We know the Romans occupied parts of Britain – what is now Wales, the West Country and as far north as the border with the lands of the Picts – for almost 500 years.
We also know that in 1066 a Norman duke brought an army from across the Channel and defeated the English king before claiming the kingdom of England for himself and his heairs.
That leaves about 650 years unaccounted for and raises questions.
Why was it now known as England and not Romanland?
Who took charge when the Romans departed?
Who was King Arthur?
I’ll answer the second question first.
In 410 AD, as the bulk of the Roman troops were pulled back by Rome to protect the other borders of the empire against barbarians, the population of Britain consisted mainly of Britons, but they were a mix of Romanised Britons; former Roman soldiers (from all parts of the Empire) who had settled in Britain when they had served their time; Britons who had, in the main, stuck to their traditional way of life; and various traders who had set up home in Britain.
In the main life continued almost as usual.
The Romano British lived in their fine villas or in the cities created by the Romans. Just as many continued their life in more rural locations, eschewing the benefits of Roman civilisation and getting on “very well thank you” compared to their more civilised brethren.
This set up worked reasonably well, although in the absence of a Roman governor, it is difficult to know whether there was any form of central control or just a loose federation of local leaders.
The threat to this New Britain seemed to come from two directions. Much as it had done in Roman times. The Picts and the Scots made forays across the northern border and even in Roman times the Saxons had attempted to land in the South East and a series of coastal castles were built ranging from Brancaster in North Norfolk round to Portchester (Portsmouth).
Information is very hazy at this stage but it appears there was some form of council of regions with representatives working together to protect each other. The name Vortigern frequently crops up as an apparent war leader rather than a king or national leader.
With renewed attacks from the north it appears he persuaded the other leaders to agree to paying Saxons to provide a mercenary defence force. In return they would be granted lands in the east (Kent) to settle their families.
They did a good job under their leaders Hengist and Horsa and forced the northern invaders back. The problem then was that the lands they had been granted were better for agriculture than their own Germanic lands in Saxony and they invited family and friends not only from their homeland but also from the land of the Jutes and the Angles.
This put them at odds with the resident Britons who had expected to provide a small amount of land as part of the mercenaries’ pay.
It is possible that at this period, the late fifth century, the basis was laid for the legendary King Arthur. It certainly appears that Vortigern was not looked on as a good war leader as his attempt to fight off the Picts and the Scots had landed the native Britons with a new enemy – the Saxons and their pals the Angles and the Jutes.
It is possible the council chose a new war leader and this person was possibly a Romano-Briton or even a former member of a Roman auxiliary cavalry troop. In the first case it was possible that Vortigern’s son Vortimer took on the role or in the other case he might have been Syrian as they were known as excellent cavalry soldiers and some were stationed in Britain/.
What is certain is that after years of continual fighting the Celtic Britons withdrew to the West – Cornwall and Wales – much as the elven folk of Middle Earth had left the realms of man and gone into the west ,
Angles and Saxons took over more and more British land and came to be referred to as Anglo-Saxons (the third partner, the Jutes, seem to have been a minority).
Not that life was easy for them in this new land because they faced greater dangers of invasion themselves from the lands in the north – the Norsemen we all came to know as Vikings – who came to raid and pillage but decided the new land was so good that they wanted to settle there with their families.***
Thus the Anglo-Saxons who had originally been hired to fight off the Picts and the Scots found themselves facing a greater threat from the north than they had ever faced.
Halfway through the Dark Ages, the British (well they covered most of what we call England) were no longer Celtic and so unable to claim Boudica as a hero, and did not even have a single ruler.
Don’t forget those Norsemen because we will meet them in a new guise.
Meanwhile things were still looking dark for the Anglo-Saxons. They had no mercenaries to call on and were no longer a united group. Now they were Mercians, Northumbrians, people of Wessex and Essex (West Saxons and East Saxons), as well as the South Folk and North Folk (Suffolk and Norfolk).
COMING SOON: light at the end of the tunnel, but are they friendly?