The true conquest of Southern Britain was reserved for a fresh band of Saxons, a tribe whose older name was that of the Gewissas, but who were to be more widely known as the West-Saxons. Landing westward of the strip of coast which had been won by the war-bands of aelle, they struggled under Cerdic and Cynric up from Southampton Water in 495 to the great downs where Winchester offered so rich a prize. Five thousand Britons fell in a fight which opened the country to these invaders, and a fresh victory at Charford in 519 set the crown of the West-Saxons on the head of Cerdic. We know little of the incidents of these conquests; nor do we know why at this juncture they seem to have been suddenly interrupted. But it is certain that a victory of the Britons at Mount Badon in the year 520 checked the progress of the West-Saxons, and was followed by a long pause in their advance; for thirty years the great belt of woodland which then curved round from Dorset to the valley of the Thames seems to have barred the way of the assailants. What finally broke their inaction we cannot tell.
We only know that Cynric, whom Cerdic's death left king of the West-Saxons, again took up the work of invasion by a new advance in 552. The capture of the hill-fort of Old Sarum threw open the reaches of the Wiltshire Downs; and pushing northward to a new battle at Barbury Hill, they completed the conquest of the Marlborough Downs. From the bare uplands the invaders turned eastward to the richer valleys of our Berkshire, and after a battle with the Kentish men at Wimbledon, the land south of the Thames which now forms our Surrey was added to their dominions. The road along the Thames was however barred to them, for the district round London seems to have been already won and colonized by the East-Saxons. But a march of their King Cuthwulf made them masters in 571 of the districts which now form Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire; and a few years later they swooped from the Wiltshire uplands on the rich prey that lay along the Severn. Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath, cities which had leagued under their British kings to resist this onset, became the spoil of a Saxon victory at Deorham in 577, and the line of the great western river lay open to the arms of the conquerors.
Under a new king, Ceawlin, the West-Saxons penetrated to the borders of Chester, and Uriconium, a town beside the Wrekin, recently again brought to light, went up in flames. A British poet sings piteously the death-song of Uriconium, "the white town in the valley," the town of white stone gleaming among the green woodland, the hall of its chieftain left "without fire, without light, without songs," the silence broken only by the eagle's scream, "the eagle who has swallowed fresh drink, heart's blood of Kyndylan the fair." The raid, however, was repulsed, and the blow proved fatal to the power of Wessex. Though the West-Saxons were destined in the end to win the overlordship over every English people, their time had not come yet, and the leadership of the English race was to fall, for nearly a century to come, to the tribe of invaders whose fortunes we have now to follow.
Rivers were the natural inlets by which the northern pirates everywhere made their way into the heart of Europe. In Britain the fortress of London barred their way along the Thames from its mouth, and drove them, as we have seen, to an advance along the southern coast and over the downs of Wiltshire, before reaching its upper waters. But the rivers which united in the estuary of the Humber led like open highways into the heart of Britain, and it was by this inlet that the great mass of the invaders penetrated into the interior of the island. Like the invaders of East Anglia, they were of the English tribe from Sleswick. As the storm fell in the opening of the sixth century on the Wolds" of Lincolnshire that stretch southward from the Humber, the conquerors who settled in the deserted country were known as the "Lindiswara," or "dwellers about Lindum." A part of the warriors who had entered the Humber, turned southward by the forest of Elmet which covered the district around Leeds, followed the course of the Trent. Those who occupied the wooded country between the Trent and the Humber took from their position the name of Southumbrians. A second division, advancing along the curve of the former river and creeping down the line of its tributary, the Soar, till they reached Leicester, became known as the Middle-English. The marshes of the Fen country were settled by tribes known as the Gyrwas. The head waters of the Trent were the seat of those invaders who penetrated furthest to the west, and camped round Lichfield and Repton. This country became the borderland between Englishmen and Britons, and the settlers bore the name of "Mercians," men, that is, of the March or border.
We know hardly anything of this conquest of Mid-Britain, and little more of the conquest of the North. Under the Romans, political power had centred in the vast district between the Humber and the Forth. York had been the capital of Britain and the seat of the Roman prefect; and the bulk of the garrison maintained in the island lay cantoned along the Roman wall. Signs of wealth and prosperity appeared everywhere; cities rose beneath the shelter of the Roman camps; villas of British landowners studded the vale of the Cuse and the far-off uplands of the Tweed, where the shepherd trusted for security against Pictish marauders to the terror of the Roman name. This district was assailed at once from the north and from the south. A part of the invading force which entered the Humber marched over the Yorkshire wolds to found a kingdom, which was known as that of the Deiri, in the fens of Holderness and on the chalk downs eastward of York. But they were soon drawn onwards, and after a struggle of which we know nothing, York, like its neighbour cities, lay a desolate ruin, while the conquerors spread northward, slaying and burning along the valley of the Ouse. Meanwhile the pirates had appeared in the Forth, and won their way along the Tweed; Ida and the men of fifty keels which followed him reared the capital of the northernmost kingdom of the English, that of Bernicia, on the rock of Bamborough, and won their way slowly along the coast against a stubborn resistance which formed the theme of British songs.