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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
The Nature And Extent Of The English Settlement
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


It has been usual to represent the English conquest of South-eastern Britain as an absolute change of race throughout the greater part of our island. The Anglo-Saxons, it is commonly believed, came to England and the Lowlands of Scotland in overpowering numbers, and actually exterminated or drove into the rugged west the native Celts. The population of the whole country south of Forth and Clyde is supposed to be now, and to have been ever since the conquest, purely Teutonic or Scandinavian in blood, save only in Wales, Cornwall, and, perhaps, Cumberland and Galloway. But of late years this belief has met with strenuous opposition from several able scholars; and though many of our greatest historians still uphold the Teutonic theory, with certain modifications and admissions, there are, nevertheless, good reasons which may lead us to believe that a large proportion of the Celts were spared as tillers of the soil, and that Celtic blood may yet be found abundantly even in the most Teutonic portions of England.

In the first place, it must be remembered that, by common consent, only the east and south coasts and the country as far as the central dividing ridge can be accounted as to any overwhelming extent English in blood. It is admitted that the population of the Scottish Highlands, of Wales, and of Cornwall is certainly Celtic. It is also admitted that there exists a large mixed population of Celts and Teutons in Strathclyde and Cumbria, in Lancashire, in the Severn Valley, in Devon, Somerset, and Dorset. The northern and western half of Britain is acknowledged to be mainly Celtic. Thus the question really narrows itself down to the ethnical peculiarities of the south and east.

Here, the surest evidence is that of anthropology. We know that the pure Anglo-Saxons were a round-skulled, fair-haired, light-eyed, blonde-complexioned race; and we know that wherever (if anywhere) we find unmixed Germanic races at the present day, High Dutch, Low Dutch, or Scandinavian, we always meet with some of these same personal peculiarities in almost every individual of the community. But we also know that the Celts, originally themselves a similar blonde Aryan race, mixed largely in Britain with one or more long-skulled dark-haired, black-eyed, and brown-complexioned races, generally identified with the Basques or Euskarians, and with the Ligurians. The nation which resulted from this mixture showed traces of both types, being sometimes blonde, sometimes brunette; sometimes black-haired, sometimes red-haired, and sometimes yellow-haired. Individuals of all these types are still found in the undoubtedly Celtic portions of Britain, though the dark type there unquestionably preponderates so far as numbers are concerned. It is this mixed race of fair and dark people, of Aryan Celts with non-Aryan Euskarians or Ligurians, which we usually describe as Celtic in modern Britain, by contradistinction to the later wave of Teutonic English.

Now, according to the evidence of the early historians, as interpreted by Mr. Freeman and other authors (whose arguments we shall presently examine), the English settlers in the greater part of South Britain almost entirely exterminated the Celtic population. But if this be so, how comes it that at the present day a large proportion of our people, even in the east, belong to the dark and long-skulled type? The fact is that upon this subject the historians are largely at variance with the anthropologists; and as the historical evidence is weak and inferential, while the anthropological evidence is strong and direct, there can be very little doubt which we ought to accept. Professor Huxley [Essay "On some Fixed Points in British Ethnography,"] has shown that the melanochroic or dark type of Englishmen is identical in the shape of the skull, the anatomical peculiarities, and the colour of skin, hair, and eyes with that of the continent, which is undeniably Celtic in the wider sense—that is to say, belonging to the primitive non-Teutonic race, which spoke a Celtic language, and was composed of mixed Celtic, Iberian, and Ligurian elements. Professor Phillips points out that in Yorkshire, and especially in the plain of York, an essentially dark, short, non-Teutonic type is common; while persons of the same characteristics abound among the supposed pure Anglians of Lincolnshire. They are found in great numbers in East Anglia, and they are not rare even in Kent. In Sussex and Essex they occur less frequently, and they are also comparatively scarce in the Lothians. Dr. Beddoe, Dr. Thurnam, and other anthropologists have collected much evidence to the same effect. Hence we may conclude with great probability that large numbers of the descendants of the dark Britons still survive even on the Teutonic coast. As to the descendants of the light Britons, we cannot, of course, separate them from those of the like-complexioned English invaders. But in truth, even in the east itself, save only perhaps in Sussex and Essex, the dark and fair types have long since so largely coalesced by marriage that there are probably few or no real Teutons or real Celts individually distinguishable at all. Absolutely fair people, of the Scandinavian or true German sort, with very light hair and very pale blue eyes, are almost unknown among us; and when they do occur, they occur side by side with relations of every other shade. As a rule, our people vary infinitely in complexion and anatomical type, from the quite squat, long-headed, swarthy peasants whom we sometimes meet with in rural Yorkshire, to the tall, flaxen-haired, red-cheeked men whom we occasionally find not only in Danish Derbyshire, but even in mainly Celtic Wales and Cornwall. As to the west, Professor Huxley declares, on purely anthropological grounds, that it is probably, on the whole, more deeply Celtic than Ireland itself.

These anthropological opinions are fully borne out by those scientific archæologists who have done most in the way of exploring the tombs and other remains of the early Anglo-Saxon invaders. Professor Rolleston, who has probably examined more skulls of this period than any other investigator, sums up his consideration of those obtained from Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon interments by saying, "I should be inclined to think that wholesale massacres of the conquered Romano-Britons were rare, and that wholesale importations of Anglo-Saxon women were not much more frequent." He points out that "we have anatomical evidence for saying that two or more distinct varieties of men existed in England both previously to and during the period of the Teutonic invasion and domination." The interments show us that the races which inhabited Britain before the English conquest continued in part to inhabit it after that conquest. The dolichocephali, or long-skulled type of men, who, in part, preceded the English, "have been found abundantly in the Suffolk region of the Littus Saxonicum, where the Celt and Saxon [Englishman] are not known to have met as enemies when East Anglia became a kingdom." Thus we see that just where people of the dark type occur abundantly at the present day, skulls of the corresponding sort are met with abundantly in interments of the Anglo-Saxon period. Similarly, Mr. Akerman, after explorations in tombs, observes, "The total expulsion or extinction of the Romano-British population by the invaders will scarcely be insisted upon in this age of enquiry." Nay, even in Teutonic Kent, Jute and Briton still lie side by side in the same sepulchres. Most modern Englishmen have somewhat long rather than round skulls. The evidence of archæology supports the evidence of anthropology in favour of the belief that some, at least, of the native Britons were spared by the invading host.

On the other hand, against these unequivocal testimonies of modern research we have to set the testimony of the early historical authorities, on which the Teutonic theory mainly relies. The authorities in question are three, Gildas, Bæda, and the English Chronicle. Gildas was, or professes to be, a British monk, who wrote in the very midst of the English conquest, when the invaders were still confined, for the most part, to the south-eastern region. Objections have been raised to the authenticity of his work, a small rhetorical Latin pamphlet, entitled, "The History of the Britons;" but these objections have, perhaps, been set at rest for many minds by Dr. Guest and Mr. Green. Nevertheless, what little Gildas has to tell us is of slight historical importance. His book is a disappointing Jeremiad, couched in the florid and inflated Latin rhetoric so common during the decadence of the Roman empire, intermingled with a strong flavour of hyperbolical Celtic imagination; and it teaches us practically nothing as to the state of the conquered districts. It is wholly occupied with fierce diatribes against the Saxons, and complaints as to the weakness, wickedness, and apathy of the British chieftains. It says little that can throw any light on the question as to whether the Welsh were largely spared, though it abounds with wild and vague declamation about the extermination of the natives. Even Gildas, however, mentions that some of his countrymen, "constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves up to their enemies as slaves for ever;" while others, "committing the safeguard of their lives to mountains, crags, thick forests, and rocky isles, though with trembling hearts, remained in their fatherland." These passages certainly suggest that a Welsh remnant survived in two ways within the English pale, first as slaves, and secondly as isolated outlaws.

Bæda stands on a very different footing. His authenticity is undoubted; his language is simple and straightforward. He was born in or about the year 672, only two hundred years after the landing of the first English colonists in Thanet. Scarcely more than a century separated him from the days of Ida. The constant lingering warfare with the Welsh on the western frontier was still for him a living fact. The Celt still held half of Britain. At the date of his birth the northern Welsh still retained their independence in Strathclyde; the Welsh proper still spread to the banks of the Severn; and the West Welsh of Cornwall still owned all the peninsula south of the Bristol Channel as far eastward as the Somersetshire marshes. Beyond Forth and Clyde, the Picts yet ruled over the greater part of the Highlands, while the Scots, who have now given the name of Scotland to the whole of Britain beyond the Cheviots, were a mere intrusive Irish colony in Argyllshire and the Western Isles. He lived, in short, at the very period when Britain was still in the act of becoming England; and no historical doubts of any sort hang over the authenticity of his great work, "The Ecclesiastical History of the English people." But Bæda unfortunately knows little more about the first settlement than he could learn from Gildas, whom he quotes almost verbatim. He tells us, however, nothing of extermination of the Welsh. "Some," he says, "were slaughtered; some gave themselves up to undergo slavery: some retreated beyond the sea: and some, remaining in their own land, lived a miserable life in the mountains and forests." In all this, he is merely transcribing Gildas, but he saw no improbability in the words. At a later date, Æthelfrith, of Northumbria, he tells us, "rendered more of their lands either tributary to or an integral part of the English territory, whether by subjugating or expatriating[1] the natives," than any previous king. Eadwine, before his conversion, "subdued to the empire of the English the Mevanian islands," Man and Anglesey; but we know that the population of both islands is still mainly Celtic in blood and speech. These examples sufficiently show us, that even before the introduction of Christianity, the English did not always utterly destroy the Welsh inhabitants of conquered districts. And it is universally admitted that, after their conversion, they fought with the Welsh in a milder manner, sparing their lives as fellow-Christians, and permitting them to retain their lands as tributary proprietors.

The English Chronicle, our third authority, was first compiled at the court of Ælfred, four and a-half centuries after the Conquest; and so its value as original testimony is very slight. Its earlier portions are mainly condensed from Bæda; but it contains a few fragments of traditional information from some other unknown sources. These fragments, however, refer chiefly to Kent, Sussex, and the older parts of Wessex, where we have reason to believe that the Teutonic colonisation was exceptionally thorough; and they tell us nothing about Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and East Anglia, where we find at the present day so large a proportion of the population possessing an unmistakably Celtic physique. The Chronicle undoubtedly describes the conflict in the south as sharp and bloody; and in spite of the mythical character of the names and events, it is probable that in this respect it rightly preserves the popular memory of the conquest, and its general nature. In Kent, "the Welsh fled the English like fire;" and Hengest and Æsc, in a single battle, slew 4,000 men. In Sussex, Ælle and Cissa killed or drove out the natives in the western rapes on their first landing, and afterwards massacred every Briton at Anderida. In Wessex, in the first struggle, "Cerdic and Cynric offslew a British king whose name was Natanleod, and 5,000 men with him." And so the dismal annals of rapine and slaughter run on from year to year, with simple, unquestioning conciseness, showing us, at least, the manner in which the later English believed their forefathers had acquired the land. Moreover, these frightful details accord well enough with the vague generalities of Gildas, from which, however, they may very possibly have been manufactured. Yet even the Chronicle nowhere speaks of absolute extermination: that idea has been wholly read into its words, not directly inferred from them. A great deal has been made of the massacre at Pevensey; but we hear nothing of similar massacres at the great Roman cities—at London, at York, at Verulam, at Bath, at Cirencester, which would surely have attracted more attention than a small outlying fortress like Anderida. Even the Teutonic champions themselves admit that some, at least, of the Celts were incorporated into the English community. "The women," says Mr. Freeman, "would, doubtless, be largely spared;" while as to the men, he observes, "we may be sure that death, emigration, or personal slavery were the only alternatives which the vanquished found at the hands of our fathers." But there is a vast gulf, from the ethnological point of view, between exterminating a nation and enslaving it.[2]

In the cities, indeed, it would seem that the Britons remained in great numbers. The Welsh bards complain that the urban race of Romanised natives known as Loegrians, "became as Saxons." Mr. Kemble has shown that the English did not by any means always massacre the inhabitants of the cities. Mr. Freeman observes, "It is probable that within the [English] frontier there still were Roman towns tributary to the conquerors rather than occupied by them;" and Canon Stubbs himself remarks, that "in some of the cities there were probably elements of continuous life: London, the mart of the merchants, York, the capital of the north, and some others, have a continuous political existence." "Wherever the cities were spared," he adds, "a portion, at least, of the city population must have continued also. In the country, too, especially towards the west and the debateable border, great numbers of Britons may have survived in a servile or half-servile condition." But we must remember that in only two cases, Anderida and Chester, do we actually hear of massacres; in all the other towns, Bæda and the Chronicle tell us nothing about them. It is a significant fact that Sussex, the one kingdom in which we hear of a complete annihilation, is the very one where the Teutonic type of physique still remains the purest. But there are nowhere any traces of English clan nomenclature in any of the cities. They all retain their Celtic or Roman names. At Cambridge itself, in the heart of the true English country, the charter of the thegn's guild, a late document, mentions a special distinction of penalties for killing a Welshman, "if the slain be a ceorl, 2 ores, if he be a Welshman, one ore." "The large Romanised towns," says Professor Rolleston, "no doubt made terms with the Saxons, who abhorred city life, and would probably be content to leave the unwarlike burghers in a condition of heavily-taxed submissiveness."

Thus, even in the east it is admitted that a Celtic element probably entered into the population in three ways,—by sparing the women, by making rural slaves of the men, and by preserving some, at least, of the inhabitants of cities. The skulls of these Anglicised Welshmen are found in ancient interments; their descendants are still to be recognised by their physical type in modern England. "It is quite possible," says Mr. Freeman, "that even at the end of the sixth century there may have been within the English frontier inaccessible points where detached bodies of Welshmen still retained a precarious independence." Sir F. Palgrave has collected passages tending to show that parties of independent Welshmen held out in the Fens till a very late period; and this conclusion is admitted by Mr. Freeman to be probably correct. But more important is the general survival of scattered Britons within the English communities themselves. Traces of this we find even in Anglo-Saxon documents. The signatures to very early charters,[3] collected by Thorpe and Kemble, supply us with names some of which are assuredly not Teutonic, while others are demonstrably Celtic; and these names are borne by people occupying high positions at the court of English kings. Names of this class occur even in Kent itself; while others are borne by members of the royal family of Wessex. The local dialect of the West Riding of Yorkshire still contains many Celtic words; and the shepherds of Northumberland and the Lothians still reckon their sheep by what is known as "the rhyming score," which is really a corrupt form of the Welsh numerals from one to twenty. The laws of Northumbria mention the Welshmen who pay rent to the king. Indeed, it is clear that even in the east itself the English were from the first a body of rural colonists and landowners, holding in subjection a class of native serfs, with whom they did not intermingle, but who gradually became Anglicised, and finally coalesced with their former masters, under the stress of the Danish and Norman supremacies.

In the west, however, the English occupation took even less the form of a regular colonisation. The laws of Ine, a West Saxon king, show us that in his territories, bordering on yet unconquered British lands, the Welshman often occupied the position of a rent-paying inferior, as well as that of a slave. The so-called Nennius tells us that Elmet in Yorkshire, long an intrusive Welsh principality, was not subdued by the English till the reign of Eadwine of Northumbria; when, we learn, the Northumbrian prince "seized Elmet, and expelled Cerdic its king:" but nothing is said as to any extermination of its people. As Bæda incidentally mentions this Cerdic, "king of the Britons," Nennius may probably be trusted upon the point. As late as the beginning of the tenth century, King Ælfred in his will describes the people of Devon, Dorset, Somerset, and Wilts, as "Welsh kin." The physical appearance of the peasantry in the Severn valley, and especially in Shropshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, and Herefordshire, indicates that the western parts of Mercia were equally Celtic in blood. The dialect of Lancashire contains a large Celtic infusion. Similarly, the English clan-villages decrease gradually in numbers as we move westward, till they almost disappear beyond the central dividing ridge. We learn from Domesday Book that at the date of the Norman conquest the number of serfs was greater from east to west, and largest on the Welsh border. Mr. Isaac Taylor points out that a similar argument may be derived from the area of the hundreds in various counties. The hundred was originally a body of one hundred English families (more or less), bound together by mutual pledge, and answerable for one another's conduct. In Sussex, the average number of square miles in each hundred is only twenty-three; in Kent, twenty-four; in Surrey, fifty-eight; and in Herts, seventy-nine: but in Gloucester it is ninety-seven; in Derby, one hundred and sixty-two; in Warwick, one hundred and seventy-nine; and in Lancashire, three hundred and two. These facts imply that the English population clustered thickest in the old settled east, but grew thinner and thinner towards the Welsh and Cumbrian border. Altogether, the historical evidence regarding the western slopes of England bears out Professor Huxley's dictum as to the thoroughly Celtic character of their population.

On the other hand, it is impossible to deny that Mr. Freeman and Canon Stubbs have proved their point as to the thorough Teutonisation of Southern Britain by the English invaders. Though it may be true that much Welsh blood survived in England, especially amongst the servile class, yet it is none the less true that the nation which rose upon the ruins of Roman Britain was, in form and organisation, almost purely English. The language spoken by the whole country was the same which had been spoken in Sleswick. Only a few words of Welsh origin relating to agriculture, household service, and smithcraft, were introduced by the serfs into the tongue of their masters. The dialects of the Yorkshire moors, of the Lake District, and of Dorset or Devon, spoken only by wild herdsmen in the least cultivated tracts, retained a few more evident traces of the Welsh vocabulary: but in York, in London, in Winchester, and in all the large towns, the pure Anglo-Saxon of the old England by the shores of the Baltic was alone spoken. The Celtic serfs and their descendants quickly assumed English names, talked English to one another, and soon forgot, in a few generations, that they had not always been Englishmen in blood and tongue. The whole organisation of the state, the whole social life of the people, was entirely Teutonic. "The historical civilisation," as Canon Stubbs admirably puts it, "is English and not Celtic." Though there may have been much Welsh blood left, it ran in the veins of serfs and rent-paying churls, who were of no political or social importance. These two aspects of the case should be kept carefully distinct. Had they always been separated, much of the discussion which has arisen on the subject would doubtless have been avoided; for the strongest advocates of the Teutonic theory are generally ready to allow that Celtic women, children, and slaves may have been largely spared: while the Celtic enthusiasts have thought incumbent upon them to derive English words from Welsh roots, and to trace the origin of English social institutions to Celtic models. The facts seem to indicate that while the modern English nation is largely Welsh in blood, it is wholly Teutonic in form and language. Each of us probably traces back his descent to mixed Celtic and Germanic ancestry: but while the Celts have contributed the material alone, the Teutons have contributed both the material and the form.
[1] The word in the original is exterminatis, but of course exterminare then bore its etymological sense of expatriation or expulsion, if not merely of confiscation, while it certainly did not imply the idea of slaughter, connoted by the modern word.

[2] In this and a few other cases, modern authorities are quoted merely to show that the essential facts of a large Welsh survival are really admitted even by those who most strongly argue in favour of the general Teutonic origin of Englishmen.

[3] Kemble "On Anglo-Saxon Names." Proc. Arch. Inst., 1845.


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