The Chilternsaete, Angles, Saxons and Britons

An ancient British kingdom in the Chilterns? Well, maybe.

I have just finished reading Rutherford-Davis’ 1982 study entitled Britons and Saxons, The Chiltern Region 400-700 (Phillimore and Co Ltd, Sussex).

I am not in a position to pass judgment on the place-name evidence that he uses, but the archaeology is clearly somewhat dated now. However… I am inclined to go along, at least provisionally, with his main conclusion, which is that there was a British kingdom in the Chilterns (rather like Elmet further north) that survived independent of Saxon control until about 571.

We have such a specific date because of an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for that year which states that Cuthwulf fought the Britons and defeated them at Biedcanford and captured the four tuns of Limbury, Aylesbury, Bensington and Eynsham. Rutherford-Davis wants Biedcanford to be Bedford; others disagree. Whatever. But there seems to be no doubt about the identity of the other four places, all along the vale below the western edge of the chiltern escarpment.

According to Rutherford-Davis, the British Chiltern kingdom was called Calchvynedd – a place of limestone/chalk hills. Others have located this ancient British name in the north-west somewhere, presumably on the grounds that most of our surviving ancient British literature locates events in the north and west.

But why is it so hard to believe that British elites might have continued to rule for some time in the Chilterns? Geography alone would make it highly improbable that invading Angle and Saxon elites took control of the countryside via a straight line north /south frontier moving steadily west. Just to state this makes the idea seem risible.

There used to be a view that the invaders marched into the area of the Chilterns and on to the Thames valley from East Anglia along the Icknield Way. But hang on a minute. East Anglia, the East Angles. People identified as Angles settled what is now Norfolk and Suffolk, whereas the people ruling along the upper Thames were called the Gewisse in the 7th century, and subsequently the area came to be called Wessex, the land of the West Saxons. Not Angles. Saxons.

So how different were they? We tend to conflate the two groups, but is this justified? The ancient Britons and Scots emphasised the Saxons/ Saesnegs. But the church in Rome emphasised the Angles and Bede took this up in his history of the English church. But Bede himself says that they had different homelands in NW Europe. How different were their dialects? Could they understand each other. And Bede, of course, was based in an area settled by Angles, not Saxons.

If there was a kingdom of the Calchvynedd/ Chilterns up to 571, it was not surrounded by either Angles or Saxons as rulers of neighbouring areas, but by both and, indeed, possibly Jutes, and they were not united against the Britons but fighting each other. Mercia (Angles) and Essex and Wessex, never mind Kent, were at each other’s throats on and off for rather a long time until the arrival of Vikings/Danes provided a common enemy. Further, the British/Welsh in the west were not universally the enemy and on the contrary the kingdom of Gwynedd was famously in alliance with Mercia in the 630s in battles against the Anglian elites north of the Humber.

Is the problem that my (our?) mindset has been too heavily influenced by the Arthurian paradigm, that the 5th and 6th centuries were all about a battle between Britons and Saxons? (and the more historically credible narrative from Gildas that has a similar paradigm, plus sin and religion). By the time we have some more concrete information (almost entirely written down by men in holy orders) the picture is clearly far more complex. There were many kingdoms, with leadership of multiple ethnicities, and they pretty much all fought each other at one time or another.

So why not a kingdom of Calchvynedd in the Chilterns until 571? The idea has changed my mind, because it adds plausibility to the view that the British population were there all the time, farming, getting on with life, and makes the alternate idea of ‘ethnic cleansing’ less likely.

I think the basic problem in all of this is that all of our historical (as opposed to archaeological) sources are blind to the women. Were there any, whether Angles, Saxons, or Jutes (to use Bede’s well-worn triumvirate of peoples)? We just don’t know. We have to guess. Fertile ground for fiction.


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