Mother Tongue

Rochester Cathedral fresco: the Baptism of Christ and of the men of Kent, painted by Sergei Fyodorov –
photo by Stephen Craven, licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

How Come Kent Speaks English?

The big puzzle is how English became the mother tongue of people in Kent.

The simplified story most of us learned in school goes like this:

  • 55 BCE Julius Caesar first took some Roman troops across the Channel in an exploratory mission.
  • 43 CE Roman conquest after the battle of Medway

The Language of Kent Under Roman Occupation

The people that were conquered were Celtic speaking, as were the Gauls across the Channel at that time. They spoke a branch of Celtic called Brythonic.

For the next 400 years, Kent flourished within the Roman Empire. Roads were built and forts were built (Richborough); towns (Canterbury); rich villas (Lullingstone) and iron-working (the Weald).

The Roman Empire was defended by legionaries, who were recruited from all the Empire. In Britain, these soldiers were stationed in the forts, along Hadrian’s walls and at coastal watch-towers.

4th Century: Rome Under Attack

But then the Roman Empire was attacked by barbarians, many of them Germanic speaking tribes who were themselves pushed northwards by the Huns coming from further east.

From 401, Roman soldiers were pulled out of Britain. 

There was then the “Dark Ages” until St Augustine arrived in Canterbury in 598.

Not So Dark Ages

Statue of King Æthelberht on the Choir Screen of Rochester Cathedral
King Æthelberht of Kent
photo by Giogo;
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Scholars are able to chronicle some events that happened during those “dark” ages:
410 Emperor Honorius tells the British to manage their own defences; 
410 Britain devastated by Saxon incursions;
428 Invitation to Saxon mercenaries to come to Kent according to Nennius;
432 Possible date of message from Britons to Roman consul pleading for help;
441 A chronicler in Gaul records that Britain is now ruled by Saxons;
449 Arrival of Hengest and Horsa in Kent, according to Bede (but see 428 above);
450 Earliest date for Battle of Badon Hill between Britons and Saxons (Britons won, so Saxons were pushed back east, but see 465 below);
Large scale emigration of Britons to Armorica (Britanny);
455 Hengest and Horsa fight Vortigern leader of the Britons at Aylesford;
456 They fight the Britons at Crayford. Many Britons flee to London;
465 Hengest with Æsc , his son, conquer some Welsh nobles
473 Another Saxon victory over the Welsh
488 Æsc ruled the kingdom (of Kent?) for 34 years.
598 King Æthelberht ruled Kent from about 589 to 616.
According to Bede, Æthelberht was a descendent of Hengest. Kent was speaking Old English by then as Æthelberht got his laws written down by St Augustine’s monks in Old English, not Latin or Brythonic.

(Chronology taken from “The First Kingdom” by Max Adams)

What Happened to the Women?

Now this is my question: what happened to all those Brythonic-speaking women who lived in Kent during the fifth century? Surely they didn’t all flee to London or to Brittany! There is a puzzling conflict between linguistic evidence and archaeology together with genetics.

The linguistic evidence, especially from place-names, seems to indicate that the Anglo-Saxons (Jutes in Kent) wiped out the earlier Celtic population. This was the story told by the Victorians who were influenced by their own imperialism and colonisation stories. It was even suggested that the remaining “Welsh” were enslaved. Let’s call this the genocide story of Anglo-Saxon ascendancy.

“Make Love, Not War”

However, more recent extensive archaeology has shown no evidence of constant violence or enslavement during those same two “dark” centuries.

There is evidence from the landscape that agricultural holdings remained consistent, with the same boundaries from Roman to early medieval times. Furthermore, the evidence from modern genetic studies shows that the Celtic genes remained widespread across the British Isles at this time.

Therefore many inhabitants must have stayed put. So what happened? I would like to think that the two “tribes” made love not war. Even as some of the menfolk were clashing in battles as listed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, some intermarriage was also taking place.

Be Careful What You Wish For!

In Kent, Hengest and Horsa were first invited to come as mercenaries to defend against Picts and Scots who were then raiding the coast. They were to live on the Isle of Thanet. But after a few years they repudiated the treaty and took over: Hengest became King of Kent, and then led his followers on various battles against the Welsh.

So what were the native women doing? Did they all succumb to the warrior charms of this band? If they did, their children would likely still be speaking Brythonic, their mother tongue.

More likely is that a substantial number of Germanic speaking women also migrated to England. Bede mentions a migration phase but does not mention the women. He does mention that the emigrants from the land of the Angles were so many that their land was deserted.

Let’s Get Together

Laboratory analysis of skeletons from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries shows that some contained both Germanic female skeletons, and Brythonic with high status grave goods. So this is evidence that the two races co-existed in the same communities. The landscape was not, as in parts of the much later Austro-Hungarian Empire, dotted with villages of different mono-cultures.

In at least one south coast cemetery there are Anglo-Saxon bones of more humble origins, even malnourished. This has been construed as evidence of boat migrants, desperate communities fleeing from Germanic coastlands that were becoming uncultivable due to climate change and flooding. So whole families were coming to Britain. They spread their Germanic mother tongue, and many probably inter-married with the locals.


The acculturation hypothesis (aka Max Adams) of why their language became dominant is that it became advantageous for aspirant native families to switch to Anglo-Saxon. This could be because gradually Anglo-Saxon leaders took over the local centres of agricultural production, the “tun”, to which the farmers had to bring some harvest or render some labour payment of bridge repair or whatever. There was no coinage for payments at this time, as the last coins had disappeared with the Roman soldiers.

How to interpret this acculturation from a female point of view? What motive drove the Brythonic women to cease to pass on their mother tongue to their children? There were no schools giving priority to good Anglo-Saxon speakers at this time. Living in a subsistence economy, most women were bound by household tasks, fetching water, cooking, childcare. Even the local markets that became such a feature in later centuries were probably not yet developed in most places.

Disagreement and Celebration

I suggest the basic motives for this female language-switch at a local level is simply this: quarrelling and party-going. If a quarrel between neighbours got troublesome, the local lord would have to hear about it… and he was Anglo-Saxon speaking.

At harvest-time, or if a beast was killed for a local funeral, all the community would feast. And gradually, over the course of about five generations (432-598), the language of party-going became Anglo-Saxon, as it was most likely that an Anglo-Saxon family was paying for the party! And just so – the mother tongue of Kent became English!