The Norman Conquest of England

The Norman conquest of England (in Britain, often called the Norman Conquest or the Conquest) was the 11th-century invasion and occupation of England by an army of Norman, Breton, and French soldiers led by Duke William II of Normandy, later styled William the Conqueror.

William’s claim to the English throne derived from his familial relationship with the childless Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor, who may have encouraged William’s hopes for the throne. Edward died in January 1066 and was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson. The Norwegian king Harald Hardrada invaded northern England in September 1066 and was victorious at the Battle of Fulford, but Harold defeated and killed him at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. Within days, William landed in southern England. Harold marched south to confront him, leaving a significant portion of his army in the north. Harold’s army confronted William’s invaders on 14 October at the Battle of Hastings; William’s force defeated Harold, who was killed in the engagement.

Although William’s main rivals were gone, he still faced rebellions over the following years and was not secure on his throne until after 1072. The lands of the resisting English elite were confiscated; some of the elite fled into exile. To control his new kingdom, William granted lands to his followers and built castles commanding military strongpoints throughout the land. Other effects of the conquest included the court and government, the introduction of the Norman language as the language of the elites, and changes in the composition of the upper classes, as William enfeoffed lands to be held directly from the king. More gradual changes affected the agricultural classes and village life: the main change appears to have been the formal elimination of slavery, which may or may not have been linked to the invasion. There was little alteration in the structure of government, as the new Norman administrators took over many of the forms of Anglo-Saxon government.

n 911 the Carolingian French ruler Charles the Simple allowed a group of Vikings under their leader Rollo to settle in Normandy as part of the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. In exchange for the land, the Norsemen under Rollo were expected to provide protection along the coast against further Viking invaders. Their settlement proved successful, and the Vikings in the region became known as the “Northmen” from which “Normandy” and “Normans” are derived. The Normans quickly adopted the indigenous culture as they became assimilated by the French, renouncing paganism and converting to Christianity. They adopted the langue d’oïl of their new home and added features from their own Norse language, transforming it into the Norman language. They intermarried with the local population and used the territory granted to them as a base to extend the frontiers of the duchy westward, annexing territory including the Bessin, the Cotentin Peninsula and Avranches.

In 1002 English king Æthelred the Unready married Emma of Normandy, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Their son Edward the Confessor, who spent many years in exile in Normandy, succeeded to the English throne in 1042. This led to the establishment of a powerful Norman interest in English politics, as Edward drew heavily on his former hosts for support, bringing in Norman courtiers, soldiers, and clerics and appointing them to positions of power, particularly in the Church. Childless and embroiled in conflict with the formidable Godwin, Earl of Wessex and his sons, Edward may also have encouraged Duke William of Normandy’s ambitions for the English throne.

When King Edward died at the beginning of 1066, the lack of a clear heir led to a disputed succession in which several contenders laid claim to the throne of England. Edward’s immediate successor was the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, the richest and most powerful of the English aristocrats. Harold was elected king by the Witenagemot of England and crowned by the Archbishop of York, Ealdred, although Norman propaganda claimed the ceremony was performed by Stigand, the uncanonically elected Archbishop of Canterbury.

Harold was immediately challenged by two powerful neighbouring rulers. Duke William claimed that he had been promised the throne by King Edward and that Harold had sworn agreement to this; King Harald III of Norway, commonly known as Harald Hardrada, also contested the succession. His claim to the throne was based on an agreement between his predecessor, Magnus the Good, and the earlier English king, Harthacnut, whereby if either died without heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway. William and Harald at once set about assembling troops and ships to invade England.

13th-century depiction of Rollo (top) and his descendants William I Longsword and Richard I of Normandy.

Tostig’s raids and the Norwegian invasion

In early 1066, Harold’s exiled brother, Tostig Godwinson, raided southeastern England with a fleet he had recruited in Flanders, later joined by other ships from Orkney. Threatened by Harold’s fleet, Tostig moved north and raided in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, but he was driven back to his ships by the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria.

Deserted by most of his followers, Tostig withdrew to Scotland, where he spent the summer recruiting fresh forces. King Harold spent the summer on the south coast with a large army and fleet waiting for William to invade, but the bulk of his forces were militia who needed to harvest their crops, so on 8 September Harold dismissed them.

King Harald Hardrada invaded northern England in early September, leading a fleet of more than 300 ships carrying perhaps 15,000 men. Harald’s army was further augmented by the forces of Tostig, who threw his support behind the Norwegian king’s bid for the throne.

Viking army

Advancing on York, the Norwegians defeated a northern English army under Edwin and Morcar on 20 September at the Battle of Fulford. The two earls had rushed to engage the Norwegian forces before King Harold could arrive from the south. Although Harold Godwinson had married Edwin and Morcar’s sister Ealdgyth, the two earls may have distrusted Harold and feared that the king would replace Morcar with Tostig.

The end result was that their forces were devastated and unable to participate in the rest of the campaigns of 1066, although the two earls survived the battle.

Hardrada moved on to York, which surrendered to him. After taking hostages from the leading men of the city, on 24 September the Norwegians moved east to the tiny village of Stamford Bridge. King Harold probably learned of the Norwegian invasion in mid-September and rushed north, gathering forces as he went.

The royal forces probably took nine days to cover the distance from London to York, averaging almost 25 miles (40 kilometres) per day. At dawn on 25 September Harold’s forces reached York, where he learned the location of the Norwegians. The English then marched on the invaders and took them by surprise, defeating them in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald of Norway and Tostig were killed, and the Norwegians suffered such horrific losses that only 24 of the original 300 ships were required to carry away the survivors. The English victory was costly, however, as Harold’s army was left in a battered and weakened state, and far from the English Channel.

Stamford Bridge, East Riding in Yorkshire.

William assembled a large invasion fleet and an army gathered from Normandy and all over France, including large contingents from Brittany and Flanders. He mustered his forces at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and was ready to cross the Channel by about 12 August. The exact numbers and composition of William’s force are unknown. A contemporary document claims that William had 726 ships, but this may be an inflated figure. Figures given by contemporary writers are highly exaggerated, varying from 14,000 to 150,000 men. Modern historians have offered a range of estimates for the size of William’s forces: 7000–8000 men, 1000–2000 of them cavalry; 10,000–12,000 men; 10,000 men, 3000 of them cavalry; or 7500 men.

The army would have consisted of a mix of cavalry, infantry, and archers or crossbowmen, with about equal numbers of cavalry and archers and the foot soldiers equal in number to the other two types combined. Although later lists of companions of William the Conqueror are extant, most are padded with extra names; only about 35 individuals can be reliably claimed to have been with William at Hastings.

William of Poitiers states that William obtained Pope Alexander II‘s consent for the invasion, signified by a papal banner, along with diplomatic support from other European rulers. Although Alexander did give papal approval to the conquest after it succeeded, no other source claims papal support before the invasion. William’s army assembled during the summer while an invasion fleet in Normandy was constructed. Although the army and fleet were ready by early August, adverse winds kept the ships in Normandy until late September. There were probably other reasons for William’s delay, including intelligence reports from England revealing that Harold’s forces were deployed along the coast. William would have preferred to delay the invasion until he could make an unopposed landing.

Landing in England scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting ships coming in and horses landing.

The Normans crossed to England a few days after Harold’s victory over the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge on 25 September, following the dispersal of Harold’s naval force. They landed at Pevensey in Sussex on 28 September and erected a wooden castle at Hastings, from which they raided the surrounding area. This ensured supplies for the army, and as Harold and his family held many of the lands in the area, it weakened William’s opponent and made him more likely to attack to put an end to the raiding.

Harold, after defeating his brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada in the north, left much of his force there, including Morcar and Edwin, and marched the rest of his army south to deal with the threatened Norman invasion. It is unclear when Harold learned of William’s landing, but it was probably while he was travelling south. Harold stopped in London for about a week before reaching Hastings, so it is likely that he took a second week to march south, averaging about 27 miles (43 kilometres) per day, for the nearly 200 miles (320 kilometres) to London.

Although Harold attempted to surprise the Normans, William’s scouts reported the English arrival to the duke. The exact events preceding the battle remain obscure, with contradictory accounts in the sources, but all agree that William led his army from his castle and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken up a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill (present-day Battle, East Sussex), about 6 miles (10 kilometres) from William’s castle at Hastings.

Contemporary sources do not give reliable data on the size and composition of Harold’s army, although two Norman sources give figures of 1.2 million or 400,000 men. Recent historians have suggested figures of between 5000 and 13,000 for Harold’s army at Hastings, but most agree on a range of between 7000 and 8000 English troops.

These men would have comprised a mix of the fyrd (militia mainly composed of foot soldiers) and the housecarls, or nobleman’s personal troops, who usually also fought on foot. The main difference between the two types was in their armour; the housecarls used better protecting armour than that of the fyrd.

The English army does not appear to have had many archers, although some were present. The identities of few of the Englishmen at Hastings are known; the most important were Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. About 18 other named individuals can reasonably be assumed to have fought with Harold at Hastings, including two other relatives.

The Battle of Hastings as depicted from a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry.

The battle began at about 9 am on 14 October 1066 and lasted all day, but while a broad outline is known, the exact events are obscured by contradictory accounts in the sources. Although the numbers on each side were probably about equal, William had both cavalry and infantry, including many archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and few archers.

The English soldiers formed up as a shield wall along the ridge, and were at first so effective that William’s army was thrown back with heavy casualties. Some of William’s Breton troops panicked and fled, and some of the English troops appear to have pursued the fleeing Bretons. Norman cavalry then attacked and killed the pursuing troops. While the Bretons were fleeing, rumours swept the Norman forces that the duke had been killed, but William rallied his troops. Twice more the Normans made feigned withdrawals, tempting the English into pursuit, and allowing the Norman cavalry to attack them repeatedly.

The available sources are more confused about events in the afternoon, but it appears that the decisive event was the death of Harold, about which differing stories are told. William of Jumieges claimed that Harold was killed by the duke. The Bayeux Tapestry has been claimed to show Harold’s death by an arrow to the eye, but this may be a later reworking of the tapestry to conform to 12th-century stories that Harold had died from an arrow wound to the head. Other sources stated that no one knew how Harold died because the press of battle was so tight around the king that the soldiers could not see who struck the fatal blow. William of Poitiers gives no details at all about Harold’s death.

Likely depiction of Harold’s death from the Bayeux Tapestry.

The day after the battle, Harold’s body was identified, either by his armour or marks on his body. The bodies of the English dead, who included some of Harold’s brothers and his housecarls, were left on the battlefield, although some were removed by relatives later.

Gytha, Harold’s mother, offered the victorious duke the weight of her son’s body in gold for its custody, but her offer was refused. William ordered that Harold’s body be thrown into the sea, but whether that took place is unclear.

Another story relates that Harold was buried at the top of a cliff. Waltham Abbey, which had been founded by Harold, later claimed that his body had been buried there secretly. Later legends claimed that Harold did not die at Hastings, but escaped and became a hermit at Chester.

After his victory at Hastings, William expected to receive the submission of the surviving English leaders, but instead Edgar the Ætheling was proclaimed king by the Witenagemot, with the support of Earls Edwin and Morcar, Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ealdred, the Archbishop of York.

William therefore advanced, marching around the coast of Kent to London. He defeated an English force that attacked him at Southwark, but being unable to storm London Bridge he sought to reach the capital by a more circuitous route.

William moved up the Thames valley to cross the river at Wallingford, Berkshire; while there he received the submission of Stigand. He then travelled north-east along the Chilterns, before advancing towards London from the north-west, fighting further engagements against forces from the city. Having failed to muster an effective military response, Edgar’s leading supporters lost their nerve, and the English leaders surrendered to William at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

William was acclaimed King of England and crowned by Ealdred on 25 December 1066, in Westminster Abbey. The new king attempted to conciliate the remaining English nobility by confirming Morcar, Edwin and Waltheof, the Earl of Northumbria, in their lands as well as giving some land to Edgar the Ætheling. William remained in England until March 1067, when he returned to Normandy with English prisoners, including Stigand, Morcar, Edwin, Edgar the Ætheling, and Waltheof.

Westminster Abbey

First rebellions

Despite the submission of the English nobles, resistance continued for several years. William left control of England in the hands of his half-brother Odo and one of his closest supporters, William fitzOsbern. In 1067 rebels in Kent launched an unsuccessful attack on Dover Castle in combination with Eustace II of Boulogne.

The Shropshire landowner Eadric the Wild, in alliance with the Welsh rulers of Gwynedd and Powys, raised a revolt in western Mercia, fighting Norman forces based in Hereford. These events forced William to return to England at the end of 1067. In 1068 William besieged rebels in Exeter, including Harold’s mother Gytha, and after suffering heavy losses managed to negotiate the town’s surrender.

In May, William’s wife Matilda was crowned queen at Westminster, an important symbol of William’s growing international stature. Later in the year Edwin and Morcar raised a revolt in Mercia with Welsh assistance, while Gospatric, the newly appointed Earl of Northumbria, led a rising in Northumbria, which had not yet been occupied by the Normans. These rebellions rapidly collapsed as William moved against them, building castles and installing garrisons as he had already done in the south.

Edwin and Morcar again submitted, while Gospatric fled to Scotland, as did Edgar the Ætheling and his family, who may have been involved in these revolts. Meanwhile, Harold’s sons, who had taken refuge in Ireland, raided Somerset, Devon and Cornwall from the sea.

Revolts of 1069

The remains of Baile Hill, the second motte-and-bailey castle built by William in York.

Early in 1069 the newly installed Norman Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Comines, and several hundred soldiers accompanying him were massacred at Durham; the Northumbrian rebellion was joined by Edgar, Gospatric, Siward Barn and other rebels who had taken refuge in Scotland. The castellan of York, Robert fitzRichard, was defeated and killed, and the rebels besieged the Norman castle at York.

William hurried north with an army, defeated the rebels outside York and pursued them into the city, massacring the inhabitants and bringing the revolt to an end. He built a second castle at York, strengthened Norman forces in Northumbria and then returned south. A subsequent local uprising was crushed by the garrison of York.

Harold’s sons launched a second raid from Ireland and were defeated in Devon by Norman forces under Count Brian, a son of Eudes, Count of Penthièvre. In August or September 1069 a large fleet sent by Sweyn II of Denmark arrived off the coast of England, sparking a new wave of rebellions across the country.

After abortive raids in the south, the Danes joined forces with a new Northumbrian uprising, which was also joined by Edgar, Gospatric and the other exiles from Scotland as well as Waltheof. The combined Danish and English forces defeated the Norman garrison at York, seized the castles and took control of Northumbria, although a raid into Lincolnshire led by Edgar was defeated by the Norman garrison of Lincoln.

Danish Fleet

At the same time resistance flared up again in western Mercia, where the forces of Eadric the Wild, together with his Welsh allies and further rebel forces from Cheshire and Shropshire, attacked the castle at Shrewsbury. In the south-west, rebels from Devon and Cornwall attacked the Norman garrison at Exeter, but were repulsed by the defenders and scattered by a Norman relief force under Count Brian.

Other rebels from Dorset, Somerset and neighbouring areas besieged Montacute Castle but were defeated by a Norman army gathered from London, Winchester and Salisbury under Geoffrey of Coutances. Meanwhile, William attacked the Danes, who had moored for the winter south of the Humber in Lincolnshire, and drove them back to the north bank.

Leaving Robert of Mortain in charge of Lincolnshire, he turned west and defeated the Mercian rebels in battle at Stafford. When the Danes attempted to return to Lincolnshire, the Norman forces there again drove them back across the Humber.

William advanced into Northumbria, defeating an attempt to block his crossing of the swollen River Aire at Pontefract. The Danes fled at his approach, and he occupied York. He bought off the Danes, who agreed to leave England in the spring, and during the winter of 1069–70 his forces systematically devastated Northumbria in the Harrying of the North, subduing all resistance. As a symbol of his renewed authority over the north, William ceremonially wore his crown at York on Christmas Day 1069.

In early 1070, having secured the submission of Waltheof and Gospatric, and driven Edgar and his remaining supporters back to Scotland, William returned to Mercia, where he based himself at Chester and crushed all remaining resistance in the area before returning to the south.

Papal legates arrived and at Easter re-crowned William, which would have symbolically reasserted his right to the kingdom. William also oversaw a purge of prelates from the Church, most notably Stigand, who was deposed from Canterbury. The papal legates also imposed penances on William and those of his supporters who had taken part in Hastings and the subsequent campaigns.

As well as Canterbury, the see of York had become vacant following the death of Ealdred in September 1069. Both sees were filled by men loyal to William: Lanfranc, abbot of William’s foundation at Caen, received Canterbury while Thomas of Bayeux, one of William’s chaplains, was installed at York. Some other bishoprics and abbeys also received new bishops and abbots and William confiscated some of the wealth of the English monasteries, which had served as repositories for the assets of the native nobles.

Danish troubles

Coin of Sweyn II of Denmark.

In 1070 Sweyn II of Denmark arrived to take personal command of his fleet and renounced the earlier agreement to withdraw, sending troops into the Fens to join forces with English rebels led by Hereward the Wake, at that time based on the Isle of Ely. Sweyn soon accepted a further payment of Danegeld from William, and returned home.

After the departure of the Danes the Fenland rebels remained at large, protected by the marshes, and early in 1071 there was a final outbreak of rebel activity in the area. Edwin and Morcar again turned against William, and although Edwin was quickly betrayed and killed, Morcar reached Ely, where he and Hereward were joined by exiled rebels who had sailed from Scotland.

William arrived with an army and a fleet to finish off this last pocket of resistance. After some costly failures the Normans managed to construct a pontoon to reach the Isle of Ely, defeated the rebels at the bridgehead and stormed the island, marking the effective end of English resistance. Morcar was imprisoned for the rest of his life; Hereward was pardoned and had his lands returned to him.

Last resistance

William faced difficulties in his continental possessions in 1071, but in 1072 he returned to England and marched north to confront King Malcolm III of Scotland. This campaign, which included a land army supported by a fleet, resulted in the Treaty of Abernethy in which Malcolm expelled Edgar the Ætheling from Scotland and agreed to some degree of subordination to William. The exact status of this subordination was unclear – the treaty merely stated that Malcolm became William’s man. Whether this meant only for Cumbria and Lothian or for the whole Scottish kingdom was left ambiguous.

In 1075, during William’s absence, Ralph de Gael, the Earl of Norfolk, and Roger de Breteuil the Earl of Hereford, conspired to overthrow him in the Revolt of the Earls. The exact reason for the rebellion is unclear, but it was launched at the wedding of Ralph to a relative of Roger’s, held at Exning. Another earl, Waltheof, despite being one of William’s favourites, was also involved, and some Breton lords were ready to offer support.

Ralph also requested Danish aid. William remained in Normandy while his men in England subdued the revolt. Roger was unable to leave his stronghold in Herefordshire because of efforts by Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester, and Æthelwig, the Abbot of Evesham. Ralph was bottled up in Norwich Castle by the combined efforts of Odo of Bayeux, Geoffrey of Coutances, Richard fitzGilbert, and William de Warenne. Norwich was besieged and surrendered, and Ralph went into exile. Meanwhile, the Danish king’s brother, Cnut, had finally arrived in England with a fleet of 200 ships, but he was too late as Norwich had already surrendered. The Danes then raided along the coast before returning home.

aerial photograph of Norwich Castle , Norfolk, England UK. Norwich Castle was built under the orders of William the Conqueror shortly after the Norman Conquest in order to secure his rule.The Castle was captured by Hugh Bigod during the rebellion of 1173-74 but handed back to the Crown at the end of the revolt.The Castle was used as a Gaol from 1220 to 1887 and was converted to a museum in 1897, a role which it fulfils to the present day.

William did not return to England until later in 1075, to deal with the Danish threat and the aftermath of the rebellion, celebrating Christmas at Winchester. Roger and Waltheof were kept in prison, where Waltheof was executed in May 1076. By that time William had returned to the continent, where Ralph was continuing the rebellion from Brittany.

Once England had been conquered, the Normans faced many challenges in maintaining control. They were few in number compared to the native English population; including those from other parts of France, historians estimate the number of Norman landholders at around 8000. William’s followers expected and received lands and titles in return for their service in the invasion, but William claimed ultimate possession of the land in England over which his armies had given him de facto control, and asserted the right to dispose of it as he saw fit.

Henceforth, all land was “held” directly from the king in feudal tenure in return for military service. A Norman lord typically had properties located in a piecemeal fashion throughout England and Normandy, and not in a single geographic block.

To find the lands to compensate his Norman followers, William initially confiscated the estates of all the English lords who had fought and died with Harold and redistributed part of their lands. These confiscations led to revolts, which resulted in more confiscations, a cycle that continued for five years after the Battle of Hastings.

To put down and prevent further rebellions the Normans constructed castles and fortifications in unprecedented numbers, initially mostly on the motte-and-bailey pattern. Historian Robert Liddiard remarks that “to glance at the urban landscape of Norwich, Durham or Lincoln is to be forcibly reminded of the impact of the Norman invasion”.

The Tower of London, originally begun by William the Conqueror to control London.

William and his barons also exercised tighter control over inheritance of property by widows and daughters, often forcing marriages to Normans.

A measure of William’s success in taking control is that, from 1072 until the Capetian conquest of Normandy in 1204, William and his successors were largely absentee rulers. For example, after 1072, William spent more than 75 per cent of his time in France rather than England. While he needed to be personally present in Normandy to defend the realm from foreign invasion and put down internal revolts, he set up royal administrative structures that enabled him to rule England from a distance.

Elite replacement

A direct consequence of the invasion was the almost total elimination of the old English aristocracy and the loss of English control over the Catholic Church in England. William systematically dispossessed English landowners and conferred their property on his continental followers. The Domesday Book meticulously documents the impact of this colossal programme of expropriation, revealing that by 1086 only about 5 per cent of land in England south of the Tees was left in English hands. Even this tiny residue was further diminished in the decades that followed, the elimination of native landholding being most complete in southern parts of the country.

Natives were also removed from high governmental and ecclesiastical office. After 1075 all earldoms were held by Normans, and Englishmen were only occasionally appointed as sheriffs. Likewise in the Church, senior English office-holders were either expelled from their positions or kept in place for their lifetimes and replaced by foreigners when they died. By 1096 no bishopric was held by any Englishman, and English abbots became uncommon, especially in the larger monasteries.

English emigration

The Varangian Guard, Byzantine mercenaries, largely recruited from Viking territories in the north of Europe.

Following the conquest, many Anglo-Saxons, including groups of nobles, fled the country for Scotland, Ireland, or Scandinavia. Members of King Harold Godwinson’s family sought refuge in Ireland and used their bases in that country for unsuccessful invasions of England.

The largest single exodus occurred in the 1070s, when a group of Anglo-Saxons in a fleet of 235 ships sailed for the Byzantine Empire. The empire became a popular destination for many English nobles and soldiers, as the Byzantines were in need of mercenaries.

The English became the predominant element in the elite Varangian Guard, until then a largely Scandinavian unit, from which the emperor’s bodyguard was drawn. Some of the English migrants were settled in Byzantine frontier regions on the Black Sea coast, and established towns with names such as New London and New York.

Before the Normans arrived, Anglo-Saxon governmental systems were more sophisticated than their counterparts in Normandy. All of England was divided into administrative units called shires, with subdivisions; the royal court was the centre of government, and a justice system based on local and regional tribunals existed to secure the rights of free men. Shires were run by officials known as shire reeves or sheriffs. Most medieval governments were always on the move, holding court wherever the weather and food or other matters were best at the moment; England had a permanent treasury at Winchester before William’s conquest.

One major reason for the strength of the English monarchy was the wealth of the kingdom, built on the English system of taxation that included a land tax, or the geld. English coinage was also superior to most of the other currency in use in northwestern Europe, and the ability to mint coins was a royal monopoly.

The English kings had also developed the system of issuing writs to their officials, in addition to the normal medieval practice of issuing charters. Writs were either instructions to an official or group of officials, or notifications of royal actions such as appointments to office or a grant of some sort.

This sophisticated medieval form of government was handed over to the Normans and was the foundation of further developments. They kept the framework of government but made changes in the personnel, although at first the new king attempted to keep some natives in office.

By the end of William’s reign most of the officials of government and the royal household were Normans. The language of official documents also changed, from Old English to Latin. The forest laws were introduced, leading to the setting aside of large sections of England as royal forest.

The Domesday survey was an administrative catalogue of the landholdings of the kingdom, and was unique to medieval Europe. It was divided into sections based on the shires, and listed all the landholdings of each tenant-in-chief of the king as well as who had held the land before the conquest.

Page from the Warwickshire Domesday survey.

Language

One of the most obvious effects of the conquest was the introduction of Anglo-Norman, a northern dialect of Old French, as the language of the ruling classes in England, displacing Old English. French words entered the English language, and a further sign of the shift was the usage of names common in France instead of Anglo-Saxon names.

Male names such as William, Robert and Richard soon became common; female names changed more slowly. The Norman invasion had little impact on placenames, which had changed significantly after earlier Scandinavian invasions.

It is not known precisely how much English the Norman invaders learned, nor how much the knowledge of French spread among the lower classes, but the demands of trade and basic communication probably meant that at least some of the Normans and native English were bilingual. Nevertheless, William the Conqueror never developed a working knowledge of English and for centuries afterwards English was not well understood by the nobility.

Immigration and intermarriage

An estimated 8000 Normans and other continentals settled in England as a result of the conquest, although exact figures cannot be established. Some of these new residents intermarried with the native English, but the extent of this practice in the years immediately after Hastings is unclear.

Several marriages are attested between Norman men and English women during the years before 1100, but such marriages were uncommon. Most Normans continued to contract marriages with other Normans or other continental families rather than with the English. Within a century of the invasion, intermarriage between the native English and the Norman immigrants had become common. By the early 1160s, Ailred of Rievaulx was writing that intermarriage was common in all levels of society.

Society

Modern-day reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow.

The impact of the conquest on the lower levels of English society is difficult to assess. The major change was the elimination of slavery in England, which had disappeared by the middle of the 12th century.[ There were about 28,000 slaves listed in Domesday Book in 1086, fewer than had been enumerated for 1066. In some places, such as Essex, the decline in slaves was 20 per cent for the 20 years.

The main reasons for the decline in slaveholding appear to have been the disapproval of the Church and the cost of supporting slaves, who unlike serfs, had to be maintained entirely by their owners. The practice of slavery was not outlawed, and the Leges Henrici Primi from the reign of King Henry I continue to mention slaveholding as legal.

Many of the free peasants of Anglo-Saxon society appear to have lost status and become indistinguishable from the non-free serfs. Whether this change was due entirely to the conquest is unclear, but the invasion and its after-effects probably accelerated a process already under way.

The spread of towns and increase in nucleated settlements in the countryside, rather than scattered farms, was probably accelerated by the coming of the Normans to England. The lifestyle of the peasantry probably did not greatly change in the decades after 1066.

Although earlier historians argued that women became less free and lost rights with the conquest, current scholarship has mostly rejected this view. Little is known about women other than those in the landholding class, so no conclusions can be drawn about peasant women’s status after 1066.

Noblewomen appear to have continued to influence political life mainly through their kinship relationships. Both before and after 1066 aristocratic women could own land, and some women continued to have the ability to dispose of their property as they wished.

Historiography

Debate over the conquest started almost immediately. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when discussing the death of William the Conqueror, denounced him and the conquest in verse, but the king’s obituary notice from William of Poitiers, a Frenchman, was full of praise. Historians since then have argued over the facts of the matter and how to interpret them, with little agreement.

The theory or myth of the “Norman yoke” arose in the 17th century, the idea that Anglo-Saxon society had been freer and more equal than the society that emerged after the conquest. This theory owes more to the period it was developed in than to historical facts, but it continues to be used in both political and popular thought to the present day.

In the 20th and 21st centuries historians have focused less on the rightness or wrongness of the conquest itself, instead concentrating on the effects of the invasion. Some, such as Richard Southern, have seen the conquest as a critical turning point in history. Southern stated that “no country in Europe, between the rise of the barbarian kingdoms and the 20th century, has undergone so radical a change in so short a time as England experienced after 1066”.

Other historians, such as H. G. Richardson and G. O. Sayles, believe that the transformation was less radical. In more general terms, Singman has called the conquest “the last echo of the national migrations that characterized the early Middle Ages”. The debate over the impact of the conquest depends on how change after 1066 is measured.

If Anglo-Saxon England was already evolving before the invasion, with the introduction of feudalism, castles or other changes in society, then the conquest, while important, did not represent radical reform. But the change was dramatic if measured by the elimination of the English nobility or the loss of Old English as a literary language. Nationalistic arguments have been made on both sides of the debate, with the Normans cast as either the persecutors of the English or the rescuers of the country from a decadent Anglo-Saxon nobility.

References

 

 

The Varangian Guard [Documentary]

The Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα τῶν Βαράγγων, Tágma tōn Varángōn) was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors.

They are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Norsemen (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking Age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon diaspora, part of which found employment in Constantinople).

The Rus’ (Norsemen descended from Sweden living in what is now Ukraine and Belarus) provided the earliest members of the Varangian Guard. They were in Byzantine service from as early as 874. The Guard was first formally constituted under Emperor Basil II in 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ by Vladimir I of Kiev. Vladimir, who had recently usurped power in Kiev with an army of Varangian warriors, sent 6,000 men to Basil as part of a military assistance agreement. Basil’s distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen, whose loyalties often shifted, with fatal consequences, as well as the proven loyalty of the Varangians, many of whom had previously served in Byzantium, led the Emperor to employ them as his personal guardsmen.

Immigrants from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland kept a predominantly Norse cast to the organization until the late 11th century. It is known that most of the Varangians were from what is today Sweden due to the majority of Runestones left there.

According to the late Swedish historian Alf Henriksson in his book Svensk Historia (History of Sweden), the Scandinavian Varangian guardsmen were recognized by long hair, a red ruby set in the left ear and ornamented dragons sewn on their chainmail shirts. In these years, Scandinavian men left to enlist in the Byzantine Varangian Guard in such numbers that a medieval Swedish law, Västergötlagen, from Västergötland declared no one could inherit while staying in “Greece”—the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire—to stop the emigration, especially as two other European courts simultaneously also recruited Scandinavians: Kievan Rus’ c. 980–1060 and London 1018–1066 (the Þingalið).

Composed primarily of Norsemen and Rus for the first 100 years, the Guard began to see increased numbers of Anglo-Saxons after the Norman conquest of England. By the time of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the late 11th century, the Varangian Guard was largely recruited from Anglo-Saxons and “others who had suffered at the hands of the Vikings and their cousins the Normans”.

The Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples shared with the Vikings a tradition of faithful (to death if necessary) oath-bound service, and the Norman invasion of England resulted in many fighting men who had lost their lands and former masters and were looking for positions elsewhere.

The Varangian Guard not only provided security for the Byzantine emperors, but also participated in many wars, often playing a decisive role, since they were usually deployed at critical moments of a battle. By the late 13th century, Varangians were mostly ethnically assimilated by the Byzantine Greeks, though the Guard remained in existence until at least mid-14th century. In 1400, there were still some people identifying themselves as “Varangians” in Constantinople.

References

  • Buckler, Georgina. Anna Komnena: A Study. Oxford: University Press, 1929.
  • Blondal, Sigfus. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN 0-521-21745-8.
  • D’Amato, Raffaele. The Varangian Guard 988-1453. Osprey Publishing, 2010. ISBN 1849081794.
  • Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: 1976. ISBN 0-04-940049-5.
  • Enoksen, Lars Magnar. (1998). Runor : historia, tydning, tolkning. Historiska Media, Falun. ISBN 91-88930-32-7.
  • Jansson, Sven B. (1980). Runstenar. STF, Stockholm. ISBN 91-7156-015-7.
  • Jakobsson, Sverrir (2008). “The Schism that never was: Old Norse views on Byzantium and Russia”. Byzantinoslavica. Slovanský ústav Akademie věd ČR, v. v. i. and Euroslavica. pp. 173–88.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The Venerable Bede

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Latin: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum), written by the Venerable Bede in about AD 731, is a history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally; its main focus is on the conflict between the pre-Schism Roman Rite and Celtic Christianity.

It was originally composed in Latin, is considered to be one of the most important original references on Anglo-Saxon history and has played a key role in the development of an English national identity. It is believed to have been completed in 731 when Bede was approximately 59 years old.

Folio 3v from the St Petersburg Bede

The Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People is Bede’s best-known work, completed in about 731. The first of the five books begins with some geographical background and then sketches the history of England, beginning with Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC. A brief account of Christianity in Roman Britain, including the martyrdom of St Alban, is followed by the story of Augustine’s mission to England in 597, which brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons.

The second book begins with the death of Gregory the Great in 604, and follows the further progress of Christianity in Kent and the first attempts to evangelise Northumbria. These encountered a setback when Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, killed the newly Christian Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in about 632. The setback was temporary, and the third book recounts the growth of Christianity in Northumbria under kings Oswald and Oswy.

The climax of the third book is the account of the Council of Whitby, traditionally seen as a major turning point in English history. The fourth book begins with the consecration of Theodore as Archbishop of Canterbury, and recounts Wilfrid‘s efforts to bring Christianity to the kingdom of Sussex.

The fifth book brings the story up to Bede’s day, and includes an account of missionary work in Frisia, and of the conflict with the British church over the correct dating of Easter. Bede wrote a preface for the work, in which he dedicates it to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria. The preface mentions that Ceolwulf received an earlier draft of the book; presumably Ceolwulf knew enough Latin to understand it, and he may even have been able to read it.

Frisia in present day Holland and west Denmark

The preface makes it clear that Ceolwulf had requested the earlier copy, and Bede had asked for Ceolwulf’s approval; this correspondence with the king indicates that Bede’s monastery had excellent connections among the Northumbrian nobility.

Divided into five books (about 400 pages), the Historia covers the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Julius Caesar to the date of its completion (731). The first twenty-one chapters, covering the period before the mission of Augustine, are compiled from earlier writers such as Orosius, Gildas, Prosper of Aquitaine, the letters of Pope Gregory I, and others, with the insertion of legends and traditions.

Pope Saint Gregory I

After AD 596, documentary sources that Bede took pains to obtain throughout England and from Rome are used, as well as oral testimony, which he employed along with critical consideration of its authenticity. This is impressive; nevertheless, the Historia, like other historical writing from this period has a lower degree of objectivity than modern historical writings.

It seems to be a mixture of fact, legend and literature. For example, Bede quotes at length some speeches by people who were not his contemporaries and whose speeches do not appear in any other surviving source; it is doubtful whether oral traditional history supported these ostensible quotations.

The monastery at Jarrow had an excellent library. Both Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith had acquired books from the Continent, and in Bede’s day the monastery was a renowned centre of learning.

For the period prior to Augustine’s arrival in 597, Bede drew on earlier writers, including Orosius, Eutropius, Pliny, and Solinus. He used Constantius‘s Life of Germanus as a source for Germanus‘s visits to Britain. Bede’s account of the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons is drawn largely from Gildas‘s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. Bede would also have been familiar with more recent accounts such as Eddius Stephanus‘s Life of Wilfrid, and anonymous Lives of Gregory the Great and Cuthbert. He also drew on Josephus‘s Antiquities, and the works of Cassiodorus, and there was a copy of the Liber Pontificalis in Bede’s monastery.

Saint Germanus of Auxerre

Bede also had correspondents who supplied him with material. Albinus, the abbot of the monastery in Canterbury, provided much information about the church in Kent, and with the assistance of Nothhelm, at that time a priest in London, obtained copies of Gregory the Great‘s correspondence from Rome relating to Augustine’s mission.

Almost all of Bede’s information regarding Augustine is taken from these letters, which includes the Libellus responsionum, as chapter 27 of book 1 is often known. Bede acknowledged his correspondents in the preface to the Historia Ecclesiastica; he was in contact with Daniel, the Bishop of Winchester, for information about the history of the church in Wessex, and also wrote to the monastery at Lastingham for information about Cedd and Chad. Bede also mentions an Abbot Esi as a source for the affairs of the East Anglian church, and Bishop Cynibert for information about Lindsey.

The historian Walter Goffart argues that Bede based the structure of the Historia on three works, using them as the framework around which the three main sections of the work were structured. For the early part of the work, up until the Gregorian mission, Goffart asserts that Bede used Gildas‘s De excidio. The second section, detailing the Gregorian mission of Augustine of Canterbury was framed on the anonymous Life of Gregory the Great written at Whitby.

The last section, detailing events after the Gregorian mission, Goffart asserts were modelled on Stephen of Ripon‘s Life of Wilfrid. Most of Bede’s informants for information after Augustine’s mission came from the eastern part of Britain, leaving significant gaps in the knowledge of the western areas, which were those areas likely to have a native Briton presence.

Saint Gildas

The History of the English Church and People has a clear polemical and didactic purpose. Bede sets out not just to tell the story of the English, but to advance his views on politics and religion. In political terms he is a partisan of his native Northumbria, amplifying its role in English history over and above that of Mercia, its great southern rival. He takes greater pains in describing events of the seventh century, when Northumbria was the dominant Anglo-Saxon power, than the eighth, when it was not. The only criticism he ventures of his native Northumbria comes in writing about the death of King Ecgfrith in fighting the Picts at Nechtansmere in 685.

Bede attributes this defeat to God’s vengeance for the Northumbrian attack on the Irish in the previous year. For while Bede is loyal to Northumbria he shows an even greater attachment to the Irish and their missionaries, whom he considers to be far more effective and dedicated than their rather complacent English counterparts.

His final preoccupation is over the precise date of Easter, which he writes about at length. It is here, and only here, that he ventures some criticism of St Cuthbert and the Irish missionaries, who celebrated the event, according to Bede, at the wrong time. In the end he is pleased to note that the Irish Church was saved from error by accepting the correct date for Easter.

Bede’s stylistic models included some of the same authors from whom he drew the material for the earlier parts of his history. His introduction imitates the work of Orosius, and his title is an echo of Eusebius’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede also followed Eusebius in taking the Acts of the Apostles as the model for the overall work: where Eusebius used the Acts as the theme for his description of the development of the church, Bede made it the model for his history of the Anglo-Saxon church.

Bede quoted his sources at length in his narrative, as Eusebius had done. Bede also appears to have taken quotes directly from his correspondents at times. For example, he almost always uses the terms “Australes” and “Occidentales” for the South and West Saxons respectively, but in a passage in the first book he uses “Meridiani” and “Occidui” instead, as perhaps his informant had done. At the end of the work, Bede added a brief autobiographical note; this was an idea taken from Gregory of Tours‘ earlier History of the Franks.

Bede’s work as hagiographer, and his detailed attention to dating, were both useful preparations for the task of writing the Historia Ecclesiastica. His interest in computus, the science of calculating the date of Easter, was also useful in the account he gives of the controversy between the British and Anglo-Saxon church over the correct method of obtaining the Easter date.

The Venerable Bede

One of the important themes of the Historia Ecclesiastica is that the conversion of the British Isles to Christianity had all been the work of Irish and Italian missionaries, with no efforts made by the native Britons. This theme was developed from Gildas’ work, which denounced the sins of the native rulers during the invasions, with the elaboration by Bede that the invasion and settlement of the British Isles by the Angles and Saxons was God’s punishment for the lack of missionary effort and the refusal to accept the Roman date for celebrating Easter.

Although Bede discusses the history of Christianity in Roman Britain, it is significant that he utterly ignores the missionary work of Saint Patrick. He writes approvingly of Aidan and Columba, who came from Ireland as missionaries to the Picts and Northumbrians, but disapproved of the failure of the Welsh to evangelize the invading Anglo-Saxons. Bede was a partisan of Rome, regarding Gregory the Great, rather than Augustine, as the true apostle of the English.

Likewise, in his treatment of the conversion of the invaders, any native involvement is minimized, such as when discussing Chad of Mercia‘s first consecration, when Bede mentions that two British bishops took part in the consecration, thus invalidating it. No information is presented on who these two bishops were or where they came from. Also important is Bede’s view of the conversion process as an upper-class phenomenon, with little discussion of any missionary efforts among the non-noble or royal population.

Another view, taken by historian D. H. Farmer, is that the theme of the work is “the progression from diversity to unity”. According to Farmer, Bede took this idea from Gregory the Great, and illustrates it in his work by showing how Christianity brought together the native and invading races into one church. Farmer cites Bede’s intense interest in the schism over the correct date for Easter as support for this argument, and also cites the lengthy description of the Synod of Whitby, which Farmer regards as “the dramatic centre-piece of the whole work.”

The historian Alan Thacker wrote in 1983 that Bede’s works should be seen as advocating a monastic rather than secular ministry, and Thacker argues that Bede’s treatment of St Cuthbert is meant to make Cuthbert a role-model for the role of the clergy advocated by Gregory the Great.

The historian Walter Goffart says of the Historia that many modern historians find it a “tale of origins framed dynamically as the Providence-guided advance of a people from heathendom to Christianity; a cast of saints rather than rude warriors; a mastery of historical technique incomparable for its time; beauty of form and diction; and, not least, an author whose qualities of life and spirit set a model of dedicated scholarship.”

Goffart also feels that a major theme of the Historia is local, Northumbrian concerns, and that Bede treated matters outside Northumbria as secondary to his main concern with northern history. Goffart sees the writing of the Historia as motivated by a political struggle in Northumbria between a party devoted to Wilfrid, and those opposed to Wilfrid’s policies.

Much of the “current” history in the Historia is concerned with Wilfrid, who was a bishop in Northumbria and whose stormy career is documented not only in Bede’s works, but in a Life of Wilfrid. A theme in Bede’s treatment of Wilfrid is the need to minimize the conflict between Wilfrid and Theodore of Tarsus, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was involved in many of Wilfrid’s difficulties.

Theodore of Tarsus.

The Historia Ecclesiastica includes many accounts of miracles and visions. These were de rigueur in medieval religious narrative, but Bede appears to have avoided relating the more extraordinary tales; and, remarkably, he makes almost no claims for miraculous events at his own monastery.

There is no doubt that Bede did believe in miracles, but the ones he does include are often stories of healing, or of events that could plausibly be explained naturally. The miracles served the purpose of setting an example to the reader, and Bede explicitly states that his goal is to teach morality through history, saying “If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful reader is encouraged to imitate what is good; if it records evil of wicked men, the devout reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse.”

Bede apparently had no informant at any of the main Mercian religious houses. His information about Mercia came from Lastingham, in Northumbria, and from Lindsey, a province on the borders of Northumbria and Mercia. As a result, there are noticeable gaps in his coverage of Mercian church history, such as his omission of the division of the huge Mercian diocese by Theodore in the late 7th century. Bede’s regional bias is apparent.

There were clearly gaps in Bede’s knowledge, but Bede also says little on some topics that he must have been familiar with. For example, although Bede recounts Wilfrid’s missionary activities, he does not give a full account of his conflict with Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, or his ambition and aristocratic lifestyle.

Only the existence of other sources such as the Life of Wilfrid make it clear what Bede discreetly avoids saying. The omissions are not restricted to Wilfrid; Bede makes no mention at all of Boniface, though it is unlikely he knew little of him; and the final book contains less information about the church in his own day than could be expected.

A possible explanation for Bede’s discretion may be found in his comment that one should not make public accusations against church figures, no matter what their sins; Bede may have found little good to say about the church in his day and hence preferred to keep silent. It is clear that he did have fault to find; his letter to Ecgberht contains several criticisms of the church.

The Historia Ecclesiastica has more to say about episcopal events than it does about the monasteries of England. Bede does shed some light on monastic affairs; in particular he comments in book V that many Northumbrians are laying aside their arms and entering monasteries “rather than study the arts of war. What the result of this will be the future will show.” This veiled comment, another example of Bede’s discretion in commenting on current affairs, could be interpreted as ominous given Bede’s more specific criticism of quasi-monasteries in his letter to Ecgberht, written three years later.

Bede’s account of life at the court of the Anglo-Saxon kings includes little of the violence that Gregory of Tours mentions as a frequent occurrence at the Frankish court. It is possible that the courts were as different as their descriptions makes them appear but it is more likely that Bede omitted some of the violent reality. Bede states that he wrote the work as an instruction for rulers, in order that “the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good”. It also was no part of Bede’s purpose to describe the kings who did not convert to Christianity in the Historia.

Saint Gregory of Tours

In 725 Bede wrote The Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione), using something similar to the anno Domini era (BC/AD dating system) created by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525, continuing to use it throughout Historia Ecclesiastica (731), becoming very influential in causing that era to be adopted thereafter in Western Europe.

Specifically, he used anno ab incarnatione Domini (in the year from the incarnation of the Lord) or anno incarnationis dominicae (in the year of the incarnation of the Lord). He never abbreviated the term like the modern AD.

Bede counted anno Domini from Christ’s birth, not from Christ’s conception. Within this work, he was also the first writer to use a term similar to the English before Christ. In book I chapter 2 he used ante incarnationis dominicae tempus (before the time of the incarnation of the Lord). However, the latter was not very influential—only this isolated use was repeated by other writers during the rest of the Middle Ages. The first extensive use of “BC” (hundreds of times) occurred in Fasciculus Temporum by Werner Rolevinck in 1474, alongside years of the world (anno mundi).

An example of Werner Rolevinck’s work; a Roman timeline. Complicated layout in an illuminated manuscript.

Some early manuscripts contain additional annalistic entries that extend past the date of completion of the Historia Ecclesiastica, with the latest entry dated 766. No manuscripts earlier than the twelfth century contain these entries, except for the entries for 731 through 734, which do occur in earlier manuscripts. Much of the material replicates what is found in Simeon of Durham‘s chronicle; the remaining material is thought to derive from northern chronicles from the eighth century.

The Historia was translated into Old English sometime between the end of the ninth century and about 930; although the surviving manuscripts are predominantly in the West Saxon dialect, it is clear that the original contained Anglian features and so was presumably by a scholar from or trained in Mercia. The translation was once held to have been done by King Alfred of England, but this attribution is no longer accepted, and debate centres on how far it owes its origins to the patronage of Alfred and/or his associates.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest tranche of which was composed/compiled around the same time as the translation was may, drew heavily on the Historia, which formed the chronological framework of the early parts of the Chronicle.

Excerpt from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, created late in the 9th century.

The Historia Ecclesiastica was copied often in the Middle Ages, and about 160 manuscripts containing it survive. About half of those are located on the European continent, rather than on the British Isles. Most of the 8th- and 9th-century texts of Bede’s Historia come from the northern parts of the Carolingian Empire.

This total does not include manuscripts with only a part of the work, of which another 100 or so survive. It was printed for the first time between 1474 and 1482, probably at Strasbourg, France. Modern historians have studied the Historia extensively, and a number of editions have been produced. For many years, early Anglo-Saxon history was essentially a retelling of the Historia, but recent scholarship has focused as much on what Bede did not write as what he did. The belief that the Historia was the culmination of Bede’s works, the aim of all his scholarship, a belief common among historians in the past, is no longer accepted by most scholars.

The Historia Ecclesiastica has given Bede a high reputation, but his concerns were different from those of a modern writer of history. His focus on the history of the organization of the English church, and on heresies and the efforts made to root them out, led him to exclude the secular history of kings and kingdoms except where a moral lesson could be drawn or where they illuminated events in the church.

In the early Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Historia Brittonum, and Alcuin’s Versus de patribus, regibus et sanctis Eboracensis ecclesiae all drew heavily on the text. Likewise, the later medieval writers William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Geoffrey of Monmouth used his works as sources and inspirations.

Early modern writers, such as Polydore Virgil and Matthew Parker, the Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury, also utilized the Historia, and his works were used by both Protestant and Catholic sides in the Wars of Religion.

Some historians have questioned the reliability of some of Bede’s accounts. One historian, Charlotte Behr, asserts that the Historia’s account of the arrival of the Germanic invaders in Kent should be considered as current myth, not history.

Manuscripts of the Historia Ecclesiastica fall generally into two groups, known to historians as the “c-type” and the “m-type”. Charles Plummer, in his 1896 edition of Bede, identified six characteristic differences between the two manuscript types.

For example, the c-type manuscripts omit one of the miracles attributed to St Oswald in book IV, chapter 14, and the c-type also includes the years 733 and 734 in the chronological summary at the end of the work, whereas the m-type manuscripts stop with the year 731.

Plummer thought that this meant the m-type was definitely earlier than the c-type, but this has been disputed by Bertram Colgrave in his 1969 edition of the text. Colgrave points out that the addition of a couple of annals is a simple alteration for a copyist to make at any point in the manuscript history; he also notes that the omission of one of Oswald’s miracles is not the mistake of a copyist, and strongly implies that the m-type is a later revision.

Some genealogical relationships can be discerned among the numerous manuscripts that have survived. The earliest manuscripts used to establish the c-text and m-text are as follows. The letters under the “Version” column are identifying letters used by historians to refer to these manuscripts.

Version Type Location Manuscript
K c-text Kassel, Landesbibliothek 4° MS. theol. 2
C c-text London, British Museum Cotton Tiberius C. II
O c-text Oxford, Bodleian Library Hatton 43 (4106)
n/a c-text Zürich, Zentralbibliothek Rh. 95
M m-text Cambridge, University Library Kk. 5. 16
L m-text Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia Lat. Q. v. I. 18
U m-text Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August Bibliothek Weissenburg 34
E m-text Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek M. p. th. f. 118
N m-text Namur, Public Library Fonds de la ville 11

With few exceptions, Continental copies of the Historia Ecclesiastica are of the m-type, while English copies are of the c-type. Among the c-texts, manuscript K includes only books IV and V, but C and O are complete. O is a later text than C but is independent of it and so the two are a valuable check on correctness. They are thought to have both derived from an earlier manuscript, marked “c2” in the diagram, which does not survive.

A comparison of K and c2 yields an accurate understanding of the original c-text, but for the first three books, which are not in K, it is sometimes impossible to know if a variant reading in C and O represents the original state of the c-text, or is a variation only found in c2. One long chapter, book I chapter 27, is also found in another manuscript, Rh. 95 at the Zürich Zentralbibliothek; this is another witness to the c-text and appears to be independent of c2, and so is useful as a further cross-check on the c-text.

The m-text depends largely on manuscripts M and L, which are very early copies, made not long after Bede’s death. Both seem likely to have been taken from the original, though this is not certain. Three further manuscripts, U, E and N, are all apparently the descendants of a Northumbrian manuscript that does not survive but which went to the continent in the late-8th century. These three are all early manuscripts, but are less useful than might be thought, since L and M are themselves so close to the original.

The text of both the m-type and c-type seems to have been extremely accurately copied. Taking a consensus text from the earliest manuscripts, Bertram Colgrave counted 32 places where there was an apparent error of some kind. However, 26 of these are to be found within a transcription from an earlier source, and it is apparent by checking independent copies of those sources that in such cases Bede copied the mistake faithfully into his own text.

The relationships between some of the early manuscripts of the Historia Ecclesiastica

History of the Manuscripts

  • K appears to have been written in Northumbria in the late 8th century. Only books IV and V survive; the others were probably lost during the Middle Ages. The manuscript bears a 15th-century pressmark of the Abbey of Fulda.
  • C, also known as the Tiberius Bede, was written in the south of England in the second half of the 8th century. Plummer argued that it was from Durham, but this is dismissed by Colgrave. The manuscript contains glosses in Old English that were added in the south during the 9th century.
  • O dates to the early 11th century, and has subsequent corrections many of which are from the 12th century.
  • L, also known as the St Petersburg Bede, was copied by four scribes no later than 747. The scribes were probably at either Wearmouth or Jarrow Abbey.
  • M, also known as the Moore Bede, was written in Northumbria in 737 or shortly thereafter. The manuscript was owned at one time by John Moore, the Bishop of Ely, and as a result it is known as the Moore MS. Moore’s collection was purchased by King George I and given to Cambridge University in 1715, where it still resides.
  • U dates to the late 8th century, and is thought to be a copy, made on the continent, of an earlier Northumbrian manuscript (“c2” in the diagram above). It has been at Weissenburg since the end of the Middle Ages.
  • E dates from the middle third of the 9th century. In 800, a list was made of books at Würzburg cathedral; the list includes one Historia Anglorum and E may be a copy of that manuscript. Subsequently E is known to have been in the possession of Ebrach Abbey.
  • N was copied in the 9th century by several scribes; at one point it was owned by St Hubert in the Ardennes.

Manuscripts written before AD 900 include:

  • Corbie MS, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
  • St. Gall Monastery Library

Copies are sparse throughout the 10th century and for much of the 11th century. The greatest number of copies of Bede’s work was made in the 12th century, but there was a significant revival of interest in the 14th and 15th centuries. Many of the copies are of English provenance, but also surprisingly many are Continental.

The first printed copy of the Historia Ecclesiastica appeared from the press of Heinrich Eggestein in Strasbourg, probably between 1475 and 1480. A defect in the text allows the identification of the manuscript Eggestein used; it subsequently appeared in a catalogue of the Vienna Dominicans of 1513. Eggestein had also printed an edition of Rufinus‘s translation of Eusebius‘s Ecclesiastical History, and the two works were reprinted, bound as a single volume, on 14 March 1500 by Georg Husner, also of Strasbourg. Another reprint appeared on 7 December 1506, from Heinrich Gran and S. Ryman at Haguenau.

A Paris edition appeared in 1544, and in 1550 John de Grave produced an edition at Antwerp. Two reprints of this edition appeared, in 1566 and 1601. In 1563, Johann Herwagen included it in volume III of his eight-volume Opera Omnia, and this was in turn reprinted in 1612 and 1688. Michael Sonnius produced an edition in Paris in 1587, including the Historia Ecclesiastica in a collection of other historical works; and in 1587 Johann Commelin included it in a similar compilation, printed at Heidelberg. In 1643, Abraham Whelock produced at Cambridge an edition with the Old English text and the Latin text in parallel columns, the first in England.

All of the above editions were based on the C-text. The first edition to use the m-type manuscripts was printed by Pierre Chifflet in 1681, using a descendant of the Moore MS. For the 1722 edition, John Smith obtained the Moore MS., and also having access to two copies in the Cotton Library was able to print a very high quality edition. Smith undertook his edition under the influence of Thomas Gale, encouraged by Ralph Thoresby, and with assistance of Humfrey Wanley on Old English.

He spent the majority of his time residing in Cambridge, and working on it, but did not live to complete the preparation. His son George brought out in 1722 the Historiæ Ecclesiasticæ Gentis Anglorum Libri Quinque, auctore Venerabili Bæda … cura et studio Johannis Smith, S. T. P., Cambridge University Press. It contains also the preface to The Reckoning of Time, and a world-chronicle. It also had the Old English version of the Historia ecclesiastica. Smith’s edition is described by David C. Douglas as “an enormous advance” on previous ones, adding that textual criticism of Bede hardly then changed until 1896, when the Plummer edition appeared.

Subsequently the most notable edition was that of Charles Plummer, whose 1896 Venerabilis Bedae Opera Historica, with a full commentary, has been a foundation-stone for all subsequent scholarship.

Editions

  • 1475: Heinrich Eggestein, Strasbourg
  • 1550: John de Grave, Antwerp
  • 1587: Michael Sonnius, Paris
  • 1643: Abraham Whelock, Cambridge
  • 1722: John Smith, Cambridge
  • 1861: Migne, Patrologia Latina (vol. 95), reprint of Smith’s edition
  • 1896 Charles Plummer (ed.), Venerabilis Baedae Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis Anglorum, Historiam abbatum, Epistolam ad Ecgberctum una cum Historia abbatum auctore anonymo, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896).
  • 1969: Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (eds), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969 [corr. repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991])
  • 2005: Michael Lapidge (ed), Pierre Monat and Philippe Robin (trans.), Bède le Vénérable, Histoire ecclésiastique du peuple anglais = Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Sources chrétiennes, 489–91, 3 vols (Paris: Cerf, 2005).

Translations

  • Late ninth century: an anonymous, abbreviated translation into Old English by an anonymous scholar, possibly at the suggestion of Alfred the Great.[67][68]
  • 1565: Thomas Stapleton, Antwerp (Imprinted at Antwerp: By Iohn Laet, at the signe of the Rape)
  • 1849, John Allen Giles, London.
  • 1866: (in German) M. M. Wilden, Schaffhausen.
  • 1903: L. C. Jane, Temple Classics.
  • 1907: A. M. Sellar, London, George Bell & Sons.
  • 1955: Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, reprinted with revisions 1965, revised 1968, revised 1990.
  • 1969: Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford, Clarendon Press, reprint with corrections 1992.
  • 1982: (in German) Günter Spitzbart, Darmstadt.
  • 1989: (in Chinese) Chen Wei-zhen & Zhou Qing-min, The Commercial Press, Beijing. 1st ed 1991
  • 1994: McClure, Judith and Collins, Roger, Oxford, Oxford University Press
  • 2003: (in Russian) Церковная история народа англов, notes and trans. by Vadim Erlikhman (Saint-Petersburg: Алетейя)
  • 2005: (in French) Histoire ecclésiastique du peuple anglais, notes by André Crépin, ed. Michael Lapidge, trans. Pierre Monat and Philippe Robin (Paris: Cerf).
  • 2008: (in Japanese) Hirosi Takahashi (Tokyo: Kodansha).
  • 2008: (Czech) Beda Ctihodný, Církevní dějiny národa Anglů, trans. by Kincl, Jaromír and Moravová, Magdaléna (Prague: Argo).
  • 2009: (in Italian) Beda il Venerabile, Storia degli Inglesi, ed. M. Lapidge, trans. Paolo Chiesa (Milan: Fondazione Valla-Arnoldo Mondadori).
  • 2015: (in Slovene) Beda Častitljivi, Cerkvena zgodovina ljudstva Anglov, notes and trans. by Bogdan Kolar and Miran Sajovic (Celje: Mohorjeva družba).

Literature

  • ones, Putnam Fennell, A Concordance to the Historia ecclesiastica of Bede, Cambridge, 1929.
  • Wallace-Hadrill, J. M., Bede’s Ecclesiastical history of the English people: a historical commentary, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

References

 

 

 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899).

Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.

Nine manuscripts survive in whole or in part, though not all are of equal historical value and none of them is the original version. The oldest seems to have been started towards the end of Alfred’s reign, while the most recent was written at Peterborough Abbey after a fire at that monastery in 1116. Almost all of the material in the Chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC (the annals’ date for Caesar’s invasions of Britain), and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle

The Chronicle is not unbiased: there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources makes it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of stories; there are also places where the different versions contradict each other.

Taken as a whole, however, the Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period in England between the departure of the Romans and the decades following the Norman conquest. Much of the information given in the Chronicle is not recorded elsewhere.

In addition, the manuscripts are important sources for the history of the English language; in particular, the later Peterborough text is one of the earliest examples of Middle English in existence.

Seven of the nine surviving manuscripts and fragments now reside in the British Library. The remaining two are in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Composition

All of the surviving manuscripts are copies, so it is not known for certain where or when the first version of the Chronicle was composed. It is generally agreed that the original version – sometimes known as the Early English Annals – was written in the late 9th century by a scribe in Wessex.

Frank Stenton argued from internal evidence that it was first compiled for a secular, but not royal patron; and that “its origin is in one of the south-western shires…at some point not far from the boundary between Somerset and Dorset”. After the original Chronicle was compiled, copies were made and distributed to various monasteries. Additional copies were made, for further distribution or to replace lost manuscripts, and some copies were updated independently of each other. Some of these later copies are those that have survived.

The earliest extant manuscript, the Winchester Chronicle, was written by a single scribe up to the year 891. The scribe wrote the year number, DCCCXCII, in the margin of the next line; subsequent material was written by other scribes.

This appears to place the composition of the chronicle at no later than 892; further evidence is provided by Bishop Asser‘s use of a version of the Chronicle in his work Life of King Alfred, known to have been composed in 893. It is known that the Winchester manuscript is at least two removes from the original Chronicle; as a result, there is no proof that the Chronicle was compiled at Winchester.

It is also difficult to fix the date of composition, but it is generally thought that the chronicles were composed during the reign of Alfred the Great (871–99), as Alfred deliberately tried to revive learning and culture during his reign, and encouraged the use of English as a written language. The Chronicle, as well as the distribution of copies to other centres of learning, may be a consequence of the changes Alfred introduced.

Surviving Manuscripts

A page from the Winchester, or Parker, Chronicle, showing the genealogical preface

Of the nine surviving manuscripts, seven are written entirely in Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). One, known as the Bilingual Canterbury Epitome, is in Old English with a translation of each annal into Latin. Another, the Peterborough Chronicle, is in Old English except for the last entry, which is in early Middle English.

The oldest (Corp. Chris. MS 173) is known as the Winchester Chronicle or the Parker Chronicle (after Matthew Parker, an Archbishop of Canterbury, who once owned it). Six of the manuscripts were printed in an 1861 edition for the Rolls Series by Benjamin Thorpe with the text laid out in columns labelled A to F. He also included the few readable remnants of a burned seventh manuscript, which he referred to as [G]. Following this convention, the two additional manuscripts are often called [H] and [I]. The surviving manuscripts are listed below:

Version Chronicle name Location Manuscript
A Winchester (or Parker) Chronicle Parker Library, Corpus Christi College 173
B Abingdon Chronicle I British Library Cotton Tiberius A. vi
C Abingdon Chronicle II British Library Cotton Tiberius B. i
D Worcester Chronicle British Library Cotton Tiberius B. iv
E Peterborough (or Laud) Chronicle Bodleian Library Laud misc. 636
F Bilingual Canterbury Epitome British Library Cotton Domitian A. viii
G or A2 or W A copy of the Winchester Chronicle British Library Cotton Otho B. xi + Otho B. x
H Cottonian Fragment British Library Cotton Domitian A. ix
I An Easter Table Chronicle British Library Cotton Caligula A. xv

Relationships between the manuscripts

The relationships between seven of the different manuscripts of the Chronicle. The fragment [H] cannot be reliably positioned in the chart. Other related texts are also shown. The diagram shows a putative original, and also gives the relationships of the manuscripts to a version produced in the north of England that did not survive but which is thought to have existed.
The manuscripts are all thought to derive from a common original, but the connections between the texts are more complex than simple inheritance via copying. The diagram at right gives an overview of the relationships between the manuscripts. The following is a summary of the relationships that are known.

  • [A2] was a copy of [A], made in Winchester, probably between 1001 and 1013.
  • [B] was used in the compilation of [C] at Abingdon, in the mid-11th century. However, the scribe for [C] also had access to another version, which has not survived.
  • [D] includes material from Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals and is thought to have been copied from a northern version that has not survived.
  • [E] has material that appears to derive from the same sources as [D] but does not include some additions that appear only in [D], such as the Mercian Register. This manuscript was composed at the monastery in Peterborough, some time after a fire there in 1116 that probably destroyed their copy of the Chronicle; [E] appears to have been created thereafter as a copy of a Kentish version, probably from Canterbury.
  • [F] appears to include material from the same Canterbury version that was used to create [E].
  • Asser’s Life of King Alfred, which was written in 893, includes a translation of the Chronicle’s entries from 849 to 887. Only [A], of surviving manuscripts, could have been in existence by 893, but there are places where Asser departs from the text in [A], so it is possible that Asser used a version that has not survived.
  • Æthelweard wrote a translation of the Chronicle into Latin in the late 10th century; the version he used probably came from the same branch in the tree of relationships that [A] comes from.
  • Asser’s text agrees with [A] and with Æthelweard’s text in some places against the combined testimony of [B], [C], [D] and [E], implying that there is a common ancestor for the latter four manuscripts.
  • At Abingdon, some time between 1120 and 1140, an unknown author wrote a Latin chronicle known as the Annals of St Neots. This work includes material from a copy of the Chronicle, but it is very difficult to tell which version because the annalist was selective about his use of the material. It may have been a northern recension, or a Latin derivative of that recension.[12]

All the manuscripts described above share a chronological error between the years 756 and 845, but it is apparent that the composer of the Annals of St Neots was using a copy that did not have this error and which must have preceded them. Æthelweard’s copy did have the chronological error but it had not lost a whole sentence from annal 885; all the surviving manuscripts have lost this sentence. Hence the error and the missing sentence must have been introduced in separate copying steps, implying that none of the surviving manuscripts are closer than two removes from the original version.

History of the Manuscripts

A map showing the places where the various chronicles were written, and where they are now kept.

Winchester Chronicle

[A]: The Winchester (or Parker) Chronicle is the oldest manuscript of the Chronicle that survives. It was begun at Old Minster, Winchester, towards the end of Alfred’s reign. The manuscript begins with a genealogy of Alfred, and the first chronicle entry is for the year 60 BC.

The section containing the Chronicle takes up folios 1–32. Unlike the other manuscripts, [A] is of early enough composition to show entries dating back to the late 9th century in the hands of different scribes as the entries were made.

The first scribe’s hand is dateable to the late 9th or very early 10th century; his entries cease in late 891, and the following entries were made at intervals throughout the 10th century by several scribes. The eighth scribe wrote the annals for the years 925–955, and was clearly at Winchester when he wrote them since he adds some material related to events there; he also uses ceaster, or “city”, to mean Winchester.

The manuscript becomes independent of the other recensions after the entry for 975. The book, which also had a copy of the Laws of Alfred and Ine bound in after the entry for 924, was transferred to Canterbury some time in the early 11th century, as evidenced by a list of books that Archbishop Parker gave to Corpus Christi.

While at Canterbury, some interpolations were made; this required some erasures in the manuscript. The additional entries appear to have been taken from a version of the manuscript from which [E] descends.

The last entry in the vernacular is for 1070. After this comes the Latin Acta Lanfranci, which covers church events from 1070–1093. This is followed by a list of popes and the Archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium. The manuscript was acquired by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury (1559–1575) and master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, following the dissolution of the monasteries, and bequeathed to the college on his death. It now forms part of the Parker Library.

Abingdon Chronicle I

[B] The Abingdon Chronicle I was written by a single scribe in the second half of the 10th century. The Chronicle takes up folios 1–34. It begins with an entry for 60 BC and ends with the entry for 977. A manuscript that is now separate (British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius Aiii, f. 178) was originally the introduction to this chronicle; it contains a genealogy, as does [A], but extends it to the late 10th century.

[B] was at Abingdon in the mid-11th century, because it was used in the composition of [C]. Shortly after this it went to Canterbury, where interpolations and corrections were made. As with [A], it ends with a list of popes and the archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium.

Abingdon Chronicle II

[C] includes additional material from local annals at Abingdon, where it was composed. The section containing the Chronicle (folios 115–64) is preceded by King Alfred’s Old English translation of Orosius‘s world history, followed by a menologium and some gnomic verses of the laws of the natural world and of humanity.

Then follows a copy of the chronicle, beginning with 60 BC; the first scribe copied up to the entry for 490, and a second scribe took over up to the entry for 1048. [B] and [C] are identical between 491 and 652, but differences thereafter make it clear that the second scribe was also using another copy of the Chronicle.

This scribe also inserted, after the annal for 915, the Mercian Register, which covers the years 902–924, and which focuses on Æthelflæd. The manuscript continues to 1066 and stops in the middle of the description of the Battle of Stamford Bridge. In the 12th century a few lines were added to complete the account.

A page from the [C] Abingdon II text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This entry is for 871, a year of battles between Wessex and the Vikings.

Worcester Chronicle

[D] The Worcester Chronicle appears to have been written in the middle of the 11th century. After 1033 it includes some records from Worcester, so it is generally thought to have been composed there. Five different scribes can be identified for the entries up to 1054, after which it appears to have been worked on at intervals.

The text includes material from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals. It is thought that some of the entries may have been composed by Archbishop Wulfstan.

[D] contains more information than other manuscripts on northern and Scottish affairs, and it has been speculated that it was a copy intended for the Anglicised Scottish court. From 972 to 1016, the sees of York and Worcester were both held by the same person—Oswald from 972, Ealdwulf from 992, and Wulfstan from 1003, and this may explain why a northern recension was to be found at Worcester.

By the 16th century, parts of the manuscript were lost; eighteen pages were inserted containing substitute entries from other sources, including [A], [B], [C] and [E]. These pages were written by John Joscelyn, who was secretary to Matthew Parker.

Peterborough Chronicle

[E] The Peterborough Chronicle: In 1116, a fire at the monastery at Peterborough destroyed most of the buildings. The copy of the Chronicle kept there may have been lost at that time or later, but in either case shortly thereafter a fresh copy was made, apparently copied from a Kentish version—most likely to have been from Canterbury.

The manuscript was written at one time and by a single scribe, down to the annal for 1121. The scribe added material relating to Peterborough Abbey which is not in other versions. The Canterbury original which he copied was similar, but not identical, to [D]: the Mercian Register does not appear, and a poem about the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, which appears in most of the other surviving copies of the Chronicle, is not recorded.

The same scribe then continued the annals through to 1131; these entries were made at intervals, and thus are presumably contemporary records. Finally, a second scribe, in 1154, wrote an account of the years 1132–1154; but his dating is known to be unreliable.

This last entry is in Middle English, rather than Old English. [E] was once owned by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury 1633–1654, so is also known as the Laud Chronicle. The manuscript contains occasional glosses in Latin, and is referred to (as “the Saxon storye of Peterborowe church”) in an antiquarian book from 1566.

According to Joscelyn, Nowell had a transcript of the manuscript. Previous owners include William Camden and William L’Isle; the latter probably passed the manuscript on to Laud.

Canterbury Bilingual Epitome

[F] The Canterbury Bilingual Epitome: In about 1100, a copy of the Chronicle was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, probably by one of the scribes who made notes in [A]. This version is written in both Old English and Latin; each entry in Old English was followed by the Latin version.

The version the scribe copied (on folios 30–70) is similar to the version used by the scribe in Peterborough who wrote [E], though it seems to have been abridged. It includes the same introductory material as [D] and, along with [E], is one of the two chronicles that does not include the “Battle of Brunanburh” poem. The manuscript has many annotations and interlineations, some made by the original scribe and some by later scribes, including Robert Talbot.

Copy of the Winchester Chronicle

[A2]/[G] Copy of the Winchester Chronicle: [A2] was copied from [A] at Winchester in the eleventh century and follows a 10th-century copy of an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

The last annal copied was 1001, so the copy was made no earlier than that; an episcopal list appended to [A2] suggests that the copy was made by 1013. This manuscript was almost completely destroyed in the 1731 fire at Ashburnham House, where the Cotton Library was housed. Of the original 34 leaves, seven remain, ff. 39–47 in the manuscript.

However, a transcript had been made by Laurence Nowell, a 16th-century antiquary, which was used by Abraham Wheelocke in an edition of the Chronicle printed in 1643. Because of this, it is also sometimes known as [W], after Wheelocke. Nowell’s transcript copied the genealogical introduction detached from [B] (the page now British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius Aiii, f. 178), rather than that originally part of this document.

The original [A2] introduction would later be removed prior to the fire and survives as British Library Add MS 34652, f. 2. The appellations [A], [A2] and [G] derive from Plummer, Smith and Thorpe, respectively.

Cottonian Fragment

The Cottonian Fragment [H] consists of a single leaf, containing annals for 1113 and 1114. In the entry for 1113 it includes the phrase “he came to Winchester”; hence it is thought likely that the manuscript was written at Winchester. There is not enough of this manuscript for reliable relationships to other manuscripts to be established. Ker notes that the entries may have been written contemporarily.

Easter Table Chronicle

[I] Easter Table Chronicle: A list of Chronicle entries accompanies a table of years, found on folios 133-37 in a badly burned manuscript containing miscellaneous notes on charms, the calculation of dates for church services, and annals pertaining to Christ Church, Canterbury.

Most of the Chronicle’s entries pertain to Christ Church, Canterbury. Until 1109 (the death of Anselm of Canterbury) they are in English; all but one of the following entries are in Latin. Part of [I] was written by a scribe soon after 1073, in the same hand and ink as the rest of the Caligula MS. After 1085, the annals are in various contemporary hands.

The original annalist’s entry for the Norman conquest is limited to “Her forðferde eadward kyng”; a later hand added the coming of William the Conqueror, “7 her com willelm.” At one point this manuscript was at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury.

Lost Manuscripts

Two manuscripts are recorded in an old catalogue of the library of Durham; they are described as cronica duo Anglica. In addition, Parker included a manuscript called Hist. Angliae Saxonica in his gifts but the manuscript that included this, now Cambridge University Library MS. Hh.1.10, has lost 52 of its leaves, including all of this copy of the chronicle.

Sources, reliability and dating:

The Chronicle incorporates material from multiple sources. The entry for 755, describing how Cynewulf took the kingship of Wessex from Sigebehrt, is far longer than the surrounding entries, and includes direct speech quotations from the participants in those events. It seems likely that this was taken by the scribe from existing saga material.

Early entries, up to the year 110, probably came from one of the small encyclopaedic volumes of world history in circulation at the time the Chronicle was first written. The chronological summary to Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History was used as a source. The Chronicle gives dates and genealogies for Northumbrian and Mercian kings, and provides a list of Wessex bishops; these are likely to have had separate sources. The entry for 661 records a battle fought by Cenwalh that is said to have been fought “at Easter”; this precision implies a contemporary record, which survived and was re-used by the Chronicle scribe.

Contemporary annals began to be kept in Wessex during the 7th century. The material compiled in Alfred’s reign included annals relating to Kentish, South Saxon, Mercian and, particularly, West Saxon history, but, with the exception of the Cynewulf entry, does not gather momentum until it comes to the Nordic invasions of the late 8th century onwards.

The Chronicle grew out of the tradition of the Easter Tables, drawn up to help the clergy determine the dates of feasts in future years: a page consisted of a sequence of horizontal lines followed by astronomical data, with a space for short notes of events to distinguish one year from another. As the Chronicle developed, it lost its list-like appearance, and such notes took up more space, becoming more like historical records. Many later entries, especially those written by contemporaries, contained a great deal of historical narrative under the year headings.

As with any historical source, the Chronicle has to be treated with some caution. For example, between 514 and 544 the Chronicle makes reference to Wihtgar, who is supposedly buried on the Isle of Wight at “Wihtgar’s stronghold” (which is “Wihtgaræsbyrg” in the original) and purportedly gave his name to the island. However, the name of the “Isle of Wight” derives from the Latin “Vectis”, not from Wihtgar. The actual name of the fortress was probably “Wihtwarabyrg”, “the stronghold of the inhabitants of Wight”, and either the chronicler or an earlier source misinterpreted this as referring to Wihtgar.

The dating of the events recorded also requires care. In addition to dates that are simply inaccurate, scribes occasionally made mistakes that caused further errors. For example, in the [D] manuscript, the scribe omits the year 1044 from the list on the left hand side. The annals copied down are therefore incorrect from 1045 to 1052, which has two entries.

A more difficult problem is the question of the date at which a new year began, since the modern custom of starting the year on 1 January was not universal at that time. The entry for 1091 in [E] begins at Christmas and continues throughout the year; it is clear that this entry follows the old custom of starting the year at Christmas. Some other entries appear to begin the year on 25 March, such as the year 1044 in the [C] manuscript, which ends with Edward the Confessor’s marriage on 23 January, while the entry for 22 April is recorded under 1045. There are also years which appear to start in September.

The manuscripts were produced in different places, and each manuscript reflects the biases of its scribes. It has been argued that the Chronicle should be regarded as propaganda, produced by Alfred’s court and written with the intent of glorifying Alfred and creating loyalty.

This is not universally accepted, but the origins of the manuscripts clearly colour both the description of interactions between Wessex and other kingdoms, and the descriptions of the Vikings’ depredations. An example can be seen in the entry for 829, which describes Egbert‘s invasion of Northumbria. According to the Chronicle, after Egbert conquered Mercia and Essex, he became a “bretwalda“, implying overlordship of all of England. Then when he marched into Northumbria, the Northumbrians offered him “submission and peace”.

The Northumbrian chronicles incorporated into Roger of Wendover‘s 13th-century history give a different picture: “When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute.”

Occasionally the scribes’ biases can be seen by comparing different versions of the manuscript they created. For example, Ælfgar, earl of East Anglia, and son of Leofric, the earl of Mercia, was exiled briefly in 1055. The [C], [D] and [E] manuscripts say the following:

  • [C]: “Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed without any fault …”
  • [D]: “Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed well-nigh without fault …”
  • [E]: “Earl Ælfgar was outlawed because it was thrown at him that he was traitor to the king and all the people of the land. And he admitted this before all the men who were gathered there, although the words shot out against his will.”

Another example that mentions Ælfgar shows a different kind of unreliability in the Chronicle: that of omission. Ælfgar was Earl of Mercia by 1058, and in that year was exiled again. This time only [D] has anything to say: “Here Earl Ælfgar was expelled, but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd.

And here came a raiding ship-army from Norway; it is tedious to tell how it all happened.” In this case other sources exist to clarify the picture: a major Norwegian attempt was made on England, but [E] says nothing at all, and [D] scarcely mentions it. It has sometimes been argued that when the Chronicle is silent, other sources that report major events must be mistaken, but this example demonstrates that the Chronicle does omit important events.

Use by Latin and Anglo-Norman Historians

The three main Anglo-Norman historians, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, each had a copy of the Chronicle, which they adapted for their own purposes. Symeon of Durham also had a copy of the Chronicle.

Some later medieval historians also used the Chronicle, and others took their material from those who had used it, and so the Chronicle became “central to the mainstream of English historical tradition”.

Henry of Huntingdon used a copy of the Chronicle that was very similar to [E]. There is no evidence in his work of any of the entries in [E] after 1121, so although his manuscript may actually have been [E], it may also have been a copy—either one taken of [E] prior to the entries he makes no use of, or a manuscript from which [E] was copied, with the copying taking place prior to the date of the last annal he uses. Henry also made use of the [C] manuscript.

The Waverley Annals made use of a manuscript that was similar to [E], though it appears that it did not contain the entries focused on Peterborough. The manuscript of the chronicle translated by Geoffrey Gaimar cannot be identified accurately, though according to historian Dorothy Whitelock it was “a rather better text than ‘E’ or ‘F'”. Gaimar implies that there was a copy at Winchester in his day (the middle of the 12th century); Whitelock suggests that there is evidence that a manuscript that has not survived to the present day was at Winchester in the mid-tenth century. If it survived to Gaimar’s time that would explain why [A] was not kept up to date, and why [A] could be given to the monastery at Canterbury.

John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex chronicis appears to have had a manuscript that was either [A] or similar to it; he makes use of annals that do not appear in other versions, such as entries concerning Edward the Elder‘s campaigns and information about Winchester towards the end of the chronicle.

His account is often similar to that of [D], though there is less attention paid to Margaret of Scotland, an identifying characteristic of [D]. He had the Mercian register, which appears only in [C] and [D]; and he includes material from annals 979–982 which only appears in [C]. It is possible he had a manuscript that was an ancestor of [D]. He also had sources which have not been identified, and some of his statements have no earlier surviving source.

A manuscript similar to [E] was available to William of Malmesbury, though it is unlikely to have been [E] as that manuscript is known to have still been in Peterborough after the time William was working, and he does not make use of any of the entries in [E] that are specifically related to Peterborough.

It is likely he had either the original from which [E] was copied, or a copy of that original. He mentions that the chronicles do not give any information on the murder of Alfred Aetheling, but since this is covered in both [C] and [D] it is apparent he had no access to those manuscripts. On occasion he appears to show some knowledge of [D], but it is possible that his information was taken from John of Worcester’s account. He also omits any reference to a battle fought by Cenwealh in 652; this battle is mentioned in [A], [B] and [C], but not in [E]. He does mention a battle fought by Cenwealh at Wirtgernesburg, which is not in any of the extant manuscripts, so it is possible he had a copy now lost.

Importance

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the single most important source for the history of England in Anglo-Saxon times. Without the Chronicle and Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (the Ecclesiastical History of the English People), it would be impossible to write the history of the English from the Romans to the Norman conquest; Nicholas Howe called them “the two great Anglo-Saxon works of history”.

It is clear that records and annals of some kind began to be kept in England at the time of the earliest spread of Christianity, but no such records survive in their original form. Instead they were incorporated in later works, and it is thought likely that the Chronicle contains many of these. The history it tells is not only that witnessed by its compilers, but also that recorded by earlier annalists, whose work is in many cases preserved nowhere else.

Its importance is not limited to the historical information it provides, however. It is just as important a source for the early development of English. The Peterborough Chronicle changes from the standard Old English literary language to early Middle English after 1131, providing some of the earliest Middle English text known.

Howe notes, in “Rome: Capitol of Anglo-Saxon England”, that many of the entries indicate that Rome was considered a spiritual home for the Anglo-Saxons, Rome and Roman history being of paramount importance in many of the entries; he cites the one for AD 1, for instance, which lists the reign of Octavian Augustus before it mentions the birth of Christ.

The Chronicle is not without literary interest. Inserted at various points since the 10th century are Old English poems in celebration of royal figures and their achievements: “The Battle of Brunanburh” (937), on King Æthelstan‘s victory over the combined forces of Vikings, Scots and the Strathclyde Britons, and five shorter poems, “Capture of the Five Boroughs” (942), “The Coronation of King Edgar” (973), “The Death of King Edgar” (975), “The Death of Prince Alfred” (1036), and “The Death of King Edward the Confessor” (1065).

History of Editions and Availability

An important early printed edition of the Chronicle appeared in 1692, by Edmund Gibson, an English jurist and divine who became Bishop of Lincoln in that year. Titled Chronicon Saxonicum, it printed Latin and Old English versions of the text in parallel columns and became the standard edition until the 19th century. It was superseded in 1861 by Benjamin Thorpe‘s Rolls edition, which printed six versions in columns, labelled A to F, thus giving the manuscripts the letters which are now used to refer to them.

John Earle wrote Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel (1865). Charles Plummer edited this book, producing a Revised Text with notes, appendices, and glossary in two volumes in 1892 and 1899. This edition of the A and E texts, with material from other versions, was widely used; it was reprinted in 1952.

Editions of the individual manuscripts

Beginning in the 1980s, a new set of scholarly editions have been printed under the series title “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition”. Some volumes are still projected, such as a volume focusing on the northern recension, but existing volumes such as Janet Bately’s edition of [A] are now standard references.

A recent translation of the Chronicle is Michael Swanton‘s The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which presents translations of [A] and [E] on opposite pages, with interspersed material from the other manuscripts where they differ.

A facsimile edition of [A], The Parker Chronicle and Laws, appeared in 1941 from the Oxford University Press, edited by Robin Flower and Hugh Smith. A recent scholarly edition of the [B] text is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition, 4, MS B by S. Taylor (Cambridge, 1983).[7] The [C] manuscript was edited by H.A. Rositzke; The C-Text of the Old English Chronicles, in Beitrage z. engl. Phil., XXXIV, Bochum-Langendreer, 1940; and the [D] manuscript in An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from British Museum Cotton MS., Tiberius B. iv, edited by E. Classen and F.E. Harmer, Manchester, 1926. Rositzke also published a translation of the [E] text in The Peterborough Chronicle (New York, 1951). The [F] text was printed in F.P. Magoun, Jr., Annales Domitiani Latini: an Edition in “Mediaeval Studies of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies”, IX, 1947, pp. 235–295.

The first edition of [G] was Abraham Whelock’s 1644 Venerabilis Bedae Historia Ecclesiastica, printed in Cambridge; there is also an edition by Angelica Lutz, Die Version G der angelsächsischen Chronik: Rekonstruktion und Edition (Munich, 1981).

References

  • Abels, Richard (2005). Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Longman. p. 15. ISBN 0-582-04047-7.
  • Bately, Janet M. (1986). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition. Vol. 3: MS. A. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-103-9.
  • Bosworth, Joseph (1823). The Elements of Anglo-Saxon Grammar. London: Harding, Mavor and Lepard.
  • Campbell, James; John, Eric; Wormald, Patrick (1991). The Anglo-Saxons. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-014395-5.
  • Campbell, James (2000). The Anglo-Saxon State. Hambledon and London. ISBN 1-85285-176-7.
  • Crystal, David (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59655-6.
  • Ekwall, Eilert (1947). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 3821873.
  • Gneuss, Helmut (2001). Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A List of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. 241. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. ISBN 978-0-86698-283-2.
  • Greenfield, Stanley Brian (1986). A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press. p. 60. ISBN 0-8147-3088-4.
  • Harrison, Julian (2007). “William Camden and the F-Text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”. Notes and Queries. 54 (3): 222–24. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjm124.
  • Howorth, Henry H. (1908). “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Its Origin and History”. The Archaeological Journal. 65: 141–204.
  • Hunter Blair, Peter (1960). An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2003 edition: ISBN 0-521-83085-0)
  • Hunter Blair, Peter (1966). Roman Britain and Early England: 55 B.C. – A.D. 871. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-00361-2.
  • Ker, Neil Ripley (1957). Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon. Oxford: At the Clarendon.
  • Keynes, Simon; Michael Lapidge (2004). Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources. New York: Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044409-2.
  • Lapidge, Michael (1999). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22492-0.
  • Plummer, Charles (1885). Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel.
  • Savage, Anne (1997). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Gadalming: CLB. ISBN 1-85833-478-0.
  • Smith, Albert Hugh (1935). The Parker Chronicle (832–900). Methuen’s Old English Library, Prose Selections. 1. London: Methuen.
  • Swanton, Michael (1996). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92129-5.
  • Thorpe, Benjamin (1861). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Rolls Series. 23. London: Longman.
  • Whitelock, Dorothy (1968). English Historical Documents v. 1 c. 500–1042. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • Wormald, Patrick (1991). “The Ninth Century.” In Campbell et al., The Anglo-Saxons, 132–159.
  • Yorke, Barbara (1990). Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Seaby. ISBN 1-85264-027-8.

 

 

Anglo-Saxon London

Image of what London may have looked like during the Anglo Saxon settlement period 55 BC to 49 AD.

The history of Anglo-Saxon London relates to the history of the city of London during the Anglo-Saxon period, during the 7th to 11th centuries.

Romano-British Londinium had been abandoned in the late 5th century, although the London Wall remained intact. There was an Anglo-Saxon settlement by the early 7th century, called Lundenwic, about one mile away from Londinium, to the north of the present Strand. Lundenwic came under direct Mercian control in about 670. After the death of Offa of Mercia in 796, it was disputed between Mercia and Wessex.

Roman wall, Coopers, London.
Roman Fort North, West Wall, London.

Viking invasions became frequent from the 830s, and a Viking army is believed to have camped in the old Roman walls during the winter of 871. Alfred the Great re-established English control of London in 886, and renewed its fortifications.

The old Roman walls were repaired and the defensive ditch was re-cut, and the old Roman city became the main site of population. The city now became known as Lundenburh, marking the beginning of the history of the City of London. Sweyn Forkbeard attacked London unsuccessfully in 996 and 1013, but his son Cnut the Great finally gained control of London, and all of England, in 1016.

A 15th-century stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral, depicting King Cnut.

Edward the Confessor, the step-son of Cnut, became king in 1042. He built Westminster Abbey, the first large Romanesque church in England, consecrated in 1065, and the first Palace of Westminster. Edward’s death led to a succession crisis, and ultimately the Norman invasion of England.

Following the virtual abandonment of the Roman city, the area’s strategic location on the River Thames meant that the site was not deserted for long. From the late 5th century, Anglo-Saxons began to inhabit the area.

The first bridge across the river Thames in Londinium 55 BC to the Saxon Advent in 49 AD.

There is almost no reliable evidence about what happened in the London area during the Sub-Roman or so-called “Dark Ages” period from around 450 to 600. Although early Anglo-Saxon settlement avoided the area immediately around Londinium, there was occupation on a small scale of much of the hinterland on both sides of the river.

There is no contemporary literary evidence, but the area must for some time have been an active frontier between the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons.

Lundenwic

Central London was once largely marshland. The first major Anglo Saxon settlement was Lundenwic.

Early Anglo-Saxon settlement in the London area was not on the site of the abandoned Roman city, although the Roman London Wall remained intact. Instead, by the 7th century a village and trading centre named Lundenwic was established approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) to the west of Londinium (named Lundenburh, or “London Fort”, by the Anglo-Saxons), probably using the mouth of the River Fleet as a trading ship and fishing boat harbour.

In the early 8th century, Lundenwic was described by the Venerable Bede as “a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea”. The Old English term wic or “trading town” ultimately derived from the Latin word vicus, so Lundenwic meant “London trading town”.

London and the kingdom of Essex, which for a period of time included Middlesex, Surrey and Kent.

Archaeologists were for many years puzzled as to where early Anglo-Saxon London was located, as they could find little evidence of occupation within the Roman city walls from this period. However, in the 1980s, London was rediscovered, after extensive independent excavations by archaeologists Alan Vince and Martin Biddle were reinterpreted as being of an urban character.

In the Covent Garden area, excavations in 1985 and 2005 have uncovered an extensive Anglo-Saxon settlement that dates back to the 7th century. The excavations show that the settlement covered about 600,000 m2 (6,500,000 sq ft), stretching along the north side of the Strand (i.e. “the beach”) from the present-day National Gallery site in the west to Aldwych in the east.

Ludenwic excavations In the mid 1980s, Alan Vince and Martin Biddle independently came up with the theory that London had been re-established not in the City but a couple of miles to the west, centred on the area called Aldwych. This Middle Saxon settlement was known as Lundenwic. Lundenwic was subjected to increasing Viking attack in the 9th century and the population may have been forced to scatter.

By about 600, Anglo-Saxon England had become divided into a number of small kingdoms within what eventually became known as the Heptarchy. From the mid-6th century, London was incorporated into the Kingdom of Essex, which extended as far west as St Albans and for a period included Middlesex and Surrey.

The main Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in the 7th century.

In 604, Sæberht of Essex was converted to Christianity and London received Mellitus, its first post-Roman Bishop of London.

At this time Essex owed allegiance to Æthelberht of Kent and it was under Æthelberht that Mellitus founded the first cathedral of the East Saxons, which is traditionally said to be on the site of an old Roman temple of Diana (although the 17th century architect Sir Christopher Wren found no evidence of this).

The original building would have been only a modest church at first and it may well have been destroyed after Mellitus was expelled from the city by Sæberht’s pagan successors in 616. The majority of London’s population remained pagan during the larger part of the 7th century, and the bishop’s seat was occupied only intermittently, by Cedd between 653 and 664, and by Wine between 666 and c. 672.

The bishopric of London was re-established for good in 675, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, installed Earconwald as bishop.

Theodore of Tarsus.

Lundenwic came under direct Mercian control in about 670, as Essex became gradually reduced in size and status. After the death of Offa of Mercia in 796, it was disputed between Mercia and Wessex.

Viking Attacks

London suffered attacks from Vikings, which became increasingly common from around 830 onwards. It was attacked in 842 in a raid that was described by a chronicler as “the great slaughter”. In 851, another raiding party, reputedly involving 350 ships, came to plunder the city.

A map of the routes taken by the Great Heathen Army from 865 to 878. The Viking army wintered near London in 871-872 AD.

In 865, the Viking Great Heathen Army launched a large scale invasion of the small kingdom of East Anglia. They overran East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria and came close to controlling most of Anglo-Saxon England.

By 871 they had reached London and they are believed to have camped within the old Roman walls during the winter of that year. Although it is unclear what happened during this time, London may have come under Viking control for a period.

In 878, West Saxon forces led by Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun and forced their leader Guthrum to sue for peace. The Treaty of Wedmore and the later Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum divided England and created the Danish controlled Danelaw.

King Alfred the Great

Lundenburgh

English rule in London was restored by 886. Alfred quickly set about establishing fortified towns or burhs across southern England to improve his kingdom’s defences: London was no exception. Within ten years, the settlement within the old Roman walls was re-established, now known as Lundenburh.

The old Roman walls were repaired and the defensive ditch was re-cut. These changes effectively marked the beginning of the present City of London, the boundaries of which are still to some extent defined by its ancient city walls.

As the focus of Lundenburh was moved back to within the Roman walls, the original Lundenwic was largely abandoned and in time gained the name of Ealdwic, ‘old settlement’, a name which survives today as Aldwych.

Southwark Bridge City Plaque noting the restoration of the city by Alfred.

10th Century London

Alfred appointed his son-in-law Earl Æthelred of Mercia, the heir to the destroyed kingdom of Mercia, as Governor of London and established two defended Boroughs to defend the bridge, which was probably rebuilt at this time. The southern end of the bridge was established as the Southwark or Suthringa Geworc (‘defensive work of the men of Surrey’). From this point, the city of London began to develop its own unique local government.

After Æthelred’s death, London came under the direct control of English kings. Alfred’s son Edward the Elder won back much land from Danish control. By the early 10th century, London had become an important commercial centre.

Although the political centre of England was Winchester, London was becoming increasingly important. Æthelstan held many royal councils in London and issued laws from there. Æthelred the Unready favoured London as his capital and issued his Laws of London from there in 978.

A coin probably minted in London during the reign of Ethelred the Unready.

The Vikings Return

It was during the reign of Æthelred that Vikings resumed their raids, led by Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. London was attacked unsuccessfully in 994, but numerous raids followed. In 1013, London underwent a long siege and Æthelred was forced to flee abroad.

Sweyn II King of Denmark 1047-1074.

Æthelred returned with his ally the Norwegian king Olaf and reclaimed London. A Norse saga tells of a battle during the Viking occupation where the English king Æthelred returned to attack Viking-occupied London. According to the saga, the Danes lined London Bridge and showered the attackers with spears.

Undaunted, the attackers pulled the roofs off nearby houses and held them over their heads in the boats. Thus protected, they were able to get close enough to the bridge to attach ropes to the piers and pull the bridge down, defeat the Vikings and ending the occupation of London. There is some speculation that the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” stems from this incident. Following Æthelred’s death on 23 April 1016, his son Edmund Ironside was declared king.

Medieval impression depicting Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut (right).

Sweyn’s son Cnut the Great continued the attacks in, harrying Warwickshire and pushing northwards across eastern Mercia in early 1016. Edmund remained in London, still unsubdued behind its famous walls, and was elected king after the death of Aethelred, but Cnut returned southward and the Danish army evidently divided, some dealing with Edmund, some besieging London.

There was a battle fought at Penselwood, in Somerset and a subsequent battle at Sherston, in Wiltshire, which was fought over two days but left neither side victorious. Edmund was able to temporarily relieve London, driving the enemy away and defeating them after crossing the Thames at Brentford.

Suffering heavy losses, he withdrew to Wessex to gather fresh troops, and the Danes again brought London under siege, but after another unsuccessful assault they withdrew into Kent under attack by the English, with a battle fought at Otford.

On 18 October 1016, the Danes were engaged by Edmund’s army as they retired towards their ships, leading to the Battle of Assandun. In the ensuing struggle, Eadric Streona, whose return to the English side had perhaps only been a ruse, withdrew his forces from the fray, bringing about a decisive English defeat. Edmund fled westwards, and Cnut pursued him into Gloucestershire, with another battle probably fought near the Forest of Dean.

Illustration of the Battle of Assandun.

On an island near Deerhurst, Cnut and Edmund – who had been wounded – met to negotiate terms of peace. It was agreed that all of England north of the Thames was to be the domain of the Danish prince, while all to the south was kept by the English king, along with London. Accession to the reign of the entire realm was set to pass to Cnut upon Edmund’s death.

Edmund died on 30 November, within weeks of the agreement. Some sources claim Edmund was murdered, although the circumstances of his death are unknown. In accord with the treaty, Cnut was left as king of all of England. His coronation was in London, at Christmas, with recognition by the nobility in January the next year at Oxford.

Cnut was succeeded briefly by his sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, after which the Saxon line was restored when Cnut’s stepson Edward the Confessor became king in 1042.

Edward the Confessor and the Norman Invasion

 

Edward the Confessor, depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Following Harthacnut’s death on 8 June 1042, Godwin, the most powerful of the English earls, supported Edward, who succeeded to the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the popularity he enjoyed at his accession — “before he [Harthacnut] was buried, all the people chose Edward as king in London.” Edward was crowned at the cathedral of Winchester, the royal seat of the West Saxons, on 3 April 1043.

Modern historians reject the traditional view that Edward mainly employed Norman favourites, but he did have foreigners in his household. Chief among them was Robert of Jumièges, who came to England in 1041, becoming Bishop of London in 1043. According to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, he became “always the most powerful confidential adviser to the king”.

When Edward appointed Robert of Jumièges as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051, he chose the leading craftsman Spearhafoc to replace Robert as bishop of London.

Edward’s Norman sympathies are most clearly seen in the major building project of his reign, Westminster Abbey, the first Norman Romanesque church in England.

Edward the Confessors body being brought to Westminster Abbey for burial in 1066.

This was commenced between 1042 and 1052 as a royal burial church, consecrated on 28 December 1065, completed after his death in about 1090, and demolished in 1245 to make way for Henry III’s new building, which still stands. It was very similar to Jumièges Abbey, which was built at the same time. Robert of Jumièges must have been closely involved in both buildings, although it is not clear which is the original and which the copy.

Following Edward’s death, no clear heir was apparent and his cousin, Duke William of Normandy, claimed the throne. The English Witenagemot met in the city and elected Edward’s brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, as king: Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey. William, outraged by this, then invaded England.

William, Duke of Normandy, King of England.

References

 

 

 

 

 

Shields – Tribal Symbols and National Emblems

Roman Military Scutum Shield.

A shield is a piece of personal armour held in the hand or mounted on the wrist or forearm. Shields are used to intercept specific attacks, whether from close-ranged weaponry or projectiles such as arrows, by means of active blocks, instead of providing passive protection.

But they are much more than that. They are emblems, banners and insignia. They demonstrate power and signify authority. The shield is significant, it’s a statement of intent. The shield is the standard of an army.

Shields vary greatly in size, ranging from large panels that protect the user’s whole body to small models (such as the buckler) that were intended for hand-to-hand-combat use. Shields also vary a great deal in thickness; whereas some shields were made of relatively deep, absorbent, wooden planking to protect soldiers from the impact of spears and crossbow bolts, others were thinner and lighter and designed mainly for deflecting blade strikes.

Finally, shields vary greatly in shape, ranging in roundness to angularity, proportional length and width, symmetry and edge pattern; different shapes provide more optimal protection for infantry or cavalry, enhance portability, provide secondary uses such as ship protection or as a weapon and so on.

The Wandsworth Shield is a circular bronze Iron Age shield boss or mount decorated in La Tène style that was found in the River Thames at Wandsworth in London sometime before 1849.

In prehistory and during the era of the earliest civilisations, shields were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. In classical antiquity, the Barbarian Invasions and the Middle Ages, they were normally constructed of poplar tree, lime or another split-resistant timber, covered in some instances with a material such as leather or rawhide and often reinforced with a metal boss, rim or banding. They were carried by foot soldiers, knights and cavalry.

Depending on time and place, shields could be round, oval, square, rectangular, triangular, bilabial or scalloped. Sometimes they took on the form of kites or flatirons, or had rounded tops on a rectangular base with perhaps an eye-hole, to look through when used with combat. The shield was held by a central grip or by straps that went over or around the user’s arm.

The oldest form of shield was a protection device designed to block attacks by hand weapons, such as swords, axes and maces, or ranged weapons like sling-stones and arrows. Shields have varied greatly in construction over time and place. Sometimes shields were made of metal, but wood or animal hide construction was much more common; wicker and even turtle shells have been used. Many surviving examples of metal shields are generally felt to be ceremonial rather than practical, for example the Yetholm-type shields of the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age Battersea shield.

Battersea Shield closeup.

Size and weight varied greatly. Lightly armored warriors relying on speed and surprise would generally carry light shields (pelte) that were either small or thin. Heavy troops might be equipped with robust shields that could cover most of the body.

Many had a strap called a guige that allowed them to be slung over the user’s back when not in use or on horseback. During the 14th–13th century BC, the Sards or Shardana, working as mercenaries for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, utilized either large or small round shields against the Hittites. The Mycenaean Greeks used two types of shields: the “figure-of-eight” shield and a rectangular “tower” shield. These shields were made primarily from a wicker frame and then reinforced with leather.

Covering the body from head to foot, the figure-of-eight and tower shield offered most of the warrior’s body a good deal of protection in head-to-head combat. The Ancient Greek hoplites used a round, bowl-shaped wooden shield that was reinforced with bronze and called an aspis. Another name for this type of shield is a hoplon. The hoplon shield inspired the name for hoplite soldiers.

Greek Hoplite with Aspis Shield.

The hoplon was also the longest-lasting and most famous and influential of all of the ancient Greek shields. The Spartans used the aspis to create the Greek phalanx formation. Their shields offered protection not only for themselves but for their comrades to their left. Examples of Germanic wooden shields circa 350 BC – 500 AD survive from weapons sacrifices in Danish bogs.

The heavily armored Roman legionaries carried large shields (scuta) that could provide far more protection, but made swift movement a little more difficult. The scutum originally had an oval shape, but gradually the curved tops and sides were cut to produce the familiar rectangular shape most commonly seen in the early Imperial legions.

Famously, the Romans used their shields to create a tortoise-like formation called a testudo in which entire groups of soldiers would be enclosed in an armoured box to provide protection against missiles. Many ancient shield designs featured incuts of one sort or another. This was done to accommodate the shaft of a spear, thus facilitating tactics requiring the soldiers to stand close together forming a wall of shields.

Advancing in testudo formation.

Typical in the early European Middle Ages were round shields with light, non-splitting wood like linden, fir, alder or poplar, usually reinforced with leather cover on one or both sides and occasionally metal rims, encircling a metal shield boss. These light shields suited a fighting style where each incoming blow is intercepted with the boss in order to deflect it.

The Normans introduced the kite shield around the 10th century, which was rounded at the top and tapered at the bottom. This gave some protection to the user’s legs, without adding too much to the total weight of the shield. The kite shield predominantly features enarmes, leather straps used to grip the shield tight to the arm. Used by foot and mounted troops alike, it gradually came to replace the round shield as the common choice until the end of the 12th century, when more efficient limb armour allowed the shields to grow shorter, and be entirely replaced by the 14th century.

Norman Warrior bearing Kite Shield.

Below is a list of shields from the early Roman era to the middle part of the Middle-Ages. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I have no doubt left some prominent examples out. However, the list attempts to convey the rapid change in shield design, which began with the Celtic ‘rectangular’ shield design and ended with the ‘Norman-style’ kite shield that was designed for use by cavalry and yet adopted for infantry use.

Celtic Shields

Celtic shields were usually oval or elongated oval in shape. They could also be round or hexagon shaped. On the front was usually a hollow wood shield boss to protect the hand. The boss was usually elongated to make the shield stronger and was sometimes covered by a metal plate. On the inside of the boss hole was a handle to hold the shield. The shields were made of wood, usually oak or linden (also called lime). Most often they were covered with leather.

Iron Age bronze shield, known as the Battersea Shield in the British Museum.

Battle shields were often individually decorated with various symbols. They were designed to be both light and strong. Celts used their shields defensively but also as an offensive weapon. A favorite tactic of a Celtic warrior was to strike the enemy with his shield. The Celts in Britain used smaller shields in battle while continental Celts used larger shields. Shields sometimes shattered in combat and were an expendable item.

Another style of Celtic shield, A Highland targe from the National Museum of Scotland.

Sparabara

Whilst not specifically a shield, but rather a type of warrior, The Sparabara, meaning “shield bearers” in Old Persian, were the heavy front line infantry of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. They were usually the first to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Although not much is known about them today, it is believed that they were the backbone of the Persian army who formed a shield wall and used their two-metre-long spears to protect more vulnerable troops such as archers from the enemy. The term is also used to refer to the combination of these shield-bearers and the archers that were protected by them.

Sparabara at the Battle of Marathon(12 September, 490 BC).

The Sparabara were armoured with quilted linen and carried large rectangular wicker shields as a form of light manoeuvrable defense. This, however, left them at a severe disadvantage against heavily armoured opponents such as the hoplite, and his two-metre-long spear was not able to give the Sparabara ample range to plausibly engage a trained phalanx. The wicker shields were able to effectively stop arrows but not strong enough to protect the soldier from spears. However, the Sparabara could deal with most other infantry, including trained units from the East.

The sparabara were supposed to be used in conjunction with Persian heavy cavalry and chariots, which would attack from the rear. An example in which the cavalry failed to be engaged is the Battle of Marathon, which had catastrophic results.

Aspis

The Aspis was commonly carried by Greek Hoplites and were used in the early Roman period. The Aspis was a large concave shield (often referred to as a hoplon), measuring between 80–100 centimetres (31–39 in) in diameter and weighing between 6.5–8 kilograms (14–18 lbs). This large shield was made possible partly by its shape, which allowed it to be supported on the shoulder.

Greek Hoplon Shield.

The hoplon shield was put together in three layers with the center layer made of thick wood, the outside layer facing the enemy made of bronze and leather made up the inside of the shield. The revolutionary part of the shield was, in fact, the grip. Known as an Argive grip, it placed the handle at the edge of the shield, and was supported by a leather fastening (for the forearm) at the centre.

These two points of contact eliminated the possibility of the shield swaying to the side after being struck, and as a result soldiers rarely lost their shields. This allowed the hoplite soldier more mobility with the shield, as well as the ability to capitalize on its offensive capabilities and better support the phalanx. The large hoplon shields, designed for pushing ahead, were the most essential equipment for the hoplites.

The Scutum

Perhaps the most recognisable of all the shields, the Scutum represented the might and power of the Roman Empire.

The Scutum.

The Scutum (English: /ˈsktəm/; plural scuta; Classical Latin: [ˈskuːtũː]) was a type of shield used among Italic peoples in the archaic period, and then by the army of ancient Rome starting about the fourth century BC. The Romans adopted it when they switched from the military formation of the hoplite phalanx of the Greeks to the formation with maniples.

In the former, the soldiers carried a round shield, which the Romans called clipeus. In the latter, they used the scutum, which was a larger shield. Originally it was an oblong and convex shield. By the first century BC it had developed into the rectangular, semi-cylindrical shield that is popularly associated with the scutum in modern times. This was not the only shield the Romans used; Roman shields were of varying types depending on the role of the soldier who carried it. Oval, circular and rectangular shields were used throughout Roman history.

In the early days of Ancient Rome (from the late regal period to the first part of the early republican period,) Roman soldiers wore clipeus, which was like the aspides (ἀσπίδες), a small round shield used in the Greek hoplite phalanx. The hoplites were heavy infantrymen who originally wore a bronze shield and helmet.

The phalanx was a compact, rectangular mass military formation. The soldiers lined up in very tight ranks in a formation which was eight lines deep. The phalanx advanced in unison, which encouraged cohesion among the troops. It formed a shield wall and a mass of spears pointing towards the enemy.

Its compactness provided a thrusting force which had a great impact on the enemy and made frontal assaults against it very difficult. However, it also had its drawbacks. It worked only if the soldiers kept the formation tight and had the discipline needed to keep its compactness in the thick of the battle. It was a rigid form of fighting and its maneuverability was limited. The shields being small provided less protection. However, their smaller size afforded more mobility. Their round shape enabled the soldiers to interlock them to hold the line together.

Sometime in the early fourth century BC, the Romans changed their military tactics from the hoplite phalanx to the manipular formation, which was much more flexible. This involved a change in military equipment. The scutum replaced the clipeus. Some ancient writers thought that the Romans had adopted the maniples and the scutum when they fought against the Samnites in the first or second Samnite War (343-341 BC, 327-304 BC). However, Livy did not mention the scutum being a Samnite shield and wrote that the oblong shield and the manipular formation were introduced in the early fourth century BC, before the conflicts between the Romans and the Samnites.

Plutarch mentioned the use of the long shield in a battle which took place in 366 BC. Couissin notes archaeological evidence shows that the scutum was in general use among Italic peoples long before the Samnite Wars and argues that it was not obtained from the Samnites. In some parts of Italy the scutum had been used since pre-historical times.

Polybius gave a description of the early scutum. He wrote that it was oblong and had a convex surface 2 ½ feet wide and four feet long. It thickness at the rim was “a palm’s breadth” (about four inches). It was “made of two planks glued together, the outer surface being then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. 4 Its upper and lower rims are strengthened by an iron edging which protects it from descending blows and from injury when rested on the ground. It also has an iron boss (umbo) fixed to it which turns aside the most formidable blows of stones, pikes, and heavy missiles in general.” Polybius, The Histories, 6.23.2-4

The scutum is light enough to be held in one hand and its large height and width covered the entire wielder, making him very unlikely to get hit by missile fire and in hand-to-hand combat. The metal boss, or umbo, in the centre of the scutum also made it an auxiliary punching weapon as well.

Roman Legionary and Kit.

Its composite construction meant that early versions of the scutum could fail from a heavy cutting or piercing blow which was experienced in the Roman Campaigns against Carthage and Dacia where the Falx and Falcata could easily penetrate and rip through the scutum. The effects of these weapons prompted design changes that made the scutum more resilient such as thicker planks and metal edges.

When compared to the earlier aspis which it replaced, the aspis was heavier and provided less protective coverage than the scutum but was much more durable.

The oval scutum is depicted on the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in Rome, the Aemilius Paullus monument at Delphi, and there is an actual example found at Kasr el-Harit in Egypt. Gradually the scutum evolved into the rectangular (or sub-rectangular) type of the early Roman Empire.

Roman Oval Scutum.

By the end of the 3rd century the rectangular scutum seems to have disappeared. Fourth century archaeological finds (especially from the fortress of Dura-Europos) indicate the subsequent use of oval or round shields which were not semi-cylindrical but were either dished (bowl-shaped) or flat. Roman artwork from the end of the 3rd century till the end of Antiquity show soldiers wielding oval or round shields.

The word “scutum” survived the Roman Empire and entered the military vocabulary of the Byzantine Empire. Even in the 11th century, the Byzantines called their armoured soldiers skutatoi (Grk. σκυτατοί).

Clipeus

Roman Clipeus Shield.

The legionary scutum, disappeared during the 3rd century. All troops adopted the auxiliary oval (or sometimes round) shield (clipeus). Shields, from examples found at Dura and Nydam, were of vertical plank construction, the planks glued, and faced inside and out with painted leather. The edges of the shield were bound with stitched rawhide, which shrank as it dried improving structural cohesion. It was also lighter than the edging of copper alloy used in earlier Roman shields.

Clipeus virtutis, Latin for “shield of bravery”, was awarded to Augustus for his “courage, clemency, justice and piety” by the senate and displayed in the Curia Iulia.

The Anglo Saxon Shield

The shield was another extremely common piece of war equipment used by the Anglo-Saxons—nearly 25% of male Anglo-Saxon graves contain shields. In Old English, a shield was called a bord, rand, scyld, or lind (“linden-wood”). Anglo-Saxon shields comprised a circular piece of wood constructed from planks which had been glued together; at the center of the shield, an iron boss was attached.

It was common for shields to be covered in leather, so as to hold the planks together, and they were often decorated with fittings of bronze or iron. Textual descriptions and visual representations indicate that some shields were convex, but archaeological evidence for this has not yet been found.

No painted Anglo-Saxon shields have been discovered; however, painted shields from the same time period have been found in Denmark, and Beowulf describes shields as being “bright” and “yellow.” These pieces of evidence suggest that some Anglo-Saxon shields may have been painted.

Two round, wooden shields from Thorsberg moor; dating to the 3rd century CE, they are similar to the shields used by the Anglo-Saxons.

Old English poetry always states that shields were made of lime (linden-wood), but few actual examples have been found by archaeologists. Evidence indicates that alder, willow, and poplar wood were the most common types; shields of maple, birch, ash, and oak have also been discovered. The diameter of shields greatly varied, ranging from 0.3 to 0.92 m (1 to 3 ft), although most shields were between 0.46 to 0.66 m (1 ft 6 in to 2 ft 2 in) in diameter. Their thickness ranged from 5 mm to 13 mm, but most were between 6 mm and 8 mm in width.

Anglo-Saxon shield bosses have been separated into two main categories, based on the method of manufacturing. The carinated boss was the most common type—the design originated in continental Europe, and such bosses found in England date from the fifth to the mid-seventh century, at least. It is unclear exactly how carinated bosses were manufactured.

The other type is the tall cone boss, which was commonly used from the seventh century onward. These bosses were constructed of an iron sheet (or sheets), and were welded together from the rim to the apex. Iron or bronze rivets were then used to attach the boss to the shield; four or five rivets were most commonly used, although as many as twelve were used in some instances.

Replica painted Anglo Saxon Shield.

Behind the boss, the shield was cut and an iron grip was attached to the opening, so that the shield could be held. Grips were usually 10 to 16 cm (4 to 6 in) in length, the sides of which were either straight or gently curved. Evidence indicates that flanges were sometimes used to enclose a wooden handle.

As for defensive equipment, most Anglo-Saxon warriors only had access to shields. Pollington theorized that the shield was “perhaps the most culturally significant piece of defensive equipment” in Anglo-Saxon England, for the shield-wall would have symbolically represented the separation between the two sides on the battlefield. Smaller shields were lighter and easier to manoeuver, and therefore were best used in minor skirmishes and hand-to-hand combat. In contrast, larger shields were most commonly used in full-scale battles—they would have provided better protection from projectiles and were needed to construct a shield wall.

Depiction of an Anglo Saxon shield wall.

Viking Shields

The Viking shield was used for attack and defence. The sagas specifically mention linden wood for shield construction, although finds from graves show mostly other timbers, such as fir, alder and poplar. These timbers are not very dense and are light in the hand. They are also not inclined to split, unlike oak. Also, the fibres of the timber bind around blades preventing the blade from cutting any deeper unless a lot more pressure is applied. In conjunction with stronger wood, Vikings often reinforced their shields with leather or, occasionally, iron around the rim. Round shields seem to have varied in size from around 45–120 centimetres (18–47 in) in diameter but 75–90 centimetres (30–35 in) is by far the most common.

Viking Shield Colour Variations.

The smaller shield sizes came from the pagan period for the Saxons and the larger sizes from the 10th and 11th centuries. Most shields are shown in illuminations as being painted a single colour although some have a design painted onto them; the most common designs are simple crosses or derivations of sun wheels or segments. The few round shields that survived have much more complicated designs painted on them and sometimes very ornate silver and gold work applied around the boss and the strap anchors.

The Gokstad ship has places for shields to be hung on its railing and the Gokstad shields have holes along the rim for fastening some sort of non-metallic rim protection. These were called shield lists and they protected ship crews from waves and the wind.

Viking Longship showing the arrangement of the shields on the starboard side.

Some Viking shields may have been decorated by simple patterns although some skaldic poems praising shields might indicate more elaborate decoration and archaeological evidence has supported this. In fact, there is a complete subgenre of Skaldic poetry dedicated to shields, known as “shield poems”, that describe scenes painted on shields. For example, the late-9th-century skaldic poem, Ragnarsdrápa, describes some shields painted with mythological scenes. Viking shields were also heavily used in formations.

The shield wall or skjaldborg was a main formation in which accomplished Viking warriors would create a line of interlocked shields and thrust spears at adversaries. Other notable tactics included the svinfylking “boarsnout”, in which warriors would create a wedge configuration and attempt to burst through the front line of nearby foes.

Viking shield wall with interlocking shields.

The Vikings also used Kite Shields (see below).

Medieval Kite Shields

A kite shield is a large, almond-shaped shield rounded at the top and curving down to a point at the bottom. The term “kite shield” is a reference to the shield’s unique shape, and is derived from its supposed similarity to a flying kite, although “leaf-shaped shield” and “almond shield” have also been used in recent literature. Since the most prominent examples of this shield have appeared on the Bayeux Tapestry, the kite shield has become closely associated with Norman warfare.

Bayeux Tapestry Kite Shield Wall.

The first known illustration of a kite shield appeared in the Gospels of Otto III, indicating it was in use with Western European armies by the late eleventh century. The shield was developed for mounted cavalry, and its dimensions correlate to the approximate space between a horse’s neck and its rider’s thigh.

A narrow bottom protected the rider’s left leg, and the pronounced upper curve, the rider’s shoulder and torso. This was a vast improvement over more common circular shields such as bucklers which afforded poor protection to the horseman’s left flank, especially when he was charging with a lance. Though their great length and unwieldy nature made them cumbersome and inconvenient for foot soldiers, kite shields nevertheless gained popularity, spreading throughout Western Europe during the 1100s.

Aside from Normandy, they also appeared early on in parts of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and it is unclear from which of these three regions the design originated. A common theory is that the kite shield was first inherited by the Normans from their Viking predecessors.

However, no documentation or remains of kite shields from the Viking era have been discovered, and they were not ideally suited to the Vikings’ highly mobile light infantry. Kite shields were depicted primarily on eleventh century illustrations, largely in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, but also in the Caucasus, the Fatimid Caliphate, and among the Kievan Rus’.

The Varangian Guard, Byzantine mercenaries, largely recruited from Viking territories in the north of Europe.

For example, an eleventh century silver engraving of Saint George recovered from Bochorma, Georgia, depicts a kite shield, as do other isolated pieces of Georgian art dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Kite shields also appear on the Bab al-Nasr in Cairo, which was constructed around 1087. Arab historians usually described them as tariqa or januwiyya.

Kite shields were introduced in large numbers to the Middle East by the First Crusade, when Arab and Byzantine soldiers first observed the type being carried by Norman crusaders; these left such a favourable impression on Byzantium that they had entirely superseded round shields in the Komnenian army by the mid twelfth century.

Around the mid to late twelfth century, traditional kite shields were largely replaced by a variant in which the top was flat, rather than rounded. This change made it easier for a soldier to hold the shield upright without limiting his field of vision. Flat-topped kite shields were later phased out by most Western European armies in favour of much smaller, more compact heater shields. They were still being used by the Byzantines well into the thirteenth century.

The Pelte

The Pelte is a a crescent-shaped wicker shield (Latin: peltarion) carried by a Peltast, a type of light infantry, originating in Thrace and Paeonia, who often served as skirmishers in Hellenic and Hellenistic armies.

In the Medieval period the same term was used for a type of Byzantine infantryman. as their main protection, hence their name. According to Aristotle, the pelte was rimless and covered in goat or sheep skin. Some literary sources imply that the shield could be round, but in art it is usually shown as crescent-shaped. It also appears in Scythian art and may have been a common type in Central Europe.

The shield could be carried with a central strap and a hand grip near the rim or with just a central hand-grip. It may also have had a carrying strap (or baldric) as Thracian peltasts slung their shields on their backs when evading the enemy. Peltasts’ weapons consisted of several javelins (akontia), which may have had throwing straps to allow more force to be applied to a throw.

In time, some armoured foot knights gave up shields entirely in favour of mobility and two-handed weapons. Other knights and common soldiers adopted the buckler, giving rise to the term “swashbuckler”.

Stainless Buckler Shield.

The buckler is a small round shield, typically between 8 and 16 inches (20–40 cm) in diameter. The buckler was one of very few types of shield that were usually made of metal. Small and light, the buckler was easily carried by being hung from a belt; it gave little protection from missiles and was reserved for hand-to-hand combat where it served both for protection and offence. The buckler’s use began in the Middle Ages and continued well into the 16th century.

References

  • Drummond, James (1890). “Notes on Ancient Shields and Highland Targets”. Archaeologica Scotica. 5.
  • Schulze, André(Hrsg.): Mittelalterliche Kampfesweisen. Band 2: Kriegshammer, Schild und Kolben. – Mainz am Rhein. : Zabern, 2007. – ISBN 3-8053-3736-1
  • Snodgrass, A.M. “Arms and Armour of the Greeks.” Cornell University Press, 1967
  • “The Hoplite.” The Classical Review, 61. 2011.
  • Hellwag, Ursula. “Shield(s).” Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, Siegbert Uhllig (ed.), vol. 4, 650-651. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

 

 

 

 

Anglo-Saxon military organization

Norman knights on horseback attempt to break the Saxon shield wall, in a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Anglo-Saxon military organization is difficult to analyze because there are many conflicting records and opinions as to the precise occurrences and procedures.

Anglo-Saxon England was known for its tumultuous nature and the constant presence of outside threats and dangers made it necessary for a solid military to be constantly in place. However, in spite of this, by the 10th century, the Saxon kingdom of England was, perhaps, the best ordered state in Europe with a highly efficient administration that had a solid currency and could raise taxes to support a military establishment. Even though there is some controversy as to the accurate forms of military organization, some aspects can be deduced from the records that have been preserved.

The period can, however, be split into two: before settlement, AD 400 to AD 600; and the settlement period, when the Saxons had established organized kingdoms, AD 600 to AD 1066.

Military organization in the pre-settlement period (400-600)

he Saxons were organized into warbands led by a chief. The warriors comprising the warband were professional soldiers, though perhaps without the discipline of the Romans. There were three classes of warrior:

The Gedriht were the personal followers of the chief and were sworn to die with him. There would have been few of them in each warband. They would have been well armed and the majority would have worn a helmet and chainmail armour. The main weapon was the Gar, a 2.5 m long spear with an ash shaft (Old English, gar = spear). Many would have carried long slashing swords.

The second group were the Geoguth, or young warriors. They would have formed the bulk of the warband and would have carried a shield, spear, and Seax (a single edged dagger or short sword). Few would have had helmets or defensive armour.

The Duguth, or old warriors, appear later in this period. They would have carried the same equipment as the geoguth and served mainly to provide a stabilising element in battle.

In addition, there would have been skirmishers armed with either a bow or sling.

Saxon warrior with helmet and chainmail armour and armed with a Gar.

Method of fighting and army composition

This appears to have changed during this period. At the beginning, the shield was small, more like a buckler, and suggests that the men fought in open order. Later, the shield was enlarged (up to 1 m across) and the warband fought in close order, which required a reasonable level of training and discipline. This style of fighting had a long history; it was known as a shield wall or phalanx formation.

The use of the horse in battle is very unclear and probably only the gedriht would have had them. However, horses at this period were small and would have had to be battle trained. On balance, the sources indicate that the Saxons fielded a balanced and effective infantry army. It seems likely that horses would have been used either for scouting or transport.

It is not clear how large armies were; the Saxons themselves described anything more than 30 warriors as an army. Interestingly, this would have been about same number as a ship’s crew. The general view is that an army would have been made up of a number of warbands under a senior chief, or Althing, and would have been between 200 and 600 strong.

The shield wall.

Military organization in the settlement period (600-1066)

The organisation underwent considerable changes, becoming essentially more feudal. The Gedriht became a more organised household guard, which provided a core of military specialists (the huscarls). Individual Earls would have had their own household troops. There is also a new class of lord, the Thegn, which was roughly the equivalent of the later Norman Baron: Thegns held land from the king and were responsible for raising the Fyrd in their area and leading them into battle. The richer Thegns would also have had their own household troops.

However, the major innovation is in the organization of the Fyrd. This, in the post Alfred period, is called up in groups either to man the Burhs (each burh had a manpower level calculated according to the length of wall) or to serve in the field army. By this process, a Saxon army could remain in the field all year as there are always enough men at home producing food and goods.

The army was thus significantly larger than in the early period. In addition, by the 11th century, the increasing wealth of England, its increased centralisation, and its growing class of freemen meant that helmets, weapons, and armour could be made in far greater numbers. This meant that, by the 10th century, laws appear to have required a freeman who had the financial means to own a spear, a shield, an axe or sword and a helmet. The laws of the day required Fyrd members to be men of a particular class, freemen, who could afford decent equipment and training.

Weapons and equipment remained broadly the same, although the majority of a warband now had a helmet. The Dane Axe, which required a great deal of training to use effectively, became increasingly popular with the huscarls.

Saxon warrior with battle-axe.

Tactics and Strategies

Anglo-Saxon battle tactics have also spawned much debate. Some historians believe that horses were used, though most argue that the battles took place on foot. Infantry battles are reported in many texts from the period. Anglo-Saxon military organization is difficult to analyze.

The combat strength of the Anglo-Saxon army is another issue that cannot be agreed upon by scholars. Some historians argue that the army was weak and only used infantry as a means of defense and attack, while cavalry were only used for scouting, whereas others believe that the army was more powerful, employing infantry and cavalry. The former argument suggests that the infantry was of a high standard but did not have the capacity to press home an advantage, due to the lack of cavalry. It was also suggested by historians until the 1980s that the Anglo-Saxons did not carry high quality weapons.

Since the 1970s, however, archaeologists and historians have created a more varied view of Anglo-Saxon armies. The early Saxon armies are now thought to have been very formidable indeed, specializing in high-intensity close combat. The large shield was an offensive weapon as well as defensive. In the later period, the Saxons adopted the Danish battle axe, which had a 1.3 m shaft and could decapitate a horse or break up an opposing shield wall.

There was no cavalry in western Europe capable of consistently breaking a well-ordered shieldwall, aside perhaps from the Byzantine Cataphracts. This was due to the relatively small size of horses, and the fact that, even with the advent of the couched lance in the 12th century, well disciplined spearmen still presented a major problem for cavalry. This was demonstrated at Hastings when the Normans, who probably were the best cavalry of the period, tried all day to break the Anglo-Saxon line.

In a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, 1082, the English soldiers, who are all on foot, protect themselves with a shield wall while the Normans assault on horseback.

To judge the effectiveness of any military formation one first needs to determine what was its function. The early Saxon armies were aggressive small raiding units that could be quickly combined in a larger unit to take land and goods. The later army’s function was defensive and was the military expression of an organised state. It not only depended on raising manpower through the fyrd, but on a network of burghs that provided supply bases and mustering points. It was this system that allowed Alfred and his successors to conquer England and for Harold to move his army rapidly against the Danes and defeat them at Stamford Bridge then move elements 250 miles south to Hastings.

There are some battles in which scholars generally agree on which tactics and methods were used. The Battle of Hastings, in 1066, demonstrates some interesting military tactics. At Hastings, the soldiers were organized with the best soldiers in the front line and the less adequate fighters in the following lines. They formed a tightly packed shield wall, with spears projecting from the front rank over the shieldwall. Protecting the areas behind and to the side were a small number of archers, javelin throwers and slingers. The Bayeux Tapestry also shows armoured Saxon warriors using the long handled Danish axe.

Saxon warriors using the Danish Axe.

Either they stood in front of the shield wall or the wall opened to let them through. Though this formation has been criticised, it was highly effective; it provided reasonable cover from missile weapons and was capable of fending off most cavalry. It also needs to be remembered that all the Saxons needed to do in order to achieve victory was to hold their position until sunset, and the Normans would be forced to break off the days fighting. The Normans, deprived of supplies and reinforcements, be penned into a small area and with no way of feeding themselves or their horses, would have been forced to retreat.

It was, in fact, rather effective at repelling the Norman Cavalry and it was only the death of Harold and his brothers, probably towards the end of the battle, that caused the Saxon command system to ultimately fail and the battle to be lost. This strategy was also used in the battle of Sherston in 1016, only with a slight difference – instead of simply holding position, the army advanced on the enemy while maintaining their solid formation (A refinement of this tactic was used in the crusades: as the army neared the enemy line, gaps would open in the ‘shieldwall’ through which the cavalry would charge). Military tactics did develop gradually throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Though there is still much debate as to how efficient the soldiers and the fighting was, it is clear that, as the ages progressed, so too did the power and capability of the army.

References

  • Campbell, James, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald. The Anglo-Saxons. Ithaca: Cornell University P, 1982. 59-201.
  • Fisher, D J. The Anglo-Saxon Age. Aberdeen: Longman Group Limited, 1973. 220-340.
  • Hollister, C. Warren. Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1962. 18-152.
  • Levick, Ben. “Saxon Military Organisation.” Regia Anglorum. 31 Mar. 2003. Regia Anglorum Publications. 30 Oct. 2006

Celtic Britons and the Anglo Saxon migration

The Britons, also known as Celtic Britons or Ancient Britons, were Celtic people who inhabited Great Britain from the British Iron Age into the Middle Ages, at which point their culture and language diverged. They spoke the Common Brittonic language, the ancestor to the modern Brittonic languages.

The earliest evidence for the Britons and their language in historical sources dates to the Iron Age. After the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century, a Romano-British culture emerged, and Latin and British Vulgar Latin coexisted with Brittonic. During and after the Roman era, the Britons lived throughout Britain. Their relationship with the Picts, who lived north of the Firth of Forth, has been the subject of much discussion, though most scholars now accept that the Pictish language was related to Common Brittonic, rather than a separate Celtic language.

With the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement and Gaelic Scots in the 5th century, the culture and language of the Britons fragmented and much of their territory was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaels. The extent to which this cultural and linguistic change was accompanied by wholesale changes in the population is still a matter of discussion. During this period some Britons migrated to mainland Europe and established significant settlements in Brittany (now part of France) as well as Britonia in modern Galicia, Spain. By the 11th century, remaining Brittonic Celtic-speaking populations had split into distinct groups: the Welsh in Wales, the Cornish in Cornwall, the Bretons in Brittany, and the people of the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”) in southern Scotland and northern England. Common Brittonic developed into the distinct Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton.

Distribution of the peoples of the British Isles and Ireland in the 5th and 6th centuries.

The earliest known reference to the inhabitants of Britain seems to come from 4th century BC records of the voyage of Pytheas, a Greek geographer who made a voyage of exploration around the British Isles between 330 and 320 BC. Although none of his own writings remain, writers during the time of the Roman Empire made much reference to them. Pytheas called the islands collectively αἱ Βρεττανίαι (hai Brettaniai), which has been translated as the Brittanic Isles; he also used the term Pretannike. The peoples of these islands were called the Πρεττανοί (Prettanoi), Priteni, Pritani or Pretani. The group included Ireland, which was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra “sacred island” as the Greeks interpreted it) “inhabited by the race of Hiberni” (gens hibernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, “island of the Albions”. The term Pritani may have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who possibly used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was originally compiled by the orders of King Alfred the Great in approximately 890, and subsequently maintained and added to by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th century, starts with this sentence: “The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad, and there are in the island five nations: English, Welsh (or British, including the Cornish), Scottish, Pictish, and Latin. The first inhabitants were the Britons, who came from Armenia, and first peopled Britain southward.” (“Armenia” is possibly a mistaken transcription of Armorica, an area in northwestern Gaul including modern Brittany.)

The Latin name in the early Roman Empire period was Britanni or Brittanni, following the Roman conquest in AD 43.

The Welsh word Brython was introduced into English usage by John Rhys in 1884 as a term unambiguously referring to the P-Celtic speakers of Great Britain, to complement Goidel; hence the adjective Brythonic referring to the group of languages. “Brittonic languages” is a more recent coinage (first attested 1923 according to the Oxford English Dictionary) intended to refer to the ancient Britons specifically.

In English, the term “Briton” originally denoted the ancient Britons and their descendants, most particularly the Welsh, who were seen as heirs to the ancient British people. After the Acts of Union 1707, the terms British and Briton came to be applied to all inhabitants of the Kingdom of Great Britain and its empire.

The Britons spoke an Insular Celtic language known as Common Brittonic. Brittonic was spoken throughout the island of Britain (in modern terms, England, Wales and Scotland), as well as offshore islands such as the Isle of Man, Scilly Isles, Orkneys, Hebrides and Shetlands. According to early mediaeval historical tradition, such as The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica were colonists from Britain, resulting in the Breton language, a language related to Welsh and identical to Cornish in the early period and still used today. Thus the area today is called Brittany (Br. Breizh, Fr. Bretagne, derived from Britannia).

Map demonstration the extent of the Celtic language in the north of Britain.

Common Brittonic developed from the Insular branch of the Proto-Celtic language that developed in the British Isles after arriving from the continent in the 7th century BC. The language eventually began to diverge; some linguists have grouped subsequent developments as Western and Southwestern Brittonic languages.

Western Brittonic developed into Welsh in Wales and the Cumbric language in the Hen Ogledd or “Old North” of Britain, while the Southwestern dialect became Cornish in Cornwall and South West England and Breton in Armorica. Pictish is now generally accepted to descend from Common Brittonic, rather than being a separate Celtic language. Welsh and Breton survive today; Cumbric became extinct in the 12th century. Cornish had become extinct by the 19th century but has been the subject of language revitalization since the 20th century.

Throughout their existence, the territory inhabited by the Britons was composed of numerous ever-changing areas controlled by Brittonic tribes. The extent of their territory before and during the Roman period is unclear, but is generally believed to include the whole of the island of Great Britain, at least as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus, and if the Picts are included as Brittonic speaking people as they more usually are, the entirety of Great Britain.

The territory north of the Firth of Forth was largely inhabited by the Picts; little direct evidence has been left of the Pictish language, but place names and Pictish personal names recorded in the later Irish annals suggest it was indeed related to the Common Brittonic language rather than to the Goidelic (Gaelic) languages of the Irish, Scots and Manx; indeed their Goidelic Irish name, Cruithne, is cognate with Brythonic Priteni. Part of the Pictish territory was eventually absorbed into the Gaelic kingdoms of Dál Riata and Alba, which became Scotland.

The Isle of Man, Shetland, Hebrides and the Orkney islands were originally inhabited by Britons also, but eventually became respectively Manx and Scots Gaelic speaking territories, while the Scilly isles and Anglesey (Ynys Mon) remained Brittonic and the originally Brittonic Isle of Wight was taken by Anglo-Saxons.

In 43 AD, the Roman Empire invaded Britain. The British tribes opposed the Roman legions for many decades, but by 84 AD the Romans had decisively conquered southern Britain and had pushed into Brittonic areas of what would later become northern England and southern Scotland. In 122, they fortified the northern border with Hadrian’s Wall, which spanned what is now Northern England. In 142 AD, Roman forces pushed north again and began construction of the Antonine Wall, which ran between the Forth-Clyde isthmus, but they retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall after only twenty years.

Although the native Britons south of Hadrian’s Wall mostly kept their land, they were subject to the Roman governors, whilst the Brittonic-Pictish Britons north of the wall remained fully independent. The Roman Empire retained control of “Britannia” until its departure about AD 410, although some parts of Britain had already effectively shrugged off Roman rule decades earlier.

Shortly after the time of the Roman departure, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons began a migration to the eastern coast of Britain, where they established their own kingdoms, and the Gaelic speaking Scots migrating from Dál nAraidi (modern Northern Ireland), did the same on the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Dál Riata

At the same time, some Britons established themselves in what is now called Brittany. There they set up their own small kingdoms and the Breton language developed there from Brittonic Insular Celtic rather than Gaulish or Frankish. A further colony, Britonia, was also set up at this time in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain.

Britons migrated westwards during the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain.

Many of the old Brittonic kingdoms began to disappear in the centuries after the Anglo-Saxon and Scottish Gaelic invasions; The regions of modern East Anglia, East Midlands, North East England, Argyll and South East England were the first to fall to the Germanic and Gaelic Scots invasions; The kingdom of Ceint (modern Kent) fell in 456 AD, Linnuis (which stood astride modern Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire) was subsumed as early as 500 AD and became the English Kingdom of Lindsey, Rhegin (essentially modern Sussex and eastern Hampshire) was likely fully conquered by 510 AD, Ynys Weith (Isle of Wight) fell in 530 AD, Caer Colun (essentially modern Essex) by 540 AD.

The Gaels arrived on the north west coast of Britain from Ireland, dispossessed the native Britons and founded Dal Riata which encompassed modern Argyll, Skye and Iona between 500 and 560 AD. Deifr (Deira) which encompassed modern day Teeside, Wearside, Tyneside and Humberside fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 559 AD and Deira became an Anglo-Saxon kingdom after this point. Caer Went had officially disappeared by 575 AD becoming the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, Gwent and its capital Caer Gloui (Gloucester) was divided in 577 AD, handing Gloucestershire and Wiltshire to the invaders, while the westernmost part continued to exist in modern Wales, Caer Lundein encompassing London, St. Albans and parts of the Home Counties fell from Brittonic hands by 600 AD, Bryneich which existed in modern Northumbria and County Durham with its capital of Din Guardi (modern Bamburgh) and which included Ynys Metcaut (Lindisfarne) had fallen by 605 AD becoming Anglo-Saxon Bernicia.

Caer Celemion (in modern Hampshire and Berkshire) had fallen by 610 AD. Elmet, which covered much of modern Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire and likely had its capital at modern Leeds, was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in 627 AD.

Pengwern, which covered Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, was largely destroyed in 656 AD with only its westernmost parts in modern Wales enduring. AD, and it is likely that Cynwidion which had stretched from modern Bedfordshire to Northamptonshire, fell in the same general period as Pengwern, though a sub-kingdom of Calchwynedd may have clung on in the Chilterns for a time. Novant which occupied Galloway and Carrick was soon subsumed by fellow Brittonic-Pictish polities by 700 AD. Aeron which encompassed modern Ayrshire was conquered into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria by 700 AD.

Some Brittonic kingdoms, such as Rheged, which at its height encompassed much what is today Strathclyde, Cumbria, Northumberland, the Scottish borders, Lancashire and modern Greater Manchester and had a capital at Cair Ligualid (Carlisle), were able to successfully resist these incursions for some time, before the eastern part peacefully joined with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of BerniciaNorthumberland by 730 AD, and the west was taken over by the fellow Britons of Ystrad Clud.

Similarly, the kingdom of Gododdin, which appears to have had its capital at Din Eidyn (modern Edinburgh and encompassed parts of modern Northumbria, County Durham, Lothian and Clackmannanshire endured until approximately 775 AD before being divided by fellow Brittonic Picts, Gaelic Scots and Anglo-Saxons.

The Kingdom of Cait, covering modern Caithness, Sutherland, Orkneys and Shetlands was conquered in 871 AD, similarly, the Kingdom of Ce which encompassed modern Marr, Banff, Buchan, Fife and much of Aberdeenshire disappeared in 900 at the hands of the Gaelic Scots AD. Fortriu the largest Pictish kingdom which covered Strathearn, Morayshire and Easter Ross had fallen by approximately 950 AD to the Gaelic Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Other Pictish kingdoms such as Circinn ( in modern Angus and The Mearns), Fib (modern Fife), Fidach (Inverness and Perthshire), Ath-Fotla (Atholl) had also fallen by the beginning of the 11th century AD.

The Brythonic languages in these areas was replaced by the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaelic, although this was likely a gradual process in many areas.

The main Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in the 7th century.

The kingdom of Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde) was for some time a large and powerful Brittonic kingdom which endured until the end of the 11th century, successfully resisting Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic Scots and later also Viking attacks. At its peak it encompassed modern Strathclyde, Dumbartonshire, Cumbria, Stirlingshire, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll and Bute and parts of North Yorkshire, western Pennines, and as far as modern Leeds in West Yorkshire.

The Britons also retained control of Wales, Cornwall and south Devon (Dumnonia), as well as northwest England and parts of Scotland, where kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd endured. Dumnonia was effectively partitioned during the 9th century AD, the north becoming Anglo-Saxon Devonshire while he south remained in the hands of the Britons as Kernow (essentially modern Cornwall).

Wales was divided among varying Brittonic kingdoms, the foremost being Gwynedd, Powys (including Clwyd and Ynys Mon (Anglesey), Deheubarth (originally Ceredigion, Seisyllwg and Dyfed), Gwent and Morgannwg (Glamorgan. Some of these Welsh kingdoms initially included territories further east, for example Powys included parts of modern Merseyside, Cheshire and The Wirral and Gwent held parts of modern Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, but had largely been confined to the borders of modern Wales by the beginning of the 12th century.

However, by the beginning of the 12th century, the Anglo-Saxons and Gaels had become the dominant cultural force in most of the formerly Brittonic ruled territory in Britain, and the language and culture of the native Britons was thereafter gradually replaced in those regions, remaining only in Wales, Cornwall, parts of Cumbria, Strathclyde, eastern Galloway and Brittany.

The Brittonic-Pictish polities in Scotland and northern England gradually fell to the English and Scots; with the Kingdom of Strathclyde (Strath-Clota) being the last of the Brittonic kingdoms of the north to fall in the 1090s, when it was effectively divided between England and Scotland.

Cornwall (Kernow, Dumnonia) had certainly been largely absorbed by England by the 1050s, although it retained a distinct Brittonic culture and language. Britonia in Spanish Galicia seems to have disappeared by 900 AD.

Wales and Brittany remained independent for some time however, with Brittany finally being absorbed into France during the 1490s, and Wales united with England by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 in the mid 16th century during the rule of the Tudors (Twdyr), who were themselves of Welsh heritage on the male side.

Wales, Cornwall and Brittany continued to retain a distinct Brittonic culture, identity and language, which they have maintained to the present day. The Welsh language and Breton language remain widely spoken, and the Cornish language, once close to extinction, has experienced a revival since the 20th century. The vast majority of place names and names of geographical features in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany are Brittonic, and Brittonic family and personal names remain common.

During the 19th century, a large number of Welsh farmers migrated to Patagonia in Argentina, forming a community called Y Wladfa, which today consists of over 1,500 Welsh speakers.

In addition, a Brittonic legacy remains in England, Scotland and Galicia in Spain, in the form of often large numbers of Brittonic place and geographical names. Some examples of geographical Brittonic names survive in the names of rivers, such as the Thames, Clyde, Severn, Tyne, Wye, Exe, Dee, Tamar, Tweed, Avon, Trent, Tambre, Navia and River Forth. A number of place names in England and Scotland are of Brittonic rather than Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic origin, such as; London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Carlisle, Caithness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Barrow, Exeter, Lincoln, Dumbarton, Brent, Penge, Colchester, Durham, Dover, Leatherhead and York.

References

 

The Picts

Romano Saxon Cavalry vs Picts 5th C. AD

The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

They are thought to have been ethnolinguistically Celtic. Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from the geographical distribution of brochs, Brittonic place name elements, and Pictish stones. Picts are attested to in written records from before the Roman conquest of Britain to the 10th century, when they are thought to have merged with the Gaels. They lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde, and spoke the now-extinct Pictish language, which is thought to have been closely related to the Celtic Brittonic language spoken by the Britons who lived to the south of them.

Picts are assumed to have been the descendants of the Caledonii and other tribes that were mentioned by Roman historians or on the world map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also called Pictavia by some sources, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Alba then expanded, absorbing the Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Northumbrian Lothian, and by the 11th century the Pictish identity had been subsumed into the “Scots” amalgamation of peoples.

Dál Riata

Pictish society was typical of many Iron Age societies in northern Europe, having “wide connections and parallels” with neighbouring groups. Archaeology gives some impression of the society of the Picts. While very little in the way of Pictish writing has survived, Pictish history since the late 6th century is known from a variety of sources, including Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, saints’ lives such as that of Columba by Adomnán, and various Irish annals.

Map of Britain from withdrawal of the Roman Empire in 410 until the ascension of Anglo-Saxon rule in 450AD.

What the Picts called themselves is unknown. The Latin word Picti first occurs in a panegyric written by Eumenius in AD 297 and is taken to mean “painted or tattooed people” (from Latin pingere “to paint”; pictus, “painted”, cf. Greek “πυκτίς” pyktis, “picture”). As Sally M. Foster noted, “Much ink has been spilt over what the ancient writers meant by Picts, but it seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth–Clyde isthmus who raided the Roman Empire.”

Illustration of a warrior, blue tattoos on his chest, and holding a small shield.

Their Old English name gave the modern Scots form Pechts and the Welsh word Ffichti. In writings from Ireland, the name Cruthin, Cruthini, Cruthni, Cruithni or Cruithini (Modern Irish: Cruithne) was used to refer both to the Picts and to another group of people who lived alongside the Ulaid in eastern Ulster. It is generally accepted that this is derived from *Qritani, which is the Goidelic/Q-Celtic version of the Britonnic/P-Celtic *Pritani. From this came Britanni, the Roman name for those now called the Britons. It has been suggested that Cruthin referred to all Britons not conquered by the Romans—those who lived outside Roman Britannia, north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall

A Pictish confederation was formed in Late Antiquity from a number of tribes—how and why is not known. Some scholars have speculated that it was partly in response to the growth of the Roman Empire.

Pictland had previously been described by Roman writers and geographers as the home of the Caledonii. These Romans also used other names to refer to tribes living in that area, including Verturiones, Taexali and Venicones. But they may have heard these other names only second- or third-hand, from speakers of Brittonic or Gaulish languages, who may have used different names for the same group or groups.

Pictish recorded history begins in the Dark Ages. At that time, the Gaels of Dál Riata controlled what is now Argyll, as part of a kingdom straddling the sea between Britain and Ireland. The Angles of Bernicia, which merged with Deira to form Northumbria, overwhelmed the adjacent British kingdoms, and for much of the 7th century Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom in Britain.

The Picts were probably tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Bridei mac Beli, when, in 685, the Anglians suffered a defeat at the Battle of Dun Nechtain that halted their northward expansion. The Northumbrians continued to dominate southern Scotland for the remainder of the Pictish period.

Dál Riata was subject to the Pictish king Óengus mac Fergusa during his reign (729–761), and though it had its own kings beginning in the 760s, does not appear to have recovered its political independence from the Picts. A later Pictish king, Caustantín mac Fergusa (793–820), placed his son Domnall on the throne of Dál Riata (811–835). Pictish attempts to achieve a similar dominance over the Britons of Alt Clut (Dumbarton) were not successful.

The figure of the Old Testament King David shown killing a lion on the St Andrews Sarcophagus is thought to represent King Óengus. The figure is dressed as a Roman emperor of Late Antiquity and wears a fibula like that of the Emperor Justinian on the mosaic at San Vitale, Ravenna.

The Viking Age brought great changes in Britain and Ireland, no less in Scotland than elsewhere, conquering and settling the islands and various mainland areas, including Caithness, Sutherland and Galloway. In the middle of the 9th century Ketil Flatnose is said to have founded the Kingdom of the Isles, governing many of these territories, and by the end of that century the Vikings had destroyed the Kingdom of Northumbria, greatly weakened the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and founded the Kingdom of York.

In a major battle in 839, the Vikings killed the King of Fortriu, Eógan mac Óengusa, the King of Dál Riata Áed mac Boanta, and many others. In the aftermath, in the 840s, Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) became king of the Picts.

During the reign of Cínaed’s grandson, Caustantín mac Áeda (900–943), outsiders began to refer to the region as the Kingdom of Alba rather than the Kingdom of the Picts, but it is not known whether this was because a new kingdom was established or Alba was simply a closer approximation of the Pictish name for the Picts.

Constantín mac Áeda; Modern Gaelic: Còiseam mac Aoidh, known in most modern regnal lists as Constantine II; died 952.

However, though the Pictish language did not disappear suddenly, a process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reigns of Caustantín and his successors. By a certain point, probably during the 11th century, all the inhabitants of northern Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots, and Pictish identity was forgotten. Later, the idea of Picts as a tribe was revived in myth and legend.

Pictish Kings and Kingdoms

Approximate location of Pictish kingdoms, based on the information given here.

The early history of Pictland is unclear. In later periods multiple kings existed, ruling over separate kingdoms, with one king, sometimes two, more or less dominating their lesser neighbours. De Situ Albanie, a late document, the Pictish Chronicle, the Duan Albanach, along with Irish legends, have been used to argue the existence of seven Pictish kingdoms. These are as follows; those in bold are known to have had kings, or are otherwise attested in the Pictish period:

More small kingdoms may have existed. Some evidence suggests that a Pictish kingdom also existed in Orkney. De Situ Albanie is not the most reliable of sources, and the number of kingdoms, one for each of the seven sons of Cruithne, the eponymous founder of the Picts, may well be grounds enough for disbelief. Regardless of the exact number of kingdoms and their names, the Pictish nation was not a united one.

For most of Pictish recorded history the kingdom of Fortriu appears dominant, so much so that king of Fortriu and king of the Picts may mean one and the same thing in the annals. This was previously thought to lie in the area around Perth and southern Strathearn; however, recent work has convinced those working in the field that Moray (a name referring to a very much larger area in the High Middle Ages than the county of Moray) was the core of Fortriu.

Map showing the approximate areas of the kingdom of Fortriu and neighbours c. 800, and the kingdom of Alba c. 900.

The Picts are often said to have practised matrilineal kingship succession on the basis of Irish legends and a statement in Bede‘s history. The kings of the Picts when Bede was writing were Bridei and Nechtan, sons of Der Ilei, who indeed claimed the throne through their mother Der Ilei, daughter of an earlier Pictish king.

In Ireland, kings were expected to come from among those who had a great-grandfather who had been king. Kingly fathers were not frequently succeeded by their sons, not because the Picts practised matrilineal succession, but because they were usually followed by their own brothers or cousins, more likely to be experienced men with the authority and the support necessary to be king. This was similar to tanistry.

The nature of kingship changed considerably during the centuries of Pictish history. While earlier kings had to be successful war leaders to maintain their authority, kingship became rather less personalised and more institutionalised during this time. Bureaucratic kingship was still far in the future when Pictland became Alba, but the support of the church, and the apparent ability of a small number of families to control the kingship for much of the period from the later 7th century onwards, provided a considerable degree of continuity.

In much the same period, the Picts’ neighbours in Dál Riata and Northumbria faced considerable difficulties, as the stability of succession and rule that previously benefited them ended.

The later Mormaers are thought to have originated in Pictish times, and to have been copied from, or inspired by, Northumbrian usages. It is unclear whether the Mormaers were originally former kings, royal officials, or local nobles, or some combination of these. Likewise, the Pictish shires and thanages, traces of which are found in later times, are thought to have been adopted from their southern neighbours.

The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone with Pictish symbols, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb.

The archaeological record provides evidence of the material culture of the Picts. It tells of a society not readily distinguishable from its British, Gaelic, or Anglo-Saxon neighbours. Although analogy and knowledge of other so-called ‘Celtic’ societies (a term they never used for themselves) may be a useful guide, these extended across a very large area. Relying on knowledge of pre-Roman Gaul, or 13th century Ireland, as a guide to the Picts of the 6th century may be misleading if analogy is pursued too far.

As with most peoples in the north of Europe in Late Antiquity, the Picts were farmers living in small communities. Cattle and horses were an obvious sign of wealth and prestige, sheep and pigs were kept in large numbers, and place names suggest that transhumance was common.

Animals were small by later standards, although horses from Britain were imported into Ireland as breed-stock to enlarge native horses. From Irish sources it appears that the élite engaged in competitive cattle-breeding for size, and this may have been the case in Pictland also.

Pictish Burghead Bull (British Museum).

Carvings show hunting with dogs, and also, unlike in Ireland, with falcons. Cereal crops included wheat, barley, oats and rye. Vegetables included kale, cabbage, onions and leeks, peas and beans and turnips, and some types no longer common, such as skirret. Plants such as wild garlic, nettles and watercress may have been gathered in the wild.

The pastoral economy meant that hides and leather were readily available. Wool was the main source of fibres for clothing, and flax was also common, although it is not clear if they grew it for fibres, for oil, or as a foodstuff. Fish, shellfish, seals, and whales were exploited along coasts and rivers. The importance of domesticated animals suggests that meat and milk products were a major part of the diet of ordinary people, while the élite would have eaten a diet rich in meat from farming and hunting.

No Pictish counterparts to the areas of denser settlement around important fortresses in Gaul and southern Britain, or any other significant urban settlements, are known. Larger, but not large, settlements existed around royal forts, such as at Burghead Fort, or associated with religious foundations. No towns are known in Scotland until the 12th century.

The technology of everyday life is not well recorded, but archaeological evidence shows it to have been similar to that in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. Recently evidence has been found of watermills in Pictland. Kilns were used for drying kernels of wheat or barley, not otherwise easy in the changeable, temperate climate.

The early Picts are associated with piracy and raiding along the coasts of Roman Britain. Even in the Late Middle Ages, the line between traders and pirates was unclear, so that Pictish pirates were probably merchants on other occasions.

It is generally assumed that trade collapsed with the Roman Empire, but this is to overstate the case. There is only limited evidence of long-distance trade with Pictland, but tableware and storage vessels from Gaul, probably transported up the Irish Sea, have been found. This trade may have been controlled from Dunadd in Dál Riata, where such goods appear to have been common. While long-distance travel was unusual in Pictish times, it was far from unknown as stories of missionaries, travelling clerics and exiles show.

Brochs are popularly associated with the Picts. Although these were built earlier in the Iron Age, with construction ending around 100 AD, they remained in use into and beyond the Pictish period. Crannóg, which may originate in Neolithic Scotland, may have been rebuilt, and some were still in use in the time of the Picts. The most common sort of buildings would have been roundhouses and rectangular timbered halls. While many churches were built in wood, from the early 8th century, if not earlier, some were built in stone.

Reconstructed crannóg on Loch Tay.

The Picts are often said to have tattooed themselves, but evidence for this is limited. Naturalistic depictions of Pictish nobles, hunters and warriors, male and female, without obvious tattoos, are found on monumental stones. These stones include inscriptions in Latin and ogham script, not all of which have been deciphered. The well known Pictish symbols found on standing stones and other artifacts, have defied attempts at translation over the centuries. Pictish art can be classed as ‘Celtic’ (a term not coined till the 1850s), and later as Insular. Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves.

The harpist on the Dupplin Cross, Scotland, c. 800 AD.

Early Pictish religion is presumed to have resembled Celtic polytheism in general, although only place names remain from the pre-Christian era. When the Pictish elite converted to Christianity is uncertain, but traditions place Saint Palladius in Pictland after he left Ireland, and link Abernethy with Saint Brigid of Kildare. Saint Patrick refers to “apostate Picts”, while the poem Y Gododdin does not remark on the Picts as pagans.

Bede wrote that Saint Ninian (confused by some with Saint Finnian of Moville, who died c. 589), had converted the southern Picts. Recent archaeological work at Portmahomack places the foundation of the monastery there, an area once assumed to be among the last converted, in the late 6th century. This is contemporary with Bridei mac Maelchon and Columba, but the process of establishing Christianity throughout Pictland will have extended over a much longer period.

An early 20th century depiction of Saint Columba’s miracle at the gate of King Bridei’s fortress, described in Adomnán’s late 7th century Vita Columbae.

Pictland was not solely influenced by Iona and Ireland. It also had ties to churches in Northumbria, as seen in the reign of Nechtan mac Der Ilei. The reported expulsion of Ionan monks and clergy by Nechtan in 717 may have been related to the controversy over the dating of Easter, and the manner of tonsure, where Nechtan appears to have supported the Roman usages, but may equally have been intended to increase royal power over the church. Nonetheless, the evidence of place names suggests a wide area of Ionan influence in Pictland. Likewise, the Cáin Adomnáin (Law of Adomnán, Lex Innocentium) counts Nechtan’s brother Bridei among its guarantors.

The importance of monastic centres in Pictland was not, perhaps, as great as in Ireland. In areas that have been studied, such as Strathspey and Perthshire, it appears that the parochial structure of the High Middle Ages existed in early medieval times. Among the major religious sites of eastern Pictland were Portmahomack, Cennrígmonaid (later St Andrews), Dunkeld, Abernethy and Rosemarkie. It appears that these are associated with Pictish kings, which argues for a considerable degree of royal patronage and control of the church. Portmahomack in particular has been the subject of recent excavation and research, published by Martin Carver.

The cult of Saints was, as throughout Christian lands, of great importance in later Pictland. While kings might patronise great Saints, such as Saint Peter in the case of Nechtan, and perhaps Saint Andrew in the case of the second Óengus mac Fergusa, many lesser Saints, some now obscure, were important. The Pictish Saint Drostan appears to have had a wide following in the north in earlier times, although he was all but forgotten by the 12th century. Saint Serf of Culross was associated with Nechtan’s brother Bridei. It appears, as is well known in later times, that noble kin groups had their own patron saints, and their own churches or abbeys.

The Pictish language is extinct. Evidence is limited to place names, the names of people found on monuments, and the contemporary records. The evidence of place-names and personal names argues strongly that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly Brittonic languages. A number of Ogham inscriptions have been argued to be unidentifiable as Celtic, and on this basis, it has been suggested that non-Celtic languages were also in use.

The absence of surviving written material in Pictish—if the ambiguous “Pictish inscriptions” in the Ogham script are discounted—does not indicate a pre-literate society. The church certainly required literacy in Latin, and could not function without copyists to produce liturgical documents. Pictish iconography shows books being read, and carried, and its naturalistic style gives every reason to suppose that such images were of real life. Literacy was not widespread, but among the senior clergy, and in monasteries, it would have been common enough.

Place-names often allow us to deduce the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland. Those prefixed with the Brittonic prefixes “Aber-“, “Lhan-“, or “Pit-” (=? “peth”, a thing) are claimed to indicate regions inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, etc.). Some of these, such as “Pit-” (portion, share), may have been formed after Pictish times, and may refer to previous “shires” or “thanages”.

The evidence of place-names may also reveal the advance of Gaelic into Pictland. As noted, Atholl, meaning New Ireland, is attested in the early 8th century. This may be an indication of the advance of Gaelic. Fortriu also contains place-names suggesting Gaelic settlement, or Gaelic influences. A pre-Gaelic interpretation of the name as Athfocla meaning ‘north pass’ or ‘north way’, as in gateway to Moray, suggests that the Gaelic Athfotla may be a Gaelic misreading of the minuscule c for t.

Medieval Welsh tradition credited the founding of Gwynedd to the Picts and traced their principal royal families—the Houses of Aberffraw and Dinefwr—to Cunedda Wledig, said to have invaded northern Wales from Lothian.

References

  • James E. Fraser, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.1From Caledonia To Pictland, Edinburgh University Press(2009) ISBN 978-0-7486-1232-1
  • Fraser Hunter, Beyond the Edge of Empire: Caledonians, Picts and Romans, Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie (2007) ISBN 978-0-9540999-2-3
  • Alex Woolf, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.2From Pictland To Alba, Edinburgh University Press,(2007) ISBN 978-0-7486-1234-5
  • Benjamin Hudson: The Picts. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4051-8678-0 (cloth); ISBN 978-1-118-60202-7 (paperback).

‘Agricultural revolution’ in Anglo-Saxon England sheds new light on medieval land use

Researchers from the University of Leicester are shedding new light on how an ‘agricultural revolution’ in Anglo-Saxon England fueled the growth of towns and markets as part of a new project investigating medieval farming habits.

The project, titled ‘Feeding Anglo-Saxon England (FeedSax): The Bioarchaeology of an Agricultural Revolution’, which is funded by the European Research Council, is led by the University of Oxford working with colleagues from the University of Leicester.

The period between c 800 – 1200 AD saw dramatic changes in farming practices across large parts of Europe, enabling an increase in cereal production so great that it has been described as an ‘agricultural revolution’.

This ‘cerealisation’ allowed post-Roman populations not only to recover, but to boom, fueling the growth of towns and markets.

In England, this meant that many regions became more densely populated than ever before.

To operate a more productive but costly system of farming, peasants had to share expensive resources such as teams of oxen and mouldboard ploughs see header image), and cultivate extensive and unenclosed ‘open fields’ communally.

The project aims to understand when, where and how this ‘mouldboard plough package’ originated and spread, by generating the first direct evidence of medieval land use and cultivation regimes from excavated plant remains and animal bones, using a range of scientific methods.

Dr Richard Thomas, Reader and Chair of the Association for Environmental Archaeology from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History said: “We are delighted to be working with the University of Oxford on this exciting project. By using different kinds of archaeological evidence we will try and establish how a revolution in agriculture in Anglo-Saxon England led to a surge in population and fueled the growth of towns and markets.

Artist’s impression of an Anglo Saxon settlement in Hampshire.

“Here at the University of Leicester, we will be studying the stresses and strains on cattle bones from archaeological sites to establish when and where the heavy-plough was introduced. This was a major technological innovation which enabled more land to be brought into cultivation and increased the production of cereal grains.”

Helena Hamerow, Professor of Early Medieval Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the project’s Principal Investigator, said: “This project will help us understand how farmers in medieval England were able to grow more food to feed an expanding population sustainably at a time of climatic warming. The spread of the heavy, mouldboard plough – a technology that English farmers adopted from their European neighbours – was a key factor and analysing cattle bones will enable us to trace its spread.”

Three key innovations made the increase in yields during the period possible:

  • widespread adoption of the mouldboard plough, which enabled farmers to cultivate heavier, more fertile soils;
  • crop rotation, e.g. planting with winter wheat followed by spring barley;
  • extensification of cultivation, whereby fertility was maintained by short fallow periods during which sheep grazed on the stubble, rather than by intensive manuring

In order to improve efficiency and share resources, people had to live in close proximity, leading to the formation of the nucleated villages, set amid extensive arrays of strip fields that can still be seen in many parts of the countryside today.

The Medieval mouldboard plough.

In this way, innovations in farming transformed large parts of the England’s landscape and with it, its social geography.

As part of the project, a suite of over 400 radiocarbon dates on charred cereals, bones and pollen cores will make it possible to locate the origins and spread of open fields in time and space.

Patterns emerging from these bioarchaeological data will then be compared with the evidence from excavated farms to explore the inter-relationship between arable production, stock management and settlement forms.

Analysis of crop stable isotopes in preserved cereal grains will enable the team to assess the degree to which productivity was boosted by manuring.

Weed flora will also reveal the extent to which fields were manured and tilled, as well as providing evidence of sowing times and crop rotation.

The lower limb bones of cattle will be examined for pathologies caused by pulling a heavy plough. Pollen data will reveal the changing impact of cereal farming on the medieval landscape and will be used to produce the first national model of early medieval land use.

The project number for the research is: AdG741751.

Battle of Badon

Map of the Battle of Badon.

The Battle of Badon (Latin: Bellum in monte Badonis or Mons Badonicus, Welsh: Cad Mynydd Baddon, all literally meaning “Battle of Mount Badon” or “Battle of Badon Hill”) was a battle thought to have occurred between Celtic Britons and Anglo-Saxons in the late 5th or early 6th century.

It was credited as a major victory for the Britons, stopping the encroachment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for a period. It is chiefly known today for the supposed involvement of King Arthur, a tradition that first clearly appeared in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum. Because of the limited number of sources, there is no certainty about the date, location, or details of the fighting.

The Battle of Mount Badon was a major victory of the British over the Saxons, and has been part of the Arthurian narrative since the very beginning. This depiction dates from the 14th c. (approx.)

Siege of Mount Badon

The earliest mention of the Battle of Badon is GildasDe Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), written in the early to mid-6th century. In it, the Anglo-Saxons are said to have “dipped [their] red and savage tongue in the western ocean” before Ambrosius Aurelianus organized a British resistance with the survivors of the initial Saxon onslaught. Gildas describes the period that followed Ambrosius’ initial success:

From that time, the citizens were sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy, in order that the Lord, according to His wont, might try in this nation the Israel of to-day, whether it loves Him or not. This continued up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill (obsessionis Badonici montis), and of almost the last great slaughter inflicted upon the rascally crew. And this commences, a fact I know, as the forty-fourth year, with one month now elapsed; it is also the year of my birth.

The Ruin of Britain is unclear as to whether Ambrosius is still leading the Britons at this point, but describes the battle as such an “unexpected recovery of the [island]” that it caused kings, nobles, priests, and commoners to “live orderly according to their several vocations” before the long peace degenerated into civil wars and the iniquity of Maelgwn Gwynedd. Passages of The Ruin of Britain that address Maelgwn directly are sometimes employed to date the work from accounts of the king’s death by plague in the 540s, but such arguments ignore the obvious apostrophe employed in the passages and the possible years of composition involved in the final collected sermon.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, as he may have appeared.

The battle is next mentioned in an 8th-century text of Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It describes the “siege of Mount Badon, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders,” as occurring 44 years after the first Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. Since Bede places that arrival during or just after the joint reign of Marcian and Valentinian III in AD 449–456, he must have considered Badon to have taken place between 493 and 500. Bede then puts off discussion of the battle – “But more of this hereafter” – only to seemingly never return to it. Bede does later include an extended account of Saint Germanus‘s victory over the Saxons and Picts in a mountain valley,[11] which he credits with curbing the threat of invasion for a generation. However, as the victory is described as having been accomplished bloodlessly, it was presumably a different occasion from Badon. (Accepted at face value, St. Germanus’s involvement would also place the battle around 430, although Bede’s chronology shows no knowledge of this.)

Battle of Badon

The earliest surviving text mentioning Arthur at the battle is the early 9th century Historia Brittonum, in which the soldier (Latin mīles) Arthur is identified as the leader of the victorious British force at Badon:

“The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself”.

The Battle of Badon is next mentioned in the Annales Cambriae (“Annals of Wales”), assumed to have been written during the mid- to late-10th century. The entry states:

The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders [or shield] and the Britons were the victors”.

That Arthur had gone unmentioned in the source closest to his own time, Gildas, was noticed at least as early as the 12th century hagiography that claims that Gildas had praised Arthur extensively but then excised him completely after Arthur killed the saint’s brother, Hueil mab Caw. Modern writers have suggested the details of the battle were so well known that Gildas could have expected his audience to be familiar with them.

Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s c. 1136 Historia Regum Britanniae was massively popular and survives in many copies from soon after its composition. Going into (and fabricating) much greater detail, Geoffrey closely identifies Badon with Bath, including having Merlin foretell that Badon’s baths would lose their hot water and turn poisonous.

He employs aspects of other accounts, mixing them: the battle begins as a Saxon siege and then becomes a normal engagement once Arthur’s men arrive; Arthur bears the image of the Virgin both on his shield and shoulder. Arthur charges, but kills a mere 470, ten more than the number of Britons ambushed by Hengist near Salisbury. Elements of the Welsh legends are also added: in addition to the shield Pridwen, Arthur gains his sword Caliburnus and his spear, Ron. Geoffrey also makes the defence of the city from the Saxon sneak attack a holy cause, having Dubricius offer absolution of all sins for those who fall in battle.

Angles Saxona Warriors in Battle.

Scholarship

Separate sources dating the concession of Thanet to Hengist to 447 would place The Ruin of Britain and Bede’s account of the battle around the year 491. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is completely silent about this battle but does seem to document a gap of almost 70 years between two major Anglo-Saxon leaders (bretwaldas) in the 5th and 6th centuries.

If Rhigyfarch‘s celebrated Life of David is credited, its account of Saint David‘s ten years of education under Paul Aurelian suggests David could not have been born later than 514. Since the same account has Gildas preaching to Saint Non while she was pregnant with David, it is improbable that Gildas’s birth – and therefore the battle – could have occurred later than 498.

McCarthy and Ó Cróinín propose Gildas’s 44 years and one month is not a reference to the simple chronology but a position within the 84-year Easter cycle used for computus at the time by the Britons and the Irish church. The tables in question in January 438, which would place their revised date of the battle in February 482.

Hirst, Ashe and Wood argue for the site of Liddington Castle on the hill above Badbury (Old English: Baddan byrig) in Wiltshire. This site commands The Ridgeway, which connects the River Thames with the River Avon and River Severn beyond.

Liddington Castle, locally called Liddington Camp, is a late Bronze Age and early Iron Age hill fort in the English county of Wiltshire.

Aftermath

The early sources’ account that the Saxons were thrown back around this time seems to be borne out by archaeological evidence. Studies of cemeteries (at this point, the Anglo-Saxons remained pagan while the Britons were Christianized) suggest the border shifted some time around 500.

Afterwards, the pagans held the present areas of Kent, Sussex, Norfolk and Suffolk, and the area around the Humber. The Britons seem to have controlled salients to the north and west of London and south of Verulamium in addition to everything west of a line running from Christchurch at the mouth of the Wiltshire Avon north to the Trent, then along the Trent to the Humber, then north along the Derwent to the North Sea.

The salients could then be supplied along Watling Street, dividing the invaders into pockets south of the Weald in east Kent and around the Wash.

Second Badon

The A Text of the Annales Cambriae includes the entry: “The first celebration of Easter among the Saxons. The second battle of Badon. Morgan dies.” The date for this action is given by Phillimore as 665, but the Saxons’ first Easter is placed by the B Text in its entry 634 years after the birth of Christ and neither Second Badon nor Morcant are mentioned.

Local Lore

Apart from the professional scholarship, various communities around Wales and England carry on local traditions that their area was the site of the battle: these include Bathampton Down; Badbury Rings at the Kingston Lacy House in Dorset; and Bowden Hill in Wiltshire.

References

  • Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur. Tempus (Stroud, Gloucestershire), 2007. ISBN 9780752444611.
  • Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I.xvi.
  • L. Duodecimum fuit bellum in monte Badonis, in quo corruerunt in uno die nongenti sexaginta viri de uno impetu Arthur; et nemo prostravit eos nisi ipse solus. Mommsen, Theodore (ed.) Historia Brittonum. Accessed 7 Feb 2013. (in Latin).
  • Public Record Office of the United Kingdom. MS. E.164/1, p. 8. (in Latin).