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The conventional story about the making of England describes how the
Britain sunk into a state of destitute after the departure of the Roman
They were only revived by a massive infusion of Anglo-Saxon blood from the
other side of the North Sea.
These robust tribes when arrived in boats along the eastern shores of
It was a brave new world in which dark forests have felt and England is born.
The trouble is, there is no archaeological evidence for the
A traditional story of the making of England is completely wrong.
The real story will reshape our future and rewrite our past.
As an island people, we Brits have been obsessed with the idea of
And the story of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons has long been accepted as
a part of our history.
I'm going to show that the myth of the Anglo-Saxon invasion is just a tale.
Leading-edge archaeology is beginning to re-examine the dramatic changes
that took place in this country in the centuries after the Roman troops
And a very different story to the one which we have become accustomed is
Just before World War II, archaeologists from Suffolk uncovered
one of the greatest discoveries of our time, the Anglo-Saxon burial mounds at
Helen Geake explains.
Mrs. Pretty decided to investigate the burial mounds on her property.
She rang up Ipswich Museum and asked for advice on a freelance
It seems like another world where a landowner can simply employ an
archaeologist to open their burial mounds, but that's what happened.
In mound one over there, he discovered an intact ship and a burial chamber.
When news of this got out, archaeologists from Cambridge
University and the British Museum came in to help and the most fabulous
extraordinary archaeological treasure was discovered there.
Excavations revealed the burial chamber of a person in a wooden ship.
He was accompanied by a wealth of fabulous objects.
This was the grave of a very rich man.
Helmets are incredibly rare.
Special headgear seems to be appropriate for a king, as it still is
He's got other things like the strange whetstone that's made into a scepter.
It's got polish in the middle where your hand could have held it and a
little cup which would sit on your knee so you could hold the scepter
like a modern king.
Some people see a very strong Swedish influence.
Some people see a very strong classical Byzantine influence.
Other people say that he's got a bit of everything, he is trying out a lot
of different methods of making us see that he is an important ruler of the
By the 7th century, parts of Britain had become a series of politically
powerful kingdoms, later to be known as England.
Do you suppose a boatload of Anglo-Saxon royal family came sailing
up the Devon and thought, whoopee, this is a place for me, got off the
boat and set up their kingdom here?
The origin myths that we have recorded by people like Bede do seem to
indicate that in the 5th century boatloads of royalty did row up and
think, well, I shall will create my kingdom here.
But we just don't know of any archaeological evidence to back up
that at all.
What seems much more likely is that by some process of internal social
development, kings arose at some point in the late 6th century.
And then decided to kind of create this origin myths to explain where
they'd come from.
Probably they just murdered and fought their way to the top, but they wanted
to say they'd always been royal, in fact they descended from the gods, you
Sutton Hoo is the most elaborate of a number of rich Anglo-Saxon burials
over the south and east of Britain.
Archaeologists are divided about where these powerful new leaders came from.
Heinrich Harke favors the idea they were invaders.
Until Sutton who was found, Taplow was the richest Anglo-Saxon grave in
These big Anglo-Saxon burials of the 7th century were very often located on
the tops of ridges.
Taking up a dominant position in the landscape demonstrates who you are,
who your family was?
Heinrich Harke believes an invasion is the best way of explaining the changes
in culture that took place after the Romans left.
Why do we have to have migrations?
It's very difficult to prove that people came here in large numbers from
Francis, I believe you can demonstrate that this is still, given the
evidence, the best possible explanation.
Your argument is we do not need migrations to explain culture change,
this is essentially the underlying argument.
I agree with that.
And actually if at the moment, you look to Russia, post-Soviet Russia,
you see a huge culture change, but it is not brought in by immigrant
westerners, it is marketed there.
Of course, you can say, there is no proof that they came here and I accept
We cannot trace them across the North Sea, but it is still the best
Heinrich, I'd love to agree with you, only I can't see any outsiders would
have come here, without there being one hell of a fight, and there is no
evidence for a struggle.
If people move on to my land, I'm not happy about that.
If you are there, you're not.
So you think that people would actually have moved out 'cause there's
not much evidence for that.
After the collapse of a civilization you do have population decline.
If there is population decline, there was also space.
More space in the landscape than there was in the Roman system.
I don't believe that there was a hole in British society.
If anything, you know, the taxes were removed, I would have thought people
said, whoopee, it's Christmas.
I don't have to pay taxes, I'm much better off.
And so when the Romans left, people actually probably got more prosperous.
Very much a farmer's view, I would have thought, I like that.
Farmers view or not, the invasion explanation just isn't enough.
Whenever archaeologists can't explain a period of social change or
innovation, they reach for the catch-all explanation, new people,
But there isn't actually any evidence to support this story.
We just can't prove it.
Science however, is trying to.
At University College London professor of genetics Mark Thomas and his team
have conducted a survey of the DNA in the British Isles.
The male genetic marker is known as a Y-chromosome.
A father passes a largely-unchanged copy of his own Y-chromosome to his
It is a very good way of tracing ancestry through history.
By comparing Y-chromosome information from different populations, Mark has
tried to establish how closely the populations are related.
He discovered that there was an unusually high similarity between DNA
from Britain and parts of Holland.
Within England, all the towns looked very similar, but different to the
And the second, the more remarkable feature was the incredible similarity
between the English towns genetically, and the Frisians.
In fact, we couldn't statistically tell any difference between them.
This suggests the native British Y-chromosome has at some point in
history been mixed with that of people from northern Europe.
Complex statistics were used to work out when this genetic mix might have
We conclude we would need the mass migration in the last 2,500 years,
that was a 100% replacement or if it was less it would have to be more
And if we assume that mass migration was the Anglo-Saxon mass migration,
then we estimate that replacement must have been between 50% and 100%.
The sheer completeness of this population change really does conflict
with the archeological evidence.
Three million people shoved out?
Well, they don't show that.
Now, we can't say anything about the exact--what the process was.
As I said, that could be push in, or to be slaughtering or it could be
something much more benign, like just economic differences between the
different populations and overtime gradual replacement.
We can't really say how it happened.
But another team of geneticists into same department as Mark have conducted
a similar survey and come up with very different results.
They conclude that the native British Y-chromosome has not been largely
replaced in southern and eastern England.
Furthermore they stated that it's not possible to distinguish between the
genetic influence of the Anglo-Saxons and that of the Vikings, who
definitely did invade Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries.
I just don't think that we should rely on these genetic versions of history
on their own, especially when two similar studies produced such
I'm also pretty suspicious of simple explanations in complex times.
The dramatic changes that took place in the 5th and 6th centuries laid the
foundations for the modern identity of this country.
I'm going to show these changes were not the result of mass invasions.
And in revising this powerful origin myth, I will discover who we, the
English really are.
On the south coast of Hampshire, at the entrance to a natural harbor, is
one of the best preserved Roman buildings in Britain.
This is Portchester Castle, it's one of the series of coastal forts built
by the Romans in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
They are known as Saxon shore forts because it's still widely accepted
that they were constructed to keep out marauding Anglo-Saxons bands from the
other side of the channel.
But in actual fact, they may have been used for a very different purpose.
In total, 11 shore forts skirt the southern and eastern coast, from
Portchester in the south, around the coast, these shore forts have been
taken as an imposing reminder of the Anglo-Saxon threat, all the way up to
Brancaster in Norfolk.
One of the most easterly of these forts, Burgh Castle still commands the
All of this, all the green fields over there.
Would have been what was termed the great estuary combination of open
water and marsh and into tidal creeks that kind of thing, probably until
10th to 12th century.
Andrew Pearson has been re-examining the forts and has come to the
surprising conclusion that they may have nothing to do with Anglo-Saxons.
I think the traditional view of the scientists that they are a defense
against pirate readers from across the channel, from Saxons, from Frisians,
from Jutland basically from the peoples who in later periods going to
The name Saxon shore fort actually comes from a Roman military list which
was translated in the 16th century by the famous antiquarian William Camden.
What the term Saxon refers to is unclear.
What Camden said pretty much went as archaeological fact for many centuries
to come early.
I think also what he hits on was a very evocative idea.
It's very dramatic, it's also very simple.
That these forts offered up as a defense against the Saxons.
The count is called "the county of the Saxon shore."
Now whether that means it is the shore being attacked by the Saxons or
settled by the Saxons, really we just don't know.
Andrew who has found that the huge walls are actually better suited to
protecting goods kept inside the forts rather than attacking enemies from
Well, I think these sites are doing much more than defending the
If the Saxons came raiding, it wouldn't have been monthly, may not
even being every year or every 10 years, so in terms of what these forts
do I think it's much more likely that they have a major economic role,
perhaps a supply role, rather than this kind of defensive function that
subscribed to the normally.
So what you seem to be suggesting then is that these forts could have been
used actually to help trade from out of Britain rather than stop people
Yes, I think rather than trying to block access to the interior as some
is perhaps traditionally thought, in fact these are quite the opposite and
so far as materials and goods are coming here and then being shipped
outwards and beyond into the empire as a whole.
Andrew has found no archeological evidence that these forts were built
to defend against an Anglo-Saxon invasion.
So what is the evidence for invasion?
The Yorkshire Wolds are the last of a series of chalk downlands which spread
east across Britain.
And it's here that Anglo-Saxon invaders are supposed to have settled
1,500 years ago.
In these fields, one of the most extraordinary archaeological
investigations is being carried out.
30 years ago, archeologist Dominic Powlesland was asked to excavate some
5th century burials that had turned up in a quarry site near the village of
Dominic has conducted one of the largest archaeological surveys in the
world here, scrutinizing every inch of the landscape for traces of its
Such a comprehensive survey should confirm the conventional view of the
5th and 6th centuries as a time when invaders took over... except it didn't!
This is a tremendous settlement and may be as early as the Bronze Age.
Dominic discovered the remains of miles of farms and villages.
The settlement began life 4,000 years ago and continued through to the 8th
century, spanning the crucial Anglo-Saxon invasion period.
Dominic calls this discovery the ladder settlement.
You've got a ladder running straight through falling in the edge of the
field where we've been digging.
It runs straight through here.
So there is crop marks there--
That's the track way down the spine of the settlement.
They can comprise a series of farmsteads or even small villages
following the track way.
Hugging the very edge of the wetlands.
We've traced the settlement for 15 kilometers.
We've surveyed in detail about seven and half to eight kilometers.
I'm sure it goes all the way to the coast.
This is a new kind of archaeology, dedicated to understanding the
long-term life and meaning of an entire landscape.
I've had a team out there walking from dawn till dusk for 3 years, and the
results are absolutely staggering.
It's a long walk.
I have walked personally further than from Land's End to John O Groats and I
mean and that's just in these little fields up and down here.
This is a fluxgate gradiometer which measures minute variations in magnetic
signal under the soil.
Imagine this field was untouched by human hand and someone comes along and
digs a ditch across it.
And then that ditch fills in with various forms of material, stubble
getting into the ditch.
Then it all gets filled in again and looks like this you can't see the
We come along, we walk over it and we read the signal.
So we'll get zero all around it then suddenly it will go up, one, two,
three, four, two, three one, zero, zero, zero.
And we just walk backwards and forwards across that and build up this
picture as we go.
The gradiometer picks up soil disturbances which will make hundreds,
even thousands of years ago.
How much more you got to do you reckon?
We're over halfway there.
Having said that, where's the end?
Printed out, this is what the geophysics look like.
That must be the biggest geophysical survey in the country, isn't it?
I believe it's now the biggest in the world.
This massive evidence, Dominic, surely tells us a different story about
population in the area, isn't it?
Yes, it must mean we've got a high population.
The idea there's hardly anybody living here is completely unsustainable.
We end up with the same sort of density of settlement as we would have
had 100 years ago.
Once the surveys are done, Dominic and his team go to work.
4,000 years of history lie beneath the soil just waiting to be uncovered.
We're just coming out of the foot of the world.
In fact quite steeply down to the wetland and the main area of
occupation throughout later prehistory.
The geology of this part of the country is unique.
A thick layer of wind-blown sand protects ancient remains which in
other areas of Britain the modern plow has destroyed.
Dominic and his team were about to start digging an archaeological gold
Now the first time we looked at the ladder settlement we opened a 15 meter
area and there were 35,000 finds.
This is piece of luck, archaeological gold dust 'cause we have archaeology
we can't see but we know it's well preserved.
And that is very rare.
In Britain there are probably a few square kilometers of archaeology
that's well preserved in the countryside.
Dominic's excavations uncovered what the ghostly patterns of a geophysics
survey had hinted at.
The actual remains of houses, track ways and settlements which spanned
3,000 years of ancient history.
This is the field we are working in at the movement and the line of
settlement comes through here.
And can magically put layers and layers in the past on the top of this
air photography, there is the line of the ladder settlement going right away
through the field there.
So what can the ladder settlement tell us about the arrival of the
The archaeological remains of invasion are clear enough to spot.
The Roman army in the 1st century and the Viking invaders of the 8th century
both left their archaeological mark in the shape of war cemeteries and
deliberately destroyed houses and religious sites.
But Dominic could find no such evidence.
What he did find was a village and a cemetery full of people who looked
The Anglo-Saxon cemetery is located here underneath the main road.
And we've got the cemetery.
So we set off in search of the settlement and we found the whole of
the Anglo-Saxon village, 49 acres.
The shadow of the balloon is now entering the site of the early
Anglo-Saxon's village, which extended right up into the foot of the hills
and so huge, much bigger than the present village.
Dominic's meticulous surveys would have been able to pick up the massive
disruption what an invasion causes on a landscape, but all he could find was
evidence of peaceful and continuous settlement.
Anglo-Saxons people there, Roman people there, iron age people, bronze
age people and of course move into the field next door and things go
We can't argue that this is a farm, this is got to be sort of small
And of course just to the south of it all this little brims here, this is
But in sort of I'm lost for words, I mean, you have got a long-term
settlement, you got the cemetery here, you got a complete way of life and is
It's flat, dusty, sandy and it looks like there's nothing here.
And it goes on for kilometer after kilometer.
I think that's fantastic.
Dominic discovered that the site had been occupied from prehistory until
the middle of the 8th century.
Neolithic cemeteries, bronze age barrows, Roman settlements,
Anglo-Saxon villages were all part of this continuously-occupied landscape.
There were no gaps of occupation, no war cemeteries.
There were no dramatic changes in the layout of the villages.
In short, there was no invasion.
What there was however, was a change in fashion.
Clothes, pottery, weapons and burial practices underwent a dramatic change
in the centuries after the Roman government collapsed.
These new fashions are very similar to styles found on the continent.
And this change in fashion did not just happen at West Heslerton.
For decades, these burials have been taken as a key piece of evidence that
the new set of people had taken over.
But what were invading Anglo-Saxons doing in Dominic's peaceful landscape?
Could it be that they weren't actually invaders?
There will be one here in this field somewhere.
Dominic gave some of the skeletons from his Anglo-Saxon cemetery to Paul
Budd at Durham University.
Paul has pioneered a new form of biological research called stable
What we're really interested in actually is the teeth and particularly
the tooth enamel because tooth enamel is formed in childhood.
And unlike any other tissue in the body, it's not remodeled during life.
It's giving you a little window, little mark because of what was
happening in your diet, what you were eating at the time of your childhood
when the tooth was formed.
Paul's discovered that tooth enamel has within it materials specific to
the person's location of birth.
One of these materials contains oxygen isotopes.
Your main source of oxygen is the oxygen that you consume as water.
Because you're eating local food, this signal will find its way into your
bones and into your teeth.
By measuring the oxygen isotopes in a person's tooth enamel, Paul is able to
tell what climate and in what part of the world they were born.
This is a technique which offers the opportunity of identifying
first-generation immigrants specifically, because you could look
at people whom you're going to see, people who grew up somewhat different.
Paul successfully analyzed 24 of the bodies from Dominic's cemetery and a
few of these were indeed foreigners, but the other results were surprising.
The things that we expected that we might see would be some continental
immigrants that were hesitant, and in fact we did see four individuals from
the site who have drinking water which you can't really find in the U.K.
So were these rich, swaggering, warrior-type people?
No, the interesting thing about those four is that they're all females.
They're very poorly furnished graves.
In fact they're the only four females that essentially don't have any dress
fittings at all.
Household servants or something like that?
Well, it certainly seems to be the lower status people, yeah.
The most likely candidate is going to be sort of Scandinavian, Norwegian
sort of coast up here or possibly Sweden over here.
What about the remainder of the population?
Presumably they were all Yorkshiremen, were they?
Well, you would think so.
But the surprises didn't stop there.
We did indeed find about roughly sort of half the sample did look like they
were sort of local to West Heslerton.
And then we had another half of the population who are associated with the
western side of the country.
Early east Yorkshire seems to be occupied by a large proportion of
Cumbrians as far as I can tell.
You got a big immigrant component of the West Heslerton population, but not
coming from the east, coming from the west.
So the foreign bodies in the cemetery weren't continental warriors, but
visitors or economic migrants.
The results did not surprise Dominic at all.
There is a small number of newcomers.
There are a small number of continental Saxons, Jutes, Frisians
and so and so forth in different parts of the country, but the majority of
the population are exactly the same.
It's a continuously evolving and cared-for landscape.
We see Roman sites with Anglo-Saxon components.
We see Roman activity underneath the Anglo-Saxon settlement.
There is no gap between the two.
If there were, then we would have a huge wodge of that nice red sand
sitting between the two and it doesn't happen.
Historians tell us that the Anglo-Saxon invaders came to a society
which had been severely weakened by the collapse of Roman rule.
But Dominic's vast excavation had found no such evidence.
People are coming to appreciate that the picture that we've thought was
genuine for so long is seriously flawed.
In our population we can prove, include one or two people that come
But this isn't an invasion.
There is always resistance to change because people are, once people are
happy with an established understanding they do not want to
It's exactly much more exciting to find that it's all wrong.
The people of the 5th century cemetery at West Heslerton look like newcomers
from the continent, and yet most of them were born in Britain.
If this change wasn't the result of invasion, what was going on?
There were profound cultural changes in the 5th century.
And perhaps the most significant was language.
There is no doubt that spoken language changed from native British sometimes
called Celtic to English, which was a descendant of German.
Surely this if anything has to be proof of the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
Modern linguistics however, are beginning to question this assumption.
Katie Lowe has been looking at the traces of native British grammar in
It's come down to us that we simply know as a fact that the Celtic
languages just didn't really affect modern English.
And I think that's basically stopped people looking.
They just thought, well, there certainly can't be any influence at
But linguists have discovered a hidden code in our language structure which
shows a strong influence from the Britons.
If you're a Celt and you're trying to learn old English, just like any
second language acquisition, you're going to make mistakes.
I mean, if you go to France today, you're bound to make mistakes,
mistakes which really show structure from your own language.
So for example, you might make mistakes in syntax, you might make
mistakes in vocabulary, of course your accent will be very strange as well.
And it's thought that perhaps some of the Celtic structure language affected
In the process of learning English, the native Britons retained the
structure of their own languages and these ancient patterns are still
visible in the grammatical structure of modern English.
Old English was really rather like German structure, and the way you
constructed a sentence was based largely on endings that indicated what
a word was doing within a sentence.
Nowadays word order is all-important.
If I say 'the cat chased the man" it does not mean the same as the other
In German, word endings and not word order would have told us who was
So why did the English language undergo this strange mutation?
We've moved, we've shifted to a different kind of word order within a
Where's that come from?
It doesn't seem to have happened quite so much within any of the other
Recent research has shown that the Celtic languages had a part to play in
There has to be contact, as we contact over generations.
There is no other way of doing it.
The rise of English in these islands came not from a tidal wave of
invaders, but from a prolonged period of contact during which the native
Britons chose to adopt a new way of speaking.
But why did this happen?
Archaeologist Sam Lucy has been examining graves from the period to
understand why this dramatic cultural change took place.
So this would be similar to some of the graves found at West Heslerton?
Yeah, very similar.
Up by his head you got the metal tip of a spear and the wooden shaft has
You've got stone over his hip, the metal centre of a pick out wooden and
Just as the language of a native Britons changed in this period, so too
did their style of clothes and weapons.
At the end of the Roman period a lot of objects that you find had changed.
Why was that?
I mean it's traditionally been attributed to Anglo-Saxon migrations
or Anglo-Saxon invasions.
You do certainly start to get different burial rites.
Women tend to get buried with a much greater variety of dress furnishings.
This is a brooch type that names a cruciform brooch, a cross-shaped
brooch, and this brooch isn't a continental import.
Its idea came ultimately from the continent, but it is a British
The people living in Britain are perhaps aligning themselves more to a
continental style and continental ideas, so I think it's that sort of
process that's going on rather than population replacement, which is what
the traditional idea of Anglo-Saxon migrations involves.
The mistake has been to take cultural artifacts as evidence of racial
If I were wearing American jeans, that doesn't make me an American.
If I'm driving a German car, that doesn't make me German.
It doesn't work like that.
There can be no doubt that a trickle of warriors and families on the move
were coming into Britain from the countries of northern Europe in this
But the traditional picture of invasion and population replacement is
The people of Britain learnt a new language, adopted new fashions and
shifted their political allegiances because they knew from experience that
this was the best way to keep up with the rapidly changing times.
It was only in later centuries that the complex details of this process
were transformed into a captivating story.
History books can be dangerous things, especially when they are brilliantly
In 731, a Tyneside monk named the Venerable Bede finished his
Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which still forms the basis of
modern history lessons.
But Bede, like all historians, had his own particular axe to grind.
According to Bede, the origins of the church in England lie in 6th century
Rome, where Pope Gregory the Great spotted some beautiful fair-haired
slaves for sale.
Upon being told they were Angles from the pagan island of Britain, he
famously replied that to him they looked more like angels.
According to Bede, Gregory immediately makes arrangements for St Augustine to
sail to Britain and convert these heathen creatures to Christianity.
To make Augustine's mission more significant than it actually was, Bede
portrays Britain as a country populated by heathen unbelievers.
He calls these pagans the Anglo-Saxons and describes their conversion as a
In creating this story, Bede gives the church a fresh start in Britain.
The newly converted Anglo-Saxon English are depicted as proper
Christians, unconnected to the murky Celtic Christianity of the native
Bede is writing this story 200-300 years after it happened, so he's
trying to present it as a coherent process, therefore it's in his
interest to make things tidier and more organized perhaps than they
In fact, Christianity is big by the late Roman period, Augustine arrives
in the end of the 6th century.
He's already stepping into a country that knew all about Christianity.
And when Augustine arrives by invitation, he finds an island where
there are already Christians and bishops and organized church life
exists, in parts of the island.
So there are different streams of Christianity.
The conventional wisdom would have it that the Anglo-Saxons brought with
them paganism from abroad and that Christianity wasn't introduced to
England until 597 when St Augustine arrived in Canterbury.
What do you say to that?
I don't believe a word of it.
The British church survived intact and it was flourishing.
The missionaries thought they were coming to barbarian Ruritania, and
when they got here, here was a church with its own traditions intact from
antiquity, men who knew how to operate 10 different computational cycles for
the reckoning of Easter, they could write classier prose and verse than
the Roman missionaries were capable of.
So the Roman missionaries found intact a church completely self-possessed.
They were so dumbfounded by this that they just blanked it out, they
pretended that it had never existed, they pretended it didn't exist.
In order to gloss over the messy origins of English Christianity, Bede
invented a new race of people the Anglo-Saxons, who came to be known as
Bede has an agenda to presents the Anglo-Saxons as a coherent body of
people and they are predestined to inherit southern Britain, rather like
the children of Israel inherit the Holy Land.
And they inherit it from the British according to Bede, because the British
are unfit to live here.
So the English are a chosen people.
Bede's influence is all the more extraordinary when you realize that he
never ventured out of the monastery in Tyneside where he was brought up.
We know that Bede had particular reasons for writing his history.
One of them was really to create a sense of the English.
In doing so he gave us an origin lesson.
Do you think that Bede did invent England?
He certainly invented the notion of an English people.
What you have to realize is that England doesn't exist before perhaps
the 9th, 10th century.
It's only later on that you can actually call it a single political
nation if you like, and before this point you're looking at much smaller
territorially-based groupings largely.
And so Bede, in writing that ecclesiastical history, is creating
that sense of the English or starting to create that sense.
In telling the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, Bede laid the
groundwork for an English identity, but I don't believe this version
represents who we are as a nation.
My journey into the story of Britain A.D. has uncovered a very different
picture of the people of this island.
So who are we really?
Whether we hark back to Arthur or the Anglo-Saxons we Brits have always used
history to create a national identity for ourselves.
The trouble is these are identities based on a wholly imagined past, so we
end up not knowing who we really are.
Go to the heart of our democracy and you see what I mean.
When the Victorians decided to decorate the Robing Room here in the
House of Lords, they chose to use the figure of King Arthur.
The Victorians had revived the Anglo-Saxon invasion myth with vigor.
The invasion identified the noble English as descending from pure
Teutonic stock as distinct from the irrational undisciplined Celts.
In the paintings, King Arthur, a native British warrior from our Dark
Age past, had to be made to fit the Anglo-Saxon virtues of the Victorian
The result was a ludicrous conflation of two very separate aspects of our
British identity just wasn't that simple.
In the 19th century, at the same time that Anglo-Saxon archaeologists,
Anglo-Saxon historians are writing the history of the English, you get, if
you want to call them that, Celtic historians doing the same for the
Welsh and the Irish and Scottish, and it's actually in direct opposition to
They don't happen in a vacuum.
They are done in direct consequence of each other.
You see very deliberate manipulation of historical sources and archaeology
try to create a sense of history. The early centuries of Britain A.D.
were formative years in the making of this country's identity.
It is not just the British who are being exercised by their early
It is the Germans, it is the French.
It is right across Europe.
If we are now looking to find our roots who are we, what is our identity
we almost invariably end up in the early middle ages, in the immediate
post-Roman period which removed a common culture and created little
groups of smaller groups, smaller units to which we can look and say,
"this is where I'm coming from."
And perhaps you will agree, in my view what the past is all about is
Our ancestors were not brave Anglo-Saxon supermen, nor mysterious
Celtic Warriors like Arthur.
These origin myths, tying us to one pure race or another, do not do
justice to our culture.
We were not a weak and disorganized society overpowered by the Romans nor
did we dissolve into chaos when they left.
We did not suffer a period of Dark Age confusion and we never needed to be
saved by the tribesmen of Anglo-Saxon legend.
The real people of Britain A.D. did not only survive an influx of foreign
influences, but actually flourished because of them.
We absorbed Roman and later Byzantine and North European culture without
losing a sense of our own identity.
It is this ability to absorb and adapt, this creative plagiarism, which
has always been at the heart of British identity.
And this diversity is not just a feature of our distant past.
It's a trait that can still be seen in every aspect of our life...
Even our food.
Robin Cook, former British Foreign Secretary, famously selected chicken
tikka masala as Britain's national dish.
I believe that our national identity itself is a result of blending an
enormous number of different inputs over the centuries, of different
ethnic groups have come here and settled here become, not so much
absorbed but have made their contribution and become part of the
resultant mix what we now recognize as our national identity.
I think, actually, what makes Britain great, what makes us strong, is not
purity, it is diversity.
It's all those many different influences that have shaped our
language, shaped our history, shaped our culture and shaped our character.
We Britons are striding into the 21st century with all the confidence of our
But in planning the way ahead, we must keep an eye on the past.
Because if we discard our sense of history, we'll be like people with no
memory, who don't know who they are.
So to find the true origins of Britain AD, I've had to look beyond the
headline grabbing figures the Romans, King Arthur and the Anglo-Saxons.
And instead I've turned to the real heroes of these lands, the ordinary
Britons in the millions who invented our diverse and resilient culture.
One final thought.
This could be Indian or China tea and it says on the packet it was grown in
Yet, despite, or maybe because of these obvious foreign origins, this is
still the best known symbol of Britain.