As you may know from the popular histories,
the Romans left Britain at 'ten past four on a wet Tuesday afternoon',
and those unlucky enough to be left behind were forcibly supplanted
by a wholesale invasion of Angles, Saxons and Jutes! Yet, does this
widely accepted version of events make any real sense? OK, before
I attempt to explain my hypothesis further, please disregard
the references to the time and weather as it should be fairly obvious
that they were complete fabrications! That said, when watching popular
television documentaries and listening to the bold statements of
subject matter experts (self-styled or otherwise), I
do sometimes wonder just how long it would take for such 'facts'
to gain their own credibility with the general public if repeated
often enough? And that got me thinking - just how sure are we of
the assertion that Germanic invaders ousted and replaced the entire
population, social structure, economy and language of Romano-Britain
post AD 500? To be fair, the popular invasion theory has been largely
supplanted by theories of mass migration across Europe in 5th and
6th centuries AD. Yet I cannot help feeling even this explanation
is still woefully inaccurate and increasingly unsupportable. Especially
as the traditionally accepted historical accounts, Gildas and Bede
for example, are re-evaluated in the light of modern scientific
techniques in archaeology, linguistics, and even genetics.
Foremost amongst the proponents of a rethink is
Dr. Francis Pryor, who has openly challenged a historical orthodoxy
that has held sway since Bedes 8th century Historia Brittonum
(History of the Britons). In his book Britain AD,
for example, Dr. Pryor argues that a flourishing indigenous culture
endured through the Roman occupation of Britain and the so-called
Dark Ages. Drawing on his archaeological expertise,
Pryor asserts that the alleged Anglo-Saxon invasion after the
fall of Roman Britain never happened in the way we think. So what
did happen? Can the study of genetics, for example, reveal the
truth, or at least enhance the contrary evidence against
the persistent invasion theory.
Improved archaeological techniques have revealed a continuity
of occupation at various ancient sites across the UK, even though
finds still tend to be catalogued, albeit largely for convenience,
as Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman
or Anglo-Saxon. A superb example may be derived from
Dominic Poweslands extensive geophysical surveys and subsequent
excavations at West Heslerton in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
Over the last two decades, the archaeology teams investigation
has produced an extraordinary account of continuous occupation
from the Bronze Age into the 5th/6th century AD. Significantly,
there is little - indeed no - evidence of an Anglo-Saxon
Who are the Britons?
Despite their obvious proximity, Britain and Ireland are so thoroughly
divided in their histories that there is actually no single word
to refer to the inhabitants of both islands. Historians teach
that they are mostly descended from different peoples: the Irish
from the Celts, and the English from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded
from northern Europe and drove the Celts to the country's western
and northern fringes. Yet, genetic studies of DNA throughout the
British Isles are edging toward a different conclusion. Many geneticists
are struck by the overall genetic similarities, leading some to
claim that both Britain and Ireland have been inhabited for thousands
of years by a single people that have remained in the majority,
with only minor additions from later invaders like Celts, Romans,
Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans.
The implication that the English, Irish, Scottish
and Welsh have a great deal in common with each other, at least
from the geneticist's point of view, is unlikely to please many
desperate to maintain the distinction. The genetic evidence is
still under development, however, and because only very rough
dates can be derived from it, it remains difficult to convincingly
weave evidence from DNA, archaeology, history and linguistics
into a coherent picture of British and Irish origins.
Arguments from Genetics.
Importantly, Dr. Oppenheimer's population history
of the British Isles does not rely solely on genetic data but includes
the dating of language changes by methods developed by geneticists.
Currently the techniques are not generally accepted by historical
linguists, who have already developed but largely rejected a dating
method known as glottochronology. Geneticists, having recently plunged
into the field, argue that linguists have been too pessimistic and
that advanced statistical methods developed for dating genes can
be applied to languages. For example, the work by Dr. Peter Forster,
a geneticist at Anglia Ruskin University, argues that Celtic is
a much more ancient language than previously supposed, and that
Celtic speakers could have brought knowledge of agriculture to Ireland,
where it first appeared. Accordingly, Dr. Oppenheimer agrees with
Dr. Forster's argument, based on a statistical analysis of vocabulary,
that English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language
tree, and - this is the key - was spoken in England before the Roman
That has not stopped the attempt. Stephen
Oppenheimer, a medical geneticist at the University of Oxford,
simply believes the historians' account is wrong in almost every
detail. In Dr. Oppenheimer's reconstruction of events, the principal
ancestors of today's British and Irish populations arrived from
Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque.
On the basis of the available genetic data, Dr. Oppenheimer believes
no single group of invaders is responsible for more than 5% of
the current gene pool. Estimates by the archaeologist Dr. Heinrich
Haerke suggest that the Anglo-Saxon invasions, beginning in the
4th century AD, added about 250,000 people to a British population
of one to two million. Dr. Oppenheimer notes this figure is larger
than his but considerably less than the substantial replacement
of the British population assumed by others. As a comparison,
Dr. Haerke has calculated that the Norman invasion of AD 1066
introduced not many more than 10,000 people.
Tradition has it that English developed in England,
from the language of the Angles and Saxons, about 1,500 years ago.
Yet Dr. Forster argues that the Angles and the Saxons were both
really Germanic peoples, originating from the Scandinavian region
(Vikings?), who began raiding Britannia ahead of the accepted historical
schedule. They did not bring their language to England because an
embryonic English, in his view, was already spoken there,
probably introduced before the arrival of the Romans by tribes such
as the Belgae, who were resident on both sides of the Channel. The
Belgae may have introduced some socially transforming technique,
such as iron-working, which may have led to their language supplanting
that of the indigenous inhabitants. Dr. Forster stresses, however,
that he has not yet identified any specific innovation from the
archaeological record that would wholeheartedly support this theory.
The point is that the inhabitants of Britain were not isolated from
Europe but shared a cultural heritage, technological innovation,
trade and, it seems reasonable to assume, a common language - for
trading if nothing else.
A Common Linguistic Origin.
Germanic is usually assumed to have split into three branches:
West Germanic, which includes German and Dutch; East Germanic,
the language of the Goths and Vandals; and North Germanic, consisting
of the Scandinavian languages. Dr. Forster's analysis shows English
is not an off-shoot of West Germanic, as usually understood, but
is a branch independent of the other three, implying a greater
antiquity. Historians have traditionally assumed that Celtic
was spoken throughout Britain by the time the Romans arrived.
But Dr. Forster estimates that Germanic split into its four branches
some 2,000 to 6,000 years ago. If correct, this increases the
likelihood that the Celtic associated with Britain
may have been misidentified and was instead the fourth branch
of the Germanic language tree. As argued by Dr. Oppenheimer, the
apparent absence of Celtic place names in England
(words for places are particularly durable) supports the theory.
From one who is uncomfortable with the hackneyed Anglo-Saxon history
of Britain, the continuity of a Germanic based language seems
to make more sense. It suggests that, during the Roman period
at least, Latin was probably a convenient veneer - the lingua
franca essential for commerce and, importantly, the government
of diverse peoples (with a multitude of languages, dialects, etc,)
across the Empire. With the waning of Roman influence and the
breakdown of trade links across a fragmenting Empire, the persistent
underlying Germanic language of the Britons simply supplanted
Latin. Moreover, it seems sensible that the migration of other
Germanic speaking peoples into western Europe would have encouraged,
if not demanded, a resurgence of a common language for trade and
An Argument Won?
Archaeology, linguistics and, more recently, genetics are providing
evidence of a cultural continuity in Britain incompatible with
theories of invasion or widespread population displacement. Increasingly
the British appear to have a Germanic heritage independent of
the Anglo-Saxon history created by medieval writers who sought
for political or religious reasons to present a common origin.
So, if the people of the British Isles have a shared genetic heritage,
with their differences consisting only of a regional flavouring
of Celtic in the West and of northern European in
the East, might that draw them together? There is, however, little
prospect that the geneticists findings will reduce cultural
and political differences amongst Britons. Genes, as Dr. Oppenheimer
says: have no bearing on cultural history...There is no
significant genetic difference between the people of Northern
Ireland, yet they have been fighting with each other for 400 years.
A quote by Dr. Bryan Sykes, another Oxford geneticist is very
telling: [The Celtic cultural myth] is very entrenched and
has a lot to do with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish identity; their
main identifying feature is that they are not English." Importantly,
Sykes agrees with Dr. Oppenheimer that the ancestors of "by
far the majority of people" were present in the British Isles
before the Roman conquest of AD 43. The emerging evidence and
new theories reveal that the Saxons, Vikings and Normans had a
minor effect, and much less than some of the medieval historical
texts would indicate. Anglo-Saxon invasion...what invasion?