The history of the British Isles is a colorful patchwork, made up of the diverse tribes and nations that sought to make the island their home. Peoples
The history of the British Isles is a colorful patchwork, made up of the diverse tribes and nations that sought to make the island their home. Peoples migrated to the island through the Bronze Age, all the way to the arriving Celtic culture and on to the Vikings and other Nordic settlers.
The origins of the modern inhabitants of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are quite unique. But what do we know about the Germanic tribes that make up the bulk of the identity of all English people? The Anglo-Saxons, as history knows them, were composed of several different tribes that made landfall on the British Isles and stayed there for good.
And one of the most significant of these were the Jutes. What information about them survives through time?
What’s In A Name?
In ancient times, the Jutes were also known as Iuti or Iutæ, and originated in modern-day Denmark. It is believed that they were the tribe that gave the name to the Jutland Peninsula, the territory that makes up the largest, continental portion of the nation of Denmark.
In their ancient homeland, the Jutes were believed to have been one of the most prominent Germanic tribes. They inhabited first the upper, and then the lower end of the Danish peninsula, especially the modern regions of Southern Schleswig and Northern Frisia.
The Jutes, Angles and Saxons in modern-day Denmark and Germany (TharkunColl / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Some scholars believe that the Jutes, in their earliest origins, migrated along the coastlines of the Baltic Sea from the direction of modern-day Poland. As they migrated to the Jutland Peninsula, they gradually replaced or assimilated the Germanic tribe of Cimbri that dwelt there.
They are first mentioned by name in 98 AD by the Roman historian Tacitus, who referred to them as “Eudoses.” It is likely that their original name “Yt” refers to giants, which was a possible nod to their great stature.
Of course, the Jutes were not alone in their homeland. Their neighbors were equally powerful Germanic tribes, the more familiar Angles and Saxons. Together these tribes shared a similar, if not the same, set of languages, pantheon, and culture.
They excelled at warfare, sailing, and trading, and were even then instrumental in the Northern European political scene. But times were rapidly changing, and any new opportunity had to be seized.
Sometimes, the fate of an entire nation depended on shifting global events and new migrations. And for the Jutes, that changed everything.
The Works of Saint Bede
We know a lot about the Jutes thanks to one ancient figure: The Venerable Bede . This 7th century English Benedictine monk is well known as one of the earliest English historians. And one of his major works, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People , was the detailed account of the Anglo-Saxon Settlement of the British Isles.
The Venerable Bede (Timsj / Public Domain )
It is in this work that Bede paints a detailed, plausible, and apparently accurate picture of the Jutes. This author concurs with other sources in naming them as one of the three most powerful Germanic tribes (likely of Jutland), the other two being Angles and the Saxons.
“Those who came over were of the three most powerful nations of Germany—Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent, and of the Isle of Wight, and those also in the province of the West Saxons who are to this day called Jutes, seated opposite to the Isle of Wight.”
-The Venerable Bede
Another important early Medieval manuscript, the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, also records a partial history of that settlement and of the Jutes too. It tells us that the Germanic tribes of Jutland and the neighboring lands were invited over into Britain by a ruler named Vortigern.
This warlord seemingly needed help in his conflicts with the Picts (a warlike tribe from modern day Scotland), and for that he required the renowned martial prowess of the overseas neighbors. The chronicle states that two brothers named Hengist and Horsa led warriors from each tribe over into Britain in 449 AD, where they managed to defeat the Picts at every turn.
In time, the mercenary character turned into one of settlement. The Angles, Jutes, and the Saxons began settling in coastal Britain, eventually changing its politics and future forever.
The Angles formed Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria; the Saxons formed Essex, Sussex, and Wessex; while the Jutes settled in the Isle of Wight, Hampshire, and Kent. This was the beginning of a completely new destiny for the British Isles, and for the Jutes too.
Welcomed With Open Arms?
It is likely that a number of reasons forced the Jutes and their neighbors to seek a new life in Britain. Certain archeological evidence and scientific research tells us that the early 400’s saw mass flooding on the coasts of North Germany and Frisia. Because of these catastrophic events, the Jutes were forced to migrate en-masse across the narrow expanse of the sea and into Britain.
Migration of the Germanic tribes into the British Isles (mbartelsm / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
What is more, Denmark of that period was witness to a lot of political instability. The land was fragmented and in conflict, and new dynasties were emerging as different rulers jockeyed for position.
The tribes were forced to compete for adequate living space, which could have led to increased tensions and conflicts. New (fertile) lands, a chance for new beginnings, and plenty of space for everyone was a chance that could not have been missed. Britain was the promised land to the Jutes.
And, by most accounts, they were well received by the native British. In exchange for military assistance, they were given land to settle, and in the next few centuries, they became a major part of the overall English DNA.
“These warriors also received from the Britons grants of land where they could settle among them on condition that they maintained the peace and security of the island against all enemies in return for regular pay. These newcomers were from the three most formidable races of Germany, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight and those in the province of the West Saxons opposite the Isle of Wight who are called Jutes to this day.”
The Venerable Bede
Of course, it is well attested that the Germanic tribes of North Germany were during that time quite ahead of their neighbors in all aspects. This was especially true in regards to warfare and maritime skills.
The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons were known as ferocious warriors with a big emphasis on military prowess. Their helmets, weapons, and fighting tactics were highly sought after by the British rulers. But at the same time, the fact that the new settlers were such fierce warriors also placed them at a disadvantage.
Masters of War and Sail
One major factor that allowed the Jutes and their neighbors to sail over to England was the new method of shipbuilding that they devised. Their older boats were made of planks connected together by rope fastenings, being basically planks sewn together.
Advances in shipbuilding allowed the Jutes to cross the sea in relative safety (Jos van Wunnik / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
While such ships were effective river craft, they were not particularly seaworthy. But when the new building method was developed, everything changed. The Jutes began using iron fastenings to connect the planks more securely, and that made the ships good for long sea voyages. It was the dawn of a new era of sailing.
The works of The Venerable Bede are very important in the study of Jutes. His writings help us understand that the Jutes – even centuries after their arrival in Britain – preserved the memory of their origins across the sea.
Those families that had firm proof or even belief in their origins from Jutland, or the so-called “continental forefathers,” had a big upper hand in political matters. Having ancestors from “abroad” was very prestigious, and served as a sort of legitimacy when laying down political claims.
Even 200 years into their settlement in Britain, the Jutes kept this memory of their origins alive and were proud of where they came from. The Kentish Kings traced their lineage back to the leaders Hengist and Horsa, and even back to their chief god Woden, from whom they believed they were descended.
Forced To Flee The Danes?
But modern history is better acquainted with the place where the Jutes settled, rather than the place from which they came. The Jutland peninsula from which they supposedly arrived was the home to many diverse tribes that came and went over time.
It is theorized (although unlikely) that the peninsula was left virtually deserted after the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons departed their homeland for Britain. Afterwards came the Danes, and the history of modern Denmark proper began unfolding.
Those tribes, as we said, had come into conflict with the Danes even before their migration, and that was one of the reasons for which they had to leave.
Are the Eotenas of Beowulf the same as the Jutes? (janwillemsen / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
One ancient source mentioned the tribe of “Eotenas” that was involved in the conflict between the warlike Frisians and the Danes. This was also described in the famed Old English poem Beowulf, during the description of the so-called Fight at Finnesburg. It is thought that the these Eotenas were in fact Jutes.
Similarly, another historical source sees the mention of “Saxones Eucii.” This name is recorded in a letter sent to Emperor Justinian by the Frankish King Theudebert. It is likely that the Eucii are also Jutes. All of these names are just different transcriptions of their unique name.
Unearthing The Truth
But at the end of the day, it is archaeology that can provide us with the clearest answers on the origins of the Jutes. And here the archaeological record is puzzling. Even though it is believed that they settled in Kent, Isle of Wight , and Hampshire, modern excavations of grave goods and artifacts show almost no links with the proposed Jutland origins.
Interestingly, however, there are links with these artifacts and the Germanic inhabitants of Frisia and northernmost Francia. This gives us some evidence that the Jutes came from these regions. On that note, some historical sources do mention the Jutes living there. It is quite likely, given this evidence, that the Jutes were pushed southwards by the invading Danes, until they were ultimately forced to set sail from Frisia to Britain.
Some scholars also propose that the Jutes are the same as the Geats, another Germanic tribe recorded in ancient times. The Geats lived in southernmost Sweden, from where they could have migrated over to the Jutland Peninsula.
A major piece of evidence for this is the list of alternative names of the Geats, as recorded by various ancient authors. Some of these are “Eotas,” “Iútan,” and “Iótas,” all of them sounding like different spellings of the name Jute.
King Alfred the Great claimed Jutish descent through his mother (Samuel Woodforde / Public Domain )
The famed Welsh monk and later Bishop, John Asser, wrote in his Life of Alfred , that the Jutes were the same as the Goths, a well-established Germanic tribe. He stated that Alfred the Great was descended, through his mother Osburga, from the ruling Jutish dynasty of the Isle of Wight.
This goes to show that the origins of the “continental forefathers” were still kept alive nearly four centuries after the Jutes arrived in Britain. Whether or not Jutes and Goths (or Geats) can be connected remains a subject of much debate amongst scholars.
The Forefathers of the English People
Wherever their roots might lie, the Jutes were without a doubt a powerful and influential Germanic tribe. Out of the strife and the pressures that they experienced in their proposed homeland, the Jutes managed to find a way out. Thanks to their prowess in warfare and their seafaring skills, these tribes were welcomed in Britain, where fertile land and new settlement opportunities were in abundance.
Numerous historical references and toponyms preserve the memory of Jutish presence in southern England. Observing the possible migratory routes across the English channel, we can piece the puzzle and see from where they arrived.
One thing is certain, however: when they raised their sails and ventured forth to that promised land that was Britain, the Jutes changed their own future and destiny. And in doing so, they changed the future of England as they wrote themselves into its history.
Top Image: The Jutes were part of the major colonization of the British Isles in the 5th century. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock.
By Aleksa Vučković