As an island people, we Brits have been obsessed with the idea of invasion. And the story of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons has long been accepted as a part of our history. But, the Anglo Saxon Myth may not be what we were taught in school.

Ango Saxon Gold Mask
Gold Helmet

I’m going to show that the myth of the Anglo-Saxon invasion is just a tale.

Leading-edge archaeology is beginning to re-examine the dramatic changes that took place in this country in the centuries after the Roman troops departed, and a very different story to the one which we have become accustomed is emerging.

Just before World War II archaeologists from Suffolk uncovered one of the greatest discoveries of our time – the Anglo-Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Helen Geake explains.

Sutton Hoo Mound Anglo Saxon Site
Sutton Hoo Mound

Helen Geake “Mrs Pretty decided to investigate the burial mounds on her property. She rang up Ipswich Museum asking for advice on a freelance archaeologist. It’s like another world, where a landowner can employ an archaeologist to open their burial mounds, but that’s what happened. In mound one he discovered an intact ship and a burial chamber.”

When news got out, archaeologists from Cambridge University and the British Museum came in to help and the most fabulous, extraordinary treasure was discovered there.

Excavations revealed the burial chamber of a person in a wooden ship. He was accompanied by a wealth of fabulous objects. This was the grave of a very rich man.

Dr Helen Geake

Dr Helen Geake “Helmets so incredibly rare. Special headgear appropriate for a king, as it still is today. He’s got other things like the strange whetstone that’s made into a sceptre. It’s got polish in the middle where your hand could have held it and a cup for the knee so you could hold the sceptre like a modern king. Some people see a very strong Swedish influence, some see a strong classical Byzantine influence. Other people say he’s got a bit of everything, is trying out a lot of different methods to C that he is an important ruler of the East Angles.”

Dr Helen Geake Historian
Dr Helen Geake

By the seventh century, parts of Britain had become a series of politically powerful kingdoms, later to be known as England.

Do you suppose a boatload of Anglo-Saxon royal family came sailing up and thought ‘This is a place for me’ got off the boat and set up their kingdom here?

Helen Geake “The origin myths we have, recorded by people like Bede, do seem to indicate that in the fifth century boatloads of royalty did row up and create their kingdoms. But they don’t have any archaeological evidence to back that up. What seems much more likely is that by some process of internal social development, things arose at some point in the late sixth century, and then decided to create this origin myths to explain where they’d come from. Probably they just murdered and fought their way to the top, they wanted to say they’d always been royal, in fact, descended from gods”

Anglo Saxon Burial Site

Sutton Hoo is the most elaborate of a number of rich Anglo-Saxon burials over the south and east of Britain. Archaeologists are divided about where these new leaders came from. Heinrich Harke favours the idea they were invaders.

Heinrich Harke “Until Sutton who was found, Taplow was the richest Anglo-Saxon grave in England. These big Anglo-Saxon burials of the seventh century were often located on the tops of ridges. Taking up a dominant position in the landscape shows who you and your family was.”

Heinrich Harke believes an invasion is the best way of explaining the changes in culture that took place after the Romans left. Why do we have to have migrations? It’s very difficult to prove that people came here in large numbers from abroad.

Cultural Change

Heinrich Harke “Francis, I believe you can demonstrate that this is still, given the evidence, the best possible explanation. Your argument is we do not need migrations to explain cultural change, this is the underlying argument. I agree with that. If you look at post-Soviet Russia, you see a huge culture change but it is not brought in by immigrant Westerners, it is marketed there. Of course, you can see, there is no proof they came here, they cannot trace them across the North Sea, but it is still the best explanation.”

Heinrich Harke
Heinrich Harke

Heinrich I’d love to agree with you, only I can’t see any outsiders coming here without there being a fight, and there is no evidence for a struggle. If people move onto my land, I’m not happy about that.

Heinrich Harke “If you’re there, you are not.”

Right. So you think that people will have moved out? There’s not much evidence for that.

Heinrich Harke “After the collapse of a civilisation you do have population decline. If there is population decline, there was also space. More space than there was in the Roman system.”

I don’t believe there was a hole in British society. If anything… You know, the taxes were removed, I’d have thought people said “Whoopee! I don’t have to pay taxes, I’m better off”. So when the Romans left, people probably got more prosperous.

Heinrich Harke “Very much a farmer’s view, I’d have thought. I like that.”

Anglo Saxon Myth