Saint Gildas

 

Gildas (Breton: Gweltaz, c. 500–570) — also known as Gildas the Wise or Gildas Sapiens — was a 6th-century British monk best known for his scathing religious polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which recounts the history of the Britons before and during the coming of the Saxons.

He is one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during the sub-Roman period, and was renowned for his Biblical knowledge and literary style. In his later life, he emigrated to Brittany where he founded a monastery known as St. Gildas de Rhuys.

Differing versions of the Life of Saint Gildas exist, but both agree that he was born in what is now Scotland on the banks of the River Clyde, and that he was the son of a royal family. These works were written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and are regarded by scholars as unhistorical.

He is now thought to have his origins further south. In his own work, he claims to have been born the same year as the Battle of Mount Badon. He was educated at a monastic center, possibly Cor Tewdws under St. Illtud, where he chose to forsake his royal heritage and embrace monasticism. He became a renowned teacher, converting many to Christianity and founding numerous churches and monasteries throughout Britain and Ireland.

He is thought to have made a pilgrimage to Rome before emigrating to Brittany, where he took on the life of a hermit. However, his life of solitude was short-lived, and pupils soon sought him out and begged him to teach them. He eventually founded a monastery for these students at Rhuys, where he wrote De Excidio Britanniae, criticising British rulers and exhorting them to put off their sins and embrace true Christian faith.

He is thought to have died at Rhuys, and was buried there.

The Epistle of Gildas

There are two different historical versions of the life of Gildas, the first written by an anonymous monk in the 9th century, and the other written by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the middle of the 12th century. Some historians have attempted to explain the differences in the versions by saying that there were two saints named Gildas, but the more general opinion is that there was only one St. Gildas and that the discrepancies between the two versions can be accounted for by the fact that they were written several centuries apart. The 9th century Rhuys Life is generally accepted as being more accurate.

The First Life of St. Gildas was written by an unnamed monk at the monastery which Gildas founded in Rhuys, Brittany in the 9th century. According to this tradition, Gildas is the son of Caunus, king of Alt Clut in the Hen Ogledd, the Brythonic-speaking region of northern Britain.

He had four brothers; his brother Cuillum ascended to the throne on the death of his father, but the rest became monks in their own right. Gildas was sent as a child to the College of Theodosius (Cor Tewdws) in Glamorgan, under the care of St. Illtud, and was a companion of St. Sampson and St. Paul of Léon.

His master St. Illtud loved him tenderly and taught him with special zeal. He was supposed to be educated in liberal arts and divine scripture, but elected to study only holy doctrine, and to forsake his noble birth in favour of a religious life.

The spring of St. Gildas in Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, Morbihan.

After completing his studies under St. Illtud, Gildas went to Ireland where he was ordained as a priest. He returned to his native lands in northern Britain where he acted as a missionary, preaching to the pagan people and converting many of them to Christianity.

He was then asked by Ainmericus, high king of Ireland (Ainmuire mac Sétnai, 566–569), to restore order to the church in Ireland, which had altogether lost the Christian faith. Gildas obeyed the king’s summons and travelled all over the island, converting the inhabitants, building churches, and establishing monasteries. He then travelled to Rome and Ravenna where he performed many miracles, including slaying a dragon while in Rome.

Intending to return to Britain, he instead settled on the Isle of Houat off Brittany where he led a solitary, austere life. At around this time, he also preached to Nonnita, the mother of Saint David, while she was pregnant with the saint.

He was eventually sought out by those who wished to study under him, and was entreated to establish a monastery in Brittany. He built an oratory on the bank of the River Blavetum (River Blavet), today known as St. Gildas de Rhuys. Fragments of letters that he wrote reveal that he composed a Rule for monastic life that was somewhat less austere than the Rule written by Saint David.

Inside the old Abbey Church of St. Gildas in Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys.

Ten years after leaving Britain, he wrote an epistolary book in which he reproved five of the British kings. He died at Rhuys on 29 January 570, and his body was placed on a boat and allowed to drift, according to his wishes. Three months later, on 11 May, men from Rhuys found the ship in a creek with the body of Gildas still intact. They took the body back to Rhuys and buried it there.

Llancarfan Life: Gildas and King Arthur

The second “Life” of St. Gildas was written by Caradoc of Llancarfan, a friend of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Norman patrons. However, Llancarfan’s work is most probably historically inaccurate, as his hagiographies tend towards the fictitious, rather than the strictly historical.

Llancarfan’s “Life” was written in the 12th century, and includes many elements of what have come to be known as mythical pseudo-histories, involving King Arthur, Guinevere, and Glastonbury Abbey, leading to the general opinion that this “life” is less historically accurate than the earlier version.

For example, according to the dates in the Annales Cambriae, Gildas would have been a contemporary of King Arthur: however, Gildas’ work never mentions Arthur by name, even though he gives a history of the Britons, and states that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill, in which Arthur is supposed to have vanquished the Saxons.

In the Llancarfan Life, St. Gildas was the son of Nau, king of Scotia. Nau had 24 sons, all victorious warriors. Gildas studied literature as a youth, before leaving his homeland for Gaul, where he studied for seven years. When he returned, he brought back an extensive library with him, and was sought after as a master teacher. He became the most renowned teacher in all of the three kingdoms of Britain.

Gildas was a subject of the mythical King Arthur, whom he loved and desired to obey. However, his 23 brothers were always rising up against their rightful king, and his eldest brother, Hueil, would submit to no rightful high king, not even Arthur. Hueil would often swoop down from Scotland to fight battles and carry off spoils, and during one of these raids, Hueil was pursued and killed by King Arthur.

When news of his brother’s murder reached Gildas in Ireland, he was greatly grieved, but was able to forgive Arthur, and pray for the salvation of his soul. Gildas then travelled to Britain, where he met Arthur face to face, and kissed him as he prayed for forgiveness, and Arthur accepted penance for murdering Gildas’ brother.

After this, Gildas taught at the school of St. Cadoc, before retiring to a secret island for seven years. Pirates from the Orkney Islands came and sacked his island, carrying off goods and his friends as slaves. In distress, he left the island, and came to Glastonbury, then ruled by Melvas, King of the ‘Summer Country’ (Gwlad yr Haf, Somerset). Gildas intervened between King Arthur and Melvas, who had abducted and raped Arthur’s wife Guinevere and brought her to his stronghold at Glastonbury. Arthur soon arrived to besiege him, but, the peacemaking saint persuaded Melvas to release Guinevere and the two kings made peace. Then desiring to live a hermit’s life, Gildas built a hermitage devoted to the Trinity on the banks of the river at Glastonbury. He died, and was buried at Glastonbury Abbey, in the floor of St. Mary’s Church.

Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey.

The Llancarfan Life contains the earliest surviving appearance of the abduction of Guinevere episode, common in later Arthurian literature. Huail’s enmity with Arthur was also apparently a popular subject in medieval Britain: he is mentioned as an enemy of Arthur’s in the Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen, written around 1100.

A strongly held tradition in North Wales places the beheading of Gildas’ brother Huail at Ruthin, where what is believed to be the execution stone has been preserved in the town square. Another brother of Gildas, Celyn ap Caw, was based in the north-east corner of Anglesey.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

Gildas is best known for his polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which recounts the sub-Roman history of Britain, and which is the only substantial source for history of this period written by a near-contemporary.

The work is a sermon in three parts condemning the acts of his contemporaries, both secular and religious. The first part consists of Gildas’ explanation for his work and a brief narrative of Roman Britain from its conquest under the Principate to Gildas’ time. He describes the doings of the Romans and the Groans of the Britons, in which the Britons make one last request for military aid from the departed Roman military. He excoriates his fellow Britons for their sins, while at the same time lauding heroes such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom he is the first to describe as a leader of the resistance to the Saxons. He mentions the victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, a feat attributed to King Arthur in later texts, though Gildas is unclear as to who led the battle.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, as he may have appeared.

Part two consists of a condemnation of five British kings, Constantine, Aurelius Conanus, Vortiporius, Cuneglas, and Maelgwn. As it is the only contemporary information about them, it is of particular interest to scholars of British history. Part three is a similar attack on the clergy of the time.

The works of Gildas, including the Excidio, can be found in volume 69 of the Patrologia Latina.

De Excidio is usually dated to the 540s, but the historian Guy Halsall inclines to an “early Gildas” c. 490. Cambridge historian Karen George offers a date range of c. 510–530 AD.

Veneration

Gildas’ relics were venerated in the abbey which he founded in Rhuys, until the 10th century, when they were removed to Berry. In the 18th century, they were said to be moved to the cathedral at Vannes and then hidden during the French Revolution. The various relics survived the revolution and have all since been returned to Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys where they are visible at various times of the year at a dedicated “treasury” in the village. The body of Saint Gildas (minus the pieces incorporated into various reliquaries) is buried behind the altar in the church of Saint Gildas de Rhuys.

The gold and silver covered relics of Saint Gildas include:

  • A reliquary head containing parts of the saints skull
  • An arm reliquary containing bone pieces, topped with a blessing hand
  • A reliquary femur and knee

The embroidered mitre supposedly worn by Gildas is also kept with these relics. Gildas is the patron saint of several churches and monasteries in Brittany, and his feast day is celebrated on 29 January.

Gildas is credited with a hymn called the Lorica, or Breastplate, a prayer for deliverance from evil, which contains specimens of Hiberno-Latin. A proverb is also attributed to Gildas mab y Gaw in the Englynion y Clyweid in Llanstephan MS. 27.

In Bonedd y Saint, Gildas is recorded as having three sons and a daughter. Gwynnog ap Gildas and Noethon ap Gildas are named in the earliest tracts, together with their sister Dolgar. Another son, Tydech, is named in a later document. Iolo Morganwg adds Saint Cenydd to the list.

The scholar David Dumville suggests that Gildas was the teacher of Finnian of Moville, who in turn was the teacher of St. Columba of Iona.

References

 

 

 

 

Why the Anglo Saxon settlement of England was so successful

The reasons for the success of Anglo-Saxon settlements remains uncertain. Helena Hamerow has made an observation that in Anglo-Saxon society “local and extended kin groups remained … the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon period”. “Local and extended kin groups” is one of a number of possible reasons for success; along with societal advantages, freedom and the relationship to an elite, that allowed the Anglo-Saxons’ culture and language to flourish in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Anglo-Saxon political formation

Nick Higham is convinced that the success of the Anglo-Saxon elite in gaining an early compromise shortly after the Battle of Badon is a key to the success of the culture. This produced a political ascendancy across the south and east of Britain, which in turn required some structure to be successful.

The Bretwalda concept is taken as evidence for a presence of a number of early Anglo-Saxon elite families and a clear unitary oversight. Whether the majority of these leaders were early settlers, descendant from settlers, or especially after the exploration stage they were Roman-British leaders who adopted Anglo-Saxon culture is unclear.

The balance of opinion is that most were migrants, although it shouldn’t be assumed they were all Germanic (see Elite personal names evidence). There is agreement: that these were small in number and proportion, yet large enough in power and influence to ensure “Anglo-Saxon” acculturation in the lowlands of Britain. Most historians believe these elites were those named by Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and others, although there is discussion regarding their floruit dates.

Importantly, whatever their origin or when they flourished, they established their claim to lordship through their links to extended kin ties. As Helen Peake jokingly points out “they all just happened to be related back to Woden”.

The Tribal Hidage is evidence of the existence of numerous smaller provinces, meaning that southern and eastern Britain may have lost any macro-political cohesion in the fifth and sixth centuries and fragmented into many small autonomous units, though late Roman administrative organisation of the countryside may have helped dictate their boundaries. By the end of the sixth century the leaders of these communities were styling themselves kings, with the majority of the larger kingdoms based on the south or east coasts.

They include the provinces of the Jutes of Hampshire and Wight, the South Saxons, Kent, the East Saxons, East Angles, Lindsey and (north of the Humber) Deira and Bernicia. Several of these kingdoms may have their foundation the former Roman civitas and this has been argued as particularly likely for the provinces of Kent, Lindsey, Deira and Bernicia, all of whose names derive from Romano-British tribal or district names.

Angle, Saxon and Jute distribution in southern England.

The southern and east coasts were, of course, the areas settled first and in greatest numbers by the settlers and so presumably were the earliest to pass from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon control. Once established they had the advantage of easy communication with continental territories in Europe via the North Sea or the Channel.

The east and south coast provinces may never have fragmented to the extent of some areas inland and by the end of the sixth century they were already beginning to expand by annexing smaller neighbours. Barbara Yorke suggests that such aggressiveness must have encouraged areas which did not already possess military protection in the form of kings and their armies to acquire their own war-leaders or protection alliances.

By the time of the Tribal Hidage there were also two large ‘inland’ kingdoms, those of the Mercians and West Saxons, whose spectacular growth we can trace in par in our sources for the seventh century, but it is not clear how far this expansion had proceeded by the end of the sixth century.

What Bede seems to imply in his Bretwalda list of the elite is the ability to extract tribute and overawe and/or protect communities, which may well have been relatively short-lived in any one instance, but ostensibly “Anglo-Saxon” dynasties variously replaced one another in this role in a discontinuous but influential and potent roll call of warrior elites, with very few interruptions from other “British” warlords.

The success of this elite was felt beyond their geography, to include neighbouring British territories in the centre and west of what later became England, and even the far west of the island. Again, Bede was very clear that English imperium could on occasion encompass British and English kingships alike, and that Britons and Angles marched to war together in the early seventh century, under both British and English kings.

It is Bede who provides the most vivid picture of a late sixth- and early seventh-century Anglian warlord in action, in the person of Æthelfrith of Northumbria, King of Bernicia (a kingdom with a non-English name), who rapidly built up a personal ’empire’ by military victories over the Britons of the North, the Scots of Dalriada, the Angles of Deira and the Britons of north-eastern Wales, only ultimately to experience disaster at the hands of Rædwald of East Anglia.

Rural freedoms and kinship groups

Where arable cultivation continued in early Anglo-Saxon England, there seems to have been considerable continuity with the Roman period in both field layout and arable practices, although we do not know whether there were also changes to patterns of tenure or the regulation of cultivation. The greatest perceptible alterations in land usage between about 400 and 600 are therefore in the proportions of the land of each community that lay under grass or the plough, rather than in changes to the layout or management of arable fields.

The Anglo-Saxons settled in small groups covering a handful of widely dispersed local communities. These farms were for the most part mobile. This mobility, which was typical across much of Northern Europe took two forms: the gradual shifting of the settlement within its boundaries or the complete location of the settlement altogether. These shifting settlements (called Wandersiedlungen or “wandering settlements”) were a common feature since the Bronze Age. Why farms became abandoned and then relocated is much debated. However it is suggested that this might be related to the death of a patron of the family or the desire to move to better farmlands.

These farms are often falsely supposed to be “peasant farms”. However, a ceorl, who was the lowest ranking freeman in early Anglo-Saxon society, was not a peasant but an arms-owning male with access to law, support of a kindred and the wergild, situated at the apex of an extended household working at least one hide of land. It is the ceorl that we should associate with the standard 8–10m x 4–5m post-hole building of the early Anglo-Saxon period, grouped with others of the same kin group. Each such household head had a number of less-free dependants.

The success of the rural world in the 5th and 6th centuries, according to the landscape archaeology, was due to three factors: the continuity with the past, with no evidence of up-rooting in the landscape; farmer’s freedom and rights over lands, with provision of a rent or duty to an overlord, who provided only slight lordly input; and the common outfield arable land (of an outfield-infield system) that provided the ability to build kinship and group cultural ties.

The reasons for the success of Anglo-Saxon settlements remains uncertain. Helena Hamerow has made an observation that in Anglo-Saxon society “local and extended kin groups remained … the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon period”. “Local and extended kin groups” is one of a number of possible reasons for success; along with societal advantages, freedom and the relationship to an elite, that allowed the Anglo-Saxons’ culture and language to flourish in the fifth and sixth centuries.

“Saxon” political ascendancy in Britain

Saxon Emigration to the British Isles 5 c.

A re-evaluation of the traditional picture of decay and dissolution Post-Roman Britain has occurred, with sub-Roman Britain being thought rather more a part of the Late Antique world of western Europe than was customary a half century ago. As part of this re-evaluation some suggest that sub-Roman Britain, in its entirety, retained a significant political, economic and military momentum across the fifth century and even the bulk of the sixth.

This in large part stems from attempts to develop visions of British success against the incoming Anglo-Saxons, as suggested by the Chronicles which were written in the ninth and mid-tenth century. However, recent scholarship has contested the extent to which either can be credited with any level of historicity regarding the decades around AD 500.

The representation of long-lasting British triumphs against the Saxons appears in large parts of the Chronicles, but stem ultimately from Gildas’s brief and frustratingly elusive reference to a British victory at Mons Badonicus – Mount Badon. Nick Higham suggests, that the war between Britons and Saxons seems to have ended in some sort of compromise, which conceded a very considerable sphere of influence within Britain to the incomers. According to Higham;

The most developed vision of a ‘big’ sub-Roman Britain, with control over its own political and military destiny for well over a century, is that of Kenneth Dark, who has argued that Britain should not be divided during the fifth, and even the bulk of the sixth, century into ‘British’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cultural and/or political provinces, but should be thought of as a generally ‘British’ whole. His thesis, in brief, is to postulate not just survival but continuing cultural, political and military power for the sub-Roman elite, both in the far west (where this view is comparatively uncontroversial) but also in the east, where it has to be imagined alongside incoming settlements. He postulates the sub-Roman community to have been the dominant force in insular affairs right up to c.570.

Kenneth Dark’s argument for continuing British military and political power in the east rests on the very uneven distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and the proposition that large gaps in that distribution necessarily represent strong British polities which excluded Anglo-Saxon settlers by force.

Cremation cemeteries in eastern Britain north of the Thames begin during the second quarter of the fifth century, backed up by new archaeological phases before 450. The chronology of this “adventus” of cremations is supported by the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which states that wide parts of Britain fell under Saxon rule in 441. However, this did not result in many Brittonic words entering Old English. It seems therefore that no large-scale interaction occurred between incoming “Germanic” communities and numerous indigenous Brittonic speakers of equivalent social rank. If such interaction had been widespread, then we might have expected far greater language borrowing both in terms of structure and vocabulary.

‘Romano-Brittonic’ peoples’ fate in the south-east

The most extreme estimation for the size of the Anglo-Saxon settlement suggests that some 80% of the resident population of Britain were not Anglo-Saxon. Given that, explanation has been sought to account for the change in culture of the Britons to one where by the 8th Century the majority of people in southern Britain saw themselves as heirs to the Anglo-Saxon culture. Whilst the developments were rather complicated, there are two competing theories.

One theory, first set out by Edward Augustus Freeman, suggests that the Anglo Saxons and the Britons were competing cultures, and that through invasion, extermination, slavery, and forced resettlement the Anglo-Saxons defeated the Britons and consequently their culture and language prevailed.

Depiction of an Anglo Saxon shield wall

This view has influenced much of the linguistic, scholarly and popular perceptions of the process of anglicisation in Britain. It remains the starting point and ‘default position’, to which other hypotheses are compared in modern reviews of the evidence.

Widespread extermination and displacement of the native peoples of Britain is still considered a viable possibility by certain scholars. Our best contemporary source, Gildas, certainly suggests that just such a change of populations did take place. However, Freeman’s ideas did not go unchallenged, even as they were being propounded. In particular, the essayist Grant Allen believed in a strong Celtic contribution to Englishness.

Another theory has challenged this view and started to examine evidence that the majority of Anglo Saxons were Brittonic in origin. The major evidence comes firstly from the figures, taking a fairly high Anglo-Saxon figure (200,000) and a low Brittonic one (800,000), Britons are likely to have outnumbered Anglo-Saxons by at least four to one. The interpretation of such figures is that while “culturally, the later Anglo-Saxons and English did emerge as remarkably un-British, … their genetic, biological make-up is none the less likely to have been substantially, indeed predominantly, British”.

Two processes leading to Anglo-Saxonisation have been proposed. One is similar to culture changes observed in Russia, North Africa and parts of the Islamic world; where a politically and socially powerful minority culture becomes, over a rather short period, adopted by a settled majority. A process usually termed ‘elite dominance’.

The second process is explained through incentives, such as the Wergild outlined in the law code of Ine of Wessex which produced an incentive to become Anglo-Saxon or at least English speaking. The wergild of an Englishman was set at a value twice that of a Briton of similar wealth.

However, some Britons could be very prosperous and own five hides of land, which gave thegn-like status, with a wergild of 600 shillings. Ine set down requirements to prove guilt or innocence, both for his English subjects and for his British subjects, who were termed ‘foreigners/wealas’ (‘Welshmen’). The binary ethnic distinction that appears in Ine’s Laws seems to be between ‘ Englisc/English (‘us’) and ‘Wylisc/Welsh’ (‘them’).

Since Ine’s people self-identified as Saxons (West Saxons) this very early use of the word ‘English’ (unless it is a later introduction into the text) suggests that it was the use of a particular language, already recognised as a single language, and already called ‘English’, that was the crucial determinant in ethnic identity. This implies that in the early Anglo-Saxon period it was language use that was the key determination of ethnicity, and not whether you had “Germanic” ancestors.

Whatever the case, a continuity of ‘sub-Roman’ Britons cannot be doubted, as evidenced, for example, by the sheer number of burials which already date to the late 5th and early 6th centuries – otherwise impossible to maintain by even the largest ‘migration’ estimates.

In addition to the ‘highland Tyrants’ in the west, the case has been made by persistence of a ‘native’, post-Roman, polity of sorts south of the Thames during much of the fifth century- evidenced by the oppositional deposition of Quoit Brooch Style artefacts in inhumation burials south of the Thames versus ‘Scandinavian’ artefacts (such as ‘square headed brooches’) within predominantly cremation burial settings dominate north of the Thames (i.e. in “Anglian” areas).

However, a take-over by continental migrants cannot be denied, as evidenced by an abrupt end of Quoit Broch style artefacts and inundation of exotic artefacts of a “Jutish’ character in the final decade or two of the fifth century. Thus Ken Dark’s notion of a long chronology of a surviving, even dominant “sub-Roman” Britain finds little support.

Bronze Anglo-Saxon Quoit Brooch.

Moreover, Halsall argues that ‘Britons’ are scarcely if at all visible in the archaeological record of lowland England by the 6th century and beyond, not because of any bizarre notions of ethnic cleansing or ‘apartheid’, but simply because, by then, everyone was an ‘Anglo-Saxon’, whatever their geographic origin.

Rural freedoms and kinship groups

Where arable cultivation continued in early Anglo-Saxon England, there seems to have been considerable continuity with the Roman period in both field layout and arable practices, although we do not know whether there were also changes to patterns of tenure or the regulation of cultivation.

The greatest perceptible alterations in land usage between about 400 and 600 are therefore in the proportions of the land of each community that lay under grass or the plough, rather than in changes to the layout or management of arable fields.

The Anglo-Saxons settled in small groups covering a handful of widely dispersed local communities. These farms were for the most part mobile. This mobility, which was typical across much of Northern Europe took two forms: the gradual shifting of the settlement within its boundaries or the complete location of the settlement altogether.

These shifting settlements (called Wandersiedlungen or “wandering settlements”) were a common feature since the Bronze Age. Why farms became abandoned and then relocated is much debated. However it is suggested that this might be related to the death of a patron of the family or the desire to move to better farmlands.

These farms are often falsely supposed to be “peasant farms”. However, a ceorl, who was the lowest ranking freeman in early Anglo-Saxon society, was not a peasant but an arms-owning male with access to law, support of a kindred and the wergild, situated at the apex of an extended household working at least one hide of land.

It is the ceorl that we should associate with the standard 8–10m x 4–5m post-hole building of the early Anglo-Saxon period, grouped with others of the same kin group. Each such household head had a number of less-free dependants.

The success of the rural world in the 5th and 6th centuries, according to the landscape archaeology, was due to three factors: the continuity with the past, with no evidence of up-rooting in the landscape; farmer’s freedom and rights over lands, with provision of a rent or duty to an overlord, who provided only slight lordly input; and the common outfield arable land (of an outfield-infield system) that provided the ability to build kinship and group cultural ties.

Material culture

The origins of the timber building tradition seen in early Anglo-Saxon England has generated a lot of debate which has mirrored a wider debate about the cultural affinities of Anglo-Saxon material culture.

Philip Rahtz asserted that buildings seen in West Stow and Mucking had late Roman origins. Archaeologist Philip Dixon noted the striking similarity between Anglo-Saxon timber halls and Romano-British rural houses. The Anglo-Saxons did not import the ‘long-house’, the traditional dwelling of the continental Germanic peoples, to Britain.

Instead they upheld a local vernacular British building tradition dating back to the late first century. This has been interpreted as evidence of the endurance of kinship and household structures from the Roman into the Anglo-Saxon period.

Anglo Saxon Grubenhaus at Bede’s World Jarrow.

However, this has been considered too neat an explanation for all the evidence. Anne and Gary Marshall summarise the situation:

“One of the main problems in Anglo-Saxon archaeology has been to account for the apparent uniqueness of the English timber structures of the period. These structures seem to bear little resemblance either to earlier Romano-British or to continental models. In essence, the problem is that the hybrid Anglo-Saxon style seems to appear full-blown with no examples of development from the two potentially ancestral traditions … The consensus of the published work was that the Anglo-Saxon building style was predominantly home-grown.”

For Bryan Ward-Perkins the answer is found in the success of the Anglo-Saxon culture and highlights the micro-diversity and larger cohesion that produced a dynamic force in comparison to the Brittonic culture From beads and quoits to clothes and houses, there is something unique happening in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

The material culture evidence shows that people adopted and adapted styles based on set roles and styles. John Hines, commenting on the diversity of nearly a thousand glass beads and many different clothes clasps from Lakenheath, states that these reveal a “society where people relied on others to fulfill a role” and “what they had around them was making a statement”, not one about the individual, but about “identity between small groups not within small groups”.

Julian Richards commenting on this and other evidence suggests:

“[The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain] was more complex than a mass invasion bringing fully formed lifestyles and beliefs. The early Anglo-Saxon, just like today’s migrants, were probably riding different cultural identities. They brought from their homelands the traditions of their ancestors. But they would have been trying to work out not only who they were, but who they wanted to be … and forge an identity for those who followed.”

Looking beyond simplistic ‘homeland’ scenarios, and explaining the observations that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ houses and other aspects of material culture do not find exact matches in the ‘Germanic homelands’ in Europe, Halsall explains the changes within the context of a larger ‘North Sea interaction zone’, including lowland England, Northern Gaul and northern Germany.

Anglo Saxon settlement.

These areas experienced marked social and cultural changes in the wake of Roman collapse—experienced not only within the former Roman provinces (Gaul, Britain) but also in Barbaricum itself. All three areas experienced changes in social structure, settlement patterns and ways of expressing identities, as well as tensions which created push and pull factors for migrations in, perhaps, multiple directions.

Culture of belief

The study of pagan religious practice in the early Anglo-Saxon period is difficult. Most of the texts that may contain relevant information are not contemporary, but written later by Christian writers who tended to have a hostile attitude to pre-Christian beliefs, and who may have distorted their portrayal of them.

Much of the information used to reconstruct Anglo-Saxon paganism comes from later Scandinavian and Icelandic texts and there is a debate about how relevant these are. The study of pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs has often been approached with reference to Roman or even Greek typologies and categories. Archaeologists therefore use such terms as gods, myths, temples, sanctuaries, priests, magic and cults. Charlotte Behr argues that this provides a worldview of Anglo-Saxon practice culture which is unhelpful.

Anglo Saxon Pagan feast.

Peter Brown employed a new method of looking at the belief systems of the fifth to seventh centuries, by arguing for a model of religion which was typified by a pick and choose approach. The period was exceptional because there was no orthodoxy or institutions to control or hinder the people. This freedom of culture is seen also in the Roman-British community and is very evident in the complaints of Gildas.

One Anglo-Saxon cultural practice that is better understood are the burial customs, due in part to archaeological excavations at various sites including Sutton Hoo, Spong Hill, Prittlewell, Snape and Walkington Wold, and the existence of around 1,200 pagan (or non-Christian) cemeteries. There was no set form of burial, with cremation being preferred in the north and inhumation in the south, although both forms were found throughout England, sometimes in the same cemeteries.

Artist’s rendering of an Anglo Saxon burial with grave goods.

When cremation did take place, the ashes were usually placed within an urn and then buried, sometimes along with grave goods. According to archaeologist Dave Wilson, “the usual orientation for an inhumation in a pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery was west–east, with the head to the west, although there were often deviations from this.”

Indicative of possible religious belief, grave goods were common amongst inhumation burials as well as cremations; free Anglo-Saxon men were buried with at least one weapon in the pagan tradition, often a seax, but sometimes also with a spear, sword or shield, or a combination of these. There are also a number of recorded cases of parts of animals being buried within such graves.

Most common amongst these was body parts belonging to either goats or sheep, although parts of oxen were also relatively common, and there are also isolated cases of goose, crab apples, duck eggs and hazelnuts being buried in graves. It is widely thought therefore that such items constituted a food source for the deceased.[209] In some cases, animal skulls, particularly oxen but also pig, were buried in human graves, a practice that was also found earlier in Roman Britain.

There is also evidence for the continuation of Christianity in south and east Britain. The Christian shrine at St Albans and its martyr cult survived throughout the period (see Gildas above). There are references in Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Beowulf, that show some interaction between pagan and Christian practices and values.

While there is little scholarly focus on this subject, there is enough evidence from Gildas and elsewhere that it is safe to assume some continuing – perhaps more free – form of Christianity survived. Richard Whinder states “(The Church’s pre-Augustine) characteristics place it in continuity with the rest of the Christian Church in Europe at that time and, indeed, in continuity with the Catholic faith … today.”

The complexity of belief, indicated by various pieces of evidence, is disturbing to those looking for easy categories. The extent to which belief was discursive and free during the settlement period suggests a lack of proscription, indeed, this might be a characteristic of Anglo-Saxon cultural success.

Language and literature

Little is known about the everyday spoken language of people living in the migration period. Old English is a contact language and it is hard to reconstruct the pidgin used in this period from the written language found in the West Saxon literature of some 400 years later.

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

Two general theories are proposed regarding why people changed their language to Old English (or an early form of such): either a person or household changed so as to serve an elite, or a person or household changed through choice as it provided some advantage economically or legally.

According to Nick Higham, the adoption of the language—as well as the material culture and traditions—of an Anglo-Saxon elite, “by large numbers of the local people seeking to improve their status within the social structure, and undertaking for this purpose rigorous acculturation”, is the key to understanding the Anglo-Saxon from Romano-British transition.

The progressive nature of this language acquisition, and the ‘retrospective reworking’ of kinship ties to the dominant group led, ultimately, to the “myths which tied the entire society to immigration as an explanation of their origins in Britain”.

The final few lines of the poem The Battle of Brunanburh, a tenth century Anglo-Saxon poem that celebrates a victory of Æthelstan, the first king of all the English, give a poetic voice to the English conception of their origins.

Old English

…Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,
ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,
wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,
eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton.

Modern English

…Angles and Saxons came up
over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
glorious warriors they took hold of the land.

This ‘heroic tradition’ of conquering incomers is consistent with the conviction of Bede, and later Anglo-Saxon historians, that the ancestral origin of the English was not the result of any assimilation with the native British, but was derived solely from the Germanic migrants of the post-Roman period.

It also explains the enduring appeal of poems and heroic stories such as Beowulf, Wulf and Eadwacer and Judith, well into the Christian period. The success of the language is the most obvious result of the settlement period. This language was not just the language of acculturation, but through the stories, poetry and oral traditions became the agency of change.

Nick Higham has provided this summary of the processes:

“As Bede later implied, language was a key indicator of ethnicity in early England. In circumstances where freedom at law, acceptance with the kindred, access to patronage, and the use of possession of weapons were all exclusive to those who could claim Germanic descent, then speaking Old English without Latin or Brittonic inflection had considerable value.”

References

  • Channel 4 (2004), Britain AD: King Arthur’s Britain
  • Hamerow, Helena; Hinton, David A.; Crawford, Sally, eds. (2011), The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology., Oxford: OUP, ISBN 978-0-19-921214-9
  • Higham, Nicholas J.; Ryan, Martin J. (2013), The Anglo-Saxon World, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-12534-4
  • Hills, Catherine (2003), Origins of the English, London: Duckworth, ISBN 0-7156-3191-8
  • Koch, John T. (2006), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara and Oxford: ABC-CLIO, ISBN 1-85109-440-7
  • Pryor, Francis (2005), Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons, London: Harper Perennial (published 2001), p. 320, ISBN 978-0-00-718187-2.

The first Saxons in Britain – litus Saxonicum, The Saxon Shore

Saxon laeti (military settlers who promise to provide recruits for the Roman army).

The Saxon Shore (Latin: litus Saxonicum) was a military command of the late Roman Empire, consisting of a series of fortifications on both sides of the English Channel.

It was established in the late 3rd century and was led by the “Count of the Saxon Shore“. In the late 4th century, his functions were limited to Britain, while the fortifications in Gaul were established as separate commands. Several Saxon Shore forts survive in east and south-east England.

The complete fortification system of the Saxon Shore extended on both sides of the Channel.

Despite the inaccurate account depicted in Vikings season 2, episode 6, where the Saxon King Ecbert, when admiring Roman art that adorned the walls of his palace, asks Athelstan, the wayward monk: “who painted these images? What race of man was ever so glorious, that they filled our world with such – as you say, indescribable beauty?” Of course, King Ecbert was teasing Athelstan into revealing that he knew that the Roman Empire had existed.

However, the plot of the story fails when Ecbert tells Athelstan to keep the notion that the Romans had existed a secret, and that the people of England largely believed that a race of giants had built the magnificent structures in London, Gloucester, Colchester, Bath and other great cities.

This is of course entirely untrue as Saxons had served in the Roman army as Laeti, recruits who had already settled the land and were required to volunteer for the Empire. Evidence exists that Saxons had settled the South East of England and parts of Northumbria, where they had fought the Picts from Hadrian’s wall.

The Saxons then, were well aware of the Roman Empire, despite what ‘Vikings’ would have you believe. These early military mercenary settlers were later joined by Anglo-Saxon migrants who settled the South East of England after the fall of the Roman Empire in 410AD.

During the latter half of the 3rd century, the Roman Empire faced a grave crisis. Internally, it was weakened by civil wars, the violent succession of brief emperors, and secession in the provinces, while externally it faced a new wave of attacks by “barbarian” tribes. Most of Britain had been part of the empire since the mid-1st century. It was protected from raids in the north by the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls, while a fleet of some size was also available.

Picts depicted fighting Roman soldiers and Saxon mercenaries beyond Hadrians Wall.

However, as the frontiers came under increasing external pressure, fortifications were built throughout the Empire in order to protect cities and guard strategically important locations. It is in this context that the forts of the Saxon Shore were constructed. Already in the 230s, under Severus Alexander, several units had been withdrawn from the northern frontier and garrisoned at locations in the south, and had built new forts at Brancaster, Caister-on-Sea and Reculver. Dover was already fortified in the early 2nd century, and the other forts in this group were constructed in the period between the 270s and 290s.

The only contemporary reference we possess that mentions the name “Saxon Shore” comes in the late 4th century Notitia Dignitatum, which lists its commander, the Comes Litoris Saxonici per Britanniam (“Count of the Saxon Shore in Britain”), and gives the names of the sites under his command and their respective complements of military personnel. However, due to the absence of further evidence, theories have varied between scholars as to the exact meaning of the name, and also the nature and purpose of the chain of forts it refers to.

Two interpretations were put forward as to the meaning of the adjective “Saxon”: either a shore attacked by Saxons, or a shore settled by Saxons. Some argue that the latter hypothesis, which is less valid, is supported by Eutropius, who states that during the 280s the sea along the coasts of Belgica and Armorica was “infested with Franks and Saxons”, and that this was why Carausius was first put in charge of the fleet there.

A Roman naval bireme depicted in a relief from the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste (Palastrina).

However, Eutropius refers to Franks and Saxons as seaborne invaders. It also receives at least partial support from archaeological finds, as artefacts of a Germanic style have been found in burials, while there is evidence of the presence of Saxons (mostly laeti Roman army recruits though) in some numbers in SE England and the northern coasts of Gaul around Boulogne-sur-Mer and Bayeux from the middle of the 5th century onwards. This, in turn, mirrors a well documented practice of deliberately settling Germanic tribes (Franks became foederati in 358 AD under Emperor Julian) to strengthen Roman defences.

The other interpretation, supported by Stephen Johnson, holds that the forts fulfilled a coastal defence role against seaborne invaders, mostly Saxons and Franks, and acted as bases for the naval units operating against them. This view is reinforced by the parallel chain of fortifications across the Channel on the northern coasts of Gaul, which complemented the British forts, suggesting a unified defensive system.

Other scholars like John Cotterill however consider the threat posed by Germanic raiders, at least in the 3rd and early 4th centuries, to be exaggerated. They interpret the construction of the forts at Brancaster, Caister-on-Sea and Reculver in the early 3rd century and their location at the estuaries of navigable rivers as pointing to a different role: fortified points for transport and supply between Britain and Gaul, without any relation (at least at that time) to countering seaborne piracy.

This view is supported by contemporary references to the supplying of the army of Julian by Caesar with grain from Britain during his campaign in Gaul in 359, and their use as secure landing places by Count Theodosius during the suppression of the Great Conspiracy a few years later.

Another theory, proposed by D.A. White, was that the extended system of large stone forts was disproportionate to any threat by seaborne Germanic raiders, and that it was actually conceived and constructed during the secession of Carausius and Allectus (the Carausian Revolt) in 289-296, and with an entirely different enemy in mind: they were to guard against an attempt at reconquest by the Empire. This view, although widely disputed, has found recent support from archaeological evidence at Pevensey, which dates the fort’s construction to the early 290s.

Whatever their original purpose, it is virtually certain that in the late 4th century the forts and their garrisons were employed in operations against Frankish and Saxon pirates. Britain was abandoned by Rome in 407, with Armorica following soon after.

The forts on both sides continued to be inhabited in the following centuries, and in Britain in particular several continued in use well into the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Forts:

Britain

The nine British Saxon Shore forts in the Notitia Dignitatum.

The nine forts mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum for Britain are listed here, from north to south, with their garrisons.

There are a few other sites that clearly belonged to the system of the British branch of the Saxon Shore (the so-called “WashSolent limes“), although they are not included in the Notitia, such as the forts at Walton Castle, Suffolk, which has by now sunk into the sea due to erosion, and at Caister-on-Sea. In the south, Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight and Clausentum (Bitterne, in modern Southampton) are also regarded as westward extensions of the fortification chain. Other sites likely connected to the Saxon Shore system are the sunken fort at Skegness, and the remains of possible signal stations at Thornham, Corton and Hadleigh.

Mike Ritchie’s artist’s impression of Rudchester fort during Roman occupation. Rudchester Fort is the fourth fort along Hadrian’s Wall, after Segedunum (Wallsend), Pons Aelius (Newcastle) and Condercum (Benwell). It is at the top of a flat ridge between the March Burn to its west, an ancient route to the ford at Newburn, and the Rudchester Burn to the south and east. Its Roman name, Vindobala or Vindovala, is translated as White Peak or While Walls, although the reason for the name is unknown.

Further north on the coast, the precautions took the form of central depots at Lindum (Lincoln) and Malton with roads radiating to coastal signal stations. When an alert was relayed to the base, troops could be dispatched along the road. Further up the coast in North Yorkshire, a series of coastal watchtowers (at Huntcliff, Filey, Ravenscar, Goldsborough, and Scarborough) was constructed, linking the southern defences to the northern military zone of the Wall. Similar coastal fortifications are also found in Wales, at Cardiff and Caer Gybi. The only fort in this style in the northern military zone is Lancaster, Lancashire, built sometime in the mid-late 3rd century replacing an earlier fort and extramural community, which may reflect the extent of coastal protection on the north-west coast from invading tribes from Ireland.

End of Roman rule in Britain 383-410.

In Gaul

The Notitia also includes two separate commands for the northern coast of Gaul, both of which belonged to the Saxon Shore system. However, when the list was compiled, in c. 420 AD, Britain had been abandoned by Roman forces. The first command controlled the shores of the province Belgica Secunda (roughly between the estuaries of the Scheldt and the Somme), under the dux Belgicae Secundae with headquarters at Portus Aepatiaci:

  • Marcae (unidentified location near Calais, possibly Marquise or Marck), garrisoned by the Equites Dalmatae. In the Notitia, together with Grannona, it is the only site on the Gallic shore to be explicitly referred to as lying in litore Saxonico.
  • Locus Quartensis sive Hornensis (probably at the mouth of the Somme), the port of the classis Sambrica (“Fleet of the Somme”)
  • Portus Aepatiaci (possibly Étaples), garrisoned by the milites Nervii.

Although not mentioned in the Notitia, the port of Gesoriacum or Bononia (Boulogne-sur-Mer), which until 296 was the main base of the Classis Britannica, would also have come under the dux Belgicae Secundae.

To this group also belongs the Roman fort at Oudenburg.

Further west, under the dux tractus Armoricani et Nervicani, were mainly the coasts of Armorica, nowadays Normandy and Brittany. The Notitia lists the following sites:

  • Grannona (disputed location, either at the mouths of the Seine or at Port-en-Bessin), the seat of the dux, garrisoned by the cohors prima nova Armoricana. In the Notitia, it is explicitly mentioned as lying in litore Saxonico.
  • Rotomagus (Rouen), garrisoned by the milites Ursariensii
  • Constantia (Coutances), garrisoned by the legio I Flavia Gallicana Constantia
  • Abricantis (Avranches), garrisoned by the milites Dalmati
  • Grannona (uncertain whether this is a different location than the first Grannona, perhaps Granville), garrisoned by the milites Grannonensii
  • Aleto or Aletum (Aleth, near Saint-Malo), garrisoned by the milites Martensii
  • Osismis (Brest), garrisoned by the milites Mauri Osismiaci
  • Blabia (perhaps Hennebont), garrisoned by the milites Carronensii
  • Benetis (possibly Vannes), garrisoned by the milites Mauri Beneti
  • Manatias (Nantes), garrisoned by the milites superventores

In addition, there are several other sites where a Roman military presence has been suggested. At Alderney, the fort known as “The Nunnery” is known to date to Roman times, and the settlement at Longy Common has been cited as evidence of a Roman military establishment, though the archaeological evidence there is, at best, scant.

The ‘Nunnery’ Roman Fort at Alderney.

In Popular Culture

  • In 1888, Alfred Church wrote a historical novel entitled The Count of the Saxon Shore. It is available online.
  • The American band Saxon Shore takes its name from the region.
  • The Saxon Shore is the fourth book in Jack Whyte‘s Camulod Chronicles.
  • Since 1980, the “Saxon Shore Way” exists, a coastal footpath in Kent which passes by many of the forts.
  • David Rudkin‘s play The Saxon Shore takes place near Hadrian’s Wall as the Romans are withdrawing from Britain.
A Saxon Warrior, 54mm painted figure. @raulatorre, http://www.imgrum.org/media/

References

Icelandic Christmas Trolls – The Yule Lads

The Yuletide-lads, Yule Lads, or Yulemen (Icelandic: jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar), are figures from Icelandic folklore, portrayed as being mischievous pranksters, but who have in modern times also been depicted as taking on a more benevolent role similar to Santa Claus (Father Christmas).

Their number has varied over time, but currently there are considered to be thirteen. They put rewards or punishments into shoes placed by children on window sills during the last thirteen nights before Yule (Christmas). Every night, one Yuletide lad visits each child, leaving gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on the child’s behaviour throughout the year.

The Yuletide-lads originate from Icelandic folklore. Early on their number and depictions varied greatly depending on location, with each individual Lad ranging from a mere prankster to a homicidal monster who eats children.

In 1932, the poem “Jólasveinarnir” was published as a part of the popular poetry book Jólin Koma (“Christmas Is Coming”) by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum. The poem reintroduced Icelandic society to Icelandic Yuletide folklore and established what is now considered the canonical thirteen Yuletide-lads, their personalities and connection to other folkloric characters.

The Yuletide-lads are portrayed as being mischievous, or even criminal, pranksters who sometimes steal from, or otherwise harass the population, and all have descriptive names that convey their modus operandi.

In modern times the Yuletide-lads have been depicted as also taking on a more benevolent role comparable to Santa Claus and other related figures. They are generally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, but are sometimes shown wearing the costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus (see images below), especially at at children’s events.

The Yuletide-lads are said to be the sons of the mountain-dwelling trolls Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Grýla is big and scary, with an appetite for the flesh of mischievous children, whom she is sometimes depicted to put in a large pot and make into stew. Grýla is said to trek from the mountains to scare Icelandic children who misbehaved before Christmas. Her husband is smaller and weaker, and mostly stays at home in his cave, lazy and mindless. They are depicted with the Yule Cat, a beast that, according to folklore, eats children who do not receive new clothes for Christmas.

Children posing for a photograph in Grýla’s pot.

The Yuletide-lads are said to “come to town” during the last 13 nights before Christmas. Below are the ‘official’ thirteen Yuletide-lads in the order they arrive (and depart).

Names in English are based on Hallberg Hallmundsson’s translation of the poem.

Icelandic name English translation Description Arrival Departure
Stekkjarstaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.

12 December 25 December
Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.

13 December 26 December
Stúfur (Stubby) Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.

14 December 27 December
Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) Steals Þvörur (a type of a wooden spoon with a long handle – I. þvara) to lick. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.

15 December 28 December
Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper) Steals leftovers from pots.

16 December 29 December
Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.

17 December 30 December
Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) Likes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.

18 December 31 December
Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler) A Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr.

Skyrgámur eating Skyr, a type of Yogurt.

19 December 1 January
Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper) Hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.

20 December 2 January
Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper) A snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.

21 December 3 January
Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð.

22 December 4 January
Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) Uses a hook to steal meat.

23 December 5 January
Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) Follows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).

24 December 6 January

References

Gleðileg jól! – Happy Christmas!

The Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo Saxons

Anglo Saxon apothocaries

The Anglo-Saxons thought that diseases were spread on the air as the wind blew poisons around.

In a pre-scientific age when viruses were unknown this was a reasonable idea that fits the medieval understanding that contaminants are carried on the air.

There was no understanding of the importance of hygiene, and no knowledge of contamination through human contact. The Anglo Saxon’s entrusted healing to herbs and charms. Herbs would be applied with the appropriate incantations to attempt to heal the patient.

The Nine Herbs Charm is an Old English charm recorded in the 10th-century AD Lacnunga manuscript. The charm is intended for the treatment of poisoning and infection by a preparation of nine herbs. The numbers nine and three, significant in Germanic paganism and later Germanic folklore, are mentioned frequently within the charm.

The poem contains references to Christian and English Pagan elements, including a mention of the major Germanic god Woden.

According to R. K. Gordon, the poem is “clearly an old heathen thing which has been subjected to Christian censorship.” Malcolm Laurence Cameron states that chanting the poem aloud results in a “marvellously incantatory effect”.

The charm references nine herbs:

 

At the end of the charm, prose instructions are given to take the above-mentioned herbs, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple juice. Further instructions are given to make a paste from water and ashes, boil fennel into the paste, bathe it with beaten egg – both before and after the prepared salve is applied.

Further, the charm directs the reader to sing the charm three times over each of the herbs as well as the apple before they are prepared, into the mouth of the wounded, both of their ears, and over the wound itself prior to the application of the salve.

The poem contains one of two Old English mentions of Woden in Old English poetry; the other is Maxims I of the Exeter Book. The paragraph reads as follows:

A snake came crawling, it bit a man.
Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,
Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.
There apple brought this pass against poison,
That she nevermore would enter her house.

Suggestions have been made that this passage describes Woden coming to the assistance of the herbs through his use of nine twigs, each twig inscribed with the runic first-letter initial of a plant.

References

  • Cameron, Malcolm Laurence (1993). Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40521-1
    Gordon, R. K. (1962). Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman’s Library #794. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.
  • Macleod, Mindy; Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-205-4
  • Mayr-Harting, Henry (1991). The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. Penn State Press ISBN 0-271-00769-9
  • Cameron, Malcolm Laurence (1993). Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40521-1
  • Gordon, R. K. (1962). Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman’s Library #794. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.
  • Macleod, Mindy; Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-205-4
  • Mayr-Harting, Henry (1991). The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. Penn State Press ISBN 0-271-00769-9.

The Battle of Brávellir

Viking and Slav reenactors engage in combat.

The Battle of Brávellir or the Battle of Bråvalla was a legendary battle that is described in the sagas as taking place on the Brávellir between Sigurd Hring, king of Sweden and the Geats of Västergötland, and his uncle Harald Wartooth, king of Denmark and the Geats of Östergötland.

This battle is said to have taken place in the mid 8th century and it is retold in several sources such as the Norse sagas Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, Bósa saga ok Herrauðs and Sögubrot af nokkrum fornkonungum, but it is most extensively described in the nationalistic Danish history Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus.

Harald had inherited Sweden from his maternal grandfather Ivar Vidfamne, but ruled Denmark and East Götaland, whereas his subordinate king, Sigurd Hring, was the ruler of Sweden and West Götaland.

According to legend, Harald Wartooth realised that he was growing old and might die of old age and therefore not go to Valhalla. He consequently asked Sigurd if he would let him leave this life gloriously in great battle.

Romanticised image of Sigurd Hring.

According to Saxo Grammaticus, both hosts prepared for seven years, and mustered armies of 200 000 men. Harald was joined by the legendary heroes Ubbe of Friesland, Uvle Brede, Are the One-eyed, Dag the Fat, Duk the Slav, Hroi Whitebeard and Hothbrodd the Indomitable as well as 300 shieldmaidens led by Hed, Visna of the Slavs and Hedborg.

Sigurd recruited the legendary heroes Starkad, Egil the Bald, Grette the Evil (a Norwegian), Blig Bignose, Einar the Fatbellied and Erling Snake.

Starkad in battle, from Olaus Magnus’ Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1555).

Famous Swedes were Arwakki, Keklu-Karl, Krok the peasant, Gummi and Gudfast from Gislamark. They were joined by scores of Norwegians, Slavs, Finns, Estonians, Curonians, Bjarmians, Livonians, Saxons, Angles, Frisians, Irish, Rus’ etc… All picking their sides.

Whole forests were chopped down in order to build 3000 longships to transport the Swedes. Harald’s Danes had built so many ships that they could walk across The Sound.

The numbers are obviously exaggerated, certainly tenfold or more. For comparison with the 3000 Swedish ships, the leidang fleets of the Scandinavian kingdoms numbered around 300 ships each during the Viking Age.

The Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks speaks of “Brávelli í eystra Gautlandi” (Bråvalla in East Götaland) and in Sǫgubrot af nokkrum fornkonungum the battle is said to have taken place south of Kolmården, which separated Svealand (Sweden proper) from East Götaland and is where Bråviken is located: “Kolmerkr, er skilr Svíþjóð ok Eystra-Gautland … sem heitir Brávík”.

Saxo ends his account by saying “thus ended the battle of Bråvik”. Most historians have held the battle to have taken place near Bråviken. but in the 17th century a minority view appears to have located it in Småland at Lake Åsnen.

Map of Sweden’s old border forests between Swedes and Geats. Kolmården is red, Tylöskog is green, and Tiveden is blue.

The accounts found in Gesta Danorum and the Sǫgubrot saga are essentially the same.

At first the two armies fought collectively, but after a while Ubbi was in the centre of attention. He slew first Ragnvald the Wise Councilor, then the champion Tryggvi and three Swedish princes of the royal dynasty.

Humbled, King Sigurd Hring sent forth the champion Starkad, who managed to wound Ubbi but was himself even more seriously wounded. Then Ubbi killed Agnar, and took the sword in both hands and slashed a path through the Swedish host, until he fell riddled with arrows from the archers of Telemark.

Then the shieldmaiden Veborg killed the champion Soti and managed to give additional wounds to Starkad, who was greatly angered. She was killed by the champion Thorkell.

The Shieldmaiden ‘Lagertha’ from the History Channel TV series VIKINGS.

Furious, Starkad went forth in the Danish army, killing warriors all around him, and cut off the shieldmaiden Visna’s arm, which held the Danish banner. Starkad then proceeded to slay the champions Brai, Grepi, Gamli and Haki.

When Harald had observed these heroic feats, he stood on his knees in his chariot with one sword in each hand and killed a great many warriors both to his left and to his right. After a while, Harald’s steward Bruni deemed that his liege had amassed enough glory and crushed the king’s skull with a club.

Battle of Brávellir, painting by August Malmström.

Sigurd won the battle and became the sovereign ruler of all of Sweden and Denmark (40,000 warriors had died).

The general agreement on the historicity of the battle has turned back and forth during the last two centuries depending on what was the prevalent ideology among Scandinavian historians. In 1925, the Swedish archaeologist Birger Nerman summarized the ebbs and tides of its historicity.

He stated that older scholarship had treated the accounts of the battle uncritically and perceived the accounts as largely historical.

During the last decades of the 19th century, however, the hypercritical school considered the battle as entirely fictional and considered even the area where it took place as mythical.

The pendulum turned and during the first decades of the 20th century, the opinion was once again in favour of its historicity, although the contemporary scholarship regarded it as a fictionalized historic event.

In 1990, the Swedish encyclopedia Nationalencyklopedin summed up the debate by claiming that the historicity of the battle is impossible to verify. There is also a hypothesis relating the battle to the events of 827 when Harald Klak was expelled from Denmark.

References

12 Historical Inaccuracies in The History Channel’s VIKINGS Series

VIKINGS is an Irish-Canadian television series written and created by Michael Hirst, for the History Channel, and is tremendously successful.

I love the show, but if you have an understanding of Viking, Anglo Saxon and Frankish history, then I would advise that in order to enjoy the series you should suspend disbelief, or at the very least take it with a LARGE pinch of salt. But hey, it’s TV, it’s entertainment, and it’s for fun, right?

The life and times of Viking Ragnar Lodbrok, “a farmer who rose to fame by successful raids into England and eventually became king of Denmark,” has gripped popular imagination and renewed interest in the Vikings.

Indeed, most of the enthusiastic fans of the VIKINGS series were probably not even aware of much of the history of the Vikings before this series were launched March 2013. VIKINGS is now in a fifth season, and with any luck, they will go on to do a sixth. One understands that some artistic licence needs to be made for films, but the series does consist of some minor and some quite major historical inaccuracies. 

1. Where are their helmets?

Inexplicably, none of the Vikings seem to wear any helmets in combat. Considering that most combat fatalities come from head wounds, the helmet was the single most important piece of armour for any veteran warrior. Viking helmets were advanced and effective, presenting a terrifying visage to their enemies. Viking helmets were effective at intimidating their enemies.

Most, when faced with these Viking warriors emerging from the sea, with helmet, shield, chain-mail armour and sword, or axe, and spear, fled without even attempting to oppose them. Presumably, the filmmakers wanted their stars to be easily identified and so have dispensed with helmets entirely. Many of their key actors, such as Rollo, survives despite wearing no armour at all and are presented as fighting wearing only trousers!

2. Looks are everything?

Many of the Vikings are depicted as having shaved their heads, including Ragnar, who apparently has his head covered in tattoos. There is no historical evidence that the Vikings did that. Anyone who has lived in Scandinavia would be aware that it gets incredibly cold in the winter. To deliberately remove the hair from ones’ head when living in often icy conditions and sailing the open seas, would be uncomfortable to say the least.

Ragnar Lodbrok in Vikings series 4, played by Travis Fimmel.

3. Absence of security for settlements.

There are some graphic scenes of massacres of civilians – women and children, depicted in VIKINGS. However, these are not of Saxon civilians killed by Viking invaders, but Viking settlers killed by Saxons. In a bizarre twist, the History Channel portrays the Vikings as settling without any semblance of security, with indefensible villages spread out in the open, without any form of stockade, fortification or protective measures.

Not even towers are erected. That just never happened. Considering that the Vikings were invaders, they took extraordinary measures to erect comprehensive fortified structures, normally in circles, surrounded by a moat and sharpened stakes, with all their dwellings neatly organised around a great hall within the fortification. Archaeologists are still digging up these Viking settlements within the British Isles.

Large Viking settlements were often surrounded by pallisades and the entrances protected by towers. None of this is in evidence in the TV series.

4. Inexplicably, Hirst’s VIKINGS television series depicts the temple to Odin at Uppsala as a wooden stave church in the mountains. The historic temple was actually situated on flat land and the stave churches were a hallmark of Christian architecture from the 11th Century onward.

5. Crucifixion by Christians

Hirst’s VIKINGS program portrays a crucifixion of a prominent character, the Christian monk, Athelstan, who had been abducted from Lindisfarne monastery, as being crucified by the orders of a Christian bishop in Wessex.

There is absolutely no case recorded where Christians used this form of execution to punish apostates. The Emperor Constantine officially outlawed crucifixion in the 4th Century.

Not only would such a mode of execution be abhorrent and blasphemous to any Christian, but there is no example of any Christians anywhere, let alone in Wessex, in the 9th Century, practising it.

6. Anachronistic clothing and fashions.

The wardrobe department has evidently had a lot of fun clothing the actors. However, many of the fashions seem more 20th and 21st Century, particularly the leather trouser designs. Some of the outfits seem to have come from a futuristic Mad Max episode. As for the bizarre and impractical hairstyles, shaven heads and abundance of tattoos, it would appear that great liberties have been taken with actual Viking culture and history.

7. The dates don’t add up.

Appropriately, the VIKING series begins with 793 A.D., with the launch of the Viking age and the notorious raid on the Lindisfarne monastery. However, the same man, Ragnar Lodbrok, who is meant to have been involved in the raid of Lindisfarne, is historically the one who led the siege of Paris in 846 B.C. That would have made him extremely old indeed by that time if he had also been at Lindisfarne in 793.

8. Rollo was not Ragnar’s brother.

The famous Viking Rollo (846 – 932 A.D.) seized Rouen in 876 A.D. and led the Viking fleet that besieged Paris 885-886 A.D. He was baptized as a Christian, married a French princess and it was his great, great, great grandson, William, Duke of Normandy, who invaded England in 1066 and became William I of England. Therefore, Rollo is one of the ancestors of the present-day British Royal family. Chronologically, there is no way he could have been contemporary with Ragnar Lodbrok, let alone his brother.

Rollo, (Clive Standen) as depicted in the History Channels hit TV series ‘Vikings’.

9. What do we know of Ragnar Lodbrok?

The Norse Sagas identify Ragnar Lodbrok as the father of Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba.

He was married three times:  to the shield maiden Lagertha, to the noble woman Dôra, and to Aslaug (all Scandinavian women).

Ragnar was the son of the Swedish king Sigurd Hring and a cousin of the Danish king, Gudfred. He distinguished himself with many raids and conquests, including the first siege of Paris, 846 A.D. He was seized by King Aella of Northumbria and killed by being thrown into a pit of snakes. His sons avenged him by invading England with the Great Heathen Army in 865 A.D.

10. In VIKINGS, the Christian’s are made out to be more treacherous than the heathen. Hirst’s History Channel saga depicts the Christians as more (or on a par with) treacherous, vile and perverted than the heathen. Whilst Christian’s of the period did engage in acts of terror, they were no more or less ‘barbarous’ than their Viking neigbours.

11. The Missionary Ansgar

The Apostle Ansgar was not the failure that Hirst depicts being executed by queen Aslaug when he failed a test. In fact Ansgar (801-865) known as The Apostle to the North, not only lived a long life, but succeeded in winning Vikings to Christ.

Numerous miracles accompanied his ministry and so impressed the Vikings, that they concluded that Christ is greater than Thor. Not that you would know any of this from watching Hirst’s History Channel fiction.

12. Alfred was the illegitimate son of the monk Athelstan. 

Possibly the biggest stretch of the truth in the series, was to suggest that the Princess Osburh had an affair with Athelstan and bore him a child, the future King Alfred the Great.

In the series, the King of Wessex, King Egbert, encouraged this infidelity and then blackmailed Osburh (his son’s wife) into becoming his mistress. The King’s son, Æthelwulf, is then persuaded that this was all the work of Christ and that he should accept it. None of this is in any way true.

Æthelwulf and Osburh were said to be extremely pious Christians, and there is no evidence of infidelity or impropriety on the part of the future Queen, and Alfred of Wessex was very much Æthelwulf’s son.

Æthelwulf and Osburh

Original post by Dr. Peter Hammond

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Peter Hammond is a Missionary in Africa with Frontline Fellowship P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725 Cape Town South Africa, Tel: 021-689-4480 Email:  mission@frontline.org.za Website:  www.frontline.org.za.

For an account of how the Vikings were won to Christ, see “Winning the Vikings for Christ on www.ReformationSA.org. This can also be viewed as a PowerPoint with pictures though our Slideshare link. You can also listen to an audio lecture, “How the Vikings Were Won to Christ, on our SermonAudio.com link.

 

Timeline of conflict in Anglo-Saxon Britain

Hengist and Horsa are legendary brothers said to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in their invasion of Britain in the 5th century. Tradition lists Hengist as the first of the Jutish kings of Kent.

The Timeline of conflict in Anglo-Saxon Britain is concerned with the period of history from just before the departure of the Roman Army, in the 4th century, to just after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.

The information is mainly derived from annals and the Venerable Bede. The dates, particularly from the fourth to the late sixth centuries, have very few contemporary sources and are largely later constructions by medieval chroniclers. The historian Diana Greenway described one such 12th century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, as a ‘weaver’ compiler of history, and the archaeologist Martin Welch described the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as “a product of the West Saxon court… concerned with glorifying the royal ancestry of Alfred the Great.

Henry of Huntingdon

Manipulation of royal genealogies, in this and other sources, to enhance the claims of present rulers was common. Literary formulas associated with original myths are a common feature of earlier entries.” Although the timeline uses the annals for this period of history, information provided by these sources can be problematic, particularly with the earlier dates.

Chronology

Constructing a chronology of the early Anglo-Saxon period, and how the Anglo-Saxons took over land in Britain from Romano-Britons (Celtic-speakers, Latin-speakers, or both), is highly complex. The limitations of source material place restrictions on just how accurate any chronology can be. As an example, the following table shows how much variation there is between historians on just one date, the Battle of Badon:

 

Suggested dates for the Battle of Badon
Sources Date
Annales Cambriae 516
Bede 493
Higham c. 430 – c. 440
Snyder c. 485
M. Wood 490s
Morris 494–497
Dumville c.500
I. Wood c. 485 – c.520

 

Much of the dating of the period comes from Bede (672/673–735), who in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tried to compute dates for events in early Anglo-Saxon history. Although primarily writing about church history, Bede is seen as Britain’s first true historian, in that he cited his references and listed events according to dates rather than regnal lists.

So we know that he relied heavily on De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae by Gildas, a sixth-century cleric, for his early dates and historians have found Gildas unreliable where dates were concerned. Bede’s work was widely read among the literate in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and his dates were used by the monks who compiled the various Anglo-Saxon Chronicles from the late ninth century onwards.

Excerpt from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

The most controversial dates in the period—those from the fourth to the late sixth centuries—have very few contemporary sources, and are mainly derived from later attempts to construct Anglo-Saxon history.

The following is an outline of some events recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), and Brut y Tywysogion. Many of the dates from the fourth, fifth, and sixth century are points of contention.

4th Century

360 AD and after, and perhaps before: various Germanic peoples (Alemanni, Saxons, etc.) came to Roman Britain: raiders, Roman armies recruited from among German tribes, some settlers (The Saxon Shore (Latin: litus Saxonicum)).

Picts depicted fighting Roman soldiers and Saxon mercenaries beyond Hadrians Wall.

5th Century

  • 410 AD: Emperor Honorius refuses a call for help from Britain, tells the cities to look to their own defence.
  • c.430 to 520: The range of dates for the Battle of Badon. See effects of the battle for the strategic situation resulting afterwards.
  • About 446: The “Groans of the Britons” – A last appeal (possibly to the Consul Aetius) for the Roman army to come back to Britain.
  • 449: Vortigern invites Saxons to come and help them against the Picts, who were raiding the east coast, and allows them to settle on “The eastern side of the island.” (The name Vortigern may mean “Great King” rather than being a lifelong personal name.)
  • 455:  (Battle of Aylesford: Here Hengest and Horsa fought against Vortigern the king, in the place that is called Aylesford, and his brother Horsa was slain; and after that Hengest took the throne with Æsc, his son.)
  • 457:  (Here Hengest & Æsc fought against Britons in the place which is called Crecganford and there slew 4000 men, and the Britons abandoned Kent and with great fear fled to London.)
  • c. 460: Treachery of the Long Knives, Death of all British kings, Begin of violent land grab by Saxons.
  • 466: Battle of Wippedesfleot  Here Hengest and Æsc fought together against the Welsh (meaning ‘foreigner’: the manner in which the invaders referred to the Britons) near Wippedesfleot and there slew 12 Welsh chief men, and one of their thanes was slain, whose name was Wipped. [This battle is said to have resulted in much bloodshed and slaughter on both sides, to the extent that hostilities abated for a while thereafter. It is not known where Wippedesfleot (= “Wipped’s tidal estuary”) was.])
  • 473: (Here Hengest & Æsc fought against Welsh and took countless war-loot, and the Welsh fled from the English like fire.)
  • 477: (Here Ælle came to Britain and [with him] his 3 sons Cymen & Wlencing & Cissa, with 3 ships to the place which is named Cymenesora [probably now The Owers, rocks off Selsey in West Sussex ], and there slew many Welsh & drove some in flight into the wood which is called Andredesleag [= The Weald ].)
  • 485: Battle of Mercredesburne  (Here Ælle fought against Welsh near the margin of Mearcrædesburna [= Mearcræd’s stream].)
  • 491: (Here Ælle and Cissa besieged Andredescester [now Pevensey ] and slew all who dwelt therein; no Briton was left [alive] afterwards.)
  • c. 497: Defeat of the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Mons Badonicus by Britons led by King Arthur.
The brothers in Edward Parrott’s Pageant of British History (1909).

6th Century

  • Around 500 AD: Average of suggested dates for the Battle of Badon.
  • Around 500 AD: Angles colonised the North Sea and Humber coastal areas, particularly around Holderness.
  • 501: (Here Port and his 2 sons Bieda and Mægla came to Britain with 2 ships to the place which is called Portsmouth and slew a young British man, a very noble man. [But this may be an old fiction, as a folk-etymology to explain the placename Ports-mouth.] )
  • 508: (Here Cerdic and Cynric slew a British king, whose name was Natanleod, and 5000 men with him. Afterwards that land was named Natanleag as far as Cerdicesford [= North Charford and South Charford ].)
  • c. 520: Saxons took control of Sussex, Kent, East Anglia and part of Yorkshire, West Saxons founded a Kingdom in Hampshire under Cerdic.
  • 535 & 536: The extreme weather events of 535-536 likely caused a great famine and thus population loss.
  • In or before 547: Bernicia established by Angles taking over part of a British area called Bryneich.
  • Around 549: A great plague caused much population loss.
  • About 560: Saxons conquered all of east Yorkshire and the British kingdom of Ebrauc, and there established Deira.
  • 571: (Battle of Bedcanford: Here Cuthwulf fought against Britons at Bedcanford and took 4 settlements: Limbury, Aylesbury, Benson & Eynsham. And in the same year he died.)
  • 573: Battle of Arfderydd at Arthuret in Cumbria: Briton fought Briton and weakened their numbers.
  • 577: Battle of Dyrham: Capture of Glevum, Corinium, Aquae Sulis by Saxons of Wessex led by Cealin. (Here Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against Britons and they slew 3 kings: Coinmail & Condidan & Farinmail, in the place which is called Dyrham, and took 3 towns: Gloucester & Cirencester & Bath. ): These entries seem to show that the Britons’ defences in the English Midlands collapsed, and the peace that followed the Battle of Mons Badonicus ended, and the Saxons obliterated the British Watling Street salient and united their areas and overran the London – Verulamium area and much of the plain of the Midlands. Loss of Bath would separate the Britons of Wales from the Britons of the southwest. After this, the border between Saxons and the southwest Britons was probably at the Wansdyke along the ridge of the Mendip Hills.
  • 581: Ælla of Deira took land from the Britons, thus establishing or enlarging Deira.
  • Around 584: The Kingdom of the Iclingas became Mercia.
  • 584: (Battle of Fethanleag: Here Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Britons in the place that is named Fethanleag and Cutha was slain, and Ceawlin took many settlements and countless war-loot, and in anger he returned to his own land.)
  • 590: Elmet joined an alliance of British kingdoms against the expanding Angles of Bernicia. See Elmet and History of Yorkshire Sub-Roman.
  • 592, West Saxons are defeated in the Battle of Woden’s Burg (Wōden‘s Burg).
  • 596, Angles defeated an alliance of Britons, Scots and Picts in the Battle of Raith.
  • Afterwards: The British king, Urien of Rheged was murdered. A feud broke out between two of this alliance’s key members.
Angles Saxona Invasion of Britain.

7th Century

  • Around 600: Battle of Catraeth (Catterick): also see Y Gododdin: An army from the Celtic kingdom of Gododdin fell in battle against the Angles of Deira and Bernicia at Catterick in Yorkshire.
  • Around 604: Deira and Bernicia united as Northumbria.
  • Afterwards: Elmet built earthworks north and west of Barwick-in-Elmet, where Elmet’s king’s seat was.
  • 614: (Here Cynegils and Cwichelm fought [on the same side] on Beandun, and slew 2,066 Welsh.)
  • 616: Autumn – Northumbria invaded and conquered Elmet.
  • 616: Likeliest date for the Battle of Chester, between a Northumbrian army and a Welsh army: heavy Welsh casualties, and their defeat severed the land connection between Wales and the Celts of northwest Britain.
  • 633, October 12: Battle of Hatfield (AC: 630, Meigen) near Doncaster in Yorkshire: Gwynedd and Mercia attacked and defeated Northumbria; Elmet and Ebrauc temporarily returned to Celtic rule.
  • 633 or 634: Battle of Heavenfield (AC: 631, Cantscaul) about 6 miles NW of Hexham: Northumbria expels the Gwynedd army.
  • 642: (Here Oswald king of Northumbria was slain) This may be the same battle as:-
  • 644: The Battle of Maserfield (alias Battle of Maes Cogwy), in which Oswald king of the Northmen and Eawa king of the Celtic Mercians fell. AC B
  • 652: Cenwalh of Wessex won a battle at Bradford-on-Avon.
  • 655, Nov 15: Battle of the Winwaed in which King Oswiu of Bernicia defeated and killed King Penda of Mercia. King Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd was allied with Penda but stayed out of the battle.
  • 658: (Here Cenwalh fought against Welsh [= Britons] at Penselwood, and drove them in flight as far as [the river] Parrett [in Somerset]; this was fought after he came from East Anglia. He was there 3 years in exile. Penda had driven him out, and taken his kingdom, because he abandoned his [= Penda’s] sister.)
  • 682: This year also, Centwine chased the Britons into the sea.
A twelfth-century painting of St Oswald, killed at Maserfield, in Durham Cathedral.

8th Century

  • 710: (… and in the same year ealdorman Beorhtfrith fought against Picts between [the rivers] Avon and Carron [which flow into the River Forth from the south about 20 miles west of Edinburgh ], and Ine and his relative Nunna fought against Geraint king of Welsh … [This second battle may have been the Battle of Llongborth.] ) …
  • 722: According to the Annales Cambriae, 722 saw “the battle of Hehil among the Cornish, the battle of Garth Maelog, [and] the battle of Pencon among the south Britons, and the Britons were the victors in those three battles.”
  • Before 730: Northumbria annexed the kingdom of Rheged.
  • 760: A battle between the Britons and the Saxons, the Battle of Hereford, in which Dyfnwal son of Tewdwr dies.
  • 778: The devastation of the South Britons by Offa.
  • 779: “Cynewulf and Offa fought at Bensington, and Offa took the town.”
  • 784: The devastation of Britain by Offa in the summer
  • 794: (796 [corrected from 794]: In this year pope Hadrian and king Offa die.) (797: Offa king of the Mercians and Maredudd king of the Demetians die, and the battle of Rhuddlan.)
  • 798: Caradog king of Gwynedd is killed by the Saxons.
King Offa of Mercia Penny.

9th Century

  • 813: (815 [corrected from 813]: … and in this year king Ecgbryht raided in Cornwall from east to west.)
  • 816: … Saxons invaded the mountains of Eryri and the kingdom of Rhufoniog.
  • 818: Cenwulf devastated the Dyfed region.
  • 822: The fortress of Degannwy is destroyed by the Saxons and they took the kingdom of Powys into their own control.
  • 823: (825 [corrected from 823]: Here was a fight of Welsh/Britons [against] men of Devon at Gafulford …)
  • 835:  (838 [corrected from 835]: Here a great ship-army [of Vikings] came to Cornwall and they [= the Cornish] joined them, and were fighting against Ecgbryht king of the West Saxons. Then he heard and with an army fought against them at Hengestdun and there put to flight both the Cornish and the Danes.)
  • 877: Rhodri Mawr, a Welsh opponent of the Vikings, and his son Gwriad were killed by Mercian forces, even though Mercia was almost completely under the control of the Vikings at the time.
  • 878: Alfred the Great defeated the remnants of the Great Heathen Army at The Battle of Edington.
  • 893:A combined force containing men from Mercia, Wessex and Wales besieged the Vikings at Buttington for several weeks, starving them out until finally the Vikings had to emerge and they were defeated there by the English and the Welsh: the surviving Vikings fled back to Essex.
The Great Heathen Army approaches English shores aboard a Viking Long-ship.

10th Century

  • 927: Athelstan evicted the Cornish from Exeter and refortified the city.
  • 936: King Athelstan set the boundary between England and Cornwall at the River Tamar.
  • 946: … And Strathclyde was laid waste by the Saxons.

11th Century

  • 1016: Battle of Assandun, fought in Essex on 18 October between the armies of Edmund Ironside (King of England) and Canute (King of Denmark).
  • 1059: Macht, son of Harold, came to Wales with a great army in his train; and the Prince Gruffudd, and Macht, with combined forces, proceeded against the Saxons, and devastated the country of England a great way towards its centre; and they returned to Wales with great spoil.
  • 1060: Caradoc, son of Rhydderch, son of lestin, hired Harold to come with an army to S.Wales. Then, conjointly with a great host of the men of Glamorgan and Gwent, they went against Grufudd. After Grufudd, son of Llywelyn, was slain, his head was cut off and taken as a present to Harold. (The ASC dates this as 1063)
  • 1063: Here Earl Harold and his brother Earl Tostig went into Wales both with land-army and ship-army, and conquered that land; and that people gave hostages and submitted to them, and afterwards went to and killed their king Gruffudd, and brought Harold his head, and he set another king for it. (Peterborough manuscript).
  • 1066: Battle of Hastings. William, Duke of Normandy, came as an intruder to the island of Britain, and a pitched battle took place between him and Harold; in which, after a severe and bloody fight, Harold was killed.
  • 1068: Some of the Saxons sought protection from the Normans in Powys then.. Afterwards, by the power of the Saxons, Bleddyn, son of Cynvyn, reigned sole king of Gwynedd and Powys; and Meredydd, son of Owain, son of Edwin, by the power of the Saxons became prince of South Wales.
William I King of England.

References

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Commissioned in the reign of Alfred the Great
  • Asser (2004). Keyne Lapidge tr, ed. Alfred the Great. Penguin Classic. ISBN 978-0-14-044409-4.
  • Bede (1990). Sherley-Price, Leo; Farmer, D.H., eds. Bede:Ecclesiastical History of the English People. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
  • Bede. :Ecclesiastical History of the English People. (1903). Translation based on L.C. Jane
  • Berresford Ellis, Peter (1985). The Celtic Revolution: Study in Anti-imperialism . Wales: Y Lolfa. ISBN 0-86243-096-8.
  • Campbell, J. (1982). J. Campbell, ed. The Anglo- Saxons. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-014395-5.
  • Morgan,, Kathleen; Smith, Brian S (1972). Elrington, C R; Herbert, N M; Pugh, R B, eds. “Fretherne and Saul: Introduction”. A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 10: Westbury and Whitstone Hundreds. Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 18 March 2010.
  • Esmonde Cleary, A. S. (1991). The ending of Roman Britain. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-23898-6.
  • Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (1848). Translation based on Thomas Habington & J. A. Giles
  • Gransden, Antonia (1974). Historical Writing in England c 550 – c1307. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-44203-2.
  • Huntingdon, Henry of (1996). Greenway, Diana E., ed. Historia Anglorum: the history of the English. Oxford: OUP. ISBN 0-19-822224-6.
  • Jones, Michael E. (1998). The End of Roman Britain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-8530-5.
  • Lobel, Mary D., ed. (1959). “Parishes: Stoke Lyne”. A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6. Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 18 March 2010.
  • Morris, John (1985) [1965]. “Dark Age Dates”. In Michael Jarrett and Brian Dobson. Britain and Rome.
  • Payton, Philip (1982). Cornwall: A History. Cornwall Editions Limited. ISBN 1-904880-05-3.
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (2003). The Britons. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-22260-6.
  • Stenton, F.M. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England 3rd edition. Oxford: OUP. ISBN 978-0-19-280139-5.
  • Walker, Ian (2000). Mercia and the Making of England. Stroud: Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-2131-5.
  • Welch, M.G. (1992). Anglo-Saxon England. English Heritage. ISBN 0-7134-6566-2.
  • Wood, Michael (1985). The Domesday Quest. London: BBC. ISBN 0-15-352274-7.
  • Wood, Michael (2005). In Search of the Dark Ages. London: BBC. ISBN 978-0-563-52276-8.

 

 

The Viking Timeline

Cnut the Great
789 – Vikings begin their attacks on England.
800 – The Oseberg Viking longship is buried about this time
840 – Viking settlers found the city of Dublin in Ireland.
844 – A Viking raid on Seville is repulsed.
860 – Rus Vikings attack Constantinople (Istanbul).
862 – Novgorod in Russia is founded by the Rus Viking, Ulrich.
866 – Danish Vikings establish a kingdom in York, England.
871 – Alfred the Great becomes king of Wessex; the Danish advance is halted in England.

King Alfred the Great
872 – Harald I gains control of Norway.
879 – Rurik establishes Kiev as the center of the Kievan Rus’ domains.
886 – Alfred divides England with the Danes under the Danelaw pact.
900 – The Vikings raid along the Mediterranean coast.
911 – The Viking chief Rollo is granted land by the Franks and founds Normandy in France.

The Baptism of Rollo
941 – Rus Vikings attack Constantinople (Istanbul).
981 – Viking leader Erik the Red discovers Greenland.

Erik the Red
986 – Viking ships sail in Newfoundland waters.
991 – Æthelred II pays the first Danegeld ransom to stop Danish attacks on England.
995 – Olav I conquers Norway and proclaims it a Christian kingdom.
1000 – Christianity reaches Greenland and Iceland.
1000 – Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, explores the coast of North America.

A statue of Leif Erikson, the Viking thought to have sailed to the Americas 500 years before Columbus, guards the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík, Iceland.
1000 – Olav I dies; Norway is ruled by the Danes.
1002 – Brian Boru defeats the Norse and becomes the king of Ireland.
1010 – Viking explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni attempts to found a settlement in North America.
1013 – The Danes conquer England; Æthelred flees to Normandy.
1015 – Vikings abandon the Vinland settlement on the coast of North America.
1016 – Olav II regains Norway from the Danes.
1016 – The Danes under Knut (Canute) rule England.

A 15th-century stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral, depicting King Cnut
1028 – Knut (Canute), king of England and Denmark, conquers Norway.
1042 – Edward the Confessor rules England with the support of the Danes.
1050 – The city of Oslo is founded in Norway.
1066 – Harold Godwinson king of England defeats Harald Hardrada king of Norway at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
1066 – William duke of Normandy defeats the Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

William I King of England

References

Ivar the Boneless

Ivar the Boneless – played by Alex Høgh Andersen. in the hit TV series Vikings.

Ivar the Boneless (Old Norse: Ívarr hinn Beinlausi; Old English: Hyngwar) was a Viking leader and a commander who invaded what is now England.

According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, he was the son of Ragnar Lodbrok and Aslaug. His brothers included Björn Ironside, Halfdan Ragnarsson, Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ubba.

The origin of the nickname is not certain. The sagas describe him as lacking bones. A genetic condition, osteogenesis imperfecta, is known to cause the body to appear to have “an imperfect bone formation”, because the body and limbs can bend off beyond the usual joints limitations, and produce other ill effects and degrading functions. It was known by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

It could also be that he had what we now call Ehlers Danlos, which causes recurrent joint dislocations and joint hypermobility, and is a genetic collagen deficiency. They reported that it was common in the British Isles, but little was understood until the early 20th century.

According to the Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok, Ivar’s bonelessness was the result of a curse. His mother Aslaug was Ragnar’s third wife, She was a völva. She said that she and her husband must wait three nights before consummating their marriage after his return following a long separation (while he was in England raiding).

However, Ragnar was overcome with lust after such a long separation and did not heed her words. As a result, Ivar was born with weak bones.

Another theory is that he was actually known as “the Hated”, which in Latin would be Exosus. A medieval scribe with a basic knowledge of Latin could easily have interpreted it as ex (without) os (bones), thus “the Boneless”, although it is hard to align this theory with the direct translation of his name given in Norse sources.

While the sagas describe Ivar’s physical disability, they also emphasise his wisdom, cunning, and mastery of strategy and tactics in battle.

He is often considered identical to Ímar, the founder of the Uí Ímair dynasty which at various times, from the mid-ninth to the tenth century, ruled Northumbria from the city of York, and dominated the Irish Sea region as the Kingdom of Dublin.

Chronology

  • 865: the Great Heathen Army, led by Ivar, invades the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. The Heptarchy was the collective name for the seven kingdoms East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. The invasion was organised by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, to wreak revenge against Ælla of Northumbria who had supposedly executed Ragnar in 865 by throwing him in a snake pit, but the historicity of this explanation is unknown. According to the saga, Ivar did not overcome Ælla and sought reconciliation. He only asked for as much land as he could cover with an ox’s hide and swore never to wage war against Ælla. Then Ivar cut the ox’s hide into such fine strands that he could envelop a large fortress (in an older saga it was York and according to a younger saga it was London) which he could take as his own. (Compare the similar legendary ploy of Dido.)
  • Late the next year the army turned north and invaded Northumbria, eventually capturing Ælla at York in 867. According to legend, Ælla was executed by Ivar and his brothers using the blood eagle, a ritual method of execution of debated historicity whereby the ribcage is opened from behind and the lungs are pulled out, forming a wing-like shape. Later in the year the Army moved south and invaded the kingdom of Mercia, capturing the town of Nottingham, where they spent the winter. King Burgred of Mercia responded by allying with the West Saxon king Æthelred of Wessex, and with a combined force they laid siege to the town. The Anglo-Saxons were unable to recapture the city, but a truce was agreed whereby the Danes would withdraw to York. The Great Heathen Army remained in York for over a year, gathering its strength for further assaults.
  • Ivar and Ubba are identified as the commanders of the Danes when they returned to East Anglia in 869, and as the executioners of the East Anglian king, Edmund the Martyr, for refusing their demand that he renounce Christ. How true the accounts are of Edmund’s death is unknown, but it has been suggested that his capture and execution is not an unlikely thing to have happened.
  • Ivar disappears from the historical record sometime after 870. His ultimate fate is uncertain.
“Hyngwar”, Ivar’s name as it appears in Harley MS 2278, a fifteenth-century Middle English manuscript.

Death

The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Æthelweard records his death as 870. The Annals of Ulster describe the death of Ímar in 873. The death of Ímar is also recorded in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland under the year 873.

The identification of the king of Laithlind as Gothfraid (i.e. Ímar’s father) was added by a copyist in the seventeenth century. In the original eleventh-century manuscript the subject of the entry was simply called righ Lochlann (“the king of Lochlainn”), which more than likely referred to Ímar, whose death is not otherwise noted in the Fragmentary Annals. The cause of death – a sudden and horrible disease – is not mentioned in any other source, but it raises the possibility that the true provenance of Ivar’s Old Norse sobriquet lay in the crippling effects of an unidentified disease that struck him down at the end of his life.

In 1686, a farm labourer called Thomas Walker discovered a Scandinavian burial mound at Repton in Derbyshire close to a battle site where the Great Heathen Army overthrew the Mercian king Burgred of his kingdom. The number of partial skeletons surrounding the body -two hundred warriors and fifty women- signified that the man buried there was of very high status. It has been suggested that such a burial mound is possibly the last resting-place of the renowned Ivar .

The Great Heathen Army

According to the saga, Ivar ordered that he be buried in a place which was exposed to attack, and prophesied that, if that was done, foes coming to the land would be met with ill-success. This prophecy held true, says the saga, until “when Vilhjalm bastard (William I of England) came ashore, he went [to the burial site] and broke Ivar’s mound and saw that [Ivar’s] body had not decayed. Then Vilhjalm had a large pyre made upon which Ivar’s body was] burned… Thereupon, [Vilhjalm proceeded with the landing invasion and achieved] the victory.”

Fictional portrayals

  • Ivar the Boneless is a minor character in the film Alfred the Great, portrayed as an acrobatic and agile warrior.
  • In Hammer of the Gods, Ivar the Boneless appears, played by Ivan Kaye, who would later portray King Aelle in the History Channel Vikings (TV series).
  • In the History Channel Vikings TV series, Ivar is portrayed as the son of Ragnar and Aslaug and a younger half-brother to Björn Ironside. He first appeared in season two as baby, later played by James Quinn Markey and Alex Høgh Andersen.
  • Ivar is a minor character in The Last Kingdom, the first of Bernard Cornwell‘s Saxon Stories. He is portrayed as an expert strategist and shrewd leader of the Danish Grand Army
  • Ivar appears in Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls trilogy as a weak king married to a half-troll.

References

 

Repton – death and memory before and after the Vikings

Archaeodeath

IMG_7931 The Repton Stone – not on display but pictured in the church

IMG_7982 St Wystan’s church, Repton, with modern focus for commemorating the dead – garden of remembrance – either side of the path to the SW of the church tower

All early medieval archaeologists will know about Repton, Derbyshire. The village’s signpost claims its status as the ‘historic capital’ of Mercia.

I have long been interested in what Repton can tell us about death and memory in the Anglo-Saxon period, but it comes into its own in relation to my work for the Past in its Place project in which I am especially interested in the role of stone monuments in the commemoration of the early medieval royal and saintly dead and the long-term biographies these relationships institute at particular locales. In this context, I felt compelled to revisit Repton to explore its famous Anglo-Saxon crypt and later memorials. My interest…

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