Massive migration came to Early Medieval England, study finds

More than 3/4 of the population in Eastern and Southern England during the early Middle Ages had ancestors who came from the European continent, according to a new study published in Nature. It reveals the huge extent of the Anglo-Saxon migrations. 

For three hundred years after the Romans left, scholars like Bede wrote about the Angles and the Saxons and their migrations to the British Isles. Scholars of many disciplines, including archaeology, history, linguists and genetics, have debated what his words might have described, and what the scale, the nature and the impact of human migration were at that time.


New genetic results now show that about 76 percent of the population in Eastern and Southern England was made up of migrant families whose ancestors must have originated from continental regions bordering the North Sea, including the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. What is more, these families interbred with the existing population of Britain, but importantly this integration varied from region to region and community to community.

Archaeologists excavate grave 112 at Oakington Cambridgeshire, it contained an adult male buried with a knife. He had 99.99 percent Continental North European ancestry. Image © Duncan Sayer, University of Central Lancashire

“With 278 ancient genomes from England and hundreds more from Europe, we now gained really fascinating insights into population-scale and individual histories during post-Roman times”, says Joscha Gretzinger, a doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute and a lead author of the study. “Not only do we now have an idea of the scale of migration, but also how it played out in communities and families.”


Using published genetic data from more than 4,000 ancient and 10,000 present-day Europeans, Gretzinger and colleagues identified subtle genetic differences between the closely related groups inhabiting the ancient North Sea region.

Migrants intermixed with the local population

Upon arrival, the migrants intermixed with the local population. In one case, in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery from Buckland near Dover, researchers were able to reconstruct a family tree across at least four generations and identify the point in time when migrants and locals intermarried. This family showed a large degree of interaction between the two gene pools. Overall, the researchers witnessed burials of prominent status across the studied cemeteries of both local and migrant origin.

The interdisciplinary team consisting of over 70 authors was able to integrate archaeological data with these new genetic results, which revealed that women of immigrant origin were buried with artifacts more often than women of local origin, especially considering items such as brooches and beads. Interestingly, men with weapons were found to have both genetic origins equally often. These differences were locally mediated with prominent burials or wealthy graves seen across the range of origins. For example, a woman buried with a complete cow in Cambridgeshire was genetically mixed, with majority local ancestry.

Grave goods from inhumation grave 3532 at Issendorf cemetery. Image ©Landesmuseum Hannover

“We see considerable variation in how this migration affected communities,” comments Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist from the University of Central Lancashire and another lead author of the study. “In some places, we see clear signs of active integration between locals and immigrants, as in the case of Buckland near Dover, or Oakington in Cambridgeshire. Yet in other cases, like Apple Down in West Sussex, we see that people with immigrant and local ancestry were buried separately in the cemetery. Perhaps this is evidence of some degree of social separation at this site.”


The research team also found strong evidence that this large-scale migration took place for a longer period than is commonly believed. They write:

In particular, we show that these migrations started earlier than previously assumed, as evidenced by individuals with CNE (continental northern European) ancestry from later Roman contexts, and continued throughout the middle Anglo-Saxon period. Our results from middle Saxon sites such as Sedgeford push the estimated dates of arrival of CNE ancestry to as late as the eight century and merge these events with interpersonal mobility from Sweden and other Scandinavian regions during the later Viking invasion and settlement. Together, these migrations appear to be part of a continuous movement of people from across the North Sea to Britain from the later Roman period into the eleventh century CE.

Impact of this historic migration on present-day English people

With the new data, the team could also consider the impact of this historic migration today. Notably the present-day English derive only 40 percent of their DNA from these historic continental ancestors, whereas 20 to 40 percent of their genetic profile likely came from France or Belgium. This genetic component can be seen in the archaeological individuals and in the graves with Frankish objects found in early Medieval graves, particularly in Kent.


“It remains unclear whether this additional ancestry related to Iron Age France is connected to a few punctuated migration events, such as the Norman conquest, or whether it was the result of centuries-long mobility across the English Channel”, says Stephan Schiffels, lead senior author of the study. “Future work, specifically targeting the medieval period and later will reveal the nature of this additional genetic signal.

The article, “The Anglo-Saxon migration and the formation of the early English gene pool,” by Joscha Gretzinger, Duncan Sayer, Pierre Justeau et al., appears in the journal Nature. Click here to read it.

Top Image: An early Anglo-Saxon grave with pottery vessel, brooches and a Roman Spoon. This grave 66 from Oakington Cambridgeshire contained a woman of mixed ancestry. Image © Duncan Sayer, University of Central Lancashire