Friday, 21 December 2018

Anglo-Saxon Goings-On in 2018

As another year comes to a close, it seems a good time to look back on the last twelve months which, for me, have been spent researching deeply into the history of the Anglo-Saxons and more particularly the history of the Mercians.

I spend nearly all my time writing, be it novels, books, stories, or blog posts, but this year I emerged blinking and nervous into the outside world to talk - yes, out loud! - about my beloved Anglo-Saxons.

Many of my posts this year concerned trips to Anglo-Saxon locations. My first post of the year here on the blog detailed my visit to Repton, a research trip for the new book. There, I saw the Anglo-Saxon crypt and the remains of the archaeological dig which revealed so much about the Viking occupation of Repton in the 870s. (Read the post HERE)

and then I wrote about another trip, this time exploring the locations involved with the battle of Heavenfield, in Northumbria (Click HERE

Another location post, this time from the royal site of Yeavering (LINK) was followed by one showing one of the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, at Escomb (LINK).

I went to Gloucestershire, where I found out a little more about Odda of Deerhurst (LINK) when I visited his chapel and on that same trip, I finally found Æthelflæd (LINK) and it was an emotional moment when I stood by the remains of the priory where she was buried alongside her husband.

Blog Articles
Gearing up to send my new book to the publisher, I posted an article about the 'evil' women of Mercia. Were they really evil though? Find out HERE

Meanwhile I mused about how we can hear and get to know characters from the past, as we reach across the centuries during research. Here's the LINK

This was followed by a post about Anglo-Saxon food - what they ate, and what they called it. Read the post HERE

I then posted an article detailing what we know about Anglo-Saxon childhood, (see the article HERE) and I mused on the recorded deaths of leading Anglo-Saxons and how they rarely seemed to die of their wounds (LINK) After that came a post about captive nuns, and how women weren't always necessarily safe. Read about these women HERE

Out and About
One of the undoubted highlights of my year was the invitation to speak at the Tamworth Literary Festival about how I fictionalised the life of the Lady of the Mercians. Not only did I have a lovely time talking about one of my favourite people and chatting to the folk who attended the talk, I also met the lady herself! Here's the transcript of my TALK

In October, I was invited by the Garstang Historical Society to talk about Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and you can read the transcript of my talk HERE

I was honoured to be asked by Staffordshire Live about my opinion of the portrayal of Æthelflæd in the Netflix Series The Last Kingdom. You can read the interview HERE

Book News
For the 1100th anniversary of the death of the Lady of the Mercians, and to coincide with the commemorations, the wonderful Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics gave To Be A Queen a brand new cover:

I also now have a website dedicated to my books and stories, and you can find it here:

And of course, 2018 saw the publication by Amberley Books of my first full-length nonfiction book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom  which I'm thrilled to say reached #1 in its category on Amazon and has remained in the top 20 and frequently in the top 10 ever since. It has also earned a Discovering Diamonds award and was short-listed for their Book of the Month. (Award review HERE)

The reviews have been very positive:
Tony Riches - The Writing Desk
History: The Interesting Bits 
Adventures in Historyland
Faith, Fiction, Friends
(which also recommended it as nonfiction book of the year! Here)
The book was also reviewed by History of War Magazine:

I'm also delighted to be able to say that I am currently hard at work on my new book for Pen & Sword Publications, focusing on the women of Anglo-Saxon England, which will be published in late 2019/early 2020.

Other Blog Appearances
Research Roadblocks: Historical Writers' Association
Research - Fiction Vs Nonfiction: Deborah Swift
King Cenwulf: History the Interesting Bits
Mercian Locations: Amberley Blog
Bringing Characters to Life: Women Writers

I'd like to thank everyone who reads my blog posts and wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
Before I leave you, please do read an enjoy this short story. It's not historical, there's not an Anglo-Saxon in sight, but it was good fun to write! Song Behind the Story

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Interview with Staffordshire Live

I was delighted to be asked by Staffordshire Live what I thought of the portrayal of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, in the TV series, The Last Kingdom and, more to the point, what she would have thought!

Here's the link to the piece:

My thanks to Josh Layton who patiently listened while I rabbited on about my favourite subject and then turned my ramblings into such a wonderful article!

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Lordship in the Tenth Century

“No man can make himself king, but the people have the choice to select as king whom they please, but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people and they cannot shake his yoke from their neck.”

So said Ælfric of Eynsham, (c.955-c.1010), and he tells us here of the absolute nature of kingship. The king is the lord of all the English, so if we are to discover the function of lordship, we should begin by examining the role of the king.

By the tenth century ideas about the spiritual role of kingship had developed along Carolingian lines. A well-documented example of this is Edgar’s coronation at Bath in 973. One school of thought is that Edgar delayed his coronation until he had reached the canonical age of thirty, but it is unlikely that he could have reigned successfully for so long (he succeeded his brother Eadwig in 959) without having been consecrated earlier in his reign, particularly in view of what Ælfric has to say about consecration. [1]

It is more probable that this coronation was based on the Frankish notion of ‘imperium’, stressing the king’s duty before God. Wulfstan, archbishop of York, expanded this idea in his Institutes of Polity. His view was that a Christian king should be a just shepherd to his Christian flock; he was to help the righteous and to afflict the evil-doers, especially thieves and robbers. His true function was to purify his people before God and the world. [2]

The mutual obligation between the king and his subjects is illustrated by an incident in Æthelred the Unready’s reign. With the death of Swein Forkbeard, Æthelred was asked to return from exile in Normandy by the Witan (council), who declared that “no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than he had done in the past."[3] The king was king, but his subjects would not allow him to neglect his duty to them.

Yet neither would they neglect to exalt a praise-worthy monarch. Florence of Worcester* summed up the virtues of King Edgar thus:-
“In the winter and spring, he used to make progress through all the provinces of England and enquire diligently whether the laws of the land and his own ordinances were obeyed, so that the poor might not suffer wrong and be oppressed by the powerful…Thus his enemies on every side were filled with awe, and the love of those who owed him allegiance was secured.”
There were, of course, more personal relationships, not only between the king and his subjects, but between the lord and his man. The argument continues among historians as to whether pre-Conquest England was feudal; suffice to say that there was an English equivalent to the Frankish oath of vassalage, this being the Hold-Oath. The oath was essentially negative, a promise to do nothing to harm the lord. It included a gesture of bowing to the lord. The lord in his turn had certain obligations to his man.
“By the Lord, before whom this hallowed thing is holy, I will be steadfast and true to X, to love all he loves and shun all that he shuns, and never, by will or by thought or by deed do aught of what is loathsome to him, as long as he upholds me as I am willing to earn and fulfil all that our understanding was, when I bowed to him and took his will.” 

Naturally, the king could not rule without counsel. The witenagemot, or witan, was the royal council, and had the right, rather than the privilege, to advise the king. The king’s thegns owed their status and position to the king and were rewarded for their service (the word thegn originally meant servant.) It was usually the king’s thegns who were appointed as reeves, responsible for administration in the localities as a check on the powerful ealdormen.

The king with his Witan

The most usual form of reward was that of a land grant. Many charters confirming these land grants still exist, such as King Edgar’s grant of land at Kineton to his thegn Ælfwold in 969. These grants, known as bookland, were not the same as the fief of feudal Frankia. They were granted by the king in the form of a book (charter) for services rendered. Ælfwold was granted the land at Kineton for all his life and could leave it to whomever he chose. The estate was free from all service except “fixed military service and the restoration of bridges and fortresses.”

Many grants were made to the Church, who in turn leased out land in return for service. A good example of this comes from Oswald of Worcester, who lists the service required of the beneficiaries of the land. They should fulfil the law of riding as riding men should, they should pay dues to the Church, swear to be humbly subject to the bishop and lend horses, build bridges, and send hunting spears.

Initially these endowments were made to the Church from the king, and only he could turn folkland into bookland. It soon became, however, the most common way for a lord to reward his man.

A grant by Æthelred the Unready shows how far he was prepared to support his men. His thegn, Æthelwig, gave Christian burial to men killed fighting in defence of a thief. Rather than censure Æthelwig, as Ealdorman Leofsige advised, Æthelred granted his thegn the forfeited land of the brothers who had been killed. [3]

Not all thegns were king’s thegns; many of them had another lord to whom they owed their allegiance. When these thegns died, the heriot (war gear) was surrendered to their lord and not to the king.

Æthelred the 'Unready'

There was another aspect to lordship, an extension of the personal bond into the field of law. In the reign of Edward the Elder (899-924) a letter was written to the king explaining the history of an estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. It describes how a thief, Helmstan, was required to give an oath to clear himself of the charges brought against him. He asked his lord Ordlaf to intercede for him, which Ordlaf did, even though his man was guilty. [4] This illustrates how a lord was bound to protect his man, whether innocent or guilty. Though the law codes might have forbidden the lord from doing this, often it was more beneficial for a man to appeal to his lord in this way than to appeal in the hundred courts.

By the middle of the tenth century it was becoming customary for lords, ecclesiastical or lay, to receive grants of jurisdiction from the king. Usually these grants were laid down in the charters as ‘sake and soke’. The term implied jurisdiction and control of a court. It was not granted lightly, and these delegated rights were intended to emphasise rather than undermine royal authority. While the landowner enjoyed immunity from public courts, the court over which he presided was not held for his men, but was attended by men drawn from the neighbourhood.

There was also a much more specific form of private jurisdiction. All lords, be they bishops, earls, thegns or abbots, were held responsible for the behaviour of their men. “Such a responsibility involved an exercise in judgement, which would easily be formalised into the giving of judgement.” (HR Loyn) Fortunately, the monarchy was strong enough to ensure that the worst abuses were avoided.

Along with sake and soke, other judicial rights were specified. ‘Toll’ gave the lord the right to take toll on goods sold within the estate, and ‘team’ gave the right to supervise the presentation of convincing evidence that goods for sale actually belonged to the person selling them. ‘Infangenetheof’ gave the lord the right to hang a thief if he had been caught on the estate with the stolen goods still in his possession. By the end of the period, large numbers of hundred courts were in private hands.

A charter of King Æthelred's to his 'faithful man'

Lords, of course, had always been involved with the public courts. Earls and bishops presided over the shire courts. It was here that arrangements were made for the collection of taxes. It was in the interests of landowners to be represented, as the king always was by his servant the shire-reeve. It was also important for lords to establish a presence at the hundred court, where much money could be lost and won. They were also commanded to give full support to the hundredsmen, whose job it was to supervise legal trading and to discourage cattle theft. King Edgar specifically ordered ealdormen Oslac, Ælfhere, and Æthelwine to give such support. “And they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [5]

Military duties were linked with the social function of lordship. From the time of King Ine (688-725) forfeiture of land and a heavy fine of 120 schillings was the penalty for a lord neglecting military service. After 899, as well as national obligations to fyrd service, and building bridges and fortifications, men were now to group themselves into tithings and hundreds to protect themselves. Ealdormen and thegns not only formed the select body of the king’s household retainers, but were, as landlords, responsible for the organisation, the summons and the assembling of the fighting forces. They were also involved in the financial and personal organisation which was essential to ensure that competent levies turned out to perform military duties on behalf of their estate. Lords, then, led their men and were responsible for them in times of peace and war and were at both times high up on the social scale, just beneath the king.

Although it was not necessarily a feudal society, a constant theme runs throughout tenth-century English society, that of mutual obligation. At the highest level, the king could demand loyalty and service from his subjects, but in return must rule them justly and protect them. The thegns, earls, and other landowners owed service to the king in judicial, military and personal capacities, for which they were rewarded. They in turn could expect loyalty and service from their men, but they were responsible for them and must protect them. Running though society in this way, the organised system which developed from the simple notion of personal loyalty was an integral part of all areas of central and local administration.

[1] DJV Fisher – The Anglo-Saxon Age Ch 12
[2] HR Loyn – The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England Ch4
[3] EHD – i 117
[4] EHD- i 102
[5] IV Edgar ‘Wihtbordesstan’ Code EHD i 41

* The authorship of the work of Florence is considered to owe more to a fellow monk, John of Worcester

Monday, 12 November 2018

How Cnut Established Himself as Full King in England

On November 12 1035, Cnut died. How had he, a foreigner, established himself as king of England, with full authority?

For a contemporary account of the reign of Æthelred II, it is natural to look to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In it, we find the closing years of the reign fraught with difficulties; those of fending off Danish raiders. It would be easy to agree with the Chronicler who, writing with hindsight, concludes that the slide towards Danish rule in England was inevitable. The payment of the Danegeld might at first sight seem like sheer folly, yet the policy appears in the short term to have worked.

Æthelred’s problem was that paying off one Viking force would not necessarily keep another one away from his shores. The Chronicler blames the military failure of the English on the cowardice of the military leaders. But while the squabble between Brihtric and Wulfnoth caused the loss of a hundred ships in 1009, we also know that Brihtnoth’s actions at the Battle of Maldon in 991 were those of courage and loyalty, that the army of 1009 left in 1010 without tribute, and that Æthelred was assured of the loyalty of Ulfcytel in East Anglia.

Æthelred II

If things were not as bad before 1009 as the Chronicler would have us believe, there is little doubt that the armies of Swein Forkbeard (Cnut's father) widened any existing cracks in the morale of the English. Within a year, Swein had established himself as full king. But with his death in 1014, the Witan (king's council) sent to Normandy for Æthelred, and accepted him back as their king “if he would govern them more justly than before.” In the same year, Æthelred’s ravaging of Lindsey drove Cnut’s forces away. With further hindsight than the Chronicler had to offer, and perhaps with less bias, it is probably fair to say that it was far from inevitable that Cnut would succeed Æthelred as king of the English. We must therefore look elsewhere to find the reasons for his ultimate success.

It is hard to find a source which places emphasis on the military prowess of Cnut; most in fact, praise his piety and generosity to the Church. He was driven back to Denmark in 1014, and his reputation as a warrior must have suffered as a result. So his success in England must be attributed to something other than military superiority. While it might be rash to say  that luck was on Cnut’s side, there is no doubt that circumstances helped him a great deal.


Before he left Denmark, Cnut was allowed by his brother King Harald to raise an army. He was fortunate to have the support of Eric of Hlathir, who had played a great part in the overthrow of Olaf Tryggvason, and who was to prove invaluable to Cnut in England. Before Cnut set sail, he was joined by Thorkell the Tall*. It is possible that Thorkell was seeking revenge for the death of his brother at the hands of the English, although it is possible, but not universally accepted among historians, that this revenge was sought earlier, and was in fact the reason for Thorkell’s invasion of England in 1009. Whatever his reason, Thorkell’s presence was a bonus for Cnut; he now had with him an accomplished warrior who knew England and the English.

The champion of English resistance was Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside. He had procured the support of the Danelaw by marrying the widow of Sigeferth, murdered by Eadric Streona (ealdorman of Mercia) probably at the behest of Æthelred. Cnut could not therefore be certain that the Danes in England would submit to him, and he landed in the south and began ravaging Wessex. Edmund and Eadric were raising forces, but they separated before they met the enemy. Eadric joined Cnut, and within four months Cnut was in firm control of Wessex, and had the resources of the Mercian ealdormanry at his command.

Edmund Ironside

Cnut was aided elsewhere in England by Edmund’s troubles. His army in the Danelaw dispersed after demanding that the London militia should join them. Having lost his opportunity here, Edmund joined forces with Uhtred of Bamburgh. Cnut was quick to seize the chance he had been given, and invaded the Danelaw, whence he proceeded towards Northumbria. Uhtred hurried back from the midlands and submitted to Cnut. Soon afterwards he was murdered, and Northumbria was left in the capable hands of Eric of Hlathir. Cnut was free now to turn his attention to the south east.

Edmund had joined his father in London, and when Æthelred died in 1016 the men of London chose Edmund as his successor. Within a few days of Æthelred’s death, however, a more representative assembly at Southampton swore fealty to Cnut in return for a promise of good government. Cnut was again helped by Eadric Streona’s amazing capacity to vacillate. He went over to Edmund’s side, and then took flight during the definitive Battle of Ashingdon. Cnut, as victor, came to terms with Edmund, and the result was a division of the kingdom. Edmund was given Wessex, and the rest of the country beyond the Thames Cnut took for himself. This was obviously a dangerous situation, in which conflict could easily flare up again. As Stenton pointed out, it imposed a divided allegiance on all those noblemen who held land in both Mercia and Wessex. [1] But circumstances once again favoured Cnut when, less than two months after the Battle of Ashingdon, Edmund Ironside died,** and the West Saxons accepted Cnut as their king.

King of all England now, Cnut was by no means secure in his position. Good fortune and opportunity had helped him thus far; now he had to rely on his judgement and ability. He eliminated any chance that Richard of Normandy might support the claims of Æthelred’s children by Emma, by marrying the lady himself. For military rather than administrative reasons he divided the kingdom into four: Wessex he controlled himself, Eadric Streona was appointed to Mercia, East Anglia went to Thorkell, and Eric of Hlathir remained in Northumbria. In the same year, 1017, the atheling Eadwig was exiled and subsequently murdered. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy also lost at least four of its prominent members, among them Eadric Streona. ('Streona' means 'The Grasper' or the 'Acquisitive' and the name first appeared in Hemming's Cartulary, an 11th-century manuscript, pictured below.)

Cnut set out to win the respect of the English church, and in this he was successful, being fully prepared to accept the traditional responsibility of being an agent of God with the duty to protect his people. He claimed to be occupying a throne to which he had been chosen at Gainsborough in 1014, and at Southampton in 1016. Though in reality much was changed during his reign, Cnut sought to establish himself by emphasising the importance of continuity. There was not such a large scale change in land ownership as was to occur in 1066, nor was there a great change in the personnel within the leadership of the Church. Archbishop Wulfstan drew up Cnut’s lawcodes drawing on those he’d written for Aethelred. The lawcodes themselves stressed continuity; very little in them was new.

Cnut (Top Centre)
Before the end of 1017, with Eadric Streona dead, and the alliance with Normandy secured, Cnut dismissed his fleet, retaining only forty ships. Its dismissal showed that henceforth he intended to rule as the chosen king of the English. At a council at Oxford it was agreed that the laws of Edgar (Aethelred's father, whose reign of 959 to 975 was already beginning to be looked upon as a golden age) should be observed.

In 1018 the military rule was relaxed. Two earldoms were re-established in Wessex, and in Mercia the earldoms of Herefordshire and Worcestershire were re-established. Stenton says that it was then that Cnut's reign began in earnest. [2] But throughout his reign the presence of the huscarls (housecarls) and the distribution of the heregeld (military tax) to them made it difficult for the English to forget that they were being ruled by a conquering alien king. There is no doubt though that by this point Cnut had established himself, for afterwards he felt sufficiently secure to leave the country in four separate expeditions to the north.

Cnut had invaded a vulnerable country in 1015, a country which was war-torn and weary. There were no clear dividing lines of loyalty; Edmund's army included Danes, Cnut’s included Englishmen. There can be no doubt that Cnut benefited considerably from the untrustworthiness of Eadric Streona, and from the dispersal of Edmund’s army in the Danelaw. For Cnut, the death of Edmund Ironside was nothing short of a blessing. Thereafter, his success rested on the fact that he did not conspicuously behave as a conqueror, stressing the importance of continuity, and keeping to the path that the pious King Edgar had trodden.

King Edgar

This emphasis must have taken attention away from the changes his reign brought about. Keeping his military forces for less than a year Cnut reduced feeling among the English that they were a conquered people. Cnut made good use of his opportunities. By 1018 he had successfully established himself as full king of the English.

[1] Anglo-Saxon England - FM Stenton p387
[2] Op cit p 393

*Some historians, Campbell among them, argue that Thorkell did not join Cnut until 1016/17
** For more on the death of Edmund Ironside, click 

The career of Eadric Streona is explored in my latest release, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, published by Amberley

Further reading/Bibliography:
The Anglo-Saxon Age - DJV Fisher
The Laws of Cnut & The History of Anglo-Saxon Royal Promises - P Stafford in Anglo-Saxon England 10
Encomium Emmae Reginae - Ed Campbell
The Chronicle of Thietmar of Merseberg EHD Vol I
The Sermon of the wolf to the English EHD Vol I
King Edgar and the Danelaw - Niels Lund, Med Scand 9
The Diplomas of Aethelred the Unready - Simon Keynes
Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut - D Whitelock EHR 63

(all the above images are in the public domain)

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Blōtmōnað - Blood Month

It's November, or Blōtmōnað as the Anglo-Saxons called it. 
(the Old English letters ð and þ are represented in modern English by the combination th)

So, what's Blood-Month all about? 

Unlike the days of the week, where the words are recognisable, the Anglo-Saxon calendar is not so obvious.

Days of the Week
Sunday: Sunnenday (Middle English translation of Greek Hemera heliou): the sun's day,
Monday: Monan daeg (Anglo Saxon, monan, moon; daeg, Anglo Saxon, day): the moon's day,
Tuesday: Tiwes daeg (Anglo Saxon Tiw, war god, related to Greek god Zeus): Tiw's day,
Wednesday: Woensdag (Danish, Woen, Woden, Chief Norse god, Frigga's husband; dag, day): Woden's day,
Thursday: Thursdaeg (Old English; Thorr, Icelandic, thundergod): Thor's day,
Friday: Frigedaeg (Anglo Saxon; Frige, Frigga, chief Norse goddess, Woden's wife): Frigga's day,
Saturday: Saeterdaeg (Anglo Saxon; Saeter, Saturn, Roman god of time): Saturn's day.

Looking at the original words, it is easy to see how they developed into the modern names for the days of the week.

Not so with the months, however. They weren't so much named after deities, as named for specific seasonal events

Months of the Year
January: Æfterra Gēola
 "After Yule", or "Second Yule"
February: Sol-mōnaþ ('mud month,' Bede: "the month of cakes, which they offered in it to their gods." Either the cakes looked like they were made of mud due to their color and texture, or literally it was the month of mud due to wet English weather)
March: Hrēþ-mōnaþ "Month of the Goddess Hrēþ" or "Month of Wildness"
April: Easter-mōnaþ "Easter Month", "Month of the Goddess Ēostre"
May: Þrimilce-mōnaþ "Month of Three Milkings"
June: Ærra Līþa "Before Midsummer", or "First Summer" Brāh-mānod

Þrilīþa "Third (Mid)summer" (leap month) I'll come back to this one!

July: Æftera Līþa "After Midsummer", "Second Summer"
August: Weod-mōnaþ "Plant month"
September: Hālig-mōnaþ "Holy Month"
October: Winterfyllēð "Winter full moon", according to Bede "because winter began on the first full moon of that month [of October]."
November: Blōt-mōnaþ "Blót Month", "Month of Sacrifice"
December: Ærra Gēola "Before Yule", or "First Yule"

What can we deduce from these month names? 

Gēola is the same word as ‘Yule’, as seen above,and may also have something to do with the ‘wheel’ of the year. The explanation for Sol-mōnaþ is not universally accepted. Perhaps just as contentiously, Easter is linked with the word ‘east’, where the sun rises on the spring equinox, or with the pagan goddess. Ðrīemilcemōnað or Þrimilce-mōnaþ (May) may suggest that cows could be milked three times a day during this month.

With the months representing distinct times of the year and activities associated with them, it's probably no surprise that they were also divided in accordance with the phases of the moon, which meant that there were always a few days left over each year. Thus there was a need for a leap-month, which is where Þrilīþa comes in (Þri - three, līþa or līða - possibly mild, summer.)

An Anglo-Saxon Calendar which shows the 7th November - the beginning of winter

It has been suggested that the blood month refers to human sacrifice. But Bede, who would have been at pains to point out any non-Christian practices, says in De Temporum Ratione (The Reckoning of Time) that
"Blod-monath is month of immolations, for it was in this month that the cattle which were to be slaughtered were dedicated to the gods."
People might have slaughtered their own animals, or received help from kinsmen, otherwise a professional butcher would come their premises. It would have made sense to pay a butcher so that the meat could be quickly salted and hung, thus avoiding deterioration. Payment for the service was perhaps in kind, so that the butchers had meat to sell on.

Man beating an oak tree to release acorns to fatten his pig - from the November page of the
Peterborough Psalter MS 53 p6

In the latter years of the tenth-century, slaughter had to be carried out in the present of two witnesses. With a biblical proscription on the strangulation of animals, the beasts would generally have had their necks cut with an axe. The assumption is that the animals were then bled.

A large animal will take longer to lose its body heat; Anglo-Saxon domestic animals were smaller than our modern breeds, so this will have helped. Meat produced in the summer months would, equally, go bad very quickly and so it makes sense that November would be the traditional month for slaughter. There would, of course, have been no waste, and there is evidence to suggest that marrow, tongue, brain, offal and fats (smeru - grease) were all used. What better to warm you on a cold winter's night than healfne cuppan clœnes gemyltes swices (half a cup of pure bacon fat melted)?

Something to consider if you haven't yet had your Bonfire Night party?

Days of the week: Source - Caltech
Months of the Year: Source - Germanic Calendar
Further Reading: Anglo-Saxon Food Ann Hagen

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes - Transcript of Talk Given to Garstang Historical Society

I began by thanking the committee for inviting me to talk about the Anglo-Saxons:

Now, the Anglo-Saxon period really stretches from the middle of the fifth century to the middle of the eleventh, so to talk about the whole period as one entity would be a bit like saying that we have the same attitudes and beliefs as the Tudors held. (At least, I’m hoping that no one here is in the habit of beheading their wives or declaring war on France.)

But given that huge time span, trying to say everything about the Anglo-Saxons would be as hard as trying to cover from the Battle of Bosworth to the Battle of Brexit in one hour. So I’m going to attempt an overview, concentrating on their attitudes to life, and hopefully offer some interesting insights along the way which might challenge common perceptions about the so-called Dark Ages.

Because, despite the name, we do have an awful lot of surviving written evidence, which, taken with the archaeological finds, allows us to build up quite a picture of life in what we now prefer to term the early medieval period. 


It might be that the popular image of the Anglo-Saxons is that they dressed in plain, homespun garments. This is probably true of the majority, but there are a few instances where high fashion was paraded, whilst simultaneously being frowned upon. Chaste nuns and virgins were advised that: If they dressed themselves sumptuously and went out in public so as to attract notice, & if they riveted the eyes of young men & drew the sighs of adolescents and nourished the fires of sexual anticipation…they couldn’t be excused as if they were of a chaste and modest mind. (Aldhelm) 

A Church council also banned clerics from wearing ostentatious clothing. One commentator has pointed out that if this was how priests, nuns and monks dressed, one can only wonder what the rest of the population looked like! Unfortunately we don’t have much in the way of surviving garments so we have to go on illustrations (like the one above) which are not always easy to interpret.

Heads could also be turned by fashions from abroad. There’s a delightful letter in which a brother (we’re not sure if this is a sibling, or a monk) receives a telling off and is rebuked for insulting his race and his ancestors by dressing in the Danish fashion ‘with bared necks and blinded eyes’. I don’t think that means wearing sunglasses, but you get the idea that the young man thinks the new fashion is rather ‘cool’!! 

Women and Children

Colourful frocks aside, tradition has it that it wasn't much fun being a married woman in medieval times. I remember reading in novels that men were entitled to beat their wives, that women had no say in whom they married, that all their property belonged to their husbands etc etc...

Was this true for the Anglo-Saxon period?

Well, the laws of Alfred the Great in the ninth century seem to suggest that any affront to women is actually an insult to the men who 'own' them, saying that a man could fight without incurring a vendetta if he found another man with his wife ‘within closed doors or under the same blanket’ or with his legitimate daughter or sister, or with his mother ‘who was given as a lawful wife to his father’.

Indeed, the marriage contract is commonly translated as being that of a man buying a woman with property, and that marriage was simple barter in A/S England, with the father selling his daughter to her prospective husband. Yet there is a vast range of evidence for the fact that the money the bridegroom had to pay (the morgengifu) was payment to the woman herself intended to guarantee her financial security and independence within marriage. 

A document, concerning the betrothal of a woman, or general rules for such an occasion, says that: 
If a man wished to betroth a maiden or widow, he could only do so if it pleased her and her kinsmen and she had to accept her suitor before the betrothal could proceed. Furthermore, the bridegroom had to declare what he would grant her in return for her acceptance of his suit. 
Whatever she was granted was guaranteed and was hers to keep if they had a child together. It seems like quite a civilised arrangement, affording her a little bit of financial security.

The document bears no date, but it has been suggested that it probably dates from somewhere between 975 and 1030, so towards the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period.

What other sources can shed light on the property rights of married women?

A marriage agreement from a similar time confirmed that the groom gave his bride some land to give and to grant to “whomsoever she pleased during her lifetime or after her death." So it’s clearly hers to bequeath and deal with as she likes.

Another agreement from Kent, from the very early part of the eleventh century, explains that, when a man named Godwine wooed Brihtic's daughter,
"He gave her a pound's weight of gold in return for her acceptance of his suit, and he granted her the land at Street with everything that belongs to it, and 150 acres at Burmarsh and in addition 30 oxen, and 20 cows, and 10 horses and 10 slaves."
and it makes clear that: 
"Every trustworthy man in Kent and Sussex, is aware of these terms." Although I must point out that we don’t ever learn the lady’s name. So perhaps they weren’t quite modern feminists!
If a man died intestate, his property was to be 
"Very justly divided among the wife, the children and the close kinsmen, each in the proportion that belongs to them."
Widows were also protected by law. A law code of King Æthelred the Unready's (1008) mentions that:
"Each widow is to remain unmarried for twelve months; she is then to choose what she herself will."
This suggests that a woman had a fair amount of choice, dispelling the notion that women were routinely married off for monetary or political gain.

King Cnut's laws also expand on Æthelred's, concerning the widow who remains unmarried for twelve months, decreeing that if she remarries, she forfeits the morning-gift and other possessions obtained through her first marriage. But,
"A widow is never to be consecrated as a nun too hastily" 
"neither a widow nor a maiden is ever to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes, nor to be given for money, unless he chooses to give anything of his own freewill."
So, by the 1020s at least, women could be safe in the knowledge that they could not be forced into marriage, or into a convent.

The lawcodes give rich and varied information. I particularly like this little nugget: If a man brings stolen property into the house, unless it is under the wife's lock and key, she is not deemed guilty. But, we are told,
"she must look after the keys of the following: namely her store-room, her chest and her coffer." 
If the stolen property is found in any of these, she's guilty.

Imagine the eleventh-century housewife's frustration, though, that: 
"No wife can forbid her husband to place inside his cottage what he pleases."  So, he can bring anything he likes into the house, but not put it anywhere where she holds the keys:
After the equivalent of a late-night drunken internet shopping spree: -

"Wulfgar, tidy up that 'bargain second-hand shield, one careless owner, slight spear damage'. And no, you can't put it in my coffer."

"Well, it'll just have to stay on the table, right next to the relic of St John the Baptist's foot, 'only three left in stock'. And there's nothing you can do about it."

Childhood and Children

So I’ve mentioned a little bit about children being protected by law.

It would be no surprise that childhood in centuries past was radically different from the experience of youngsters in the 20th and 21st centuries. But with relatively few written sources, can we glean anything at all about childhood in pre-Conquest England?

The laws of King Æthelberht of Kent give a few clues about the value of children way back in the seventh century. In them, we learn that if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him, there are various penalties, and:

If she bears a living child, she is to have half the goods, if the husband dies first.
If she wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods.

It may not be much, and certainly not anything like our modern notion of 'child benefit' money, but at least there was a basic provision there.

The laws of King Ine of Wessex in the eighth century suggest that childhood was short: A ten-year-old boy can be considered privy to a theft.

But even in 2018, the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is still ten, albeit that the procedure for dealing with juvenile crime differs from that for adults. Later laws, of Athelstan in the tenth and Cnut in the eleventh centuries, set the age at twelve.

Elsewhere in Ine's laws there is provision for a widow if
the husband dies, the mother is to have her child and rear it; she is to be given six shillings for its maintenance, a cow in summer, an ox in winter; the kinsmen are to take charge of the paternal home, until the child is grown up. 

Specifically, in the laws of Kent, ‘if a man dies leaving a wife and a child, it is right that child should accompany its mother; and one of the father’s relatives who is willing to act shall be given him as his guardian to take care of his property until he is ten years old’. So although the age at which a child became legally an ‘adult’ is still quite young it equates to our modern notions of legal culpability and it’s clear that children up to that age were well cared-for and protected by law.

However, from the will of a tenth-century noblewoman we read of a bequest with the condition that if the legatee has no child born in wedlock, he is to give the bequest to the Church. Clearly illegitimate children could not inherit.

A number of wills survive from this period and it doesn’t appear that those making them had a preference as to whether their land went to the male rather than the female line. When land is left to a woman, it’s not automatically the case that it’s because she’s the head of a religious house. In fact, land is bequeathed to a woman as though it’s the most natural thing in the world to do so. Bequests to women aren’t subject to the failure of male heirs. 

The wills give the impression that men and women were equally concerned to provide for ALL children, regardless of their gender. 

Alfred the Great's laws in the ninth century specified that if a girl who was not of age was the victim of rape, then the compensation would be the same as for an adult.

So we can see that there were certain rights enshrined in the laws, regarding provision for widows with children, and for crimes perpetrated by and against minors. But what of parental attitudes towards children?

Asser, writing the life of King Alfred, does not at any point mention the name of the king's wife. But he mentions the children:
namely Æthelflæd the first-born, and after her Edward, then Æthelgifu followed by Ælfthryth, and finally Æthelweard, (leaving aside those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death who numbered...)
How many? We don't know. As Simon Keynes points out in the notes to his translation, the numeral, if it was there, is unreadable. 

It has been suggested that child mortality was around thirty percent in Anglo-Saxon England (S Rubin, Medieval English Medicine.) And remember, Alfred as king was rich enough to afford food and medicines, yet even his children died.

Alfred’s eldest daughter, Æthelflæd, became known as the Lady of the Mercians and famously had only one child. Given the information from Asser that Alfred had many more children than those who survived to adulthood, it seems to me that there is a very good reason why his eldest daughter had only one daughter, and it is not, as the chronicler William of Malmesbury suggested, that she 'chose' not to have any more and ever after refused the embraces of her husband. 

I suspect that there were other pregnancies, maybe other births, and that her daughter was the only one to survive, and when I fictionalised her life in my novel, To Be A Queen, I went with this more plausible scenario.

Though rare, Asser's is not the only remark on this subject, and it seems to me that even if still-births or infant deaths were common, there is no reason to think that they weren't distressing.

There is one mention in Bede, of seventh-century King Edwin of Northumbria's children by his second wife, two of whom 
were snatched from this life while they were still wearing their baptism gown – which probably means that they died within days or weeks of baptism and their gowns were used as their shrouds] and are buried in the church at York. (HE ii 14)
so that’s a touching little note about these losses
but by and large these occurrences are left unrecorded – they were probably really frequent.

It has been suggested that because of the number of adult skeletons found with evidence of cleft palate, that such people must have been exceptionally well cared for when they were children, for it would have been extremely difficult for them to feed (Victoria Thompson, Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, citing Crawford, Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England pp 94-5)

A seventh-century grave in a cemetery at Barton-on-Humber, less than a metre in length, was found to contain a feeding bottle, hinting that either the baby had a cleft palate, or that the mother was unable to feed the child herself, or perhaps even that the mother had died in childbirth. So it seems like these children were being cared for.

Baptism was obviously important in the Christian age, and when I was writing my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, I was keen to find out what happened to children who died before they could be baptised. Information was scant. Fines were imposed if a child died without having been baptised, but what happened to the body? 

John Blair who wrote an excellent book about The Church in Anglo-Saxon England observed that later infant burials unearthed at Raunds in Northamptonshire encroached on the reserved strip of land closest to the walls of the church, and he wrote that this looks like a case of the widespread practice of burying infants under the eavesdrip. The idea is that the infants are buried close to the walls so that when it rains, the water runs off the roof and drips onto the graves, thus effecting or conveying a kind of posthumous baptism, which I think is a lovely idea.

There is one reference to a royal baptism, and a particular incident, which will not surprise any parent, but which was considered an evil omen. Æthelred II (the Unready), according to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, 'made water in the font' during his immersion, causing the Archbishop of Canterbury to predict the slaughter of the English people that would take place during his reign. 

Now, Henry was writing in the twelfth century with the benefit of hindsight. It cannot have been unusual for infants to urinate in the font and indeed priests were advised that they only need change the water if the child had defecated. (Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood, citing Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children)

What of the children who did survive those first few months and years? Asser tells us that Alfred's youngest surviving child was given over to training in reading and writing under the attentive care of teachers, in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area, and a good many of lesser birth as well.

Asser's job was to portray his patron's credentials as the promoter of learning and culture, but it is interesting to note that he saw fit to add that children of less noble birth were also given access to the rudiments of education. 

Children were often fostered, and not because the children weren’t wanted, but because high mortality rates meant that parents were keen to ensure that their children were well-cared for should they be orphaned or bereaved before they reached maturity. Generally, the bonds between foster families were close – often they were extended family anyway – and there are some high-profile examples. St Cuthbert was extremely close to his foster mother, and King Edgar in the tenth century advanced his foster brothers to high power in his government.

An OE poem (The Fates [or Fortunes] of Man) shows how loving parents bring up a child with the utmost care:

Very often it occurs, with the power of God,
that man and woman conceive in the world
a child from their union, and prepare its form,
coaxing and cheering it, until the time comes,
going into the count of years, so that these young limbs,
these life-fast members, come to be burdened.
So they carry him and go forth on foot,
the father and mother, giving him much
and preparing him. God alone knows
what the winter will bring him in growing up

It’s a very touching summary of how they do their best for the child knowing its life could well be hard in adulthood and that they worried about their children.

The lawcodes seem to value women of child-bearing age, or those with children, slightly more highly than others, but children themselves are rarely mentioned in the chronicles, laws, and charters of the period. Those of low rank probably worked alongside their parents from a young age, but we can see from these few examples that they were valued, cared for, and that those who survived were protected by law, and that those who did not were mourned, and that their journey into the after-world was considered to be of the utmost importance.

And speaking of the after-world, I’d now like to touch briefly on religious attitudes.


The first Anglo-Saxon raiders/settlers (there’s still a bit of an argument going on about which they were) were pagan and conversion to Christianity began in earnest in the seventh century. King Æthelberht of Kent was noted as the first king to convert, and his daughter had influence on Edwin, the Northumbrian king, who also converted after his marriage to her. It was a slow old process, with some kings ‘signing up’ for the new religion, but then apostatising, renouncing it for the old ways. 

There are many recorded instances of the overkings taking action against subkings who renounced the new religion. In the early days, many of the monasteries were what’s known as double houses, run by powerful, almost always royal, women. These abbesses were highly respected and very influential. One, St Hild, was recorded as having educated no fewer than five future bishops. Sometimes there was scandal – the nuns at Coldingham were mentioned by Bede as behaving badly, but this seems to have been an isolated and actually, perhaps misunderstood, incident.

Bede related that at Coldingham, the religious, men and women alike, were found sunk in slothful slumbers or else they remained awake for the purposes of sin. The cells which were built for praying and for reading were haunts of feasting, drinking, gossip, and other delights; even the virgins who were dedicated to God put aside all respect for their profession and, whenever they had leisure, spent their time weaving elaborate garments with which to adorn themselves as if they were brides. 

But the abuses that flourished at Coldingham, as related by Bede, can’t have been well-known or widespread, because Bede admits that that even the abbess didn’t know about them. 

And actually, they were engaged in feasting, which monks had been routinely warned against and the nuns, in weaving elaborate clothes were imperilling their vocations. This isn’t sin, as we would think of it, but more the jeopardising of the religious life.

As the religious focus shifted more to pastoral care, so the role of priests became more important. It was the priests who went out and about while the abbesses tended to stay in the monasteries. The Church gradually became more male-oriented, and the double monasteries disappeared over the course of the eighth and ninth centuries, to be replaced by single houses, the male ones being ruled by abbots. But there are many female Saints from the A/S period, and there’s no doubt that these women were highly revered and respected. 

After a time, attitudes towards the religious establishments changed and some of the double monasteries became almost too powerful. And I’d like to tell you the story of the abbess of one, Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, who fell foul of the church in a dispute over lands. She’s a favourite character of mine: Cwoenthryth was not only the daughter of the king, but she was an abbess too. She was the first abbess of Winchcombe Abbey, and her father King Cenwulf had also appointed her abbess of two royal minsters in Kent. The arguments about whether Church or State should control these lucrative sites rumbled on for years. Some believed that the archbishop even forged documents to support his case.

When Cenwulf died (he was buried at Winchcombe), Cwoenthryth was named as his heir. This doesn't mean that she succeeded to the throne, but that she inherited his property, which included the minsters. Church councils debated her right not to be an abbess, they were fine with that, but to own the abbeys themselves and they found in favour of the archbishop. Cwoenthryth was allowed to remain as abbess and retained possession of Winchcombe, although she had to surrender the lands in Kent.

Whether or not it was coincidence, she also became the subject of a scandal when she was accused by later chroniclers of ordering the murder of her little brother, Kenelm. It’s said that the assassin hid the body but that a dove flew over the altar of St Peters in Rome and dropped a letter telling of the whereabouts of the body. Kenelm’s body was taken to Winchcombe for burial and when his sister saw the funeral procession, she recited a psalm backwards as a spell, but was punished divinely when her eyeballs fell out. William of Malmesbury said that when he was writing in the 12th century, the psalter from which she was reading was still spattered in blood to that day.

Over the course of the eighth and ninth centuries there was a continuing change of attitude towards the monasteries, with priests and abbots invariably now in charge, and stories like that of the abbess of Winchcombe became more common, with many other queens, princesses and abbesses being accused of murder, poison and witchcraft.

I’ve no doubt that these stories were fabricated – in one case a queen was defamed and the story seems to have emanated from the nunnery which was in dispute with her over lands. Such women received only divine punishment.

We don’t hear of these women being punished by law, even though we know that there were strict laws against murder. It seems that message here was don’t cross the powerful religious.

Yet there were laws against witchcraft which tells me two things: that the stories about the high-profile women were unlikely to be true, going unpunished as they did, and that pagan practices were still rife enough in the later period to be legislated against. 

Athelstan ruled that anyone making attempts on another’s life by means of witchcraft would forfeit their life. A punishment for witchcraft later in the tenth century was to be thrown off a bridge.

Food and Drink

In theory, religious attitudes affected diet, in so far as certain foods were prohibited on certain days. In the early eleventh century (Æthelred VII 1009) the whole nation was to fast for three days on bread and herbs and water on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Michaelmas, and slaves were freed from work during this period so that they might more willingly observe the fast. The Lenten fast was to be observed, but folk were warned against ‘foolishly fasting beyond their strength … until they become ill’ (Ælfric) which seems like sensible advice.

Of course, what was prescribed, and the reality, might have been very different. For the poor, a fast day may not have been very much different from any other day. Although the legal requirement to fast was written into the law codes (Wihtred, Alfred) but we must assume that if penalties were in place for the breaking of the rules, then they must at some point have been broken.

Fasting wasn’t a way to preserve food stocks, since feasting was also a feature of life, so it presumably was encouraged as a way of cleansing, or purifying. It was also believed by some that fasting discouraged lust!

Of course, the opposite of fasting is feasting and these included elements of ritual. Just like with fasting days, feasting days were laid out in the religious calendar. No doubt originally because of a recognition that pagan feasting traditions would be hard to eradicate. 

Sorry to be a bit indelicate… Examination of faecal layers at Coppergate in York reveal that food was bolted or eaten in what has been described as uninhibited fashion. Of course it’s impossible to know whether the food was bolted because of hunger, or whether this was habit. But it seems that bad manners, at least towards the end of the period, were frowned upon by some. It was not considered polite to pick up any food after it had fallen on the floor. So no five-second rule in those days!!

The chieftain provided the food – the OE for Lord is Hlaford, or Loaf-Giver. For the A/S lord, being able to provide food was a sign of wealth and worthiness. In the Christian period, this may well have been redolent of the feeding of the five thousand.

Those who provided food were emphasising their power, showing that they could keep their followers well-fed, and those who partook were showing their willingness to follow. 

Which leads me into the social ranks:

Social Structure

Society seems to have had a quite rigid structure, which changed over time, in terminology, if not in nature.  At the bottom of the pile, there are the slaves. Then, the ceorl – a husbandman, or freeman. There is mention of the gesith, a companion would be the literal translation, and we also hear of thegns. This was an odd one – not strictly a rank, but more denoting the owner of five hides of land – a hide being the minimum deemed necessary to support one family. But there were ‘job titles’ too – a discthegn, for example who might oversee the household, a seneschal, if you will. At the top is the ealdorman and then the king.

The system wasn’t feudal, but obligation was at its core. This obligation worked both ways, and the lord, whoever he may be – and one word for king was cynehlaford, lord king - was responsible for those who swore fealty to him.

Placing oneself under the protection of a lord was a solemn and ceremonious affair. In England it took the form of a hold-oath, or fealty oath. The physical act of bowing was accompanied by the oath:

“By the lord before whom this relic is holy, I will be to N [name of lord] faithful and true, and love all that he loves, and shun all that he shuns, according to God’s law, and according to secular custom; and never, willingly or intentionally, by word or by work, do aught of what is loathful to him, on condition that he keep me as I am willing to deserve, and all that fulfil that our agreement was, when I to him submitted and chose his will.” 

Essentially this is a negative commitment, a promise not to act against the lord’s interests. Nevertheless, a personal bond of this nature carried with it certain positive obligations.

Ealdormen were lords, but they also had a role to fulfil – it was expected that they would preside over local law courts, (Shire courts which were supposed to meet twice a year, normally around Easter and Michaelmas and hundred courts which were to meet monthly) and around the middle of the Anglo-Saxon period, distinct responsibilities came with land ownership, that of ensuring that roads, bridges and town defences were maintained, as well as providing men for military service. It was expected that the leading clergymen, ealdormen and thegns would attend the meetings of the Witan, known as the witenagemot. Locality played a part though, and many meetings were held in the south in the absence of the northern nobility, and vice versa.

In the later period, reeves were introduced (the precursor to the more familiar office of sheriff). These shire reeves were about the king’s business, did not represent local landowners’ interests, and there is some evidence to suggest that the ealdormen disliked the king’s reeves (administrative officials.) A breach of the law by a reeve could only be dealt with by the king and when Æthelred II adopted the policy of appointing reeves instead of ealdormen, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that an ealdorman slew one of the king’s high-reeves. The grant of Æthelred’s explains why these men were disliked. The reeve broke the law by giving Christian burial to those who had forfeited the right. Instead of punishing him, Æthelred granted the reeve their land. To the ealdormen it must have seemed that the reeves were above the law and actually benefiting from their own brand of justice, so quite corrupt in some cases.

Crime and Punishment

Banishment was a fearful thing – the warmth of the hearth and hall represented ‘belonging’. There were gift-giving ceremonies after military campaigns when the lord would reward his followers. The social element was important. Life was lived communally, wooden buildings preferred to stone, and it's been suggested that wooden buildings enabled folks to have private conversations because the sound would not carry and reverberate as it would in a stone building. The acoustics are different and it may have been one way of ensuring privacy even in public areas. 

Hearth and hall equalled home. There are Old English poems about the plight of the exile. The Wanderer depicts an exiled nobleman who broods on the fate of brave warriors, how they have suddenly had to leave the mead-hall and how such a man would lie more heavy in his heart, aching for his lord and how the memory of kinsmen sweeps through his mind. Powerful image – outside the hall, life not worth living.

I’ve already talked a little about the law codes and they cover every crime – theft, arson, burglary, rape, adultery, ambush, violence, feud, harbouring a fugitive from the law, trading on Sundays, bribing the king’s officials – all very specific.

And very specific punishments are laid out in the law codes. Trial by ordeal dates from the A/S period, although it has been suggested that it rarely got that far. Faced with the prospect of having to hold a burning hot piece of iron it’s thought that the guilty would usually confess. 

In 2016, there was an opportunity for an archaeological dig when a supermarket was built in Andover. The archaeologists discovered a dense cluster of graves. Nothing extraordinary there. But for me, reading about the dig, the immediate clue was that the cemetery was on the edge of hundred and parish boundaries. The experts were fairly convinced that what they had found was an execution cemetery. 

Felons were often hung on gallows placed at the parish and hundred boundaries – many of these sites overlay pre-historic boundaries and thus had pagan associations so the idea must have been that these were profane wastelands, worlds away from where law-abiding Christians were buried – and here in this graveyard there was evidence of multiple burials, shallow graves, and mutilation. 96% were male, and 69% were adults under the age of 35. There were few examples of age-related disease, but plenty of trauma including cutmarks to neck bone and mandible, and possibly the first confirmed example of hands being cut off on or around the time of death.

The eight-century laws of King Ine of Wessex state that ‘the ceorl who has often been accused of theft and then at last is proved guilty at the ordeal or else is obviously guilty, is to have [his] hand or foot struck off.’ But note here that the man is given several chances.

Often crimes carried the obligation for payment of wergild, literally man-price, which was set according to rank and regarded as a compensation payment. In Ine’s laws, the nobleman forfeits his land by neglecting military service and has to pay a fine of 120 schillings, twice as much as that paid by a landless man of his own class, four times that paid by a commoner. So every man’s worth was set according to his position in the social hierarchy.

The lord was responsible for his men, and if an accused man escaped, the lord had to pay the man’s wergild to the king. (Cnut’s laws) If a man swears false oath on the relics, he forfeits his hands or half his wergild

The origins of the trial by jury can possibly be found in the Anglo-Saxon period, with tenth-century laws stipulating that witnesses be appointed for each local area, ‘twelve for small borough and for each hundred’ and each of them when ‘he is first chosen as a witness, is to take an oath that never, for money or love or fear, will he deny any of the things for which he was a witness.’


In terms of attitude to death, what we know from archaeological evidence is that these changed with the conversion to Christianity. Early in the period, the burials were pagan, and this is reflected by the grave goods. Often these were ‘essential items’ such as tweezers, small blades, and combs etc – all things deemed useful in the afterlife. Often found among grave goods are items of jewellery, and weapons were also included. 

In the very early period, there was no uniform position of the bodies, for example facing west to east, and sometimes the bodies were placed face down. Up until the seventh century, cremation was also common and it’s possible that this process was thought to release the spirit from the body, although in pre-Christian times, presumably ‘spirit’ had slightly different connotations. The burial urns were often richly decorated. 

As Christianity became more widespread, we see that over the course of the seventh century burials with grave goods become less common, and the practice of burying the bodies in a west to east orientation becomes more frequent. Obviously the Christians had different attitudes about what would be required in the afterlife. However, it’s not clear whether the phasing out of grave goods was because of religious laws, since there don’t seem to be any, and some archaeologists believe that it was simply a custom which died out over the centuries.

The picture above shows the reconstruction of one of the most famous of all A/S burials, that at Sutton Hoo. This was mound burial, and you’ll perhaps be aware that one of the things missing from this famous ship burial was a body.

Whoever was buried, or commemorated, in this grave, (and the likely candidate is King Redwald) he was rich. I’ll give you a list of some of the grave goods: 
a set of spears, a bronze bowl, a sword with a gold and garnet pommel, a sword harness and belt, purse, shoulder-clasps and the great gold buckle, various drinking vessels, including a pair of drinking horns made from the horns of an aurochs, a set of maplewood cups, folded textiles, a long coat of ring-mail, two hanging bowls, leather shoes, a cushion stuffed with feathers, folded objects of leather and a wooden platter. An iron hammer-axe, a fluted silver dish containing some small burr-wood cups, combs made of antler, small metal knives, a small silver bowl, and various other small effects (possibly toilet equipment), a silver ladle,  a very large round silver platter, a very large circular shield, an iron-bound wooden bucket, a six-stringed Anglo-Saxon lyre in a beaver-skin bag, two small bronze and one large bronze cauldrons, The burial chamber included quantities of twill, possibly from cloaks, blankets or hangings, and the remains of cloaks with characteristic long-pile weaving. Wow!
To put all this in context, and to show what all these goods might have represented, I’d like to read a short passage from my novel Cometh the Hour, which describes the burial. (Bertana, by the way, is my name for Redwald’s widow – she’s another woman whose name we are never given):

In her arms, Bertana carried a yellow cloak, one that Redwald had often worn as he sat on his king-stool within his great hall. Bertana laid the cloak over the top of the coffin, taking time and care to smooth it flat and spreading out the corners. 

She stepped back as one by one Redwald’s dearest hearth-thegns placed his regalia on top of the cloak: his ceremonial silver helmet, with hinged cheek-pieces and studded with jewels over the eye holes, engraved all over with interlaced knotwork and depictions of fighting warriors and his sword, with gold and garnet ornaments, his baldric with its gold and garnet shoulder clasps and the solid gold belt buckle, a piece of fine craftsmanship showing swirling patterns of endless knots snaking out to cover the entire surface of the buckle. 

At the foot end of the coffin, visiting dignitaries stepped forward and laid out the makings of a feast as grand as the ones they had attended as Redwald’s guests. Maplewood bottles and drinking horns were set down carefully alongside a silver dish. After this, a lyre for the minstrels, buckets and bronze and silver bowls came next, accompanied by three cauldrons.

Tomorrow, more visitors would arrive to place yet more gifts and pay their respects; the bishop was coming from Canterbury and would be accompanied by representatives from the kingdoms across the sea, from Frankia and Denmark, and more would come the following day, and then the roof would be closed and the mound would be built up over the burial. 

But for today, the last of the gifts were presented; silver spoons for feasting and against the chamber wall, a sceptre placed by the high priest from Rendlesham. Next to that, an iron pole with a square case on top of it with a bull’s head at each corner, a standard for bearing trophies.

The intention was clearly to send him on his way to the afterlife in style and comfort.

Redwald, if this is indeed his grave, was a rich and mighty warlord, with foreign connections. He was one of a list of Bretwaldas, named by Bede. A Bretwalda was an overking, seemingly set above all the other A/S kings. Which leads me on to my last topic for this evening:


I think it’s fairly safe to say that the A/S attitude to war was pretty much the same as any other culture during this period. The various kingdoms fought each other for supremacy, or for vengeance, although it’s less clear how the original British kingdoms became absorbed into the larger Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

We should remember that unification was a lengthy process, and even after Alfred the Great’s family unified the A/S kingdoms, the inhabitants of those kingdoms often still thought of themselves as Mercian, or Northumbrian etc. There were a few occasions where in a disputed succession, the Mercians chose one candidate while the West Saxons chose another, even after supposed unification. 

And of course, by the time of Alfred and his successors, there were a vast number of Danes and Norse living in what’s referred to as the Danelaw. In my new book about Mercia, I’ve examined the process by which these ‘Viking’ invaders became settlers, but I’d like to finish tonight by talking about how, in some instances, the lines of loyalty, and the presumption about who was the enemy, became blurred.

Let me go back to Alfred the Great for a moment. He succeeded his brother to the throne of Wessex. His brother had a young son, presumably far too young to rule, especially at a time when the Viking raids were at their peak. But by the time Alfred died, to be succeeded by his own son, Edward the Elder, that young son had grown up, and he mounted a rebellion.

He besieged the royal centre of Wimborne, in Dorset, taking a nun as a hostage. Some historians have suggested this nun was none other than Alfred’s daughter, and that this rebellious cousin might even had married her to boost his claims to the throne. At any rate, she seems to have been a political prisoner, and at one point the rebel said he would stay in Wimborne or die. In the event, he fled, went north, and allied with the Northumbrian Vikings, who, it’s said, declared him their king. So this is what I mean about the lines of loyalty becoming blurred. It didn’t end well for him, and when he met the forces of Edward the Elder, Edward was victorious. This rebellious cousin’s name, by the way, was Æthelwold.

In 2011, the Silverdale Hoard was unearthed (near here.) It was smaller than the Cuerdale Hoard, (even nearer here!) but it contained two items of interest. One was a coin which carried the name Airdeconut with the words DNS (Dominus) Rex on the reverse, hinting that there had been some hitherto unknown – and Christian – Viking king in the closing years of the ninth century. Which is fascinating, because it kind of turns our notion of the heathen, pagan Vikings on its head. More relevant to this story, though, is the other coin, 

a silver penny dated to around 900-902, and bearing the name ALVVALDVS (Alwaldus) or Æthelwold. Here, perhaps, is proof that Æthelwold really was recognised as king in the north, and that had he not been killed in the battle, he would have continued to remain a very large thorn in Edward’s side. The suggestion is that he might then have ruled Mercia and the kingdoms would have been separated once more.

I like these moments when national and local history come together, and I think it makes the past much more immediate and accessible. The Anglo-Saxons lived a very long time ago, and they are cut off from us by the very distinct line which was drawn across history in 1066, but I hope tonight that I’ve shed a little light on the Dark Ages, and who knows, maybe made these people a little less remote and perhaps revealed them to be a lot more civilised than might be supposed.


If you've made it this far, thank you! It's a long blog post, but I was asked to talk for an hour. I've left in the references - I had them there in case folks asked - and changed some of the wording. I referred to the pictures 'behind' me, not 'above' and some details were not written out in full sentences, so I've had to write them out, making the post even longer, unfortunately. It was a vast topic to cover in an hour, and I had to pitch it so that those who knew little about the period wouldn't get too bogged down with the detail. If you've read this far and would like more details on any points, please do get in touch.