In Part 1 of this series we spoke about the first Plague Pandemic for which there is reliable evidence. This took place at the end of the Neolithic/beginning of the Bronze Age, and resulted in a 90% replacement in Britain of Neolithic Genes with Bronze Age Beaker Culture Genes from the near continent. A catastrophic event for one population, but a golden opportunity for another.
We will now see how a similar event 3,500 years later would give similar results and change Britain into England.
Here Come The English
The idea of “Anglo-Saxons” is largely a nonsense, a modern term with no real historical meaning when applied to a single population group. There were Angles, there were Saxons, there were Jutes, there were Frisians, there were Franks, and various other North German tribes originating from Denmark down to the Rhine and south into the Netherlands and Belgium who migrated to Britain during the later Roman period. They originally came over in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. a good 200 years before the popular histories would suggest that they arrived in the C5th.
They came mostly as settlers, traders, and mercenaries, in numbers that the Romans chose not to control, as once in Britain they could be taxed and recruited into Roman Army and Navy ranks. The people they settled among in the South and East of Britain almost certainly spoke a Germanic derived Belgic language not that different from that spoken by the new arrivals, and not “Celtic” as was spoken in the West of Britain. It was most likely at this time English started to become adopted as an amalgam of the old Belgic and new North Germanic languages spoken by the dominant population of the South and East of Britain. This explains the rapid take up of English after the collapse of the Roman Empire, i.e. it had already been here for about 200 years.
This Germanic element to the Romano-British population was so important, and so dominant in the East of the Roman Province of Britannia that in 286 A.D. Carausius, a Belgic speaking German of the Menapian Tribe serving as an officer in the Roman Navy, mutinied, took the Classis Britannicus Fleet with him, and set up an Independent Sub-Roman state on either side of the Channel, but with Britannia as his main power base. His Kingdom lasted for 12 years until he was murdered by his Finance Minister, a man called Allectus, he lasted for 3 years, and was deposed when the Romans eventually re-invaded Britain.
So by the C5th we have the scene set, with a Romanised, largely Belgic/Germanic speaking population in the East of Britain, and a largely Romanised Gaelic/Goidelic (Celtic) speaking population in the West of Britain, the educated parts of both populations would have been bi-lingual in the local language and Latin. Once the Roman administration left with the Roman Legions by about 410 A.D. a power vacuum formed and local tyrants filled it with their armed retinues.
These “Tyranni” in the East started recruiting Continental German mercenaries just as the Romans had, and were very successful in using them against external threats from Picts, Irish, and Scots raiders, but became dependent on them, to the point where the newcomers took over in the East. Thus the Sub-Roman Eastern British swapped Latin speaking leaders for German speaking ones, but the bulk of the population remained the same Steppe derived genetic population that had come over with the Bell Beakers 3,500 years before. So how did this particular Belgic/Germanic “English” faction of the Island come to dominate?
Initially these Belgic/Germanic speaking Sub-Roaman groups made slow progress in pushing West against the Latin/Celtic speaking Sub-Romans on that side of the Island. These Western populations were descended from a slightly different genetic population, mainly Bronze Age derived again, but containing a large population input from Iberia rather than the steppes.
The big collapse of the Sub-Roman “British” or “Welsh” (Wealas the Old English word for foreigners, a cognate of Welsch in Swiss German) in the West of Britain, that allowed the “English” (misnamed Anglo-Saxons) to push them to the edges of the Island of Britain, and across the Channel to Brittany (which is named after them) came in the C6th. This date is important.
In 547 Maelgwn of Gwynedd known as The Dragon of the Island, a High King of the
North Welsh (British) with his seat of power on the Island of Anglesey, was struck down in the Church at Rhos by “The Yellow Plague” that then went on to ravage Ireland in 548-549 A.D., and reoccurred in Britain from 555-562 A.D. This Yellow Plague is associated with the “Justinian Plague” so called because it was contracted by the East Roman Emperor Justinian (who survived it). This, once again, was Yersinia Pestis the Black Death, spread yet again by a movement of peoples, this time thanks to the Huns bursting into Eastern Europe and passing the disease onto German tribes who they either subdued, or pushed across the borders into the Roman Empire. The pestilence was low level and endemic for some time, before erupting with renewed virulence in the C6th devastating the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire.
The Justinian Plague spread through Southern Europe, and from there reached the “British” ports in the West of Britain who had continued to trade widely with the Mediterranean, whereas the focus in the “English” East of Britain was trade with Northern Europe. The Britons in the West of Britain, therefore came into contact with the Justinian Plague first and longest in the British Isles, because of its introduction via trade with the Mediterranean. They also suffered more as they carried less genes from Steppe populations, with lower innate resistance to the plague that had built up in the Steppe/Germanic derived population in the East of Britain, now known as the “English”.
The plague therefore disproportionately affected the British and opened the way for an English resurgence, with Anglian, Saxon, and Jutish lead “English” armies (comprised numerically mostly of Steppe/Belgic derived East Britons) sweeping West. The historical records reflect the impact of the plague; the major town of Caer Celemion in Hampshire (Calleva Atrebatum to the Romans, Silchester to the English) went from being a major organised Romano-British power, to total collapse around 560 A.D. Strangely, rather than being marched into and settled by the expanding English from the East, the Town was avoided by the English as being cursed for more than a couple of centuries.
So instead of adopting the well defended walls and buildings as their own as they did in other conquered urban areas, the English shunned the site, concentrating on the former Roman Town of Winchester (Caer Gwent to the British, Venta Belgarum to the Romans – the main Belgic settlement, and therefore inhabited by a steppe derived population with some resistance to plague) and Dorchester-on-Thames, previously in Belgic Catuvellaunian territory prior to Roman Domination, and therefore again containing a population with steppe derived plague resistance. By contrast the devastated town of Caer Celemion, Calleva Atrebatum – the settlement of the Atrebates, was according to leading Archaeologists not heavily settled by an incoming Belgic tribe, rather it was taken over by an incoming Belgic elite, with many of the populations therefore carrying “Western British” genes – less resistant to plague.
The plague paved the way for Britain to give birth to England, and for the South and East of the Island to dominate the North and the West for the rest of its history.
In Part 3 we will see how the well known occurrence of the Black Death in the C14th century shaped the class population dynamics of Britain, and gave us very specific surnames.
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