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Germanic Settlement of Britain. Beginning of English

92. Undoubtedly, the Teutons had made piratical raids on the British shores long before the withdrawal of the Romans in A.D. 410, but the crisis came with the departure of the last Roman legions. The Britons fought among themselves and were harried by the Picts and Scots from Scotland. Left to their own resources, they were unable to offer a prolonged resistance to the enemies attacking them on every side. The 5th c. was the age of increased Germanic expansion. About the middle of the century several West Germanic tribes overran Britain and, for the most part, had colonised the island by the end of the century, though the invasions lasted well into the 6th c.

Reliable evidence of the period is extremely scarce. The story of the invasion is told by Bede (673-735), a monastic scholar who wrote the first history of England, HISTORIA ECCLESIASTICA GENTIS ANGLORUM.

According to Bede the invaders came to Britain in A.D. 449 under the leadership of two Germanic kings, Hengist and Horsa; they had been invited by a British king, Vortigern, as assistants and allies in a local war. The newcomers soon dispossessed their hosts, and other Germanic bands followed. The invaders came in multitude, in families and clans, to settle in the occupied territories; like the Celts before them, they migrated as a people and in that the Germanic invasion was different from the Roman military conquest, although it was by no means a peaceful affair.

The invaders of Britain came from the western subdivision of the Germanic tribes. To quote Bede, "the newcomers were of the three strongest races of Germany, the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes". (See an extract from his work in the Appendix.) Modern archeological and linguistic research has shown that this information is not quite precise. The origin and the linguistic affiliation of the Jutes appears uncertain: some historians define them as a Frankish tribe, others doubt the participation and the very existence of the Jutes and name the Frisians as the third main party in the invasion. It is also uncertain whether the early settlers really belonged to separate tribes, Saxons and Angles, or, perhaps, constituted two mixed waves of invaders, differing merely in the place and time of arrival. They were called Angles and Saxons by the Romans and by the Celts but preferred to call themselves Angelcyn (English people) and applied this name to the conquered territories: Angelcynnes land (land of the English, hence England).




93. The first wave of the invaders, the Jutes or the Frisians, occupied the extreme south-east: Kent and the Isle of Wight.

The second wave of immigrants was largely made up of the Saxons, who had been expanding westwards across Frisia to the Rhine and to what is now known as Normandy. The final stage of the drift brought them to Britain by way of the Thames and the south coast. They set up their settlements along the south coast and on both banks of the Thames and, depending on location, were called South Saxons, West Saxons and East Saxons (later also Mid Saxons, between the western and eastern groups). The Saxons consolidated into a number of petty kingdoms, the largest and the most powerful of them being Wessex, the kingdom of West Saxons.

Last came the Angles from the lower valley of the Elbe and southern Denmark; they made their landing on the east coast and moved up the rivers to the central part of the island, to occupy the districts between the Wash and the Humber, and to the North of the Humber. They founded large kingdoms which had absorbed their weaker neighbours: East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria.

94. There was, probably, little intermixture between the newcomers and the Celtic aborigines, though there is a wide difference of opinion among modern historians as to their relative proportion in the population. Gildas, a Celtic historian of the day, alluded to the settlement as the "ruin of Britain" and described the horrible devastation of the country: the invaders pulled down British villages and ruined the Roman British towns. They killed and enslaved the Britons or drove them to the distant parts of the country. The Britons found refuge in the mountainous districts of Cornwall and Wales; some Britons fled to Armorice (later called Smalt Britanny or Bretagne, in Modern France). Celtic tribes remained intact only in Scotland and Ireland.

The bulk of the new population sprang from the Germanic invaders, though, to a certain extent, they intermixed with the Britons. Gradually the Germanic conquerors and the surviving Celts blended into a single people.

The invaders certainly prevailed over the natives so far as language was concerned; the linguistic conquest was complete. After the settlement West Germanic tongues came to be spoken all over Britain with the exception of a few distant regions where Celts were in the majority: Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

95. The migration of the Germanic tribes to the British Isles and the resulting separation from the Germanic tribes on the mainland was a decisive event in their linguistic history. Geographical separation, as well as mixture and unification of people, are major factors in linguistic differentiation and in the formation of languages. Being cut off from related OG tongues the closely related group of West Germanic dialects developed into a separate Germanic language, English. That is why the Germanic settlement of Britain can be regarded as the beginning of the independent history of the English language.


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Pre-Germanic Britain | Events of External History between the 5th and 11th c.

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