Mass migration versus elite
dominance in the Anglo-
Saxon settlement of Britain
Language & Place Names
Questions to be considered:
“When I was at school I am sure we were
taught that England was inhabited by Angles,
Saxons and Jutes who crossed en masse from
Germany after the Romans abandoned Britain,
and drove the Britons into the far west.?”
And isn‟t that why all our place-names are
composed in English - except those which
come from languages which arrived later with
the Vikings or Normans?
There is much controversy between historians
over the two theories of Anglo-Saxon
Before 1980s, historical and archaeological
evidence interpreted in favour of mass
migration but more recent interpretations show
a preference to the model of elite dominance.
Archaeology can be used to support either mass migration
or elite dominance.
Higham argues that archaeological evidence, such as
building types and material culture, demonstrates a small
migration of high status people.
However, others argue that archaeology, especially
material culture, cannot be used to confirm that the
settlement was high-status.
Difficulties in inferring ethnicity from burial
Weale et al., examined Y (male) chromosomes. Weale
claimed that his evidence showed a mass migratory event
and argued that approximately half of the population in
England derives from the Anglo-Saxon gene pool.
Oppenheimer et al. provide evidence to suggest that the
settlement was not the result of mass migration as only 5-
15% of the modern gene pool show links to the Anglo-
Issues affect the usefulness of genetic anthropology.
Thomas et al., suggest a theory of genetic
anthropology which indicates that the settlement
was one of elite dominance.
They suggest that it is unlikely that there was a
mass migration due to the relatively large size of
the population immediately after the Roman
occupation. Status of migrants versus status of
Gelling proposes that language and place-names changes
provide the greatest support for mass migration, but not
extermination of the British population.
The main Brittonic borrowings are topographical suggests
same status of migrants and native Britons.
However, recently some scholars have disputed the theory
that language replacement is proof of mass migration.
Problems involved in linguistics and place-name studies.
Most sources are anti-elite dominance and support gradual mass
Early Medieval beliefs
Pride of the Romans.
Others support elite dominance
To advance socially in the early medieval period one had to join the dominating
As the Anglo Saxons survived in Britain this MUST be them.
Others questioned why in other parts of the world for a Millenium after
you could not be an emperor without being a „Roman Emperor‟
Third Rome in Moscow,
Roman Empire of Franks and Germans, but in Britain this was not the case.
5. Problems with evidence
Most significantly - early medieval lack of ethnic conciousness,
Lies about background to gain power
Archaeologists provide no firm supporting evidence either way
Controversy between the two opposing models of Anglo-Saxon
settlement – different interpretations.
The study of genetics, archaeology and place-names provide
evidence which supports both elite dominance and mass
Popularity of different interpretations –filtered down through
education = may explain why Mrs. Smith had particular beliefs
about her ancestors.
In relation to Mrs. Smith and her ancestors...
The study of place-names provides the strongest evidence for the theory of
mass migration but as Gelling suggests, this does not mean that the migration
also involved extermination of the Celts = it is possible for Mrs. Smith to be a
distant descendant from the remains found in her garden. Not population
extermination even if mass migration occurred.
The study of genetics also provides a plausible answer as to why Mrs. Smith is
related to the remains in her garden. Mass migration or elite dominance =
evidence suggests northern Europeans all share similar genetics.
C. Hills. Origins of the English (London, 2003).
„Y-Chromosome Evidence for Anglo Saxon Mass Migration‟,
Michael Weale and others; (Molecular Biology and Evolution 19(7)
„Myths of British Ancestry‟, Stephen Oppenheimer; Prospect
Magazine Issue 127 October 2006
„Evidence for an Apartheid-like Structure in early Anglo-Saxon
England‟, Mark Thomas ad others; Proceedings of the Royal
Society doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3627 (2006)
S Foot, The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the
Norman Conquest in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society,
Sixth Series;Voulme 6, 1996 Rosenwein, Debating the Middle
Ages: Issues and Readings, Oxford 1998