, Alsatian Vangiones, Illyrians of all sorts –, there was the increased legionary replacement and recruitment from locals, especially after Caracalla issued the Antonine Constitution, the “Edict of Caracalla”. A look at where the Legions were stationed before comin’ to Britannia is fascinatin’: Marcus Valerius Maximianus, f’r example, was born at Ptuj; and, God damn m’ soul, there were camp-followers, and wives and all sorts picked up on previous deployments. ’S where this LHON question started, damn it all.’

In fact, alongside the Dig, a huge archaeogenetic survey was underway in the District, even including such unlikely, because thoroughly mixed, candidates as His Grace: which had been referred to in his case as ‘getting DNA out of a stone’.

‘Good God, we’ve known this for goin’ on fifty years, and yet cling, most of us – most of you –, t’ the Victorian myth: despite Philip Barker and young White at Viroconium Cornoviorum, despite Tony Wilmott at Birdoswald, despite Finberg, never mind Richard Reece, at Withington, and Mike McCarthy at Carlisle, when Mils and I were younger than you lot are now. It was all tangled up with fantasies of “race”, and soppy cod-Germanic Romanticism, and Victoria’s Dear Prince Albert, and a determination not to be taken for the damned French, or, worse still, for Welsh or Scots or Irish or Cornish, and thus prey to “the schoolboy heat, the blind hysterics of the Celt”.

‘What’s today’s excuse for it?

‘Dark Ages be damned! You’ve forgotten the fact of Christendom, damn it all! You’ve Francis Pryor, and Su Oosthuizen, Paul Budd of Mils’ own Durham, Mark Whyman at York, Charles Thomas, Jonathan Wooding, David Howlett, Martin Henig, John Creighton, the great Barry Cunliffe, Ken Dark, that same Dominic Powlesland in the Wolds – brilliant feller, but wants desperately t’ visit a barber and t’ sack his tailor and bootmaker, and find better –, a cloud of witnesses t’ British continuity –’

‘Katie Lowe,’ murmured the duchess, to a ducal nod of approbation. ‘And dear Sam Lucy.’

‘– quite – and y’ go on assumin’ nursery tales t’ be true despite ’em, damn it all.’

Professor Herries remarked – silently, not being a fool – that, even in speaking thus extempore, Charles duke of Tauton had managed to list a fellow OE first.

Continuity, damn it all! Look at Hugo – and never mind de Clifforde and Owldbrigg / Vypont and de Brus and Taillebois and de Lancaster, de Busli and Ferrers and Leyburn –: if charters and lands speak true at all, he’d forebears at Stainmore where Eiríkr Blóðøx had the hems put to him: ancestors on both sides, likely commandin’ archers or some damned thing in default of artillery: Sweyn of Earlscliffe, the Northumbrian, who may, admittedly, have been rather on Bamburgh’s side than on Bloodaxe’ – Hugo has yet the advowson of S Edwin Earlscliffe –, and Pasgen son of Cystennin, the Cumbrian, a descendant, look you, of Urien of Rheged. Plenty of continuity in Yr Hen Ogledd, damn it all. There was no more a Roman invasion-and-replacement than there was an Anglo-Saxon one – fashion ain’t family trees –, or a Norse, save in isolated parts, or a Norman: that old, exploded myth sounds like one of Farage’s nightmares. Christ! British culture ain’t changed, deep down, where the people live, since the Mesolithic or before – ask Tim Schadla-Hall, up at Star Carr –; and y’ don’t want an art historian to tell y’ that Sutton Hoo and Insular Celtic and Norse and Pictish work, and stone crosses and carpet pages in Gospels, are all variations on La Tène style – just you look at the Battersea and Wandsworth and Witham Shields as against the Sutton Hoo helmet inlays and shoulder-clasps and purse lid, and the whole of the Staffordshire Hoard, damn m’ soul.’

Her Grace did not speak aloud; but her lips were clearly reciting, Everything is older than we think.

‘Pottery ain’t people – y’ know that, damn it all –; and blue jeans ain’t genetics. And language don’t mean invasion-and-replacement: look at the Septics, all speakin’ Ulster Scots regardless of ethnicity.

‘I can show yer, tomorrow, in this District, hedges datin’ t’ Sub-Roman times, which are boundaries now, were metes and bounds in Wessex charters, and were estate boundaries of Roman proprietors, just as at West Meon. (Viney? If you’d be so kind….) There are people today of mixed British and Subcontinental heritage, from Hugo Mallerstang t’ Sher Mirza: although – as with the Roman Britons and the Continental pagans after the conversion of Britannia – fewer than there might be did not religious obstacles intervene –; there are converts to Islam from traditionally nominally Christian, White British families – a remarkable number of ’em gingers, for some reason, which goes t’ show yer, don’t it, though I don’t see Mgr Folan goin’ over and becomin’ an imam in this or any lifetime; but – there ain’t enough British Pakistanis or British Indians t’ justify assumin’ an invasion-and-replacement theory, or a genetic component with it, sufficient to explain the proliferation of curry-houses and the existence of the Balti Triangle. Even where accompanied by an increasin’ loss of faith, a post-Christian society, in the White British, so-called.

‘We’ve a German Royal Family, yes, but not from bein’ overrun: we invited ’em – as we did the Romans at Chichester –: invited ’em out of religious prejudice. And overhearin’ you lot and your studentry at the Dig has but confirmed t’ me that most people speak American, nowadays: I distinctly heard several mispronunciations of, “schedule”. And American’s a dialect, I remind yer, not of English, but of Ulster Scots, which is why, f’r example, both lots, when injured, “go to the hospital”, damn it all. And, in the Republic, the very accent’s more Americanised by the year.

‘Damn me, I can imagine a cataclysm or a slow decline, a loss of records – we really do want to be puttin’ things on paper, there are floppy disks from m’ own youth which are now unreadable –, and All Sorts … and, in a thousand years, your successors positin’ a grand theory of utter balls. I can hear it now.’ He dropped into mimicry of a placeless and rather robotic accent. ‘“American domination of the British Isles – both culturally, from the first Coco-la to the last Wimpy and the last Stawb-bux and Kay Effsea, and by a military occupation, as at the sites tentatively identified at Mill Den Hall – we dismiss Professor Zellner’s variant reading of, “Mine All” –, at al-Conbri, and at La Kenneath, and the perhaps older sites at Camgriffiz and elsewhere – was replaced, at least in part, via processes not yet fully understood, by Indo-Pakistani control. Although in a few places – notably the Wool Fonts – the culinary, cultural, and religious traditions of the British carried on, even there the Dux remained only Gracious, and Wool Down was overlooked by a Gurkha settlement, and the Big Man in the District was a Nawab, who was a Highness to the Dux’ mere Graciousness.”

‘Cue immemorial academic chorus, accompanied by a grant application: “More study is wanted”….

‘Well, damn it all, we do have records (thank you, Viney): these abstracts from a few casual hours in the muniments show – and from tomorrow on, you’re all of y’ free of the muniments, so do fossick and rootle in ’em – that, precisely as I –’

It had been just then that the lights had gone out.


‘All rather –’ and here the power came back on –: ‘ah: thank y’; well done, Viney, and all of you: all, as I was sayin’, not unlike, oh, Birdoswald when the lights allegedly went out – Postr- –’ and here the duke paused, as one who remembers that, No one knows Latin these days, damn it all, what in buggery is the country comin’ to?, and translated – ‘ah, “The last Roman to leave Britannia is to snuff the candle” – though the last Roman never left Britain any more than he did Byzantium, and the lights stayed on: look at the palynology of your imagined feral wasteland –, Birdoswald, then, though there they’d a longer sinkin’ of the light for those who imagine it sank at all, and more time that’s dark t’ us; and throughout Rheged and the Old North. In any case … these abstracts –’

‘That was a suspiciously apt demonstration.’ Dr Reckley’s tone, clipped as it was, was aptly – and amply – suspicious.

The ducal eyebrow went up. ‘Come, come: should I have arranged that?’ His Grace was dangerously bland. And he did not stay for an answer. ‘I’d like to imagine I might make m’ points, to ripe, approved, mature-minded scholars, without parlour tricks of that sort.’

The duchess and Den Farnaby, at least, remarked this second non-denial-denial as being equally blandly equivocal. So, it appeared, did Dr Das, who winked at Millicent.

‘These abstracts, then. The –’

‘“Parlour tricks”,’ murmured Den, quite audibly; ‘this from a man who’s rumoured to’ve once hustled Ricky Jay at the poker table.’

‘What an absurd rumour,’ said Charles, with his infamous smile-like-a-drawn-blade. ‘Can’t think who puts these about. I certainly didn’t.’

Den, with a smile of admiration at this further ambiguity, subsided, and allowed His Grace to go on about the abstracts without further interruption.

Beneath all its purposes in the story and as a fictional device, this seems to me important. I might go further: pointing out, for example, that the changes in burial rites, which have led to the identification of many cemeteries as somehow “Anglo-Saxon” regardless of who is buried there, no more mean “new people” and an invasion-and-replacement hypothesis than the Victorian and post-Victorian acceptance of cremation in preference to inhumation reflects necessarily a loss of Christian faith and tradition, much less of an invasion-and-replacement model in modern Britain in which the British have been displaced, rather than added to, by, say, Subcontinental immigrants … let alone invaders.

What I wish to stress is the extreme probability, indeed the presumption, of continuity. I believe it was Richard Reece who stressed this, buttressed in part by a perfectly colorable reading of Bede, regarding the settlement of such mercenaries and economic migrants from the Continent who arrived in the sub-Roman period, and who took up lands given them in waste and marginal areas, the villas remaining in the hands of the Romano-British as those villas and those owners transitioned into the early medieval proto-manors and thegns of the pre-Conquest period.

The last thing I wish to do is to pick a quarrel, particularly one well outside any field or expertise I can claim, with Saxonists, some of whom are amongst my favorite people. I cannot claim to be on any intimate terms, even by correspondence, with any of them, let alone claim to be their equal: though I have had some quite friendly correspondence with Sam Newton, far beyond my merits or deserts. But if I recall aright, Helen Geake is on record as saying that we do not know how the future petty kings identified, or identifying themselves as, “Anglo-Saxon,” arose, who they were, from whom they were descended, or whence they came.

Precisely. Certainly Cerdic – Caratacus, Caradog – and his immediate successors in the House of Wessex bore Celtic names; and the same crop up from time to time in Mercian and Northumbrian king-lists.

And what I do maintain is this, that, even in so limited a scope as the population genetics of England, not even of the UK as a whole, the use of genetic data to buttress theories of racial or national descent of the population is exceedingly unwise. The idea that, prior to any claimed Adventus, what is now England was populated by so many Welshmen (and bear in mind, boyo, that I am Anglo-Welsh myself by descent), and that it became England due to a sudden influx of people from Frisia and the Angle, seems to me to be rubbish. We do not know how these peoples self-identified. We do know that their contemporaries recognized a commonality between some Gauls and some of the Germanic tribes, and that Gallo-Germanic tribes were identified as already present in and populating considerable parts of Southern, particularly Southeastern, and East Anglian Britain, in the late Iron Age and before the Roman era in Britain. And we know that even in so small a field as this, “race,” even in the sense of nationhood and ethnicity, is a construct, and one constructed by racists. I am not and do not claim to be a scientist, let alone a geneticist; I am an immeasurably minor historian. But I am something of a logician, with a lawyer’s training. And on the evidence, the only possible verdict is that which I once again propound as a maxim of universal applicability: Race, and indeed ethnicity, is a construct: one constructed by racists. It may be a political fact; like most political facts, it is an objective falsehood.

Here endeth the lesson.

Published by Markham Shaw Pyle

Ex-lawyer turned historian; W&L man; historian; author; partner, Bapton Books

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