On English Origins | Rievaulx
In recent years there has emerged a theory among the historical community that the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain was really nothing more than a small-scale, elite warrior caste replacement. This theory is mainly speculative. There haven’t been any grand revelations, except some new genetic data which vaguely suggests that most Englishmen beyond the Southeast are primarily of Celtic British descent. Additionally, the theorists compare the Anglo-Saxon invasion to other Dark Age migrations of Germanic tribes, such as those of the Vandals or the Lombards, which really were transient elite replacements.
I would argue this is a false comparison. The kingdoms of the Vandals and the Lombards, in Italy and North Africa, faded away. Who now speaks the Germanic language of the Lombards in Lombardy? There they speak Italian, and the misleadingly-named “Lombard” language, both of which are descended from Vulgar Latin – because the Lombard invasion really was a small-scale elite replacement, and the common people of Lombardy remained the same – they remained Latin-speaking Romans.
This is not so in England. We speak English in England, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, which contains very, very few pre-Saxon British words. We identify as English (Ænglisc – Anglo-Saxon) – the word “British” as we use it is an 18th century neologism that refers to the entire island of Great Britain, Scotland included, rather than the pre-Saxon British people.
What’s more – and this, as far as I am concerned, is the silver bullet – we know what an elite replacement would look like, because we literally had it with the Normans. The Normans came to England and replaced our elite, and while they had a huge effect on English culture and language, they did not reshape our fundamental identity. The country is still called England, we are still the English, and, while our language is chock full of Norman words, it is still fundamentally the English language. If the Anglo-Saxons had likewise merely been an elite warrior caste, then surely we would have seen something similar? Britain would have remained Britain, the British would have remained British, and the British Celtic language, while being grammatically altered and filled with Anglo-Saxon terms, would have remained at root the British language.
I’m not necessarily saying the Saxons came over in one great violent wave, though this is what the traditional chronicles suggest. Continuous migration and intermingling with the native Britons is possible – I am simply saying that it must have been of a considerable scale to utterly erase British identity from the entire region of what became England (although it’s hard to believe that such a large migration wasn’t accompanied with some violence). The genetic data, if it is accurate (which is disputable – some studies conclude that the Saxon ancestry of modern Englishmen is much higher), can be explained fairly easily. These “Celtic Englishmen” could be the descendants of British slaves. Alternately, it could be explained by over a millennium of intermingling with the neighbouring Celtic peoples of the British Isles, like the Scots and the Welsh. And as for places like Cornwall and Cumbria – they were the last Celtic British nations to be assimilated into England. The Cumbric British language was spoken until the 12th century, while the last native Cornish speaker died in the 18th.
The most I am willing to accept is that the Anglo-Saxons colonised the Southeast, and the rest of England picked up Saxon culture in the same way that the Welsh and Irish picked up the English language in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the Welsh and the Irish only picked up our language – their cultures remain strong. There’s little evidence of British culture in any part of England except Cornwall and Cumbria after Anglo-Saxon colonisation.
So, I am very doubtful of this theory, and its popularity, I think, speaks to a broader problem. The Normans not only replaced our monarch and our nobility, but every literate Englishman with their own kin. The English language was banished from the written word until the fourteenth century; it was only then that the Norman elite started to speak it themselves. The upper and upper-middle classes that have dominated England this past millennium, which have been given nigh-on exclusive political power and social influence to shape our national story and identity, are largely descended from a few specific families that came over with the Conqueror. A 2013 study by the London School of Economics suggests that individuals with Norman surnames are still more likely to be successful in England to this day. Therefore, as this minority of great power and influence was not Anglo-Saxon itself, it divorced the English from their Anglo-Saxon roots and identity. The Normans had no knowledge of our legendary descent from Hengist, Horsa and Wóden; therefore our own national origins were obscured to us, as our Norman lords chose to venerate King Arthur, the ancient enemy of the English, instead. The Saxons, we were taught, were just like any other tribe that has invaded Britain over the millennia – no different to the Romans, Normans or Vikings. The Bastard Conqueror, we were taught, was our first English king – never mind the Saxon pretenders that came before him.
Our new masters separated us from our traditional links with our fellow, freedom-loving Germanic peoples in Northern Europe (Cnut’s North Sea Empire, the Danelaw, etc.) and instead involved us with Southern continental Europe – a long entanglement which would regularly water French soil with English blood over the next thousand years, of which Brexit is merely our latest attempt to be set free.
They mongrelised our language, and used this as evidence that we were a mongrel nation – another insult to the purity of our ancient nationhood which the Venerable Bede first proclaimed, and which long predates the tragedy of Hastings. To this day the Norman heirs, and the Normanised middle classes, continue to import useless inkhorn terms of French, Latin and Greek origin into our Saxon tongue, so vulgar do they find our native vocabulary.
Peter Hitchens has written an article with similar speculations to my own – that the class and political divides of England’s history, up until present times, have been reflections of this ancient Norman-Saxon dichotomy. Others have, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, suggested there should be reparations for the disinherited Saxons. While many Saxons fled the country, to Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, and even the Black Sea, who knows how many of their heirs in England toil and labour under managers with surnames like Neville and Courtenay?
My answer to calls for reparations, in the case of African-Americans and Englishmen alike, is and always has been “meritocracy”. I truly believe the English Tripartite System of education was the most meritocratic in history; and if only such academic selection could be instituted in England again as well as black communities in the United States, then we might begin to see some change.
Likewise, I will not seek to shame those of Norman descent if they truly identify with England over the continent from whence they came, just as I will not shame those of Huguenot or more recent migrant stock – their love for this country can be expected to burn the foreign blood from their veins. Nevertheless, I believe the English will never achieve full self-realisation as a people until we decolonise – until we rub out the ancient stain of Conquest.
It was the Celtic revival of the 19th century which gave new life to Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms. Just so, only a Saxon revival can return the English to their roots and make an English nationalism feasible. We must tear down the Three Lions of Normandy and replace them with the White Dragon of England. We must overthrow this illegitimate royal line, born of the Conqueror, and form a Witan to elect a new English king or queen – I would recommend Sir Hereward Charles Wake, 15th Baronet, legendary descendant of the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Hereward the Wake. Our language, sadly, is too far gone to be reformed, but we could at least introduce a version of Anglish or Old English for the purposes of ceremony. Additionally, while I do not advocate neopaganism, efforts should be made to reconstruct and foster interest in Anglo-Saxon mythology, of Beowulf and Wóden and the ése – and perhaps to introduce a version of the Arthurian myth from the side of the Saxons rather than that of Arthur and the Britons.
Unlike Black Lives Matter I do not favour iconoclasm – every history is a beautiful mess, and there’s certainly plenty I like about the last thousand years and plenty I dislike. It just seems to me that centuries of rule by a foreign elite have obscured our identity to ourselves, and made it far easier for us to be convinced that England is and always has been a mongrel, cultureless, cosmopolitan, “nothing” country – as opposed to the apparently rich Celtic cultures of Scotland or Wales. Yet the roots of the English are deep, possibly deeper than any other nation on earth, and while they may not be found among our Norman and Normanised rulers, they can yet be sought in the rural heartlands of this green and pleasant land, where folk songs are sung, Morris dances are jigged, and superstitions are passed down which have their ultimate origins in the murky heathenism of our Germanic forebears. It is this England, this real nation, which I seek to preserve – not some mundane 20th century caricature of tea, bowler hats and telephone boxes.
Photo by Diego Vicente on Flickr.