It is possible to look at what was found at Sutton Hoo and not have to investigate any further. However, there are some people who want to know more and so, by digging deeper, these pages try to explain some of the underlying issues involved, without getting so technical that the story is lost.
Invasion - What Invasion?
Most investigators would start the story of the invasion with the Romans and as a reminder, they vacated these shores roughly around the year 400AD.That is not an exact date. They didn’t all leave at one time, the process of departure was gradual and it is possible to imagine that they did not all go. The word ‘Roman’ is used to indicate a huge political organisation with people from many parts of the world that had come within the sphere of their influence. In more modern times, not all of the British people immediately left India when it was no longer part of the British Empire. The Roman situation might have had similarities, but the leaving process would have been much slower as communication and transport was slower in those days.
What is an invasion?
The simple story of what happened next was that the Anglo-Saxons took over, but this is a mighty over-simplification of an incredibly complex situation which is little understood, even today. Surprisingly, nobody is quite certain who the Anglo-Saxons actually were, where they really came from, how they came, when they came, or even how many of them there were. If we use the word ‘invasion’ it immediately conjures up images in our minds, but the pictures that we see have probably been put there by old Hollywood epics or the up-to-date virtual-reality battle scenes produced for films such as Lord of the Rings, rather than what might have really happened. A hostile invasion requires overwhelming force, but if the area being invaded is sparsely populated or the defences poorly organised or weak, then the concentrated invading force may not have to be very large. Questions arise about how many people lived in these islands when the invaders came. How were they distributed and how well were they organised to resist the invaders? Securing dominance over lands does not have to involve destroying all of the inhabitants and replacing them with alternative people, which is one kind of invasion that we might be imagining.
Historic illustrations of an alternative ‘invasion’ method might include the conquest of the South American empires of the Aztec and the Inca by Cortez and Pizarro. Whilst these conquerors did use force and did fight battles their strategies included using rival groups to oppose one another, some negotiating, subterfuge, duplicity, diplomacy, religion, ambush, surprise, capturing established leaders, ransom, blackmail, killing nobility and also, executing kings. Pizarro employed a blend of these techniques using only 106 infantry and 62 cavalry when faced with The Inca and his army of 80,000 men.
Returning to our own shores, if we look at the Battle of Hastings we find that the size of the invading army is estimated at between 7 and 14,000. This is far less than an almost insignificantly small football crowd today. It is much smaller than would be at a Pop concert. The Norman's reward was to take dominance over the whole country, which could gradually be established during a further period of time by using concentrated force when necessary, against a generally dispersed population that did not have their organised leadership and power. The historian David Starkey pointed out in a 'Monarchy' TV programme that the 7 thousand Norman soldiers eventually came to dominate a country populated by about 2 million Anglo-Saxons. If the resident people’s organisational structure has been removed or co-opted from the top downwards, their resistance will be haphazard and piecemeal. In another television programme about the Inca, Dr Jago Cooper said words to the effect that ‘We are all strong and weak at different times in our lives, physically, emotionally, politically. It is where we are on that spectrum when key events occur that define the decisions that we’ll make – and therefore the pathways that our lives will follow.’ This applies to whole cultures that he called 'societies and empires ... power structures', as well as to individuals. He went on to say 'if we are weak when these key events occur our vulnerability can increase exponentially' The Spanish arrived in South America at just the right moment for less than 200 men with a few horses to begin the process of dismantling and, to use a modern term, ‘asset stripping’ an empire of 10 million people. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons arrived on these shores at a similarly auspicious time for themselves. They had probably been in contact for some time, but then began to take advantage of the power vacuum that arose as the Roman organisers departed.
Doubtless some of the techniques employed by the Spanish in South America were also employed by the Normans, because gaining what you want without actual warfare is usually a preferable option to real fighting which involves some risk to oneself as well as to the opposition. If 10,000 or even 7,000 men could begin to take ownership of the whole country in 1066, how many men would be required to dominate just a small part of the country like Kent or half of East Anglia 400 years earlier? The answer is probably considerably fewer. We can reassess the word ‘invasion’ and what it means about the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. If appears that probably they did not come as a huge invading army intent on clearing the land of people in order to replace them. Their motives were different and this needs to be understood.
The Saxon shore
There is a single reference in Roman literature, written at about the time that the Romans left, to the south and east coast of Britain being called the Saxon shore. Experts have debated, over the years, about the meaning of this as it could be understood in a couple of different ways. One way of thinking is that the Romans could have recruited Germanic soldiers and stationed them along this coast to defend it against ‘pirate’ raids. As these soldiers were referred to as ‘Saxons’, the coast became known as the Saxon shore. When the Romans departed more Saxons came in and joined those already here. Alternatively, as the Saxon shore was mentioned relative to how many forts there were stationed along it, some people think that the name was given to the string of fortifications manned by Roman soldiers, because they were defending the shore against the Saxon pirate raiders who behaved rather like we understand the Vikings did when they came about 4-500 years later.
This is a nice illustration of the problems that can be found in understanding the meaning of some of the things that were written so long ago. Which of the two understandings is correct? The Romans were keeping the Saxons out, OR the forts were manned by friendly Saxons employed in helping the Romans. What do you think? The answer you choose will have an effect on how many Anglo-Saxon you think were here before the Romans left and possibly the size of any ‘invasion’ afterwards.
It is possible to try to prove one side or the other to be the real truth by all manner of studies, mainly of what we find buried in the ground. Can we tell the difference between races or tribes by looking at skeletons or what we find with them? The way that they were buried? The place names derived from different languages? Coins and pottery? Buildings and their distribution? Weapons, metalwork, jewellery? Surprisingly, nothing seems to be absolutely definitive. There isn’t completely solid evidence that proves everything, once and for all. If only somebody had written us a message, but writing was very scarce and limited to religious, that is, ecclesiastical purposes recorded in Latin. As has been mentioned elsewhere we tend to rely on the writings of a monk called Bede. But where did he get his information from? Quite a bit of it came from reading the work of another monk called Gildas. It is thought that Gildas was born in what is now Scotland around the year 500 and he lived to be 70. He didn’t always live there and, in fact, he moved to live in what we now refer to as France … but it wasn’t called France then. We know for certain that everything that these men wrote was not necessarily true, so then we have the problem of what to believe.
What does Gildas say about the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons? … and … Can we believe him? He says that the Saxons arrived in three ships. Yes, only three ships. The flowery language that he uses betrays the fact that he was describing the event in a biblical way, pinching descriptions from the Old Testament, but the events that he describes seem to have a ring of reality about them. He says that the Britons, who were faced with raiders coming down from the north, invited a force of Saxons to come and oppose them. The Saxons negotiated an opening agreement with the Britons that included how much food and supplies they would receive by way of payment, but later when additional Saxon forces arrived to reinforce their numbers, they asked for more. When the extra material wasn’t delivered these mercenaries used their strength against the people who had originally invited them in. In describing them Gildas says that the Briton’s enemies (raiders from the north) were not stronger than the British, but the Britons didn’t have a martial spirit and the Saxons did. One thing to remember about Gildas is the date that he was writing … maybe around the 550s? This could be 150 years after the events, but it is still the closest account to the events that we have. All other accounts will be later, or much later and they will probably rely on his account to some extent.
Bede’s account came 200 years after Gildas. Bede does add more detail giving the name of the king, Vortigern spelt in different ways, who invited the Saxons to resist the raiders and also he names the Saxon invasion leaders as Hengist and Horsa. It is thought that he had additional sources of information to Gildas, but we are uncertain of what they were and, as always, whether they are to be believed.
It seems that no ancient sources are suggesting that one day the Romans disappeared and shortly thereafter huge fleets of ships appeared, coming over the eastern horizon with thousands of warriors bringing whole domestic tribes of invaders with them. This didn’t happen. The story as told by Gildas, embellished and echoed by Bede has more than a grain of truth. It could have happened like Gildas describes. It was mentioned earlier that the search for indisputable evidence has had to concentrate on what was found in the ground, but now we have a new place to look. Scientific advances allow us to look at the DNA evidence.
Understanding DNA is complex but a book called 'Blood of the Isles' (that is the British Isles) by Professor Brian Sykes explains it all in very clear language. Basically it is possible to follow ‘ancestry’ back through the father’s and also the mother’s lineage as two separate streams. We can see where people have originated and roughly by what route they came to be living in this land. In very general terms the people of the British Isles have the same basic stock, which we might call Britons. This includes Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It is possible to see ’trends’ where different peoples have come in to add to this stock. An example of this is Shetland where about 40% have links to what we might call Vikings. This percentage falls to 30%, both men and women in Orkney. This says that the Vikings brought many of their women with them and it wasn’t just warriors that came and stayed.
Coming south and closer to East Anglia, in the late 800s the country was almost divided into two halves along a diagonal line roughly from Cheshire to the Thames estuary. The land to the East of the line we sometimes call the Danelaw as it was dominated by the Danish/Viking culture. It is estimated that 10% of men living today to the South and West of the dividing line, outside the Danelaw, are descended through their male line from Saxon/Danish stock, whereas to the North and East of the line the number is 15%. This says that the Scandinavian warriors did kill off a proportion of the male population and did take partners from the existing people, but it clearly was not a case of wiping out the whole people to completely replace them with totally new stock. This evidence seems to indicate that the story told by Gildas was probably accurate.
In March 2015 an article published in Nature magazine described the genetic signatures amongst Britons that betrayed their historic roots. Peter Donnelly, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for genetics in Oxford co-led the study. The analysis confirmed the flow of Anglo-Saxons from present day Germany into Britain after the departure of the Romans. They interbred with local residents instead of replacing them wholly as some historians had previously suggested. The study noted that Danish Vikings, by contrast, left little signature in most Briton’s genes.
Perhaps the most detailed book (at 628 pages) following genetic descent is 'The Origin of the British' by Stephen Oppenheimer. Whilst 'Facing the Ocean' by Barry Cunliffe furnishes a detailed and most interesting narrative of the peoples of the European Atlanic seaboard.
Understanding what is an ‘invasion’ is very important to historians who seek to describe how the Anglo-Saxons arrived here. How did they cross the sea? How many of them came? The answer to these and many other further considerations relating to the logistics of using ships for an ‘invasion’ need to be explored, but these issues can be covered separately. The word 'invasion' is now very rarely used, it has been replaced with a more acceptable concept 'migration'. Another word that is used was applied to another migratrion in the Icelandic Age of Settlement when in a span of only 60 years 870 – 930AD, 30,000 immigrant settlers moved to Iceland. This illustrates what is possible in a relatively short time.