Are the English Basque?

Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders, but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of South West France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure, the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as there’s. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and even strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were, until recently, taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord, who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders, who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population, and the small remaining Romano-British elite, were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response, Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later, the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.” Gildas continues:

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common, such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see, in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their Kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipeout” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish King, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot: an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders, there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time, they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the Kings, the Lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this, English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French, which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost? As happened in Frankish Gaul. Or combined in some way with the native language or languages? As happened in post-conquest England.

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  There means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is, an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible, and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the ‘Basques’. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice, it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer, these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen, these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested; although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But, if true, his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity; that of our ‘Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English are truly more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that ‘being English’ has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their ‘real’ history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled, in the face of enormous opposition, to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.


Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.

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