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In Chester, one of the most obvious relics of its history is that the language used is in almost all cases English. At first glance everything is named in the Anglo-Saxon tongue or, rather, the modern English which derives from it. There are some exceptions, such as the name of the River Dee which is said to derive from the Brythonic dēvā: "River of the Goddess" or "Holy River", but most other things have Anglo-Saxon names. The local accent is nowadays a fairly neutral English with few overtones of Welsh, Liverpool or Lancashire occasionally heard. These language features are "landscape history" elements as important as Roman Roads, City Walls and Offa's Dyke in both the common perception of history and the academic study of it. So when, how and why was English first spoken in Chester?

Based on Jones & Mattingly's Atlas of Roman Britain (1990) it would appear that Cheshire was a significant gateway for inland raids by the Scoti, making use of the rivers Dee and Mersey. The date given for the raids (c383) is in the time of usurper Magnus Maximus. As can be seen Britain was considered at the time of publication of the Atlas as divided into the "lowland" zone where the Roman-British lived and the "highland" military zone. A more nuanced view is now taken. Events in the Irish Sea Zone and the North Sea Zone also need to be considered separately.

The post-Roman transformation of lowland Britain was profound. The end of the Roman administration in fifth century Britain preceded a dramatic shift in material culture, architecture, manufacturing and agricultural practice, and was eventually followed by a significant language change. This was the advent of the Anglo-Saxon culture in Britain. The archaeological record and place names indicate shared cultural features across the "North Sea zone", in particular, along the east and southeast coasts of present-day England, Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony (Germany), Frisia (Netherlands) and the Jutland peninsula (Denmark). Examples include the appearance of Grubenhäuser (sunken feature buildings), large cremation cemeteries and the styles of cremation urns or objects that used animal art and chip-carved metal. Moreover, wrist clasps, as well as cruciform and square-headed brooches, found in sixth and seventh century Britain attest southern Scandinavian origins. The advent of the Saxons cannot be doubted. However, to this day, debate continues over the scale of migration, the mode of interaction between locals and newcomers, or how the transformation of the social, material, and linguistic or religious spheres was achieved.

By their presence, the Romans had already brought about much change. The pre-Roman British had nothing in the way of large urban centers. Even hill-forts may have only served as meeting places and shelters in times of strife. One of the first things the Romans did was to involve the conquered tribes in the administration of the province. They set up administrative centres according to traditional tribal territories and involved the tribal aristocracies in the decision-making (and tax-collection) process. The way to prestige and social advancement was through the Roman bureaucracy. So when the Romans built towns the ruling class of Celtic aristocrats built town dwellings. Town life was a social revolution for the largely rural Celtic society. Joining the towns together were the Roman roads. Over the course of the occupation, the Romans built over 9600 kilometres of roads in Britain. They were well built, and made troop movement and later the movement of commercial goods much easier. Away from these roads and towns the lot of the indigenous population was mostly unaltered. Most people living in the countryside stuck to their old Celtic languages and ways.

As compared with the North Sea zone the Irish Sea zone is distinct. It is accepted that at some time after the Romans departed from Cheshire, the Anglo-Saxons arrived and started to settle in this west-coast region. This article looks at post-Roman settlement process as applied to Cheshire and what would become the surrounding counties including Flintshire, South Lancashire and Shropshire. It does not consider the Vikings in detail as theirs was a colonisation period at a somewhat later time.

The transition from the Romano-British period to the Anglo-Saxon period is sometimes known as the "Age of Arthur" with reference to the legendary King Arthur. In some ways this is apt because many of the "historical" sources are barely distinguishable from myth. In many cases it is now clear which elements of folklore are derived from myth and which from history. However there is a complex "grey area" between the two which exists for many reasons and is a fascinating study in itself. The last ten years has seen much revision of the nature of the Roman occupation and it is now understood that earlier models of the Roman occupation of Britain in general were to some extent influenced by ideas related to later colonisation in the ages of Sail and Steam. Britain is no longer seen as "Romanised" below the Foss Way and militarised to the north and west of it. The Romans had no policy of imposing their culture on others much beyond the needs of tax-collecting and provided there was no open revolt, and that taxes were paid, the natives could carry on much as they had before. There were some minor exceptions to this as the Romans objected to actual human sacrifice (which they may have wrongly believed the Druids performed) or cannibalism (which they believed the christians did symbolically).

Porch sculpture at the Town Hall - Ecgbert, believed by the Victorians to be the first king of all England recieves the submission of the other English kingdoms. This depicted as taking place in Chester, although there is no evidence for such an event, or even mention of it in legend. He did visit Chester c.830, to force the submission of the Welsh.

Much remains unclear as to when the Saxons first settled in Cheshire amd when Chester became an "English" town. For this, and many related questions is is not possible to give a definitive conclusion, so this article is more about issues, debates and resources than answers. To illustrate some of these issues with reference to the local, consider the following:

  • The Battle of Chester c.616 was almost certainly fought at Heronbridge on Welsh (i.e. British) teritory against the Northumbrian English, but there is uncertainty as to who was fighting on the Welsh side and whether other English were involved as allies of the Welsh;
  • Tradition and later stained-glass and signage, ascribes the foundation of St Johns to Æthelred, king of English Mercia (674–704), in 689;
  • Coastal Wales along the Dee Estuary must have been under Mercia’s control through 821, as Coenwulf is recorded dying peacefully at Basingwerk, in Flintshire, in that year;
  • West-Saxon Ecgbert is said to have raided/conquered Chester in c.830 when it was Welsh. The episode is shown in sculpture at the [[Town Hall];
  • In 875 the remains of Werburgh are brought to Chester for safe-keeping: several early Anglo-Saxon characaters appear on her much later shrine in the Cathedral. Plegmund, a Mercian, may have been living here at the time;

If we believe the exploits of Ecgbert then Chester has changed hands between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh several times and a simple view that at some single point in time the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Chester is wrong. Unfortunately, finding clarity can be difficult. The archaeology is sparse and the few written sources may exhibit some bias. It is also worth noting that as of the time of writing some of the Wikipeda references linked to in the text contain errors or assume that folklore is 100% historical fact.

Brythonic and Saxon

The Brythonic languages (also Brittonic or British Celtic; Welsh: ieithoedd Brythonaidd/Prydeinig; Cornish: yethow brythonek/predennek; Breton: yezhoù predenek) form one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic language family; the other is Goidelic. It comprises the extant languages Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. The name Brythonic was derived by Welsh Celticist John Rhys from the Welsh word Brython, meaning Ancient Britons as opposed to an Anglo-Saxon or Gael.

Charles Kingsley. Photographed by Octavius Charles Watkins. He believed the ancestors of Anglo-Saxons, Norse people and Germanic peoples had physically fought beside the god Odin, and that the British monarchy of his time was genetically descended from him.

The Anglo-Saxons came to Britain from North Germany and Southern Scandinavia in the 5th century. Old English developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or Ingvaeonic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. They crossed the North Sea in search of new land and prosperity. The date and manner of the arrival of the "Saxon" culture in Britain is expected to vary with place. Early theories proposed that the "Anglo-Saxons", who were a diverse group, either displaced the existing population westwards or exterminated them, eventually establishing a common "English" cultural identity. This article refers to them collectively as "Saxons" as it is difficult to define sub-groups using material culture.

Fled or Dead

The few surviving literary sources, such as Gildas a Welsh Briton, tell of hostility between incomers and natives. None were written in Britain at the relevant time. They describe violence, destruction, massacre, and the flight, extermination or enslavement of the Romano-British population:

  • "In this way were all the settlements brought low with the frequent shocks of the battering rams; the inhabitants, along with the bishops of the church, both priests and people, whilst swords gleamed on every side and flames crackled, were together mown down to the ground, and, sad sight! there were seen in the midst of streets, the bottom stones of towers with tall beams cast down, and of high walls, sacred altars, fragments of bodies covered with clots, as if coagulated, of red blood, in confusion as in a kind of horrible wine press: there was no sepulture of any kind save the ruins of houses, or the entrails of wild beasts and birds in the open.."

None of the early sources relate to the northwest and Gildas in particular may be writing in the south of Britain (modern south Wales) and of events in the southeast a century after they occurred.

However, comparatively little clear evidence exists for any significant influence of British Celtic or British Latin on the incoming Old English language. That does not mean that there was no linguistic influence simply that it has not been identified. These factors have suggested to some a mass influx of Germanic-speaking peoples. In this view, held by many, including historians and archaeologists until the mid-to-late 20th century, much of what is now England was simply cleared of its prior inhabitants, who either left, became enslaved, or perished. Historical examples of this "genocide" or "ethnic cleansing" form of colonisation include extremes such as Tasmania, where the indigenous population was brought to near extinction. Victorian writers such as Charles Kingsley were fervent "Anglo-Saxonists" and their writings are much coloured by these beliefs. Anglo-Saxonists in the 19th century often sought to downplay, or outright denigrate, the significance of both Norman and Celtic racial and cultural influence in Britain.

This "sudden conquest" theory was still being taught in many UK schools well into the 1970's.

An immediate difficulty with the most extreme "fled or dead" hypothesis is that any invader wipes-out the means of food production and quickly needs to import agricultural workers to replace it. A further problem with Gildas description of how body parts littered the streets of devastated towns, and how many of those who attempted to flee were "murdered in great numbers", is that there is no archaeological evidence for this. It has been argued that in the period from 400 to 600, only about 2% of the human remains uncovered showed signs of death from a bladed weapon, and there are no mass graves. However these figures need to be treated with caution: removing women and children from the number could raise the figure to 5-10%. In addition to this, many of the men involved in battles would have died on the battlefield and been left to rot or to be eaten by animals. The rate of conquest can be compared with the Roman invasion, which started with the landing of Claudius in 43. By 47 it is likely that an area south of a line from the Humber to the Severn Estuary was under Roman control. Gaius Suetonius Paulinus mounted a successful campaign across North Wales, famously killing many druids when he invaded the island of Anglesey in 60. Final occupation of Wales was postponed however when the rebellion of Boudica forced the Romans to return to the south east in 60 or 61. Lead ingots from Deva Victrix indicate that construction there was probably under way by AD 74. Thus the Roman conquest was more rapid than that of the Anglo-Saxons anddd probably violent but does not provide the "mass graves with stab wounds" whose absence has been taken as a lack of violence in the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

Archaeology has shown that field layouts generally continued uninterrupted through the early period of the Anglo-Saxon migration and manufacture of types of pottery unknown to the Anglo-Saxons continued.

Sub-Roman Britain c550-575. Earlier Roman farm sites are shown in green and villas in orange. The area under Anglo-Saxon control is hatched in red. There are a few enclaves of British rule (blue) and Powys/Pemgwern (also blue) now has the Anglo-Saxons on it's eastern borders. This is well over a hundred years since the "departure" of the Romans. The map is taken from the excellent Rural Settlement of Roman Britain.

Gildas was writing (possibly 510-530) just before, or in the very early years of, a new burst of Anglo-Saxon expansion. He makes it clear that the British had fought back against the Saxons and he notes that there has been a period of comparative quiet during his lifetime, that further incursions by the Anglo-Saxons had largely paused and implies that the Britons in the west were living in peace against outsiders. However Gildas has the Briton's squandering this period of peace with civil war, internal disputes, and general unrest. He implies that this cannot last. The next major Saxon campaign against the Britons (in the south) was to not occur until around 577. Thus, Gildas is writing a century after the Anglo-Saxons had arrived in Britain but a century before they arrived in Cheshire.

Less Violent Change

Another view is that the migrants were fewer in number, possibly centred on a "warrior elite" which colonised in the manner of the Romans, Normans or perhaps the British in India. This hypothesis suggests that the incomers somehow achieved a position of political and social dominance, which, perhaps aided by intermarriage, initiated a process of acculturation of the natives to the incoming language, sometimes religion, and material culture. Archaeologists might therfore find that with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England settlement patterns and land use would show no clear break with the Romano-British past, though changes in material culture could be profound.

A third view lies between the two extremes described above. The "warrior elite" are instead a culturally distinct group who introduce, for example, some new innovation in technology or agricultural practice, or a new religion, which spreads to the indigenous population and leads to a change in society. This could be a very small group of "incomers" or even occur through trade. An example would be where indigenous high status groups adopt elements of an "incoming" culture which they percieve as superior. However it could be a much larger group where the land could support a larger population than was presently upon it.

The replacement of one culture by another has often led to divisive arguments as to whether these are invasions, migrations or simply the effects of trade. German and Slavic scholars speak of "migration" (see German: Völkerwanderung, Czech: Stěhování národů, Swedish: folkvandring and Hungarian: népvándorlás), aspiring at times to the idea of a dynamic and "wandering Indo-Germanic people". In contrast, the standard terms in French and Italian historiography can translate to "barbarian invasions", or even "barbaric invasions" (French: Invasions barbares, Italian: Invasioni barbariche).

There are other explanations as to why land became empty and others might recolonise. A remarkable first-millennium population trend was the severe drop of population numbers immediately after (the heyday of) Roman occupation. Settlement evidence (largely qualitative) from different European regions suggests "a radical thinning out of … habitation sites during the 5th and 6th centuries". A c.12% decline can be inferred between AD 1 and 500 for the whole of Europe. Rough estimates provide a much larger c.35% decline between 500 and 650. Reasons put forward for this include war, economic collapse, climate change and disease. Work by dendro-chronologists and ice-core experts points to an enormous spasm of volcanic activity in the 530s and 540s, unlike anything else in the past few thousand years. This violent sequence of eruptions triggered what is now called the "Late Antique Little Ice Age", when much colder temperatures endured for at least 150 years. This co-incided with the Plague of Justinian (see: Pandemic). The Ecclesiastical History of Bede, notes the plague of 664: the only epidemic in early British annals that can be regarded as a plague of the same nature, and on the same great scale, as the devastation more than a century earlier. Bede wrote:

  • "In the same year of our Lord 664, there happened an eclipse of the sun, on the third day of May, about the tenth hour of the day. In the same year, a sudden pestilence depopulated first the southern parts of Britain, and afterwards attacking the province of the Northumbrians, ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men."

Earlier plagues might have affected the Romano-British differently than the as yet unmigrated Saxons. For example if they spread along Roman trade routes then they might never reach the Saxons.

This article is particularly concerned with events which potentially had a local impact in the Cheshire area, but given the scarcity of local evidence from the period it is useful to look at a wider geographical scope. Sometimes these would have parallels in Cheshire but in many cases there are reasons for thinking they do not. As would be expected any local situation might well be a mixture of the above processes and occur at differing times and timescales, although general education has tended to present the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons as a single national process. Some of the factors which could influence matters on a local scale are discussed below.


Inscribed stone near Llanerfyl Church (St Erfyl), a sub-Roman memorial stone commemorating Rustica, daughter of Paterninus, aged 13, in horizontally inscribed Roman capitals: "HIC IN TUMULO IACIT ROSTEECE FILIA PATERNINI ANI XIII IN PACE". This is part of the evidence of how literacy survived.

The idea that "the Romans left around 400, then the Anglo-Saxon arrived" is now hardwired into the public consciousness. It can be considered a very "south eastern" view of the post-Roman transition. A slightly more elaborated version adds "..and the British Isles were pagan until Augustine arrived around 600". Neither of these statements is true.

Assuming that the Anglo-Saxons arrived on the south and east coasts of Britain, the above model becomes increasing weak as one moves north and west. In Cheshire and the surrounding area the same model cannot be expected to apply as it would require a very rapid conquest by relatively small forces. The following issues can be considered:

  • The End of Roman Britain: What should be considered the "End"? - is it the departure of the legions, the expulsion of magistrates appointed by the "Romans", the end of any hope that aid could come from the continent, the development of local institutions such as the church, or the displacement of the "Romano British" from power?
  • Cheshire: What does what later became "Cheshire" mean in this context? Who ruled it, where were they based, and how far did their rule extend?
  • The "Decline and Fall" Paradigm: When did the Saxons actually arrive in Cheshire and did they migrate or invade?
  • Segontium: Did this significant Roman fort on the Menai Strait remain occupied and if so by who. Did this have any regional influence?
  • Vortigern: Who was he and why does he have an actual association with North Wales and any special influence on the Cheshire region?
  • Gwynedd, Powys and Pengwern: How did these Roman "sucessor states" come about and how did they interact with "Cheshire"

All these issues can be examined in the light of the scant literary evidence as originally interpreted to indicate mass-migration and displacement, the later theories of "a warrior elite" or the most recent "hybrid" view. Some care is needed as it is all too easy to "bust" one myth and replace it with another.

The End of Roman Britain

Ostorius Scapula launched a campaign against the Deceanglii, possibly as early as AD 48. Suetonious Paullinus mounted three campaigns in Wales in AD 58-60, perhaps utilising the Dee Estuary; the last of these reached Anglesey, although the success of the campaign was halted by the Boudican revolt. It was Julius Agricola who finally subjugated north Wales during his first campaign in AD 78. A fort may have been established at Roman Chester by Paullinus, although this remains to be confirmed, while the construction of a legionary fortress here commenced in AD 74. As noted above, there is no physical evidence that this subjugation was violent, but the Romans were not known for their peaceful conquest.

The general consensus of archaeologists is that Roman Britain reached its peak of prosperity in the early 4th century. However, near contemporary writers can give a different impression, showing the the local administration was at times in revolt against Rome. The western Caesar Constantius Chlorus needed to re-establish Imperial rule in Britain following a revolt by Carausius (a Roman Naval commander in Britain) and later Allectus (defeated 296), his finance minister and eventual assassin. Eutropius (fl. AD 363–387) writes of the English Channel being cleared by Carausius, since the Armorican and Belgian coasts had been 'infested' with Francs and Saxons. After his father's death in 306, Constantine was acclaimed as augustus (emperor) by his army at Eboracum (York). He eventually emerged victorious in the civil wars against emperors Maxentius and Licinius to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire by 324. St Jerome famously described Britain as "a province fertile in tyrants (fertilis provincia tyrannorum)" (Jerome, Letters vol. 56, no. 133.9.13) — the military usurpers who can be seen in hindsight as milestones on the road to ruin for Roman Britain.

Flavius Claudius Constantinus, known in English as Constantine III (died 411 by 18 September) was a Roman general who declared himself Western Roman Emperor in Britannia in 407 and established himself in Gaul. Recognised by the Emperor Honorius in 409, collapsing support and military setbacks saw him abdicate in 411. He was captured and executed shortly afterwards.

Following the revolt of Magnentius, Paulus "Catena" was dispatched to Roman Britain in 353 by the paranoid Constantius II to exact savage reprisals against supporters of Magnentius in the army garrisons of Britain. These "revolts" appear to have only involved the army.

In the winter of 367, the Roman garrison on Hadrian's Wall supposedly rebelled and allowed Picts from Caledonia to enter Britannia. This has become known as part of the "Great Conspiracty". In the spring of 368, a relief force commanded by the elderly Flavius Theodosius arrived in Britannia from Gaul. He brought with him Magnus Maximus, who, when later assigned back to Britain would himself revolt in 383. It was once thought that Maximus stripped troops from Hadrian's Wall to support his revolt. Coins dated later than 383 have been excavated along Hadrian's Wall, suggesting that troops were not stripped from it. In Welsh tradition however, Magnus Maximus is the last of the Roman rulers of Britain.

There may have been one more attempt to shore-up Roman Britain. Claudian's de consulatu Stilichonis, (2, 250-5), written in January 400 is possible (but weak) evidence for an expedition to Britain mounted by Stilicho in 396-8 to deal with "external" threats. There is no supporting evidence. The Notitia Dignitatum, a list of officials probably compiled c. 400, mentioned neither troops at Chester nor the Twentieth Legion elsewhere in Britain. It could well be that "central" Roman authority in the Cheshire region had partly or largely collapsed by this time. On the other hand, the concept of Magnus Maximus as the the "last Roman ruler" could be an invention to support Welsh pedigrees created much later.

The crossing of the Rhine River by a mixed group of barbarians which included Vandals, Alans and Suebi is traditionally considered to have occurred on the last day of the year 406 although 405 fits better with events in Britain. It initiated a wave of destruction of Roman cities and the collapse of Roman civic order in northern Gaul. Thereafter the provinces of Britain were isolated, lacking support from the Empire. That some legionary troops remained even then is evidenced by the setting up and pulling down of a final series of usurper emperors as the soldiers supported the revolts of:

  • Marcus (406 - 407), a soldier in Roman Britain who was proclaimed emperor by the army there some time in 406. All that is known of his rule is that he did not please the army, and was soon killed by them;
  • Gratianus (407), acclaimed as emperor by the army in Britain in early 407. His army wanted to cross to Gaul and stop the barbarians who were attacking the empire but Gratian ordered them to remain (he should have known better). Unhappy with this, the troops killed him - and finally;
  • Constantine "III" (who actually listened to the troops). Constantine III was a British common soldier and invaded Gaul in 407, eventually occupying Arles, but in the process possibly drained Britain of the last of it's Roman legions. Possibly 6000 mobile troops. He had some limited success, but in 411 Gerontius besieged Constantine in Arles and killed him.

Later writers, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1095 – c.1155), make these usurpers "Kings of Britain" and use them as a largely fictitious historical narrative.

How we get this information illustrates some of the problems with with sources. Details of these three usurpers come from Bibliotheca of Photius in the ninth century, who states that these are fragments from Olympiodorus of Thebes who was a Greek pagan historian from Thebes in Egypt and published his now lost account shortly after 425.

Around 410, the Romano-British expelled the Roman "magistrates" from Britain. A frequently used "endpoint" for Roman Britain is often assumed to be the so-called "Rescript of Honorius" of 411 when the emperor reputedly told the British cities to look after their own defence. This interpretation has been questioned. Honorius was fighting a large-scale war in Italy against the Visigoths under their leader Alaric, with Rome itself under siege. No forces could be spared to protect distant Britain, alhough it is possible that Honorius expected to regain control over the provinces soon. On the other hand Britain did not pay the complete costs of occupation, yet nevertheless, the Romans were forced to keep three or four legions, 30,000 to 40,000 men with auxiliary units in place to defend it. History had already shown, several times, these legions would be a considerable benefit to any local usurper.

Britain appears to have suffered a "system collapse" at the end of Roman rule. The markets (urban centers and the military garrisons) dissappeared, as did the means of production (villa farm estates). Coinage dried-up and the money economy halted as taxation collapsed and state-sponsored transport ended. One of the mainstays of archaeology, pottery, ceased to be produced on an industrial scale. Historians tend to be rather polarised in their views on the nature and timing of this Roman "system collapse". Some consider it was very rapid and chaotic possibly with revolts of slaves or Germanic mercenaries already in place. Others see it as a more gradual transition. The anonymous author of De Vita Christiana, who may have been a Pelagian and possibly even a Briton, wrote in the early fifth century:

  • Of these some, who had frequently shed the blood of others, felt the wrath of God to such effect that they were compelled at last to shed their own. ... Others who had committed similar deeds were so completely overthrown by the wrath of God that their bodies lay unburied and became food for the beasts and the birds of the air. Yet others who had unjustly destroyed a countless multitude of men have been torn to pieces limb from limb, piece by piece...

This may well be violence associated with any one of the fall of Constantine III, the ejection of the Roman administration, or the rapid collapse of the economy based on taxes public spending. Such violence could well have been widespread, but is nothing to do with the Saxons as it was perpetrated by the British themselves.

The above summary implies that Britain as a whole had a somewhat insecure government towards the end of the Roman period, but these historical facts are largely concerned with military affairs at a national level. Much less is known about other institutions, such as the church, and especially in some specific geographical locations, such as Cheshire.

A modern flood-warning map from "". The area covered broadly equates to the area where the fisk of flooding in any year is greater than 1% (the "hundred year" flood risk). Note how the Norman Cheshire Castles occur at defendable crossing points. The flooding define a natural border, as shown by the dashed red line, which is very close to the current England/Wales border.

Not all regions in Roman Britain were governed in the same manner. It was once thought that some had a strong element of civilian control (those in the south-eastern "lowland" zone) whereas others were essentially military (those in the northern and western "highland" zone). This view has been recently criticised. City-based local government, was governed by a town council (curia), led by elected magistrates. They were responsible for settling local disputes and collecting taxes from the population in the extensive surrounding territory, and passing them on to the state. There were 22 major towns in Britain. Seventeen of them were civitas capitals based on the tribal areas (civitates) into which the Britons had been organised in the course of the conquest. It has been suggested that the civil settlement at Chester was elevated to the status of civitas capital of the northern Cornovii at the end of the 2nd or early 3rd century under Septimius Severus, but there is no conclusive evidence for this.

The early christian church in Roman Britain was largely based in towns (as were Bishops) and posssibly appealed mostly to the wealthier and better educated classes. There is little evidence for an organised Celtic church of unique in character with its own structures and practices, especially in north Wales, at the time of the departure of the Romans. The British Bishops considered themselves part of the Roman Church. Participation by a British bishop at a synod in Gaul demonstrates that at least some British churches were in full administrative and doctrinal touch with Gaul as late as 455. Most of the surviving "lives" of the early Welsh "saints" were written from an eleventh or twelfth century perspective and it is uncertain whether these can provide any historical background. The earliest of these saints including Dubricius lived in the 6th century.


The accession of Honorius and his brother Arcadius in 395 was marked by a basic change in the role of the emperor. After holding the consulate at the age of two in 386, Honorius was declared augustus by his father Theodosius I, and thus co-ruler, on 23 January 393, after the death of Valentinian II and the usurpation of Eugenius. When Theodosius died, in January 395, Honorius and Arcadius divided the Empire, so that Honorius became Western Roman emperor at the age of ten. During the early part of his reign, Honorius depended on the military leadership of the general Stilicho, who had been appointed by Theodosius and was of mixed Vandal and Roman ancestry. To strengthen his bonds with the young emperor and to make his grandchild an imperial heir, Stilicho married his daughter Maria, to him. Stilicho's downfall came in 408, when, following his inability to deal with the rebellion of Constantine III, he was executed. Thereafter, the Roman military were pre-occupied with continental events and only the continental church was in any position to send "aid" to Britain.


As noted above this article attempts to look at Anglo-Saxon settlement in Cheshire and other associated cultural exchanges in the same region. This is a particularly interesting problem due to Cheshire not only having a land and linquistic border with Wales but also by it being a port of the Irish Sea zone. Matters are complicated by the fact that Cheshire was the location of a major Roman base which may or may not have had a cultural legacy. It has been suggested that the civil settlement at Chester was elevated to the status of civitas capital of the northern Cornovii at the end of the 2nd or early 3rd century under Severus, but the evidence on this is inconclusive. In order to try to discover how Cheshire transitioned from Roman to Anglo-Saxon a number of different sources of information can be consulted.

Cheshire is an area arbitrarily defined to serve modern administrative needs. The borders of what is now termed Cheshire are in part defined by landscape features mostly involving the Cheshire Plain. Cheshire occupies a fertile double basin of undulating lowland divided from the rest of the Midlands by the barriers of the southern Pennines and a low, but historically significant ridge of glacial and post-glacial sands which helped to divert the post-glacial drainage of North Shropshire to the Severn and so isolated Cheshire drainage from that of the neighbouring lowlands to the south. To the west and north the rivers Dee and Mersey roughly follow the boundary and between them around the Wirral the boundary follows the mostly estuarine coast. To the east the Pennines form a natural geographic border. Between Shocklach and Whitchurch the Wych Brook (formerly the River Elfe) roughly defines a convenient boundary. Of course this has not always been the cultural boundary: at times parts of Flintshire were under control of the "English" side and at other times Chester appears to have been under Welsh control. As H. J. Hewitt has said (Mediaeval Cheshire (1929), p150):

  • "the Earldom (of Chester) which marked the early limits of Norman power, marked also broadly the limit of Saxon invasions."

Even in late Roman Chester historical information is difficult to come by. There is little by the way of written evidence for the period 400-700, so determining the date of the arrival of "Saxon" culture is difficult. Archaeology, which is largely concerned with artifacts, provides little information. Cheshire does not have the Pagan Saxon archaeology of eastern England. What Cheshire does have is a confusing mixture of English place-names with a remarkably low survival of Celtic names, strong hints of Celtic Christianity in ecclesiastical organisation and evidence for early territorial organisation which appears to extend back to the Roman past. There is also an increasing body of information from genetic information. Recent "ancient DNA" results show that around 75 percent of the ancestry of individuals in Eastern and Southern England was shared with those from continental regions bordering the North Sea, including the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

Ordnance Survey map of Roman Britain (1956!). The ridge to the west of Whitchurch forms the watershed of rivers draining north into the Mersey and rivers draining south into the Severn.

There is no detailed historical record of the Roman legions packing up, blowing out the lights, marching out of Chester and leaving the local populace to their own devices. Indeed, after over three-hundred years of "occupation" the Romans were probably pretty well integrated with the indigenous population. Coin finds on the Wirral seem to suggest that retired Roman soldiers lived a settled life in the area. If they did they may well have taken local wives. They probably even spoke the local language. The most likely scenario was that regular troops were withdrawn to support civil wars in mainland Europe, leaving local irregular troops, retired veterans or mercenaries to defend the Roman towns as best they could. There were frequent appeals to Rome for help, few of which were answered, although some were. There are also some historical hints of the survival of Roman culture in the area around Chester: 1.5km to the north-east of Tarporley, at Easton, is the only known and excavated Roman Villa in Cheshire (there may be a further villa near Saighton). The evidence from Eaton suggests occupation into the early 5th century.

Just when the Saxon's first became a potential problem for the Brythonic-speaking Roman British is not clear, but the title "comes littoris Saxonici per Britanniam" ("Count of the Saxon Shore") was possibly created during the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337), and was probably in existence by 367 when Nectaridus is elliptically referred to as such a leader by historians such as Ammianus Marcellinus. Obviously, the "Saxon Shore" is that to the south and east of England, and there is no reason to suppose that the Saxons frequently sailed into the Irish Sea. However there were Roman coastal defences on the north Wales coast intended to protect against the Scots, Picts and others from around the Irish Sea.


Wroxeter has a quite different set of archaeology to Chester. It is known to have been the site of extensive civilian activity until well after the departure of the Romans.

Wroxeter was first established in the early years of the Roman conquest of Britain as a frontier post for a cohort of Thracian Auxilia who were taking part in the campaigns of the governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula (died 52). A few years later a legionary fortress (castrum) was built within the site of the later city for the Legio XIV Gemina during their invasion of Wales. By the late 80s the fort had ceased to be used by the Roman army after Legio XX Valeria Victrix moved to Deva Victrix. In this period the canabae, or civilian settlement, that had grown up around the legionary fort began turning it into a town. Of this town much survives and it has been extensively studied.

During the rest of the Roman period the town was the administrative center of the Cornovii. The "First Cohort of Cornovi" was the only regiment of native British troops known to have been stationed in Britain itself. The unit is mentioned only in the Notitia Dignitatum and apparently formed the late-fourth century garrison at Pons Aelius, an auxiliary castra on the site of the castle at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the original eastern terminus of Hadrian’s Wall. Several theories attempt to link Wroxeter into the creation of sub-Roman successor states such as Powys and the semi-mythical polity of Pengwern.

An approximate map of the region around Cheshire after Edwin (c.586 – 12 October 632/633) had extended Northumbria to the Irish Sea (c.629) and before Offa (died 29 July 796), or a predcessor, had extended Mercia westward. Gwynedd is in Red, Powys in yellow, the often-posulated Pengwern in blue, Mercia in green and Northumbria in purple.The position of the borders near Chester is not known with any certainty. The years 600-685. just prior to the lifetime of Bede, saw a series of battles between the Welsh (Red), Northumbrians (Purple) and Mercians (Green). The Northumbrians initially did well, under both Æthelfrith (Battle of Chester: 616) and Edwin, but then the Welsh and Mercians counter-atacked under Cadwallon ap Cadfan and Penda (Cefn Digoll: c630, Hatfield Chase: 633). Oswald later restored Northumbria's fortunes (Heavenfield: 634), but was himself defeated by the Mercians under Penda (Maserfield: 641-42)). Oswalds brother Oswiu got revenge on Penda (Winwaed: 655) but the Mercians were back on form under their temporary king Æthelred (Trent: 679). Having been defeated, the Northumbrian Ecgfrith turned his attention northwards and was destroyed with his army by the Picts at the Battle of Nechtansmere c685. The Mercians came out on top.

At Wroxeter, archaeological research has found that an unfinished legionary bath house in the centre of the town eventually became the town's forum. A decade later a civic street grid was subsuming the plan of the old legionary fort. At its peak, Viroconium is estimated to have been one of the richest and the fourth largest Roman settlement in Britain with a population of more than 15,000. Viroconium appears to have served as the early sub-Roman capital of Powys, variously identified with the ancient Welsh cities of Cair Urnarc or Cair Guricon which appeared in the Historia Brittonum's list of the 28 civitates of Britain. It should be noted that some older books appear to make Viroconium in post-Roman times a far more vibrant place than it actually was. Evidence for the foundation of the wealth of the town is not forthcoming but extensive mineral deposits of lead, silver and coal are located nearby and the Cornovii controlled three centres of salt production.

It is possible that the status of the town declined in the 4th century since the large and unwieldy territory of the Cornovii was possibly broken up into smaller units with Chester and Whitchurch being likely centres for the new pagi. Viroconium possibly became the site of the court of a sub-Roman "kingdom" known in Old English as the Wreocensæte, which was the successor territorial unit to Cornovia. Wrocensaete means the "the people sitting at the Wrekin" or "the people .. Wroxeter" and the boundary of their land has been the subject of much speculation, with some having it include much of Cheshire. The fact that the people have an Old English name does not mean that they were English - the name was what the English called them and they could be, and probably were, the Cornovii.

Inscribed stone Cunorīx son of Maqqos Colinī from Wroxeter.

The ethnic origins of the inhabitants has also been the subject of speculation. The Wroxeter Stone or Cunorix Stone, was found in 1967, with an inscription in an Insular Celtic language, identified by the Celtic Inscribed Stones Project (CISP) at UCL as "partly-Latinized Primitive Irish". The inscription, probably on a re-used gravestone, is dated to 460-475 AD, when Irish raiders had (possibly) begun to make permanent settlements in west Wales and south-western Britain. It reads "CVNORIX | MACVSM/A | QVICO[L]I[N]E", traditionally normalised as Cunorix macus Maqui Coline and translated as Cunorīx son of Maqqos Colinī. "Cunorix" can itself be translated as "top dog"! Thus it is possible that Cunorix may be either one of a number of Irish foederati settled by the Romans in Wales or one of their descendants. It was common Roman policy in the later empire to settle a certain number of barbarian "invaders" within the boundaries of the Empire to ward off the rest. Irish settlers in Wales are known mostly from their tombstones, of which there are a considerable number. However these are chiefly concentrated in Pembrokeshire in the South West, and mostly written in the Ogham script. One must be wary of building an Irish Wroxeter upon a single gravestone.

The 5th century saw continued town life in Viroconium but many of the buildings fell into disrepair. However, between 530 and 570 there was a substantial rebuilding programme in timber with most of the old basilica being demolished and replaced with new wooden buildings. The infrastructure needed to transport stone for building-work had been lost. These probably included a very large two-storey timber-framed building and a number of storage buildings and houses. In all, 33 new buildings are said to have been constructed. Some of the buildings were renewed three times and the community possibly lasted about 75 years until for some reason many of the buildings were dismantled. Some sources state that Offa of Mercia (ruled 757 – 29 July 796) annexed the entirety of Shropshire over the course of the 8th century from Powys, with nearby Shrewsbury captured in 778. Other sources state that the likely date of abandonment of Wroxeter as an urban settlement seems to have been in the later 7th or the 8th century when, on place-name evidence, the Anglo-Saxons occupied the area. By both these dates the Mercians had already been converted to christianity. It seems unlikely that the town was ever completely abandoned since the church in the village (St Andrew) dates to the 8-10th century (estimates vary) and is associated with a 8/9th century cross-shaft.

Recent work on animal remains at the site show that through the 5th to 7th centuries, there is little evidence of major changes in animal husbandry. Whether for economic or for more symbolically-embedded reasons, the delivery of adult cattle into Wroxeter continued through the 5th-7th centuries, indicating some consistency in the structure and utilisation of the surrounding countryside. Wroxeter gives the impression that, at least in terms of animal husbandry and supply, life went on.

From sub-Roman times there is no evidence of any administrative or economic connection between Chester and Viroconium. The only link that can be suggested with any confidence is that if someone from the south-east were migrating or invading towards Cheshire then they would have to pass Viroconium both to reach Cheshire and to maintain communications with whence they came. Viroconium seems to have been unmolested up to the 7th century, so it is a safe bet to assume that at the time of the Battle of Chester Chester and probably most of Cheshire was in Welsh hands.

Decline and Fall Paradigm

A possible arrangement of the late Roman provinces of Britain. The "Decline and Fall" paradigm is traditionally applied to the entirity of Britain, whereas in reality there is likely to have been variation in the way that matters worked out in the different provinces.

Concerning Britain, the "Decline and Fall" paradigm holds that at the end of the Roman period Britain experienced a more dramatic collapse than other provinces in the Western Roman Empire: political and economic institutions disintegrated by the mid-fifth century or earlier; towns were abandoned; the Anglo-Saxons dominated late fifth-century Britain and conquered it in the sixth century. Until the 1970's it also appears that it was widely believed that christianity became extinct until the Augustinian mission in 597.

Gildas and Bede both present narratives that describe a dramatic collapse of society in Britain and do not emphasise continuity, this was taken as historical fact. However, they each had their own reasons for describing a large-scale systemic collapse. Gildas‘ purpose was to shock the religious and secular leaders of Britain into returning to what he considered acceptable standards of behaviour. Bede took advantage of Gildas‘ negative portrayal of the British to legitimise what he considered Anglo-Saxon political and cultural dominance over the Britons, especially as regards religion. The most frequently cited date for the end of Roman Britain under this paradigm is 410, a date much earlier than the traditional date for the end of the Western Roman Empire, 476. The former is also the date attributed to the letter from Honorius to the citizens of Britain advising them to look to their own defences. The Decline and Fall Paradigm held that the c200 years, 410-597, the bulk of the 5th and 6th centuries, was a period of decay, chaos, ignorance and paganism which only ended with the arrival of Augustine.

The "Late Antiquity" paradigm opposes such a catastrophic decline. Instead it proposes a transition including the spread of Christian monasticism. Christianity was well established in Britain by 400: Victricius of Rouen in his De Laude Sanctorum (396) explains that he has just returned from Britain where he was invited to settle a dispute between bishops. Monastic spirituality came to Britain and then Ireland from Gaul, by way of Lérins, Tours, and Auxerre. A monastery may have been established in Wales c450. A convenient endpoint for late antiquity in the region is possibly the Synod of Chester an ecclesiastical council of bishops held in Chester in the late 6th or early 7th century.

The early development of the above theories paid little attention to the lot of the common man, but were based largely on evidence relating to military and religious elites. They are also somewhat biased towards events in the south and west of Britain and therefore not reflective of what may have been happening, for example, on the Irish Sea coast. For some, such as tax-collectors, the "departure of the Romans" and the changes in the nature of the economy would have been a catastrophic change.


At the same time as the East Angles were being united under a single king, Angle and Saxon conquests were rapid and extensive, but mostly in the south of Britain and the north-east. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the West Saxons defeated three British kings in c577:

  • "577: Here Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against the Britons, and they killed three kings, Coinmail, Condidan and Farinmail, in the place which is called Deorham, and took 3 cities: Gloucester and Cirencester and Bath"

This resulted in the capture of Caer Gloui (Gloucester), Caer Ceri (Cirencester), and Caer Baddan (a second Battle of Badon?). The Hwicce moved into new territory to form their own kingdom while the West Saxons continued to fight against Dumnonia resulting in the Battle of Deorham. The catastrophic British defeats in 577 meant that both Dumnonia and Caer Celemion were now totally isolated, while the East Saxons consolidated their own kingdom to the north of the Thames Estuary, possibly under Æscwine.

North of the Humber, the two Angle kingdoms were also making rapid advances. According to tradition Ebrauc's defence finally ran out of steam circa 580, which is when it was overrun by the Deiran Angles. The Bernician Angles appear to have destroyed the kingdom of the Peak around 595. Saxon groups moved in from the Midlands to adopt the name, becoming the Pecsaetan (Peak settlers). Æthelfrith (Æðelfriþ), united Deira with his own Bernician kingdom by force around the year 604.

Elmet was now surrounded by enemies but North Rheged was at the height of its strength, even controlling nearby Galwyddel (Galloway), until in-fighting, or the Northumbrians, brought down its powerful leader. In Wales however and over parts of the Midlands there was still a strong British presence.

The important take-out from this is that even at the time that Augustine was landing in Kent (c.600) on the sea-border of "England" many of the Anglo-Saxons had only recently formed and Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria still had room for expansion to the west. The church would be involved in this expansion into teritory where the Welsh/Celtic church previously had significant influence.


Segontium (Old Welsh: Cair Segeint) is a Roman fort on the outskirts of Caernarfon in Gwynedd, North Wales. The fort, which survived until the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, was garrisoned by Roman auxiliaries. It was the most important military base and administrative centre in this part of northwest Wales. The fort may take its name either directly from the Afon Seiont or from a pre-existing British settlement itself named for the river. Alternatively, the name could be a Latinised form of the Brythonic language seg-ontio, which may be translated as "strong place", although given that "sego" means "vigorous" as applied to the river "place by the vigourous river" seems a better fit.

Segontium was founded by Gnaeus Julius Agricola in AD 77 or 78 after he had conquered the Ordovices in North Wales. It was the main Roman fort in the north of Roman Wales and was designed to hold about a thousand auxiliary infantry. It was connected by a Roman road to the Roman legionary base at Chester. An inscription on an aqueduct from the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus indicates that, by the 3rd century, Segontium was garrisoned by 500 men from the Cohors I Sunicorum, which would have originally been levied among the Sunici of Gallia Belgica. The size of the fort continued to reduce through the 3rd and 4th centuries although according to some sources coins found at Segontium show the fort was still occupied until at least 394. Other sources state that the latest coin from the site is that of Gratian (367-383).

Roman sites in North Wales. Sites where there is something to see are shown in red. The red lines show possible Roman Roads, although some of these are conjectural. The ring of forts around Snowdonia at Kanovium, Bryn-y-Gefeiliau, Tomen-y-Mur, Pen Llystyn and Caer Gybi, the major fortress at Segontium (Caernarvon) and the string of forts along the North Welsh coast closely parallel the later military strategies of the Normans and of Edward I.

At this "late Roman" time Segontium's main role was the defence of the north Wales coast against Irish raiders and pirates. It appears that a coastal defence network was constructed along the coast of North Wales, with a small fort at Caer Gybi (Holyhead) on Angelsey and a series of forts (Caer) and signal towers along the Welsh coast. Possible sites were at Hen Waliau (Caernafon), Aberffraw (possible), Bangor, Braich yr Dinas, Caerhun, Deganwy, Varis (St Asaph) and possibly also at Pentre. There are probably remains of watch-towers or signal-beacons which have yet to be found. The fact that the Romans should build so much infra-structure in north Wales raises the issue of what they were defending and the degree of "Romanisation" of the population between Segontium and Deva. This leads on to the issue of how long a Romanised way of life would have survived in the region.

There has been significant discovery of Roman industry near Flint, where metals (mostly lead) was processed at Pentre Ffwrndan: "the place of the firey furnace". LiDAR data has revealed a possible Roman fortlet (PRN 123918) around 1.3km north-west of Greenfield, located on the edge of higher ground, overlooking the coastal plain. Lead from the Flintshire orefields contains a relatively high proportion of silver which could be extracted by cupellation. This would have added considerably to its value, perhaps explaining the possible presence of a high-ranking Roman official at the Deeside settlement.

Irish "Invaders"

From the literature we see that for the Irish Sea region the initial foreign threat was the Scoti and possibly the Picts. Jones & Mattingly's Atlas of Roman Britain (1990) shows incursions of Irish invaders/settlers through Cheshire and shows significant Irish settlement in Angelsey and Dyfed. There are a number of sites, such as that at Ty Mawr, known as "Cytiau Gwyddelod", or "The Huts of the Irishmen".

Scoti or Scotti is a Latin name for the Gaels, first attested in the late 3rd century. It originally referred to all Gaels, first those in Ireland and then those in the rest of Great Britain as well, but it later came to refer only to Gaels in northern Britain. An early use of the word can be found in the Nomina Provinciarum Omnium (Names of All the Provinces), which dates to about AD 312. This is a short list of the names and provinces of the Roman Empire. At the end of this list is a brief list of tribes deemed to be a growing threat to the Empire, which included the Scoti, as a new term for the Irish. For the purpose of this article Scoti is taken to refer to Irish and particularly those who raided across the Irish Sea.

Matters are complicated by the fact that not everyone crossing the Irish Sea was a raider. In the late fourth century there was an influx of settlers into Wales from southern Ireland, the Uí Liatháin and Laigin (with "Déisi" participation uncertain), arriving under unknown circumstances but leaving a lasting legacy especially in Dyfed. Déisi is an Old Irish term that is derived from the word déis, which meant in its original sense a "vassal" or "subject", a designated group of people who were rent-payers to a landowner. As a class that evolved from peoples tied by social status rather than kinship, groups had largely independent histories in different parts of Ireland.

That people from Ireland settled in some numbers in western Wales about the fifth century is generally accepted. Physical evidence of the Irish presence in post-Roman Britain comes in the form of Ogham inscriptions. Some of these are dual-language which implies co-existence and co-operation. There is also a large legendary literature concerning the interaction of Ireland and Wales. However, the scale and duration of the Irish ‘colonization’, along with its influence on the native Brittonic population, remain a matter of debate. What documentary references to Irish incursions and settlement exist are difficult to exploit as they were all written much later, and subject to the vagaries of oblivion, omission and contemporary political propaganda. According to the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, the family of Eochu Liathán settled in the southern region of Wales until they were driven out by Cunedda and his sons. Later on, this same record refers to Cunedda and his sons driving the Irish out of the region which subsequently became the kingdom of Gwynedd:

  • "Maelgwn, the great king, was reigning among the Britons in the region of Gwynedd, for his ancestor, Cunedag, with his sons, whose number was eight, had come previously from the northern part, that is from the region which is called Manaw Gododdin, one hundred and forty-six years before Maelgwn reigned. And with great slaughter they drove out from those regions the Scotti who never returned again to inhabit them."

There is the familiar linguistic problem here: the name Cunedda (spelled Cunedag in the AD 828 pseudo-history Historia Brittonum) derives from the Brythonic word *Cuno-dagos, meaning "Clever Dog" or "Having Good Hounds/Warriors". There is considerable doubt in the academic literature that the Irish settlement in north Wales was anything like as extensive as was once supposed, or that there was any significant migration from the Votadinii region. The material to back up a fifth-century Irish presence in northwest Wales is insubstantial, even in contrast to that for continuing local British elites. In total, it comprises a few ogham stones and Latin inscriptions containing Irish personal names - not even all fifth- rather than sixth-century in date. There are some medieval or later Irish place-names and there is post-medieval folklore.

Opinions vary greatly as to when (and if) Cunedda lived. Some place him in the 6th century whereas others grant an earlier date. Maelgwn Gwynedd (Latin: Maglocunus; died c. 547) was king of Gwynedd during the early 6th century, and according to some genealogies he was the great-grandson of Cunedda. The Historic Brittonum dates the migration of Cunedda precisely, and in unequivocal terms, as 146 years before Maelgwn Gwynedd reigned. Maelgwn probably succeeded to the throne in 534, and Cunedda therefore left Manau for Wales c 388, the year of Magnus Maximus’s defeat and execution. However the Historic Brittonum, refers to Cunedda as Maelgwn’s grandfather’s great-grandfather.


The "traditional" succession of the Welsh Rulers from "foundation" to the Battle of Chester. This presents many issues with accuracy and the information needs to be treated with extreme caution.

The period between the departure of the Romans and the settlement of the Saxons has been called the "Age of Arthur" after the legendary king. Records from the time are sparse but the name of Vortigern as an important character seemingly involved in events eventually emerges. Vortigern's existence is contested by scholars and information about him is obscure. Unfortunately, many online sources assume without any doubt that he was a real historical figure and fail to distunguish between sources which are historical, folklore, myth or fiction. It is also the case that many of the legends surrounding Vortigern are set in Wales. This does not automatically make him a "Welsh" character as his existence/legend may have simply been largely if not entirely forgotten in areas that were occupied by the Saxons. Vortigern and Cunedda both feature in the "traditional" version of the family trees of Welsh monarchs: a schema which may have been subject to political revision at various times.

The 6th century cleric Gildas does not mention Vortigern by name in most surviving editions, with only two later copies mentioning him. MS. A (Avranches MS 162, 12th century), refers to Uortigerno; and Mommsen's MS. X (Cambridge University Library MS. Ff. I.27) (13th century) calls him Gurthigerno. There is no proof that these names were included in Gildas original text. They may well have been introduced in surviving copies of Gildas at a later date.

The 8th century monk Bede mostly paraphrases Gildas in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and The Reckoning of Time, adding several details, perhaps most importantly the name of this "proud tyrant", whom he first calls Vertigernus (in his Chronica Maiora) and later Vurtigernus (in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum). The Vertigernus form may reflect an earlier Celtic source or a lost version of Gildas, but Bede does not identify his source.

The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) was attributed until recently to Nennius, a monk from Bangor, Gwynedd, and was probably compiled during the early 9th century. Nennius wrote more negatively of Vortigern, accusing him of incest (perhaps confusing Vortigern with the Welsh king Vortiporius, accused by Gildas of the same crime).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides dates and locations of four battles fought by the Saxons against the British in the county of Kent. Vortigern is said to have been the commander of the British for only the first battle; the opponents in the next three battles are variously termed "British" and "Welsh", which is not unusual for this part of the Chronicle. The Chronicle locates the Battle of Wippedesfleot as the place where the Saxons landed with hostile intent, dated 465 and thought to be identified with Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate. The annals for the 5th century in the Chronicle were put into their current form during the 9th century, probably during the reign of Alfred the Great. The Chronicle exhibits some bias in favour of the West Saxons.

Putting a date to Vortigern based on the surviving myths is difficult as they are inconsistent. Vortigern is said to marry the daughter of Magnus Maximus while she is still of child-bearing age and Magnus left Britain in c384. St German of Auxerre - came to britain in 429 and apparently met Vortigern. Vortigern would eventually meet his doom at the hands of St German (who died in 448 at the latest). However in 449 Vortigern is inviting the Saxons to Britain and lives long enough to see them revolt in the Treason of the Long Knives.

Later writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth expand on detail but in Geoffrey's case his primary source appears to be his own imagination. By the date of the documents which survive there had been many opportunities for the content of the original sources to become significantly corrupted.

One theory is that Vortigern might be a royal title, rather than a personal name. The name in Brittonic literally means "Great King" or "Overlord", composed of the elements *wor- "over-, super" and *tigerno- "king, lord, chief, ruler". The "*" means that scholars are not certain about the word. It is indeed unlikely that someone would be baptised with such a convenient name. This point will come up again when considering the names and titles of the "Anglo-Saxons".


Vortigern is one of the two "roots" of some of the pedigrees of the Welsh rulers, with the other being Cunedda. These pedigrees need to treated with caution but it is evident that many writers simply take them as historical truth. The main source of early genealogies, the Harley 3859 manuscript, was probably composed under Owain ap Hywel Dda: some other genealogies also appear to date from that time. The existing "copies" date from the 12th century.

Pedigrees that had been in writing for a long time tended to become very lengthy indeed. With each rewriting to add a new generation and grow the pedigree forwards it seems that the pedigree was possibly also extended backwards into the "mists of time". The pedigree of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last prince of Gwynedd (d. 1282), for example, as found in the fifteenth-century manuscript (British Library, Harley 673), includes no fewer than ninety-four generations, inclusive of both Llywelyn at one end and Jupiter, Saturn, Noah, Adam and God at the other. Clearly, as a pedigree such as this is traced back there is a point where it becomes suspect.

Fortunately we need not really be concerned with the immediate post-Roman sections of the pedigrees, which are the oldest and more likely to be tampered with (or made up completely in the case of the earliest forefathers). The question of when English was first spoken in Cheshire seems only to be concerned with events after c.600. However there are still issues over rulership in Powys at that time.

Gwynedd and Powys/Pengwern

The Kingdom of Gwynedd was a "Welsh" kingdom and a Roman Empire successor state that emerged in sub-Roman Britain in the 5th century during the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. The name Gwynedd is believed by some to be a borrowing from early Irish (reflective of supposed Irish settlement in the area in antiquity), either cognate with the Old Irish ethnic name Féni, "Irish People", from Primitive Irish *weidh-n- "Forest People"/"Wild People" (from Proto-Indo-European *weydh- "wood, wilderness"), or (alternatively) Old Irish fían "war band", from Proto-Irish *wēnā (from Proto-Indo-European *weyH1- "chase, pursue, suppress"). The 5th-century Cantiorix Inscription found near Festiniog and now in Penmachno church seems to be the earliest record of the name. It is in memory of a man named Cantiorix, and the Latin inscription is:

The sub-kingdoms of Gwynedd. Many of these have royal lineage which goes back to Cunedda. This could be due to later reconstruction of lineages to insert a noted ancestor or the eventually dilutive effect of always distributing the land of a ruler among all of the surviving sons.
  • "Cantiorix hic iacit/Venedotis cives fuit/consobrinos Magli magistrati": "Cantiorix lies here. He was a citizen of Gwynedd and a cousin of Maglos the magistrate".

The use of terms such as "citizen" and "magistrate" may be cited as evidence that some elements of Romano-British culture and institutions continued in Gwynedd long after the legions had withdrawn and the magistrates were supposedly ejected.

The Kingdom of Powys was another Welsh successor state, petty kingdom and principality that emerged during the Middle Ages following the end of Roman rule in Britain. The kingdom of Powys itself is first mentioned in the Annales Cambriae under the year 808, and although royal genealogies, none composed earlier than the ninth century, take the line of its kings back to around 600. It very roughly covered the top two thirds of the modern county of Powys and part of today's English West Midlands. During the Roman occupation of Britain, this region was organised with the capital most likely at Viroconium Cornoviorum, the fourth-largest Roman city in Britain. Archaeological evidence has shown that, unusually for the post-Roman period, Viroconium Cornoviorum survived as an urban centre well into the 6th century and thus could have been the Powys/Pengwern capital.

One issue is how far into "England" Gwynedd and Powys extended. The heartlands of Gwynedd appear to have been Arfon and Môn i.e. along the Menai straight; with the latter perhaps the most important locale within the greater Gwynedd kingdom. The remaining areas of north-western and north-eastern Wales comprised a multitude of smaller polities such as Meirionnydd, Dunoding, Dogfeiling, Osfeiling, Edeirnion, Eifionydd, Rhos and Rhufoniog. These were generally considered sub-kingdoms of Gwynedd. Individuals who ruled many of these were identified as the sons and grandson of Cunedda, but this may reflect later creation of a link to a notable ancestor, or the speculations of enthusiastic antiquarians. Their names, with that of the eldest son who died in Scotland, are given by a genealogy of mid-tenth century date probably compiled at St David’s c 955. It may also reflect the British practice of splitting land between several sons, something which could produce a large number of small polities, but the former "foundation myth" explanation is more likely. At the simplest level of corroboration Cunedda is not mentioned in any source other than the Historia Brittonum and the genealogies. Thus the lands up to the River Dee and perhaps at some times up to the Gowy were subject to the Gwynedd hegemony. Despite Offa's Dyke being considered the border at some times, Chester appears to have been a British\"Welsh" city when attacked by the West Saxons under Ecgbert in c829 and at the time of the Battle of Chester in c616.

Pengwern was a Brythonic settlement of sub-Roman Britain situated in what is now the English county of Shropshire, It is regarded as possibly being the early seat of the kings of Powys before its establishment at Mathrafal, further west, but the theory that it was an early kingdom (or a sub-kingdom of Powys itself) has also been postulated. Its precise location and extent are uncertain. The exploits of Cynddylan, as imagined around the 9th century, are told in the Old Welsh Canu Heledd (a cycle of poems named after Cynddylan's sister), possibly dating from the 9th century but not recorded until later, and this material situates Cynddylan's seat at Pengwern. These relate to a further cycle of heroic and elegiac poetry concerning early Powys and the Hen Ogledd known as Canu Llywarch Hen.

According to this semi-legendary material, for which there is little confirmation, Cynddylan joined forces with king Penda of Mercia to protect his realm, possibly also for personal reasons, as his brother Gwion had been killed defending during the Battle of Chester. Together they fought against the increasingly powerful Anglian kingdom of Northumbria at the Battle of Maserfield (Oswestry) in c.642. It was here that their mutual enemy, king Oswald, was slain. This seems to have bought a period of peace until Penda's death at the hands of Oswald's brother Oswiu of Northumbria. Oswiu then surprised Cynddylan's palace at Llys Pengwern. Caught completely off guard and without defence, the royal family, including the king, were slaughtered, according to the poetry commemorating the tragedy, with the palace being burned to the ground, presumably destroying any notional records. Princess Heledd was the only survivor and fled to western Powys.

If Pengwern existed it would have blocked Mercian expansion towards the Irish Sea port at Chester. However the problem with arguments based on the presence of Pengwern is that there is no hard evidence of its actual existence. The "legendary" material appears consistent with the little historical material that exists but appears to have been written down between about 1382 and 1410 based on an oral tradition.

Pillar of Eliseg

The Pillar of Eliseg is located near Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire, Wales [Grid reference SJ 20267 44527]. It was erected by Cyngen ap Cadell (died 855), king of Powys in honour of his great-grandfather Elisedd ap Gwylog (died c. 755). The form "Eliseg" found on the pillar is assumed to be a mistake by the carver of the inscription. Cyngen was the last of the original line of kings of Powys of the Gwertherion dynasty. He had three sons (perhaps four: Gruffudd, Elized, Ioab and Aedan), but on his death Powys was annexed by Rhodri Mawr, ruler of Gwynedd.

The placement of Eliseg's Pillar is on the possible route from previously Roman and now ecclesiastical centers on the north Wales coast to other centers in the south. Cantrefs and commotes at times claimed by Gwynned are shown in orange. The route is on a corridor defined by the Berwyn mountains on one side and Offa's dyke on the other. It's placement begs the question of who exactly were the intended audience for the inscription - the general populace would not be able to read "ceremonial" latin. Perhaps its location on a route that would have been used by the clergy, the formal "legal" language, and the strong inference that it should be read aloud, might mean that the Church (i.e. Nennius and co) were the target.

A generally accepted translation of the inscription, one of the longest surviving inscriptions from pre-Viking Wales, is as follows:

† Concenn son of Cattell, Cattell son of Brochmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg, Eliseg son of Guoillauc.
† And that Concenn, great-grandson of Eliseg, erected this stone for his great-grandfather Eliseg.
† The same Eliseg, who joined together the inheritance of Powys . . . throughout nine (years?) out of the power of the Angles with his sword and with fire.
† Whosoever shall read this hand-inscribed stone, let him give a blessing on the soul of Eliseg.
† This is that Concenn who captured with his hand eleven hundred acres [4.5 km²] which used to belong to his kingdom of Powys . . . and which . . . . . . the mountain

(the column is broken here. One line, possibly more, lost)

. . . the monarchy . . . Maximus . . . of Britain . . . [Conce]nn, Pascen[t], Mau(n?), An(n)an.
† Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.
† Conmarch painted this writing at the request of king Concenn.
† The blessing of the Lord be upon Concenn and upon his entire household, and upon the entire region of Powys until the Day of Judgement.

How much of this is history and how much is myth (or propaganda) has been the subject of debate. Those named in the first line can be identified as: Cattell son of Brochmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg and Eliseg son of Guoillauc. Guoillauc, according to traditional Welsh king-lists would be Gwylog ap Beli the great-grandson of Selyf ap Cynan who died in the Battle of Chester.

The names [Conce]nn, Pascen[t], Mau(n?), An(n)an appear on a very badly damaged section of the column. Pascent appears in a genealogical argument which flared up in the 9th century around the dynasties that claimed the legitimacy of the throne of Powys. These were the dynasties of Cadell Ddyrnllwg (promoted by the Historia Brittonum) and of Catigern ((Welsh: Cadeyrn Fendigaid) said to be confirmed by the Pillar of Elise), which claimed descent from Vortigern. The Historia Brittonium says of the sons of Vortigern:

  • "He had three sons: the eldest was Vortimer, who, as we have seen, fought four times against the Saxons, and put them to flight; the second Categirn, who was slain in the same battle with Horsa; the third was Pascent, who reigned in the two provinces Builth and Guorthegirnaim, after the death of his father. These were granted him by Ambrosius, who was the great king among the kings of Britain. The fourth was Faustus, born of an incestuous marriage with his daughter, who was brought up and educated by St. Germanus."

Brittu is named as the son of Vortigern by Sevira, daughter of Magnus Maximus. The connection between Vortigern and Brittu is is mentioned in no other source. The Pillar of Eliseg inscription is also the only known source for a daughter of Magnus named Sevira (or Severa). In the "Matter of Britain" Vortigern also marries Rowena, daughter of the purported Anglo-Saxon chief Hengist: she is first recorded by name in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (so it is possible he made the name up). Geoffrey claims the drunken seduction of Vortigern created the tradition of toasting in Britain. According to the Historia Brittonum, Vortigern "and his wives" (Rowena/Rhonwen is not named directly) were burned alive by "heavenly fire" (brought down by Germanus) in the fortress of Craig Gwrtheyrn ("Vortigern's Rock") in south Wales.

Comparing the list of names on the pillar with those in the traditional Welsh king-lists it is possible to hazard a guess when the part of Powys referred to was lost. The inference is that Elisedd ap Gwylog was not the one who lost this part of Powys, so the loss may have occurred during the reign of Beli ab Eiludd (655-695?) or Gwylog ap Beli (695?–725).

So why was the pillar errected? It could simply be a monument to an ancestor with no sub-text in the context. It could be a rallying call to Powys to repeat the deeds of their noble ancestors going back to the Romans and recover their rightful land from the Mercians. It could be that Cyngen ap Cadell was already well aware that Gwynedd had Powys in its sights for a take-over and wanted to emphasise that he and his sons were the rightful heirs.

Summary so far

Chester makes much of its Roman past but digging into the detail reveals a spread of "jigsaw pieces" that could indicate a quite different post-Roman evolution to that in the south and west of Britain from which most "popular" theories about the advent of the Saxons have arisen.

It is not entirely clear when "Roman Britain" ended in Cheshire. With the withdrawl of Legio XX possibly around 383 this could be earlier, in effect, than in the south of England, where a date of 411 is frequently used. There is an argument for surviving Roman culture at Viroconium (Wroxeter) which would have delayed the migration of Anglo-Saxons towards Cheshire. There is also an argument for surviving Roman culture in north Wales, but this is not supported by archaological evidence, and the theory of its survival is much influenced by Welsh legendary material written down many years later. These include "foundation myths" for Gwynedd and Powys of which there appear to be several early variants. For example, the Pillar of Eliseg (built before 855) traces a pedigree for Powys that runs back to Magnus Maximus and Vortigern.

At the time of the Battle of Chester, some 200 years after the "end of Roman Chester", the Saxons do not seem to have settled what is now Cheshire, much of which was possibly part of Powys. Such was the delay between the advent of the Saxons c.450 and their probable arrival in Cheshire perhaps 200 years later that little of any "survival" of Romanitas, with the possible exception of Wroxeter would have had any impact on the language spoken in Cheshire.

Written Evidence

Some care and caution is needed with the written evidence, especially that which was only generated after years of oral transmission or that which may have been compiled or copied with changes for "political" reasons. It is important to distinguish between what can be reasonably assumed to be accurrate and what is effectively story-telling. The writing of Saint Patrick and Gildas apparently demonstrates the survival in Britain of Latin literacy and Roman education, learning and law within elite society and Christianity, throughout the bulk of the fifth and sixth centuries. Some see signs in Gildas' works which indicate that the economy was thriving without Roman taxation, as he complains of luxuria and self-indulgence. Of course Gildas may only be writing a polemic against a small elite. In the mid-fifth century, "Anglo-Saxons" begin to appear in an apparently still functionally Romanised Britain, so a key factor in analysis of the period is how quickly and when the culture changed due to outside influences. It is also worth noting that the lables "Angles" and "Saxons" raise some issues as to exactly what early authors meant by them.

Early Evidence

The first set of written evidence is that which comes from late Roman writers in the period before 450, at least some of whom may have been alive during the time of the first Saxon raids on late and post Roman Britain.

Ammianus Marcellinus

Ammianus Marcellinus (330 - c391 – 400): his account of the "British War" of 343 has been lost but he refers to it in extant works. According to his account, the Picts, Attacotti and Irish were raiding widely, while the Franks and Saxons were plundering parts of Gaul at some time between 343 and 367. Ammianus was living in Antioch at the time he wrote, but he is the source for the "Great Conspiracy", a year-long state of war and disorder that occurred near the end of Roman Britain. In the winter of 367, the Roman garrison on Hadrian's Wall rebelled and allowed Picts from Caledonia to enter Britannia. Simultaneously, Attacotti, the Scotti from Hibernia and (according to some interpretations) Saxons from Germania landed in what might have been coordinated and pre-arranged waves on the island's mid-western and southeastern borders, respectively.

The warbands managed to overwhelm nearly all of the loyal Roman outposts and settlements. The entire western and northern areas of Britannia were overwhelmed; the cities sacked; and the civilian Romano-British murdered, raped, or enslaved. In the spring of 368, a relief force, commanded by Flavius Theodosius, gathered at Bononia (Boulogne-sur-Mer). It included four units, Batavi, Heruli, Iovii and Victores, as well as his son, the later Emperor Theodosius I, and probably the later usurper Magnus Maximus, his nephew. Considerable reorganization was undertaken in Britain, including the creation of a new province, Valentia, probably to better address the state of the far north.

It is possible that Theodosius mounted punitive expeditions against the barbarians and imposed terms upon them. Certainly, the Notitia Dignitatum later records four units of Attacotti serving Rome on the Continent. What happened next only survives as a mix of myth and legend, although many writers will continue at this point without noting that what follows is speculation.

The areani (native British troops) were removed from duty and the frontiers refortified with co-operation from other border tribes such as the Votadini, which marked the career of men such as Paternus (Padarn Beisrudd). One traditional interpretation identifies Paternus as a Roman (or Romano-British) official of reasonably high rank who was placed in command of the Votadini troops stationed in Clackmannanshire in the 380s or earlier by Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. Alternatively, he may have been a frontier chieftain in the same region who was granted Roman military rank, a practice attested elsewhere along the empire's borders at the time. His command in part of what is now Scotland probably lasted until his death and was then assumed by his son Edern (Edeyrn=Eternus). Edern is traditionally considered to be the father of Cunedda, traditional founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd. Dates for the arrival of Cunedda in Wales range from the 370's (under Magnus Maximus) to the late 440's.

This provides two links to the Irish Sea region and in particular to north Wales. The earliest Welsh genealogies give Maximus (referred to as Macsen Wledig, or Emperor Maximus) the role of founding father of the dynasties of several medieval Welsh kingdoms, including those of Powys and Gwent. He is given as the ancestor of a Welsh king on the Pillar of Eliseg, erected nearly 500 years after he left Britain. For more on Maximus see below and the article on Elen of the Hosts.


Claudius Claudianus (c. 370 – c. 404) was a Latin poet associated with the court of the Roman emperor Honorius at Mediolanum (Milan), and particularly with the general Stilicho who was of Vandal origins. His coverage of events in Britain is somewhat fragmentary. His de consulatu Stilichonis (on the Consulship of Stilichio), puts the following into the mouth of Britannia, dressed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, her sea-blue mantle sweeping over her footsteps like the surge of ocean:

  • "Inde Caledonio velata Britannia monstro, ferro picta genas, cuius vestigia verrit caerulus Oceanique aestum mentitur amictus: me quoque vicinis pereuntem gentibus inquit munivit Stilicho, totam cum Scottus Hivernen movit et infesto spumavit remige Tethys illius effectum curis, ne tela timerem Scottica, ne Pictum tremerem, ne litore toto prospicerem dubiis venturum Saxona ventis." (When I too was about to succumb to the attack of neighbouring peoples - for the Scots had raised all Ireland against me, and the sea foamed under hostile oars - you, Stilicho, fortified me. This was to such effect that I no longer fear the weapons of the Scots, nor tremble at the Pict, nor along my shore do I look for the approaching Saxon on each uncertain wind.)

The conflict is refferred to as Stilicho's Pictish War and Claudian has no reason to make any of this up in the general sense, although he might be exaggerating the effects.

Frere (1987) believed this was evidence of naval activity against the Irish, Picts, and Saxons, as Gildas mentions in is sixth century writings. If this is the case then it may well have taken place offshore of the line of forts and signalling towers along the northern Welsh coast. It also indicates that the Saxons were already percieved as a danger before 404, if only as raiders.

Legio XX, based at Chester, appears to have been partially recalled to the continent by Stilicho about 402. Claudian's poem, De Bello Getico, indicates that the troops in question had done service against the Picts and Scots, as had the XXth:

  • "Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis; Quae Scoto dat frena truci, ferroque notatas; Pertegit exsangues Picto moriente figuras." (This legion, which curbs the savage Scot and studies the designs marked with iron on the face of the dying Pict.)

The mention of the invasions of the Scots, the implication of coastal defence and the possible link with the XXth legion, may indicate that Stilchio was active in the Chester/N.Wales area. Soldiers based at Chester were still being paid in coins from the imperial mints until, but not during, the time of Magnus Maximus (383- 8), who perhaps removed regular troops from Chester when he invaded Gaul in 383. The Notitia Dignitatum, a list of officials probably compiled c. 400, mentioned neither troops at Chester nor the Twentieth Legion elsewhere in Britain.

The Chronica Gallica of 452

The Chronica Gallica of 452, also called the Gallic Chronicle of 452, is an anonymous Latin chronicle of Late Antiquity, presented in the form of annals, which continues that of Jerome. It was edited by Theodor Mommsen who for some unknown reason saw fit to change some of the dates. The chronicle begins in 379 with the elevation of Theodosius I as co-emperor, and ends with the attack of Attila, king of the Huns, on Italy in 452. The contents focus on Gaul, the emperors and the popes, while events in the eastern part of the empire find little mention. There is a mention of Magnus Maximus being "made a tyrant by his troops" in Britain (in 383) and that in 384:

  • "Incursantes Pictos et Scottos Maximus tyrannus strenue superavit" (Maximus the tyrant achieved an admirable victory over the invading Picts and Scots)

There is a potential problem with these dates as Magnus Maximus had indeed been proclaimed emperor in Gratian's place in 383, but seems to have gone straight to Gaul to pursue his imperial ambitions. He defeated Gratian, who fled the battlefield and was killed at Lyon on 25 August 383, according to the Consularia Constantinopolitana. Maximus then continue his campaign into Italy.

The Chronica Gallica records of the year 441:

  • "441: The British provinces, which to this time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced to Saxon rule."

It is not clear when the Chronica was actually compiled. It was completed probably in Viennensis, perhaps in Valence or Marseille, in the middle of 452. Despite the anonymity, it is clear that the author was a staunch Catholic Christian as this religious perspective informs the chronicle. The author shows a keen interest in bishops and other outstanding religious figures. The author is also interested in the suppression of paganism and the competition between Catholicism and Arianism. He describes Pelagius (c354–418) as "mad". He gives a date of the sixteenth year of Honorius (c409) as that when:

  • "The British lands were devastated by an incursion of the Saxons"

The c409 incursion follows close upon the departure of the usurper Constantine III from Britain. However the 441 date for "reduction to Saxon Rule" seems early.

Constantius of Lyon

Constantius of Lyon (fl. c. AD 480) was a cleric from what is now the Auvergne in modern-day France, who wrote the Vita Germani, or Life of Germanus, a hagiography of Germanus of Auxerre. The hagiography was written some time during the second half of the fifth century, and was commissioned by and dedicated to Patiens, bishop of Lyon. The Vita was most probably dedicated to Patiens while he was still living and serving as bishop, most probably between his ascendancy to the bishopric in 450, and his death, before 494 when his successor plus one was bishop.

In Britain Germanus is best remembered for his journey to combat Pelagianism in or around 429, and the records of this visit provide valuable information on the state of post-Roman British society. We can be reasonably sure of the date because it is recorded in Prosper of Aquitaine‘s Chronicon, composed only a few years later in 434. Germanus also played an important part in the establishment and promotion of the Cult of Saint Alban. Around 429, shortly after the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, a Gaulish assembly of bishops chose Germanus and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, to visit the island. It was alleged that Pelagianism was rife among the British clergy, led by a British bishop, Severianus' son named Agricola. Constantius states that Germanus went to combat the threat and satisfy the Pope that the British church would not break away from the Roman teachings. Prosper reported that Germanus went to Britain because he was ordered by Pope Celestine on the advice of Bishop Palladius.

  • Agricola, a Pelagian, the son of the Pelagian bishop Severianus, corrupted the British churches by the insinuation [insinuatio] of his doctrine. But at the persuasion [insinuatio] of the deacon Palladius, Pope Celestine sent Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, as his representative, and having rejected the heretics, directed the British to the catholic faith. (Prosper, Chronicle c.1301 (AD 429))

Constantius of Lyon himself said of the work: "So many years have passed it is difficult to recover the facts from the silence in which they are buried", but he appears to depict Britain as still part of the Roman Empire and orthodox at the time he was writing about it, in the second half of the fifth century.

Germanus is said to have made a second visit to Britain in 447. The chronology of Germanus‘ life and episcopacy has been under debate. The year of his death has been suggested as 437, 442, and 448 which almost completely conflict with the idea of a second visit. There is also an issue with the date of the second vist and the ascendancy of the Saxons as described in the Chronica Gallica of 452, which places the Saxons in control by 441.

Later Evidence (After the Romans in Britain pass from living memory)

The second set of written records date from slightly later, when first-hand accounts of the arrival of the Saxons would not have been available to the authors, either through passage of time or separation by distance.

St Patrick

The dates of Patrick's life are uncertain; there are conflicting traditions regarding the year of his death. Patrick's father, Calpurnius, is described as a decurion (city senator and tax collector) of an unspecified Romano-British city, and as a deacon; his grandfather Potitus was a priest from "Bonaven Tabernia".

His own writings provide no evidence for any dating more precise than the 5th century generally. His Biblical quotations are a mixture of the Old Latin version and the Vulgate, completed in the early 5th century, suggesting he was writing "at the point of transition from Old Latin to Vulgate", although it is possible the Vulgate readings may have been added later, replacing earlier readings. The Letter to Coroticus implies that the Franks were still pagans at the time of writing: their conversion to Christianity is dated to the period 496–508. According to the Confession of Saint Patrick, at the age of sixteen he was captured by a group of Irish pirates, from his family's Villa at "Bannavem Taburniae". The Irish annals for the fifth century date Patrick's arrival in Ireland at 432, but they were compiled in the mid 6th century at the earliest. The date 432 was probably chosen to minimise the contribution of Palladius, who is traditionally said to have been sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 431, and maximise that of Patrick.

In the Epistola Patrick recounts that Coroticus, a Romanised Briton, is a sort of local leader and an ally of the Picts and Scoti.


Signage at the Amphitheatre suggests that Gildas (who could not have written left handed as shown) worked at Bangor on Dee - it is almost certainly wrong. The other thing questionable about this signage is the placement of Julius and Aaron in Chester. An eighth-centurygrant found in the Book of Llandaff describes the boundaries of the "territorium sanctorum martirium julii et aaron" near Caerleon, and two twelfth-century charters reinforce the grant. Later medieval tradition also held that this was where they were martyred, as described by both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales.

Gildas — also known as Gildas the Wise or St. Gildas — was a 6th-century British monk best known for his scathing religious polemic "De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae" (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), which recounts the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Saxons: partly in the form of a prolonged "rant". It is the only substantial literary text to survive from late antique Britain. Gildas tells us that native British sources were not available to him because they had been burned by enemies or taken by exiles when they fled Britain. He gives hardly any actual dates for events.

It is thought from his Latin style that Gildas wrote "De Excidio" after 480 and before 550 with the closest estimate being 510-530. His knowledge of the north is sketchy and his damning accusations of the Welsh kings have been taken to indicate that since Gildas was able to accuse these men, he must certainly have lived a long way away from the territory controlled by them. The signage at the Amphitheatre has Gildas writing at the monastery at Bangor-on-Dee. This monastery is believed to have been founded in about AD 560 by Saint Dunod (or Dunawd) and was an important religious centre in the 6th century. The monastery was destroyed in about 613/616 by the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelfrith of Northumbria after he defeated the Welsh armies at the Battle of Chester. Clearly, if Gildas' "De Excidio" is dated to before 550 (or in the narrower range 510-530) he cannot have been writing at the Bangor-on-Dee monastery. Thus, any actual association between Gildas and Chester, as implied on the Amphitheatre signage, appears to be without any historic foundation. There is some evidence to suggesst that Gildas wrote at Cor Tewdws or Bangor Tewdws (Meaning "college" or "chief university" of Theodosius) a Celtic monastery and college in what is now Llantwit Major, Glamorgan.

The first threat to the Britons mentioned in Gildas are the attacks by the Scots and the Picts. Eventually, most likely after 446 the Britons wrote to Aetius (died 453) as the so-called Groans of the Britons. The record is ambiguous on what the response to the appeal was, if any. There is no mention in this passage of the Saxons, who are first mentioned as being summoned as mercenaries to help defend against the threat from the west and north. Gildas is unclear about the date except to state that it was 44 years and one month before his own birth , which was in the same year as the Battle of Badon. Dates proposed by scholars for the battle include 493, 501 and 516.

Gildas is often cited as evidence that the Anglo Saxon invasion was violent, but he presents a paradox in that he describes his own time as having a functioning legal system an ecclesiastical hierarchy with clergy and bishops, and monastic houses with abbots and monks. Evidently there was a perhaps uneasy peace between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh at the time. Superficial reading of Gildas by the Victorians was probably responsible for the emergence of the "fled or dead" theory of Saxon conquest.

A map of battles fought by Anglo-Saxons. Many of these date from the period of Anglo-Saxon expansion which comes after Gildas was writing.


Zosimus (Greek: Ζώσιμος [ˈzosimos]; fl. 490s–510s) was a Greek historian who lived in Constantinople during the reign of the eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius I (491–518). As noted above he is the source for the so-called Rescript of Honorius.

The problem with the Rescript of Honorius is that there is no contemporary mention of it – the sixth century eastern Roman writer Zosimus is the first to record it and when he does bring it up, he does so at a seemingly random moment in the middle of a discussion on events in Italy. This has led to some reasonable suggestion that there had been some textual errors rendering as "Britain" what should have been "Bruttium", a city in the toe of Italy.


Procopius of Caesarea (Greek: Προκόπιος ὁ Καισαρεύς Prokópios ho Kaisareús; Latin: Procopius Caesariensis; c. 500 – 565) was a prominent late antique Greek scholar and historian from Caesarea Maritima. Accompanying the Roman general Belisarius in Emperor Justinian's wars, Procopius became the principal Roman historian of the 6th century. Procopius' knowledge about the goings-on at court gave him information about Britain as well. This originated with a Frankish embassy (ca 553) to Constantinople, accompanied by some Angles, possibly from Britain. Procopius' information might thus be hearsay and personal comment, but there is a possibility that, because of enough plausible detail, it was based on serious evidence.

  • Three very populous nations inhabit the Island of Brittia, and one king is set over each of them. And the names of these nations are Angles, Frisians, and Britons who have the same name as the island. So great apparently is the multitude of these peoples that every year in large groups they migrate from there with their women and children and go to the Franks. And they [the Franks] are settling them in what seems to be the more desolate part of their land, and as a result of this they say they are gaining possession of the island. So that not long ago the king of the Franks actually sent some of his friends to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, and despatched with them the men of the Angles, claiming that this island [Britain], too, is ruled by him. Such then are the matters concerning the island called Brittia.

Justinian was emperor April 527 – November 565.

Later Evidence (Written by Anglo-Saxons and later Welsh)

Click on the map for a larger version. The years 600-685. just prior to the lifetime of Bede, saw a series of battles between the Welsh (Red), Northumbrians (Purple) and Mercians (Green). The Northumbrians initially did well, under both Æthelfrith (Battle of Chester: 616) and Edwin, but then the Welsh and Mercians counter-atacked under Cadwallon ap Cadfan and Penda (Cefn Digoll: c630, Hatfield Chase: 633). Oswald later restored Northumbria's fortunes (Heavenfield: 634), but was himself defeated by the Mercians under Penda (Maserfield: 641-42)). Oswalds brother Oswiu got revenge on Penda (Winwaed: 655) but the Mercians were back on form under their temporary king Æthelred (Trent: 679). Having been defeated, the Northumbrian Ecgfrith turned his attention northwards and was destroyed with his army by the Picts (Yellow) at the Battle of Nechtansmere c685. The Mercians came out on top.

The third set of written records are those written after the clear settlement of the Saxons. The foremost are Bede (672/3 – 26 May 735) and "Nennius" (c830). Of these, most is known about Bede. Both Bede and Nennius use Gildas as a source, but both clearly have other sources, some of which may be lost.

The Tribal Hidage

The Tribal Hidage is a list of thirty-five tribes that was compiled in Anglo-Saxon England some time between the 7th and 9th centuries. The original purpose of the Tribal Hidage remains unknown: it could be a tribute list created by a king, but other purposes have been suggested. The Tribal Hidage has been of importance to historians since the middle of the 19th century, partly because it mentions territories unrecorded in other documents. Attempts to link all the names in the list with modern places are highly speculative and resulting maps should be treated with caution. In the tribal hidage, the extent of Elmet is described as 600 hides. Edwin of Northumbria led an invasion of Elmet, and overran it in 616 or 617. The Historia Brittonum says that Edwin "occupied Elmet and expelled Certic [sic], king of that country". It is generally presumed that Ceretic was the same person known in Welsh sources as Ceredig ap Gwallog, king of Elmet. A number of ancestors of Ceretic are recorded in Welsh sources: one of Taliesin's poems is for his father, Gwallog ap Lleenog, who may have ruled Elmet near the end of the 6th century. Around 1865, a Pillar stone with a 5th or early 6th century inscription was found at St Aelhaearn's Church, Llanaelhaearn in Gwynedd. The Latin inscription reads "ALIOTVS ELMETIACOS/HIC IACET", or "Aliotus the Elmetian lies here". It is believed that this refers to an otherwise unattested Aliotus from the Kingdom of Elmet who may have been active in the area before Saint Aelhaiarn founded his church.


Bede (672/3 – 26 May 735) places the arrival of the Saxons just before, during or just after the joint reign in Rome of Marcian and Valentinian III in AD 449–456. Bede bases his history in part on Gildas and starts with invasions and raids by the Scots and the Picts. He then has the Britons, under "Vortigern" invite the Angles or Saxons to defend them. Bede then skips almost a hundred years during which time he has the Britons "delivered from foreign invasions", but failing to convert the Saxons. Bede follows Gildas's account of Ambrosius in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but in his Chronica Majora he dates Ambrosius Aurelianus' victory to the reign of the Emperor Zeno (474–491).

Bede is the only real written source on the early history of Cheshire and its surroundings. Bede has a strong bias against the British (Celitic) church and this may be the primary reason that he writes little of its activities between the visit of Germanus and the arrival of Augustine. In his view the defeat of the British at the Battle of Chester is a deserved consequence of their failure to preach to the Saxons and agree to be subordinate to Augustine.

Bede refers to Chester as a "Civitas". The civitates differed from the less well-planned vici that grew up haphazardly around military garrisons; coloniae, which were settlements of retired troops; and municipia, formal political entities created from existing settlements. The civitates were regional market towns complete with a basilica and forum complex providing an administrative and economic focus. Civitates had a primary purpose of stimulating the local economy in order to raise taxes and produce raw materials. All this activity was administered by an ordo or curia, a civitas council consisting of men of sufficient social rank to be able to stand for public office. During the Roman period Chester was possibly never anything other than a military base. The implication from Bede is that Chester was under some form of government at the time of the Battle, but it seems odd that the Welsh chose not to defend it by deploying at the city rather than some distance to the south.

A continuation of the list of Welsh Kings after the Battle of Chester. Cadwallon ap Cadfan (r.c.625 – 634) is the one who teams-up with Penda of Mercia (r.c. 642 – 655) against Oswald (r. 633–642). Elisedd ap Gwylog (died c. 755) is the one from Eliseg's Pillar.


Nennius — or Nemnius or Nemnivus — was a Welsh monk of the 9th century. He has traditionally been attributed with the authorship of the Historia Brittonum, based on the prologue affixed to that work. This attribution is now widely considered a secondary (10th century) tradition. Nennius may have been just the compiler.

The traditional Nennius was a student of Elvodugus, commonly identified with the bishop Elfodd of Bangor who convinced British ecclesiastics to accept the Continental dating for Easter in 768 (much later than the Anglo-Saxons), and who died in 809 according to the Annales Cambriae. Welsh traditions include Nennius with Elbodug and others said to have escaped the massacre of Welsh monks associated with the Battle of Chester, although the timing seems impossible given the battle was c. 616. The Prologue, in which Nennius introduces his purpose and sources for writing the British History, first appears in a manuscript from the twelfth century, and so the prevailing view is that Nennius was a later compiler of a series of much earlier set of texts.

One thing which is missing from Nennius is any mention of the legend concerning the Votadini and Cunedda. This abscence is immediately suspicious. The Historia Brittonum describes the unlikely settlement of Britain by Trojan expatriates and states that Britain took its name after Brutus, a descendant of the mythical Trojan Aeneas. Nennius is presumably trying to illustrate the dual heritage of the Romans and the Britons, which makes some sense in that he was a member of a church which was a survival of the Roman "occupation" of Wales. He borrows from Vergil the idea that the Roman Emperors are descended from Aeneas (Vergil apparently invented that as a form of flattery) and mixes in the legends of Macsen Wledig which introduce both Roman imperial and British bloodlines into the ancestors of Welsh kings. Where his Romano-British history can be confirmed from other sources, he frequently gets names and dates confused and makes many of the Roman usurpers into British kings. Nennius has even crazier ideas about the settlement of Ireland, which was apparently in part colonised by a Scythian, expelled by Egyptians, after many years of wandering and via Spain. Germanus turns up frequently as an active character in Nennius. He is a pious visitor from the continent who opposes the tyranny of Vortigern and brings down divine retribution on those who deserve it. In the text of Nennius, Germanus is now fighting the Saxons rather than the Scoti and the Picts and Vortigern is now firmly in North Wales at Dinas Emrys.

The purpose of the text ascribed to Nennius appears to include providing a firm basis for the dynastic claims of Merfyn Frych (died c.844) and his son Rhodri Mawr (820–878).

Later evidence is in many cases even more pseudo-historical and so coloured by the storytelling traditions of the Arthurian legends that any details that might emerge from this period in later documents cannot simply be considered reliable facts.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The original manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was created late in the ninth century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899). Its content, which incorporated sources now otherwise lost dating from as early as the seventh century, is known as the "Common Stock" of the Chronicle. Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were updated, partly independently.

The Chronicle's accounts tend to be highly politicised, with the Common Stock intended primarily to legitimise the dynasty and reign of Alfred the Great and the importance of Wessex. Comparison between Chronicle manuscripts and with other medieval sources demonstrates that the scribes who copied or added to them omitted events or told one-sided versions of them, often providing useful insights into early medieval English politics to modern historians, but misleading some earlier historians and other writers who placed too much faith in the text as "truth" rather than evidence.


In 1014, Wulfstan, archbishop of York, delivered a homily to his English brethren, admonishing them for their sins and referring back to Gildas. There were renewed Viking raids by the Danes and, just the year before, King Æthelred had been forced to flee to Normandy. Wulfstan explained these depredations by his theory that an omnipotent God was deservedly chastising an unworthy people. As Wulfstan writes in the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Lupus, "the Wolf," is a literary alias):

  • "Here there are manslayers and slayers of their kinsmen, and slayers of priests and persecutors of monasteries, and here there are perjurers and murderers, and here there are harlots and infanticides and many foul adulterous fornicators, and here there are wizards and sorceresses, and here there are plunderers and robbers and spoliators, and, in short, a countless number of all crimes and misdeeds."

Wulfstan compares the plight of the English to that of the Celtic Britons, whom the English had themselves defeated half a millennium before.

  • "There was a historian in the times of the Britons, called Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how with their sins they angered God so excessively that finally he allowed the army of the English to conquer their land and to destroy the host of the Britons entirely. And that came about, according to what he said, through robbery by the powerful, and through the coveting of ill-gotten gains, through the lawlessness of the people and through unjust judgments, through the sloth of the bishops and the wicked cowardice of God's messengers, who mumbled with their jaws where they should have cried aloud; also through the foul wantonness of the people and through gluttony and manifold sins they destroyed their country and themselves they perished."

Wulfstan is repeating the message of Gildas and writing a sermon not a history. His text illustrates how the view that the Saxons could "destroy the host of the Britons entirely" and the "fled or dead" paradigm could become established.

Later Writers

John of Worcester (died c.1140) and William of Malmesbury (died c.1143) wrote futher histories based on Bede and other sources. They are generally considered reliable. Geoffrey of Monmouth (died c.1155) was the major establisher of the Arthurian canon. His Historia Regum Britanniae was taken as historical well into the 16th century, but it is now considered to have no value as history. Unfortunately Monmouth was taken as accurate by some later writers and his view of history was favoured, for political reasons, by Edward I when he was conquering Wales and possibly trying to promote his son as a new Arthur.

Summary so far

Taken together this evidence points to a collapse of "Roman authoritry" about the year 410. But the precise timing and nature of this collapse is not clear. The arrival of significant numbers of Saxons is also difficult to pin down, even for the south of England. For the northwest, and especially Cheshire, the written evidence provides little other than mentions of the Battle of Chester in Bede. The evidence seems to suggest that Chester may have been an important ecclesiastical center around 600 and in Welsh hands.

Edwin's expansion to the Irish Sea is attested by scattered references. It has been suggested, on the basis that Chester was a Roman and later port, that Edwin might have used Chester as a port and therefore that Chester would have briefly been under Northumbrian control. There is no written history or archaeology to support this speculation, which is not unreasonable.

King Lists

There are records of Germanic infiltration into Britain that date before the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is believed that the earliest Germanic visitors were eight cohorts of Batavians attached to the 14th Legion in the original invasion force under Aulus Plautius in AD 43. There is a recent hypothesis that some of the native tribes, identified as Britons by the Romans, may have been Germanic-language speakers, but most scholars disagree with this due to an insufficient record of local languages in Roman-period artefacts. In the eighth century, if not the seventh, Anglo-Saxon scholars began writing lists and genealogies of kings which purport to record their ancestry through the settlement period and beyond, prominently including the Anglian King-list and the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List. Thes lists became in turn a source for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the relevant sections of which were edited into their surviving form in the later ninth century. The Chronicle also includes various more detailed entries for the fifth and sixth centuries that ostensibly constitute historical evidence for a migration, Anglo-Saxon elites, and various significant historical events.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the arrival of the "Saxons" as follows:

  • A.D. 443. This year sent the Britons over sea to Rome, and begged assistance against the Picts; but they had none, for the Romans were at war with Atila, king of the Huns. Then sent they to the Angles, and requested the same from the nobles of that nation.
  • A.D. 449. This year Marcian and Valentinian assumed the empire, and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. The king directed them to fight against the Picts; and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the men of Kent, the Wightwarians (that is, the tribe that now dwelleth in the Isle of Wight), and that kindred in Wessex that men yet call the kindred of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the people of Essex and Sussex and Wessex. From Anglia, which has ever since remained waste between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all of those north of the Humber. Their leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa; who were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden. From this Woden arose all our royal kindred, and that of the Southumbrians also.

If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which eventually merged to become England were founded when small fleets of three to five ships of invaders arrived at various points around the coast of England to fight the sub-Roman British, and conquered their lands. The Angles formed Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria; the Saxons formed Essex, Sussex, and Wessex; while the Jutes settled in the Isle of Wight, Hampshire, and Kent. Many of the kingdoms that these eventually became have their own "Royal Legends".

A view of the settlement process as taking part between 400 and 500. Once again this draws a distinction between what happened in the southeast and the northwest and implies that the Romano-British were only restricted to the "lowland", with "native" British of a largely non-Romanised character living to the north and west.

Assuming this small-boat theory is true, the obvious question is: how big were the Anglo-Saxon boats? The most famous early Germanic boat is the Nydam boat. Nydam was once a bog in southern Denmark (now it’s a meadow) which has yielded many artefacts over the years like swords, shields and boats that were ritually "sacrificed" centuries ago and preserved by the bog’s high peat content. The 23 meter long oak boat known as the Nydam boat has been dendro-dated to around 310. It has 15 pairs of oars (so 30 rowers) and there is no sign of a mast block, meaning that it was probably powered by oars alone. It has a ‘keel plank’ rather than a fully developed keel and so would not be particulary sea-worthy and even less so if it was stepped with a mast and rigged with sails. Other than the Nydam boat, no whole vessel has been found from the pre-Viking age.

From around the 12th century historians began to consider that there were originally seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and in the 16th Century the term "Heptarchy" came into use. The actual number of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms fluctuated rapidly during this period as competing kings contended for supremacy. By convention, the Heptarchy period lasted from the end of Roman rule in Britain in the 5th century, until most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came under the overlordship of Ecgbert of Wessex in 829.


The Kingdom of the Kentish (Old English: Cantwara rīce; Latin: Regnum Cantuariorum), today referred to as the Kingdom of Kent, was an early medieval kingdom in what is now South East England. In the Romano-British period, the area of modern Kent that lay east of the River Medway was a civitas known as Cantiaca. It existed from either the fifth or the sixth century until it was fully absorbed into the Kingdom of Wessex. Under the preceding Romano-British administration the area of Kent faced repeated attacks from seafaring raiders during the fourth century. It is possible that Germanic-speaking foederati were invited to settle in the area as mercenaries. The primary ethnic group to settle in the area appears to have been the Jutes: they established their Kingdom in East Kent and may initially have been under the dominion of the Kingdom of Francia. In Kent, archaeological evidence suggests that a large-scale immigration of Germanic peoples did indeed take place. However, some of the Romano-British population likely remained, as the Roman name for the area, Cantiaca, influenced the name of the new Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the Cantware ("dwellers of Kent"). This preservation of an earlier name may be important as it can say something about how a "new" population arrives.

The earliest recorded king of Kent was Æthelberht, (550 – 24 February 616) who, as "bretwalda", wielded significant influence over other Anglo-Saxon kings in the late sixth century. There is both documentary and archaeological evidence that Kent was primarily colonised by Jutes, from the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. According to legend, the brothers Hengist and Horsa landed in 449 as mercenaries for the British king, Vortigern. The Kentish Royal Legend is a diverse group of Medieval texts which describe a wide circle of members of the royal family of Kent from the 7th to 8th centuries. Key elements include the descendants of Æthelberht of Kent over the next four generations; the establishment of various monasteries, the lives of a number of Anglo-Saxon saints and the subsequent travels of their relics.

Although historical sources going back to Bede indicated Jutes as settlers in Kent, in an issue that became known as "the problem of the Jutes", this historically attested migration is difficult to determine from or reconcile with the archaeological record. Indeed, material culture elements found in Kent resemble those of contemporary Merovingian France and Alemannic (southern) Germany, rather than the rest of England or Denmark. Aethelbert possessed a political reason for accepting Augustine’s preaching. His political relationship with the Merovingians was through his wife. The advent of Augustine and a Church based in far-off Rome and governed by the Pope’s authority ensured that Aethelbert would not be linked to the Merovingians as a subordinate in religious matters to a Merovingian sponsor, should he seek to convert.

Wessex (West Saxons)

Cerdic is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a leader of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, being the founder and first king of Wessex, reigning from around 519 to 534. His origin, ethnicity, and even his very existence have been extensively disputed. The name Ċerdiċ is thought by most scholars to be Brittonic – a form of the name Ceretic – rather than Germanic in origin. Ceawlin (also spelled Ceaulin, Caelin, Celin, died ca. 593) was also King of Wessex. He may have been the son of Cynric of Wessex and the grandson of Cerdic. Ceawlin is named as one of the eight "bretwaldas", a title given in the Chronicle to eight rulers who had overlordship over southern Britain, although the extent of Ceawlin's control is not known. Ceawlin's reign belongs to the period of Anglo-Saxon expansion at the end of the sixth century. Though there are many unanswered questions about the chronology and activities of the early West Saxon rulers, it is clear that Ceawlin was one of the key figures in the final "Anglo-Saxon conquest" of southern Britain.

Ceawlin appears in Cheshire folklore. According to a very dubious tale, the Battle of Feathanleag which took place around 584 A.D is believed to have been fought in the area of Faddiley in Cheshire. According to this legend, "a Celtic British force led by Brochwel (died c580), Prince of Powys defeated the army of Ceawlin who was attempting to advance into Wales". Brochwell is aalso said to have founded St Chad's college in Shrewsbury, despite Chad having died in 672. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the event without any connection to Cheshire or Brochwel:

  • "This year Ceawlin and Cutha fought against the Britons at the place called Fethan-lea, and there was Cutha slain; and Ceawlin took many towns, and spoils innumerable; and wrathful he thence returned to his own."

Modern scholarship places the battle at Stoke Lyne in Oxfordshire.

The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List begins with Cerdic (claiming that he arrived in Wessex in 494) and extends to Alfred (r. 871–99). Thus the list probably took its surviving form during Alfred's reign when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was compiled, and some care needs to be taken with the content. As the Chronicle is tilted towards the interests of Wessex it does little to shed light on the early history of Cheshire per se, but the occurence of British names in the West-Saxon king-list (such as Cædwalla of Wessex, who died as late as 689) may indicate Brythonic ancestry. Cædwalla's name is thought to ultimately derive from the Proto-Celtic Katu-welnā-mnos, meaning "The One Who (-mnos) Leads (welnā-) into Battle (katu-)". Many of the rulers whose names are derived from early sources have names which could be interpreted as a description of their role rather than a personal name.

The rulers of Mercia have quite a complicated tree. Further detail is given below.

Ine of Wessex (r.689–726) is noted for his law code which he issued in about 694. The laws made separate provision for Ine's English and British subjects, favouring the former over the latter; the weregilds paid for Britons were half of those paid for Saxons of the same social class, and their oaths also counted for less. No Mercian law code from the period survives. Discrimination of this type survived for a surprisingly long time. For example, in the Chester borough charter of 1200-02 there is a provision that: if a citizen bought goods and a Welshman later claimed they were stolen, the Welshman had to refund the purchase price to the citizen in order for the goods to be returned. If a Frenchman or Englishman claimed the goods were stolen he paid nothing but the goods were returned.


Creoda (Cryda or Crida, c585–593) may have been one of the first kings of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, ruling toward the end of the 6th century. Icel (c460 –c535), also spelt Icil, is a possible earlier king of Mercia. He was supposedly the son of Eomer (443–489), last King of the Angles in Angeln. Icel supposedly led his people across the North Sea to Britain around 515. Mercia's exact evolution at the start of the Anglo-Saxon era remains more obscure than that of Northumbria, Kent, or even Wessex. Mercia developed an effective political structure and was Christianised later than the other kingdoms. The earliest settlements are in the Trent valley, either close to the river or a little way along its tributaries. The first pagan burials appear in these areas, datable to c550.

The Anglian collection is a set of Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies and regnal lists which survive in four manuscripts - two of which now reside in the British Library. All the manuscripts include genealogies for the kingdoms of Deira, Bernicia, Mercia, Lindsey, Kent and East Anglia. Three of them (C, T and R) also contain a West Saxon genealogy (which may have been a source for the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List), and regnal lists for Northumbria and Mercia. The lists are inconsistent as regards the earliest rulers. One version of this list has Creoda, Cynewald and Cnebba followed by Cearl, who is the first Mercian king mentioned by Bede. Bede may have been have been making a joke as "ceorl" means peasant (churl) in Old English. Bede writes:

  • "Among these were Osfrid and Eadfrid, sons of King Edwin, who were both born to him in exile of Coenburg, daughter of Cearl, King of the Mercians"

Next in the list comes Pybba, the father of Penda. Penda (died 15 November 655) was a pagan at a time when Christianity was taking hold in many of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Penda took over the Severn Valley in 628 following the Battle of Cirencester before participating in the defeat of Edwin at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633. Mercia at the time was possibly ruled by Penda's brother Eowa. Nine years later, Penda defeated and killed Edwin's eventual successor, Oswald, at the Battle of Maserfield when Eowa was killed. From this point Penda was probably the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon rulers of the time, laying the foundations for the Mercian Supremacy over the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. More local myth slips into the historical record as regards the Sandbach Crosses. King Penda of Mercia arranged the marriage of his son Paeda to the daughter of the Christian King Oswiu of Northumbria. As a term of the union with his daughter, Oswiu insisted that Paeda take the Christian faith and he was baptised. A plaque located on the crosses states:

  • "Saxon crosses completed in the 9th century to commemorate the advent of Christianity in this Kingdom of Mercia about AD 653 in the reign of the Saxon king Penda They were restored in 1816 by Sir John Egerton after destruction by iconoclasts."

This appears to be in part a throwback to the local legend that the crosses were errected by Peada at around the time of his baptism. Whether the crosses have anything to do with Peada is extremely doubtful. Later rulers of Mercia are discussed under "Archaeology" below.


The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria was originally two kingdoms divided approximately around the River Tees: Bernicia was to the north of the river and Deira to the south. It is not known if Deira was ever an independent Brythonic kingdom, and no British king has been identified with the area from the surviving genealogies, poems or chronicles. However the area was subject to the same fractious inheritance traditions and changing power dynamic that allowed Elmet and Bernicia to become independent hereditary kingdoms in the early fifth century. Archaeology suggests that the Anglian royal house was in place in Deira by the middle of the fifth century, but the first certainly recorded king is Ælla in the late sixth century. After his death, Deira was subject to king Æthelfrith of Bernicia, who united the two kingdoms into Northumbria. Æthelfrith ruled until the accession of Ælla's son Edwin, in 616 or 617, who also ruled both kingdoms until 633.

The rulers of Northumbria and their battles against the Mercians and Gwynedd.

With the death of Æthelfrith, and of the powerful Æthelberht of Kent the same year, Raedwald and his client Edwin were well placed to dominate England, and indeed Raedwald did so until his death a decade later. Edwin expelled Ceretic from the minor British kingdom of Elmet in either 616 or 626. Elmet had probably been subject to Mercia and then to Edwin. The larger kingdom of Lindsey appears to have been taken over c. 625, after the death of king Raedwald.

Edwin and Eadbald of Kent were allies at this time, and Edwin arranged to marry Eadbald's sister Æthelburh. The fate of his first wife (Cwenburg) is not recorded. Bede notes that Eadbald would agree to marry his sister to Edwin only if he converted to Christianity. The marriage of Eadbald's Merovingian mother Bertha had resulted in the conversion of Kent and Æthelburh's would do the same in Northumbria.

So what of Cearl of Mercia? That some catastrophe did overwhelm king Cearl seems plausible. At a date no later than the spring of 616, Edwin had fled to Raedwald of the East Angles. Given his marriage to Cearl’s daughter and their co-parentage of Cearl’s grandsons, it is difficult to imagine that Edwin’s flight was voluntary. That successive embassies from Æthelfrith subsequently came close to securing his death by threat of war against Rzedwald demonstrates that Æthelfrith was, in 616, in a position to attack the East Angles. He had, therefore, secured passage through the Trent valley - that is through Cearl’s core territory. When Raedwald eventually marched against Æthelfrith he surprised him with only small forces, so not on campaign, inside the Mercian frontier on the banks of the River Idle. These several circumstances possibly demonstrate that Cearl’s kingship had evaporated by 616, at the latest. It had apparently been replaced by Æthelfrith’s own (brief) imperium over Mercia. Such is unlikely to have been achieved without a major clash between their two forces. The battle of Chester is the only battle known to have been fought by Æthelfrith against anyone south of Northumberland. Unless Bede omitted mention of another at least as important, it seems likely that Cearl was a victim of the "Chester campaign". Bede might well have failed to mention Mercia's involvement simply because that would weaken his argument that the downfall of the Britons was the result of Augustine's curse.

Edwin's expansion to the west may have begun early in his reign. There is firm evidence of a war waged in the early 620s between Edwin and Fiachnae mac Báetáin of the Dál nAraidi, king of the Ulaid in Ireland. A lost poem is known to have existed recounting Fiachnae's campaigns against the Saxons, and the Irish annals report the siege, or the storming, of Bamburgh in Bernicia in 623–624. This should presumably be placed in the context of Edwin's designs on the Isle of Man, a target of Ulaid ambitions. Fiachnae's death in 626, at the hands of his namesake, Fiachnae mac Demmáin of the Dál Fiatach, and the second Fiachnae's death a year later in battle against the Dál Riata probably eased the way for Edwin's conquests in the Irish sea province. It is not clear exactly what territory Edwin conquered around the Irish Sea. He appears to have controlled much of Lancashire and probably held overlordship at least as far south as the Mersey. Whether he extended his control into what is now Cheshire is unknown, as is whether he controlled any of mainland north Wales.

Edwin's supposed foster-brother Cadwallon ap Cadfan enters the record circa 629, presumably because of a possible threat to Angelsey, but according to tradition Cadwallon was defeated and either submitted to Edwin's authority or went into exile. With the defeat of Cadwallon, Edwin's authority appears to have been unchallenged for a number of years, until Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon rose against him in 632–633. Edwin faced Penda and Cadwallon at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in the autumn of 632 or 633 and was defeated and killed. Edwin was succeeded by Osric, son of Edwin's paternal uncle Æthelfric, in Deira, and by Eanfrith, son of Æthelfrith and Edwin's sister Acha, in Bernicia. Both reverted to paganism, and both were killed by Cadwallon. Eventually Eanfrith's brother Oswald restored Northumbria's fortunes (Heavenfield: 634), but was himself defeated and killed by the Mercians under Penda (Maserfield: 641-42)). Oswalds brother Oswiu got revenge on Penda (Winwaed: 655) but the Mercians were back on form under their temporary king Æthelred (Trent: 679). For some reason Wikipedia makes Trent a Mercian loss, whereas most sources have it as a Mercian win. Having been defeated, the Northumbrian Ecgfrith turned his attention northwards and was destroyed with his army at the Battle of Nechtansmere c685.

Remaining Members of the Heptarchy

The remaining members of the Heptarchy are listed below, noting that at no time were there exactly seven kingdoms. Like the ones discussed above they have common features of:

  • a foundation myth dating to the late 5th or early 6th century, with rulers whose actual existence there is little or no evidence for. This covers the period upto about the time of the Battle of Chester, and;
  • the emergence of rulers who likely had a real existence in the late 6th to early 7th century;

Frequently the foundation myth has the Anglo-Saxons arriving in relatively small numbers: often 3-5 ships.

Sussex (South Saxons)

The foundation legend of the Kingdom of Sussex is that in 477 Ælle and his three sons (Cissa, Wlencing and Cymen) arrived in three ships, conquering what is now Sussex. Bede states that Ælle became overlord, or Bretwalda, over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber. Historians are divided over whether or not Ælle really existed; however archaeological evidence supports the view that a short-lived expansion of South Saxon authority as far as the Midlands may have taken place in the 5th century.

Essex (East Saxons)

Æscwine (494–587) in the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies is listed as the first ruler of the Kingdom of Essex. If historical, he would have flourished during the 6th century. Little evidence is available for his existence. His name Æscwine first appears in an East-Saxon genealogy which is imperfectly preserved in British Library Add. MS 23211, presumably of the late 9th century. According to British legend the territory known later as Essex was ceded by the Celtic Britons to the Saxons following the Treason of the Long Knives, which occurred c. 460 during the reign of High King Vortigern. The story is thought to be pseudohistorical as the only surviving records mentioning it are centuries later in the semi-mythological histories of the Historia Brittonum and the Historia Regum Britanniae.

East Anglia

The Kingdom of East Anglia was organised in the first or second quarter of the 6th century, with Wehha listed in some sources as the first king of the East Angles, followed by Wuffa who is the first king in other lists. According to the historian R. Rainbird Clarke, migrants from southern Jutland "speedily dominated" the Sandlings, an area of southeast Suffolk, and then, by around 550, "lost no time in conquering the whole of East Anglia". According to the 13th-century chronicler Roger of Wendover, Wuffa ruled from 571 to 578, but the origin of this information is unknown. According to Michael Wood, current evidence suggests that Wuffa ruled the East Angles around 575. A lack of documentary evidence prevents scholars from knowing if Wuffa is anything more than a legendary figure and the true identity of the first East Anglian king cannot be known with certainty.

Summary so far

The king lists typically contain some characters who appear other records but may of the earlier ancestors have probably been inserted by those trying to create a continuous pedigree and a historical narrative. Textual sources often hint that people who are portrayed as ethnically Anglo-Saxon actually had British connections. This may be because they were Britons who adopted Anglo-Saxon culture, or Anglo-Saxons whose identity only survives through British records.

It appears that large Anglo-Saxon kingdoms began to exist in the south and east of England at various times after about 550. At this time Chester was under Welsh control. Æthelberht of Kent, who had strong connections with the Merovingian dynasty of Franks through his wife invited Rome to send a missionary. This not only set off a cascade of conversions but also started the process of history being written down again in England. Meanwhile, in the north, Northumbria began to form and threaten its neighbours. It is probable that around this time the early Mercians started treaty relations with the Welsh to protect themselves against the Northumbrian expansion. Æthelfrith of Northumbria ousted Edwin who fled first to Mercia and later to East Anglia probably conspiring against Æthelfrith. Æthelfrith defeated what was likely a confederation of Welsh and Mercian forces at the Battle of Chester, but was himself then defeated and slain by Raedwald of East Anglia and Edwin, giving Edwin control of Northumbria, while Æthelfrith's family fled. Edwin continued the expansionist policies of his predecessor pushing his borders to those of Mercia and Wales and taking control of Angelsey and Mann. Edwin faced a unified Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Wales at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in the autumn of 632 or 633 and was defeated and killed. The children of Æthelfrith then returned, rebuilding Northumbrian power. One son, Oswald defeated and killed Cadwallon of Wales but was then defeated and killed by Penda of Mercia. Penda became worried over the growing power of Oswald's brother Oswiu and later attacked him, only to be defeated, and killed in turn in 655. This is discussed in further detail below.


The distribution of early Anglo-Saxon burials: 5th to 7th Century. This could be interpreted as showing where migration had reached in this period or could indicate that Anglo-Saxon burial practices towards the Welsh border had become indistinguishable from British ones.

Under the "fled or dead" hypothesis the scant early Anglo-Saxon archaeology was used to support the invasion model based on a superficial reading of Gildas. Much of this archaeology is that of burials and the associated grave-goods. Cheshire has no early cemeteries which can be identified as Anglo-Saxon. Cheshire has Offa's Dyke nearby and this was almost certainly built by the Mercians from the opposite side of Cheshire.


The Roman burial practice was originally that cemeteries were located outside the ritual boundaries (pomerium) of towns and cities. Grand monuments and humble tombs alike lined the roadsides, sometimes clustered together like "cities of the dead". Burial practices across the remnants of the provinces of the Western Roman Empire underwent significant changes from the fourth to seventh centuries. Up to the fourth century, burials were typically cremations or inhumations with various orientations, often accompanied by grave goods, and sometimes overlapping other burials. From the fourth century onward, two general burial trends can be identified:

  • A trend is distinguished by the inclusion of a wide range of grave goods such as weapons, jewellery and pottery vessels. Such accompanied burial included varied body positions, crouched, prone or supine, and varied orientation with a tendency for a north-south alignment;
  • Inhumation in an extended supine position and by a paucity, but not necessarily a total lack, of grave goods. These burials were oriented east-west with head to the west and often placed in burial containers, such as wooden coffins, stone-sarcophagi and stone-lined graves. Such burials were sometimes interred in mausolea or separated from other burials by ditched enclosures. These inhumations are also associated with managed cemeteries, where burials were laid out in neat rows with little or no overlap of graves.

How such burials should be interpreted has been the subject of considerable debate.

If the pagan English immigrants were few in number amongst a Christian Welsh population, it might be expected that the English pagan burial sites would be small in size and few in number. Further, the cultural minority represented by such a pagan-burying English community might quickly find itself adopting the customs of the majority in such matters and possibly, after the first generation in the new land, an assimilation of burial custom by the minority to that of the majority in a society in which English and Welsh lived side by side. If the pagan burial sites contained few burials they would be hardly noticeable under the plough or the spade of later ages. On the other hand, if the English were already converted to christianity at the time of their arrival then even if they arrived in significant numbers no pagan graveyards would be created. The conversion of Mercia to Christianity occurred in the latter part of the 7th century, and was carried out almost entirely by Northumbrian and Irish monks of the Celtic Rite. Wulfhere of Mercia (658-675), son of Penda and father of Werburgh was the first christian king of Mercia and his first bishop was Diuma, an Irishman and was one of four priests, Cedd (brother of St Chad), Atta, Betti and Diuma, from the Kingdom of Northumbria, who accompanied the newly baptised Peada, another son of Penda (King of Mercia) back to Mercia in 653. Despite being of apparent Northumbrian birth, the names of all four brothers are British Celtic in origin, rather than Anglo-Saxon. Diuma was consecrated in 655 but his death date is unknown. It would appear to have been not long after this, as he was succeeded as bishop by Ceollach, whose own successor, Trumhere, was named bishop around 658.


The traditional model for the archaeological investigation of saints‘ cults focuses on special graves and churches in extra-mural Roman cemeteries. The model developed from an understanding of the development of the cult of saints whereby cults arose from the veneration of martyrs at graveside feasts outside the walls of Roman towns. Due to the widespread belief that burial near the saints, ad sanctos, would improve one‘s chances of salvation, cellae memoriae (the burial sites of saints) became the focus of burial for other Christians who wanted to be in proximity to the holy dead. These shrines sometime developed into churches, but there is no firm evidence for this in Chester. In Chester there are four potentially early religious establishments outside of the Roman walls. St Johns next to the Amphitheatre may be associated with an early crypt which pre-dates its traditional establishment by Æthelred of Mercia in 689. St Olave comes from much later, as does St Chad. The fourth is St Bridget, which was just outside the original Roman walls and discussed below.

In wider Cheshire there is some evidence that churches were re-dedicated. Gastrell and Ormerod both assert St Helen at Thornton-le-Moors to be St. Helen before it became St Mary. At Tarleton (Lans), Gastrell mentions that the tradition existed of a dedication of the old chapel to St. Helen, and there is a St. Helen's well still existing there, it may have become St. James, and it is presently Holy Trinity.

Some British foundations may have survived. There are St Helen's at Tarporley and Neston but nothing to confirm that either dates back to pre-Saxon times, although the Neston church is an early establishment. St Martin (of Tours) appears at Chester (St Martin) and Ashton-on-Mersey. Hilary of Poitiers who lent his name to St. Hilary's at Wallasey possibly also suggests Celtic influences. There is another church of St. Hilary at Erbistock on the Dee: there is however no evidence to indicate that it is an early medieval foundation, except for the tradition that it was once dedicated to St Erbin. St. Elphin's at Warrington seems, like St. Hilary's, a distinct survival of the British occupation. However according to tradition he was a companion of Oswald at Iona who built a church for him at Warrington, suggesting Northumbrian influence in the region. Worthenbury and Hawarden are English place-names with churches dedicated to St. Deiniol. St. Alban has a church at Tattenhall but there are only suspicions that this goes back to the time of the Norman Conquest.

It is possible that some of these church dedications to the West of Cheshire might indicate the remains of the British church from before the arrival of the Saxons, but it is impossible to date either the foundations of these or the re-dedications of others.

The lines of the dykes and the current border (red) show a divergence along Pulford Brook. This may indicate a possible "sticky" line for a border based on flooding of the Dee.

Offa's Dyke and Wat's Dyke

Offa’s Dyke is a series of ditch and rampart structures running north to south dividing roughly what is now England from what is now Wales. The idea of the Dyke as the frontier between England and Wales first appears in the twelfth century and persists to this day despite the fact that it was never the actual boundary, except briefly in the sixteenth century. It has been suggested that the dyke was the result of negotiation, but the dyke consists of a large earthen bank with a ditch on the Welsh side and is clearly defensive from the Mercian side. Wat’s Dyke tended to be viewed as earlier than Offa’s, but more recent archaeological intervention has provided a scientifically grounded date for Wat’s Dyke which would place it in the first half of the ninth century, i.e. in the generations following Offa’s reign.

In recent years Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes have been the subject of renewed study, especially in the "Offa's Dyke Journal" which is described as "promoting the archaeology, history and heritage of frontiers and borderlands focusing on the Anglo-Welsh border."

There are no contemporary written sources which mention the building of Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes, the earliest known reference, and perhaps the one most often quoted, comes from Asser (a Welsh monk) in the Life of Alfred, written in 893 in which he states that:

  • "Offa… ordered a great wall to be built between Britannia and Mercia, from sea to sea"

Offa died in 796, so about a century before Asser was writing. It isn't exactly from "sea-to-sea", and did Offa actually build it? In the years after the Battle of Chester in 616 up to the death of Offa, the kingdom of Mercia was strong and expanding its boundaries. The nature of Offa's Dyke appears to be defensive but it could also be a display of Offa's prestige. An equally important issue is who conquered the previously Welsh land that originally lay to the east of it. Warfare between the Mercians and the men of Powys might provide a context for the construction of the Dyke, but it remains to ask how it was used. There is no indication that it was ever garrisoned, but the idea that it might have been patrolled was mooted by Earle as long ago as 1857. There is no sign that it was ever maintained, no discernible infrastructure in the shape of forward defences, or accommodation for troops and supplies, or good lines of communication.

The line of the dyke is an example of a "sticky" boundary where landscape features provide several possible choices for the location of that boundary. Wat's dike provides an alternative as does the River Dee, due to the flooding patterns near Pulford and Poulton. The current border largely follows the line of Cheshire Castles which were much later established by the Normans.

In the relevant period there were a number powerful Mercian kings. Several of these could have conquered the teritory between the early western border of Mercia and the eastern boundary of Wales. These two borders may not have been the same as it is possible that there was a frontier zone in the Marches where neither Powys nor Mercia had effective control.


Penda, who died in 655, is the earliest. A conquest of the border by Penda would be within a historical context that sees Penda acquiring the eastern part of Powys, with its royal centre at Pengwern (Shrewsbury and Wroxeter) after the battle of Maserfield in 642 (and the possible death of Eiludd Powys - the possible usurper of Powys at the time), and thus Penda would have both the authority and need to establish a formal boundary with western Powys. Mercian expansion westwards at the expense of the kingdom of Powys at this time seems unlikely, but this could be at about the time of a loss of Pengwern, possibly ruled by Cynddylan, although he is only known from literary sources and may be a later myth. It seems clear both from the poems and from a wider context of known alliances that Cynddylan (if he existed) would have worked, at least at key points in his career, in alliance with the kings of Mercia. For example,Cadwallon ap Cadfan (d. 634) was allied with Mercia in 633. A possible alliance with Penda counts against the Mercian conquest of teritory at this time.

Oswiu of Northumbria apparently had a difficult relationship with Penda. Bede writes:

  • Oswald being translated to the heavenly kingdom, his brother Oswy [Oswiu], a young man of about thirty years of age, succeeded him on the throne of his earthly kingdom, and held it twenty-eight years with much trouble, being harassed by the pagan king, Penda, and by the pagan nation of the Mercians, that had slain his brother, as also by his son Alfred [i.e. Alhfrith], and by his cousin-german Ethelwald [i.e. Œthelwald of Deira], the son of his brother who reigned before him.

There was actuallly more to it than this. Possibly in order to avoid further Northumbrian aggression the kingdom had been split back into Deira and Bernicia in 644 with Oswiu ruling the latter and the apparently pious and peaceful Oswine the former. After seven years of rule, Oswiu declared war on Oswine and Oswine was eventually murdered in 651, seemingly on Oswiu's orders. Oswiu was probably trying to re-unite Northumbria. For reasons that are not entirely clear the next king of Deira was Œthelwald.

The postulated extent of the core of Mercia almost all of which is drained by the Trent. The boundary of what would later become Cheshire is shown in green. The dotted line showns the diocesian boundary as established during the reign of Æthelred.

Penda would probably have objected to a reunited Northumbria but he was busy with conquests in the south. In 654 he killed Anna of East Anglia. Penda then invaded Bernicia with a large army in 655. Why he did this is not clear. Penda was the overlord of Oswiu and so perhaps tribute was being withheld, or it was simply that he did not want a reunited Northumbria. To Bede, who is often selective with his facts, Oswald can do no wrong, but he was less effusive about Oswiu, possibly because Oswiu seems very adept at using the church to support his political ends, and despite being christian was not averse to political murder.

One of Penda's allies was Œthelwald, the king of Northumbrian Deira and Oswiu's nephew; Oswiu considered Deira part of his realm and Œthelwald his sub-king, but resistance to his rule continued throughout his reign. Penda, had amassed a large force made up of his own men plus the "men of thirty British kings", many of which he had effectively appointed. Given the Welsh involvement it is unlikely he had recently expanded Mercian teritory into Wales or towards Chester. Bede states that Oswiu offered "an incalculable quantity of regalia and presents as the price of peace", but that Penda refused; while the Historia Brittonum gives a somewhat different account. Here, Oswiu's offer of treasure is accepted and Penda withdrew.

Oswiu's son Alhfrith served in his father's significantly smaller army as they either met or pursued Penda. Their forces caught Penda's at the Battle of the Winwaed; Œthelwald and others withdrew their troops at a critical moment, which contributed to Oswiu winning a decisive victory in which Penda was killed. Penda also seems to have lost partly because of the defection of a Welsh ally, Cadafael Cadomedd ap Cynfeddw (d. c.655). It is not known when Cadafael's reign ended, but it is customary to assume that it must have been shortly after Penda's defeat. The next King of Gwynedd was Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon (r.c. 655–682 ).

Bede’s assertion that "[God] alone could save the land from its barbarous and Godless enemy", and the Chronicle’s statement that upon Penda’s death "the Mercians became Christian", leaves little doubt of the bias present in narratives of the battle. It is portrayed as a religious victory without further details of the location or course of the battle, although one modern argument places it at Cock Beck near Leeds. Oswiu’s victory made him the Breatwalda. With Penda’s death he inherited the entire Mercian kingdom; with Oethelwald’s disgrace, Deira; with the deaths of several of Penda’s allies, the Welsh Marches and access to Gywnedd and Powys.

The Marwnad Cynddylan (Elegy for Cynddylan) mentions Cynddylan aiding Penda (the son of Pyd i.e. Panna fab Pyd = Penda). However, neither the occasion of Cynddylan's assistance to Penda nor of Cynddylan's death is known. Known possible battles include Penda's defeat of Oswald of Northumbria in 641 at Oswestry (the location of the battle being referred to in Old English as Maserfield, and in Welsh sources as Cogwy): a stray verse appended to Canu Heledd in the manuscript National Library of Wales 4973 claims that "Cynddylan was a helper" at a battle at Cogwy. The Battle of the Winwaed (654/55), in which Oswiu defeated and killed Penda, is a popular suggestion for the battle in which Cynddylan died. But Marwnad Cynddylan also refers to a major fight near Lichfield, in Mercian territory, otherwise unknown but sometimes imagined to have taken place after Penda's death. Marwnad Cynddylan makes it clear that the Cadelling, the dynasty descending from Cadell Ddyrnllwg, were rivals to Cynddylan. The later and less reliable Canu Heledd suggest that Cynddylan died defending Powys from English invaders at a place called Tren, generally understood as the River Tern in eastern Shropshire.

Around the year 653, Peada was made king of the Middle Angles by his father, Penda. Bede, describing Peada as "an excellent youth, and most worthy of the title and person of a king", wrote that he sought to marry Ealhflæd of Bernicia, the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria; Oswiu, however, made this conditional upon Peada's baptism and conversion to Christianity, along with the Middle Angles (Peada was, at this time, still a pagan, like his father). Peada was briefly sub-King of southern Mercia after his father's death in November 655 and until his own death at the hands of his wife in the spring of the next year. Given that he only ruled briefly he is unlikely to have expanded Mercian teritory. The murderous wife, was the sister of Alhfrith, who possibly resented the fact that he had not been granted rulership over Mercia, but had been given Oethelwald’s sub-kingdom of Deira. Meanwhile Oswiu was probably ravaging Powys and parts of Mercia as retribution for the recent attack. It is perhaps notable that around this time Powys appears to pass into the hands of a restored Manwgan ap Selyf having (accorting to some sources) been briefly ruled by Eluadd ap Glast (alias Eiludd Powys), the erstwhile King of Dogfeiling.

This would fit with the legendary destruction of Pengwern at about this time. A hypothetical timing could look like this:

  • Autumn 655: Penda raises a force from his English sub-kings, Gwynedd and Powys, plus some disaffected Northumbrians (including Oethelwald) and marches against Oswiu. His forces suffer some desertions, including Cadomedd ap Cynfeddw. He is defeated with enormous losses at Winwaed. It is too late in the year for Oswiu to continue south to attack the now weakened Mercians and Welsh;
  • Spring 656: Oswiu brings his army south and attacks Pengwern, Powys and Gwynedd. Pengwern, if it existed, is destroyed. Powys, Gwynedd and Mercia all get new rulers

With Pengwern gone and Powys now weak, Mercia would now be able to expand its influence towards Chester and the church would be keen to follow, refounding any churches dedicated to Welsh saints in the process. Under this scenario Penda does not undertake conquest against Powys and Pengwern but Penda's death leads to an attack by Northumbria which disposes of Pengwern and diables Powys.

The extent of the Diocese of Lichfield at the time of Henry VIII. The extent of the Diocese in the reign of Wulfhere may indicate that Mercia had control of Cheshire at or around the time of its formation.


Wulfhere, another son of Penda, reigned between 658 and 675 and is recorded as being one of the most powerful kings of Mercia. Nothing is known of Wulfhere's childhood. Wulfhere's date of birth is unknown, but Bede describes him as a youth at the time of his accession in 658, so it is likely he was in his middle teens at that time. The circumstances are peculiar: three Mercian leaders, Immin, Eafa and Eadbert, rebelled against the Northumbrian Oswiu. Bede reports that they had kept Wulfhere in hiding, and when the revolt succeeded Wulfhere became king.

How Wulfhere managed to avoid the wrath of Oswiu can only be speculated upon. A little-referenced entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of the work for the finishing of Medeshamstede (Peterborough) and its consecration by Abbot Seaxwulf, possibly suggests how Wulfhere went about presenting himself as a worthy replacement for his brother Peada, especially if Peada had indeed by murdered by Oswiu's children. Oswiu remained a force to be reckoned with, and political settlement rather than open warfare appears to have resolved the crisis. While Wulfhere extended Mercian influence and authority in southern Britain, he apparently continued to recognise Oswiu's primacy. Welsh sources suggest that Oswiu campaigned in Wales in the late 650s, imposing tribute on the Welsh kingdoms who had previously been Penda's allies.

At the time of Wulfhere's rule and for some time afterwards Powys was under the control of Beli ab Eiludd (655-695). The Staffordshire Hoard, found at Hammerwich near Lichfield, contains artifacts which likely date from around the time of his reign and is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork yet found. Archaologists estimate that it was most lively deposited 650-675. It contains the fittings of over 80 elaborately decorated swords. This could be taken as a sign that Penda's disasterous attack on Oswiu and a savage Northumbrian response against Pengwern and Powys had destabilised the Welsh border. This makes some sense as the peace with Northumberland would mean that there would be less need for an alliance between Mercia and Wales and this could further destabilise the border. The exact nature of the events leading to the deposition of the hoard are unknown, but as many of the objects are military in nature, some academics have noted the possible connection with lines in Beowulf:

According to legend Wulfhere had a fortified camp at "Wulferecester" (Bury Bank) near Stone. This kind of hill-fort dates to the Iron Age period, most having been constructed and occupied between the sixth century BC and the mid-first century AD - long before the actual time of Wulfhere (658–675) and there is no evidence of substantial re-use in post-Roman times.
  • "One warrior stripped the other, looted Ongentheow's iron mail-coat, his hard sword-hilt, his helmet too, and carried graith to King Hygelac; he accepted the prize, promised fairly that reward would come, and kept his word. They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was."

This was also the time of the plague of 664. Which, according to Bede, caused the East Saxons under their sub-king Sighere to revert to their earlier religion. The burial of the hoard could have been a "ritual" sacrifice from the time of the plague. 664 also saw the Synod of Whitby where Oswiu ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter and observe the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome rather than the customs practiced by Irish monks at Iona and its satellite institutions. The main effect of the Synod was to put much more power into the hands of the Roman church.

Wulfhere was the father of Werburgh. Wulfhere is a strong possibility for the Mercian expansion into Powys. When St Chad was made Bishop of Mercia in 669, he moved his see from Repton to Lichfield, possibly because this was already a holy site, as the scene of martyrdoms during the Roman period. Wulfhere donated land at Lichfield for Chad to build a monastery. It was because of this that the centre of the Diocese of Mercia ultimately became settled at Lichfield. By the end of the seventh century, the Mercian kings had solidified their control of what is now Cheshire and northern Shropshire, colonising the power vacuum caused by the extinction of various Briton dynasties, and incorporating the area into Lichfield’s diocese.

The original diocese of Mercia formed in 656 was reorganised by Theodore of Tarsus (Archbishop of Canterbury 669-690), who created dioceses based on “kingdoms” – a Lichfield diocese for Mercia, Hereford Diocese for the Magonsaete (676), Lincoln diocese for the Kingdom of Lindsey (678), Worcester diocese for the Hwicce (680) and Leicester diocese for the Middle Angles (681). The Mercian diocese covered much of west Warwickshire, Staffordshire, part of Shropshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and the “land between the Mersey and the Ribble”. Given that Chester is included in this it must have already become part of Mercia which implies a fairly rapid expansion of the diocese after 656.

In 674, according to Stephen of Ripon, Wulfhere "stirred up all the southern nations against [Northumbria]". However he was repelled by Ecgfrith of Northumbria (the son of Oswiu). Enabled Ecgfrith to extract tribute and seize the Kingdom of Lindsey. Wulfhere survived the defeat, but it stirred up an assault from Wessex led by Æscwine whom he defeated. He died in 675, possibly of disease.

Wulfhere could have been the Mercian king who occupied land in what is now Shropshire, pushing the border towards Wales.

Æthelred of Mercia

Wulfhere was followed by his brother Æthelred of Mercia (r.675–704) the suposed founder of St Johns at Chester in 689, when Seaxwulf was Bishop of Mercia. Wulfhere did have a son, but he was probably too young to rule upon his father's death.

Stained glass window from St Johns showing the founding of the Church (already built in stone) in 689. The "king" in the image is presumably Æthelred who was standing-in as ruler for Werburgh's under-age brother Coenred. One of the bishops may be intended to be Wilfrid. The woman on the right may be intended as Osthryth (died 697), queen of the Mercians, wife of King Æthelred and daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his second wife Eanflæd. She was murdered by the nobles of Mercia.

There were diplomatic marriages between the two kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria: Æthelred's sister Cyneburh married Alhfrith, a son of Oswiu of Northumbria, and both Æthelred and his brother Peada married daughters of Oswiu. Cyneburh's marriage to Alhfrith took place in the early 650s, and Peada's marriage, to Ealhflæd, followed shortly afterwards; Æthelred's marriage, to Osthryth, is of unknown date but must have occurred before 679, since Bede mentions it in describing the Battle of the Trent, which took place that year. Bede does not mention the cause of the Battle of the Trent, simply saying that it occurred in the ninth year of Ecgfrith's reign. He is more informative on the outcome. Ælfwine, the young subking of Deira, was killed; Ælfwine was brother to Osthryth and Ecgfrith, and was well liked in both Mercia and Northumbria since Æthelred's marriage to Osthryth. According to Bede, his death threatened to cause further strife between the two kingdoms, but Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, intervened. Bede writes:

  • "..but Theodore, the bishop, beloved of God, relying on the Divine aid, by his wholesome admonitions wholly extinguished the dangerous fire that was breaking out; so that the kings and their people on both sides were appeased, and no man was put to death, but only the due mulct paid to the king who was the avenger for the death of his brother; and this peace continued long after between those kings and between their kingdoms.”

A more political explanation is that Theodore did not want the kingdoms to waste energy fighting among themselves, when they could be expanding into British/Celtic territory and building new "Roman" religious institutions. Obviously to have founded St Johns Æthelred of Mercia would have to have had firm control of the city of Chester, which would mean that it would be now under the control of the English rather than the Welsh. There is however a possible hint of Welshness left at St Johns which could indicate an earlier foundation which was supplanted. There is a local legend that Æthelred selected the site after a dream in which he was told to build a church where he saw a white hart. A modern stained glass window in the porch of the church shows the king with a white hart. One cannot help but note the regularity along the River Dee with which a deer or stag is associated with the establishment of a church which is in turn associated with a holy spring or well. At Llangar - 'Llan Garw Gwyn' it is a (male) white deer. Upstream at Llandderfel a stag appears to have been associated with Derfel, and downstream we have St Johns at Chester where the well may have been "Jacobs Well".

Æthelred's foundation of St Johns is accociated with Wilfrid (c.633–709/10) an English bishop who acted as spokesman for the Roman position at the Synod of Whitby. Bradshaw writes:

  • "The year of grace six hundred fourescore and nyen As sheweth myne auctour a Bryton Giraldus Kynge Ethelred myndynge moost the blysse of Heven Edyfyed a Collage Churche notable and famous In the suburbs of Chester pleasaunt and beauteous In the honor of God and the Baptyst Saynt Johan With helpe of bysshop Wulfrice and good exortacion"
Wilfrid (originally spelled Wilfrith; c. 633 – c. 709) was an English bishop. Born a Northumbrian noble, he entered religious life as a teenager and studied at Lindisfarne, at Canterbury, in Gaul, and at Rome.

"Wulfrice" is generally thought to be St. Wilfrid, sometime bishop. He was not known for his diplomacy and commentators have said that Wilfrid "came into conflict with almost every prominent secular and ecclesiastical figure of the age". Hindley, an historian of the Anglo-Saxons, states that "Wilfrid would not win his sainthood through the Christian virtue of humility". Wilfrid was known as an advocate of Benedictine monasticism, regarding it as a tool in his efforts to "root out the poisonous weeds planted by the Scots". By 'Scots' he probably meant the Irish Celts, so his involvement in the establishment of St John's may well have been part of an attempt to wipe out the last of the influence of the "Celtic" church in Mercia.

The issue here is the dates. Wilfrid was appointed Bishop of Northumbria (at York) in 669 but the details are very unclear. Wilfrid's monasteries in Mercia may date from this time, as Wulfhere of Mercia (died 675) gave him large grants of land in Mercia. In 677 or 678, Wilfrid and Ecgfrith (r670–685) quarrelled, and Wilfrid was expelled from his see. Wilfrid went to Rome after his expulsion to appeal against Archbishop Theodore's and Ecgfrith's decisions. In 680 Wilfrid returned to Northumbria and appeared before a royal council. He produced a papal decree ordering his restoration, but was instead briefly imprisoned and then exiled by Aldfrith (685-704/5). Wilfrid stayed for a short time in the kingdom of the Middle Angles and at Wessex, but soon took refuge in Sussex with King Æthelwealh of Sussex. In 686 Wilfrid was recalled to Northumbria after the death of Ecgfrith. Wilfrid appears to have lived at Ripon and a proposal to turn Ripon into a bishopric was a source of dispute. When no compromise was possible Wilfrid left Northumbria for Mercia but no date is given for this. It was possibly c691. During his stay in Mercia Wilfrid acted as bishop with the consent of King Æthelred. In about 700, Wilfrid appealed to Pope Sergius I over his expulsion from York and is presumed to have been in Mercia in the interim. Wilfrid eventually returned to Northumberland and died in 709 or 710, probably at Hexham. After his death, he was venerated as a saint.

Higden in the Polychronicon certainly thought that Chester was a see from the time of the foundation of St Johns, and that this was done while Wilfid was Bishop of Chester:

  • "Wilfrid, having fled from Northumbria, succeeded at Legecestriam, which is now called Chester. However, within two years, on the death of Alfred, king of Northumbria, Wilfrid returned to his proper seat at Hexham…"

If "Alfred" is Aldfrith, who died in 704/5 the dates do not work, Wilfrid fled in 691 and Wildfrid moved to Hexham in 706. There are issues with the translation of the original Polychronicon here: Legecestriam may be Leicester. Wilfred had also been an associate of Wulfhere, Æthelred's brother and father to Werburgh, another Chester connection, so there is a nexus which could support the historicity of a 689 foundation assuming some of the dates are out. The "Bryton Giraldus" mentioned by Bradshaw is Gerald of Wales, but his surviving works do not provide the reference which Bradshaw quotes.

Æthelred of Mercia abdicated to become a monk in 704 leaving the throne to Coenred, the son of Wulfhere and hence the brother of Werburgh. In 709, Coenred abdicated and went on pilgrimage to Rome, where he remained as a monk until his death. Felix, reports conflicts with the Britons:

  • "in the days of Coenred King of the Mercians, [...] the Britons the implacable enemies of the Saxon race, were troubling the English with their attacks, their pillaging, and their devastations of the people [...]"

Ceolred, the son of Æthelred ruled next. Much of what is recorded about Ceolred is highly negative, accusing him of crimes and immorality; this may reflect poor treatment of the Church. Ceolred died in 716: Saint Boniface later described him as dying in a crazed frenzy at a banquet, "gibbering with demons and cursing the priests of God".

Guthlac of Crowland (674–714) would have been a young man during the later reign of Æthelred and he is said to have to have fought on the Welsh Border before becoming a monk. This is consistent with Mercia passing through another period of instability dduring the reigns of Coenred and Ceolred.


Æthelbald, who was from a different branch of the Mercian royal family, reigned between 716 and 757, and would seem to be another likely candidate for establishing an English/Welsh boundary in view of the date. Elisedd ap Gwylog (died c.755, the one of the Pillar of Eliseg} could provide the political context as a resurgence of Powys under "Eliseg" and the reconquest of a part of Powys by the Welsh. The extent of this reconquest is not known and it is usually assumed that the land was soon lost given the site is slightly to the west of Offa's Dyle. However it is possible that English had once held land to the west of the dyke and lost it never to permanently regain it.

The Repton Stone which may depict Æthelbald.

Æthelbald came to the throne after the death of his cousin, King Ceolred, who, according to Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac had driven him into exile. Felix also informs us that Æthelbald spent part of his exile in the Fens.

Æthelbald was to reign for over 40 years. In 757, Æthelbald was killed at Seckington, Warwickshire, near the royal seat of Tamworth. According to a later continuation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, he was "treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards", though the reason is unrecorded. Beornred of Mercia then ruled briefly. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 757:

  • "...Æthelbald, king of Mercia, was killed at Seckington, and his body rests at Repton; and he ruled 41 years. And then Beornred succeeded to the kingdom, and held it a little while and unhappily; and that same year Offa put Beornred to flight and succeeded to the kingdom, and held it 39 years..."

In August 1979 a large sculptured stone was discovered, broken and upside down in a pit immediately outside the eastern window of the Anglo-Saxon crypt of the church of St Wystan at Repton in Derbyshire. It has become known as the "Repton Stone". It is speculated by some to have been errected by Offa in mermory of Æthelbald and, if so, it is the earliest pictorial representation of an English monarch. Æthelbald was the first in a series of Mercian kings to be buried at Repton.

According to Ingulf, an 11th-century Benedictine abbot, Beornred was regarded as a tyrant, while Roger of Wendover, a thirteenth-century chronicler, states that he was an unjust king and that the people of Mercia rose in rebellion against him. He was possibly involved in his predecessor's death. During the very short civil war of 757 before Offa took power the Welsh may have taken back teritory. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for AD 743 records that Æthelbald of Mercia and Cuthred of Wessex fought the Welsh, the Llandaff Charter for c. 745 mentions destruction in the Hereford area by the Welsh, and in 760 the Welsh Annals record that Hereford was devastated by Welsh raiding parties and Simeon of Durham suggests they were defeated by Offa. In 777 King Offa retaliated and harassed the Welsh, and in 783 he was involved in further attacks against the Welsh Britons.


St Bridget by one of the Randle Holmes' in the middle of the 17th C. Used in Ormerod then by Hemingway on his "Parorama". Tradition has it founded by Offa according to Hemingway.

Ethelbald was effectively succeeded by Offa who is himself perhaps a feasible alternative; his reign from 757 to 796 was certainly long enough to have completed a major earthwork and he controlled a greatly expanded Mercia. As noted about there were kings of Mercia before Offa who had the conquer the previously British/Welsh teritory that Offa now controlled. The prologue to Alfred’s domboc suggests that Offa produced a written law code, which was possibly the first and only law code produced by a Mercian king. If this existed it has since been lost. As noted above the law code of Ine of Wessex discriminated between the Welsh and the English and it would be interesting to know whether the law code of Offa (if it existed) had similar features. This could create a further pressure on the border-folk wanting to be seen as English and hence promote the spread of the English language deeper into the border region. Offa was frequently in conflict with the various Welsh kingdoms. There was a battle between the Mercians and the Welsh at Hereford in 760, and Offa is recorded as campaigning against the Welsh in 777, 783 and 795 in the tenth-century Annales Cambriae.

Offa is traditionally associated with the foundation of St Bridget in Chester. The original church stood at the angle of Cuppin Street and Lower Bridge Street (opposite St Michael) until 1829 when it was removed during the construction of the Grosvenor Bridge and Road. Bridget occurs in Wales as "St Bride". Hemingway writes:

  • "The origin of St Bridget's church is buried in obscurity but it may probably be dated from the reign of King Offa who died ad 797 about which time we read That 'divers parish churches were erected in Chester'"

Hemingway gives no source for his comment. Brigid is a pre-christian goddess associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and blacksmithing. The dedication and the site in the south of the city suggest an Irish-Norse foundation in the 10th or 11th century. In the early Middle Ages the goddess Brigid/Bridget was syncretized with the Christian saint of the same name, who apparently lived in the 5th/6th century. Unsurprisingly therefore, the saint's feast day (1st Feb) co-incided with "Imbolc", a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring. She was removed from the official catholic calendar in 1969.

After Offa

The Pillar of Eliseg was erected by Cyngen ap Cadell who is believed to have died in 855. Most likely the pillar dates from after Offa (757–796) built his dyke.

The Pillar of Eliseg lies a little to the north of Valle Crucis Abbey.

Offa’s effective successor, Cœnwulf (796–821), campaigned in north Wales as far as Snowdonia, before his death at Basingwerk. In 822 Mercian attacks continued under his brother Ceolwulf (821–823), who captured Powys and sacked Deganwy, a royal stronghold of Gwynedd in 822. If would seem strange that the Pillar of Eliseg would be dated after the capture of Powys by Mercia but perhaps by the 850's things hand changed in Mercia. A later charter depicts a disturbed state of affairs during Ceolwulf's reign:

  • "After the death of Cœnwulf, king of the Mercians, many disagreements and innumerable disputes arose among leading persons of every kind – kings, bishops, and ministers of the churches of God – concerning all manner of secular affairs"

The pillar might therefore have been built at a time when Mercian disorganisation gaves some hope of recovery of teritory by Powys.

Wat's Dyke was once thought to pre-date Offa's Dyke and many sources still state this to be the case. These often refer to a radiocarbon date based on a camp-fire discovered during excavations and which might have nothing to do with any later dyke. However the application of new techniques suggest a construction date for Wat’s Dyke during either the reigns of Cenwulf and Ceolwulf (AD 796–723) or that of Wiglaf during the 830s. Clearly, if Wat's Dyke is the younger the Mercians were at least considering establishing a specific border back from Offa's Dyke. It is worth noting that these techniques give quite wide ranges for dates.

Cyngen may have taken advantage of Mercian disturbances to erect his monument. Just before the end of his life Cyngen ap Cadell decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome and died during it. Cyngen was the last of the original line of kings of Powys of the Gwertherion dynasty. He had three sons, but on his death Powys was annexed by the expansionist Rhodri Mawr, ruler of Gwynedd. It is quite possible that Cyngen was persuaded to go on pilgrimage. Perhaps the aging Cyngen was off to Rome not only on pilgramage but to request that the Pope ensure the propper succession of his sons? Here his luck may have finally run out - the Pope (Leo IV) died in mid-year 855 and the election of a successor (as Benedict III) was delayed, disputed and disrupted by the election of an "Antipope".

In 823, sometime after 26 May, on which date he granted land to Archbishop Wulfred in exchange for a gold and silver vessel, Ceolwulf was overthrown. Mercia now went into a rapid political decline. After 830 the Welsh Princes accepted Ecgbert of Wessex as their overlord, as had Mercia and Northumbria. From 841 Danish attacks began to exert an increasingly heavy toll on the Mercians, culminating in the Viking seizure of power in Mercia in 874 and the effective partition of the country. In 878, King Rhodri Mawr of Gwynedd was killed in battle against the English. The English leader was probably Ceolwulf II. In 881 Rhodri's sons defeated the Mercians at the Battle of the Conwy, a victory described in Welsh annals as "revenge of God for Rhodri". The Mercian leader was Edryd Long-Hair, almost certainly Ceolwulf's successor as Lord of the Mercians, Æthelred. How much of Powys the Mercians still held at this point is not known. While Powys is described in later sources it is only in 1069 when it reappears in historical literature, it not certain how accurate these records are for events before 1069.

Summary so far

Given Penda's need to maintain an alliance with the Welsh it would appear that he would have made no inroads into Powys and the notional Pengwern. However Powys' history at this time is almost unknown, with several competing theories as to who was in charge and only vague indications from tradition that the throne of Manwgan ap Selyf had been usurped by Eiludd Powys in the years 613–c.642. Penda's defeat of Oswald in 642 at the Battle of Maserfield may have been the place of Eiludd's death restoring Manwgan ap Selyf to his throne. However there are different traditions as to the succession. Some limited clarity as to who was ruling Powys only returns with Beli ab Eiludd (r.655-695). Thus, there is considerable confusion about who ruled Powys between the Battle of Chester (c.616) and Battle of the Winwaed (655).

After Penda's catastrophic assault on Northumbria and death at the Battle of the Winwaed (655), the border region must have become unstable with the new Mercian ruler Wulfhere initially siding with the Northumbrians. Wulfhere and his sucessor Æthelred of Mercia were both long-term rulers covering the period from 658 to 704. Both Gwynedd and Powys may have been weak and Pengwern just destroyed by the Northumbrians. Mercian "expansion" into the border and northwards towards Chester would then have been possible. This could have been by conquest, although it could also have been by local rulers on the border changing their allegiance from Powys to the Mercians, possibly to get better legal rights, or to side with the most suitable ruler given the recent changes in rulership. An increase in English influence under Wulfhere in the third quarter of the 7th century (between 658 and 675), could have been due to "percolation" settlement. By 689, if the foundation date for St Johns by Æthelred of Mercia (r.675–704) is to be believed, Chester must have been under English control.

Powys seems to have a resurgence during the reign of Æthelbald as recorded on the Pillar of Eliseg. Whatever land was regained by the Welsh may well have been lost soon after. The Mercians and the Welsh would continue to pressure each other along the border, but the English language was certainly well established in Cheshire by now. Even regions such as English Maelor show a strong English connection.

Based on the above, which contains a good deal of speculation, expansion of the English into Shropshire and the Cheshire plain would have accelerated after 655 and Chester would have been under English control before 689.


Old English shows little obvious influence from Celtic or spoken Latin: there are vanishingly few English words of Brittonic origin. Notable common examples are ass, dun (as in brown), and hog. The traditional explanation for the lack of Celtic influence on English, supported by uncritical readings of the accounts of Gildas and Bede, is that Old English became dominant primarily because Germanic-speaking invaders killed, chased away, and/or enslaved the previous inhabitants of the areas that they settled. The alternative view is that a politically dominant but numerically insignificant number of Old English speakers drove large numbers of Britons to adopt Old English, possibly as OE was a more prestigious language. Critics of the elite acculturation model point out that in many cases, minority elite classes have not been able to impose their languages on a settled population.

General Points

Chester itself takes its name from Caer Ileon, rendering the Latin castra legionis and abbreviated familiarly to plain Caer. However prototypic "Chester" might appear, it can be compared with the variants "-caster" (with the Old English suffix -ceaster), cester, and "-xeter". Even Lancashire derives its name from "Lune-caster-shire". The "caster-"/"ceaster" boundary seems in part to run along the Ribble. North of the Ribble the the form –caster (as in Lancaster, Casterton) is normal whereas to the south the form underwent palatalization and diphthongization to -ceaster as found today, for example, in Manchester and Ribchester. However, Bootle seems to be derived from the Northumbrian "bōþl" (building) rather than the Mercian "bold". Thus the area north of the Ribble shows pure Northumbrian influences, whereas the area between the Ribble and the Mersey shows some mingling of Mercian and Northumbian forms. South of the Mersey there is little or no surviving Northumbrian influence.

In Wirral there are several well-attested Celtic names. Liscard, from llys "court (for day-to-day business)" and carreg "cliff", was Lisenecark in the thirteenth century when the OW definite article "en" probably survived. Noctorum has cnoc "hill" as its first element, but its second component remains obscure. Linguists have speculated that Landican, from llan Tecan "church of St Tecan", probably goes back to the fifth and sixth centuries. With St Tecan either being otherwise unknown, or the root being "Land of the Deacon". It is evident that the English place-names of Cheshire are of the Mercian dialect of Old English. There is no evidence of specifically Northumbrian dialect features in Cheshire place-names; if there was a Northumbrian Anglian settlement in the county, all traces of that particular dialect have been erased by Mercian forms. However there are signs of both Mercian and Northumbrian influence between the Rivers Ribble and Mercia. In the "Comber-" place-names the Welsh are accorded a polite recognition of their personality as a race: in the "Wal-" names the recognition is less polite.

Often OE ham,"a village, a homestead", appears in composition, with a personal-name or a simple modifier. In many places these are considered to be among the earliest English place-names in the county. The simple construction of element or personal-name or river-name + ham would appear to be, in many counties, in geographical and archaeological contexts which suggest that such names belong to an epoch marked by the emergence of a recognition of social permanence in a territorial possession by the English community.

Place names in Cheshire

There would have been no English place-names before the arrival of significant numbers of permanent English-speaking residents, but very few of the original Celtic placenames survive even in Cheshire, where it has been estimated that 2% of the place names have Celtic roots. Many "border" villages with English names now bear alternative Welsh names of identical or similar meaning, and clearly one name is a translation or adaptation of the other. Sometimes it is not possible to determine which came first.

Western Cheshire falls into Kenneth Cameron’s Area 2, where surviving Brittonic names are mainly found in river, hill and woodland names. Eastern Cheshire has more English influence. Significantly, many Brittonic names in Cheshire are hybrid names with an Old English element, which Simeon Potter (see paper in sources) describes as proof that the autochthonous Celts were not all exterminated or expelled from the Cheshire countryside by the English "invaders". This idea of cohabitation is evidenced by tautological place-names such as Cheadle, from Celtic *cę̄d and OE lēah, both meaning "wood". As the Brittonic element remains in the place-name, it suggests that the OE speakers had contact with and miscommunicated with the Britons over their naming of the woodland. Besides Dee, Tarvin (tervyn/terfyn) and Wheelock (chwylog), most river-names were Celtic or even pre-Celtic, but not all. The Mersey itself is the outstanding exception: OE maeres ea "boundary river" probably the Seteia of Ptolemy. Nevertheless its Cheshire feeders, Bollin, Weaver and Gowy, all had Celtic appellations. So, too, did Dane, Etherow (possibly) and Tame. Such river-names may well represent the most ancient stratum of the British, Brittonic or Brythonic language. In Shropshire the Tern is from the Welsh "Strong". The Trent, in the heart of Mercia has several theorised origins.

The location of Welsh placenames according to Dodgson includes the position of Tarvin and Macefen, and the Gowy.

Linguists have indications of how the Welsh language evolved over time. Welsh place-names were being borrowed by English speakers over a period late sixth to seventh centuries: that some forms represent sixth century adoptions place-names borrowed at that stage and, upon being taken into English, immunized against Welsh speech changes and "fossilised" by the English adopters. Others were not finally removed into English usage until they had been subjected to the changes taking place in the Welsh language down to the end of the seventh century. The picture thus drawn would show a progressive borrowing of Welsh place-names by the English in Cheshire from the late sixth to the late seventh century; but a persistence in the county area of an active and living Welsh vernacular throughout that period, and possibly later. This latter time frame would fit with expansion of the control of Mercia under Wulfhere and the establishment of St Johns by Æthelred.

Certain English place-names of a potentially pre-seventh century type appear sporadically all over the county, but along Roman roads and similar ancient ways. Welsh place-names appear sporadically all over the county, some of which could have been adopted by the English in a pre-seventh century form, others in a later form. Certain types of hybrid place-name, and the English place-names which embody a social and racial distinction (especially when taken with the early English and the Welsh place-names), show a continuous juxtaposition of Welsh and English populations. This could be taken to mean that parts of Cheshire already had a mixed population before the battle of Chester in c616. There appears to be evidence of a Welsh frontier roughly along the River Gowy down to the seventh century.

The Tarvin/Macefen Line

One of the classic papers on linguistics is "THE ENGLISH ARRIVAL IN CHESHIRE" by J. McN. DODGSON, author of "The Place Names of Cheshire" but this dates from 1967. It puts forward the theory that the manner of the arrival of the English in Cheshire was "a sixth century infiltration into a British territory". The sixth century seems remarkably early unless the paper has a typo. The date ranges given in the body of the text extend into the seventh century.

The paper describes the Battle of Chester as "an awful and proper divine revenge upon the monastery of Bangor" which seems a bit harsh. It then goes on to state:

  • At this juncture, in the first decade of the seventh century, it looks as if Chester was in Welsh territory. It may well be that the Primitive Welsh place-name Tarvin, 'the boundary', on R. Gowy, is a true parallel with the Welsh placename Terfyn, 'the boundary', near Prestatyn in Flintshire, at the north end of Offa's Dyke, and that it may be taken with the Welsh place-name Macefen, 'field at the boundary', near Malpes, as commemorating a line along R. Gowy and the Broxton Hills which formed a sixth or seventh century boundary line between the Welsh and their eastern neighbours, just as Terfyn in Flintshire commemorates the eighth century and later boundary at Offa's Dyke. The Tarvin-Macefen line may even have been theWelsh frontier which Æthelfrith penetrated in 613-616.

Dodgson bases his line on two points at Tarvin and Macefen. The Welsh name would have been "Maes-y-ffin". The River Gowy retains its Celtic name because most rivers in this zone have Celtic names. It has also been suggested that Hockenhull Platts is a hybrid between "platt" an Old English word for bridge with "hock" (from the Welsh hocan which means to peddle or to sell abroad), "hen" (Welsh for "old") and "heol" which means a paved way or road. It was therefore proposed that Hockenhull Platts means "the bridges on the old peddlars' way". Dodgson concludes:

  • The period 603-689 shows a shift of Welsh influence away from Chester and the extension of English influence as far as Chester. The part of this period occupied by the reign of Penda shows the emergence of Mercian English military-political power as an ally of the Welsh against the Northumbrian English, and then as the enemy of the Northumbrian English with Welsh allies assisting. There is no English record of strife between Welsh and Mercian English in these years.

There are no English records of strife between Welsh and Mercian English, but there may be some Welsh ones relating to English Maelor. The question here is (assuming there was a boundary) who are the eastern neighbours? Dodgson seems to suggest they are the Northumbrians but that leads to many issues: how did the Welsh muster so quickly? when had the Northumbrians conquered this territory? when did they lose it?

From the Welsh perspective, from the death of Penda the ruler of Powys was Beli ab Eiludd, who came to the throne in 655: the year of Penda's death at Winwaed. Very little is known about him or the nature of his succession, but he appears to have ruled until about 695: well into the period after the English are assumed to have gained control of Chester. If there is any truth in the traditional tale of Pengwern then Beli is the king to whom Heledd ran to for protection and she may have become the mother of his son. So why did he not oppose migration of the Mercians? It could be that he preferred not to get into conflict with Wulfhere and that he saw an advantage of a Mercian "buffer" between himself and the Northumbrians. History is silent on all motivation here.

Summary so far

While the linguistic evidence shows some confirmation that Cheshire was first occupied by Brythonic speakers and later became dominated by Anglo-Saxons from Mercia rather than Northumbria, it does little to put dates to the transition. The linguistic evidence seems to be suggesting that the Mercian English and the Welsh were in political harmony even prior to Penda's alliance against the Northumbrians, and during a period in which English political influence was starting to replace Welsh political influence at Chester and in Cheshire.


Pollen analysis suggests extensive forest clearance had occurred by or during the Roman period, although there is little evidence that the land was cultivated; felling could have been necessary to fuel the salt industry. Until recently only limited evidence of Roman field systems has been found in the county; possible examples include Longley Farm, Kelsall, Pale Heights, Eddisbury and Somerford Hall, near Congleton. Evidence for a Roman farm at Saighton was discovered in 2005. The absence of lime-rich basic soils and the high rainfall might have delayed Cheshire's agricultural exploitation compared with the adjacent areas of North Wales and the Peak District, with light soils overlaying sand, gravel or sandstone being cultivated before poorly drained clay soils.

The old view that completely new forms of field system came with the initial Anglo-Saxon migrants has been revised in the light of evidence for the adaptation and modification of existing layouts. Where arable cultivation continued in early Anglo-Saxon England, there seems to have been considerable continuity with the Roman period in both field layout and arable practices, although there may have been changes to patterns of tenure or the regulation of cultivation. The greatest perceptible alterations in land usage between about 400 and 600 are in the proportions of the land of each community that lay under grass or the plough, rather than in changes to the layout or management of arable fields. This is consistent with subsistence farming in a period of poor climate.

A four-ox-team plough, circa 1330. The ploughman is using a mouldboard plough to cut through the heavy soils. A team could plough about one acre (0.4 ha) per day. Whether the mouldboard plough was re-introduced by the Anglo-Saxons and how this may have influenced their settlement patterns is still the subject of debate.

In contrast, the period between the mid seventh century and the end of the ninth appears to have been one of considerable innovation. The area of land under the plough expanded rapidly. This was contemporary with the emergence of kingdom-states: Mercian kings oversaw the rapid expansion of regional and international trade in central southern England, undertook economic management that included the issue and standardization of coinage, and granted very large estates to monasteries and minsters, to whose abbots and abbesses they were often closely related. Watermills, granaries and grain-drying ovens proliferated. They appear to have been constructed for the large-scale processing of far more grain than was required for subsistence, perhaps with the aim of creating trading surpluses. These would have been important to secular elites to fund luxuries (as mentioned by Gildas) and to religious groups to fund building and the creation of religious artifacts. Bread wheat (triticum aestivum) and barley (hordeum sp.) became dominant in the mid Saxon period over spelt (triticum spelta) and emmer (triticum dicoccon), the lower-yielding wheats of prehistoric and Roman Britain.

The mould-board plough, last generally in use in the Roman centuries, appears to have become widespread once more, and made possible the re-cultivation of heavy clay soils, more difficult to till, but also more fertile than the lighter soils of the valleys and river floors. Its benefits were that it both cut and turned the soil, cutting the roots of weeds and burying them. This replaced the ard or scratch-plough which, as its name suggests, simply scored the land.

There has been much debate as to when the three field system was introduced. Under this system, one section was planted in the autumn with rye or winter wheat, followed by spring oats or barley; the second section grew crops such as one of the legumes, namely peas, lentils, or beans - usefully fixing nitrogen; and the third field was left fallow. The three fields were rotated in this manner so that every three years, one of the fields would rest and lie fallow. Under the previous two-field system, only half the land was planted in any year. Under the new three-field rotation system, two thirds of the land was planted, potentially yielding a larger harvest. Obviously, such a system would require cooperation between an entire village and likely would come with a village assembly to administer the system complete with fines for transgressors.

Speculatively, these techniques might mean that the Anglo-Saxons could make more effective use of land and exploit land which the Britons would consider marginal. This could alow the Saxons to increase their land holding with less conflict and might also create mixed areas of settlement.

Summary so far

The agricultural evidence provides little other than a possible explanation as to how the Saxons could settle in Cheshire without coming into conflict with those already living there. If the area was sparsely populated and the Saxons were able to exploit unused land, possibly with their improved plough, then this could have led to a "percolation" of the Saxons into Cheshire with no or limited conflict.

Genetics and Chemistry

Prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons the genetic makeup of England was primarily comprised of Celtic ancestry, with some significant local contributions from continental Europeans as a result of the Romans. The genetics of Wales and Scotland, meanwhile, remained more distinctly Celtic. As noted above, over the next few hundred years, the arrival of Europeans contributed to the formation of Anglo-Saxon culture in England, which would dominate until the arrival of the Normans. However, as noted above, whether this migration was peaceful, or ensured by force, has been debated for many years. A lack of widespread archaeological evidence had been used by historians to suggest that England was ruled by a small but elite group of Anglo-Saxons which led to the adoption of their culture over time. However, this theory did not explain why in some areas these individuals, as tentatively identified by grave goods, could be found buried side by side with what appeared to be Britons.


Early attempts to determine the extent of Anglo-Saxon genetics looked at modern male Y-chomosome DNA, which is only inherited down the male line. One early Y DNA study estimated a complete genetic replacement of the breeding male population by the Anglo-Saxons. Others showed no discenable impact. Some researchers suggested that the DNA of the British Isles had originated from prehistoric migration after the last Ice Age. In order to improve on these results it was neccessary to work with ancient DNA from Roman Britain and earlier as well as DNA from the time of the Anglo-Saxon advent. This was at first difficult as ancient DNA can become damaged over time and extraction from remains is difficult. Early studies could only work on samples from small numbers of individuals. The populations were also quite closely related before the Anglo-Saxons arrived.

Human remains were found over an extensive area at Heronbridge. Injuries to the bones suggest they were battle casualties. Carbon-dating places the burials in the correct time-frame for the Battle of Chester. Isotopic evidence indicates that they spent their early years in Northumbria.

Recent results overwhelmingly support the view that the formation of early medieval society in England was not simply the result of a small elite migration, but that mass migration from afar must also have had a substantial role. Both the lack of genetic evidence for male sex bias, and the correlation between ancestry and archaeological features, point to women being an important factor in this migration.

The Vikings who crossed the North Sea a few centuries later left far fewer traces, accounting for about 6% of the genes of modern English people, compared with between 30% and 40% from the Anglo-Saxons.

Bones and Teeth

Isotopic composition of human skeletal remains can be used to determine some data about the environment in which the bones, and often teeth, were formed, and hence about where the person was born and spent their youth. The prevalence of "trace elements" varies from place to place and if region is rich in a particular trace element then those from that region will display an elevated level of it in their bones and teeth even if they migrated to a separate location during life. Any offspring born in the new region will reflect the new isotope prevalences in their teeth and bones. Taken together with genetic (DNA) data these techniques could for example show that individuals were born at A, moved to B and then their kin continued to live on at B, either as a distinct social group or intermarrying with the indigenous population. Unfortunately, the circumstances needed to apply current techniques are relatively rare, although they are improving.

The technique has been applied to two sets of the bones found at Heronbridge and associated with the Battle of Chester. A mass grave contained a total of 34 males or probable males consisting of two rows of skeletons, aligned west to east, with the upper row along the eastern edge of the grave overlying the feet and lower legs of the lower row skeletons to the west. Approximately 20 skeletons were excavated and analysed in 1933. A further two skeletons were excavated by the Chester Archaeological Society in 2004.

Osteological analysis revealed that both skeletons were male. Skeleton 1 was aged between 36 and 45, while Skeleton 2 was a young adult, aged between eighteen and 25 years. Skeleton 1 had battle injuries, which were well-healed and had been inflicted some time before death, suggestin a veteran. Skeleton 1 had also suffered from a probable defence injury to the right thumb and a stab wound through the abdomen. Both individuals also suffered from several peri-mortem (at death) blade injuries, which were concentrated on the skull and were fatal. This is all consistent with them having died in battle. The fact that the bodies were laid with some care and the nature of the injuries suggests these may be the Northumbrian casualties following the battle against British cavalry. Skeletons lifted in 2004 were radiocarbon-dated with a 95% chance of probability of being within the range AD 430-640, or 59% probability within the range AD 530-620, and with 95% probability of being within the range AD 530-660, or 51% probability within range AD 595-645. These results are consistent with a calendar date in the early 7th century AD. Isotopic analysis of trace-elements in their teeth enamel has confirmed that the men had spent at least the early part of their life in North East England. Being able to repeat this analysis on remains which were of mixed sex and not associated with battle injuries, especially if they formed a kin group, could shed further light on the nature of migration. Unfortunately, no suitable burial site has been identified in Cheshire that could enable this.

Summary so far

The genetic approach is still developing, but the present consensus appears to be that there was a large migration of families across the North Sea into the south-east. The further migration of, say, the Mercians into Cheshire has not been studied using these techniques, which are still developing. Isotopic studies indicate that two of the skeletons at Heronbridge most likely associated with the Battle of Chester grew up in the northeast. As of the time of writing there has been no find in Cheshire of remains which can be shown to have migrated from elsewhere and died other than in battle. Further DNA and isotopic studies may enable bodies to be identified which form a kin group and show signs of migration from elsewhere, but unfortunately samples suitable for this analysis have not been identified.

Conclusions: Anglo-Saxon Language in Cheshire

While the date of the Saxon advent in Cheshire is still fraught with uncertainties, and there is still a lack of evidence as to what was happening locally in the years 400-700, this survey hopeful sheds some light on the issues and opportunities to discover more. Fundamental questions remain as to the timing and nature of the Saxon invasion/migration into Cheshire and some care is still needed with sources. While links are provided below to Wikipedia pages these need to be treated with some caution as they may take theory or folklore for fact and in some cases contradict other literature.

The initial Saxon conquests and expansion were confined to the southeast and Cheshire was far from any English-speaking culture for many years. From c.600, two centuries after the Roman departure, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms began to emerge as large political entities and this led to another burst of expansion. It was only at this time that the Anglo-Saxons began to settle in Cheshire. While the Victorians tended to favour the "fled or dead" theory there is support for a more peaceful migration. In reviewing the literature on the subject it is important to consider how paradigms have shifted over the years

A progressive settlement of the Anglo-Saxons places them in Cheshire c650, which is close to the major changes in 655. The green areas show the most extensive survival in England of "celtic" placenames, but when they were "conquered" is uncertain. Ecgbert's expedition to Chester in c830 still appears anomalous.

Several sources of information can be used to approach the issues surrounding the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons in Cheshire. These are listed below. With the textual sources it is important to consider when and why they were written. Initial bias and the pervasion of later "propoganda" are widespread. With many of the non-textual sources it is important to consider the geography that they refer to and question the extent to which they might be applicable to Cheshire.

  • Welsh legend makes much of the connection to Romans, but there is little to suggest any significant survival of a "Romanised" culture in the north of Wales or in north/midland England which could hinder the expansion of the Anglo-Saxons. There is the local association with Germanus and Vortigern in North Wales but these links are only traditional. Wroxeter's role and that of the possible Pengwern are speculative, although some writers (both ancient and modern) appear to take them as fact. The "Celtic" church appears to have survived and prospered in the region with evidence including the conjectured large monastery at Bangor-on-Dee (of which not a trace survives) and a possible Synod of Chester c. 600, of which very little is known.
  • Written historical evidence (Gildas, Bede and to some extent Nennius) makes it clear that there was a delay between the arrival of Anglo-Saxons in the southeast (or Northumbria) and the Anglo-Saxon settlement in Cheshire. It is reasonable to assume that the Welsh still held Chester at the time of the Battle of Chester (c616) and also likely that they were at peace with the Mercians at this time. Æthelfrith's incursion southwards triggered a series of conflicts between Wales, Mercia and Northumberland, especially between the sons of Penda (Peada, Wulfhere and Æthelred) and the sons of Æthelfrith (Oswald and Oswiu). The consequences of these conflicts as regards the establishment and movement of kingdom borders near Cheshire are uncertain.
  • King-lists, pedigrees and some traditional materials are consistent with the view that formal expansion of the Saxons into Cheshire probably did not take place until after the death of Penda (655), although it is possible that there was some peaceful migration and settlement prior to that. Penda's death and Oswiu's attacks on north Wales would have destabilised the region and brought about the end of Pengwern (if it existed). Several polities (Gwynedd, Powys and Mercia) changed their rulers in 655/6, at about the time of the Battle of the Winwaed. However the evidence has weaknesses: the kingdom of Powys is first mentioned only in the Annales Cambriae under the year 808, although royal genealogies, none composed earlier than the ninth century, take the line of its kings back to around 600. This article argues that the political situation after 655 would have opened the way for further Saxon migration from Mercia into the Marches and Cheshire during the reigns of Wulfhere and Æthelred. The "Staffordshire Hoard" dates from this period and may echo the instability of the times.
  • Landscape Archaeology, particularly Offa's Dyke, provide some clues as to extent of Mercian expansion by the date of its construction, which is not entirely clear. This appears to be well after a significant presence of English (Mercian) speakers could have been established in Cheshire. However the date, purpose and degree of agreement between the people on either side of the dyke remain uncertain. Wat's Dyke was always presumed to be older, but now appears to be more recent.
  • Linguistic/placename evidence suggests Saxon settlers may have already been arriving in Cheshire as early as 600 and that they had achieved cultural dominance by 700. The evidence also suggests that these settlers were Mercians and not Northumbrians. There is little direct evidence for the linguistic situation in Britain for 450-700. There is an ongoing discussion about the character of British Celtic and the extent of Latin-speaking in Roman Britain. However, by the 8th century, when extensive evidence for the language situation in England is next available, it is clear that the dominant language, in England overall, was what is today known as Old English. The debate about Celtic language decline in England continues.
  • Church records show that after the Synod of Whitby (664) there may have been a "refounding" of churches previously dedicated to Welsh saints together with an expansion of the Saxon/Roman church into the British/Celtic regions. The legendary foundation date for St Johns at Chester of 689 by Æthelred fits with the date of the extension of the Diocese of Mercia/Lichfield into Cheshire and the "land between the Mersey and the Ribble". What could be the remnants of early dedications (St Bridget, St Hilary) are located in western Cheshire. There is no clear evidence of any "Welsh" churches (or place names associated with them) far to to the east of the Anglo-Welsh border.
  • Agricultural evidence is consistent with a moderately peaceful advent of the Anglo-Saxons in Cheshire, but does not provide much if anything of a date. Issues here include the extent to which the Anglo-Saxons brought "new" techniques such as the mold-board plough and the open field system. Paeleobotany is a developing field and may shed further light on when land was first cleared and the type of agriculture practiced.
  • Genetic and isotopic evidence are still under development. The most recent (2024) genetic evidence from "ancient DNA" suggests the Anglo-Saxon settlement in southeast England may have largely been family/kin groups rather than a male warrior elite who took local wives. No data is yet available on the specifics of expansion into Cheshire.

Between Æthelred (r.675–704) and Offa (r.757-796) the borders and in particular Cheshire seem to have been consistently under Mercian control which would alow significant linguistic and cultural influence. Ecgbert's supposed expedition to Chester in c830 when the Welsh were still in control of the city according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle appears anomalous. As to when English became the dominant language in Cheshire a date after the death of Penda (655) and the significant political changes at that time, and the notional establishment of St Johns (689) by Æthelred, at which time diocesian boudaries were altered, seems a reasonable estimate.

Exploring the History

The rather battered carving on the porch of St Johns in Chester. This was originally located on the face of the Northwest tower, which collapsed on Good Friday 1881. The statue is sometimes said to be Æthelred the Mercian king, according to legend guided to the site by a hind to found the church, but is more likely, given the bishop's headgear to be St Giles.

It is possible to visit some locations associated with the advent of the Saxons in Cheshire and the surrounding region. One needs to be cautious with older guidebooks: these tell us that, for example, the Sandbach Crosses were erected to commemorate the conversion to Christianity of Peada of Mercia about 653, while in fact the most recent and authoritative dating places the larger cross from the early part of the 9th century with the smaller from about the middle of that century, and both appear to have been moved from elsewhere.

The site of the Battle of Chester is at Heronbridge just south of Chester: there is not much to see, not even any kind of battle memorial to those who died there. It is the earliest English battle site so far identified.

Further afield, Offa's Dyke and Wat's Dyke are some distance from Chester, but some sections are spectacular. The Pillar of Eliseg still stands and there are some interpretation materials in the Llangollen Museum. Segontium and Wroxeter exhibit extensive Roman remains, but are again some distance from Chester. At Rhual, near Mold, there is an obelisk commemorating Germanus (see: Mold Cope), but this dates from 1736 and the location of a battle here is traditional rather than being backed by evidence. Deganwy Castle is believed to have been fortified as the stronghold of Maelgwn Gwynedd in the 6th century. Bryn Euryn is a hill overlooking Rhos-on-Sea on which there are the remains of a hillfort called Dinerth, the "fort of the bear", associated with Cynlas. A valley on the north coast of the Llŷn Peninsula, known as Nant Gwrtheyrn or "Vortigern's Gorge", is named after Vortigern, and until modern times had a small barrow known locally as "Vortigern's Grave", along with a ruin known as "Vortigern's Fort". However, this conflicts with doubtful reports that he died in his castle on the River Teifi in Dyfed ("Nennius") or his tower at The Doward in Herefordshire (Geoffrey of Monmouth).

In Chester itself St Johns (worth a visit for many reasons) has some later Saxon crosses on display but nothing from the time of the Saxon advent, although modern stained glass and some signage refer to both. The nearby Amphitheatre has some utterly misleading signage about Gildas. At the Town Hall there is a stone relief about Ecgbert, but this is of questionable historicity.

Summary of Dates

The following attempts to sumarise events for which there are actual historical records, and notes where dates are assumed. For another chronology see: this timeline on Wikipedia..

3rd Cent

  • 230: Wales was no longer seen as a frontier zone,and as few as nine forts were left. These were: Chester, Segontium (Caernarfon), Forden Gaer (Montgomery), Caersws II (Newtown), Castell Collen, Brecon Gaer, Caerleon, Gelligaer and Abergavenny, the low troop density of the second century continued, and after AD 230 it dropped further.
  • c286–293: Usurper Carausius (Carawn in Welsh legend) supposedly removes an infestation of Saxons;
  • c294: Carausius is murdered by his treasurer, Allectus, who takes his place;

4th Cent

Magnus Maximus (Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus, Welsh: Macsen Wledig) (ca. 335 – August 28, 388), was Western Roman Emperor from 383 to 388. In 383 as commander of Britain, he usurped the throne against emperor Gratian; and through negotiation with emperor Theodosius I the following year he was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul.
  • c305 – About this time a group of Deisi establishes a colony among the Demetae; a group of Laighin is granted land in Lleyn peninsula; and the Eoganachta are given lands in the later Ceredigion (under Lethan), Dumnonia (under Corpre), and Circinn in the north (under Fidig). The Ui Laithin have a colony in Dumnonia;
  • 330: Caerwent town walls built in stone. Cardiff fort rebuilt in stone. Saxon Shore forts built on South Coast of England to defend against raids from Northern Europe. Cardiff may have replaced Caerleon as the main defensive stronghold in south Wales. Raiders attacking from Ireland cause fortifications to be improved at Caernarfon (Segontium) and Holyhead (Caer Gybi) Christianity becoming state religion but little evidence of impact in Wales Welsh tribes still also maintain local religious practices;
  • 350-353: Revolt of Flavius Magnus Magnentius, who usurps Imperator Caesar Flavius Julius Constans Augustus, actively supported by Britanniae, Galliae, and Hispaniae;
  • c367: The role of Count of the Saxon Shore appears to exist. War against the confederation of the Picti, Attacotti, and Scoti attacking Britanniae and the Saxonici and Franci attacking northern Galliae;
  • 368: A relief force commanded by the elderly Flavius Theodosius arrived in Britannia from Gaul;
  • c382: Wave of raiding by Scoti, Picts, and Saxons;
  • 383: Revolt of Magnus Maximus;
  • 390: By now the territory of the Deceangli has a sprinkling of Roman villas and is relatively settled. Under threat by waves of Irish raiders, the tribe's lands are incorporated along with much of those of the Ordovices into a new territory when Cunedda Wledig and his branch of Romanised Venicones are transferred from the Manau dependency of the Goutodin to secure north Wales from the raiders.

5th Cent

  • c405: Wave of raiding by Scoti, Picts, and Saxons. By this time Niall of the Nine Hostages established a Gaelic kingdom in north Wales.;
  • c406: The legions of Britain revolt and nominate a usurper named Marcus as emperor
  • c407: Marcus is killed by his troops and replaced with Gratian. Gratian is killed by the troops because he would not order them to cross over to Galliae to stop the “barbarians”. The troops in Britanniae then nominate Flavius Claudius Constantinus, who moves to Galliae with the remaining legions.
  • c410: Coelistius, aka Coel Hen, assumes control of the North, the area known to the Cymry as Hen Ogledd, its people as the Gwyr y Gogledd.
  • c411: Rescript of Honorius, Constantine III abdicated, took holy orders and – promised his life – surrendered. Constantius had lied: Constantine was killed and his head presented to Honorius on a pole;
  • c411-429: Waves of raiding by Scoti, Picts, and Saxons;
  • c413: Pelagian heresy said to begin;
  • c425: Flavius Aetius, the “last of the Romans”, becomes Comes and Magister Militum per Galliae
  • c427: Britanniae appeal to Comes Aetius for help, but gets no support;
  • c429: At the request of Palladius, a British deacon, Pope Celestine I dispatches Bishops Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes to Britanniae to combat the Pelagian heresy;
  • c432: Palladius is sent as missionary bishop to Eire, making his seat in Mumha;
  • 440-450: Possible Civil War and famine in Britanniae, caused by Pictish incursions and tensions between Pelagian/Roman factions. Migration of pro-Roman citizens toward west.
  • c441: Britain is said to be "under the rule of the Saxons" (Chronica Gallica of 452);
  • c446-453: The "Groans of the Britons";
  • c447: Second visit of Germanus to Britannia, this time accompanied by Bishop Severus of Trier. He expels the Scotti from mountain territory of the Cornovii;
  • c449: Arrival of Hengest and Horsa (traditional date);
  • 449–456: Arrival of the Saxons according to Bede;
  • c450: Rheged is formed out of Northern Britain. The new domain reaches from the southern border of Alt Clud to the northern border of Gwynedd;
  • c460–c535: estimated lifetime of Icel of Mercia;
  • c465: The Jutes from Kent invaded today's western Southampton, while the Meonware settled in the eastern area, merging with the Saxons in the early sixth century;
  • c495: Faced with the advance of the invaders and the founding of the kingdom of Wessex by Cerdic, Venta Belgarum (Winchester) blocked its south gate;

6th Cent

7th Cent

The people on the shrine of Werburgh in Chester Cathedral are coloured: blue for Mercian rulers, green for Kentish, women in yellow.

8th Cent

9th Cent

Sources and Links

An interesting place to start, although not written with a focus on Cheshire in mind, is always Vortigern Studies, especially the section on sources which is useful for checking them when quoted.

Book Sources

  • The Offa's Dyke Journal;
  • Arthur's Britain: Leslie Alcock;
  • The Age of Arthur: John Morris;
  • Contextualising re-conceptions: the Anglo-Saxon palace and Anglo-Norman castle in the royal vill of Farndon, Cheshire Archaeologia Cambrensis 171 (2022), 153–186
  • Lost Realms: Histories of Britain from the Romans to the Vikings: Thomas Williams

Map Resources

Related Pages


Roman and Sub-Roman Chester

Settlement and Language