Archive for the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ Category

Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of southwest France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were until recently taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population and the small remaining Romano-British elite were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons in as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.” Gildas continues:

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipe-out” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot, an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost, as happened in Frankish Gaul? Or combined in some way with the  native language or languages, as happened in post-Conquest England?

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present-day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the Basques. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested, although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But if true his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity – that of our Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English truly are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that being English has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the Anglo-Saxon or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their real history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled in the face of enormous opposition to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Sources:

Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.

Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of southwest France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were until recently taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population and the small remaining Romano-British elite were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons in as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.” Gildas continues:

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipe-out” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot, an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost, as happened in Frankish Gaul? Or combined in some way with the  native language or languages, as happened in post-Conquest England?

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present-day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the Basques. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested, although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But if true his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity – that of our Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English truly are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that being English has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the Anglo-Saxon or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their real history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled in the face of enormous opposition to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Sources:

Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.

‘Et Strat Clut vastata est a Saxonibus’ (And Strathclyde was devastated by the Saxons) – Welsh  Annales AD 946.

‘This year King Edmund ravaged all Cumberland, and granted it to Malcolm, king of the Scots, on the condition that he should be his fellow-worker as well by sea as by land.’ – Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for AD 945.

‘How king Eadmund gave Cumberland to the king of the Scots.’ – A.D. 946. ‘Agapetus sat in the Roman chair ten years, six months, and ten days. In the same year king Eadmund, with the aid of Leoling, king of South Wales, ravaged the whole of Cumberland, and put out the eyes of the two sons of Dummail, king of that province. He then granted that kingdom to Malcolm, king of the Scots, to hold of himself, with a view to defend the northern parts of England from hostile incursions by sea and land.’   Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History, circa 1235.

King Edmund

King Edmund

In the year 945/6 a British king of Cumbria (the kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons) called ‘Dunmail’ was probably defeated in battle by the West-Saxon English king Edmund. The event has become legendary. A small kernel of historical truth has been embellished over the centuries to make of King Dunmail a veritable King Arthur or an Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, an heroic figure who lies sleeping, to be called upon one day to return and save his people in their hour of need. I will discuss the historical facts and setting in a forthcoming article. Dunmail was probably Cumbrian King Dyfnmal ap Owain (Donald son of Owen), and he certainly wasn’t the ‘last king’ of the Cumbrians. But here I’d simply like to draw together just a few of the myriad versions of the legend.

Let’s begin with William Wordsworth. In his 1805 poem The Waggoner he wrote:

Meanwhile, uncertain what to do,
And oftentimes compelled to halt,
The horses cautiously pursue
Their way, without mishap or fault;
And now have reached that pile of stones,
Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones;
His who had once supreme command,
Last king of rocky Cumberland;
His bones, and those of all his Power
Slain here in a disastrous hour!

Dunmail Stones

Dunmail Stones

Countless generations of tourists to the Lake District have been told that this ‘pile of stones’, which can still be seen on Dunmail Raise as it rises south from Thirlmere, marks the spot of the battle and even, in many versions, Dunmail’s burial place.

Although the seeds of the legend of Dunmail find their origins in the comments of Roger of Wendover in the early thirteenth century quoted above, for a long time antiquaries and travel writers stuck to the basic facts and stated the uncertainty of matters. King Charles 1’s surveyor John Ogilby in his The Traveller’s Guide: Or, A Most Exact Description Of The Roads Of England (1699) only said that there was “a great heap of stones called Dunmail-Raise-Stones, supposed to have been cast up by Dunmail K(ing) of Cumberland for the bounds of his kingdom”.

In 1774, in A Tour of Scotland and the Hebrides, Thomas Pennant wrote:

On a high pass between the hills, observe a large Carnedd called Dunmail Wrays stones, collect6ed in memory of a defeat, A.D. 946. given to a petty king of Cumberland, of that name, by Edmund 1. Who with the usual barbarity of the times, put out the eyes of his two sons, and gave the country to Malcolm, king of Scotland, on condition he preserved in peace the northern parts of England.

William Gilpin said in his Observations, relative chiefly to Pictureseque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, On several Parts of England; particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland (1786):

 … we came to the celebrated pass, known by the name Dunmail-Raise, which divides the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland. The history of this rude monument, which consists of a monstrous pile of stones, heaped on each side of an earthen mound, is little known. It was probably intended to mark a division, not between these two northern counties; but rather between the two kingdoms of Scotland and England, in elder times, when the Scottish border extended beyond its present bounds. And indeed this chain of mountains seem to be a much more natural division of the two kingdoms, in this part, than a little river in champaign country, like the Esk, which now divides them. It is said, this division, was made by a Saxon prince, on the death of Dunmail the last king of Cumberland, who was here slain in battle…

Dunmail Raise

Dunmail Raise

Around the same time, 1784, Thomas West wrote in A guide to the lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire:

… the road ascends to Dunmail-raise, where lie the historical stones, that perpetuate the name and fall of the last king of Cumberland, defeated there by the Saxon monarch Edmund, who put out the eyes of the two sons of his adversary, and; for his confederating with Leolin, King of Wales, against him wasted his Kingdom, and then gave it to Malcolm, King of Scots, who held it in fee of Edmund A.D. 944 or 945. The stones are a heap and have the appearance of a karn, or barrow. The wall that divides the counties is built over them, which proves their priority of time in that form.

It’s only when we get to the Romantic era of Wordsworth and later into the Victorian and Edwardian periods that the legend really starts to take shape. I particularly like John Pagan White’s 1873 poetic rendition in his Country Lays and Legends of the English Lake Country:

KING DUNMAIL.

They buried on the mountain’s side
King Dunmail, where he fought and died.
But mount, and mere, and moor again
Shall see King Dunmail come to reign.

Mantled and mailed repose his bones
Twelve cubits deep beneath the stones ;
But many a fathom deeper down
In Grisedale Mere lies Dunmail’s crown.

Climb thou the rugged pass, and see
High midst those mighty mountains three,
How in their joint embrace they hold
The Mere that hides his crown of gold.

There in that lone and lofty dell
Keeps silent watch the sentinel.
A thousand years his lonely rounds
Have traced unseen that water’s bounds

His challenge shocks the startled waste,
Still answered from the hills with haste,
As passing pilgrims come and go
From heights above or vales below.

When waning moons have filled their year,
A stone from out that lonely Mere
Down to the rocky Raise is borne,
By martial shades with spear and horn.

As crashes on the pile the stone,
The echoes to the King make known
How still their faithful watch they hold
In Grisedale o’er his crown of gold.

And when the Raise has reached its sum,
Again will brave King Dunmail come ;
And all his Warriors marching down
The dell, bear back his golden crown.

And Dunmail, mantled, crowned, and mailed,
Again shall Cumbria’s King be hailed ;
And o’er his hills and valleys reign
When Eildon’s heights are field and plain.

Grisedale Tarn

Grisedale Tarn

W. T. Palmer’s version of 1908 in The English Lakes is more elaborate, literally more inventive and certainly historically incorrect regarding the English king involved and the identity of the Cumbrians themselves:

The cairn of Dunmail, last king of Pictish (sic) Cumbria slain in battle with Edgar (sic) the Saxon, is here, a formless pile of stones. There is a legend concerning this spot.

The crown of Dunmail was charmed, giving to its wearer a succession in his kingdom. Therefore King Edgar (sic) of the Saxons coveted it above all things. When Dunmail came to the throne of the mountainlands a wizard in Gilsland Forest held a master-charm to defeat the purpose of his crown. He Dunmail slew. The magician was able to make himself invisible save at cock crow, and to destroy him the hero braved a cordon of wild wolves at night. At the first peep of dawn he entered the cave where the wizard was lying. Leaping to his feet the magician called out, “Where river runs north or south with the storm” ere Dunmail’s sword silenced him forever. The story came to the ear of the Saxon, who after much inquiry of his priests found that an incomplete curse, though powerful against Dunmail, could scarcely harm another holder of the crown. Spies were accordingly sent into Cumbria to find where a battle could be fought on land favourable to the magician’s words. On Dunmail raise, in times of storm even in unromantic to-day, the torrent sets north or south in capricious fashion. The spies found the place, found also fell-land chiefs who were persuaded to become secret allies of the Saxon. The campaign began. Dunmail moved his army south to meet the invader, and they joined battle on this pass. For long hours the fight was with the Cumbrians; the Saxons were driven down the hill again and again. As his foremost tribes became exhausted, Dunmail retired and called on his reserves—they were mainly the ones favouring the Southern king. On they came, spreading in well-armed lines from side to side of the hollow way, but instead of opening to let the weary warriors through they delivered an attack on them. Surprised, the army reeled back, and their rear was attacked with redoubled violence by the Saxons. The loyal ranks were forced to stand back-to- back round their king; assailed by superior masses they fell rapidly, and ere long the brave chief was shot down by a traitor of his own bodyguard.

“My crown,” cried he, “bear it away; never let the Saxon flaunt it.”

A few stalwarts took the charmed treasure from his hands, and with a furious onslaught made the attackers give way. Step by step they fought their way up the ghyll of Dunmail’s beck—broke through all resistance on the open fell, and aided by a dense cloud evaded their pursuers. Two hours later the faithful few met by Grisedale tarn, and consigned the crown to its depths — “till Dunmail come again to lead us.”

And every year the warriors come back, draw up the charmed circlet from the depths of the wild mountain tarn, and carry it with them over Seat Sandal to where their king is sleeping his age-long sleep. They knock with his spear on the topmost stone of the cairn, and

from its heart comes a voice, “Not yet; not yet; wait awhile, my warriors.”

In 1937 Arthur Mee wrote in The Lake Counties:

A little south of Wythburn the high road crosses over into Westmorland. Beside it at the top of the pass is a great heap of stones known as Dunmail Raise, with its own little tradition of something that happened on this boundary 1000 years ago. Here, it is thought, the battle took place in which the Saxon king Edmund defeated Dunmail, the last king of Cumbria, whose territory was then handed over to King Malcolm of Scotland.

More recently another writer put it thus:

Dunmail Raise marked the boundary between Cumberland and Westmorland, the name coming from a heap of stones which in folklore marks the burial place of the last King of Cumberland, King Dunmail or, as sometimes spelt, Domhnall. In 945, King Edmund, who ruled almost undisputed over the remainder of England, joined forces with King Malcolm of Scotland in order to defeat the last bastion of Celtic resistance in his kingdom. In his last battle, King Dunmail was killed by Edmund himself. His body was carried away by faithful warriors, and buried under a great pile of stones.

King Edmund is reputed to have captured Dunmail’s two sons and had their eyes put out. The Crown of King Dunmail was thrown into Grisedale Tarn on the Helvellyn range. Legend has it that the crown was enchanted, giving its wearer a magic right to the Kingdom, thus it was important to prevent it from falling into Saxon hands. On victory, Edmund gave Cumberland to King Malcolm of Scotland, and it was only when Canute came to the throne that Cumberland came back under English rule in exchange, 87 years later, for Lothian.

The Kingdom of Cumbria -  Strathclyde

The Kingdom of Cumbria – Strathclyde

In their Ghoulish Horrible Hair raising Cumbrian Tales (1981), Herbert and Mary Jackson add yet more details:

In the aftermath of a ferociously fought battle near Dunmail Raise, just south of Thirlmere reservoir, between King Dunmail of Cumberland and the Saxon army, in the year circa 940 AD, the following legend is written:

After the battle, as King Dunmail lay dying, his last words were. “My crown, bear it away, never let the Saxon flaunt it.”

For it was known that whoever wore the crown of Dunmail would succeed to the Kingdom of Cumbria. The King’s personal body guard removed the crown from the head of their dying monarch and with unprecedented gallantry fought their way through the Saxon lines.

Eventually they reached Grisdale tarn, where with all due ceremony and reverence, the crown was consigned to its deepest waters, with these words, “Till Dunmail come again to lead us.”

Each year, on the anniversary of the King’s death, his warriors return to the tarn. The crown is retrieved and carried back to the cairn of stones under which their beloved Dunmail lies. In turn, the warriors knock with their spears on the topmost stones of the cairn.

From that grave a voice cries out. “Not yet; not yet – wait a while my warriors.” The day is yet to come when the spirit of Dunmail will re-join his warriors and crown a new King of Cumbria.

King Owain, Dunmail’s father, came to the throne in circa 920. A battle took place on the flat of a mountain top at Ecclfechan. What happened to Owain after the battle against the English in which he lost in 938 is not known. But his son went on to succeed him.

Shortly after this, another battle took place as they fought step by step up the Ghyll of Dunmail’s beck – broke through all resistance on the open fell, and, aided by a dense cloud, evaded their pursuers. Two hours later the faithful few met by Grisdale Tarn, and consigned the crown to its depths – “till Dunmail come again to lead us.” And every year the warriors come back, draw up the magic circlet from the depths of the wild mountain tarn, and carry it with them over the Seat Sandal to where the king is sleeping his age long sleep. They knock with his spear on the topmost stone of the cairn and from its heart comes a voice. “Not yet; not yet – wait a while my warriors.”

Cumbrian Flag

Cumbrian Flag

It’s all wonderful stuff but there is not a shred of historical evidence for any of it. That a battle was fought in 945/6 between a Cumbrian (Strathclyde British) king and the English king Edmund is quite likely and it’s also quite possible that Edmund was in league at this time with King Malcolm of Alba (Scotland). It’s even possible that the king was the historically attested Cumbrian, King Dyfnwal ap Owain, and even that his two sons had their eyes put out by Edmund – although the earliest mention of this blinding was by the thirteenth-century Roger of Wendover. All the rest is legend, if not purely literary myth, but is a great yarn.

I will show in my forthcoming article that Dunmail/Dyfnwal certainly wasn’t the last king of Cumbria and probably didn’t die in the battle against the English either; facts that haven’t stopped local sub-aqua clubs searching for Dunmail’s crown in Grisedale tarn! I hope they find it.

Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders, but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of South West France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure, the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and even strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were, until recently, taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord, who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders, who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population, and the small remaining Romano-British elite, were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response, Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later, the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.”

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent of Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see, in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their Kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipeout” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish King, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot: an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders, there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time, they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French, which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost? As happened in Frankish Gaul. Or combined in some way with the native language or languages? As happened in post-conquest England.

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is, an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible, and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the ‘Basques’. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice, it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer, these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen, these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested; although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But, if true, his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity; that of our ‘Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English are truly more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that ‘being English’ has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their ‘real’ history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled, in the face of enormous opposition, to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Sources:

Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.