………(there came) three ships of war, their sails wafted by the wind”
Gildas: Concerning the Ruin of Britain
TOWARDS the end of the Roman occupation of Britain the country’s south-eastern coastline was harassed by bands of Germanic marauders from Northern Europe, prompting the construction of defensive shore forts. These piratical bands were referred to by classical writers as Saxones.
Some time after the final departure of Roman troops, in 410 AD, some of them began to settle and build homes, possibly as an incoming elite. Little is known about exactly what took place in Britain in this period, between 400 and 600 AD, but the 6th century cleric Gildas, who lived in the west of Britain, tells a tale of invasion and destruction that is still being debated 1,500 years later. He records that the Saxones began to arrive following an invitation from the British king Vortigern. He wanted to hire them as the equivalent of modern-day mercenaries to help defend against raids by the Picts and Scots.
Following the invite, a tribal leader called Hengest landed in Kent along with three keel boats. He was was joined two years later by his son and a further 16 boats. Gildas records that ‘’they (the British) sealed their doom by inviting them in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold’’. We can not be sure of the truth of all this since Gildas was writing many years later.
More settlers followed. They began to create a new social structure and culture that spread to control southern Britain, which was divided up into a number of small independent kingdoms. According to Christian theologian and historian Bede, writing a few centuries later, these newcomers included Saxons, Jutes from Denmark and Angles from Angleynn, (now the region of Shleswig Holstein in Germany). They became the people we now call the Anglo-Saxons. Those settling in Sussex were known as the South Saxons the suthsaexe, and it is from these people that the county gets its name. Map of 5th century Europe showing different tribes.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, commissioned in the 9th century, states that Ælle, the first king of the South Saxons, landed at Cymensora with his sons in AD 477. Like Hengest he also had three ships, so we are probably dealing with legend, not history and it may be that there was also something mythological or metaphorical at work in both this account and that of Gildas.
The chronicle describes how, on landing, Ælle killed the local defenders and drove the remainder into the woods of Andredeslea (the great forest of the Weald). It then goes on to describe a battle with the local population in 485 near the bank of a river known as the Mercredesburna, and an attack on the town of Andredescaester in 491 in which the inhabitants were massacred.
Cymensora is generally thought to be Selsey, which lies on the West Sussex/Hampshire border, but it has recently been suggested that an East Sussex estuary may in fact have been the landing point. (1) Andredescaester was the Roman fort at Pevensey, and while the location of the river Mercredesburna remains unknown, it may be either the Cuckmere or the Ouse, both East Sussex rivers. An oral tradition exists in the village of Ashburnham that a battle took place at a nearby pre-Saxon earthwork known as Town Creep. (2)
Since the written record is not reliable, archaeological evidence, in particular burials, provide the main evidence that early Anglo-Saxons settled in Sussex. Cemeteries have been found at Alfriston, Selmeston, Bishopstone, Beddingham, Glynde, Saxonbury (Lewes) and Wooodingdean. The Anglo-Saxon objects displayed in the ground floor gallery at Barbican House Museum are from some of these sites.
- The modern English language developed from the Germanic languages spoken by the Anglo-Saxon settlers. It is known as Old English and was different from the languages previously spoken in Britain. The term English derives from the name of the Angles. King Alfred referred to it as englisc and said it was spoken by the angelcynn.
- The Anglo-Saxons were pagans. They began to convert to Christianity from the end of the 6th century onwards with the arrival in Kent of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory. The pope was apparently struck by the attractiveness of fair skinned English slaves. When told they were Angles he is famously said to have replied Non Angli sed angeli. “No, not Angles but angels” and immediately dispatched the missionaries.
- The South Saxons were among the last to convert. According to Bede’s history they remained stubbornly “heathen” until very late in the 7th century.
(1) Welch, M.G (1983) Early Anglo-Saxon Sussex, BAR 112(i)
(2) Napper, H.F (1894). Towncreep: Is It Mercredsburn? in Sussex Archaeological Collections Volume 39. Lewes, Sussex: Sussex Archaeological Society. pp. 168–174.
Both titles are housed in the Sussex Archaeological Society’s library, on the second floor of Barbican House Museum, Lewes.