William Sterling

Baltic Cruise Lecture 1

Lectures for Baltic and St Petersburg Cruise on the Ocean Countess July 2011


Lecture 1 The Germans are Coming

Outline of Lecture Series

The first five lectures cover the period of the history of England from the C5th to the C11th, some 600 years from the departure of the Romans to the Norman Conquest. The final lecture extends the history of the Vikings in their homelands and into the later Mediaeval period showing how they continued to have an influence in Britain but also further afield, to Iceland, Greenland and North America to the West and Russia and Constantinople to the East. In each lecture I shall combine talking with slides and leave time for questions at the end.

First Lecture


To understand how the Anglo-Saxons fit into English History I shall start with a potted history of what came before them. In the Iron Age, roughly from 800 BC to the coming of the Romans, Britain was part of the Celtic World. Although the people had not changed in thousands of years and the idea of successive Celtic invasions that once used to be taught has been disproved by DNA analysis, nevertheless, the people of Britain spoke various Celtic languages similar to modern Irish and Scots Gaelic, Welsh and Breton, and had a Celtic culture. They produced many fine works of art in Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron and had close trade and familial links with the Continent. Politically the British Isles were divided up into some 20 tribes each with its own chief or king.

By about 100 BC the Catuvellauni of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex, had emerged as the leading tribe and it was their king, Cassivelaunus, that Julius Caesar chose to challenge when he decided to invade Britain in 55 BC. Although Caesar failed to conquer Britain he did open up closer ties and trade links which can be seen in some of the surviving grave goods. In 41 AD the Emperor Caligula was murdered. His loyal German bodyguard went on the rampage and found his uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain. They forced him to accept the imperial throne and he felt he had to prove his authority by reviving his ancestor’s invasion plans of Britain. In 43 AD an army of some 40-50,000 troops invaded Britain and quickly defeated all opposition. Claudius himself appeared with a group of 23 War Elephants to underline the victory and allow him to head the triumphal parade in Rome.

In 61 AD Queen Boudicca of the Iceni led a fierce revolt against the Romans, sacking and burning their three main settlements at Verulamium (St Albans), Camoludonum (Colchester) and Londinium (London). The Romans succeeded in quelling the rebellion but never trusted the Britons after that and uniquely always kept a standing army of some 40-50,000 troops in the province. Nero also appointed a finance minister from the Treveri tribe in Germany to sort things out. He was the first German in Britain we can name, Julius Classicianus, and his tomb partly survives.

Many of the troops in Britain were auxiliaries recruited from Germany and when they retired they settled in Britain. Their graves differ from Roman ones in that they were buried with their belt buckles or cremated in Germanic pottery. The troops were needed not just to keep the British from revolting but also to defend the province from invaders from Scotland which had never been integrated into the empire and also from across the sea from North Germany (Alemanni and Saxons). A series of forts were built along the south and east coast known as the Saxon shore (Litus Saxonicum). Several of these such as Burgh in Norfolk, Dover in Kent, Pevensey in Sussex and Portchester in Hampshire were so well built that they were later used by the Normans and still have substantial remains today.

The Romans were right to fear rebellion as there were several in Britain in the C3rd and C4th but they were usually the local military leader using his auxiliary troops to make a claim on the imperial throne. The last was by Constantine III who proclaimed himself emperor in Britain in 407 and took the remaining legion to the continent to make his claim but was defeated and executed in 411. In 410 the Romano-British officials wrote to the Emperor Honorius asking to send another legion as the province was undefended and he wrote back telling them to look to their own defences. This letter is usually taken as marking the end of the Roman occupation of Britain.

[SLIDES: These included the Waterloo Helmet, a Celtic ceremonial headdress with horns from c.350 BC but which is often mistaken for a Viking helmet of a thousand years later by visitors to the British Museum. The other slides included other Celtic objects, the tomb of Classicianus and some of the Saxon shore forts.]

The way was left open for the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

The Invasions

The evidence for this period comes from three sources, Anglo-Saxon written accounts, especially Bede (writing in the 720s) and the Anglo-Saxon chronicle (890s onwards); Welsh written accounts, especially Nennius (probably C8th or C9th), and archaeology.

At first nothing happened. There were probably further raids on the Saxon shore but no attempt at settlement. The old Celtic tribal system still seemed to work and several kingdoms emerged around the country. Two kings emerged as rival leaders, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Vortigern. Bede recorded that three main groups invaded, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. There were also Frisians and Franks and even the Gepids.

[SLIDES: These included maps, the prow of an Anglo-Saxon warship and weapons.]


In c.448 Vortigern recruited foederati, Jutish troops to help him. Hengist and Horsa arrived in Kent with three ships of warriors. Vortigern married Hengist’s daughter Renwein in return for which Vortigern gave Hengist Kent. Meanwhile the Jutes brought their families to settle as well. They had close ties with the Franks and much of the jewellery is of high quality. Several battles are recorded between the Jutes and the Britons but it is not always clear who won. Hengist’s brother, Horsa, was killed at the battle of Aylesford and Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, was killed at the battle of Crayford. Hengist was apparently defeated at the battle of Wippedsleet and confined to Thanet but when he died in 488 he was able to hand the kingdom to his son Aesc or Oisc who had already shared the kingship and from whom the later kings of Kent named their dynasty, the Oiscingas. The kings of Kent became important again when Christianity returned to Britain which is the subject of the next lecture. The Jutes also settled in the Isle of Wight and had their own kings, from Stuf and Wihtgar.

[SLIDES: Examples of Jutish brooches and other jewellery, glass, weapons and other objects from Kent and the Isle of Wight.]

The Saxons


The next invasion recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was that of Aelle and his three sons, Cymen, Wlencing and Cissa in 477. They landed to the west of Kent in what is now Sussex with a band of mainly Saxon warriors and besieged the British in Pevensey Castle. They gradually advanced into Sussex and by 491 Aelle was acknowledged as king. In fact Bede called him the first Bretwalda, or overlord. This title was bestowed on kings recognised by their peers to be the most important. Aelle died in 514 and was succeeded by Cissa, his son. Chichester and Cissbury Ring are said to be named after him either because he established a base there or had a victory over the Britons. After this the kingdom of the South Saxons was eclipsed by its neighbours.

[SLIDES: Examples of Saxon jewellery and a map of the early kingdoms.]


The second Saxon invasion was led by Cerdic and his son Cynric in 491. They landed further west again somewhere near the Hampshire Dorset border. A third Saxon invasion took place under Port and his sons Bieda and Maegla in 501 at what is now Portsmouth but nothing more is heard of them.

About this time the Britons, probably under Arthur, led a fight back and secured a great victory at Mount Badon. Its location is unknown but it may have been against Cerdic as his advance was halted for a quarter of a century. He did not claim the kingship of Wessex till 519. When he died in 534 he was succeeded by his son (or possibly grandson), Cynric.

Cynric’s son, Ceawlin, reigned from 560 to 591 and was credited by Bede as being the second Bretwalda. Like his predecessors he gained a number of victories over the Britons but also lost his immediate heirs in the fighting. By 591 he was facing a challenge from his own nephews and was forced to abdicate and flee to Mercia. The grave at Taplow (Berkshire) discovered in 1882 is of a West Saxon prince who died in the late C6th. It could be Ceawlin’s son or brother who were killed fighting for him.

[SLIDES: Examples of West Saxon brooches and a selection of items from the Taplow hoard.]


It is not known when the East Saxons invaded what is now Essex but their kings are well recorded and they became important as they took control of London. Unlike the other main dynasties who claimed descent from Woden, the East Saxon kings claimed descent from another god, Seaxneat, the supposed founder of the Saxon race. However, like Woden the surviving genealogies trace him back to about the early C4th so he was probably a real figure perhaps named after the god. According to much later sources the first king was called Offa and he dated his reign from 527. It is at least possible that the invasion took place around this time. The first historical king was Sledda (587-604) who married the sister of King Ethelbert of Kent who we will look at in lecture 2. There are also grave goods from Essex dating to the C5th and C6th.

[SLIDES: East Saxon beaker, buckles and pottery.]


Bernicia and Deira

The last group to arrive and settle were the Anglians from Angeln in Southern Jutland. According to the Welsh sources Vortigern had invited some of Hengist’s relatives to settle in the north to fight off the Picts but this was unsuccessful. The first leader of the Anglians to succeed was Ida who is supposed to have arrived in what is now Northumberland in 547. He expelled the Britons from their fortress at Bamborough and established that as his capital. Ida had 6 sons by his queen Bearnoch and 6 by mistresses. His successors claimed descent from these sons.

In c. 569 a chieftan called Aelle broke away from Bernicia, then under Ida’s son Ethelric, and formed the rival kingdom of Deira (modern Yorkshire) and started a conflict between the two kingdoms which lasted over several generations. In 592 Ethelric’s son Ethelfrith, known as the Fierce succeeded to Bernicia and set about a campaign of war against his neighbours, both the Britons to the west and north and the Deirans to the south. In 604 he expelled Aelle’s successor and his son Edwin went into exile. Bamborough is said to be named after Ethelfrith’s queen, Bebba.

[SLIDES: Bamborough castle, Rhenish glass and Anglian jewellery.]

East Anglia

The kingdom of the East Angles seems to have been established next. The earliest ruler according to later sources was one Wehha whose reign dates from 565 but the dynasty took its name, the Uffingas, from Wehha’s son Uffa who succeeded in 571. The Uffingas had close ties with the Deirans and Uffa’s grandson, Raedwald, gave Edwin a safe home whilst in exile. We meet him properly in lecture 2 thanks to his magnificent burial.

[SLIDES: Cremation urns and brooches from Norfolk and Suffolk.]


Apart from some of the minor kingdoms the last Anglian kingdom to be considered is Mercia. Their kings named their dynasty the Iclingas after a distant ancestor, Icel, who was probably a ruler back in Angeln of some fame. Later histories claimed he was also king of Mercia. The first king was probably Creoda who became king in c.575. The Anglians had already settled for some time in the Midlands and his succession probably marked the coming together of a number of minor kingdoms and perhaps a recognition by the Bretwalda, Ceawlin, whom Creoda seems to have aided in an abortive attempt to regain his throne in 593.

[SLIDES: Examples of various grave goods from Mercia.]

In the second lecture I shall look at how the pagan Anglo-Saxons returned to Christianity.