In approximately what year did the Germanic tribe of the Saxons invade and settle the island of Britain?

Apparently they had not yet arrived when Julius Caesar visited Britain in 44 B.C.; neither were they there yet in the days of Claudius, the Roman Emperor who subdued Britain without bloodshed; or of Lucius, the Briton who first acknowledged Christianity, in A.D. 156. In fact, from the numerous sources I have looked in, these Saxons could have come anytime between the third and sixth centuries.

In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, for example, the Saxons are first mentioned in Chapter 15, which contains absolutely no dates. Since the Venerable Bede is ambiguous as to the Saxons’ exact arrival in Britain, are there any other primary sources documenting the Saxons’ invasion of Britain? And if not, what is the most widely agreed-upon guess by historians?

  • 3
    No one knows for sure but it's unlikely that their arrival was a single event.
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 29, 2016 at 20:46
  • Could there have been a further influx of Saxons during the Saxon War of the late 8th and early 9th centuries? Oct 29, 2016 at 20:51
  • We know the Romans built a Wall separating "their land" from "the Barbarians in the North" so to say their were no Saxons when the Romans arrived "and called it Britain" I think is false. Certainly when the Roman Empire collapsed "the Saxons" suddenly appeared everywhere.... Oct 30, 2016 at 2:59

2 Answers 2


The Saxons probably moved in in force in the fifth century AD when the Romans withdrew.

I studied this period of English history at University and have since taken courses in Old English (language of the Anglo-Saxons). General view appears to be that when the Romans arrived Britain was populated by tribes speaking Celtic languages, ancestral to Welsh or the extinct Pictish. However, the Romans were not interested in recording the languages their barbarian subjects spoke and it is conceivable there were enclaves speaking other language(s).

The earliest (doubtful) reference to Saxons under that name is in Ptolemy's geography Second Century AD, as a tribe in Continental Europe. By late Roman times fierce pagan Saxons were recorded raiding Britain and northern Gaul by sea, and there is some archaeological evidence that (as with other Germanic tribes) some Saxons joined the Roman army and served in Britain.

After the Romans abandoned Britain in the early fifth century AD we have little record of what happened there. By the end of the sixth century, when they began to adopt Christianity and leave significant written records the Saxons and closely-related Angles and Jutes were established occupying most of what is now England, Celtic speakers remaining independent in the poorer, more mountainous territories in what are now Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. Saxons, Angles (and the less common Jutes) were sufficiently similar in speech and culture that they quite quickly blended into an Anglo-Saxon/ English nation, and the terms Saxon and Engel (Angle or English) were used almost interchangeably.

Apart from Bede, whom you mention, whose Eighth Century Ecclesiastical History of the English People treats Saxons, Angles and Jutes as one people, other sources include:

-'The Ruin of Britain' by Gildas, a British/Welsh monk writing in Latin in the fifth century who regards the conquest of much of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons as God's punishment for the Britons' gluttony, drunkenness and other sins.

-The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in Old English and giving an English point of view probably compiled by order of King Alfred the Great in the late Ninth Century, from poems and other traditions and sources we do not know.

-Mention by continental writers. They say so little about Britain for a few hundred years after the Romans left that its contacts with the civilized world must have been severely curtailed following the pagan Anglo-Saxon conquest but there are a few mentions

-Archaeology, although we have to be careful that in the absence of written records we do not necessarily know if e.g. a change in farming or burial practice means a new population coming in or what language they spoke.

  • Linguistics can't settle the "when" question easily, but it actually has something the say about the "who" and "where" questions. English is more closely related to Frisian than it was to Old Saxon. This in all likelihood means the predominant culture of the Germanic settlers was Frisian (not Saxon), coming from locations along the southern North Sea coast. The Angles and Jutes Bede mentioned were likely just geographic/tribal terms for proto-Anglo-Frisian speakers in modern Denmark.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 1, 2016 at 15:59
  • Possibly right T E D, although Bede treated Frisians as a separate people from those he considers English (e.g. at one point he mentions a war captive's miraculous escape from being sold as a slave to a visiting Frisian merchant). Various early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms or tribes called themselves the West Saxons, East Saxons, South Saxons or Middle Saxons (Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Middlesex as we now call them) but none called themselves Frisians. Germanic tribes were quite mobile and could split or combine. The origins and interrelationships of these peoples may be complex.
    – Timothy
    Nov 1, 2016 at 17:25
  • 1
    My guess for that discrepancy would be that the rulers tended to be Saxon lineage, but the underlying society (Anglo-)Frisian. Their language survived the change to Norman-speaking rulers in much the same way. It could be that the linguists have it wrong though...
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 1, 2016 at 17:43

A southern Gallic chronicle dated a Saxon takeover of Britain to 442 AD, but that might possibly be wrong, or temporary, or refer to Saxons being given the permission of Aetius or Attila the Hun to settle in Britain.

A large army of Britons from Brittany and/or Britain operated in Gaul about 468-470 AD.

The life of St. Germanus of Auxerre written about 480 AD says he visited Britain about 428 Ad to fight heresy and led a battle with raiding (not invading) Saxons, and made another visit to Britain in the 430s or 440s.

Procopius, writing about 550 or 560, reported that Britain was ruled by "tyrants", (usurping roman emperors?) since 410. He mentions that there were three nations in Britain - Britons, Saxons, and Frisians - each ruled by a king, and instead of people migrating to Britain they were migrating from Britain to the Continent.

By the mission of Saint Augustine in 597 what was later southern England was ruled by pagan Anglo Saxons and any Britons would be slaves, serfs, or otherwise oppressed.

Bede (died 731) dates the first coming of the Saxons to about 446 AD. The HIstoria Brittonum (c. 830) dates the first coming of the Saxons to 428 AD.

The Historia Brittonum describes how Arthur and the Kings of the Britons defeated the Saxons in 12 battles. After every defeat the Saxons sent for more kings and warriors from Germany, and this continued until the reign of Ida in Bernicia. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (about 880) and possibly Bede date the beginning of Ida's reign to 547 AD.

Thus sources written centuries later date the period of Saxon settlement and/or invasion to about 450 to 550 AD.

And in rare cases archaeologists may be able to both date Saxon settlements and to also decide that the Saxons in them must have been recent immigrants from the continent, thus providing a few dates for Saxon immigration.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.