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This edited article about early English history first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 495 published on 10 July 1971.
Power was in King Vortigern’s mind when he brought two barbarian chiefs to Britain to become his military allies. But the two brothers he chose to help him, Hengest and Horsa, were not content with their role as protectors. With their armies swelled by the arrival of more Saxons, they began the brutal conquest of a land that was to suffer years of massacre and murder.
The complete and merciless conquest of Britain began in about the year A.D. 449, when three Saxon longships ground ashore on the coast of Britain at Ebbsfleet in Kent. The countryside at this spot in Pegwell Bay was dreary and melancholy. Between the bold cliffs of Ramsgate and the promontory of South Foreland was a vast, flat space of coarse pasture-land patterned by broad ditches. From the ships, the Jutish chiefs Hengest and Horsa were carried ashore. The Saxon standard of the White Horse was firmly planted in the ground and the first barbarian army to set foot on British soil gathered around it. Strangely enough, these tall, blond warriors had come by invitation, to be greeted as friends by the British ruler, Vortigern.
In the 5th century A.D. the Roman Empire, which included Britain as well as the lands bordering the Mediterranean, was attacked and overrun by hordes of fierce invaders from northern Europe. These barbarian tribes were variously called Saxons, Goths, Huns and Vandals. The Roman legions, which over 350 years before had conquered and occupied Britain, returned to Rome.
The island had enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity under Roman rule and for a short time this continued. The harvests were good, law and order prevailed, and there seemed no reason to regret the Roman withdrawal. But without the protection of the Roman army, Britain was thrown open not only to internal strife and renewed raids from the Picts and the Irish, but to invasion from the barbarians themselves.
It was not the Roman custom to teach the people they conquered how to govern and protect themselves, and when the Romans departed the Britons were left helpless. Gildas, an historian who lived in the 6th century and whose writing is the only contemporary British account of the period, records the plea for aid which the British made to the general Actius in Rome: “the barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians; thus two modes of death await us: we are either slain or drowned.”
Vortigern, the Kentish king, saw this danger all too clearly. He knew that his people, ravaged by a mysterious plague that had swept the country, could not resist invasion from any quarter. To protect his power he sought to make an ally of one of his potential enemies and – for a time – succeeded.
Hengest and Horsa and their followers were given an area of land known as the Isle of Thanet in which to make their home. This was later extended to the whole of Kent, which became almost exclusively an area of conquest and settlement for the Jutish people, who themselves became known as Kentishmen. So, peaceably at first, the tribes from the shores of the Baltic – the Saxons, Jutes and Angles – settled in the new land they were later to subdue. Britain was destined to be known as the land of the Angles – Engle-land, or England.
Few periods in the history of Britain have seen as great a change as that which took place during the 150 years following the end of Roman occupation. The whole character of the country was altered dramatically. What was Roman became Teutonic, which is the name given to the Germanic people of the north European coast who “took over” Britain. And no period is more aptly named The Dark Ages, for factual records of historical events are few and the story of England and the coming of the English is one of mystery and legend.
Vortigern’s plan to hire Jutish and Saxon warriors as mercenaries and pit them against the barbaric tribes of Picts and Scots, rebounded on his own head. There can have been little trust between Vortigern and his dangerous allies, and in the course of time the Jutes and Saxons turned against him. The news of the initial settlement would have spread rapidly, particularly to the bands of Saxon pirates who roamed the seas in search of plunder. More and more longships found their way to Kentish shores and before long the Saxon fighting men abandoned their protective role and attacked the British.
The mercenaries’ first aim was to break out of the little corner of Kent in which they were cooped up. This was not easy, as right across their path lay the inlet of sea which at that time cut off Thanet from the mainland. It could only be forded at low tide and at either end it was guarded by the Roman fortresses of Richborough and Reculver. But the crossing was made and the road to London seized.
In 455 a great battle took place at Aylesford during which Horsa was killed and, for the moment, the Jutes and Saxons were halted. How the invaders regained the upper hand is a tale of treachery and cunning which may or may not be true. The story goes that Hengest proposed a peace conference between Vortigern and himself, each to be accompanied by a chosen band of followers. One of the conditions was that all should attend unarmed. Vortigern agreed. When the men were assembled, Hengest gave a signal and his men drew daggers, concealed in their clothing, and stabbed to death Vortigern and every member of his party. The manner of its happening may be legendary, but Vortigern’s death signalled the beginning of the complete and bloody conquest of Britain.
Hengest continued his advance inland. His forces now showed no restraint and the massacre that followed set the pattern for the years to come. Soon, in every part of Britain, the barbarians were fighting for power. It was a bitter, merciless fight and some idea of its interminable terror can be imagined from the fact that it took 60 years finally to subdue southern England alone; the conquest was hard won.
In time, areas of occupation began to establish themselves: the Angles were dominant in Northumbria, northern England and the Midlands; the Saxons in East Anglia, Wessex and Sussex; while the Jutes were confined mostly to the area of present-day Kent, where Hengest himself ruled unchallenged until 488.
The invasion and occupation of Britain by the barbarians differed from similar invasions on the continent of Europe, where, on the whole, people continued their way of life and absorbed the conquering newcomers into their society. Britons, however, were driven out of their country or were slaughtered in great numbers, so that over a period of about 150 years Britain became England, literally a land of Englishmen, with a new language, a new religion, new laws and new traditions.