Anglo-Saxons who knew their history believed that their ancestors had come to Britain from parts of northern Europe after the Romans had left the island, and that the leaders of these invading war bands and kinships had defeated British inhabitants and displaced them. Sagas and legends declaimed to the sound of harp or lyre at banquets and aristocratic assemblies recounted the deeds of kings and warriors from a heroic past and Beowulf, Europe’s oldest pagan epic poem in any Germanic language, told a story set in southern Scandinavia of ancestral heroes and kings of the Geats (of whom Beowulf becomes king), the Danes and the Swedes.
The poem as we have it is in a manuscript, also known as the Nowell codex, dated according to scholarly opinion somewhere between the 990s and 1050s; the poem itself may have originated between the years 600 and 900, but apparently ‘there is no current critical consensus’.1 The work, by an anonymous Christian poet, presumably derives its materials from a pre-Christian oral tradition. It has been attributed to a Northumbrian king, the court of East Anglia in the early seventh century and the West Saxon court in the ninth century – some of the legends, characters and literary motifs are known to have been familiar in Wessex,2 especially around the monastery at Malmesbury, in the time of King Alfred.
There are signs of links between East Anglian ruling families and Scandinavia at the extensive seventh-century site surrounding the famous ship burial of Sutton Hoo. Bede, however, named three peoples – Angles, Saxons and Jutes – and Frisians also contributed to the ethnic mix. (In his Gothic Wars, c. 550, the Byzantine historian Procopius wrote that Britain was inhabited by Britons, Angles and Frisians.) In general, Bede distinguished between the Saxons who settled the southern parts of Britain, principally Essex, Sussex and Wessex; the Angles who settled East Anglia, Mercia and comprised ‘all the Northumbrian race’; and finally the Jutes who settled Kent and the Isle of Wight. Archaeologists have found that around the year 500 Anglian, Saxon and Kentish women’s styles of dress were quite distinctive.3 Yet Bede sometimes seems to use ‘Saxons’, ‘Angles or Saxons’ and then ‘Saxons’ again interchangeably
The details of how and when the migrations occurred are obscure. However, whereas about 400 Britain was a place of diverse non-Germanic populations, some two hundred years later, south of the Firth of Forth and east of the line of the River Severn, new Germanic kingdoms were emerging and at least one of the Kentish kings used Old English to record laws. This chapter deals with how the newcomers are thought to have arrived and their impact on the native inhabitants of Britain. But we start with the place itself and the British world they encountered.
The term ‘Pretanic Islands’, the oldest version of the name ‘Britain’, is to be found in the work of the Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century BC and recording the notes made by Pytheas, another Greek writer, navigator, geographer and astronomer, who explored the island about a century or so earlier but whose works are lost. ‘The form’ we are told ‘implies for the name of the inhabitants, “Pritani” or “Priteni”.’ The form ‘Prydain’ for the island as a whole long continued in Welsh, as for example in the title of the early tenth-century Welsh heroic poem Armes Prydein (The Prophesy of Britain).
Following the Roman conquest under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43, the people of the province the Romans dubbed ‘Britannia’ came to call themselves Brittones. However, in the second century AD Ptolemy, the most famous Greek geographer of the ancient world, enumerated some thirty-three groups or tribes, those in the region we now call England and Wales included Iceni (Norfolk), Cantiaci (Kent), Dumnonii (Devon), Silures (Gwent and Powys) and so forth. From the late third century, it seems the island was under sporadic attack from Germanic sea raiders commonly grouped under the general designation of ‘Saxons’, with ports of origin along the Frisian, German and Danish coastline. A series of imposing Roman structures from Brancaster on the Wash to Richborough in Kent and Portchester in Hampshire would seem to be the remains of a defence system to protect what one source called the ‘Saxon Shore’.
From the 360s the country was subject to sporadic raids from the Picti and the Scotti as well as Saxon sea rovers. A group of these, we noted, may have settled as early as the 360s, others perhaps a little later, possibly as mercenaries or foederati in traditional Roman manner. Excavations between 1965 and 1978 at Mucking, Essex, on the north bank of the Thames estuary revealed scores of sunken huts (German: Grubenhäuser) and two cemeteries, in occupation from the early 400s to the early 700s. The pioneer settlement may have been of such Germanic foederati brought over to defend the estuary.
The empire in Europe was under general attack and in 410 Alaric the Visigoth actually occupied Rome; Britain’s military garrison was soon called back to Rome leaving the defence of the embattled province to the local Romano-British population and its civic leaders, the civitates. The Western Emperor Honorius sent word that thenceforward they would have to fend for themselves. (Recent theory argues that the late fourth-century empire was still a going concern and the end when it came was not so much a decline, the conventional view, as a collapse).4
Nevertheless, the imperial administration in the West, harassed by barbarian incursions and the rising costs of defence, had been hampered by declining tax revenues. Prosperous local patricians had been increasingly reluctant to fund the financial burdens of their civic duties and obligations and had withdrawn to their estates. Great country houses, ‘villas’, mushroomed. Supported by the produce and rents of tenant farmers, and served by a full range of resident craftsmen, blacksmiths and so forth, villa estates became self-sufficient economic units. In France such estates often provided the growing point for future towns. This is also the source of the French word ville, meaning town. The main villa building of a Christian proprietor might become a church – such evolution could of course have taken place in Britain. Certainly, in Britain archaeology has unearthed or identified by aerial photography scores of villas, from the great coastal estate at Fishbourne in Sussex to Hinton St Mary in Dorset (with its Christian chi-rho symbol, the Greek letters that begin the name Christus, set in a mosaic floor) and northwards to Cheshire and Yorkshire. Since it is probable that they, like their Gallic counterparts, had not been paying their full imperial taxes for decades, Britain’s prosperous gentry could hardly object if the empire withdrew its soldiery. Perhaps, it has been suggested, they were glad to see the back of them. If so, they would soon have cause to think again.
In the year 429 Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, together with Lupus, bishop of Troyes, embarked at an unnamed port on the northern coast of Gaul on a rescue mission. Ahead, across the Oceanus Britannicus, lay the troubled land of Britannia – under threat not only from barbarians but also, which was much more serious from the bishops’ viewpoint, from false teachings of the Christian Faith. Britain’s churchmen, alarmed by the threat of a heresy known as Pelagianism, had sent an appeal for help to the Continent and at a synod of the bishops of Gaul ‘the unanimous choice fell upon Germanus and Lupus . . . [who were] appointed to go to the Britons and confirm their belief in God’s grace’ (Bede I. 17).
From the British point of view the situation was not only dangerous, it was embarrassing. Heresy was not unknown in the Roman province. There is evidence to suggest that Gnosticism, based on the idea that knowledge of god came not only through the scriptures but through hidden ‘knowledge’ (Greek, ‘gnosis’) known only to initiates, had found adherents in Roman Britain. Gnostics believed, among other things, that the soul after death was purified by an ascent through seven heavens5 (the ‘seventh heaven’, opening to the state of bliss) and in general had forced Christians to formalize their doctrines to defend the authority of the New Testament and define their teachings on paradise and heaven (see chapter 9). But Pelagianism seemed to have originated in Britain itself.
The British monk and theologian Pelagius had arrived in Rome in his mid-twenties about the year 380. His austere and ascetic lifestyle, a dramatic contrast to the easy-going morals of fashionable socialites and clergy in the capital, soon made him a cult guru among the trendy – both priests and lay people. He opposed the doctrine of divine grace, freely available to all, as proposed by his great contemporary St Augustine of Hippo. If people could be saved to eternal life whether with or without merit, but simply through the freely given forgiving grace of God, then, he argued, the whole moral code was sabotaged. Pelagius also opposed the orthodox teaching of original sin, that people are innately wicked, and argued for the essential goodness of human nature and its capacity, indeed obligation, to win salvation by free will. Such a theory seemed to subvert the charismatic power of Jesus Christ as the intermediary between humanity and the creator, God. Archaeology indicates that Christianity was favoured among Britain’s social elite from an early date. The church plate of the Walton Newton silver suite of early third century (among Europe’s oldest), found near Peterborough, the site of Roman Durobrivae, carries the chi-rho symbol of orthodox belief. But new heresy threatened.
Help was on its way. But, we are told by Bede, the demons raged against Germanus and determined to halt his mission. Halfway across the Channel a storm erupted that shredded the sails and sent the sailors to their prayers. Like Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, Germanus was sleeping peacefully through the commotion until the others woke him up. Sprinkling holy water and making an invocation to the Trinity he addressed a prayer ‘to the true God’ and returned to his bedroll. The storm, of course, abated and the wind veered to give them a fair onward voyage.
On landing, they were met by cheering crowds of British Christians and soon convened a debate with the heretical clerics. These were routed in the argument; Germanus and Lupus convinced any waverers among the crowd with their miracles and then journeyed to the tomb of Britain’s proto-martyr St Alban to thank him for his assistance. Germanus ordered the tomb to be opened and deposited in it relics of the Apostles that he had brought with him. The marvels witnessed that day swelled the local Christian community with new converts.
While all this was going on, Bede tells us, ‘the Saxons and Picts joined forces to make war on the Britons.’ (Were these Saxons some of the foederati already settled in Britain, rather than sea raiders?) A British Christian army, mustered to resist, called on the bishops visiting from Gaul for support. As Easter approached, they prepared for battle with Germanus at their head. He had the main force drawn up on the plain over which the enemy would advance, and stationed a large ambush in a valley out of sight on their flank. At an agreed signal the British troops, those waiting in ambush as well as the main body, burst out in shouts of ‘Alleluia’ as the enemy began the advance. Thinking themselves surrounded, the enemy panicked and fled the field. But despite this ‘Alleluia Victory’ Britain remained under increasing barbarian threat. At some time in the 440s, according to the British scholar Gildas, writing about a century later, some leading Britons sent a desperate appeal for help to Aetius, the chief commander of Roman forces on the Continent. None was forthcoming.
Gildas, who seems to have been writing about the year 550, was another important source for Bede’s early chapters. His history De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (Of the Ruin [or overthrow] and Conquest of Britain) is about the incursion of barbaric Germanic tribes into the cultured Christian Britain he remembered. The first boatloads arrived by the invitation of a proud British tyrant (‘superbus tyrannus’) to serve as barbarians invading from the north of Britain. They were given lands in the eastern part of the island. More followed, but then the newcomers turned against their employers and ravaged the country. A British counter-attack under a leader called Ambrosianus Aurellianus had great success and, after further warfare, the Britons won a crushing victory over the Saxons at a place called Mons Badonicus or Mount Badon (of which neither location nor date are known, though c. 500 seems likely).
According to Bede, the parents of Ambrosianus had been of royal blood, though perhaps his source had garbled a tradition that the great man was in fact of Roman patrician family. His name has been associated with the victor at Mount Badon. One theory has proposed that Ambrosianus, if a Roman then presumably also a Christian commander, had used Roman military methods including the use of cavalry to create a (possibly mercenary) force engaged by various British kings in various parts of the country. This may have given rise to the legend of Arthur and his knights. The theory certainly fits the image of a charismatic Christian leader of a mounted force recorded in many parts of Britain from Tintagel in Cornwall to the north of England.
There is no written record of a King Arthur and his exploits before the early ninth-century manuscripts known as the Historia Britonnum associated with the name of Nennius. Local oral traditions flourished in Wales and Cornwall but the fount of the Arthurian legends is the fertile imagination of the Welsh writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in Latin in the mid-twelfth century. His History of the Kings of Britain presented a compelling account of this ancient Christian hero, whom the Norman kings of England liked to see as their predecessor and whose deeds fired the imagination of all Europe.
A period of peace followed Mount Badon and this seems to have been the time when Gildas was writing. He deplores the ways of the corrupt priesthood and aristocracy of his day, who threw the triumph away and must surely suffer divine retribution for their moral turpitude. Little is known about Gildas, apart from his name and the fact that he was fluent in Latin and passed his life between Wales and Brittany, where he was honoured as a saint. He is said to have been the founder of the monastery there known as St Gildas de Rhuys (where Peter Abelard was abbot for a time in the early twelfth century).
Christianity survived in the west of Britain (and possibly as a minority cult in the main Anglo-Saxon territories), so that when St Augustine of Canterbury led Rome’s first official mission to the country in the 590s he was able to put out feelers to native bishops. In the year 603, ‘making the use of the help of King Æthelberht, he summoned the bishops . . . of the nearest British province to a conference.’6 The meeting was held under an ancient oak, presumably a sacred site since the time of the Druids but soon known as ‘Augustine’s Oak’. It was inconclusive and the British asked for time to consult with their community. At the second encounter, Augustine opened the proceedings by urging the British to join him and the Roman church in brotherly relations. But arrogant body language seemed to belie the friendly words, as Rome’s envoy had not risen from his ceremonial chair to greet the local deputation on their arrival. They refused to recognize him as archbishop.
Two words in Bede’s account catch the eye: ‘summoned’ and ‘nearest’. Then as now, Rome had no doubt as to her superiority in the universal church; she did not issue invitations. That can, perhaps, be taken as read. But the idea of a ‘nearest’ province of the British is revealing. Clearly there were others and hence a British Christian presence fringing the Anglo-Saxon world. Archaeological evidence bears this out. The hanging-bowls with cruciform mountings of clear Christian symbolism, such as the fish motifs flanking a pierced cross found at Faversham in Kent and other such pieces found in Anglo-Saxon graves, are mostly of British manufacture.7 Bede estimated the great monastery at Bangor-is-Coed, Denbighshire, had some two thousand monks.
‘There are in Britain today’, he writes, ‘five languages and four nations: English, British, Scots and Picts; each of these have their own language but all are united in their study of God’s scriptures by that fifth language, Latin.’ Thanks to archaeology we know today that each also had their own dress fastenings, so that a warrior’s jewellery like the British ring brooch or the Anglian square-headed brooch may, it has been suggested, have proclaimed his identity.8 Bede tells us that the only original inhabitants of the island were the Britons – who gave the place its name – and who, he thought came over Armorica i.e. Brittany. In fact, the name almost certainly derives from British emigrants who crossed the Channel in the fifth and sixth centuries, fleeing Irish raiders operating along the coasts of Wales, Cornwall and North Devon.
According to Bede, the Pictish inhabitants of northern Britain were descended from a party of sailors from a remote land he calls ‘Scythia’, who, blown off course, made landfall off the northern coast of Ireland. They begged the Scots then living there for a grant of land so that they could settle, but were told to move on and recommended to try the island not far to the east. The Picts did so. Bede claims that Pictish royalty descended in the female line because, so went the tradition, the Irish Scots had provided the allmale pioneers with womenfolk on condition that, in the event of a disputed succession, the new king should be chosen from the female royal line. Sometime in the fifth century, at about the time the Saxons were crossing over from the Continent, a chieftain of the Irish Scoti in what is now County Antrim established an enclave across the North Channel in Argyll. In the course of time, and after war, betrayal and intermarriage, some time between the 830s and 850s the rival houses of Picts and Scots merged so that the Scottish kingdom of Dál Riata (Dalriada) and the Pictish realm began to come together under Kenneth MacAlpin (Kenneth I), who died in about 858 and was buried on the island of Iona.
Like modern Britons, Bede and his contemporaries recognized ethnic diversity as part of their countries’ characters and also had doubts about the geographical origins of the invaders and their ruling families. Modern archaeology also questions the extent of the population displacement caused by the invaders in the south as well as the north. In its most extreme form it seems to question whether there was any significant Germanic invasion at all.
The Anglo-Saxons themselves had no doubt. Centuries later, celebrating the great English victory over Vikings, Scots and British at Brunanburh in 937, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle hailed it as the greatest victory since the ‘Angles and Saxons arrived . . . invading Britain across the seas from the east’. Following Bede, it also gives the year 449 for the landing of the first boatloads of settlers as distinct from raiders. A library of books has been written on the dating of the adventus Saxonum (‘the arrival of the Saxons’). In one of his letters Alcuin of York, who had read his Bede, described the Viking sack on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in 793 as happening ‘nearly three hundred and fifty years’ since ‘our fathers [came] to this fair land’9 and historian Paul Battles is convinced that the time of their arrival was ‘essential to a Migration Myth and so was central to the Anglo-Saxon definitions of themselves as a people’.
English origins and traditions
Given the various opposing views as to the Anglo-Saxon settlement – if indeed the word ‘settlement’ is not too strong – it seems that the one view that no one contests is that they came by sea! But here agreement ends. Were the ships powered by oars, by sails, by paddles or by a combination of these means? In his Dark Age Naval Power (1999), which reassesses Frankish as well as Anglo-Saxon naval activity, John Haywood points out that, like the Vikings after them, Saxon pirates raided from Orkney to Spain and, like them, they struck from the sea without warning. He believes that all the probabilities point to the use of a sail on long-range ventures, though paddles could have been used up river reaches. He cites the Gallo-Roman historian Sidonius Apollinaris, writing in the 470s, who says specifically that the Saxons raiding the Gallic coast used sailing ships. A simple rigged sail could have made up to 100 miles (160 km) possible in a twelve-hour day with a following wind on a calm sea, three times the distance possible for a team of rowers, who would in any case have had to rest up from time to time in similar conditions.
Haywood considers that the archaeology points to two phases of settlement, at first in the early 400s between the Humber and the Thames, with a notable cluster in the Upper Thames Valley, and then in far greater numbers in Kent and along the south coast from the 450s to the early 500s. He finds conclusive evidence that at this time there was a massive population movement out of the area between the River Weser and the Jutland peninsula. There is no doubt in his mind that in its early stages the Anglo-Saxon settlement represented a mass folk migration, not an aristocratic or political takeover. Given a sailing time of three to four days and skilled crews, several return voyages could have been made in a season. The early kingdoms certainly exploited naval power: the Northumbrian kings, for example, held the Isle of Man for a time and took Anglesey.
In fact, the attitudes of historians to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons and the formation of their settlements and kingdoms have ranged from dismissing the newcomers’ leaders as ‘flotsam’ on the tide of history to describing them as judges who superimposed leadership in war on peaceful functions, and from deriding their followers as a riff-raff of settlers to rating them at fairly large tribal units ‘whose commanders knew what they were doing’.10
According to the ninth-century version in the West Saxon Chronicle, in the south the first three, in supposed order of arrival, were Hengest of Kent (about 450), Aelle for Sussex (470s) and Cerdic for Wessex (about 500). Historians consider most of the detail of these early years as a matter of creative tradition. For example, archaeologists in Sussex unearthed Germanic cemeteries of early – rather than late – fifth-century date and at an inland location, which may suggest territory there had been ceded to incomers by the indigenous Romano-British population well before the ‘first’ arrivals. But the stories were accepted by later generations of educated Anglo-Saxons as reliable accounts of their origins and are in any case of considerable interest in their own right.
In the talk of kings and kingdoms that follows it is worth remembering that scholars often use the term ‘extensive lordships’ to describe the structures for exploiting the people and resources of post-Roman Britain. In such a system, powerful self-established elite groups, perhaps warlords and their entourages, exacted services and renders of food and other materials in kind from the population under their sway, rather than by the actual ownership of land. Given the logistics of transport, for centuries the king and his retinue of servants, clients and advisers moved to consume the ‘renders’ at points of assembly for the produce, perhaps a fortified royal residence or ‘vill’, which over the years might acquire some of the functions of a regional market town, perhaps the residence of a great man at the heart of his estate. About the development of these estates and their organization virtually nothing is known.11 Sometimes a religious estate, or minster, might entertain the court: in 765, for example, Offa issued a charter in the presence of the abbot of Medeshamstede (later called Peterborough). One hopes the place got off more lightly than when, in the reign of King Edward II (1307–27), an eight-week stay by the king’s favourite Piers Gaveston cost the then abbey of Peterborough more than a year’s revenue.12
South of the River Humber
It is possible that Kent, where we start the survey, may have developed an exception to this pattern of itinerant courts and had a capital city. Apart from London, Canterbury is the only place in Britain known to Bede as a ‘metropolis’. About 600 the Christian queen of Kent had had her private chapel just outside the place for the best part of twenty years. This suggests that her court, at least, was fairly sedentary. The name of the kingdom and its capital derive from the tribe of the Cantiaci who inhabited the area in Roman times. Archaeology has revealed traces of Germanic settlers in Canterbury in the late 300s but the main settlement is supposed to have occurred in the 450s, under the leadership of the warlord brothers Hengest and Horsa. Bede, who, it has been suggested, was probably using a Kentish source, says they were Jutes, a people whose origins have been much discussed but who are now generally assumed to have come from Jutland in Denmark.
Bede and the Chronicle tell us that they arrived with three boatloads of followers, to serve as mercenaries at the invitation of a King Vortigern to help him against the Picts. It seems it was Bede who gave this ‘king’ a name, though he may have invented it from a word meaning ‘chief lord’ as a loose translation for the term ‘superbus tyrannus’ used by Gildas.13 Where, in Britain, did this ‘Vortigern’ have his palace? Was it in the northwest, as one might expect if his enemies were indeed the Picts, or in the south? Did he really reward Hengest with what is now the county of Kent? Or did the mercenary leader fall out with his employer, call in reinforcements and carve out a kingdom by conquest? Certainly, the king lists for Kent, drawn up probably as late as the 800s, give Hengest as the first king (later dated as reigning from 455 to 488). But the royal dynasty, the Oiscingas, is called after neither him nor his father, Whitgils the Jute, but after Oisc or Aesc, son of Hengest. The written record does not give Hengest the title of ‘king’ before his arrival in Britain – though Sir Frank Stenton thought it ‘best’ to regard him as a chief of ‘very noble descent’ who brought his retinue from over the sea to Britain. Intriguingly, however, he shares his name with a hero mentioned in Beowulf – Hengest of the Eotan tribe (translated as ‘the Jutes’ by Seamus Heaney).
This famous story of English origins, as told in Bede’s Latin, was translated with particular fidelity in the ninth-century Old English version of Bede’s history, suggesting to one historian of the migrations that it may have acquired ‘canonical status’.14 It certainly has its fair share of mythic associations. The fact that Hengest and Horsa were brothers recalls the twin brothers that feature in other Germanic origin myths: Ybor and Agio for the Lombards; Ambri and Assi for the Vandals. Romulus and Remus, twin founders of ancient Rome, feature on early English coinage, for example that of East Anglia in the eighth century. Also from East Anglia comes a scene of a pair of dancing warriors on one of the ornamental panel types of the Sutton Hoo helmet.15 Then there is the association of the names with the words for horse – ‘stallion’ (hengest) and ‘horse’ or ‘mare’ (horsa) – and the suggestive fact that the horse played an important part in the cults and belief systems of the Germanic invaders of England. (The Roman twin gods Castor and Pollux, the ‘Gemini’ of the zodiac, were often portrayed as young horsemen.)
Set against such mythologizing theories are convincing historical details. In the version as told in Bede’s source, the Historia Brittonum, the war leader Hengest springs his attack in the hall of Vortigern with the cry ‘Eure nimath seaxas’ (‘draw your [hidden] knives’).16 (The Latin source drops into the language of the invaders for a more ‘faithful’ rendering of the traitor’s cry. And it is the more telling for those who knew that the Saxons supposedly were named for their characteristic short knife, the seaxa – and who did not know that Hengest and his men were supposed to be Jutes.) Then there is the fact that the historical King Æthelberht (d. 616), who brought Christianity to Kent, was unquestionably the son of Eormenric, who in turn was Hengest’s grandson or great grandson. The balance seems to tip in favour of Hengest also being a historical figure and a distinguished ancestor.
That the Jutes of Kent had fairly extensive Continental European contacts is suggested by the fact that ‘Eormenric’ is the Anglo-Saxon variant of Ermanarich, the fourth-century Ostrogothic ruler of a vast territory in the Ukraine and a figure of Germanic lore and legend. It has even been suggested that Kent had a substantial percentage of Franks in its population and was subject to a Merovingian paramount power. But the Merovingians were Christian, whereas Kentish paganism seems to have flourished well into the reign of Æthelberht. Place name evidence indicates cult centres of Woden in the Canterbury region and the king remained faithful to paganism for at least twenty years after his marriage to a Merovingian Christian princess (chapter 3).
Next we come to Sussex, where paganism lasted fifty years longer. Today divided from Kent only by the county line, then it was separated from it and the Thames Valley basin by the no man’s land of the Weald (Anglo-Saxon, ‘forest’). In this isolated territory, perhaps in the 470s, a certain Aelle, accompanied by his three sons and three boatloads of followers, landed ‘at the place called Cymen’s Shore’ (probably Selsey Bill) and forced a landing against a British defending force, which they drove back. Following the Chronicle account we learn that the intruders maintained themselves for more than a decade, facing down a British counter-attack in 485, before in 491 overrunning ‘Andredesceaster’, the Roman fort of Anderida, near Pevensey, and slaughtering all the inhabitants.
By the year 500 then, the family of Aelle seem to have established a viable territorial presence – call it a kingdom. Bede considered it so important that he described Aelle as the first English king to hold ‘imperium’ (i.e. ‘rule’) over all the kingdoms south of the River Humber. If this sequence of annals bears any relationship to actual historical events it opens another field of speculation. How big was a force of three boatloads? Did it comprise exclusively fighting men and did families follow on? Why did the British not make a second counter-attack? What was the population in Anderida doing all this while? Perhaps it was less pivotal an event than Bede would have us believe. Professor Susan Reynolds wrote
A kingdom was never thought of merely as the territory which happened to be ruled by a king. It comprised and corresponded to a ‘people’ [gens, natio, populus] which was assumed to be a natural inherited community of tradition, custom, law and descent.17
Finally there is the case of Wessex. Here there seem to be at least two foundation myths. Bede has its kings begin as rulers of a people established in the Upper Thames Valley region under the legendary founder ‘Gewis’ (the Old English translation of Bede, done at the court of King Alfred, always calls ‘the Gewisse’ the ‘West Saxons’). An eponymous Gewis does feature in the sixth generation from Woden in the West Saxon genealogy drawn up much later. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle opens the story of Wessex with a landing of five boatloads that sailed up the Solent one day in the year 495 under two princes, Cerdic and his son Cynric, and landed in the face of armed British opposition at a place called Cerdic’s Shore; where this was we do not know.
Over the next forty years, other episodes in this mythic account of early Hampshire and the region speak of the arrival of ‘Port’ and his two sons at Portsmouth, ‘where they slew a young Briton, a very noble man’ (it is hard not to think of the comment by the Greek historian Procopius that ‘the noblest sacrifices’ in Thule (the remote north) is the sacrifice to Ares the war god of the first captive in a war).18 The defeat by Cerdic and Cynric of a ‘Welsh’ (i.e. British) king is followed by their kinsmen Stuf and Whitgar with three more ships who also won an opposed landing battle against Britons at Cerdic’s Shore. The Chronicle marks the beginning of the ‘rule of the West Saxon royal house’ in the year 519, when Cerdic and Cynric won another victory over the Britons at ‘Cerdic’s Ford’. Some ten years later they took the Isle of Wight and in 534 Cerdic died, to be succeeded, we are told, by Cynric.
The terse annals, though written centuries after the events they purport to record, can be revealing. At his first appearance Cerdic is not only given no ethnic origin, he is not even given a Saxon name, but rather a Germanic version of the British-sounding ‘Caraticos’. Arriving with a son of fighting age he dies forty years later, clearly a venerable patriarch. He acquires royal status years after his arrival in Britain. His kingdom is established through years of victorious struggle against the ‘Welsh’ and, with the Isle of Wight, which he takes with his son or grandson Cynric about 530, he makes a successful conquest ‘across the sea’.
After Cerdic’s death the story of steady conquest continues with Cynric (d. 560) and his son Ceawlin (d. 592), who win important battles against the British in the 550s. At this point the writer of the Chronicle gives us the royal ancestry, listing Cerdic as the great grandson of Gewis. Ceawlin, listed as the second bretwalda, defeated Æthelberht of Kent in the 560s and won a great victory over the British in the 570s – three of their kings were killed and three towns, Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester, taken. Extending from the Solent northwards to the River Thames and west to the estuary of the River Severn, Ceawlin’s kingdom now divided the British of Wales and the Welsh marches from the British of Devon.
Moving northwards from Kent and Wessex, we come to Essex, with the complex of Roman London, East Anglia, the Thames valley and the Midlands. Written records for Essex are virtually non-existent before the reign of Sæberht (d. 616/17), Æthelberht of Kent’s nephew. His father, Sledd, was acknowledged as the family ancestor by all subsequent kings, but a genealogy drawn up about 800 traces the legendary descent not from Woden, claimed by most Anglo-Saxon royal houses, but from the Old Saxon tribal deity Seaxnet. It seems that the Essex kings were also unusual in their frequent practice of joint, usually dual, kingship – two brothers or king and son, for example. There is also a hint that paganism was strong in the kingdom at the time of King Sœberht’s conversion to Christianity. Mellitus, the first bishop of London, consecrated at the start of the reign of King Sæberht in 604, was to have a rocky ride in the next few years as the region reverted to paganism.
As in Essex, so in East Anglia written records, such as they are, begin after the year 600 in the reign of King Rædwald, grandson of Wuffa, founder of the Wuffinga dynasty, which claimed Caesar among its ancestors. One historian called this period ‘the lost centuries’; traditionally it is part of ‘the dark ages’ – dark because they lack the illumination of records.
But if these are virtually non-existent, archaeology has told a tantalizing and now astonishing story. Early in 2004 excavations were under way by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (at the invitation of the Borough of Southend-on-Sea) that were to reveal a find still being assessed as this book goes to press. The site was for proposed roadworks to ease traffic congestion near the suburb-village of Prittlewell. Since the 1860s the construction of roads and railways to open up the London commuter belt have led to ad hoc excavations producing grave goods – swords, spears, shields, jewellery – which suggest that five acres were in use from around AD 500 to 700 as the cemetery of the elite of a warrior society. The new find at Prittlewell, as reported in the journal British Archaeology (May 2004), dates from the same pagan/Christian transition period in eastern England as Sutton Hoo. Two small gold crosses suggest a Christian involvement and links with the southern German region where they are common. Like Sutton Hoo Mound 1, its only rival in the archaeological record so far, it is a breathtaking glimpse into the warrior society in those ‘lost centuries’.
The body of the great man had been laid in a wooden box or casket in a wood-lined ‘burial chamber of the highest status’. The timber panelling had long since perished, but wood fibres were still attached to a great copper bowl, which had originally hung against it from an iron hook. The body was surrounded by ritualistic and luxury objects. Hrothgar had rewarded Beowulf with a standard of gold, a fitting emblem of honour for the hero who had slain Grendel the monster; the lord of Prittlewell had an iron standard buried with him. In addition were his weapons (sword, spear, shield), a solid gold belt buckle, drinking horns and a folding camp-stool. As at Sutton Hoo there is a lyre (see chapter 9 below). The excavators found dice and fifty-seven gaming pieces, a Byzantine drinking flagon and a Coptic bowl, evidence of the international trade of the time.
From East Anglia and Essex we move into the English Midlands, home-to-be of the central kingdom of Mercia (the theme of chapter 4). At its largest extent Mercia stretched from East Anglia westward to Wales, from the Thames northward to the Humber. In other words it was the heartland of Anglo-Saxon England.
North of the Humber
Finally, in this sketch survey of Anglo-Saxon origins during the invasion/settlement period, we come to the lands north of the River Humber, which was apparently considered the great divide of their territory by the Anglo-Saxons themselves. Someone, Bede most likely, coined the name ‘Northumbria’ for the kingdom that dominated the country here, between Humber and Forth, in his day. In fact the term subsumed two distinct kingdoms, each with its own royal house and each with a name that proclaimed British antecedents. The larger, to the north, bordering with the Picts and Strathclyde Britons, was ‘Bernicia’ with its main centre at Bamburgh; the smaller, with its northern frontier on the River Tees and its chief centre at York, was ‘Deira’.
We do not know when the first Germanic settlers in the region arrived nor where they landed. Bede’s account could be interpreted as linking their story with the first settlers in Kent. The author of the Historia Brittonum, his principal source here, was probably a Welsh/British scholar, like Gildas, though working later. He composed his account of history from the Creation to the 680s about the year 829 at the court of Gwynedd, although it survives only in a number of manuscripts from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, among them one by a certain ‘Nennius’. The Historiaalso includes extracts from a Kentish Chronicle, lists a number of Anglo-Saxon genealogies and seems to have known Bede’s History.
Simplifying the Bede/Historia account, we learn that the Britons of those days, including their king Vortigern (whether he ruled in the north or south of the island), called in Saxons against the ‘northern nations’, which suggests we are dealing with the settlement of the north and not the south country. Three shiploads of ‘Angles or Saxons’ arrived. They win their first engagement against an enemy attacking ‘from the north’ but then sent messengers back to their homelands describing the fertile nature of the land and the lazy ways of the natives. More shiploads followed. All the newcomers soon turned on their employers and one group, making a truce with the Picts, went on the rampage – pillaging the land, slaughtering priests before their own altars and ravaging city and countryside before returning to their base. If the group allied with the Picts were the people led by Hengest and Horsa, it would mean that the Picts themselves, with their home base in modern-day Scotland, had penetrated Roman Britain as far south as the Thames. Of course, this is not impossible. But it seems to make better sense if the unnamed invaders who allied with the Picts were, instead of the Kent-based Hengest and his followers, the first Germanic settlers in the region of ‘Northumbria’ – leaders unknown.
Three models have been proposed to suggest how the transformation from British to English came about for, in the words of David Rollason, ‘it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the population [of “Northumbria”] came to regard itself as predominantly English and was principally English speaking.’19 First, the Roman or Romano-British regime, having called in the barbarian mercenaries against the incursive Picts, decided on a peaceful handover. In other words there was a simple change of elites. York, the Roman Eboracum founded about AD 71, had been a major military and administrative centre, the capital so to speak of the province of Britannia inferior (‘Lower Britain’). It was here, in the year 306, that Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, was raised on the shields of the legionaries before beginning his march on Rome. It was here too that towards the end of the Roman period the dux Britanniae, head of the British military defences, had his headquarters. Here, if anywhere, an orderly handover of power to barbarian federate troops could have been made. But such an idea is speculative in the extreme. There is some archaeological evidence for Germanic settlements in Deira before the year 500 and the Historia Brittonum (written, remember, in the 830s), hints at a shadowy Anglian ruler of Deira in the 450s – and that is all.
The second hypothesis is that British kings, operating either from Iron Age hill forts or previous Roman power centres, having displaced the imperial administration in the early fifth century, conceded power to the invading Germanic elite after only a brief resistance. David Rollason finds that the proposal for such a handover from a ‘sub-Roman’ authority is difficult to sustain. Dating of archaeological finds, such as barbarian burial sites scattered along the routes of Roman roads is problematical, since it can depend on keyins to written records that are themselves open to dispute. If such finds can be shown to be early, then we may be looking at the graves of federate troops posted to defend the road by their Roman or sub-Roman employers; if they are later, then it is probably a case of invaders who literally fell by the wayside as their companions raided by forced marches into the interior. In other contexts he seems to suggest that archaeology can be inconclusive:
. . . a very small quantity of pottery of ‘Anglian’ date found on a site could as easily have been dropped accidentally on a ruined site as have been actively used in a building which continued in full use.20
Excavations at York Minster unearthed foundations of the impressive headquarters building of the Roman military administration of Eboracum. The great cross-hall or basilica would certainly have provided a fine palace for British kings of Deira, but there is no proof, archaeological or otherwise, that it did.
Both these models for British to Anglo-Saxon transition postulate a large majority British population in the subsequent ‘Northumbrian’ state, its native culture and language anglicized by the incomers. The third model proposes an Anglian Northumbria as the outcome of conquest combined with ethnic cleansing, either by massacre or expulsion, its culture owing little to either native British or imperial Roman antecedents.
An argument for cleansing by mass slaughter would be supported by some evidence in the archaeological record of mass graves; alternatively the natives were subjugated to slave status en masse, and slaves there certainly were in Anglo-Saxon, as in Romano-British, society; thirdly the Britons may have headed westward in ragged refugee columns before the advancing alien armed bands. But maybe they just stayed put, accepted their new Germanic masters, and simply assimilated to their ways and adopted their language. John Blair reckons that by the early 700s most of the inhabitants of Britain from the Pennines to the south-west of the country had acquired what he terms an ‘English’ political and linguistic identity adopted from the ethnic minority of intruders.21 As to the north: ‘throughout Northumbria the dominance of English place names is extremely striking.’22
Place name evidence is always subject to caveats. Maybe the local invading lord gave a British village an English name and forced the locals to adopt it. Maybe the local peasantry not only adopted the invader’s language in their dealings with him, but jettisoned their own for the sake of fashion (as has been suggested). In any case, it seems we can conclude with Professor Rollason that Bede was essentially right to consider that by his time that part of the Roman empire south of Hadrian’s Wall and native areas to the north of it, both inhabited by the British, had been welded into a kingdom which was regarded by the English as inhabited by the ‘people of Northumbrians’, one of the other lands in which lived ‘the people of the English’.23
The first king named for Bernicia is Ida, reigning in the sixth century (d. ?559) and followed by a confusion of names. For Deira the first name we have is King Ælle (d. 590s). If we can believe the punning anecdote by which Bede was to explain Pope Gregory’s decision to launch the Roman mission to England, it seems that Ælle of Deira ruled a kingdom of Angles and lost at least one battle. One day in the 570s (that is, before he became pope), Gregory, so goes the story, was walking through the Roman slave market when he caught sight of two blond-haired youths for sale. (Christian Europe was no different from any other contemporary culture in accepting slavery, though dealing in Christians was forbidden.) On being told that they were ‘Angles’, from a kingdom called ‘Deira’ ruled by a king called Ælle, he quipped in Latin a pun that William Shakespeare might have envied, with the observation that they should be called ‘not “Angles” but “Angels”’ (‘non Angli sed Angeli’), that they should be delivered from the wrath (Latin, ‘de ira’) [to come] and that ‘Alleluiah’ should be sung in their land when they were converted. The unfortunate boys may have been picked up by Frisian merchants at a clearance sale, following some battle between Deirans and Bernicians. The internecine warring came to an end under the Bernician king Æthelfrith, who emerges about 592 as the first known ‘ruler of Northumbria’. He was a pagan king in the heroic mould, with a pedigree going back beyond Woden to Geat, a name mentioned in Beowulf.
Beowulf the hero – Beowulf the king
The poem of Beowulf opens in ‘Heorot’, the splendid mead hall of King Hrothgar, a Danish king. For twelve years the monster Grendel has terrorized the place, raiding at night and killing warriors as its food. A stranger arrives, a prince of the court of King Hygelac of the Geats of southern Sweden, his name Beowulf. He offers to rid Heorot of its terror. That night Grendel breaks down the door of the mead hall but Beowulf fights it to the death, ripping off its arm and driving it out into the darkness. The next day the hall carouses in triumph, but that night Grendel’s mother takes vengeance, killing one of Hrothgar’s men. Beowulf slays her and then, feted by Hrothgar and showered with gifts, returns to the land of the Geats. There King Hygelac, too, awards him the finest gem-studded sword from the Geat treasury and 7,000 hides of land, a hall and a throne. Shortly after, Hygelac dies and Beowulf reigns for 50 years. When his realm is ravaged by a fire-belching dragon, Beowulf rises to the challenge though all his men, save young Wiglaf, desert him. The dragon is slain but the hero is mortally wounded and the poem ends with his funerary rites and a threnody, a dirge of death.
Set in legendary pagan times, the poem is nevertheless shot through with Christian sentiment and imagery. For all the killing, no feud is set off. The poet uses more than twenty synonyms for the word ‘king’ or ‘lord’, among them frea, which is thought to be connected with the name of the god Frea or Frey, in turn associated with the Swedish royal dynasty at Uppsala; but frea is also used in other poems in the sense of ‘lord of mankind’ and directly for the Christian Lord. Pagan and Christian mesh at the most basic levels. The Beowulf poet sets the scene of the heroes drinking in the royal mead hall; in the 1960s archaeologists excavating at the site of King Edwin of Northumbria’s royal seat of Yeavering in Northumbria revealed a great hall of dimensions and plan to match the poet’s description – but it also showed a close match to the great Northumbrian churches of the period.24 The house of the king and the house of God were of like dignity. The merging of the concepts of kingship and godhead found in Christianity helped in promoting the new Faith among the heathen tribal folk once the king had decided to adopt it: as William Chaney claims, ‘the most fundamental concept in Germanic kingship is the indissolubility of its religious and political functions.’25
However charismatic his semi-divine aura might be, to his followers the early Germanic king in his capacity as warlord was the fount not so much of honour as of wealth. Since the days of Beowulf, generosity as ‘ring giver’ was the foundation of royal prestige. The ambitious young chief had to secure companions to stand by him and men to serve him when war comes. The warrior strove to win renown and honourable reputation summed up in the words dom and lof, words with no exact equivalent in modern English though perhaps most nearly equated to the French la gloire. When the hero slew Grendel, King Hrothgar rewarded him with a gold standard, a richly embroidered banner, a fine helmet and a sword of state, an emblem of honour but precious in its own right.
Pagan imagery seems to thread through the verse of the saga in a tapestry to counterpoint the Christianizing elements. Bede speaks of the banners borne before the Northumbrian kings; from Beowulf we know such banners, with boar emblems, have their antecedents in the pagan world. The hero wears a boar helmet, and grave goods from Sutton Hoo and Benty Grange include helmets adorned with boar crests that protect not merely by deflecting the enemy’s sword or axe, but also by divine potencies, the boar having sacred associ-ations.25 The stag or hart commemorated in Beowulf at Heorot (Hart Hall) is echoed by the royal stag-shaped standard at Sutton Hoo. It seems that the monster’s of Beowulf’s world lingered on in the mind of Christian Anglo-Saxon England – and beyond. At Queen’s College, Oxford, they celebrate the famous Boar’s Head Carol at Christmas time; at Abbot’s Bromley in Staffordshire the annual horn dance seems a link with the ancient cult of the royal stag and, of course, in the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (re)created Smaug the very dragon on his treasure hoard. But then Tolkien was a professional in this world and his articles on Beowulf were rustling the groves of academe long before the Nazgûl hissed along the banks of the Brandywine.
Kings and ‘bretwaldas’
In the ninth–tenth centuries the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle added the name of King Ecgberht of Wessex to Bede’s list of the rulers with imperium, giving him the English title ‘bretwalda’, which perhaps equates to ‘brytenwealda’ (literally ‘broad ruler’), an ancient Germanic term for the Latin imperator (‘emperor’). But was it an honorific title or, as is the view of Eric John in his Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England, ‘an office that clearly mattered’ and which, in his view, came to involve the taking of tribute and to entail, for a Christian bretwalda, ‘important ecclesiastical power’.
Either way, it seems hard to see how the ‘supreme rule’ in Britain could belong to the first name on Bede’s list, Aelle, king of Sussex, the pocket coastal monarchy well south of the Thames, flanked to the east by Kent, to the west by the burgeoning realm of the West Saxons, and hemmed in to the north by the Weald. We do not know whether the later kings of Sussex claimed him as ancestor. Even so, it is possible that Bede considered him the senior ruler of the Saxons in Britain at that time. Within the territory of ‘Sussex’ itself there seem to have been a few autonomous kinglet states – for example that of the Haestingas in the hinterland of Hastings, while to Aelle’s west the territory that would become all-powerful Wessex had yet to evolve.
The fact that Bede calls him ‘King’ Aelle does not necessarily mean that he was a king before he came to England. Kingship proves a slippery concept if we try to define it among the Continental Saxons. According to the eighth century Life of St Lebuin, ‘in olden times’ the Saxons had no king but village ‘rulers’ and ‘noblemen’, who held an annual meeting in the ‘centre of Saxony’ where they confirmed the laws, gave judgement on outstanding cases and by common consent drew up agreed rules of action both in peace and for the coming year.26
The first-century AD Roman historian Tacitus reported that the Germanic peoples in his day took or chose their kings (reges) for their noble ancestry and their war leaders (duces) for their courage and skill in war. But one assumes that a successful war leader would have little opposition if he claimed the kingship; was the word ‘king’ connected with the word ‘kin’ and did it refer to the head of a kin group rather like a clan chief? And what did ‘choosing’ a king involve? Not so much ‘election’ in the sense of selecting between rival candidates but ‘acclamation’ rather: the public approval as leader by the followers, kin or war band of some nobleman or warrior who had won his ascendancy by a successful campaign or consistent display of leadership – or by force. Some form of public ceremony would have confirmed the elevation of the individual to his new status. Possibly the elevation was literal – a leader being raised on a shield and then paraded through the assembly of the people to shouts of acclaim. But it is also possible that it consisted of a the placing of a piece of ceremonial headgear, crown or helmet, on the head. As kings converted to Christianity, ritual was developed and Christian religious elements became central.
Pagan kings too had enjoyed spiritual legitimacy. ‘The primal leader of the tribal religion was the ruler. The king . . . stood between his tribe and its gods. . . .’27 He was, in the German term heilerfüllt, ‘filled with salvation’. Generations before Clovis, king of the Franks, converted to Christianity, his dynasty, the ‘long haired’ Merovingians, enjoyed a pagan charisma that endured long after they had lost all power in the state. When Bede described King Oswald of Northumbria (killed in battle only thirty years before the historian’s birth) as ‘the most holy king’, the phrase would have resonated with overtones of the ancient heathen sacral kingship for some of his older listeners. That Oswald himself, a Christian of only twenty years standing, harked back to the old thought ways, seems to be revealed by his last words, dedicating his soldiers to the divine protection, which entered into the folk memory. ‘“God have mercy on their souls,” said Oswald as he fell, is now a proverb,’ Bede tells us. Now, proverbs embodied folk wisdom: the same words that one man might interpret as a Christian soul commending the souls of his fellows to their common lord, would, for a traditionalist, recall the king as the
sacral figure which held the tribal world together and related it to the cosmic forces in which that world [and its gods] was enmeshed . . . [and] . . . that ‘saved’ his folk as much as did the gods themselves.28
Whatever form his inauguration took the ruler would later be expected to show that he could trace his ancestry to a hero or god; preferably the pagan figure of Woden.
In the ninth century, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speaks of ‘Woden from whose stock sprang the royal houses of many provinces’ and a Northumbrian addition confirms ‘from this Woden sprang all our royal family as well as that of the peoples dwelling south of the Humber.’ At about this time, too, king lists, supposedly drawn up by the royal scops (the equivalent of the poet chroniclers that formerly recorded the oral traditions of the African kingdoms) purport to demonstrate the descent of historical figures from this mysterious personage. In the case of the kingdom of Lindsey (approximately modern Lincolnshire), which in Bede’s time was a province of Mercia, the king list is one of the few pieces of evidence of its one-time independent existence. At some later date a Christian gloss on an already fanciful lineage added an ancestor called ‘Scaef’, supposedly descended from Adam.
As always with oral traditions, the ear of faith is needed if one is to detect the ‘truth’, but it seems probable that the warrior aristocracies of eastern England may have believed this figure to be the father of Scyld, or Shield Scaefson, ‘the great ring giver’, whose ship burial forms the opening episode of Beowulf. The poet tells us that his warrior band, following the orders he had given them in life, bore the body out to the princely craft riding at its buoy in the harbour and there laid him out, by the mast, amidships. Then they piled his treasures around him, stepped a gold standard above him and launched him out on the waves alone in the sadly freighted vessel. ‘No man might tell who salvaged that cargo . . .’ The Sutton Hoo ship burial might have been a dry run for the scene – miraculously, over thirteen centuries were to elapse before it was recovered and in all that time it would seem ‘no man had salvaged the cargo’.
After ten years research on Saxon ships, Edwin and Joyce Gifford concluded that the original, 90-foot (27-metre) long Mound 1 ship, powered by sail and 38 oars/sweeps, could have had ‘a remarkable . . . sailing performance’.29 A half-scale model indicated the ability to reach and run in winds of Force 4 on the Beaufort Scale and of speeds of up to 10 knots sailing, or 6 knots rowing. A journey time of three days from Suffolk to the Jutland peninsula would have been quite feasible, apparently. The shallow 2-foot (60 cm) draft would have ensured sailing manoeuvrability in shallow coastal waters and the ability to ‘beach-land’ in conditions of high surf. A full-scale craft would have been well adapted to the waters of the east coast of England, the southern North Sea and the coasts of north-west Europe. Such craft as these could have brought the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons on the great raid of migration across the ‘gannet’s bath’.