A group of islands close to continental Europe, the British Isles have been subject to many invasions and migrations, especially from Scandinavia and the continent, including Roman occupation for several centuries. Contemporary English are descended mainly from the varied ethnic stocks that settled there before the 11th century. The pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences were blended in Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings who had lived in Northern France.
The Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC and most of Britain's subsequent incorporation into the Roman Empire stimulated development and brought more active contacts with the rest of Europe. As Rome's strength declined, the country again was exposed to invasion.
The word Anglo-Saxon is used as a collective name for those Teutonic settlers -- the foundation stock of the English race -- who after dispossessing the Celtic inhabitants of Britain in the middle of the fifth century, remained masters of the country until a new order of things was created in 1066 by the coming of the Normans.
Though etymologically open to some objection (cf. Stevenson's "Asser", 149) the term Anglo-Saxon is convenient in practice, the more so because we do not know very much concerning the provenance of the Low German tribes who about the year 449 began to invade Britain.
The Jutes, who came first and occupied Kent and the Isle of Wight, have been supposed to be identical with the inhabitants of Jutland, but it has been recently shown that this is probably an error (Stevenson, ibid., 167). They were, however, a Frisian tribe.
The Saxons of the fifth century were better known and more widely spread, occupying the present Westphalia, Hanover and Brunswick. The Angles in Tacitus's day were settled on the right bank of the Elbe close to its mouth. They seem to have been nearly akin to their then neighbors, the Lombards, who after long wanderings eventually became the masters of Italy. It is curious to find the great historian of the Lombards, Paul the Deacon, describing their dress as resembling that "which the Anglo-Saxons are wont to wear."
In England the Saxons, after establishing themselves in the south and east, in the localities now represented by Sussex and Essex, founded a great kingdom in the West which gradually absorbed almost the whole country south of the Thames. In fact, the King of Wessex ultimately became the lord of the entire land of Britain.
The Angles, who followed close upon the heels of the Saxons, founded the kingdoms of East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk), Mercia (the Midlands), Deira (Yorkshire), and Bernicia (the country farther north). The extermination of the native Inhabitants was probably not so complete as was at one time supposed, and a recent authority (Hodgkin) has declared that "Anglo-Celt rather than Anglo-Saxon is the fitting designation of our race."
Beginning with the raid in 793 on the monastery at Lindisfarne, Vikings made many raids on England.
The Saxons founded a settlement beside the River Sheaf, which was called Scafield or Escafeld (later to become Sheffield in South Yorkshire) and it was at Dore (now a suburb of the modern city) that Egbert of Wessex received the submission of Eanred of Northumbria in 829 and so became the first Saxon overlord of all England.
After a time of plunder and raids, the Vikings began to settle in England and trade, eventually ruling the Danelaw from the late 9th century. One Viking settlement was in York, called Jorvik) by the Vikings. Viking rule left significant traces in the English language; the similarity of Old English and Old Norse led to much borrowing.
The principal legacy left behind in those territories from which the language of the Britons were displaced is that of toponyms. Many of the place-names in England and to a lesser extent Scotland are derived from the Britons' names, including London, Dumbarton, York, Dorchester, Dover and Colchester. Several place-name elements are thought to be wholly or partly Brythonic in origin, particularly bre-, bal-, and -dun for hills, carr for a high rocky place, coomb for a small deep valley.
In 1066, William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Harold had been weaked by having been forced to fight off an invasion of Vikings just prior to the Norman invasion.
In the following centuries, both Wales and Scotland unified with England under a single Kingdom. Visit the History of the United Kingdom page for history after the union.
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