In the wake of a Scottish referendum that stoked talk of English Home Rule, alumnus Keith Davies ponders the tortuous, violent process that led to the emergence of ‘the English’.

By Keith Davies (Queen’s College, 1949–52 — now Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of Reading)

The overall structure and pattern of English counties, after 1,000 years and more, impressively remains largely unchanged. Local and national government was build upon it. But the path to such stability wasn’t stable. There was a lot of power politics and bloodshed, particularly in the century and a half that followed the end of the Roman era.

In particular, we heard via Oxford Today (‘What makes the British?’, Trinity issue, 2013, pp. 26–8) that the Peoples of the British Isles (PoBI) research led by an Oxford team shows that while the Romano-British population was overwhelmed by invading Anglo-Saxons, they appear not to have been annihilated by them. Instead, there was a process of marrying and mixing.

The resulting ‘DNA map’ shows dominant clusters, coloured red, across the southern, eastern and central portions of England, from Dorset round to the Humber and to east Yorkshire, extending via the midlands to the Severn and the Peak District. This is the area of Britain where history seems to indicate conclusively that the Anglo-Saxon’s came, saw and conquered, between 450 and 600AD.

Re-imagining the reality of this drama is historically problematic and also colourfully dramatic. The record tells of Hengest’s arrival and the conquest of Kent. Yet the resulting Anglo-Saxon and Jutish Germanic population of Kent is improbably derived from just three ships (‘keels’).

At the time of the Roman invasion in 43AD Britain was inhabited by Celtic tribes. Until about 400AD it was governed as an imperial province, again divided into smaller provinces, and local authorities known as civitates, i.e. the Romanised tribal states. By 400AD barbarian attacks were rife, and Emperor Honorius issued, in 410, a ‘Rescript’ authorising them, in the absence of the Legions (which were fully occupied elsewhere), to defend themselves, allowing their use of local imperial taxation as well as the civitates’ own local resources. At some point in the fifth century, according to Bede and other writers, Hengest and Horsa came. They were not commercial boat-builders (imagine, ‘Hengest and Horsa Maritime Solutions: How can we help you?’) but Frisian sea-lords prominent in Germanic continental power-politics.

And the three ships? The PoBI genetic map suggests an invasion on an altogether larger scale. Imagine 20 civitates containing 500 villages and towns each, and 20 households per settlement. We are talking about 500 shiploads minimum, over the period 450–600. Who provided the ships? Did they all return to Frisia to pick up eager loads of immigrant Anglo-Saxons? Their historian Bede tells us only that Hengest and Horsa sent messages back urging reinforcements.

Thus did Roman Britain gradually become ‘England’. Sea-going chieftains seized their opportunity as Rome crumbled, conquering the four nearest British civitates along the south-east corner of Roman Britain: Kent, Sussex, Essex and East Anglia. Bede speaks of the East and South Saxons (Essex and Sussex today) and the Angles (now East Anglia) and the Jutes (Kent). West Saxons soon followed, ultimately spreading from Devon north to the Thames valley. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls the West Saxon rulers ‘princes’.

While the Oxford Today article referenced intermarrying and racial integration, the invasion was no peaceable. The storming in 491 of Pevensey Castle in Sussex was claimed to have annihilated every last Briton in the area, while the conquest of Kent in 473 was described as a fleeing of the locals ‘as from fire’.

If the PoBI genetic sequence shows a mingling of French and Belgian blood, others came from ‘three tribes of Germany: from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, from the Jutes’. They spread northwards from Essex to East Anglia and the Humber, and westwards from Kent and Sussex to Wessex.

It was from this process of power politics and conquest that the larger kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria were created. After the West Saxon King Alfred and his son Edward the Elder had overcome the Danish invasions of the ninth century they emerged as kings of ‘England’. From here on we get a comprehensive reshaping of subordinate units and the creation of the shire system, in particular counties named after each of their tenth-century dominant cities — Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire; and then in the east Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire; with Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire to the north.

London was originally a British town, then Roman, then East Saxon, and finally ‘Middle-Saxon’. The unification of England after 900 (well before 1066) made it the effective English capital. Not until 1130 did Henry I grant a royal charter to London which treated London the city and ‘Middlesex’ (the shire) as one and the same, with its own sheriffs and courts (hustings). The same charter confirmed the hunting rights of Londoners throughout ‘Middlesex’ from the Chilterns to Surrey (much like Greater London today).

The period spanning the Roman conquest to the emergence of England took centuries. The time span on its own must provoke reflection at a time when all the hurried talk of Westminster is about rapid constitutional reform (by February 2015?) and Devo-Max (not Devo-Sax!) for all. In another sense, and because we don’t know the ins and outs of what happened when the Romans left, it is possible to take comfort from the historical record, which points only to the rapid flux of human affairs. Whatever we take for granted as stable is perhaps less stable than we assume. Yet the modern village name Skirmett (‘Shire Moot’) near Henley-on-Thames proclaims a thousand years of English stability.

Image of a copy of Raedwald’s helm by Dave, via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence.