The history of the British Isles and Ireland is characterized by multiple periods of major cultural change, including the influential transformation after the end of Roman rule, which precipitated shifts in language, settlement patterns and material culture 1. The extent to which migration from continental Europe mediated these transitions is a matter of long-standing debate 2–4. Here we study genome-wide ancient DNA from 460 medieval northwestern Europeans—including 278 individuals from England—alongside archaeological data, to infer contemporary population dynamics. We identify a substantial increase of continental northern European ancestry in early medieval England, which is closely related to the early medieval and present-day inhabitants of Germany and Denmark, implying large-scale substantial migration across the North Sea into Britain during the Early Middle Ages. As a result, the individuals who we analysed from eastern England derived up to 76% of their ancestry from the continental North Sea zone, albeit with substantial regional variation and heterogeneity within sites. We show that women with immigrant ancestry were more often furnished with grave goods than women with local ancestry, whereas men with weapons were as likely not to be of immigrant ancestry. A comparison with present-day Britain indicates that subsequent demographic events reduced the fraction of continental northern European ancestry while introducing further ancestry components into the English gene pool, including substantial southwestern European ancestry most closely related to that seen in Iron Age France 5,6.