Friday, November 26, 2004

Where Did Those Britons Go?

Many years ago, in a history lesson at school, there was a little bit of a mystery.

We were doing a sort of sweeping overview of the last two-thousand years of British history. First, there were the Romans, who ruled the Britons for a few centuries. Then they went away, and these Angles and Saxons arrived, and settled in what became England. Oh, and there was some mention of Jutes (but the Angles were Jutish, so it may have been them). After the Saxon age (there was, perhaps, a local emphasis, and this is a rather Saxon region), there was 1066, with William the Conqueror and the Normans (but they decided not to tell us that he was previously known as 'William the Bastard'). And then just 900 or so years of history since that last successful invasion.

(Oh, and I should, perhaps, mention the Vikings. I'm sure they must've had a mention in there somewhere. But it was a long time ago, and I can't really remember it all that clearly.)

But there was a little bit of a mystery. The Romans, who had been ruling over the Britons, left. Fair enough. Then the Angles and Saxons arrived, and settled in what became England. Okay. But what about the Britons who had been ruled over by the Romans? Where had they gone? What happened to them?

Someone asked the teacher, as it did seem to be a little bit of a gap that needed filling. But, intriguingly, she just said that the previous Britons had been replaced by the new arrivals. She said that this sort of thing happened sometimes, that peoples sometimes moved around, and one bunch would replace another that had, well, gone away. But where had they gone? What happened to them? What made them go away? No real answer. It was just something that happened.

There was something about this that just wasn't quite right. Something was missing. There was something we weren't being told.

A dirty secret?

Well, many years later, I was nosing through a book about King Arthur from the library. And guess what? It gave an answer to that old, hanging question: ethnic cleansing!

Basically, the Angles and Saxons had gone on a land-grab, killing, enslaving and expelling Britons in the process. At least, that's roughly what legend says. It was ethnic cleansing of the most horrible, barbaric kind, and that was the answer the teacher didn't give.

But how much truth is there in it? After all, it isn't just legend, but legend from the Dark Ages. And much of it comes via Geoffrey of Monmouth, one of the great liars of history. So, there's plenty of room for doubt.

But, although I haven't really looked into this in any real detail, I've noticed the occasional news story of potential relevance. For example, I noted, just the other day, that while only about ten percent of the ancestors of the English were Anglo-Saxon immigrants, almost none of the male ancestors from that time were Britons. That fits rather too well with the rumours of legend about the invaders enslaving and raping the Britons.

I can just imagine the news reports on telly.

Well, it's chaos here. No one knows who's in charge, but the Saxons seem pretty confident that they are. Further north, it's the Angles who claim to be taking control. But, no matter who is in control - if anyone - of one thing there is no doubt: Roman control is certainly at an end.

Rumours of killing and other atrocities abound. There are tales of a whole village just a few miles from here being driven from their homes. From elsewhere, reports that Britons are being taken into slavery by the foreigners. Refugees are fleeing west in their thousands, with stomach-turning stories of how the invaders, as they're calling them, are killing the men.

Some Britons are fighting back - or at least trying to. But they're disorganised, with rival leaders pulling the province apart more than they're pulling the people together. It's difficult to see how they can defend their homeland when they're so disunited.

They came here to defend us, one woman said to me, referring to the time when the Angle and Saxon mercenaries first arrived on this island. But now they're killing us, and the Romans have abandoned us. She was clearly distraught, and broke down in tears by the roadside. Someone else told me that her children had been killed only two days ago, along with their father.

The Saxons tell it differently, blaming the Britons themselves for the chaos. After all, part of the reason the former overlord hired the barbarian mercenaries was to reinforce Roman rule on an unruly population. But it's hard to believe that this is any kind of a peace-keeping, or peace-enforcing, operation. The foreigners regard the natives as the problem - and a problem they are determined to solve.


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