Discussion of the Saxon
Invasion of Britain, Part 3
by Michael Veprauskas
A Tale of Two Cultures
How do we reconcile the
two divergent traditions of Bede and Nennius?
Though separated in time by some 20 years, they do
share points in common:
- Both accounts state
their arrival was at the invitation of Vortigern.
- Both accounts relate
how the initial Saxon settlement was on the Isle
of Thanet, and only later on the Kentish mainland.
- The later Saxon
revolt was at the instigation of Hengest and Horsa
and started in Kent.
Clearly, the traditions
are of the same events. Do they differ because
of the cultural perspective of the parties
involved? It might be well to take another look
at what Nennius has to say regarding the aftermath of
the Saxon revolt. After the initial shock phase
of Saxon looting and raiding, the British under Vortimer
fight back A general account of the war,
spanning several years, is given by Nennius:
length Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, valiantly
fought against Hengist, Horsa, and his
people; drove them to the isle of Thanet, and
thrice enclosed them within it, and beset them
on the western side. The Saxons now
despatched deputies to Germany to solicit large
reinforcements, and an additional number of
ships: having obtained these, they fought against the
kings and princes of Britain..."18
Another version of
Nennius adds to the first section, "attacking,
threatening, and terrifying them, and drove them out
for five years."19
Two Gallic chronicles report large sections of
Britain falling under Saxon control in 441.20
The likely time of the Saxon revolt is therefore
439/440. After nearly a decade of fighting, as
indicated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Nennius,
Vortimer obtained the victory. Apparently, the
overall victory of Vortimer was followed by a time of
peace, for around five years. This was followed
by even fiercer Saxon invasions against which "the
kings and princes of Britain" fought,
apparently under the leadership of Ambrosius
Aurelianus. Nennius' History has Vortimer
dying shortly after defeating the Saxons.21
this the barbarians became firmly incorporated, and
were assisted by foreign
pagans, for Vortigern was their
This initial period of
renewed invasion and permanent settlement, most likely
occurred during the joint reigns of Marcian and
Valentinian, i.e. between 450-455, as stated in the
old Kentish tradition! It can thus be seen, how
the two cultures might select a different starting
point, but still be talking about the same
"event". The British looking back to
the initial and fatal blunder of their High King in
428, saw this as the first coming of the Saxons, while
their Kentish counterparts saw the period of permanent
settlement (450-455) as the founding of their
kingdom. The previous dealings were regarded as
being that of paid foederati in the service of
Vortigern. They were both unsuccessful in the
short term, and, like most failures, unremembered in
the long run. It is a characteristic of the old
Germanic peoples to only remember their
victories. Defeats "are neither paid nor
praised", to quote a line from Yeats!
Back to: Adventus
Saxonum Part One
Historia Brittonum, Section 43.
of Arthur, p. 80.
Chronicles of 452 and 511, under the year 441.
Historia Brittonum, Section 44.
Historia Brittonum, Section 45.