New light on the end of Roman Britain
Dr David Musgrove considers the evidence available on what happened after the Romans departed Britain
What happens when society collapses? That’s a question that exercises apocalyptic fiction writers, and has spawned all manner of dystopian films and TV shows. But does the start of the fifth century in Britain provide an actual historical example of societal collapse? The context is the decline of the Roman imperial presence, after more than three centuries of control over large parts of lowland Britain.
Thomas Williams, author of Lost Realms: Histories of Britain From the Romans to the Vikings (William Collins, 2022), neatly summed up the traditional view of the period, in a forthcoming interview that I conducted with him for the HistoryExtra podcast.
“The generally accepted story of those centuries would begin with the collapse of the Roman empire, traditionally dated to AD 410,” says Williams. “That's seen in terms of a fairly precipitous economic and social collapse, which is really compounded by waves of Germanic – in inverted commas – migrants crossing the North Sea in the absence of the Roman military who have left the island. These migrants spread over large swathes of southern Britain, driving the indigenous Britons out of their lands and into the highlands of Wales and the North of England in particular”.
That, in large part, is the narrative provided by the admittedly patchy historical sources for the period, most notably Gildas and Bede (though Bede was certainly writing some time after the fact). Over the years, historians have continued to plough those sources for more nuance, while archaeologists have examined the material record to see what story it tells and how far it corroborates or clashes with that narrative. More recently, scientists have started to employ new techniques to analyse the chemical and genetic composition of human remains from the period. With all this barrage of study, two key questions have continued to be debated.
Was there an economic and societal collapse? If so, what did that mean for people on the ground? Was there a substantial migration of people into lowland Britain? And again, if so, what did that mean for the people on the ground?
Some fascinating new approaches, and some very interesting new techniques, have been brought to bear on these topics in recent years. I put together a podcast series, chatting to some of the leading researchers to see if there is any consensus coming together.
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On the question of collapse, I started by paying a visit to Chedworth Roman villa, a handsome National Trust ruin in rural Gloucestershire. If you’ve not been, it’s worth a trip for its magnificent mosaics in the West Range, and – on a more basic level – for a chance to ruminate about the earthy experience in the Roman latrine room.
That aside, Chedworth matters because of the recent dating of one mosaic to be much later than expected, to the mid fifth century. That, of course, is after the traditional end-point of Roman Britain, as Thomas Williams explained. I called Martin Papworth, the National Trust archaeologist who made the find, and asked him what he made of it. “You’re talking about an industry with skilled craftsmen,” Papworth explained, “and therefore you're expecting perhaps an urban economy to sustain that, and enough people around who want similar services. It suggests there is a continuity of romanisation at a level that previously we might not have expected.”
So Chedworth is providing a little hint that the withdrawal of Roman imperial presence in Britain in the fifth century didn’t necessarily mean that everyone, everywhere, suddenly stopped living a Roman life, or at least, trying to. Another of my podcast guests, Dr Rob Collins, of Newcastle University, added: “That mosaic is absolutely fantastic because it points to the fact that Britain might not be part of the empire, but actually, there's still a wealthy class of people who think of themselves as Roman and behave as we would expect Romans to do.”
- Listen | Episode 3: A militarised state?
That’s just one example, an outlier in terms of dating, and most of the experts I spoke to were clear that, nevertheless, something dramatic did happen at the start of the fifth century, as Britain became dislocated from the structures and network of the wider empire.
Professor Will Bowden, from the University of Nottingham, said: “I think Britain probably dropping out of the economic system of the Roman empire has a dramatic effect on the sorts of things that we, as archaeologists find and tend to study. Whether that effect is actually overstated I'm not sure, but certainly there are really quite dramatic changes from the fifth century onwards.
“It's certainly likely that for many of the people living in the early fifth century, there may have been episodes that would have been pretty bloody and unpleasant. I don't think we should overlook that. That said, the evidence of wholesale burning and massacres remains conspicuously absent.”
- Read more on Prof Bowden’s views on the fall of Roman Britain
According to Boston College’s Professor Robin Fleming, “when the Roman state withdrew, it looks as if the Roman economy unwound pretty rapidly. When you get to AD 450, you're in a very different Britain. The towns are dead, the villas are dead. There's been a lot of settlement shift. Many of the late Roman cemeteries where people were buried for a long time are no longer being used as burial sites. It doesn’t look like there's mass production of pottery anymore. There's no coin use. Something happens in a 40-60 year period that makes England look very different in 450 than it did in 350. There would be many historians who would say it's because the invasions came. But it looks like the place was pretty ramshackle and knocked down before many people started coming in from the continent.”
- Listen | Episode 6: Cultures lost and found
Despite this overview of a rapid change in the nature of society in the first half of the fifth century, the experts did stress that there wasn’t a uniform picture across what was formerly Roman Britain. People in some areas (as at Chedworth perhaps) were seemingly more inclined to seek to maintain a Roman way of life for a time, with Christianity (as Durham University’s Dr David Petts noted) maybe providing the glue for that continuity, while those in other parts were quicker to start forging new political structures and both personal and group identities.
- Listen | Episode 4: Religion and beliefs
The opportunity for people to develop these new groupings and identities, as existing power structures fell away, was particularly inviting for those at the less fortunate end of the social scale. The experts I spoke to were clear that Roman Britain was an unequal society (those fine mosaics at Chedworth were enjoyed by but a select few no doubt), where the elite did well, but many others laboured and suffered for their benefit.
Dr James Gerrard of Newcastle University provided an interesting take on this: “Not having to suffer under those obligations might have been a really positive thing for some people, It might have allowed some people to re-imagine themselves as a different cultural group. Some of them might have said, ‘Hey, I don't fancy being a Romano-Briton any more. Perhaps I'll be one of these incoming groups. Perhaps I'll become like them and I'll bring my children up to speak the ancestor of old English and wear funny brooches that my grandmother wouldn't have recognised’. So there were opportunities in the fifth century.”
- Listen | Episode 6: An identity in crisis?
The next question is who was taking up these opportunities – was it people whose ancestors had lived and died in Roman Britain in the past few centuries, or was it people who had recently moved into the area? In other words, what do we know about the nature and extent of migration in the fifth century?
We know what the historical evidence suggests, but now science is providing some further answers, from two different strands of research: stable isotope analysis, and ancient DNA. I spoke to two experts in these fields, who have both recently published project results.
Edinburgh University’s Dr Sam Leggett has been working on stable isotopes, in other words the chemical memories of what a person ate or drank and where that came from, as preserved in their bones and teeth. She has been analysing isotopes from human remains excavated at cemetery sites in Britain from the fifth and sixth centuries (and beyond), and she summarised her key findings: “In the Roman period, what we're seeing is most people in Britain are local to where they're buried, so people are still living and dying in a relatively small radius. But you do have a lot of people with warmer signatures, so presumably coming from southern Europe, the Mediterranean, other parts of the Roman world. When we hit the fifth century, you do have a small amount of people coming from warm places, so there still is some of that connectivity with the old Roman world. The majority of people are still local, but you suddenly get this influx of people coming from colder areas in Europe, and that is really, really marked. It shows up pretty much bang on when Bede and some of these other historical accounts say that should be happening.”
- Listen | Episode 7: Bones, diet and migrants
So isotopes indicate an uptick in the level of incoming migration, but can it be quantified? Back to Dr Leggett: “The scale is something that needs to be tackled and disputed. So previously lots of people thought it could be a huge amount of migrants coming in – a 50 percent replacement or more. Then archaeological debates swung backwards and forwards about, is it only a small group of people? Is it like Bede and Gildas say where there's a small war band that gets invited in and then they stay and maybe bring their families over later? Or is it lots of people en masse coming over? My work suggests that we're looking at about 50 to 60 per cent of the population being local. But you are having 30-40 per cent of people coming from elsewhere, about 20-30 per cent would be from colder regions. And then we have a small amount, about 10 percent who are coming from these warmer regions as well.”
A wave of northern migration?
Consideration of Ancient DNA (or aDNA – the study of the genetic make-up, and thus ancestry, of human remains) is another line of inquiry that is adding a new dimension to the picture. A report of a major project, which looked at the skeletons of 500 individuals and has just been published, includes this summary: “We identify a substantial increase of continental northern European ancestry in early medieval England, which is closely related to the early medieval and present-day inhabitants of Germany and Denmark, implying large-scale substantial migration across the North Sea into Britain during the Early Middle Ages. As a result, the individuals who we analysed from eastern England derived up to 76% of their ancestry from the continental North Sea zone, albeit with substantial regional variation and heterogeneity within sites.”
I chatted to the University of Central Lancashire’s Prof Duncan Sayer, one of the authors of that report, and he was very clear: “There's been this ongoing conversation in archaeology for quite some time about the nature of the migration. Is it a mass migration? Is an elite migration? Was there even a migration? Perhaps it is an invasion by elite warrior males. And what this does is it completely changes that conversation. What it says is, yes, there is mass migration. You can't argue with that any more. So what we could do is start to talk about what that migration actually is and who the people are and how they interact and how they build communities.”
So the scientific evidence, or at least that presented in these two recent projects, seems to align with the traditional historical narrative of a substantial wave of incomers from northern Europe (though we do talk in the podcast series also about the often-overlooked impact of migration from western Britain and Ireland too). The historians and archaeologists that I spoke to were cautiously excited about the possibilities of the new scientific analyses. Importantly, they talked about the need to break down disciplinary barriers to allow all the experts to come together and interrogate what these research projects, and the ones that will no doubt follow, can tell us. There was a note of warning from all sides, and that’s been obvious in the social media reaction to the latest aDNA report too, about inferring ideas about ethnicity from the scientific results.
Back to Duncan Sayer: “I think we have been able to use the ancient DNA data to bring mass migration in the post-Roman period back into perspective again. What is really important about that is that we're seeing a diversity of individuals within cemeteries on the south and east coast of Britain, diversity that implies that what we've always traditionally called early Anglo-Saxon culture is actually a hybrid culture. These are hybrid communities and hybrid people basing their identity in the organisation of their lived environment around family associations that are quite evident from that genetic data. We have to be very careful of imposing our own ideas of ethnicity, the postcolonial perspective, onto a past that actually placed family, relationships and community at the forefront of its life, of its space, of its expression of identity, as opposed to ancestral origin. I think what we really need to do based on this is start to look at local histories and interactions of people and not necessarily impose big scale perspectives onto that picture.”
The ethnicity issue is exacerbated by the difficulties of language and the ongoing conversation about the appropriateness, or otherwise, of words like Germanic and particularly Anglo-Saxon, which have become freighted with associations of racism and white supremacy, as Professor Michael Wood has talked about previously.
So, if it’s challenging (and perhaps anachronistic) to talk about perceived ethnic identities of any people in the fifth century, can we talk about the form and nature of migration?
The results of the aDNA survey are fascinating here: “We talk about it in terms of mass migration as opposed to invasion. What we can see in invasion patterns is that they have a gender bias in one particular way - lots of migrants are men with weapons,” explains Prof Sayer. “I think that's very much how those arguments about invasion were framed. Whereas that's not what we see at all. And there are as many women as there are men who have that direct ancestry to continental Europe, so they would have included first-generation migrants or second-generation migrants. We see women and infants that have that continental ancestry. Maybe those infants were born here, but you can see the familial associations. You’ve almost certainly got people who are moving and settling in established units already. There are families who are moving. What we probably have to do really is start talking about it in terms of mass migration, which is the phraseology that's probably been avoided over the last 20 years.”
If mass migration is the term to use, that takes us back to one of the conversations I had in an earlier episode of the podcast series, with James Gerrard (before the aDNA report from Professor Sayer and his team was made public), where he modelled out some ideas of how and why people might have travelled here.
“Who were these people?” asks Dr Gerrard. “Some of them were probably adventurous free booters, looking for service, looking for jobs, pay, land and going down traditional routes. They're coming to Britain and they were offering a service as mercenaries, as warriors to the population, just like they've done with the Roman Army for generations. Some of them might have been fleeing all kinds of troubles in their homelands. So environmental changes, other barbarian groups pushing them out, and they might have fled to Britain and have turned up, destitute and desperate. The local population may have looked at them and gone, ‘Hey, we could take all these dispossessed people and we could put them on this bit of land that we haven't got the labour for and they could farm it and we could tax them, collect rent from them’.”
The idea of some of these migrants coming as effectively refugees – from violence and environmental change – is a very thought-provoking one, and of course leads the mind to modern parallels. Speaking of parallels, I did ask all my contributors in the concluding episode if they wanted to suggest some more recent experiences that might help us today understand what life was like in the fifth century.
- Listen | Episode 9: Ends and beginnings
Several of the experts looked back to the fall of the USSR (though it’s important to note that they were all talking to me before the conflict in Ukraine had moved to its current terrible place). Professor Robin Fleming summed it up: “I think the collapse of the Soviet Union is a very good model, but the collapse only went so far, and the world started putting itself back together again because we have this big global economy. But had that been able to play out on its own, I think it would have been a pretty good correlate to what was happening in this period. But, you know, it's hard not to think of Bladerunner or these kind of sci fi apocalyptic movies, when you think about this period as well.”
‘Apocalyse then’ in fifth-century Britain? For some, probably, but perhaps ‘opportunity then’ for others – that’s the message I took from my interviews. And crucially, there is lots more discussion to be had on this topic, and lots of scope for more nuanced understanding. Do have a listen to the full podcast series for the in-depth conversations with all these experts.