The Anglo-Saxon Invasion: Britain Is More Germanic than It Thinks

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How Germanic is Great Britain really? Archeologists and geneticists have unveiled surprising revelations about the historical origins of people in the modern United Kingdom -- many of whom have ancestors who once crossed the North Sea.

Photo Gallery: Scientists Reveal Britain's German Heritage Photos
The British Museum

The fear of a violent conquest of their country is deeply engrained in the English psyche. One of the likely reasons for this fear is that their ancestors committed this misdeed themselves.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, two Germanic tribesmen, Hengist and Horsa, came ashore on the coast of Kent in southeast England in the year 449. They had sailed 600 kilometers (372 miles) down the coast from their native North Frisia, and had then made the crossing to a green and pleasant Britain.

The country they encountered was a cultivated place. Emperor Claudius had declared the island a Roman province in 43 A.D., and had introduced theaters and paved streets. There were 30,000 people living in Londinium in late antiquity.

All of this was destroyed, however, when the adventurers -- who became more and more numerous as families were reunited -- arrived from across the sea.

But how many people came to Britain across the North Sea in total? A thousand? Ten thousand? Or was it an even higher number?

Small Caste of Noble Warriors

Until now, the so-called Minimalists have set the tone in British archeology. They believe in what they call an "elite transfer", in which a small caste of Germanic noble warriors, perhaps a few thousand, placed themselves at the top of society in a coup of sorts, and eventually even displaced the Celtic language with their own. Many contemporary Britons, not overly keen on having such a close kinship with the Continent, like this scenario.

Thomas Sheppard, a museum curator, discovered this sentiment almost a century ago. In 1919, officers asked for his assistance after they accidentally discovered the roughly 1,500-year-old grave of an Anglo-Saxon woman while digging trenches in eastern England.

Sheppard concluded that the woman's bleached bones came from "conquerors from Germany" and announced: "These are our ancestors!" But the soldiers were thunderstruck. At first they cursed and refused to believe that they were related to the "Huns." But then the mood darkened. The trip back to the barracks "was like a funeral procession," Sheppard wrote.

Flood of People Crossed the North Sea

But there is no use in denying it. It is now clear that the nation which most dislikes the Germans were once Krauts themselves. A number of studies reinforce the intimacy of the German-English relationship.

Biologists at University College in London studied a segment of the Y chromosome that appears in almost all Danish and northern German men -- and is also surprisingly common in Great Britain. This suggests that a veritable flood of people must have once crossed the North Sea.

New isotope studies conducted in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries produced similar results. When chemists analyzed the tooth enamel and bones of skeletons, they found that about 20 percent of the dead were newcomers who had originated on mainland Europe.

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