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The island of Britain has not been successfully invaded since 1066 A.D. Before that date, however, the island had been occupied by Rome, the Anglo-Saxons and the Danish. The first incursions by Julius Caesar into Britain in 55 and 54 B.C. The dominant group in Britain were a Celtic people whose language is the ancestor of modern Welsh and Breton. When the British Celts were finally subdued by the Roman Emperor, Claudius, 43 A.D. ; Britain nominally became part of the Roman Empire , though it was not fully brought in line until 78 A.D. under the governor Agricola. Roman influence never penetrated the culture of the British Celts the way it did their continental neighbors, and Rome’s influence was negligible in the Pictish north and Celtic west.
When Rome found itself under attack in the early fifth century the legions were recalled. Britain, after more than three centuries of dependence on Rome’s military might, found herself vulnerable, first to the northern Picts, then to the Saxon mercenaries hired to defeat the Picts. According to legend, in 449 A.D. the British overlord, Vortigern, invited the Jutish brothers Hengist and Horsa into Britain to fight the Picts, offering them land in Kent as payment. A daughter of Hengist’s was given in marriage to Vortigern, as part of the alliance. Although the Jutes kept their bargain, insofar as they beat back the Picts, they also recognized the opportunity offered in the fertile soil and military weakness of Britain. In what was part invasion, part migration, the Jutes sent across the sea to their families, and along with invading tribes of Angles and Saxons, the Germanic people managed to kill or displace the natives and occupy the country. Over the next one hundred years the invasions gave way to a period of settlement. The Celtic view of this period is immortalized in literature as the Arthurian cycle.
The native Celts were either killed by the invaders, or pushed back into Wales, Cornwall, and across the English channel into Brittany, taking their Celtic language with them. The dominant language of southern Britain (now England, from Angle-land) came to be that spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. The three main dialects, Northumbrian, Mercian, and West Saxon, corresponded with the three major kingdoms that vied for ascendancy. The first to exert its influence was Northumbria, followed by Mercia and finally Wessex. It is the West Saxon dialect that is most often referred to as Old English and that was the most prominent dialect at the time of the Norman conquest in 1066. At the time of the original Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the fifth century, the language contained approximately 100 Latin words that had been taken into the language before the Anglo-Saxons left the continent, mainly terms dealing with trade or the military. By the time of the Norman Conquest, Old English had been further enriched by words drawn from ecclesiastical Latin brought in by the conversion of the English to Christianity by St. Augustine in 597 A.D
In the mid eighth century a new wave of Northmen turned their attention toward England, this time the Danish Vikings. What began first as coastal raids developed into a full scale invasion by the middle of the ninth century during the ascendancy of the kingdom of Wessex. Although the Danes made great headway into England, they were pushed back into what became known as the Danelaw by the West Saxon king, Alfred the Great, by the end of the ninth century.
Partly because of the political supremacy of Wessex and partly due to the highly literate court of Alfred, the West Saxon dialect was the strongest English dialect at the opening of the tenth century. Much, but not all, of the Old English literature which survives, such as, Beowulf and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is in the West Saxon dialect. This trend continued until 1066 when Edward the Confessor died childless and William, Duke of Normandy landed in England to press his claim to the English throne, based on Edward’s promise to make the Duke his heir. In 1066, during the Battle of Hastings, the English king, Harold, was killed by a Norman arrow. William, now the Conqueror, installed a new Norman aristocracy, replacing, executing, or intermarrying the English nobility with the French.
Norman French became the language of the English upper class, while the lower class continued to speak English. This division lasted until increasing tension between the Anglo-Norman royalty and French king, who was overlord to the Norman dukes, led to the eventual loss of Normandy and separation of English and French aristocracy. This loss, coupled with a growing sense of English national identity and the Hundred Years War, led to the resurgence of the English tongue as the language of the upper classes. The re-establishment of English was gradual, but as England moved into the fourteenth century, English was used as the native tongue by the majority of the population in a number of dialects. Most of these dialects are recorded in written documents, but the one dialect that assumed the most importance was the Mercian dialect of London.
London was the hub of government, commerce and literature in England in the Middle Ages so it was this dialect which conferred prestige and grew in popularity. The other dialects in use during the fourteenth century include the north-western dialect of the "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight"; yet, it was the London dialect of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," now liberally endowed with words of French origin, that developed into English as we know it today.