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New Beginnings

The transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon Britain

"In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons, sought out Britain in the landing place which is named Ebba's Creek, at first to help the Britons but later they fought against them." Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, AD 449

The period of British history between the departure of the Roman legions and the Norman Conquest is often referred to as the "Dark Ages". There are a number of reasons for this; the written and archaeological record for this period is scarce, and the violence and lawlessness that came about from a withdrawal of formal government and administration added to its aura of bleakness.

In the years after the Roman departure the very identity of Britain changed as we became "England". The native Britons were either assimilated into this new identity, forced further west into Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria, or migrated to other parts of Europe.

Roman rule had been gradually accepted in Britain and the end of Roman Britain was not caused by rebellions or uprisings. Problems elsewhere in the empire had necessitated the movement of troops back eastwards, and whilst many in Britain expected them to return this was not to be the case. In 410 Britain received confirmation that she was now on her own, when her leaders wrote to Rome asking for help against the invading Picts and were told in an edict of the Emperor Honorius to defend themselves.

Within 30 years Britain had severed nearly all her ties with Rome and the end of Roman life, particularly in the more rural areas, was quick and complete. Anglo-Saxons began to arrive and the taking of control was made easier for them as there was no administration, Roman or otherwise, to adapt or overthrow.

One important factor in the speedy collapse of Roman Britain would have been the removal of the Roman economy. The economy that came over with the Romans had been responsible for everything that signified Roman Britain. The market for goods had brought with it towns, housing, clothes and laws. Across the country pockets of organised society had begun to appear, in contrast to the self-sufficient nature that had typified Iron Age Britain. After the collapse of Roman Britain many people would have returned to the almost self-sufficient life that had been lived before the Romans.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begins its history with the coming of the first Saxons, Hengist and Horsa, to Britain. They had been invited by King Vortigern to help him in his battles against the fearsome Picts and Scots who had begun to invade Britain at the beginning of the 5th century AD. At first the Saxons helped the Britons to win victories against their enemy, but soon they turned against those who had invited them in the quest to secure riches and land for themselves.

After victories over the Britons they were quick to send messages home telling of the "worthlessness of the Britons and the excellence of their land" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, AD 449). Soon many more began to invade Britain in the hope of a profitable return. At first the British paid off the Saxon raiders with money called Danegeld (raised by taxes for this purpose) but the Saxons began to want more and the thought of easy money brought further invasions.

The Anglo-Saxons came from various tribes - Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Franks. They lived in the south of what is now Denmark and along the sandy coast of north-west Germany and Holland. Coming from such mountainous and wooded areas, they were particularly interested in the fertile fields of Britain.

The English (as the invaders called themselves) defeated several British Kings, and set up their own independent kingdoms. In 585 they founded Mercia (covering an area from the middle of England to the Welsh Border) and to the north the English kingdom of Northumbria stretched from coast to coast. Eastern Britain was now steadily becoming England. The natives who refused to accept the new rulers were pushed into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, killed or sold into slavery.

The Anglo-Saxons and Mercia

The name Mercia comes from the Old English word Mierce which means "boundary", hence Mercia means "the land of the boundary people". This name may be significant in that part of the western border of Mercia formed the boundary between the Anglo-Saxon English and the unconquered Britons of Wales. Some scholars have suggested that the name may to refer to the boundaries the area shared with other kingdoms such as Northumbria.

It is thought that the first Anglo-Saxons in Mercia migrated across from East Anglia, travelling along river valleys. The date given for this is the early 6th century. With the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the area many of the Britons would have moved westwards into more securely British territory. As the Anglo-Saxons moved west from East Anglia many would have settled in places along the route that provided good water, fertile soils and timber for house-building. As a result the kingdom of Mercia would eventually stretch from Oundle and Northampton in the east to Hereford and Shrewsbury in the west. This kingdom soon developed two main divisions; Central Mercia and Outer Mercia.

Central Mercia was made up of one tribal unit, whereas Outer Mercia comprised a series of smaller tribes who would eventually owe allegiance to Central Mercia (see Sarah Zaluckyj, Mercia, p. 17). The tribes of Outer Mercia would often remain under the rule of their original king or leader who would govern on behalf of the King of Mercia - many of these smaller tribes would eventually be absorbed into the inner core of the kingdom. Outer Mercia included Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

The early annals apparently indicate that the Kingdom of Mercia began in 585 with a man called Crida or Creod(d)a as king. (It is thought that Credenhill, which includes the site of an Iron Age hillfort, was named after this king.) He was then succeeded by Wibba/Pipba, who is thought to have reigned between 593 and 597. The first Mercian king mentioned by Bede is Cearl, who reigned for 10 years between 597-607. Cearl was succeeded by Penda, who was to become one of the most famous kings of Mercia.

The kings of Mercia were itinerant people, moving from one royal district to another and expecting the local nobility to feed and take care of them. This in itself was no small feat and it has been estimated that in the 7th century "10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, 12 ambers (casks) of Welsh ale, 30 of clear ale, 2 full grown cows, or 10 wethers (castrated sheep), 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, an 'amber' full of butter, 5 salmon, 20 pounds of fodder and 100 eels" were required to feed and water the king and his men for one night (Nicholas Brooks, "Formation of the Mercian kingdom", inThe Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, 1989).

By travelling around the different communities of the large kingdom the king could demonstrate his power and influence and hopefully discourage uprisings or rebellions. He could also listen to criminal cases and complaints and so keep a role in the leadership of his kingdom.

Eventually the smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England became absorbed by the larger kingdoms, until the majority of the country was under the control of seven different main kingdoms. These were Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex, East Anglia, Sussex, Kent and Essex.

By the 8th century Mercia had come into her own and was considered one of the three most powerful kingdoms, along with Northumbria and Wessex. By this time her territory stretched from Kent in the south-east, through London and the Midlands and as far north as the Derbyshire Peak District. This area included rich, fertile soils for arable farming, and in the west there were large areas of woodland such as the Forest of Dean for timber. There were quarries for stone and lead and salt works at Droitwich and in Cheshire. All these would have combined to create a profitable industry for Mercia and with wealth her power would have grown.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]