The Nature of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain

This post represents further musings on a topic that has interested me for many years. It was prompted by the posting of a couple of articles on a Facebook group – Anglo-Saxon History and Language – by Steve Sholl.

The articles in question are: Richard Coates, “Invisible Britons: the view from linguistics,” which was a paper presented at. conference in Manchester in 2004

and: Cristian Capelli et al, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles,” published in Current Biology in May 2003.

Both articles are therefore more than a decade old and the fields of linguistics and genetic studies will no doubt have moved on a long way in the intervening period.


These two articles represent quite well two poles of a debate which has been going on for some time.

The linguistics argument is the older one and essentially proposes that there can have been very few Britons left in the south and east of England for so little of their language to have passed into English. There are, indisputably, very few Brittonic words in English. The lack of transfer is far less, for instance, than that into English from the First Nations of the United States, Canada and Australia, let alone India. Coates adds a few words to the accepted list of transfers but essentially confirms this old argument.

The genetic argument is more recent and I am not at all sure that a consensus has yet been reached. But essentially, the story from Capelli et al is that:

a) North German and Danish male DNA is treated as the same, i.e. the Anglo-Saxon and centuries later Danish (popularly and misleadingly ‘Viking’) invasions are indistinguishable in the genetic record. This appears throughout the north-east, east and midlands of England.

b) Migrants from Norway are distinct (less misleadingly ‘Viking’) and the DNA is prominent in the Orkneys, parts of Scotland and the Isles and, unsurprisingly, Dublin.

c) What they designate as indigenous DNA, similar to Basque, is dominant in parts of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, but is also a very significant feature of male DNA in central and southern England.

So if this is correct, the linguists are wrong. Britons remained a significant element of the population of central and southern England after the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

How do we reconcile this conflicting evidence?

Well, I don’t know. But I offer a thought. The areas where there is least evidence of British words, even for landscape features is, of course, the area where we know Anglo-Saxon invasions to have been early and thorough, especially Kent. But this is also the part of Britain that was arguable most Romanised and where the greatest proportion of the population were likely to have spoken Latin, not Brittonic (a point made elsewhere, I can’t remember by whom. Sorry! Lapse in scholarship). But it is also the area most likely to have had the greatest degree of urbanisation/concentration of population into centres. I know the timing is late for this argument, but what, exactly was the role of the Plague of Justinian in all of this? Death rates higher in towns; Anglo-Saxons notoriously avoiding towns, ruins of towns….

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3 Responses to The Nature of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain

  1. I talk about this a bit here, though that post doesn’t address the linguistics. (Posts that do are Slavery, Language, and Cultural Annihilation and Anglo-Saxon Ethnic Origin Stories.)

    But the more I think about it the more it seems to me that a major part of this puzzle lies in how literacy works. The English Church (after the Synod of Whitby) was culturally Anglo-Saxon (as opposed to the Church in Ireland or Wales). Religious were the ones who wrote; they wrote in Latin and Old English. While I would bet Brittonic was spoken, it was not written down.

    Look at how Old English turned into Middle English–which I think (though I could be completely getting that wrong, in which case everything in the rest of this paragraph is rubbish!) has more Brittonic in it than OE did. After the Conquest, literature became Latin and Norman French: OE was no longer written down. So when the common vernacular (as opposed to the language of the Norman elite) finally began to be written it had more Brittonic in it than earlier literature.

    Maybe this is a bit of a Just So story but, hey, it’s fun to think about 🙂

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