How old is English?


is thought to be Ebbsfleet in Kent, near Ramsgate. But there is no certainty here.

[1] This marriage was reported to be a marriage of love. Something unusual at a time when almost all marriages within the upper class were arranged. Vortigern was some 30 years older than his wife.

[2] Myths and legends

This is like the story of Robin Hood: the later the version, the more a simple but daring criminal changes into an English aristocratic freedom fighter. Here too, a commoner is denied success. Only an aristocrat can have this honour.

Weird Vikings

The word 'viking' means 'village people' (Wick+ing). Vikings became known under that name in the 10th century.

For us, vikings had a weird morality. The following story illustrates it:

One day a viking had become wounded during a battle. He was brought to a local farm where he was cared for by the farmer. Soon, he regained strength and began to heal. The farmer had this one nice object he was very proud of. It was the only thing of value in his house. The viking praised the object and secretly wished to own it. One night, the viking thought that he was now sufficiently healed. He took the object and was off, back to home. After a few miles he realized that he had stolen the object. He had become a thief. "You are no thief, he thought, you are an honest man." So, he went back to the farm. There he woke up the farmer, gave him a weapon and killed him after a short fight. And so the viking could go home and rest assured that his object had not been stolen. It was now booty, something completely different.

This morality sounds very weird to us, but there is a logic. Vikings, like so many north-Europeans, had a very strong sense of morality. One would never steal. The booty was allowed, but had to be earned. The owner had be killed first in a 'fair fight', and only then the booty was 'duly' acquired. This attitude caused many unnecessary casualties and is one of the main reasons why vikings were so feared.

Anglo-Saxons shared with them a strong sense of morality.




The rebellion (2)


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives us a lot of details, but also seems to be an attempt to rearrange historical facts to obtain seemingly more logic. It reports 4 battles in Kent against Anglo-Saxons during the rebellion. Hengest participated, as did Vortimer, the son of Vortigern. In an attempt to create more logic, the Chronicle puts Hengest on the Saxon side. No Saxon defeat is mentioned, but the geographical sequence of the battles suggests a Saxon retreat and the Chronicle locates the last battle in Wippedesfleot (AD 445?), the very place where the Saxons allegedly first landed.
Historia Britonum (Nennius) completes this picture by claiming that all Saxons were driven out of Britain.

If such victories had existed, then it is likely that Gildas would have used them in his plea. Gildas ends his text by mentioning a great victory at Badon-city (Bath, around 510). This was the proof that the Anglo-Saxons could be defeated. Why didn't he give more of such examples, like those four battles?

Nennius explains that Vortigern re-invited Hengest and his Anglo-Saxons after their defeat. Was Vortigern completely stupid? Why did nobody stop him? Why was no major protest reported when old Vortigern married Hengest's daughter? [1]

I believe that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle & Historia Britonum elevated the rebels to the rank of "Brito-Welsh resistance fighters". Similar to the fact that in France, just after liberation in 1944, some bandits and criminals promoted themselves into 'resistance heroes'. The word 'Welsh' had also the connotation of 'stranger'. Most rebels were genuine proto-English. Naming them 'Welsh' had initially the intention to portray the rebels as 'strangers', outsiders, as if 'real' Britons never rebel against their lords. It is not impossible however that some rebel groups received help from the Welsh. Gradually the rebels became 'real Welsh' and 'original Britons', 'noble people' who fought against a rogue and 'external' enemy. As insight about the original reasons for the presence of the Anglo-Saxons faded over the centuries, they were more and more perceived as invading foreigners [2].

Hengest most probably fought on the legal side, the side of the proto-English lords. He defeated all sorts of rebel gangs and 'Saxon-Vikings'. It is clear that Hengest remained firmly in control. These 'Saxons' who were driven out of Britain were most probably Vikings. Among them could have been real Saxons, but those people were not bound by an oath.

The Anglo-Saxons main force never ‘took power’. Hengest never conquered the county of Kent. He received command over it, for loyal services. Vortigern was not forced to marry Hengest's daughter. Top Anglo-Saxon officers were already a part of British high society. This officers settled and merged with the landlord families. In other words: integration became complete. It brought a win-win relation between the new military leaders and the old British class of landlords. They gave a new dimension to the local upper class: it would now become a class of warriors and rulers, far more than ‘just’ landlords. Let's not forget that protective Rome was gone. The new emerging families became the first real aristocracy in England.

The 5th century was a century of continuation and gradual transformation. It is clear that the first priority of the upperclass was to preserve their status.

The famous “Night of the Long Knives”, when allegedly 300 of the British nobility were slaughtered, was most probably organized by some southwestern and Welsh conspirators in an attempt to avenge the loss of their land in the east. The conspirators blamed the Anglo-Saxons for the event, of course.
It is unlikely that Anglo-Saxons were implicated. Killing defenseless people is not an honorable activity. It was not the style of the Anglo-Saxons. The whole story, that the Anglo-Saxons had smuggled long knives in their boots, is completely unlikely. Every person present would have kept his eating-knife for instance. The event had been presented as a peace conference and conferences imply food and drink for the guests. Such a knife was not considered to be a real weapon. The victims were therefore not entirely defenseless. This means that the killers had to be in full war gear to achieve their task. Peace talks normally involve a very limited number of negotiators, not 300 lords. Or they were some 300 men, among them no more than 50 lords. The rest were servants and guardsmen who had to remain outside. No, it was clearly a trap. The victims must have been well chosen. A few Anglo-Saxons were invited, just for the alibi. It is not even sure that they reached the meeting before the killing.

Such treacherous events are classic when a society is in a state of chaos. It probably happened shortly after the rebellion started. Parts of the upper class must have panicked. The tale must have been that the Saxons were involved. The southwest Alliance now wanted to separate themselves from the troublesome east. Traitors had to be dealt with.

The southwestern alliance stood against the 'London' council. The political situation bore many similarities with the much later civil wars such as The War of the Roses or The Cromwellian Revolution. This alliance was not confined to the southwest only. Some eastern lords must have joined the alliance but loyalties shifted all the time.

It is probable that some ambitious east-British landlord families saw their chance to confiscate the estates of their political enemies or to solve an age old feud. Some southwestern (or Welsh) families had been involved in tax collection for the Roman authorities (tax collectors were allowed to keep some 10%). They were targeted too. Some of the neighbouring proto-English lords must have sent their Anglo-Saxon-led guard to do the job unofficially. Officially, it was about protection... In return for his silence, the Anglo-Saxon captain, the son-in-law, received the opportunity to acquire control over or even the usufruct (the right to keep the yield) of the domain. In other words: Welsh land was confiscated by 'Anglo-Saxons' with the total but secret approval of their proto-English neighbours.

The destituted Welsh families were forced to migrate back to the west. When the rebellion was over, mainly the southeastern lords and some Welsh lords would bitterly try to regain their former possessions in the east. Eventually, this resulted in a split of Britain.

What happened after the rebellion was a reorganization of the military command structure. The example is the function of Hengest. As the military governor (commander in chief) of Kent, he had the power to assemble a number of the local Saxon guards and send them to where a 'situation' occurred. This brought great advantages for the local lords. The number of local guardsmen on each individual estate (major farm or castle) could be kept small, which limited the costs. Potential strong ambitions of a local lord could be balanced: he would face an assembled force, and most certainly be defeated. The lords protected but also checked each other. At the same time, this structure meant that there were reserve troops and backup. Such military organizations must have been installed all over the east of Britain and were the core of the later Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This system is in fact a mix of Roman organization and German local defense strategy. In many cases, the local military governor was a high ranking and fully integrated German (he had become a member of an important east-British family). This explains the name of those kingdoms: power became associated with the Anglo-Saxons.

Events during the last part of the 5th century are very confusing because civil wars are typically confusing. A religious war (Pelagian heresy against Catholicism) aggravated the problems. Pelagius preached that ‘Rome’ was not necessary to go to heaven. Notice the similarity with the later Anglican Church. The Pope (not bearing this title at the time) in Catholic Rome tried desperately to regain power by sending ‘missionaries’ to convert people (read: bring them back under the rule of Rome).