The Origins of the British – Germanic people here millenia before the Anglo-Saxon invasions

I have just finished reading Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Origins of the British. My purpose, at the outset, was to acquaint myself with how his argument, based on genetic research (first brought to my notice in Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins), dispels the myth of Celtic invasions during the Iron Age.

Oppenheimer summarises the main message of his study: ‘three quarters of British ancestors arrived long before the first farmers. This applies in varying proportions to 88% of Irish, 81% of Welsh, 79% of Cornish, 70% of the people of Scotland and its associated islands and 68% (over two-thirds) of the English and their politically associated islands. These figures dwarf any perception of Celtic or Anglo-Saxon ethnicity based on concepts of more recent, massive invasions.’

As cited by Cunliffe, Oppenheimer’s study reveals that the first people to arrive in Britain, and the majority from whom the British are descended, were from Iberian refuges. Then, in the Neolithic, further Iberian influxes occurred along the west coast via the Atlantic seaways and people from the Near East and the Balkans moved up the Danube and crossed the North Sea to arrive on the east coast. It was around this time the Celtic languages developed as a ‘lingua franca’.

Cunliffe leads the reader to believe all of Britain and Ireland were Celtic-speaking before the Roman invasion. The view present-day England, Wales, and southern Scotland were Brythonic-speaking until this time is held by most linguists. It was a presupposition I held myself as a Brythonic polytheist.

A large part of Oppenheimer’s argument, which Cunliffe does not cite, which surprised me, is that the Neolithic people on the south-east coast of Britain may have been Germanic and have lived there and spoken a Germanic language millennia before the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

This is of interest to me as my surname is Smithers, an Anglo-Saxon name, and a DNA analysis confirmed that my paternal line is of Saxon origin*. My descent from the Saxons, who are renowned for invading Britain and replacing the Brythonic culture with their own, has been a source of dissonance and discomfort since I learnt about these histories following my calling by the Brythonic gods.

The notion that the Germanic peoples had a long-standing presence in Britain, which may not always have been one of hostility with their Brythonic neighbours, struck me as an alluring possibility that might explain why the Brythonic gods reached out to me in spite of my Saxon name and ancestry.

I will share Oppenheimer’s argument. His genetic research shows that the Ivan (I) gene group ‘makes the largest non-Iberian contribution to the British Isles (16% of all males), in particular in England, where it is most common.’ Ian (I1a) served the ‘role of the main north-western expanding Early Neolithic Line’ ‘he spread to occupy roughly the present distribution of Germanic languages – that is, southern Scandinavia (e.g. Denmark 37%), Germany (25%), Holland (16.7%), Switzerland (5.6%) and England (10-32%). The British distribution is particularly interesting, since it excludes most of Wales and misses Ireland. In addition, Ian is also found in France, although favouring the north, particularly Caesar’s Belgic Gaul (23%) and Normandy (at 11.9%), rather neatly fitting the ultimate spread of LBK pottery.’ ‘The largest British cluster is I1a-2 (32% of British Ian)… Although this cluster is found throughout Scandinavia, it centres more on Schleswig-Holstein and north-west Germany (part of the putative Anglo-Saxon homeland) at 14%… This cluster dates to the Neolithic in Britain… although 11a-2 features in the so-called Anglo-Saxon homeland, its age, distribution and unique diversity in England suggest that much of the movement had occurred in the Neolithic.’

This counters the traditionally held belief that most of the Anglo-Saxons arrived with the Dark Age invasions. (It has long been accepted that some Germanic people arrived with the Roman armies).

Oppenheimer backs up his claim by citing Caesar who, in the Gallic Wars, says ‘the greater part of the Belgae were sprung, from the Germans’ and that the Germans, who dwell on the southern side of this (southern) side of the Rhine, had joined themselves to them’. He maps the Belgic tribes, according to Caesar, labelling the Remi, Suessiones, Catalauni, and possibly the Treveri as Celtica/Belgae, the Menapii, Morini, Atrebates, Vironmandui, Ambiani, Caleti, Vellocasses, and Bellovaci as ‘Belgic related to the Germani’, and the Nervii, Eburones, Atuatuci, Condrusi, and Paemani as ‘Tribes said to be Germani’. This fits with place-name evidence with the only odd one out being the Treveri whose capital was Triers where there a number of place-names and inscriptions. He notes the Belgae occupied South-East England where Celtic place-names are scarce (there are only six).

This interested me because the Belgae may have been the people of the Celtic god, Bel(inus). This is suggested not only by the name of their tribal confederacy but of one of their leaders, Cunobelinus ‘The Hound of Belinus’. It suggests both Brythonic and Germanic people were drawn together under the name of Bel and that both may have worshipped him as the god of their war-host. Perhaps they were drawn together not only in battle but engaged in other cultural exchanges.

Oppenheimer introduces Forster’s theory that the Germanic peoples may have spoken ‘an Island Germanic’. This is supported by a ‘network analysis’ that ‘reveals a Scandinavian influence on English and apparently a pre-Scandinavian archaic component to Old English. All Germanic lexica spoken today appear to converge in the network on an ancestral Common Germanic lexicon spoken at an unknown time, but constrained to before AD 350 and probably after 3600 BC.’

This is supported by a reference to ‘Saxon Shores’ in ‘a late fourth-century Roman military inventory, the Notitia Dignum (‘Register of Offices’)’ which may not have been defended against but by Saxons. Vortigern invited ‘those Saxons who lived overseas to Britain’ to support the existing populace in their battles against Pictish and Scottish raiders.

Our conception of the Anglo-Saxon invasions is deeply rooted in the sixth century History of the Britons by Gildas. Oppenheimer says: ‘Gildas… describes an inferno of rapine, blood-shed and genocide which has formed a basis for a persisting view of the Dark Ages ethnic cleansing of the ‘Celts’ from England… Despite Gildas’ nationalist agenda and endless religious ranting, this extreme view can still be regarded as an orthodox position’. ‘Thanks to Gildas, our English ancestry was orphaned and stripped of any context beyond the Dark Age threshold.’

Genetic research shows that ‘intrusions from the traditional Anglo-Saxon homelands of Schleswig-Holstein (Angeln) and north-west Germany (Old Saxony)’ certainly took place but that ‘Only an average of 3.8% British male gene types have matches in the Anglo-Saxon homeland region.’

The replacement of the Brythonic by the Anglo-Saxon culture in England was primarily one of culture not genes. However, it has had a profound impact on the cultural landscape of Britain and its legacy lives on in the oppression of the Welsh by the English, which continues to affect the lives of each today.

There is little evidence about how the Brythonic and Germanic peoples related to each other in the millennia prior to the Anglo-Saxon invasions but one might guess, as ever, their relationship consisted of both of periods of conflict and more fruitful alliances and cultural exchange. There were possibly times during which there were crossovers between cultures and the gods they worshipped.

Maybe, just maybe, my Saxon ancestors were amongst those early Germanic peoples who, as well as their own gods, were called to worship Bel, his son, Nodens, and his grandson, my patron, Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd.

*My Saxon ancestry on my paternal side was no surprise but I was surprised when I found out my maternal line is Yenisei, meaning I am descended from the Ket people of Siberia.

21 thoughts on “The Origins of the British – Germanic people here millenia before the Anglo-Saxon invasions

  1. Bogatyr says:

    I highly recommend Graham Laycock’s “Britannia: A Failed State”. I think it’s subsequently been re-published under a different title. There’s a good review here: https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/britannia-a-failed-state.htm

    He likens post-Roman Britain to 1990s Yugoslavia, arguing that inter-tribal hatreds were suppressed under Roman rule, but never went away and resurfaced periodically during the Imperial period. As Roman power waned, the tribes in what is now England began to war against each other once again. However, having been disarmed for centuries under Rome, unlike the tribes of the West and the North, they didn’t have effective warbands, and so from a very early date, they began to recruit Saxon mercenaries, who were settled around the tribal borders. I forget the details, but I think that what happened is that plague Ithe Yellow Plague?) imported from the European mainland wiped out the British tribal leadership, creating a power vacuum that was filled by the Saxon mercenaries, leading ultimately to the wars of Arthur,

  2. Bogatyr says:

    Of course, you’re also right to point out that the tribes of south-east England may have been dfferent from the tribes of the rest of Britain. Working from memory, I think Caesar reports that this area had been settled by the Belgae, who originated fron north-east Gaul and were a mixture of Celts and Germans. If, again, I remember correctly, this was one of the three parts into which was divided. The other two were the Basques, and the ‘Gauls’ proper. My guess is that ‘the Gauls’,occupying the majority of Gaul, were a Druidic culture, while the Belgae, like the German trbes across the Rhine, were not.

    • Yvonne Aburrow says:

      Right! Also one has to remember that the distinction between Celts and Germans was largely because the Romans arbitrarily decided that everyone to the east of the Rhine was German and everyone to the west of the Rhine was a Celt.

    • lornasmithers says:

      Thanks for the link. Interesting that Laycock has got so much from belt buckle evidence! It wouldn’t surprise me that the British tribes were fighting as much amongst each other as with the Anglo-Saxons and that the Catuvellauni employed Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to guard their territories. I guess that’s one explanation of their presence although they could have been here all along.

      I’m not sure whether the split between the Belgae and the Gauls meant the Belgae were not ‘Druidic’. That at least some of the Belgae worshipped the same gods as the Gauls in shown by the inscriptions so this seems to be suggestive of a shared religion although whether they had a priestly class called druids is open to debate.

  3. Greg Hill says:

    It’s a while since I read Openheimer but remember that his main thesis is that the language of the earlier inhabitants of Britain was an early form of Basque, and this was replaced by Brythonic & Gaelic in the West and possibly Germanic in the East, but that the core population across Britain remained the original Basque speakers only supplemented by small numbers peoples from elsewhere although other cultures became dominant at different times. Not everyone agrees, and genetics doesn’t tell us what language people spoke. The mismatch between evidence from archaeology, linguistics and genetic studies led to several conferences bringing people from these different disciplines together. One of these ‘Celtic from the West’ dealt with the fact that a previously undeciphered early text from southern Spain written in the Phoenician script was in fact a Celtic language which may have displaced Basque there too except in the current Basque country in north-western Spain and south-western France where it is still spoken.

    I’m not sure if there are significant differences in the genetics of those who lived in Gaul and Western Germany. Caesar’s division into Gaul and Germania was based on what he conquered and what he didn’t. Some of ancient Gaul is now in Germany west of the Rhine, including the territory of the Treveri. Where Gaulish shaded into the source language of German, and how tribes interacted across the Rhine is unclear as, I think, is the language of the Belgic tribes (Belgium was also in Caesar’s Gaul), but their genetic pool must have been shared even if it was significantly different to start with.

    I don’t, anyway, think it useful to cite genetics as a way to the ancestors. Culture seems to me a more significant indicator of ancestral heritage inspiring religious affiliation. The spread of Celtic culture from the west across Europe, including eastern Britain and up the seaways to western Britain and Ireland now seems the most likely scenario from the mix of evidences. But until things began to be written down I’m not sure that we can know what languages were spoken where, whatever the genetic make-up of the speakers may have been. Place names can give some clues but these too were subject to change. River names tend to be more constant and I seem to remember a paper on this at one of those conferences, but can’t recall the specifics.

      • Bogatyr says:

        They were in modern-day Turkey, near Ankara. At the time Paul wrote, they were dying out as a distinct culture, but Celts had settled there many centuries before and were famed for their military prowess. Many kings of the Eastern Mediterranean are used them as bodyguards, or fled to Galatia after being deposed. Galatian mercenaries served the Egyptian pharaohs for generations. The fact that there was a Celtic culture in Anatolia is part of what convinces me that the Druids knew about, and were probably in contact with, the Greco-Buddhist kingdoms of Afghanistan and northern India. I’ve written about that here:

        https://barddas.org/2019/05/17/druids-brahmins-buddhist-empires-and-the-fall-of-constantinople/

        and here:

        https://barddas.org/2020/02/17/druids-on-the-silk-road/

      • lornasmithers says:

        Yes, there was a series of migrations, starting out from Gaul in the 6th century leading to the settlement of Bohemia. In the fourth century they moved down the Danube and in the third into Greece and Macedonia and some of them crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor. Three tribes: the Tolistobogii, the Tectosages, and the Trocini settled there and became the Gallatians. And Paul wrote to them in the middle of the first century AD. I only know this from my recent research on Bel’s associations with the Belgic and other Gaulish tribes. A lot of the info is in Barry Cunliffe’s ‘The Ancient Celts’ if you haven’t already read it.

    • lornasmithers says:

      I’m not surprised lots of conferences arose around these issues. I recall Gwilym Morus Baird mentioning the text in a Celtic language in Phoencian and I recall Cunliffe mentions it too as one of the earliest pieces of evidence for Celtic. (I seem to recall it was around 6th century but may be wrong?). Interesting that Celtic replaced Basque there too.

      I agree it’s probably best not to rely too heavily on Caesar and that there would have been a good deal of both cultural and genetic interchange across the Rhine and that the lines between Germani and Celts were probably very blurry.

      Do you think genetics is a poor way to the ancestors in itself or because of the ways it has been abused?

      • Greg Hill says:

        The scenario is that speakers of a proto-IndoEuropean language moved into Western Europe and that developed into Celtic in Iberia by the Bronze Age as evidenced by the inscription in a Phoenician script. This language replaced the non-IndoEuropean language which was spoken there before, notionally Basque as that is the non-IndoEuropean language that has survived in the area. Supposing that the same happened in Britain when these people moved north and west to spread their language and culture it is supposed that a language like Basque was replaced in Britain too, but it might have been another language, or a number of different languages that were replaced. But as the population did not change substantially, just the language they spoke, and the genetic pool was only slightly changed as with later migrations, this means that the ‘Celts’ now describes the people speaking this language even if they are substantially comprised of the earlier peoples. That is, whatever the genetic inheritance of the people, it is the cultural context that determines their religious practices, though of course determined and shaped by the relationship of successive generations to the particular landscape they inhabit.

        So, yes, part from the fact that genetics has been abused, I don’t think it is the best way of relating to distant ancestors or that it determines how we relate to the gods.

      • lornasmithers says:

        Just returning to this as I failed to reply a fortnight or so ago. I think it’s the way that the cultural context is shaped both by incomers and by previous generations that interests me. In relation to how some of the beliefs of the older hunter-gatherers survived the Neolithic revolution possibly in the mythos of Gwyn and Rhiannon – the Hunter and the Horse Goddess. Their stories seem older and deeper somehow than those of the ‘culture gods’ (ie. Gwydion, Amaethon, Gofannon, Arianrhod, Lleu). Although how this relates to Gwyn being the son of Nodens/Nudd if he was the Nuada-like leader of the culture gods/Children of Don I don’t know yet. Nodens himself has the qualities of a hunter-gatherer god too with his associations of catching/fishing which the archaeology suggests became taboo in the Neolithic. I have lots to work out!

  4. Yvonne Aburrow says:

    Interesting post. I think the gods call who they call regardless of genetics.

    My gene pool is almost entirely from the area of southern England occupied by the Atrebates and the Belgae. I have dark hair and blue eyes. So I’ve always considered myself mostly Celtic in ancestry, or possibly pre-Celtic, but I’m drawn to Anglo-Saxon gods.

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