Following the withdrawal of the Roman legions to Gaul (modern
France) around 400, the British Isles fell into a very dark period
of several centuries from which almost no written records survive.
The Romano-British culture that had existed under 400 years of Roman
rule disappeared under relentless invasion and migration by
barbarians. Celts came over from Ireland (a tribe called the Scotti
gave their name to the northern part of the main island, Scotland).
Saxons and Angles came from Germany, Frisians from modern Holland,
and Jutes from modern Denmark. By 600, the Angles and Saxons
controlled most of modern England. By 800, only modern Wales,
Scotland, and West Cornwall remained in largely Celtic hands.
The recent movie,
King Arthur, does a fair job at
explaining all this.
The new inhabitants were called Anglo-Saxons (from the Angles and
Saxons). The Angles gave their name to the new culture (England from
Angle-land), and the Germanic language they brought with them,
English, replaced the native Celtic and previously imported Latin.
Despite further invasions and even a complete military conquest at a
later date, the southern and eastern parts of the largest British
Isle have been called England (and its people and language English)
In 865 the relative peace of England was shattered by a new
invasion. Danish Vikings who had been raiding France and Germany
formed a great army and turned their attention on the English.
Within 10 years, most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen or
surrendered. Only the West Saxons (modern Wessex) held out under
Alfred, the only English ruler to be called "the Great."
England was divided among the Vikings, the West Saxons, and a few
other English kingdoms for nearly 200 years. The Viking half was
called the Danelaw ("under Danish law"). The Vikings collected a
large payment, called the Danegeld ("the Dane's gold"), to be
peaceful. The Danes became Christians and gradually became more
settled. In time the English turned on the Danes, and in 954 the
last Viking king of York was killed. England was united for the
first time under an English king from Wessex.
In 1066 the Witan ("king's council") offered the crown to Harold,
son of the Earl of Wessex. Three others wanted the throne: Harold
Hardrada (meaning "the hard ruler"), The King of Norway, and Duke
William of Normandy. The Norwegian landed first, near York, but was
defeated by Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge. Immediately
after the victory, Harold force-marched his army south to meet
William at Hastings. The battle seesawed back and forth all day, but
near dusk Harold was mortally wounded by an arrow in the eye. Over
the next two years, William, now "the Conqueror," solidified his
conquest of England.
During the remainder of the Middle Ages, the successors of William
largely exhausted themselves and their country in a series of
confrontations and wars attempting to expand or defend land holdings
in France. The Hundred Years War between England and France was an
on-and-off conflict that stretched from 1337 to 1453. It was
triggered by an English king's claim to the throne of France, thanks
to family intermarriages. The war was also fought over control of
the lucrative wool trade and French support for Scotland's
independence. The early part of the war featured a string of
improbable, yet complete, English victories, thanks usually to
English longbow men mowing down hordes of ornately armored French
knights from long range. One notably devastating battle took place
at a marshy patch of farm land in which hundreds of horse-mounted knights were lured
into the mucky filth, which reduced them to a baby-crawl movement speed
and from there were doomed to be the targets of an archer-frenzied
The English could not bring the war to closure, however, and the
French rallied. Inspired by Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who
professed divine guidance, the French fought back, ending the war
with the capture of Bordeaux in 1453. The English were left holding
only Calais on the mainland (and not for long).