In an age of misinformation, there remains many ambiguities around the ethno-cultural history of England. Many attempt to politicise the unique history of England, whether for this agenda or that, by describing, predominantly, untruths and half-truths about our origin as a people. This proves frustrating, simply because the ethnic lineage of the English nation is well-documented and provides a rather clear picture, once all the facts are ascertained. Some, inevitably, have attempted to structure the debate in raw science, tracking Y DNA Haplogroups and other genetic markers to firmly fix this ethnic heritage. Yet, as with many sciences, this too proves “inconclusive”; some geneticists ascribe our present genetic structure to pre-Roman migrations from the continent, whilst others, no less capable scientists it must be said, have gone as far as to root our ancestry in hunter-gatherers who migrated northwards from the Basque refuge after the last glacial maximum! Given such disparities, perhaps the purely scientific approach doesn’t hold the same validity as it would for other subjects – in any case, the markers used only account for about 2% of our genetic makeup anyway. Of course, this genealogy is null and void when one considers that, as it has been recently proven, over ninety-percent of Britain’s population was replaced by Neolithic farmers – the original Indo-Europeans – migrating westward from the Pontic Steppe. We, the English, and those of the source of our migratory past, are all “one people”, with cultural differences being the only major difference between us. However, that doesn’t negate the value of investigating England’s ethnic past, as much from the perspective of cultural trade and transmission as anything else, which inevitably lays downstream from genetic shift.
England’s ethno-cultural history begins not with the nation’s founding in the eleventh-century, but with Hengist and Horsa in the fifth century. These two Saxon warriors arrived on the Isle of Thanet sometime in the 440s, where they first served as mercenaries under Vertigern, King of the Britons, before turning on their old master to lead the columns of Saxon invaders. The ensuing battles were fierce and bloody, and nobody really knows precisely how the territorial changes translate into ethnic lineage. We know that the Germanic invaders were incredibly superior to their Celtic counterparts in military terms, and some historians, most pertinently Simon Jenkins in his book “A Short History of the English Peoples”, maintain that the majority of Celts were either killed or forced from their ancestral homelands to the far corners of the British Isles; Wales to the West, Cornwall to the South-West, and Scotland to the North. Whilst geneticists are divided on the issue, cultural and linguistic historiography appear to support the genocide theory, as opposed to the oft propagated assimilation theory. Take the English language, for instance; it has not even trace elements of the previously native Brythonic tongue. One would expect, as is the case with the amalgamation of Old English and Norman French, that an assimilation theory would be better supported if the Celtic language could be seen in Modern English. Yet it can’t, and neither is there any record of the Saxons trading religious principles with the natives – the invading Germanic tribes remained pagan for a century after conquering what is today England, whilst the Celts had long been Christian after conversion via Rome. Incidentally, the Saxons were eventually converted by missionaries from the East, as opposed to from the already-Christian Celts in the West.
The Germanic tribes quickly settled into the area that is today England; Angles in the North, Jutes to the far South and Saxons to the South East. There’s also evidence suggesting that not insignificant numbers of Frisians settlers moved into parts of Southern England, which is supported by linguistics, both historical and modern (Frisian is the closest living language to English), as well as by ancient religious and writing practises; the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, a variant of the Elder Futhorc, is often referred to by historians as the Anglo-Frisian Futhorc, as its almost identical to the runic script used by the inhabitants of today’s Friesland.
The land that is today England was divided into what’s known as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy – seven kingdoms; Wessex, Mercia (the strongest and largest two), Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Kent and Sussex. These were structured on Germanic lines, with little-to-no signs of Celtic societal influence; consequently, there is very little evidence of the “replacement aristocracy” theory, the notion that the invading Germanic tribes simply “replaced” the existing aristocracy – the evidence demonstrates that in fact, a significant number of Anglo-Saxons migrated from the continent, providing both a peasantry and an aristocracy.
This Anglo-Saxon hegemony of the English territory didn’t last. The first of the Viking raids on the British Isles came in 793 AD, when Norwegian Pagans sacked the monasteries along the Southern Wessex coast. Their raids primarily, however, targeted the East coast of England and Southern Scotland in the future, raids which became increasingly frequent as the eighth century moved into the ninth, at which point they began to aim at a more permanent settlement. In 867 AD, Norse Vikings, primarily comprised of Danish volunteers, captured Northumbria after landing in East Anglia two years previously. They began to establish permanent settlements in conquered land along England’s East coast, until what was later named “Danelaw” in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was established. Danelaw was, as the name suggests, a section of England over which the predominantly Danish Vikings had jurisdiction. The size and scope of this varied over the years, but at its greatest extent it stretched from Carlisle in the North-West of England right down to London in the South-East. Similarly, the level of autonomy from Denmark that this region enjoyed also varied, but by the mid-ninth century a fair degree of political distance from Denmark had been established. The impact this period had on the English genepool is debateable; on the one hand, it’s clear that a large number of Vikings arrived on English shores, and we know that they retained a dialect of Old Norse for a period of time, from whence we derive some words in modern English. We also know that they installed a Norse nobility which ruled right up until the Norman conquest in the eleventh century.
Yet by the early eleventh century, the English Kingdoms, including those under the Danes’ jurisdiction, had begun to unite under a single banner. The Danish influence was such that King Cnut, of Danish royal lineage, was simultaneously King of the English, King of Denmark and King of Norway in the early eleventh century, briefly re-uniting the “North Sea Empire” of Nordic nations – in which England was included. This suggests an influence far beyond what we’ve previously understood. Another supporting factor, despite the caution advised with such studies, is that certain genetic markers found in the modern English people compare quite favourably with similar markers found in Danes. One must also consider that after just a hundred years, nobody could tell via anecdotal evidence who was of Danish, Norwegian or Anglo-Saxon origin, as the languages and cultural practises had amalgamated to such an extent that the differences were too insignificant to even document.
The next (and last) great influx of settlers to England was, of course, William of Normandy’s conquest in 1066 AD. The de facto last King of England, Edward the Confessor (1042-66), himself the son of Emma of Normandy (Queen Consort of Norway, Denmark and England), had promised the throne of England to his cousin, William, Duke of Normandy. Harold Godwinson, a wealthy noble with no hereditary claim to the English throne, also claimed he’d been promised the Kingdom of England, but as historical record shows to his shame, he was swiftly defeated by William’s forces after repelling Harald Hardrada (who also had a claim to the English throne) and Norway’s invading armies. The Norman invasion is an interesting piece of history, for it is often used by those with an agenda to demonstrate an example of thriving diversity, given the French origin of these invaders. Yet this omits a very important fact; the Normans were not French, at least not genetically. The name Normandy gives us a clue; “Land of the North Men”. The Vikings had not only raided the British Isles, but much of Europe during the tenth century. In France, they liked what they saw and decided to attempt a permanent settlement through force, followed by very adapt diplomacy. Duke Rollo, the first Norse ruler of Normandy, was given the land by King Charles of West Francia in 911 AD, in return for ceasing the violent raids of monasteries along the River Seine, as well as converting to Christianity and protecting France from further coastal raids, amongst other things. Whilst they did use intermarriage as a form of diplomacy to bring conquered territory under their control, the Normans had only been in France for little over a century when William made his claim on the English throne. The only real question of genetic divergence is that of whom William brought with him as an invasion party. We know that he gifted land to his most senior, loyal Barons who aided him with his conquest in 1066, and we also know that to gather a sizeable force for the ensuing battle, he’d recruited from outside of his immediate locality. Precisely how this translated into genetic impact is unclear, but there are two facts that can be stated for certain; firstly, Norman Barons and Nobles very quickly intermarried with the local Saxon and Danish Nobles in their respective English regions; secondly, the Normans never invaded in large, settlement-esque numbers like the Anglo-Saxons before them. Rather, they simply dislodged the existing aristocracy and took its place, bringing with them the customs and court procedures they’d picked up in Northern France. Thus we can conclude that the precise origins of these Nobles is immaterial, given their propensity to quickly intermarry and assimilate – whether they were indeed Frenchmen, or pure Nordic Norman, is insignificant.
The Norman invasion was the last major shift in either the ruling caste or the general demographics of England. For a thousand years since, England hasn’t succumbed to an invasion party, nor did it receive any large-scale immigration until 1945. The one group that is oft talked about is the Huguenots, a group of Protestants and Reformed Christians who emigrated to England, fleeing persecution in France. England’s Huguenot influx came primarily from the Walloon region of present-day Belgium, as well as Western France. The total number of these refugees was, at the highest estimation, 50,000 – equivalent to just 1% of England’s population at the time. By all accounts, these immigrants were easily assimilated into English society and were naturalised by law, intermarrying and becoming very English, very quickly. Some interesting descendants of Huguenots are former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as well as the English patriot Nigel Farage.
And thus, given the lack of any further migrations to speak of, we’ve arrived at the conclusion of this short description of England’s ethnic history. As can be observed, there really isn’t a great deal to tell; we’re not a melting pot of exotic cultures and peoples, but rather a fairly consistent pool of Germanic tribes and rulers. After all, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Danes and Normans arrived on these shores from, originally, a stretch of land between Saxony in Northern Germany and the North of Denmark. What we can see, however, is a rich cultural heritage generated from a synthesis of these various tribes and the small differences they did bring to the proverbial table. For instance, our language is 40% French-derived and 35% Germanic, and our cultural idiosyncrasies are fairly unique, being an amalgamation of organic Old English customs mixed with the customs brought from France via Normandy. These factors, as well as our strong Norse, Germanic heritage, makes the English peoples unique and fascinating in their own particular way and our heritage firmly fixed in clear historical record.