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Discussion of the Saxon Invasion of Britain, Part 3
by Michael Veprauskas

A Tale of Two Cultures

How do we reconcile the two divergent traditions of Bede and Nennius?  Though separated in time by some 20 years, they do share points in common:

  • Both accounts state their arrival was at the invitation of Vortigern.
  • Both accounts relate how the initial Saxon settlement was on the Isle of Thanet, and only later on the Kentish mainland.
  • The later Saxon revolt was at the instigation of Hengest and Horsa and started in Kent.

Clearly, the traditions are of the same events.  Do they differ because of  the cultural perspective of the parties involved?  It might be well to take another look at what Nennius has to say regarding the aftermath of the Saxon revolt.  After the initial shock phase of Saxon looting and raiding, the British under Vortimer fight back  A general account of the war, spanning several years, is given by Nennius:

"At length Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, valiantly fought against Hengist, Horsa, and his people; drove them to the isle of Thanet, and thrice enclosed them within it, and beset them on the western side. The Saxons now despatched deputies to Germany to solicit large reinforcements, and an additional number of ships: having obtained these, they fought against the kings and princes of Britain..."18

Another version of Nennius adds to the first section, "attacking, threatening, and terrifying them, and drove them out for five years."19  Two Gallic chronicles report large sections of Britain falling under Saxon control in 441.20  The likely time of the Saxon revolt is therefore 439/440.  After nearly a decade of fighting, as indicated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Nennius, Vortimer obtained the victory.  Apparently, the overall victory of Vortimer was followed by a time of peace, for around five years.  This was followed by even fiercer Saxon invasions against which "the kings and princes of Britain" fought, apparently under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus.  Nennius' History has Vortimer dying shortly after defeating the Saxons.21

"After this the barbarians became firmly incorporated, and were assisted by foreign pagans, for Vortigern was their friend..."22

This initial period of renewed invasion and permanent settlement, most likely occurred during the joint reigns of Marcian and Valentinian, i.e. between 450-455, as stated in the old Kentish tradition!  It can thus be seen, how the two cultures might select a different starting point, but still be talking about the same "event".  The British looking back to the initial and fatal blunder of their High King in 428, saw this as the first coming of the Saxons, while their Kentish counterparts saw the period of permanent settlement (450-455) as the founding of their kingdom.  The previous dealings were regarded as being that of paid foederati in the service of Vortigern.  They were both unsuccessful in the short term, and, like most failures, unremembered in the long run.  It is a characteristic of the old Germanic peoples to only remember their victories.  Defeats "are neither paid nor praised", to quote a line from Yeats!

Back to: Adventus Saxonum Part One


  1. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, Section 43.
  2. John Morris, Age of Arthur,  p. 80.
  3. The Gallic Chronicles of 452 and 511, under the year 441.
  4. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, Section 44.
  5. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, Section 45.    Copyright 1998, LLC