From John Ray's shorter notes
February 03, 2019
Are we Anglo-Saxons really Anglo-Friesians?
The history of Britannia after the Roman departure in about 400 AD is obscure. It was not until the venerable Bede, 300 years later, that we have a systematic history for the years immediately thereafter. And it was Bede -- who spent all his life in monasteries -- who tells us that the English are descendants of Angles, Saxons and Jutes.
But what if Bede got it wrong? It seems that he was relying mainly on oral history and that can be unreliable in its details. And there is a linguistic reason why he may have got it wrong: English vowels. Variations in language over time are often the best evidence we have for our understanding of prehistory.
English vowels are unusual. Our short letter "a", for instance is normally pronounced in continental Europe as "aah". There are only two other European languages that pronounce vowels pretty much as we do: Dutch and Frisian.
"Frisians who?", might be your reaction to that. They are not a well known part of Europe. There were originally rather a lot of them in coastal Europe South of Jutland (Denmark) and they still have a good foothold in coastal Europe in Nederland, where they form a Northern province (Friesland) of that country.
There is also however a chain of Frisian islands and they also run South from Denmark along the German and Dutch coast. And Frisian is normally considered the European language closest to English, though Frisian itself is splintered into very different dialects these days. And as both islanders and coastal people the Frisians were obviously experienced sailors.
Now let's take that in conjunction with what we know of the Saxons. Saxons seem to have originated in Holstein, in the extreme South of Jutland, most of which is now Denmark. Jutes and Angles were further North in Jutland.
And from about the 3rd century AD, the Saxons began to spread out, Eastwards to the adjacent lands of the Ostsee (meaning "East sea" but referring to what we now call the South Baltic coast) and South to what we now know as Lower Saxony, a large Northern province of Germany. Lower Saxony in those days contained various different tribes (and by some accounts still does) so the conquest probably took some time. And one of the groups pushed fairly hard by the invading Saxons were the unfortunate Frisians, then living in some numbers on the North Sea coast.
And the primary push by the Saxons was Southward -- so that, in modern Germany as you go South, you encounter first lower Saxony (in the North!), then Saxony-Anhalt and then Saxony itself further South again. Those Saxons were clearly a militarily successful tribe so are now located up and down North Germany. So given their very successful push South, why would they get into boats and sail across to Romanized Britannia? That was well outside their major focus.
And that is where the Frisians come in. They were on the coast with the Saxons behind them so it is eminently believable that the people who got into their boats and emigrated were mainly Frisians, Frisian refugees who were also experienced Frisian sailors who knew well what was on the other side of the North sea. They didn't have to build boats. They had them already for fishing and trade purposes.
That their vowels are the ones that survived among us suggests that they were in fact the most numerous invaders of Britannia. And Britannia was a tempting destination. It was a well-established agricultural and pastoral civilization that grew wheat and rye and ran lots of juicy sheep. But the inhabitants had become soft after living for centuries behind the protection of Roman central government and Roman legions: Easy marks for any Germans
With its mild climate and frequent rainfall, Britannia was more lush than anywhere in Germany (and still is) so envious eyes had long been cast upon it. North Germans can (and do) speak fondly of the Lüneburger Heide but it is a desert compared to almost anywhere in England.
But any invasion of Britannia by Northern Europeans during the Roman imperium had to be very short-lived. On hearing of such invasions, the central Roman authorities in Londonium would send a disciplined Roman legion or two marching North on the excellent Roman roads -- and any invaders who got wind of that would promptly skedaddle. If they didn't they would live (or die) to regret it. The Roman Gladius was a very good chopping weapon
The Frisians might well have been referred to as Saxons because they came from what was already then known as part of the Saxon domains. And Frisian is linguistically a form of low German so they were a Germanic tribe not greatly different from the Saxons. They originated just South of the Saxon homeland. And once the Frisians had set the ball rolling it seems likely that some Saxons came over too, once again lording it over the unfortunate Frisians
So it is my submission that Bede missed out on an important part of the story. There probably WERE Angles, Saxons and Jutes who sailed across the water to Britannia but most of the invaders were Frisians, who, because of their subordinate role, had been thoroughly forgotten by Bede's time.
Should England really be called West Friesland?
Another possibility that seems fairly firm concerns the Jutes and Angles -- who together originally occupied most of Jutland. Most of Jutland is now occupied by Scandinavians: Danes. The Danes pushed the Angles and Jutes out, which is why a lot of them sailed off to Britannia. But the Saxons were the tough guys of the W. Baltic area so the Danes were stopped more or less at the border of Holstein just South of Jutland. The Danes even appear to have occupied Schleswig, though the Prussians in a much later era took half of that back.
The origin of the Danes is obscure but it seems most likely that they came South from Norway -- early precursors of the Norse Vikings. Until about a century ago, Dano-Norwegian was regarded as a single language, so that tells you a lot.
Neither the Danes nor the Swedes, however, seem to have had much success on the South Baltic coast. That remained thoroughly German despite what we now know as Sweden looming over it to its immediate North. And that failure was most likely the work of the Saxons. Saxons were expansionist from early on and the easiest route for expansion would have been Eastward along the South Baltic coast -- assisted by the greater ease of movement by sea.
So the Germans who kept the Scandinavians out of the South Baltic coast were probably in the main tough-guy Saxons by the time conflict arose
So the Jutes and Angles were driven out to Britannia by tougher Danes but nobody was tougher than the Saxons. They just kept expanding, mostly Southwards but also to some extent Westward to Britannia
So most of the German migration to Britannia was by lesser German tribes -- Angles, Jutes and Frisians -- who were driven out of their original homelands by invaders -- but they in turn were tougher than the Romanized Celts who already lived in Britannia. So Britannia became England
The fact that the Angles had their name attached to the new land probably reinforces the idea that the Saxons were there in only small numbers. It appears that, in the absence of a substantial Saxon presence, the Angles led the conquest of the Celts -- JR
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