Origins of the English

 

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Introduction

Traditionally, there are two theories on the origins of the English. One is that various tribes of west and north Germanic peoples conquered and settled the eastern part of Britain, mostly displacing the existing Celtic or British population. These people were forced into the northern and western margins of Britain and into the region of France now called Brittany. Smaller groups were absorbed into the new majority ‘English’ population, mostly as slaves and servants. This is  called the ‘mass migration’ theory.

The other view is that a smaller group of Germanic people conquered the native Britons, but did not displace them to any great extent. Instead, they ruled over them as an aristocratic elite and gradually assimilated with them. This is referred to as the ‘elite dominance’ theory.

Recent DNA studies, do indicate that indigenous English people have a much closer affinity with the continental peoples of north western Europe, especially the Frisians, than they do with the people of western Britain. This suggests that the ‘mass migration’ theory is closer to the truth than the ‘elite dominance’. Furthermore, the area of Denmark called ‘Angeln’, the homeland of the Angles from where many Anglo Saxons came, is known to have been significantly depopulated – suggesting a major rather than minor migration. Rather interestingly, our migration myth tells of the people of Angeln migrating to Frisia before moving on to England.

But under both of these theories, the ‘English’ are seen as incomers, establishing their ‘West Germanic’ nation out of the eastern part of the lands of another, albeit closely related, ‘British’ or ‘Celtic’ people.

So who were the British or Celts?

Within the British Isles, there are three broad groups of people commonly referred to as Celtic. The earliest are a relatively dark skinned, brown eyed, stocky, almost Mediterranean looking people collectively known as Hiberians. Historically, they buried their dead in long barrows which can still be seen all over Britain to this day. They originated in North Africa and are thought to have spoken a Hamitic language and were related to the Berbers. Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa and, unlike the Africans and Arabs who now dominate their lands, they are or at least used to be Southern European looking white. Remnants of these people can still be seen throughout Britain, especially in the west, such as the Rhondda Valley Welsh.

Berber people

An Iberian Irish Lady

Two rather famous Rhondda Valley Welsh people

The next group traditionally said to have moved to Britain were from Central Europe, collectively known as the Goidelic, or Gallic, peoples. In some respects, these are the classic Celts, giving their name to places associated with Celtic culture such as Gaul, Galicia and Gael (Irish). They are thought to have migrated into Britain from Central Europe during the Bronze age, possibly being pushed westwards by another Celtic tribe called the Belgae. They were more advanced than the Hiberians and gradually pushed them westwards into the British uplands, keeping the more fertile lowlands for themselves. These people looked very different to the Hiberians, being tall and fair or red haired and with blue or grey eyes. Some had the typical blue eyed, red haired and freckled faces still associated with parts of Western Britain and Ireland. They buried their dead in round barrows rather than long ones and spoke an Indo-European, or Aryan language, rather than a Hamitic one. 

The third major group traditionally said to have migrated into Britain, also from central Europe, are known as the Brythonics, possibly coming from slightly more north west of the Goidels. They may be related to the Belgae who drove the Goidels into Britain in the first place. They gradually displaced the Goidels out of lowland Britain into the less fertile north and west, repeating the earlier pattern of population displacement. Although the Brythonics and Goidels were from similar backgrounds and spoke similar languages, it is thought that they were somewhat distinct from each other both physically and culturally. The Brythonics were probably fairer haired, more likely to have blue eyes and were probably slightly smaller than the Goidels. They were less likely to have red hair and freckles, though both groups would have included people with all of these characteristics. These two tribes, however, were much more closely related to each other than either were to the Hiberians.

The traditional theory then goes that after several hundred years of Roman occupation, they began pulling out of Britain in the 5th century in order to reinforce the Empire's northern borders against invasions by the Goths and other Germanic tribes. This left the Romano – Britons, mainly Romanised Brythonic Celts, exposed to attack from tribes to the north and west, such as the Picts and Irish. There followed a period of considerable hardship in which the Britons were constantly attacked, plundered and kidnapped by these invaders. Indeed, this is how St Patrick, who was a Romano-Briton, ended up as patron of Ireland! 

The Britons pleaded with the Romans to return to defend them, but to no avail. Britain was at this time relatively prosperous and undefended. It was like a magnet to those who would seek to plunder it. And so, in the middle of the 5th century, the Britons turned to another people to help them. These were the Germanic tribes of Angels, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. These people had formed an important part of the Roman legions in Britain and many had actually settled in the country prior to Roman withdrawal. They had close connections to the country and were well trained and disciplined warriors. They did an excellent job in keeping the Picts, Irish and people we now call the Welsh at bay and received more and more land in return. Gradually, they began to establish permanent settlements and brought their families over (sound familiar!). The Britons were driven northwards and westwards into upland Britain (and into Brittany in modern France) in a repetition of what had gone on at least twice before as one population displaced another.

 

Following on from the Anglo Saxons, a second wave of Germanic settlers came in the 8th and 9th centuries. These were mainly Danish settlers as part of the Viking raids and settlement of England. The Danes settled in northern England and East Anglia and sometimes lived peacefully with their Saxon neighbours and sometimes in conflict. However, by the time of the Norman invasion of 1066, English and Danish communities were living together in relative harmony. Danish ancestry is a significant part of what we would call ‘Anglo Saxon’ and we must bear in mind that Angeln, the homeland of the Angles, is located in the southern part of Denmark and Jutland, the home of the Jutes, in the northern part. Anglo Saxons and Danes were pretty much the same people. Although the Normans ruled England for many years as an aristocratic elite, they did not actually settle the country to any great extent, rather like the British in India.

But populations were not entirely displaced and some mixing was bound to have taken place. In the so called 'Celtic' lands of western Britain (western Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall) people are a mixture of all three of the 'Celtic' tribes together with elements of the Germanic and Norse settlers who came after the Romans.  Scotland, in particular, has a significant Norse element to its population as does England, especially in the north.  South Eastern Scotland was settled by the 'English' Angles and reinforced by English refugees following the Norman conquest.

Internal migration within the British Isles over the last couple of hundred years has blurred these distinctions a little, but outside the big cities populations remain much the same. More recent mass migration from elsewhere in Europe and beyond is also closely associated with the main urban areas, and in more isolated areas, populations remain much as they have always been.

Doggerland 

A new theory is emerging and slowly gaining more currency (see, for instance, ‘The Origins of the British’ by Stephen Oppenheimer). This holds that the populations of eastern and western Britain had been different ever since the land was re-colonised after the last great ice age about 30,000 years ago. During this ice age, North Europeans migrated southwards as the ice advanced and settled in two main redoubts, one in the Iberian Peninsula of modern Spain and Portugal and the other in the Balkans of South Western Europe. Originally much the same, these population groups began to slightly diverge from each other genetically as time went on. As the ice began to retreat, people moved northwards again. People from the Iberian redoubt travelled north westwards, along the coastal areas and settled modern day France and Western Britain. People from the Balkans redoubt travelled northwards and then westwards into Central Europe, Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Britain.

The theory is that the ethnic differences between the ‘Celtic British’ and the Anglo Saxon English are much older and go right back to the repopulation of the island. This is important not just because it shows that a prehistoric, proto English population existed in modern day England well before we usually think, but also because it shows that the English are not Anglo Saxon or Viking invaders or immigrants, but rather the indigenous people of the land. Some scholars even believe the people of Eastern England spoke a West Germanic language, a sort of proto Anglo Saxon, long before we consider English being introduced. The Anglo Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Normans for that matter, were simply different waves of the same people moving in from North Western Europe.

This proto English culture is referred to as part of the Dogger culture. The Dogger Bank is large sandbank in the North Sea which lies about 60 miles off the east coast of England. It is one of the traditional areas of sea around the UK referred to in the ‘Shipping Forecast’ and, because it is relatively shallow (15 to 36 metres), it is excellent fishing grounds. Its name comes from the ‘Doggers’, which were Dutch fishing boats. During the last main ice age, the seas retreated to such a degree that there was a large, fertile area between Britain and North West Europe. Britain was in fact, not an island at this time!

The land links between England and North Western Europe were severed somewhere between 7,000 and 5,000 BC as the sea gradually advanced. However, the evidence suggests that sea based trade between the two ‘sides’ of this proto Germanic culture continued. The people of England never really forgot their origins as part of this North West European proto Germanic culture.

Whatever the truth is about our origins, the indigenous English are mainly a North and North West European Germanic people with some elements of Celtic Britons. We have been this way for hundreds, even thousands of years. We must always remember that there is such a thing as the ethnic, indigenous English, that we exist as a people and have a right to continue to exist as a people. 

 

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