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Great Britain and the Invasion of the Germanic Tribes

The sustained immigration and invasion of the Germanic tribes into Britain changed the entire social, racial and political make up of the British Isles. Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Jutes, Saxons and Frisians all took advantage of the Roman Empires gradual withdrawal of their imperial legions. They were able to claim vast tracks of fertile land or to raid the defenceless riches of Romano-Britain's civilian settlements .

The first Saxons to visit the British Isles were paid mercenaries who were invited by the Romano-British elites to help protect their weakened borders from the indigenous population of Britain who had been forced to the remote corners of their island. The ancient Britons had been forced into the west or far north of the British Isles. Now the Picts, Scoti and other Celtic tribes wanted back their land back and to liberate Roman gold and silver from people who shared little in common with their ancient way of life.

The Native Population Dispersed

The Romano-British saw a hug influx of Germanic peoples making Britain their new home.

The Romano-British saw a hug influx of Germanic peoples making Britain their new home.

Origins of the Germanic invasion.

The earliest German settlers actually came to the British Isles because of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had a policy of recruiting soldiers from the lands they had conquered and occupied. This provided the Roman legions with trained auxiliaries and kept the newly conquered lands from rebelling as their fighting men would be in another part of the Roman Empire actively engaged in warfare. By 367 AD the Saxons had deserted the Roman cause and allied themselves with the enemies of their former paymaster. The Picts and Scoti of Scotland were then able to launch numerous raids on the northern frontier of Roman Britain.

As Rome lost its power and influence, Saxon mercenaries began to launch pirate raids much like the Vikings would employ a couple of centuries later on the British coast. In 428 AD the High King of the lower settlements Vortigern, invited the warriors Horsa and Hengist to fight on his side against other foreign invaders. When King Vortigern asked his allies to leave the Saxons refused and war soon broke out between the former allies.

With such riches and fertile ground to be found. The Germanic warriors saw a future here in these foreign lands.

Roundhouses like these, were used by the Ancient Britons and the Germanic invaders.

Roundhouses like these, were used by the Ancient Britons and the Germanic invaders.

Conflict and Negotiation

The native Britons soon came to understandings with the new arrivals

The native Britons soon came to understandings with the new arrivals

Conflict was a Great Equalizer

The influx was not without problems.

The influx was not without problems.

The Changing Shape of Germanic Britain

By the end of the sixth century AD, many of the native Britons had been pushed back into Wales and Cornwall. And due to the many battles, several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been created from the old landscape. The main three kingdoms to emerge were Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. The Anglo-Saxons had effectively carved up the unprotected lands of the British in less than a hundred years.

In that time frame a lot of the Romano-British settlements were allowed to go to ruin and the Germanic tribes influence began to spread into every part of British life. The biggest change to impact Britain was that most of the pagan Germanic leaders converted to Christianity. Although it could be argued that this was only done to consolidate their own rule like Constantine had done with the Roman Empire some three hundred years previous.

The Germanic domination over most of the British Isles was to remain in force until the Norman conquest of 1066. The Viking raids and settlement changed very little in the customs of the British people as the Germanic culture and Viking Norse culture were very similar. The Danelaw saw the area which the Angles and Saxons first settled, give way to Viking settlements like Ipswich, Norwich, Grimsby and the Viking colonization of Jorvik ( York ) in the North of England.

The Vikings and the Germanic tribes were of common ancestry and customs, it was only a question of who held the greater military power and whoever did, would have the most influence of British affairs until 1066.

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Germanic British Kingdoms

  1. Northumbria ( North of river Humber to Scots border (Angles&Saxon).
  2. Mercia ( South of Humber to river Thames ( mixed tribes )
  3. Wessex ( West of river Thames to West Country ( Saxons )
  4. Essex ( East Saxons )
  5. Kent ( Jutes )
  6. East Anglia ( Angles )
  7. Sussex ( South Saxons )

Rise of Norman Rule

The invasion of the Normans and the battles they fought to quell rebellion to their rule established a new reality for the British Isles. The old Anglo-Scandinavian dynamic of rule was to end and the Normans would bring a new style of governance to the peoples who inhabited the region.

Much of the Germanic nobility and landowners were slaughtered in conflict with the Normans. Much of Britain now lay in the hands of the new Norman elite, huge amounts of estates were now under foriegn control and there was a disconnect between the rulers and the people.

Although Norman ideas were implemented among the elites and the mechanics of running the country, the Germanic culture still survived in the everyday people of the British Isles. Traditions and heritage were hard to supress, the language of the people was still Germanic and would remain so. The Normans built castles and churches, yet the people who manned the turrets and paid taxes to the nobles were mostly Anglo-Saxon to their bones.

Norman Buildings Littered the Landscape

St Mary's Church Suffolk. A typical Norman church built upon the older Anglo-Saxon wooden site.

St Mary's Church Suffolk. A typical Norman church built upon the older Anglo-Saxon wooden site.

Your Opinion

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  • The Viking influence in the East Riding of Yorkshire...
    The Vikings influence every settlement they visited. Those Vikings who permanently settled left a lasting impact on the population and heritage.
  • The Origins of English Place Names
    Have you ever wondered why some English place names have a strange sounding name? This article will answer why these names have come into use and why they have remained intact into the modern age.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Andrew Stewart


alancaster149 on October 25, 2011:

That should read: Anglo-Danish heritage. True there was a short time when the notorious Norweyan Eirik 'Blood-Axe' Haraldsson ruled 948 and 952-4 from Jorvik, but his reign was interrupted and finished in AD954 with his death in an ambusg on Stainmore Common. By and large the influx in the southern half of Northumbria between the Tees and the Humber was Danish, witness the great number of settlement names ending in -thorpe, -by, -holm and -toft (in my area you have a string of small towns: Ormesby, Normanby, (Eston), Lackenby, Lazenby and Yearby towards the coast at Skinningrove = shining grove.

LondonGirl from London on October 24, 2011:

There is a strong new theory that the actual genetic base did not change hugely as a result of Saxon invasion.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 12, 2011:

Another few pointers, firstly the Saxons who came here were from the area we know as Lower Saxony and Frisia, around the mouths of the Elbe and the Rhine, just to the south of the Aengle at the base of the Jutland peninsula (modern day Schleswig Holstein). There were enclaves within Mercia and Northumbria occupied by Britons, the Elmet area of South Yorkshire being a case in point. After the Conquest, in 1069 many Mercians and Northumbrians fled west and north over the frontiers and settled in the Borders region of Southern Scotland and southern Wales to escape a vengeful William I, who had destroyed much of the land and crops after the abortive rebellions in Mercia and Northumbria. Eastern Scotland as far as Edinburgh had already been conquered since the 7th Century by the Northumbrians under King Oswy. Only the Strathclyde Britons and the Gaels in Alba remained Celtic.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on July 05, 2011:

On the whole informed and informative. In general it reads well - got to sort out the grammar, though, sorry - but a little gripe: Northumbria was not a Saxon enclave but an Anglian one, as was Mercia. The Saxons' name for the Britons was Wealsc (Welsh) meaning 'foreigners' - who's kidding who? The kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots, Strathclyde and Alba only came about in the 6th-7th centuries, with the first Scots' king Kenneth MacAlpin taking the south-west of what we call Scotland from across the sea... but that's another story. There was an 'overlay' from the end of the 8th Century to the 11th Century: of Danes in East Anglia under Guthrum in Aelfred's time, the Danelaw (eastern Mercia) and Deira (southern Northumbria), which became the Kingdom of Jorvik, (Anglian Eoferwic or modern York) until the time of Aethelstan, the last independent king being Eirik Haraldsson, 'Blood-Axe' of Norway. Try the Northworld Saga Site through my Hub page? Still, I like your style. Keep it up!

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on June 27, 2010:

Thanks for the clarification. What you say makes a lot of sense.

Andrew Stewart (author) from England on June 27, 2010:

Hi Chris, yes the Germanic invasion centred on modern day England. But there was change in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. This was due to the displaced Romano-Britains been forced into the area's were the traditional British tribes got pushed into. A lot of the Romano-Britians would have mixed with the peoples of tribes who were once Rome's enemies.

Hi Larry, Yes all the Celts are usually grouped to together when they were as varied and different as say the Germanic tribes. Its amazing to see how much they influenced European History and the British Isles. The Romans and their policies meant Britain was open to other races from the Roman Empire. If i remember correctly there is evidence of Syrian-Romans living in The area that is modern day Cornwall.

Thank you both for your comments, it is good to share opinions, facts and knowledge with like minded people. Got to love Hubpages

Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on June 27, 2010:

Thank you for this concise, informative, and interesting Hub on ancient Britain...Many, if not most, Roman soldiers stationed in Britain intermarried, integrated, and retired there after their service for Rome ended...Their influence on culture, law, and language, particularly, continues to this day...On the other side of Hadrian's Wall the Celts were just as influential.

The Celts were not, as is commonly supposed, one race, but rather a collection of independent tribes. The first settlements of Britain by Celtic Hallstatt and La Tene peoples took place in the first millennium B.C., followed by the invasion of the Belgae. They brought with them metalworking skills as well as other assets such as coins and chariots.

The gene pool of Britain is an interesting one, and to single out any one race as most dominant would miss the lesson of human diversity and the contributions of each to form present day British peoples...

Thank you again for sharing your intelligent and thought-provoking look at British history...Larry

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on June 27, 2010:

Thank you for a very interesting hub. But didn't the germanic invasion only really affect England? Scotland, Wales, and Ireland remained Celtic, and indeed still are so.

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