Britain Just After the Romans Left

‘Daily Life in Arthurian Britain’ by Deborah J. Shepherd (2013) – 314 pages


This time I am going to do something a little different from my usual chatter about fiction.  My wife, Deborah J. Shepherd, has just written and published a nonfictional book called ‘Daily Life in Arthurian Britain’, and I will take up this fascinating work today.

When the Romans left their province of Britannia around 410 AD, it was a giant step backward for that British society.  Britain lost its currency, and thus trade was severely reduced.   With no Roman soldiers to keep order, travel on the excellent Roman-built road system became dangerous. Without the Roman legions, Hadrian’s Wall alone could not stop invaders from the north. The cities which had already formed such as London and York had to contend with severely reduced business and trade.  There is very little written documentation about what happened over the next two centuries, and thus researchers have had to depend on archaeological methods such as site excavations and DNA analysis in order to determine what daily life must have been like for the Britons.

We do know that there was a large migration of people (the Anglo-Saxons) from the Angeln and Saxon provinces of what is now northern Germany and from the Jute province of what is now Denmark into the eastern and southern parts of Britain.  By the end of the 6th century the Anglo-Saxons had become dominant in most of Britain, and the Britons had mostly relocated to Wales, Cornwall, and Cumbria on the west side of the island.   Some speculate that the Anglo-Saxons were originally invited in by the Britons to fight the northern tribes of Scoti and Picts (The Picts were from Scotland, and the Scoti were from Ireland) who constantly came down from the north on raids.  Perhaps some of these Anglo-Saxons had formerly been foreign soldiers in the Roman legions.  Others speculate that the Anglo-Saxons migrated for their own reasons.  First the Anglo-Saxon men came.  Then a few brought their families while many inter-married with the Britons.   Whatever the reasons, large numbers of Anglo-Saxons permanently relocated to Britain.

The term ‘Daily Life’ includes how people made a living whether by farming or some other occupation, what types of dwellings they lived in, the social class structure, the use of slaves and serfs,  the size of their families, which objects they held in high esteem, and the patterns of interaction or non-interaction between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons,  ‘Daily Life in Arthurian Britain’ also discusses the religions, the forms of governing, and the use of weapons by both the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons.

From site analysis, researchers attempt to piece together as much detailed information as possible about how the people actually lived.  Skeletal analysis can show injuries suffered by the body and sometimes the cause of death. Using DNA analysis, researchers can determine whether a body buried fifteen hundred years ago is male or female.

“In one study Mark G. Thomas et al. looked closely at the Anglo-Saxon Y-chromosomes in England.  Whereas the immigrants represented less than ten percent of the population by archaeological estimates, their genetic contribution affected about 50% or more of the modern English gene pool.  The authors’ computer simulation models required that an extreme situation existed in order for the Anglo-Saxons to gain such a high reproductive advantage.  They determined that an ‘apartheid-like’ situation occurred whereby Anglo-Saxon males had the ability to produce many children and demand extra-marital sexual liaisons with British women, while more impoverished British males had fewer opportunities to produce and raise children who survived to adulthood.  The Laws of Ine in the seventh century made the punishment for raping a British woman minimal.  In this way Thomas et al. estimated that the spread of Anglo-Saxon genes to 50% of the population happened in 15 generations or less.”

Roman Lighthouse and Early Christian Church in Britain

Roman Lighthouse and Early Christian Church in Britain

Of course another researcher, John E. Pattison, totally disagrees with Thomas et al., maintaining there have been German immigrants to Britain since prehistoric times including Belgian and Germanic conscripts into the Roman legions which would account for the extreme Anglo-Saxon presence in the gene pool.    

The burial customs of the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons also varied, Anglo-Saxons were often buried with their weapons or other esteemed possessions while the Britons were buried without adornments.  The Britons were mostly Christians while the Anglo-Saxons originally were pagan.

There are still many unanswered questions. How were the Anglo-Saxons who were only one-fifth of the population able to predominate over the much more populous Britons?  Did the Britons voluntarily leave the eastern parts of Britain or were they driven out?  Did a King Arthur really exist?

6 responses to this post.

  1. Sold! A perfect birthday present for someone I love!


  2. Fascinating, Tony! I’ve never had the faintest idea what happened after the Romans left, but certainly would like to know. I’ll get my library to order this if they haven’t already.


    • Hi Kat,
      I really didn’t know either when the Anglo-Saxons came in and took over, but it was during those two centuries after the Romans left. ‘Daily Life in Arthurian Britain’ answered a lot of questions I had.


  3. Yay, it arrived today, just in time for Christmas! (LOL I suppose I’ll have to let him read it first since it’s his present …)


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