As has been seen in the chapter above, the early Post-Roman kingships were much smaller than they would be in the later Middle Ages. The Pictish confederacy fractured within a few decades of Rome’s withdrawal and its former members apparently fell to infighting and simple raids. The Irish set up colonies around the same time. The Germanic raiders continued to attack settlements and shipping. The Britons and Germanic foederati maintained their Roman existence for as long as they could.
The raid of 441, the event that caused continental communications to temporarily shut down and that Gildas, writing decades later, remembered as cataclysmic, changed the political landscape of Britain. Once the foederati had attacked their employers and taken whatever food and supplies they could, it was impossible to return to their former arrangement. They had taken matters into their own hands and in the process changed their relationship from employees of a culture they respected to masters over the local villages.
As has been suggested above, once the provincial Roman government had broken down only the villages that were directly protected by the foederati, their neighbors, would have had any reason to continue giving them food and supplies.
Reasonably, and following Professor Arnold’s evidence, the Germanic groups divided themselves into clans and assumed control over as many nearby villages as they needed to support themselves. A family, occasionally two, took a leadership position in each village so that they could directly ensure that they were given what they needed; the beginnings of Manorialism.
Keeping the shipping lanes clear had been a Roman concern, but the Roman Empire was no longer involved with their lives. As everything they needed was now locally produced they would have had no reason to continue guarding the English Channel. They would have had no reason to maintain any contact with the continent.
Their only concern was in protecting their new possessions, the villages full of farmers and craftsmen who provided everything they needed. And the only groups that threatened them were the Germanic tribes who hadn’t been foederati and were still roaming the English Channel pirating and raiding as the opportunity arose.
The changed situation put the raiders at a disadvantage against their cousins. They would have had greater numbers – at least fifteen against a handful of defenders, but the former foederati only had to protect one place and they would have known the terrain better than the attackers. The raiders would also have had few supplies, little food, and no safe base from which to conduct raids.
Those adventurous war parties that traveled further west, though, eventually came across British villages that were not occupied by their cousins. They would have been easy targets, and eventually easy conquests that provided them and their families with enough tribute to live comfortably.
Britain must have seemed like an attractive place for migration during the mid-fifth century. On the continent, the various tribes were scrambling to get away from Attila the Hun as his Huns pillaged and killed Germanic and Roman alike. He died in 453, but we know that the migration of peoples and the uncertainty of life in general continued until the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the subsequent occupation of its territories. It was only then, in the last years of the fifth century, that the continent would stabilize and Germanic migrations into Britain would finally stop.
Life in Britain seems to have been different once the tribes were settled; there is no sign of serious warfare or clear in the early Germanic-occupied villages. This led Professor Arnold to suggest a matriarchal society might have existed. Considering the suddenness of the proposed change, though, that seems a little unlikely.
A middle ground is more probable. We know that cattle raiding was prevalent. There is also no evidence of starvation among these villages but a continuing presence of weapons and armor in the grave sites. Leadership may have been informal, with cattle raiding used as an acceptable way of bleeding off unwanted male aggression in the family. In imagining a fifth-century cattle raid, we should picture a very brutal form of American football or rugby. Deaths and severe injuries must have occurred but could not have been the norm.
Whether the Germanic rulers operated in a matriarchal government, a monarchy, or an oligarchy is unknown; their skops or the bards of their culture have left none of their work from this period and the archeology is ambiguous. We cannot deduce anything from the lack of evidence either. The skop’s work might not have survived for over a hundred years in an oral environment, it might not have been recorded by the first Christian monks because it was pagan, or maybe skops did not exist without kings and the Germanic tribes had none. Fortunately, how they ruled themselves is not all that important in this era.
What is important is that the Germanic peoples ruled themselves; they controlled and protected nearby British villages in return for food and supplies. It is also important to understand that each family was at a disadvantage – strategically, economically, and numerically – against the British kingdoms at this stage of their development.
Toward the end of the fifth century, Germanic wanderers would have run into British kingdoms, effectively ending the migration period.
1 Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (New York, 1988), 188-210.