The six and a half centuries between the end of Roman imperial rule and the Norman Conquest are among the most important in English history, and the most challenging to understand, because of the nature and scarcity of the surviving evidence.
AFTER THE ROMANS
A kingdom of England emerged in these centuries, and with it a new ‘English’ identity and language.
The traditional label, ‘Dark Ages’, for this long period is little more than a convenience. But the 5th and 6th centuries are certainly wrapped in obscurity. Records are few, difficult to interpret, propagandist, or written long after the events they describe.
What is certain is that the Romans did not suddenly leave Britain. After 350 years of Roman rule – as long a period as separates the present day from Charles II – all Britons were, in a sense, Romans.
Tradition has it that in 410 the Emperor Honorius wrote to the British Romans instructing them to look to their own defence. While it seems likely that the letter was not sent to Britain after all, such advice would have reflected the realities of the time. Britain was no longer subject to an imperial power which could protect it.
The chief enemies of an independent Britain were at first Irish raiders from the west and Picts from the north. Later, Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived from across the North Sea. Although the process whereby they invaded and settled is obscure, by 500 Germanic speakers seem to have settled deep into Britain.
The Britons successfully counter-attacked, however, at first under Ambrosius Aurelianus, ‘the last of the Romans’. It is in this period that the figure of Arthur – possibly completely legendary – emerges. A record made three centuries later credits him with 12 battles from Scotland to the south coast. Only the last, in about 500, is confirmed in earlier sources – but makes no mention of Arthur. This British victory halted the Saxon advance for half a century.
In a swath of independent kingdoms in the north and west, the British also resisted the renewed onslaughts of the peoples who were later called ‘English’. But by the 650s almost all the lowlands were under English control.
CONVERSION AND COALESCENCE
Religion had further divided the Christian British from the pagan Angles and Saxons. From 597, however, English rulers were converted by Roman or Irish missionaries. Within a century a flourishing English Church made dramatic advances in art and architecture.
Once separate groups of disparate peoples now coalesced into larger independent kingdoms, whose power fluctuated in parallel with their success and failure in war. The 7th-century dominance of Northumbria in the north was succeeded by that of Mercia in the midlands, especially under King Offa (r.757–96), builder of Offa's Dyke.
It was the crisis of Viking invasion, however, that brought a unified English kingdom into existence.
Sporadic Viking raids began in the 790s, Lindisfarne Priory in Northumbria being an early victim. Then in 865 an invading ‘Great Army’ began plundering from kingdom to kingdom, extorting protection money. Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia all fell, leaving only Wessex to fight on.
King Alfred of Wessex (r.871–99) defeated the Viking army decisively at Edington (878). Its leader, Guthrum, accepted Christian baptism, and agreed a treaty which allowed the Vikings to control much of northern and eastern England – the Danelaw. But from the 910s King Edward the Elder (r.899–924) and his sister Æthelflaed, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, conquered the Danelaw south of the Humber. Edward’s son Æthelstan (r.924–39) advanced still further: in 937 he destroyed a coalition of Vikings and Scots, becoming ‘Ruler of All Britain’.
In the 980s, however, Viking raids resumed, motivated by the ease of extorting vast quantities of silver from English coffers. The raids developed into full-scale invasions which eventually vanquished the disastrous King Æthelred ‘Unraed’ (r.978–1016).
The Danish Cnut (r.1016–35), later also King of Denmark and Norway, was popularly recognised as Æthelred’s successor and made England part of a Scandinavian empire.
The old West Saxon (Wessex) dynasty was revived with the accession of Edward the Confessor in 1042. But when he died without heirs in 1066, Harold Godwinson seized the throne.
England was immediately threatened both by Cnut’s heir, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and Edward’s choice of successor, Duke William of Normandy. It was only by chance that Hardrada invaded first, and was beaten, at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, on 25 September 1066.
This left William with the straightforward task of defeating a weakened English army at the Battle of Hastings a few weeks later.
‘DARK AGES’ PEOPLES
Throughout the ‘Dark Ages’ pages of the Story of England, the terms used for the different peoples of the period are as follows:
- British, Romano-British and Britons refer to the inhabitants of Britain following the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century.
- Angles, Saxons and Jutes refer to the Germanic peoples who migrated from continental Europe and settled, initially in the south and east of the island, from the 5th century.
- The collective term Anglo-Saxons was first coined in the late 8th century, and came into general use in the 10th century.
- Vikings refers to the invaders from Scandinavia who between the 8th and 11th centuries raided much of western Europe, including the British Isles.
- Danes refers to the Vikings who in the 860s mounted a full-scale invasion and subsequently settled across much of what is now northern and eastern England.
- English refers both to the Anglo-Saxons – the first people to call themselves ‘English’ or ‘Angli’ – and later to all settlers in England, including Danes, particularly after the emergence of a unified kingdom of England in the 10th century.