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"and,
"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:
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.