Barbarian Invasions in Britain: History or Myth?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Barbarian invasions in Britain usually picture a series of brutal attacks that forced the Britons to accept the raiders. However, archaeological evidence shows elements of peace and acceptance. Read on to find out how the newcomers to Britain ‘invaded’ it.

The Roman General Drusus the Germanic and Diviner, by Charles Rochussen, 1890.
The rule of the Roman Empire was strong in Britain until the third century. (Image: Everett – Art/Shutterstock)

History has it that the ‘Britons’ were pushed to the west of Britain by a series of barbarian invasions. However, evidence shows the westward move of Britons might have been due to assimilation, not invasion. Maybe they were not pushed and chose to go to the west. To explain, we should first go back to the reign of the Roman Empire in Britain.

Learn more about Celtic Britain and Roman Britain.

Roman Period in Britain

The summit of the Roman rule in Britain was the second century, but in the third century, barbarians started their attacks. These invasions affected the whole Roman Empire. The Irish were invading Britain from the west, and the Germanic-speaking tribes from the northwest coast of Europe. The Roman Empire appointed Count of the Saxon Shore as the commander to defend the southeast coast. The invasions, however, became stronger later.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

In 367 AD, Britain underwent the Ammianus Marcellinus – a severe sequence of barbarian raids. The Irish allied with the Picts to the north and attacked Britain. At the same time, the coast of Gaul was under constant attacks from the Germanic raiders. The Count of the Saxon Shore was killed, and a large Roman army, commanded by the future Roman Emperor Theodosius, saved Britain at the last moment. The Roman general Stilicho did the same a few years later, but that was the last Roman help to Britain. The Roman Empire was beginning to collapse.

Learn more about Caesar and the Gauls.

The Fifth Century in Britain

In history books, the fifth century Britain is a vast area for raiders, with no defense from Rome. Even Gildas – an author from the sixth century – wrote about how miserable Britain was under these attacks and how Rome ignored it. Nevertheless, the archeological evidence does not point to the occurrence of war in the fifth century.

In the mid-5th century, the barbarian raiders changed their intention from stealing and killing to staying and living. The archeological remains show they settled mainly in the south and east. Recent archeological work also suggests that the process of Germanic settlement in Britain was based on assimilation, not violence. Based on DNA analyses on contemporary British cemeteries, there was significant intermarriage with the native people.

City market etching
The invaders of Britain were accepted into the new society. (Image: iconspro/Shutterstock)

It took several generations for the raiders to integrate with British society. Through this process, some of the native British willingly moved to the west, north, and southwest. These areas were later known as the ‘Celtic fringe’. However, most of the British blended in with the newcomers and even started speaking their language.

Linguistic Evidence of Assimilation

The raiders that settled in Britain spoke a language that later evolved to become English, whereas the native British spoke Celtic. When the raiders settled, the British adopted their language and stopped speaking their own. When the place-names are linguistically analyzed, there is evidence of a long period of bilingualism.

For example, Breedon is made up of two words: bre, which means ‘hill’ in British, and dun, which also means ‘hill’, but in English. Eventually, English won the language battle and dominated the whole society, either through military dominance, or cultural attractiveness, or even both. Nowadays, the same place is referred to as ‘Breedon-on-the-Hill’, because dun is no longer used in modern English, and modern speakers wanted a name that makes sense to them. Translation of all the parts of this place-name to English is ‘hill-hill on the hill’, which shows the linguistic change through time.

Learn more about Medieval Irish Literature.

Settlement Evidence in Literature

As smooth as the assimilation looks, there might have been efforts to stop it in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Gildas – the sixth-century writer mentioned above – wrote that at the end of the fifth century, a great commander fought 12 battles against the barbarians. The 12 battles were also mentioned by Nennius – a ninth-century author. The last battle at Mount Badon stopped the barbarians for 50 years. This war leader was later known as King Arthur. No one knows if King Arthur was real; if his name was really Arthur; if he was a king at all; or where Mount Badon is, but the archeological evidence does show a 50-year halt.

The legendary Excalibur sword
King Arthur may have been the reason for the 50-year halt in barbarian advancement. (Image: MemoryMan/Shutterstock)

On the southeastern borders of Kent, Saxon pottery went out of use for a while. This may have been due to the wars commanded by Arthur, or to various other reasons, namely, change of politics and lack of a leader. Again, the archeological evidence does not support large-scale military activity, nor 12 battles at this time. Arthur became a Celtic hero that the English accepted as well; thus, he was a crossover point.

With or without King Arthur and his battles, the result of the barbarian ‘invasions’ was an English-speaking Britain, in the end.

Common Questions about Barbarian Invasions in Britain

Q: Who invaded Britain in the 5th century?

The Irish started invading Britain from the west, and the Germanic-speaking tribes from the northwest coast of Europe. These were the initial barbarian invasions in Britain.

Q: When did the barbarian invasions begin?

The barbarian invasions in Britain began originally in the 3rd century, but the main wave came in the 5th century when Romans left Britain.

Q: Why is England not Celtic?

In the 5th century, the barbarian invasions in Britain changed intention into settling instead of killing and taking booty. So, a big group of non-Celtic newcomers joined the society and dominated it.

Q: Did Rome fall because of barbarian invasions?

The barbarian invasions in Britain got strong in the 5th century, and the Roman Empire had to leave Britain because they could not defend it anymore. This was the beginning of their fall.

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