The Story of England: The Coming of the English

This extract is the first of a series in which Dr. Arthur Bryant describes the evolution of the English Kingdom, through the invasions of Saxons, Danes and Normans, to its consolidation in medieval times.

After the withdrawal of the last Roman troops the Anglo-Saxons, who were to become the dominant strain in our long, mixed ancestry, made their first permanent lodgment in the land that now bears their name. From Frisia and the mouths of the Rhine, Ems and Weser, from Schleswig and Angle in what is now Holstein and Denmark, the curved boats of the barbarians, growing bolder every year, crept up the estuaries and rivers of southern Britain, landing their crews to plunder and slay. The island became a magnet for the boldest of all the barbarians— the men of the sea.

For a time the British leaders and Celtic tribal chieftains, like Roman provincials elsewhere, seem to have tried the expedient of hiring half-tamed Teuton war-bands from the continent to defend them. The ruler of the south-eastern corner of the country settled in Thanet an army of Jutish mercenaries who had served with the legions on the Rhine. But finding that their employers could not protect themselves, the newcomers presently raised their demands for food and pay. When they were not met, they turned their swords against them. Under their chieftains, Hengist and Horsa, they threw in their lot with the sea-raiders, and began to plunder, burn and massacre.

Of the events that followed—so important for the making of our history—we know almost nothing, the records having been lost amid so much destruction. All we know is that the little cities of Roman Britain were gutted, that the flame of invasion, to quote the hysterical and no doubt exaggerated account of the Welsh monk, Gildas, “blazed from sea to sea until, “having burned nearly the whole island, it licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue.” “The barbarians drive us into the sea,” cried the Britons in a last despairing appeal to Rome, “and the sea drives us back to the barbarians!” In the wake of invasion came famine and pestilence.

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