The Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα τῶν Βαράγγων, Tágma tōn Varángōn) was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 10th to the 14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors.
They are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically Norsemen (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking Age) and Anglo-Saxons (after the Norman Conquest of England created an Anglo-Saxon diaspora, part of which found employment in Constantinople).
The Rus’ (Norsemen descended from Sweden living in what is now Ukraine and Belarus) provided the earliest members of the Varangian Guard. They were in Byzantine service from as early as 874. The Guard was first formally constituted under Emperor Basil II in 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ by Vladimir I of Kiev. Vladimir, who had recently usurped power in Kiev with an army of Varangian warriors, sent 6,000 men to Basil as part of a military assistance agreement. Basil’s distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen, whose loyalties often shifted, with fatal consequences, as well as the proven loyalty of the Varangians, many of whom had previously served in Byzantium, led the Emperor to employ them as his personal guardsmen.
Immigrants from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland kept a predominantly Norse cast to the organization until the late 11th century. It is known that most of the Varangians were from what is today Sweden due to the majority of Runestones left there.
According to the late Swedish historian Alf Henriksson in his book Svensk Historia (History of Sweden), the Scandinavian Varangian guardsmen were recognized by long hair, a red ruby set in the left ear and ornamented dragons sewn on their chainmail shirts. In these years, Scandinavian men left to enlist in the Byzantine Varangian Guard in such numbers that a medieval Swedish law, Västergötlagen, from Västergötland declared no one could inherit while staying in “Greece”—the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire—to stop the emigration, especially as two other European courts simultaneously also recruited Scandinavians: Kievan Rus’ c. 980–1060 and London 1018–1066 (the Þingalið).
Composed primarily of Norsemen and Rus for the first 100 years, the Guard began to see increased numbers of Anglo-Saxons after the Norman conquest of England. By the time of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the late 11th century, the Varangian Guard was largely recruited from Anglo-Saxons and “others who had suffered at the hands of the Vikings and their cousins the Normans”.
The Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples shared with the Vikings a tradition of faithful (to death if necessary) oath-bound service, and the Norman invasion of England resulted in many fighting men who had lost their lands and former masters and were looking for positions elsewhere.
The Varangian Guard not only provided security for the Byzantine emperors, but also participated in many wars, often playing a decisive role, since they were usually deployed at critical moments of a battle. By the late 13th century, Varangians were mostly ethnically assimilated by the Byzantine Greeks, though the Guard remained in existence until at least mid-14th century. In 1400, there were still some people identifying themselves as “Varangians” in Constantinople.
Buckler, Georgina. Anna Komnena: A Study. Oxford: University Press, 1929.
Blondal, Sigfus. Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History. Trans. by Benedikt S. Benedikz, Cambridge: 1978. ISBN0-521-21745-8.
D’Amato, Raffaele. The Varangian Guard 988-1453. Osprey Publishing, 2010. ISBN1849081794.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899).
Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.
Nine manuscripts survive in whole or in part, though not all are of equal historical value and none of them is the original version. The oldest seems to have been started towards the end of Alfred’s reign, while the most recent was written at Peterborough Abbey after a fire at that monastery in 1116. Almost all of the material in the Chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC (the annals’ date for Caesar’s invasions of Britain), and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The Chronicle is not unbiased: there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources makes it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of stories; there are also places where the different versions contradict each other.
Taken as a whole, however, the Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period in England between the departure of the Romans and the decades following the Norman conquest. Much of the information given in the Chronicle is not recorded elsewhere.
In addition, the manuscripts are important sources for the history of the English language; in particular, the later Peterborough text is one of the earliest examples of Middle English in existence.
All of the surviving manuscripts are copies, so it is not known for certain where or when the first version of the Chronicle was composed. It is generally agreed that the original version – sometimes known as the Early English Annals – was written in the late 9th century by a scribe in Wessex.
Frank Stenton argued from internal evidence that it was first compiled for a secular, but not royal patron; and that “its origin is in one of the south-western shires…at some point not far from the boundary between Somerset and Dorset”. After the original Chronicle was compiled, copies were made and distributed to various monasteries. Additional copies were made, for further distribution or to replace lost manuscripts, and some copies were updated independently of each other. Some of these later copies are those that have survived.
The earliest extant manuscript, the Winchester Chronicle, was written by a single scribe up to the year 891. The scribe wrote the year number, DCCCXCII, in the margin of the next line; subsequent material was written by other scribes.
This appears to place the composition of the chronicle at no later than 892; further evidence is provided by Bishop Asser‘s use of a version of the Chronicle in his work Life of King Alfred, known to have been composed in 893. It is known that the Winchester manuscript is at least two removes from the original Chronicle; as a result, there is no proof that the Chronicle was compiled at Winchester.
It is also difficult to fix the date of composition, but it is generally thought that the chronicles were composed during the reign of Alfred the Great (871–99), as Alfred deliberately tried to revive learning and culture during his reign, and encouraged the use of English as a written language. The Chronicle, as well as the distribution of copies to other centres of learning, may be a consequence of the changes Alfred introduced.
Of the nine surviving manuscripts, seven are written entirely in Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). One, known as the Bilingual Canterbury Epitome, is in Old English with a translation of each annal into Latin. Another, the Peterborough Chronicle, is in Old English except for the last entry, which is in early Middle English.
The oldest (Corp. Chris. MS 173) is known as the Winchester Chronicle or the Parker Chronicle (after Matthew Parker, an Archbishop of Canterbury, who once owned it). Six of the manuscripts were printed in an 1861 edition for the Rolls Series by Benjamin Thorpe with the text laid out in columns labelled A to F. He also included the few readable remnants of a burned seventh manuscript, which he referred to as [G]. Following this convention, the two additional manuscripts are often called [H] and [I]. The surviving manuscripts are listed below:
The manuscripts are all thought to derive from a common original, but the connections between the texts are more complex than simple inheritance via copying. The diagram at right gives an overview of the relationships between the manuscripts. The following is a summary of the relationships that are known.
[A2] was a copy of [A], made in Winchester, probably between 1001 and 1013.
[B] was used in the compilation of [C] at Abingdon, in the mid-11th century. However, the scribe for [C] also had access to another version, which has not survived.
[D] includes material from Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals and is thought to have been copied from a northern version that has not survived.
[E] has material that appears to derive from the same sources as [D] but does not include some additions that appear only in [D], such as the Mercian Register. This manuscript was composed at the monastery in Peterborough, some time after a fire there in 1116 that probably destroyed their copy of the Chronicle; [E] appears to have been created thereafter as a copy of a Kentish version, probably from Canterbury.
[F] appears to include material from the same Canterbury version that was used to create [E].
Asser’s Life of King Alfred, which was written in 893, includes a translation of the Chronicle’s entries from 849 to 887. Only [A], of surviving manuscripts, could have been in existence by 893, but there are places where Asser departs from the text in [A], so it is possible that Asser used a version that has not survived.
Æthelweard wrote a translation of the Chronicle into Latin in the late 10th century; the version he used probably came from the same branch in the tree of relationships that [A] comes from.
Asser’s text agrees with [A] and with Æthelweard’s text in some places against the combined testimony of [B], [C], [D] and [E], implying that there is a common ancestor for the latter four manuscripts.
At Abingdon, some time between 1120 and 1140, an unknown author wrote a Latin chronicle known as the Annals of St Neots. This work includes material from a copy of the Chronicle, but it is very difficult to tell which version because the annalist was selective about his use of the material. It may have been a northern recension, or a Latin derivative of that recension.
All the manuscripts described above share a chronological error between the years 756 and 845, but it is apparent that the composer of the Annals of St Neots was using a copy that did not have this error and which must have preceded them. Æthelweard’s copy did have the chronological error but it had not lost a whole sentence from annal 885; all the surviving manuscripts have lost this sentence. Hence the error and the missing sentence must have been introduced in separate copying steps, implying that none of the surviving manuscripts are closer than two removes from the original version.
History of the Manuscripts
[A]: The Winchester (or Parker) Chronicle is the oldest manuscript of the Chronicle that survives. It was begun at Old Minster, Winchester, towards the end of Alfred’s reign. The manuscript begins with a genealogy of Alfred, and the first chronicle entry is for the year 60 BC.
The section containing the Chronicle takes up folios 1–32. Unlike the other manuscripts, [A] is of early enough composition to show entries dating back to the late 9th century in the hands of different scribes as the entries were made.
The first scribe’s hand is dateable to the late 9th or very early 10th century; his entries cease in late 891, and the following entries were made at intervals throughout the 10th century by several scribes. The eighth scribe wrote the annals for the years 925–955, and was clearly at Winchester when he wrote them since he adds some material related to events there; he also uses ceaster, or “city”, to mean Winchester.
The manuscript becomes independent of the other recensions after the entry for 975. The book, which also had a copy of the Laws of Alfred and Ine bound in after the entry for 924, was transferred to Canterbury some time in the early 11th century, as evidenced by a list of books that Archbishop Parker gave to Corpus Christi.
While at Canterbury, some interpolations were made; this required some erasures in the manuscript. The additional entries appear to have been taken from a version of the manuscript from which [E] descends.
The last entry in the vernacular is for 1070. After this comes the Latin Acta Lanfranci, which covers church events from 1070–1093. This is followed by a list of popes and the Archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium. The manuscript was acquired by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury (1559–1575) and master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, following the dissolution of the monasteries, and bequeathed to the college on his death. It now forms part of the Parker Library.
Abingdon Chronicle I
[B] The Abingdon Chronicle I was written by a single scribe in the second half of the 10th century. The Chronicle takes up folios 1–34. It begins with an entry for 60 BC and ends with the entry for 977. A manuscript that is now separate (British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius Aiii, f. 178) was originally the introduction to this chronicle; it contains a genealogy, as does [A], but extends it to the late 10th century.
[B] was at Abingdon in the mid-11th century, because it was used in the composition of [C]. Shortly after this it went to Canterbury, where interpolations and corrections were made. As with [A], it ends with a list of popes and the archbishops of Canterbury to whom they sent the pallium.
Abingdon Chronicle II
[C] includes additional material from local annals at Abingdon, where it was composed. The section containing the Chronicle (folios 115–64) is preceded by King Alfred’s Old English translation of Orosius‘s world history, followed by a menologium and some gnomic verses of the laws of the natural world and of humanity.
Then follows a copy of the chronicle, beginning with 60 BC; the first scribe copied up to the entry for 490, and a second scribe took over up to the entry for 1048. [B] and [C] are identical between 491 and 652, but differences thereafter make it clear that the second scribe was also using another copy of the Chronicle.
This scribe also inserted, after the annal for 915, the Mercian Register, which covers the years 902–924, and which focuses on Æthelflæd. The manuscript continues to 1066 and stops in the middle of the description of the Battle of Stamford Bridge. In the 12th century a few lines were added to complete the account.
[D] The Worcester Chronicle appears to have been written in the middle of the 11th century. After 1033 it includes some records from Worcester, so it is generally thought to have been composed there. Five different scribes can be identified for the entries up to 1054, after which it appears to have been worked on at intervals.
The text includes material from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and from a set of 8th-century Northumbrian annals. It is thought that some of the entries may have been composed by Archbishop Wulfstan.
[D] contains more information than other manuscripts on northern and Scottish affairs, and it has been speculated that it was a copy intended for the Anglicised Scottish court. From 972 to 1016, the sees of York and Worcester were both held by the same person—Oswald from 972, Ealdwulf from 992, and Wulfstan from 1003, and this may explain why a northern recension was to be found at Worcester.
By the 16th century, parts of the manuscript were lost; eighteen pages were inserted containing substitute entries from other sources, including [A], [B], [C] and [E]. These pages were written by John Joscelyn, who was secretary to Matthew Parker.
[E] The Peterborough Chronicle: In 1116, a fire at the monastery at Peterborough destroyed most of the buildings. The copy of the Chronicle kept there may have been lost at that time or later, but in either case shortly thereafter a fresh copy was made, apparently copied from a Kentish version—most likely to have been from Canterbury.
The manuscript was written at one time and by a single scribe, down to the annal for 1121. The scribe added material relating to Peterborough Abbey which is not in other versions. The Canterbury original which he copied was similar, but not identical, to [D]: the Mercian Register does not appear, and a poem about the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, which appears in most of the other surviving copies of the Chronicle, is not recorded.
The same scribe then continued the annals through to 1131; these entries were made at intervals, and thus are presumably contemporary records. Finally, a second scribe, in 1154, wrote an account of the years 1132–1154; but his dating is known to be unreliable.
This last entry is in Middle English, rather than Old English. [E] was once owned by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury 1633–1654, so is also known as the Laud Chronicle. The manuscript contains occasional glosses in Latin, and is referred to (as “the Saxon storye of Peterborowe church”) in an antiquarian book from 1566.
According to Joscelyn, Nowell had a transcript of the manuscript. Previous owners include William Camden and William L’Isle; the latter probably passed the manuscript on to Laud.
Canterbury Bilingual Epitome
[F] The Canterbury Bilingual Epitome: In about 1100, a copy of the Chronicle was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, probably by one of the scribes who made notes in [A]. This version is written in both Old English and Latin; each entry in Old English was followed by the Latin version.
The version the scribe copied (on folios 30–70) is similar to the version used by the scribe in Peterborough who wrote [E], though it seems to have been abridged. It includes the same introductory material as [D] and, along with [E], is one of the two chronicles that does not include the “Battle of Brunanburh” poem. The manuscript has many annotations and interlineations, some made by the original scribe and some by later scribes, including Robert Talbot.
Copy of the Winchester Chronicle
[A2]/[G] Copy of the Winchester Chronicle: [A2] was copied from [A] at Winchester in the eleventh century and follows a 10th-century copy of an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.
The last annal copied was 1001, so the copy was made no earlier than that; an episcopal list appended to [A2] suggests that the copy was made by 1013. This manuscript was almost completely destroyed in the 1731 fire at Ashburnham House, where the Cotton Library was housed. Of the original 34 leaves, seven remain, ff. 39–47 in the manuscript.
However, a transcript had been made by Laurence Nowell, a 16th-century antiquary, which was used by Abraham Wheelocke in an edition of the Chronicle printed in 1643. Because of this, it is also sometimes known as [W], after Wheelocke. Nowell’s transcript copied the genealogical introduction detached from [B] (the page now British Library MS. Cotton Tiberius Aiii, f. 178), rather than that originally part of this document.
The original [A2] introduction would later be removed prior to the fire and survives as British Library Add MS 34652, f. 2. The appellations [A], [A2] and [G] derive from Plummer, Smith and Thorpe, respectively.
The Cottonian Fragment [H] consists of a single leaf, containing annals for 1113 and 1114. In the entry for 1113 it includes the phrase “he came to Winchester”; hence it is thought likely that the manuscript was written at Winchester. There is not enough of this manuscript for reliable relationships to other manuscripts to be established. Ker notes that the entries may have been written contemporarily.
Easter Table Chronicle
[I] Easter Table Chronicle: A list of Chronicle entries accompanies a table of years, found on folios 133-37 in a badly burned manuscript containing miscellaneous notes on charms, the calculation of dates for church services, and annals pertaining to Christ Church, Canterbury.
Most of the Chronicle’s entries pertain to Christ Church, Canterbury. Until 1109 (the death of Anselm of Canterbury) they are in English; all but one of the following entries are in Latin. Part of [I] was written by a scribe soon after 1073, in the same hand and ink as the rest of the Caligula MS. After 1085, the annals are in various contemporary hands.
The original annalist’s entry for the Norman conquest is limited to “Her forðferde eadward kyng”; a later hand added the coming of William the Conqueror, “7 her com willelm.” At one point this manuscript was at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury.
Two manuscripts are recorded in an old catalogue of the library of Durham; they are described as cronica duo Anglica. In addition, Parker included a manuscript called Hist. Angliae Saxonica in his gifts but the manuscript that included this, now Cambridge University Library MS. Hh.1.10, has lost 52 of its leaves, including all of this copy of the chronicle.
Sources, reliability and dating:
The Chronicle incorporates material from multiple sources. The entry for 755, describing how Cynewulf took the kingship of Wessex from Sigebehrt, is far longer than the surrounding entries, and includes direct speech quotations from the participants in those events. It seems likely that this was taken by the scribe from existing saga material.
Early entries, up to the year 110, probably came from one of the small encyclopaedic volumes of world history in circulation at the time the Chronicle was first written. The chronological summary to Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History was used as a source. The Chronicle gives dates and genealogies for Northumbrian and Mercian kings, and provides a list of Wessex bishops; these are likely to have had separate sources. The entry for 661 records a battle fought by Cenwalh that is said to have been fought “at Easter”; this precision implies a contemporary record, which survived and was re-used by the Chronicle scribe.
Contemporary annals began to be kept in Wessex during the 7th century. The material compiled in Alfred’s reign included annals relating to Kentish, South Saxon, Mercian and, particularly, West Saxon history, but, with the exception of the Cynewulf entry, does not gather momentum until it comes to the Nordic invasions of the late 8th century onwards.
The Chronicle grew out of the tradition of the Easter Tables, drawn up to help the clergy determine the dates of feasts in future years: a page consisted of a sequence of horizontal lines followed by astronomical data, with a space for short notes of events to distinguish one year from another. As the Chronicle developed, it lost its list-like appearance, and such notes took up more space, becoming more like historical records. Many later entries, especially those written by contemporaries, contained a great deal of historical narrative under the year headings.
As with any historical source, the Chronicle has to be treated with some caution. For example, between 514 and 544 the Chronicle makes reference to Wihtgar, who is supposedly buried on the Isle of Wight at “Wihtgar’s stronghold” (which is “Wihtgaræsbyrg” in the original) and purportedly gave his name to the island. However, the name of the “Isle of Wight” derives from the Latin “Vectis”, not from Wihtgar. The actual name of the fortress was probably “Wihtwarabyrg”, “the stronghold of the inhabitants of Wight”, and either the chronicler or an earlier source misinterpreted this as referring to Wihtgar.
The dating of the events recorded also requires care. In addition to dates that are simply inaccurate, scribes occasionally made mistakes that caused further errors. For example, in the [D] manuscript, the scribe omits the year 1044 from the list on the left hand side. The annals copied down are therefore incorrect from 1045 to 1052, which has two entries.
A more difficult problem is the question of the date at which a new year began, since the modern custom of starting the year on 1 January was not universal at that time. The entry for 1091 in [E] begins at Christmas and continues throughout the year; it is clear that this entry follows the old custom of starting the year at Christmas. Some other entries appear to begin the year on 25 March, such as the year 1044 in the [C] manuscript, which ends with Edward the Confessor’s marriage on 23 January, while the entry for 22 April is recorded under 1045. There are also years which appear to start in September.
The manuscripts were produced in different places, and each manuscript reflects the biases of its scribes. It has been argued that the Chronicle should be regarded as propaganda, produced by Alfred’s court and written with the intent of glorifying Alfred and creating loyalty.
This is not universally accepted, but the origins of the manuscripts clearly colour both the description of interactions between Wessex and other kingdoms, and the descriptions of the Vikings’ depredations. An example can be seen in the entry for 829, which describes Egbert‘s invasion of Northumbria. According to the Chronicle, after Egbert conquered Mercia and Essex, he became a “bretwalda“, implying overlordship of all of England. Then when he marched into Northumbria, the Northumbrians offered him “submission and peace”.
The Northumbrian chronicles incorporated into Roger of Wendover‘s 13th-century history give a different picture: “When Egbert had obtained all the southern kingdoms, he led a large army into Northumbria, and laid waste that province with severe pillaging, and made King Eanred pay tribute.”
Occasionally the scribes’ biases can be seen by comparing different versions of the manuscript they created. For example, Ælfgar, earl of East Anglia, and son of Leofric, the earl of Mercia, was exiled briefly in 1055. The [C], [D] and [E] manuscripts say the following:
[C]: “Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed without any fault …”
[D]: “Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed well-nigh without fault …”
[E]: “Earl Ælfgar was outlawed because it was thrown at him that he was traitor to the king and all the people of the land. And he admitted this before all the men who were gathered there, although the words shot out against his will.”
Another example that mentions Ælfgar shows a different kind of unreliability in the Chronicle: that of omission. Ælfgar was Earl of Mercia by 1058, and in that year was exiled again. This time only [D] has anything to say: “Here Earl Ælfgar was expelled, but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd.
And here came a raiding ship-army from Norway; it is tedious to tell how it all happened.” In this case other sources exist to clarify the picture: a major Norwegian attempt was made on England, but [E] says nothing at all, and [D] scarcely mentions it. It has sometimes been argued that when the Chronicle is silent, other sources that report major events must be mistaken, but this example demonstrates that the Chronicle does omit important events.
Some later medieval historians also used the Chronicle, and others took their material from those who had used it, and so the Chronicle became “central to the mainstream of English historical tradition”.
Henry of Huntingdon used a copy of the Chronicle that was very similar to [E]. There is no evidence in his work of any of the entries in [E] after 1121, so although his manuscript may actually have been [E], it may also have been a copy—either one taken of [E] prior to the entries he makes no use of, or a manuscript from which [E] was copied, with the copying taking place prior to the date of the last annal he uses. Henry also made use of the [C] manuscript.
The Waverley Annals made use of a manuscript that was similar to [E], though it appears that it did not contain the entries focused on Peterborough. The manuscript of the chronicle translated by Geoffrey Gaimar cannot be identified accurately, though according to historian Dorothy Whitelock it was “a rather better text than ‘E’ or ‘F'”. Gaimar implies that there was a copy at Winchester in his day (the middle of the 12th century); Whitelock suggests that there is evidence that a manuscript that has not survived to the present day was at Winchester in the mid-tenth century. If it survived to Gaimar’s time that would explain why [A] was not kept up to date, and why [A] could be given to the monastery at Canterbury.
John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex chronicis appears to have had a manuscript that was either [A] or similar to it; he makes use of annals that do not appear in other versions, such as entries concerning Edward the Elder‘s campaigns and information about Winchester towards the end of the chronicle.
His account is often similar to that of [D], though there is less attention paid to Margaret of Scotland, an identifying characteristic of [D]. He had the Mercian register, which appears only in [C] and [D]; and he includes material from annals 979–982 which only appears in [C]. It is possible he had a manuscript that was an ancestor of [D]. He also had sources which have not been identified, and some of his statements have no earlier surviving source.
A manuscript similar to [E] was available to William of Malmesbury, though it is unlikely to have been [E] as that manuscript is known to have still been in Peterborough after the time William was working, and he does not make use of any of the entries in [E] that are specifically related to Peterborough.
It is likely he had either the original from which [E] was copied, or a copy of that original. He mentions that the chronicles do not give any information on the murder of Alfred Aetheling, but since this is covered in both [C] and [D] it is apparent he had no access to those manuscripts. On occasion he appears to show some knowledge of [D], but it is possible that his information was taken from John of Worcester’s account. He also omits any reference to a battle fought by Cenwealh in 652; this battle is mentioned in [A], [B] and [C], but not in [E]. He does mention a battle fought by Cenwealh at Wirtgernesburg, which is not in any of the extant manuscripts, so it is possible he had a copy now lost.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the single most important source for the history of England in Anglo-Saxon times. Without the Chronicle and Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (the Ecclesiastical History of the English People), it would be impossible to write the history of the English from the Romans to the Norman conquest; Nicholas Howe called them “the two great Anglo-Saxon works of history”.
It is clear that records and annals of some kind began to be kept in England at the time of the earliest spread of Christianity, but no such records survive in their original form. Instead they were incorporated in later works, and it is thought likely that the Chronicle contains many of these. The history it tells is not only that witnessed by its compilers, but also that recorded by earlier annalists, whose work is in many cases preserved nowhere else.
Its importance is not limited to the historical information it provides, however. It is just as important a source for the early development of English. The Peterborough Chronicle changes from the standard Old English literary language to early Middle English after 1131, providing some of the earliest Middle English text known.
Howe notes, in “Rome: Capitol of Anglo-Saxon England”, that many of the entries indicate that Rome was considered a spiritual home for the Anglo-Saxons, Rome and Roman history being of paramount importance in many of the entries; he cites the one for AD 1, for instance, which lists the reign of Octavian Augustus before it mentions the birth of Christ.
The Chronicle is not without literary interest. Inserted at various points since the 10th century are Old English poems in celebration of royal figures and their achievements: “The Battle of Brunanburh” (937), on King Æthelstan‘s victory over the combined forces of Vikings, Scots and the Strathclyde Britons, and five shorter poems, “Capture of the Five Boroughs” (942), “The Coronation of King Edgar” (973), “The Death of King Edgar” (975), “The Death of Prince Alfred” (1036), and “The Death of King Edward the Confessor” (1065).
History of Editions and Availability
An important early printed edition of the Chronicle appeared in 1692, by Edmund Gibson, an English jurist and divine who became Bishop of Lincoln in that year. Titled Chronicon Saxonicum, it printed Latin and Old English versions of the text in parallel columns and became the standard edition until the 19th century. It was superseded in 1861 by Benjamin Thorpe‘s Rolls edition, which printed six versions in columns, labelled A to F, thus giving the manuscripts the letters which are now used to refer to them.
John Earle wrote Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel (1865). Charles Plummer edited this book, producing a Revised Text with notes, appendices, and glossary in two volumes in 1892 and 1899. This edition of the A and E texts, with material from other versions, was widely used; it was reprinted in 1952.
Editions of the individual manuscripts
Beginning in the 1980s, a new set of scholarly editions have been printed under the series title “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition”. Some volumes are still projected, such as a volume focusing on the northern recension, but existing volumes such as Janet Bately’s edition of [A] are now standard references.
A recent translation of the Chronicle is Michael Swanton‘s The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which presents translations of [A] and [E] on opposite pages, with interspersed material from the other manuscripts where they differ.
A facsimile edition of [A], The Parker Chronicle and Laws, appeared in 1941 from the Oxford University Press, edited by Robin Flower and Hugh Smith. A recent scholarly edition of the [B] text is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition, 4, MS B by S. Taylor (Cambridge, 1983). The [C] manuscript was edited by H.A. Rositzke; The C-Text of the Old English Chronicles, in Beitrage z. engl. Phil., XXXIV, Bochum-Langendreer, 1940; and the [D] manuscript in An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from British Museum Cotton MS., Tiberius B. iv, edited by E. Classen and F.E. Harmer, Manchester, 1926. Rositzke also published a translation of the [E] text in The Peterborough Chronicle (New York, 1951). The [F] text was printed in F.P. Magoun, Jr., Annales Domitiani Latini: an Edition in “Mediaeval Studies of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies”, IX, 1947, pp. 235–295.
The first edition of [G] was Abraham Whelock’s 1644 Venerabilis Bedae Historia Ecclesiastica, printed in Cambridge; there is also an edition by Angelica Lutz, Die Version G der angelsächsischen Chronik: Rekonstruktion und Edition (Munich, 1981).
Abels, Richard (2005). Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Longman. p. 15. ISBN0-582-04047-7.
Bately, Janet M. (1986). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition. Vol. 3: MS. A. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. ISBN0-85991-103-9.
Campbell, James (2000). The Anglo-Saxon State. Hambledon and London. ISBN1-85285-176-7.
Crystal, David (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN0-521-59655-6.
Ekwall, Eilert (1947). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC3821873.
Gneuss, Helmut (2001). Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A List of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. 241. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. ISBN978-0-86698-283-2.
Greenfield, Stanley Brian (1986). A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press. p. 60. ISBN0-8147-3088-4.
The history of Anglo-Saxon London relates to the history of the city of London during the Anglo-Saxon period, during the 7th to 11th centuries.
Romano-British Londinium had been abandoned in the late 5th century, although the London Wall remained intact. There was an Anglo-Saxon settlement by the early 7th century, called Lundenwic, about one mile away from Londinium, to the north of the present Strand. Lundenwic came under direct Mercian control in about 670. After the death of Offa of Mercia in 796, it was disputed between Mercia and Wessex.
Viking invasions became frequent from the 830s, and a Viking army is believed to have camped in the old Roman walls during the winter of 871. Alfred the Great re-established English control of London in 886, and renewed its fortifications.
The old Roman walls were repaired and the defensive ditch was re-cut, and the old Roman city became the main site of population. The city now became known as Lundenburh, marking the beginning of the history of the City of London. Sweyn Forkbeard attacked London unsuccessfully in 996 and 1013, but his son Cnut the Great finally gained control of London, and all of England, in 1016.
Edward the Confessor, the step-son of Cnut, became king in 1042. He built Westminster Abbey, the first large Romanesque church in England, consecrated in 1065, and the first Palace of Westminster. Edward’s death led to a succession crisis, and ultimately the Norman invasion of England.
Following the virtual abandonment of the Roman city, the area’s strategic location on the River Thames meant that the site was not deserted for long. From the late 5th century, Anglo-Saxons began to inhabit the area.
There is almost no reliable evidence about what happened in the London area during the Sub-Roman or so-called “Dark Ages” period from around 450 to 600. Although early Anglo-Saxon settlement avoided the area immediately around Londinium, there was occupation on a small scale of much of the hinterland on both sides of the river.
There is no contemporary literary evidence, but the area must for some time have been an active frontier between the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons.
Early Anglo-Saxon settlement in the London area was not on the site of the abandoned Roman city, although the Roman London Wall remained intact. Instead, by the 7th century a village and trading centre named Lundenwic was established approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) to the west of Londinium (named Lundenburh, or “London Fort”, by the Anglo-Saxons), probably using the mouth of the River Fleet as a trading ship and fishing boat harbour.
In the early 8th century, Lundenwic was described by the Venerable Bede as “a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea”. The Old English term wic or “trading town” ultimately derived from the Latin word vicus, so Lundenwic meant “London trading town”.
Archaeologists were for many years puzzled as to where early Anglo-Saxon London was located, as they could find little evidence of occupation within the Roman city walls from this period. However, in the 1980s, London was rediscovered, after extensive independent excavations by archaeologists Alan Vince and Martin Biddle were reinterpreted as being of an urban character.
In the Covent Garden area, excavations in 1985 and 2005 have uncovered an extensive Anglo-Saxon settlement that dates back to the 7th century. The excavations show that the settlement covered about 600,000 m2 (6,500,000 sq ft), stretching along the north side of the Strand (i.e. “the beach”) from the present-day National Gallery site in the west to Aldwych in the east.
By about 600, Anglo-Saxon England had become divided into a number of small kingdoms within what eventually became known as the Heptarchy. From the mid-6th century, London was incorporated into the Kingdom of Essex, which extended as far west as St Albans and for a period included Middlesex and Surrey.
In 604, Sæberht of Essex was converted to Christianity and London received Mellitus, its first post-Roman Bishop of London.
At this time Essex owed allegiance to Æthelberht of Kent and it was under Æthelberht that Mellitus founded the first cathedral of the East Saxons, which is traditionally said to be on the site of an old Roman temple of Diana (although the 17th century architect Sir Christopher Wren found no evidence of this).
The original building would have been only a modest church at first and it may well have been destroyed after Mellitus was expelled from the city by Sæberht’s pagan successors in 616. The majority of London’s population remained pagan during the larger part of the 7th century, and the bishop’s seat was occupied only intermittently, by Cedd between 653 and 664, and by Wine between 666 and c. 672.
The bishopric of London was re-established for good in 675, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, installed Earconwald as bishop.
Lundenwic came under direct Mercian control in about 670, as Essex became gradually reduced in size and status. After the death of Offa of Mercia in 796, it was disputed between Mercia and Wessex.
London suffered attacks from Vikings, which became increasingly common from around 830 onwards. It was attacked in 842 in a raid that was described by a chronicler as “the great slaughter”. In 851, another raiding party, reputedly involving 350 ships, came to plunder the city.
In 865, the Viking Great Heathen Army launched a large scale invasion of the small kingdom of East Anglia. They overran East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria and came close to controlling most of Anglo-Saxon England.
By 871 they had reached London and they are believed to have camped within the old Roman walls during the winter of that year. Although it is unclear what happened during this time, London may have come under Viking control for a period.
In 878, West Saxon forces led by Alfred the Great defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun and forced their leader Guthrum to sue for peace. The Treaty of Wedmore and the later Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum divided England and created the Danish controlled Danelaw.
English rule in London was restored by 886. Alfred quickly set about establishing fortified towns or burhs across southern England to improve his kingdom’s defences: London was no exception. Within ten years, the settlement within the old Roman walls was re-established, now known as Lundenburh.
The old Roman walls were repaired and the defensive ditch was re-cut. These changes effectively marked the beginning of the present City of London, the boundaries of which are still to some extent defined by its ancient city walls.
As the focus of Lundenburh was moved back to within the Roman walls, the original Lundenwic was largely abandoned and in time gained the name of Ealdwic, ‘old settlement’, a name which survives today as Aldwych.
10th Century London
Alfred appointed his son-in-law Earl Æthelred of Mercia, the heir to the destroyed kingdom of Mercia, as Governor of London and established two defended Boroughs to defend the bridge, which was probably rebuilt at this time. The southern end of the bridge was established as the Southwark or Suthringa Geworc (‘defensive work of the men of Surrey’). From this point, the city of London began to develop its own unique local government.
After Æthelred’s death, London came under the direct control of English kings. Alfred’s son Edward the Elder won back much land from Danish control. By the early 10th century, London had become an important commercial centre.
Although the political centre of England was Winchester, London was becoming increasingly important. Æthelstan held many royal councils in London and issued laws from there. Æthelred the Unready favoured London as his capital and issued his Laws of London from there in 978.
The Vikings Return
It was during the reign of Æthelred that Vikings resumed their raids, led by Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. London was attacked unsuccessfully in 994, but numerous raids followed. In 1013, London underwent a long siege and Æthelred was forced to flee abroad.
Æthelred returned with his ally the Norwegian king Olaf and reclaimed London. A Norse saga tells of a battle during the Viking occupation where the English king Æthelred returned to attack Viking-occupied London. According to the saga, the Danes lined London Bridge and showered the attackers with spears.
Undaunted, the attackers pulled the roofs off nearby houses and held them over their heads in the boats. Thus protected, they were able to get close enough to the bridge to attach ropes to the piers and pull the bridge down, defeat the Vikings and ending the occupation of London. There is some speculation that the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” stems from this incident. Following Æthelred’s death on 23 April 1016, his son Edmund Ironside was declared king.
Sweyn’s son Cnut the Great continued the attacks in, harrying Warwickshire and pushing northwards across eastern Mercia in early 1016. Edmund remained in London, still unsubdued behind its famous walls, and was elected king after the death of Aethelred, but Cnut returned southward and the Danish army evidently divided, some dealing with Edmund, some besieging London.
There was a battle fought at Penselwood, in Somerset and a subsequent battle at Sherston, in Wiltshire, which was fought over two days but left neither side victorious. Edmund was able to temporarily relieve London, driving the enemy away and defeating them after crossing the Thames at Brentford.
Suffering heavy losses, he withdrew to Wessex to gather fresh troops, and the Danes again brought London under siege, but after another unsuccessful assault they withdrew into Kent under attack by the English, with a battle fought at Otford.
On 18 October 1016, the Danes were engaged by Edmund’s army as they retired towards their ships, leading to the Battle of Assandun. In the ensuing struggle, Eadric Streona, whose return to the English side had perhaps only been a ruse, withdrew his forces from the fray, bringing about a decisive English defeat. Edmund fled westwards, and Cnut pursued him into Gloucestershire, with another battle probably fought near the Forest of Dean.
On an island near Deerhurst, Cnut and Edmund – who had been wounded – met to negotiate terms of peace. It was agreed that all of England north of the Thames was to be the domain of the Danish prince, while all to the south was kept by the English king, along with London. Accession to the reign of the entire realm was set to pass to Cnut upon Edmund’s death.
Edmund died on 30 November, within weeks of the agreement. Some sources claim Edmund was murdered, although the circumstances of his death are unknown. In accord with the treaty, Cnut was left as king of all of England. His coronation was in London, at Christmas, with recognition by the nobility in January the next year at Oxford.
Following Harthacnut’s death on 8 June 1042, Godwin, the most powerful of the English earls, supported Edward, who succeeded to the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the popularity he enjoyed at his accession — “before he [Harthacnut] was buried, all the people chose Edward as king in London.” Edward was crowned at the cathedral of Winchester, the royal seat of the West Saxons, on 3 April 1043.
Modern historians reject the traditional view that Edward mainly employed Norman favourites, but he did have foreigners in his household. Chief among them was Robert of Jumièges, who came to England in 1041, becoming Bishop of London in 1043. According to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, he became “always the most powerful confidential adviser to the king”.
When Edward appointed Robert of Jumièges as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051, he chose the leading craftsman Spearhafoc to replace Robert as bishop of London.
Edward’s Norman sympathies are most clearly seen in the major building project of his reign, Westminster Abbey, the first Norman Romanesque church in England.
This was commenced between 1042 and 1052 as a royal burial church, consecrated on 28 December 1065, completed after his death in about 1090, and demolished in 1245 to make way for Henry III’s new building, which still stands. It was very similar to Jumièges Abbey, which was built at the same time. Robert of Jumièges must have been closely involved in both buildings, although it is not clear which is the original and which the copy.
Following Edward’s death, no clear heir was apparent and his cousin, Duke William of Normandy, claimed the throne. The English Witenagemot met in the city and elected Edward’s brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, as king: Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey. William, outraged by this, then invaded England.
Billings, Malcolm (1994), London: a companion to its history and archaeology, ISBN1-85626-153-0
The Britons, also known as Celtic Britons or Ancient Britons, were Celtic people who inhabited Great Britain from the British Iron Age into the Middle Ages, at which point their culture and language diverged. They spoke the Common Brittonic language, the ancestor to the modern Brittonic languages.
The earliest evidence for the Britons and their language in historical sources dates to the Iron Age. After the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century, a Romano-British culture emerged, and Latin and British Vulgar Latin coexisted with Brittonic. During and after the Roman era, the Britons lived throughout Britain. Their relationship with the Picts, who lived north of the Firth of Forth, has been the subject of much discussion, though most scholars now accept that the Pictish language was related to Common Brittonic, rather than a separate Celtic language.
With the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement and Gaelic Scots in the 5th century, the culture and language of the Britons fragmented and much of their territory was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaels. The extent to which this cultural and linguistic change was accompanied by wholesale changes in the population is still a matter of discussion. During this period some Britons migrated to mainland Europe and established significant settlements in Brittany (now part of France) as well as Britonia in modern Galicia, Spain. By the 11th century, remaining Brittonic Celtic-speaking populations had split into distinct groups: the Welsh in Wales, the Cornish in Cornwall, the Bretons in Brittany, and the people of the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”) in southern Scotland and northern England. Common Brittonic developed into the distinct Brittonic languages: Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton.
The earliest known reference to the inhabitants of Britain seems to come from 4th century BC records of the voyage of Pytheas, a Greek geographer who made a voyage of exploration around the British Isles between 330 and 320 BC. Although none of his own writings remain, writers during the time of the Roman Empire made much reference to them. Pytheas called the islands collectively αἱ Βρεττανίαι (hai Brettaniai), which has been translated as the Brittanic Isles; he also used the term Pretannike. The peoples of these islands were called the Πρεττανοί (Prettanoi), Priteni, Pritani or Pretani. The group included Ireland, which was referred to as Ierne (Insula sacra “sacred island” as the Greeks interpreted it) “inhabited by the race of Hiberni” (gens hibernorum), and Britain as insula Albionum, “island of the Albions”. The term Pritani may have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who possibly used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was originally compiled by the orders of King Alfred the Great in approximately 890, and subsequently maintained and added to by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th century, starts with this sentence: “The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad, and there are in the island five nations: English, Welsh (or British, including the Cornish), Scottish, Pictish, and Latin. The first inhabitants were the Britons, who came from Armenia, and first peopled Britain southward.” (“Armenia” is possibly a mistaken transcription of Armorica, an area in northwestern Gaul including modern Brittany.)
The Latin name in the early Roman Empire period was Britanni or Brittanni, following the Roman conquest in AD 43.
The Welsh word Brython was introduced into English usage by John Rhys in 1884 as a term unambiguously referring to the P-Celtic speakers of Great Britain, to complement Goidel; hence the adjective Brythonic referring to the group of languages. “Brittonic languages” is a more recent coinage (first attested 1923 according to the Oxford English Dictionary) intended to refer to the ancient Britons specifically.
In English, the term “Briton” originally denoted the ancient Britons and their descendants, most particularly the Welsh, who were seen as heirs to the ancient British people. After the Acts of Union 1707, the terms British and Briton came to be applied to all inhabitants of the Kingdom of Great Britain and its empire.
The Britons spoke an Insular Celtic language known as Common Brittonic. Brittonic was spoken throughout the island of Britain (in modern terms, England, Wales and Scotland), as well as offshore islands such as the Isle of Man, Scilly Isles, Orkneys, Hebrides and Shetlands. According to early mediaeval historical tradition, such as The Dream of Macsen Wledig, the post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica were colonists from Britain, resulting in the Breton language, a language related to Welsh and identical to Cornish in the early period and still used today. Thus the area today is called Brittany (Br. Breizh, Fr. Bretagne, derived from Britannia).
Common Brittonic developed from the Insular branch of the Proto-Celtic language that developed in the British Isles after arriving from the continent in the 7th century BC. The language eventually began to diverge; some linguists have grouped subsequent developments as Western and Southwestern Brittonic languages.
Western Brittonic developed into Welsh in Wales and the Cumbric language in the Hen Ogledd or “Old North” of Britain, while the Southwestern dialect became Cornish in Cornwall and South West England and Breton in Armorica. Pictish is now generally accepted to descend from Common Brittonic, rather than being a separate Celtic language. Welsh and Breton survive today; Cumbric became extinct in the 12th century. Cornish had become extinct by the 19th century but has been the subject of language revitalization since the 20th century.
Throughout their existence, the territory inhabited by the Britons was composed of numerous ever-changing areas controlled by Brittonic tribes. The extent of their territory before and during the Roman period is unclear, but is generally believed to include the whole of the island of Great Britain, at least as far north as the Clyde-Forth isthmus, and if the Picts are included as Brittonic speaking people as they more usually are, the entirety of Great Britain.
The territory north of the Firth of Forth was largely inhabited by the Picts; little direct evidence has been left of the Pictish language, but place names and Pictish personal names recorded in the later Irish annals suggest it was indeed related to the Common Brittonic language rather than to the Goidelic (Gaelic) languages of the Irish, Scots and Manx; indeed their Goidelic Irish name, Cruithne, is cognate with Brythonic Priteni. Part of the Pictish territory was eventually absorbed into the Gaelic kingdoms of Dál Riata and Alba, which became Scotland.
The Isle of Man, Shetland, Hebrides and the Orkney islands were originally inhabited by Britons also, but eventually became respectively Manx and Scots Gaelic speaking territories, while the Scilly isles and Anglesey (Ynys Mon) remained Brittonic and the originally Brittonic Isle of Wight was taken by Anglo-Saxons.
In 43 AD, the Roman Empire invaded Britain. The British tribes opposed the Roman legions for many decades, but by 84 AD the Romans had decisively conquered southern Britain and had pushed into Brittonic areas of what would later become northern England and southern Scotland. In 122, they fortified the northern border with Hadrian’s Wall, which spanned what is now Northern England. In 142 AD, Roman forces pushed north again and began construction of the Antonine Wall, which ran between the Forth-Clyde isthmus, but they retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall after only twenty years.
Although the native Britons south of Hadrian’s Wall mostly kept their land, they were subject to the Roman governors, whilst the Brittonic-Pictish Britons north of the wall remained fully independent. The Roman Empire retained control of “Britannia” until its departure about AD 410, although some parts of Britain had already effectively shrugged off Roman rule decades earlier.
Shortly after the time of the Roman departure, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons began a migration to the eastern coast of Britain, where they established their own kingdoms, and the Gaelic speaking Scots migrating from Dál nAraidi (modern Northern Ireland), did the same on the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Man.
At the same time, some Britons established themselves in what is now called Brittany. There they set up their own small kingdoms and the Breton language developed there from Brittonic Insular Celtic rather than Gaulish or Frankish. A further colony, Britonia, was also set up at this time in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain.
Many of the old Brittonic kingdoms began to disappear in the centuries after the Anglo-Saxon and Scottish Gaelic invasions; The regions of modern East Anglia, East Midlands, North East England, Argyll and South East England were the first to fall to the Germanic and Gaelic Scots invasions; The kingdom of Ceint (modern Kent) fell in 456 AD, Linnuis (which stood astride modern Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire) was subsumed as early as 500 AD and became the English Kingdom of Lindsey, Rhegin (essentially modern Sussex and eastern Hampshire) was likely fully conquered by 510 AD, Ynys Weith (Isle of Wight) fell in 530 AD, Caer Colun (essentially modern Essex) by 540 AD.
The Gaels arrived on the north west coast of Britain from Ireland, dispossessed the native Britons and founded Dal Riata which encompassed modern Argyll, Skye and Iona between 500 and 560 AD. Deifr (Deira) which encompassed modern day Teeside, Wearside, Tyneside and Humberside fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 559 AD and Deira became an Anglo-Saxon kingdom after this point. Caer Went had officially disappeared by 575 AD becoming the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, Gwent and its capital Caer Gloui (Gloucester) was divided in 577 AD, handing Gloucestershire and Wiltshire to the invaders, while the westernmost part continued to exist in modern Wales, Caer Lundein encompassing London, St. Albans and parts of the Home Counties fell from Brittonic hands by 600 AD, Bryneich which existed in modern Northumbria and County Durham with its capital of Din Guardi (modern Bamburgh) and which included Ynys Metcaut (Lindisfarne) had fallen by 605 AD becoming Anglo-Saxon Bernicia.
Caer Celemion (in modern Hampshire and Berkshire) had fallen by 610 AD. Elmet, which covered much of modern Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire and likely had its capital at modern Leeds, was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in 627 AD.
Pengwern, which covered Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, was largely destroyed in 656 AD with only its westernmost parts in modern Wales enduring. AD, and it is likely that Cynwidion which had stretched from modern Bedfordshire to Northamptonshire, fell in the same general period as Pengwern, though a sub-kingdom of Calchwynedd may have clung on in the Chilterns for a time. Novant which occupied Galloway and Carrick was soon subsumed by fellow Brittonic-Pictish polities by 700 AD. Aeron which encompassed modern Ayrshire was conquered into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria by 700 AD.
Some Brittonic kingdoms, such as Rheged, which at its height encompassed much what is today Strathclyde, Cumbria, Northumberland, the Scottish borders, Lancashire and modern Greater Manchester and had a capital at Cair Ligualid (Carlisle), were able to successfully resist these incursions for some time, before the eastern part peacefully joined with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia–Northumberland by 730 AD, and the west was taken over by the fellow Britons of Ystrad Clud.
Similarly, the kingdom of Gododdin, which appears to have had its capital at Din Eidyn (modern Edinburgh and encompassed parts of modern Northumbria, County Durham, Lothian and Clackmannanshire endured until approximately 775 AD before being divided by fellow Brittonic Picts, Gaelic Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
The Kingdom of Cait, covering modern Caithness, Sutherland, Orkneys and Shetlands was conquered in 871 AD, similarly, the Kingdom of Ce which encompassed modern Marr, Banff, Buchan, Fife and much of Aberdeenshire disappeared in 900 at the hands of the Gaelic Scots AD. Fortriu the largest Pictish kingdom which covered Strathearn, Morayshire and Easter Ross had fallen by approximately 950 AD to the Gaelic Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Other Pictish kingdoms such as Circinn ( in modern Angus and The Mearns), Fib (modern Fife), Fidach (Inverness and Perthshire), Ath-Fotla (Atholl) had also fallen by the beginning of the 11th century AD.
The Brythonic languages in these areas was replaced by the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaelic, although this was likely a gradual process in many areas.
The kingdom of Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde) was for some time a large and powerful Brittonic kingdom which endured until the end of the 11th century, successfully resisting Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic Scots and later also Viking attacks. At its peak it encompassed modern Strathclyde, Dumbartonshire, Cumbria, Stirlingshire, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll and Bute and parts of North Yorkshire, western Pennines, and as far as modern Leeds in West Yorkshire.
The Britons also retained control of Wales, Cornwall and south Devon (Dumnonia), as well as northwest England and parts of Scotland, where kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd endured. Dumnonia was effectively partitioned during the 9th century AD, the north becoming Anglo-Saxon Devonshire while he south remained in the hands of the Britons as Kernow (essentially modern Cornwall).
Wales was divided among varying Brittonic kingdoms, the foremost being Gwynedd, Powys (including Clwyd and Ynys Mon (Anglesey), Deheubarth (originally Ceredigion, Seisyllwg and Dyfed), Gwent and Morgannwg (Glamorgan. Some of these Welsh kingdoms initially included territories further east, for example Powys included parts of modern Merseyside, Cheshire and The Wirral and Gwent held parts of modern Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, but had largely been confined to the borders of modern Wales by the beginning of the 12th century.
However, by the beginning of the 12th century, the Anglo-Saxons and Gaels had become the dominant cultural force in most of the formerly Brittonic ruled territory in Britain, and the language and culture of the native Britons was thereafter gradually replaced in those regions, remaining only in Wales, Cornwall, parts of Cumbria, Strathclyde, eastern Galloway and Brittany.
The Brittonic-Pictish polities in Scotland and northern England gradually fell to the English and Scots; with the Kingdom of Strathclyde (Strath-Clota) being the last of the Brittonic kingdoms of the north to fall in the 1090s, when it was effectively divided between England and Scotland.
Cornwall (Kernow, Dumnonia) had certainly been largely absorbed by England by the 1050s, although it retained a distinct Brittonic culture and language. Britonia in Spanish Galicia seems to have disappeared by 900 AD.
Wales and Brittany remained independent for some time however, with Brittany finally being absorbed into France during the 1490s, and Wales united with England by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 in the mid 16th century during the rule of the Tudors (Twdyr), who were themselves of Welsh heritage on the male side.
Wales, Cornwall and Brittany continued to retain a distinct Brittonic culture, identity and language, which they have maintained to the present day. The Welsh language and Breton language remain widely spoken, and the Cornish language, once close to extinction, has experienced a revival since the 20th century. The vast majority of place names and names of geographical features in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany are Brittonic, and Brittonic family and personal names remain common.
During the 19th century, a large number of Welsh farmers migrated to Patagonia in Argentina, forming a community called Y Wladfa, which today consists of over 1,500 Welsh speakers.
In addition, a Brittonic legacy remains in England, Scotland and Galicia in Spain, in the form of often large numbers of Brittonic place and geographical names. Some examples of geographical Brittonic names survive in the names of rivers, such as the Thames, Clyde, Severn, Tyne, Wye, Exe, Dee, Tamar, Tweed, Avon, Trent, Tambre, Navia and River Forth. A number of place names in England and Scotland are of Brittonic rather than Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic origin, such as; London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Carlisle, Caithness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Barrow, Exeter, Lincoln, Dumbarton, Brent, Penge, Colchester, Durham, Dover, Leatherhead and York.
The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.
They are thought to have been ethnolinguistically Celtic. Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from the geographical distribution of brochs, Brittonic place name elements, and Pictish stones. Picts are attested to in written records from before the Roman conquest of Britain to the 10th century, when they are thought to have merged with the Gaels. They lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde, and spoke the now-extinct Pictish language, which is thought to have been closely related to the Celtic Brittonic language spoken by the Britons who lived to the south of them.
Picts are assumed to have been the descendants of the Caledonii and other tribes that were mentioned by Roman historians or on the world map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also called Pictavia by some sources, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Alba then expanded, absorbing the Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Northumbrian Lothian, and by the 11th century the Pictish identity had been subsumed into the “Scots” amalgamation of peoples.
Pictish society was typical of many Iron Age societies in northern Europe, having “wide connections and parallels” with neighbouring groups. Archaeology gives some impression of the society of the Picts. While very little in the way of Pictish writing has survived, Pictish history since the late 6th century is known from a variety of sources, including Bede‘s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, saints’ lives such as that of Columba by Adomnán, and various Irish annals.
What the Picts called themselves is unknown. The Latin word Picti first occurs in a panegyric written by Eumenius in AD 297 and is taken to mean “painted or tattooed people” (from Latin pingere “to paint”; pictus, “painted”, cf. Greek “πυκτίς” pyktis, “picture”). As Sally M. Foster noted, “Much ink has been spilt over what the ancient writers meant by Picts, but it seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth–Clyde isthmus who raided the Roman Empire.”
Their Old English name gave the modern Scots form Pechts and the Welsh word Ffichti. In writings from Ireland, the name Cruthin, Cruthini, Cruthni, Cruithni or Cruithini (Modern Irish: Cruithne) was used to refer both to the Picts and to another group of people who lived alongside the Ulaid in eastern Ulster. It is generally accepted that this is derived from *Qritani, which is the Goidelic/Q-Celtic version of the Britonnic/P-Celtic *Pritani. From this came Britanni, the Roman name for those now called the Britons. It has been suggested that Cruthin referred to all Britons not conquered by the Romans—those who lived outside Roman Britannia, north of Hadrian’s Wall.
A Pictish confederation was formed in Late Antiquity from a number of tribes—how and why is not known. Some scholars have speculated that it was partly in response to the growth of the Roman Empire.
Pictland had previously been described by Roman writers and geographers as the home of the Caledonii. These Romans also used other names to refer to tribes living in that area, including Verturiones, Taexali and Venicones. But they may have heard these other names only second- or third-hand, from speakers of Brittonic or Gaulish languages, who may have used different names for the same group or groups.
Pictish recorded history begins in the Dark Ages. At that time, the Gaels of Dál Riata controlled what is now Argyll, as part of a kingdom straddling the sea between Britain and Ireland. The Angles of Bernicia, which merged with Deira to form Northumbria, overwhelmed the adjacent British kingdoms, and for much of the 7th century Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom in Britain.
The Picts were probably tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Bridei mac Beli, when, in 685, the Anglians suffered a defeat at the Battle of Dun Nechtain that halted their northward expansion. The Northumbrians continued to dominate southern Scotland for the remainder of the Pictish period.
Dál Riata was subject to the Pictish king Óengus mac Fergusa during his reign (729–761), and though it had its own kings beginning in the 760s, does not appear to have recovered its political independence from the Picts. A later Pictish king, Caustantín mac Fergusa (793–820), placed his son Domnall on the throne of Dál Riata (811–835). Pictish attempts to achieve a similar dominance over the Britons of Alt Clut (Dumbarton) were not successful.
The Viking Age brought great changes in Britain and Ireland, no less in Scotland than elsewhere, conquering and settling the islands and various mainland areas, including Caithness, Sutherland and Galloway. In the middle of the 9th century Ketil Flatnose is said to have founded the Kingdom of the Isles, governing many of these territories, and by the end of that century the Vikings had destroyed the Kingdom of Northumbria, greatly weakened the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and founded the Kingdom of York.
During the reign of Cínaed’s grandson, Caustantín mac Áeda (900–943), outsiders began to refer to the region as the Kingdom of Alba rather than the Kingdom of the Picts, but it is not known whether this was because a new kingdom was established or Alba was simply a closer approximation of the Pictish name for the Picts.
However, though the Pictish language did not disappear suddenly, a process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reigns of Caustantín and his successors. By a certain point, probably during the 11th century, all the inhabitants of northern Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots, and Pictish identity was forgotten. Later, the idea of Picts as a tribe was revived in myth and legend.
Pictish Kings and Kingdoms
The early history of Pictland is unclear. In later periods multiple kings existed, ruling over separate kingdoms, with one king, sometimes two, more or less dominating their lesser neighbours. De Situ Albanie, a late document, the Pictish Chronicle, the Duan Albanach, along with Irish legends, have been used to argue the existence of seven Pictish kingdoms. These are as follows; those in bold are known to have had kings, or are otherwise attested in the Pictish period:
Fortriu, cognate with the Verturiones of the Romans; recently shown to be centred on Moray
More small kingdoms may have existed. Some evidence suggests that a Pictish kingdom also existed in Orkney. De Situ Albanie is not the most reliable of sources, and the number of kingdoms, one for each of the seven sons of Cruithne, the eponymous founder of the Picts, may well be grounds enough for disbelief. Regardless of the exact number of kingdoms and their names, the Pictish nation was not a united one.
For most of Pictish recorded history the kingdom of Fortriu appears dominant, so much so that king of Fortriu and king of the Picts may mean one and the same thing in the annals. This was previously thought to lie in the area around Perth and southern Strathearn; however, recent work has convinced those working in the field that Moray (a name referring to a very much larger area in the High Middle Ages than the county of Moray) was the core of Fortriu.
The Picts are often said to have practised matrilineal kingship succession on the basis of Irish legends and a statement in Bede‘s history. The kings of the Picts when Bede was writing were Bridei and Nechtan, sons of Der Ilei, who indeed claimed the throne through their mother Der Ilei, daughter of an earlier Pictish king.
In Ireland, kings were expected to come from among those who had a great-grandfather who had been king. Kingly fathers were not frequently succeeded by their sons, not because the Picts practised matrilineal succession, but because they were usually followed by their own brothers or cousins, more likely to be experienced men with the authority and the support necessary to be king. This was similar to tanistry.
The nature of kingship changed considerably during the centuries of Pictish history. While earlier kings had to be successful war leaders to maintain their authority, kingship became rather less personalised and more institutionalised during this time. Bureaucratic kingship was still far in the future when Pictland became Alba, but the support of the church, and the apparent ability of a small number of families to control the kingship for much of the period from the later 7th century onwards, provided a considerable degree of continuity.
In much the same period, the Picts’ neighbours in Dál Riata and Northumbria faced considerable difficulties, as the stability of succession and rule that previously benefited them ended.
The later Mormaers are thought to have originated in Pictish times, and to have been copied from, or inspired by, Northumbrian usages. It is unclear whether the Mormaers were originally former kings, royal officials, or local nobles, or some combination of these. Likewise, the Pictish shires and thanages, traces of which are found in later times, are thought to have been adopted from their southern neighbours.
The archaeological record provides evidence of the material culture of the Picts. It tells of a society not readily distinguishable from its British, Gaelic, or Anglo-Saxon neighbours. Although analogy and knowledge of other so-called ‘Celtic’ societies (a term they never used for themselves) may be a useful guide, these extended across a very large area. Relying on knowledge of pre-Roman Gaul, or 13th century Ireland, as a guide to the Picts of the 6th century may be misleading if analogy is pursued too far.
As with most peoples in the north of Europe in Late Antiquity, the Picts were farmers living in small communities. Cattle and horses were an obvious sign of wealth and prestige, sheep and pigs were kept in large numbers, and place names suggest that transhumance was common.
Animals were small by later standards, although horses from Britain were imported into Ireland as breed-stock to enlarge native horses. From Irish sources it appears that the élite engaged in competitive cattle-breeding for size, and this may have been the case in Pictland also.
Carvings show hunting with dogs, and also, unlike in Ireland, with falcons. Cereal crops included wheat, barley, oats and rye. Vegetables included kale, cabbage, onions and leeks, peas and beans and turnips, and some types no longer common, such as skirret. Plants such as wild garlic, nettles and watercress may have been gathered in the wild.
The pastoral economy meant that hides and leather were readily available. Wool was the main source of fibres for clothing, and flax was also common, although it is not clear if they grew it for fibres, for oil, or as a foodstuff. Fish, shellfish, seals, and whales were exploited along coasts and rivers. The importance of domesticated animals suggests that meat and milk products were a major part of the diet of ordinary people, while the élite would have eaten a diet rich in meat from farming and hunting.
No Pictish counterparts to the areas of denser settlement around important fortresses in Gaul and southern Britain, or any other significant urban settlements, are known. Larger, but not large, settlements existed around royal forts, such as at Burghead Fort, or associated with religious foundations. No towns are known in Scotland until the 12th century.
The technology of everyday life is not well recorded, but archaeological evidence shows it to have been similar to that in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. Recently evidence has been found of watermills in Pictland. Kilns were used for drying kernels of wheat or barley, not otherwise easy in the changeable, temperate climate.
The early Picts are associated with piracy and raiding along the coasts of Roman Britain. Even in the Late Middle Ages, the line between traders and pirates was unclear, so that Pictish pirates were probably merchants on other occasions.
It is generally assumed that trade collapsed with the Roman Empire, but this is to overstate the case. There is only limited evidence of long-distance trade with Pictland, but tableware and storage vessels from Gaul, probably transported up the Irish Sea, have been found. This trade may have been controlled from Dunadd in Dál Riata, where such goods appear to have been common. While long-distance travel was unusual in Pictish times, it was far from unknown as stories of missionaries, travelling clerics and exiles show.
Brochs are popularly associated with the Picts. Although these were built earlier in the Iron Age, with construction ending around 100 AD, they remained in use into and beyond the Pictish period. Crannóg, which may originate in Neolithic Scotland, may have been rebuilt, and some were still in use in the time of the Picts. The most common sort of buildings would have been roundhouses and rectangular timbered halls. While many churches were built in wood, from the early 8th century, if not earlier, some were built in stone.
The Picts are often said to have tattooed themselves, but evidence for this is limited. Naturalistic depictions of Pictish nobles, hunters and warriors, male and female, without obvious tattoos, are found on monumental stones. These stones include inscriptions in Latin and ogham script, not all of which have been deciphered. The well known Pictish symbols found on standing stones and other artifacts, have defied attempts at translation over the centuries. Pictish art can be classed as ‘Celtic’ (a term not coined till the 1850s), and later as Insular. Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves.
Early Pictish religion is presumed to have resembled Celtic polytheism in general, although only place names remain from the pre-Christian era. When the Pictish elite converted to Christianity is uncertain, but traditions place Saint Palladius in Pictland after he left Ireland, and link Abernethy with Saint Brigid of Kildare. Saint Patrick refers to “apostate Picts”, while the poem Y Gododdin does not remark on the Picts as pagans.
Bede wrote that Saint Ninian (confused by some with Saint Finnian of Moville, who died c. 589), had converted the southern Picts. Recent archaeological work at Portmahomack places the foundation of the monastery there, an area once assumed to be among the last converted, in the late 6th century. This is contemporary with Bridei mac Maelchon and Columba, but the process of establishing Christianity throughout Pictland will have extended over a much longer period.
Pictland was not solely influenced by Iona and Ireland. It also had ties to churches in Northumbria, as seen in the reign of Nechtan mac Der Ilei. The reported expulsion of Ionan monks and clergy by Nechtan in 717 may have been related to the controversy over the dating of Easter, and the manner of tonsure, where Nechtan appears to have supported the Roman usages, but may equally have been intended to increase royal power over the church. Nonetheless, the evidence of place names suggests a wide area of Ionan influence in Pictland. Likewise, the Cáin Adomnáin (Law of Adomnán, Lex Innocentium) counts Nechtan’s brother Bridei among its guarantors.
The importance of monastic centres in Pictland was not, perhaps, as great as in Ireland. In areas that have been studied, such as Strathspey and Perthshire, it appears that the parochial structure of the High Middle Ages existed in early medieval times. Among the major religious sites of eastern Pictland were Portmahomack, Cennrígmonaid (later St Andrews), Dunkeld, Abernethy and Rosemarkie. It appears that these are associated with Pictish kings, which argues for a considerable degree of royal patronage and control of the church. Portmahomack in particular has been the subject of recent excavation and research, published by Martin Carver.
The cult of Saints was, as throughout Christian lands, of great importance in later Pictland. While kings might patronise great Saints, such as Saint Peter in the case of Nechtan, and perhaps Saint Andrew in the case of the second Óengus mac Fergusa, many lesser Saints, some now obscure, were important. The Pictish Saint Drostan appears to have had a wide following in the north in earlier times, although he was all but forgotten by the 12th century. Saint Serf of Culross was associated with Nechtan’s brother Bridei. It appears, as is well known in later times, that noble kin groups had their own patron saints, and their own churches or abbeys.
The Pictish language is extinct. Evidence is limited to place names, the names of people found on monuments, and the contemporary records. The evidence of place-names and personal names argues strongly that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly Brittonic languages. A number of Ogham inscriptions have been argued to be unidentifiable as Celtic, and on this basis, it has been suggested that non-Celtic languages were also in use.
The absence of surviving written material in Pictish—if the ambiguous “Pictish inscriptions” in the Ogham script are discounted—does not indicate a pre-literate society. The church certainly required literacy in Latin, and could not function without copyists to produce liturgical documents. Pictish iconography shows books being read, and carried, and its naturalistic style gives every reason to suppose that such images were of real life. Literacy was not widespread, but among the senior clergy, and in monasteries, it would have been common enough.
Place-names often allow us to deduce the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland. Those prefixed with the Brittonic prefixes “Aber-“, “Lhan-“, or “Pit-” (=? “peth”, a thing) are claimed to indicate regions inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, etc.). Some of these, such as “Pit-” (portion, share), may have been formed after Pictish times, and may refer to previous “shires” or “thanages”.
The evidence of place-names may also reveal the advance of Gaelic into Pictland. As noted, Atholl, meaning New Ireland, is attested in the early 8th century. This may be an indication of the advance of Gaelic. Fortriu also contains place-names suggesting Gaelic settlement, or Gaelic influences. A pre-Gaelic interpretation of the name as Athfocla meaning ‘north pass’ or ‘north way’, as in gateway to Moray, suggests that the Gaelic Athfotla may be a Gaelic misreading of the minuscule c for t.
Medieval Welsh tradition credited the founding of Gwynedd to the Picts and traced their principal royal families—the Houses of Aberffraw and Dinefwr—to Cunedda Wledig, said to have invaded northern Wales from Lothian.
James E. Fraser, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.1 – From Caledonia To Pictland, Edinburgh University Press(2009) ISBN978-0-7486-1232-1
Fraser Hunter, Beyond the Edge of Empire: Caledonians, Picts and Romans, Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie (2007) ISBN978-0-9540999-2-3
Alex Woolf, The New Edinburgh History Of Scotland Vol.2 – From Pictland To Alba, Edinburgh University Press,(2007) ISBN978-0-7486-1234-5
Researchers from the University of Leicester are shedding new light on how an ‘agricultural revolution’ in Anglo-Saxon England fueled the growth of towns and markets as part of a new project investigating medieval farming habits.
The project, titled ‘Feeding Anglo-Saxon England (FeedSax): The Bioarchaeology of an Agricultural Revolution’, which is funded by the European Research Council, is led by the University of Oxford working with colleagues from the University of Leicester.
The period between c 800 – 1200 AD saw dramatic changes in farming practices across large parts of Europe, enabling an increase in cereal production so great that it has been described as an ‘agricultural revolution’.
This ‘cerealisation’ allowed post-Roman populations not only to recover, but to boom, fueling the growth of towns and markets.
In England, this meant that many regions became more densely populated than ever before.
To operate a more productive but costly system of farming, peasants had to share expensive resources such as teams of oxen and mouldboard ploughs see header image), and cultivate extensive and unenclosed ‘open fields’ communally.
The project aims to understand when, where and how this ‘mouldboard plough package’ originated and spread, by generating the first direct evidence of medieval land use and cultivation regimes from excavated plant remains and animal bones, using a range of scientific methods.
Dr Richard Thomas, Reader and Chair of the Association for Environmental Archaeology from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History said: “We are delighted to be working with the University of Oxford on this exciting project. By using different kinds of archaeological evidence we will try and establish how a revolution in agriculture in Anglo-Saxon England led to a surge in population and fueled the growth of towns and markets.
“Here at the University of Leicester, we will be studying the stresses and strains on cattle bones from archaeological sites to establish when and where the heavy-plough was introduced. This was a major technological innovation which enabled more land to be brought into cultivation and increased the production of cereal grains.”
Helena Hamerow, Professor of Early Medieval Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the project’s Principal Investigator, said: “This project will help us understand how farmers in medieval England were able to grow more food to feed an expanding population sustainably at a time of climatic warming. The spread of the heavy, mouldboard plough – a technology that English farmers adopted from their European neighbours – was a key factor and analysing cattle bones will enable us to trace its spread.”
Three key innovations made the increase in yields during the period possible:
widespread adoption of the mouldboard plough, which enabled farmers to cultivate heavier, more fertile soils;
crop rotation, e.g. planting with winter wheat followed by spring barley;
extensification of cultivation, whereby fertility was maintained by short fallow periods during which sheep grazed on the stubble, rather than by intensive manuring
In order to improve efficiency and share resources, people had to live in close proximity, leading to the formation of the nucleated villages, set amid extensive arrays of strip fields that can still be seen in many parts of the countryside today.
In this way, innovations in farming transformed large parts of the England’s landscape and with it, its social geography.
As part of the project, a suite of over 400 radiocarbon dates on charred cereals, bones and pollen cores will make it possible to locate the origins and spread of open fields in time and space.
Patterns emerging from these bioarchaeological data will then be compared with the evidence from excavated farms to explore the inter-relationship between arable production, stock management and settlement forms.
Analysis of crop stable isotopes in preserved cereal grains will enable the team to assess the degree to which productivity was boosted by manuring.
Weed flora will also reveal the extent to which fields were manured and tilled, as well as providing evidence of sowing times and crop rotation.
The lower limb bones of cattle will be examined for pathologies caused by pulling a heavy plough. Pollen data will reveal the changing impact of cereal farming on the medieval landscape and will be used to produce the first national model of early medieval land use.
The project number for the research is: AdG741751.
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 polemicDe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 polemicDe 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.
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.
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.
Miller, Molly. “Bede’s use of Gildas.” English Historical Review (1975): 241–261. JSTOR
Sullivan, Thomas D. (1978). De excidio of Gildas: its authenticity and date. New York: Brill. ISBN90-04-05793-5.
Williams, Ann (1991). “Gildas author fl. mid-sixth century”. In Williams, Ann; Smyth, Alfred P.; Kirby, D. P. A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain. Seaby. ISBN1-85264-047-2.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
…Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,
ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,
wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,
eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton.
…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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 nine forts mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum for Britain are listed here, from north to south, with their garrisons.
Branodunum (Brancaster, Norfolk). One of the earliest forts, dated to the 230s. It was built to guard the Wash approaches and is of a typical rectangular castrum layout. It was garrisoned by the Equites Dalmatae Brandodunenses, although evidence exists suggesting that its original garrison was the cohors I Aquitanorum.
Gariannonum (Burgh Castle, Norfolk). Established between 260 and the mid-270s to guard the River Yare (Gariannus Fluvius), it was garrisoned by the Equites Stablesiani Gariannoneses. Although there is some discussion as to whether this is actually the fort at Caister-on-Sea, and being on the opposite bank of the same estuary as Burgh Castle.
Regulbium (Reculver, Kent). Together with Brancaster one of the earliest forts, built in the 210s to guard the Thames estuary, it is likewise a castrum. It was garrisoned by the cohors I Baetasiorum since the 3rd century.
There are a few other sites that clearly belonged to the system of the British branch of the Saxon Shore (the so-called “Wash–Solentlimes“), 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.
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.
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.
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.
Johnston, David E.; et als. (1977). “The Saxon Shore” (PDF). CBA Research Report (18). Retrieved 2007-08-20.
Maxfield, Valerie A.; Dobson, Michael J., eds. (1991). Roman Frontier Studies: Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies. Exeter: Exeter University Press. ISBN978-0-85989-710-5.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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)).
410 AD: Emperor Honorius refuses a call for help from Britain, tells the cities to look to their own defence.
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.)
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.)
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.] )
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.
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.)
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. ACB
658: (Here Cenwalhfought 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Berresford Ellis, Peter (1985). The Celtic Revolution: Study in Anti-imperialism . Wales: Y Lolfa. ISBN0-86243-096-8.
Campbell, J. (1982). J. Campbell, ed. The Anglo- Saxons. London: Penguin. ISBN0-14-014395-5.
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. ISBN0-415-23898-6.
The Franks (Latin: Franci or gens Francorum) were a collection of Germanic peoples that originated in the lands between the Lower and Middle Rhine in the 3rd century AD and eventually formed a large empire dominating much of western and central Europe during the Middle Ages.
During ancient times some Franks raided Roman territory, while other Frankish tribes joined the Roman troops of Gaul. The Salian Franks lived on Roman-held soil between the Rhine, Scheldt, Meuse, and Somme rivers in what is now Northern France, Belgium and the central and southern part of the Netherlands. The kingdom was acknowledged by the Romans after 357 AD.
They became a powerful ally of Rome, providing many imperial generals, and integrated remarkably well into Roman society, speaking Latin fluently, obtaining Roman citizenship, and being often promoted by the emperors to consular ranks (including senators) for their competence.
Following the collapse of Rome in the West, the Frankish tribes were united under the Merovingians, who succeeded in conquering most of Gaul in the 6th century, which greatly increased their power. The Merovingian dynasty, descendants of the Salians, founded one of the French monarchies that would absorb large parts of the Western Roman Empire. The Frankish state consolidated its hold over the majority of western Europe by the end of the 8th century, developing into the Carolingian Empire.
With the coronation of their ruler Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 AD, he and his successors were recognised as legitimate successors to the emperors of the Western Roman Empire. As such, the Carolingian Empire gradually came to be seen in the West as a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire. This empire would give rise to several successor states, including France, the Holy Roman Empire and Burgundy, though the Frankish identity remained most closely identified with France.
After the death of Charlemagne, his only adult surviving son became Emperor and King Louis the Pious. Following Louis the Pious’s death however, accordingly with Frankish culture and law that demanded equality among all living male adult heirs, the Frankish Empire was now split between Louis’ three sons.
This led to the creation of independent Kingdoms, which would later become known as the Kingdom of France, the Holy Roman Empire (itself evolving eventually into the German States, and then Germany), the Low Countries (which would later break-up into the Kingdom of Belgium, Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), Switzerland, and the northern Italian city-states that would later become part of the Kingdom of Italy.
In the Middle Ages, the term Frank was used in the east as a synonym for western European, as the Franks were then rulers of most of Western Europe.
The name Franci was originally socio-political. To the Romans, Celts, and Suebi, the Franks must have seemed alike: they looked the same and spoke the same language, so that Franci became the name by which the people were known. Within a few centuries it had eclipsed the names of the original tribes, though the older names have survived in some place-names, such as Hesse, which originates from the Chatti tribe.
Following the precedents of Edward Gibbon and Jacob Grimm, the name of the Franks has been linked with the word frank in English. It has been suggested that the meaning of “free” was adopted because, after the conquest of Gaul, only Franks were free of taxation. It is traditionally assumed that Frank comes from the Germanic word for “javelin” (such as in Old Englishfranca or Old Norsefrakka). There is also another theory that suggests that Frank comes from the Latin word francisca meaning “throwing axe”. Words in other Germanic languages meaning “fierce”, “bold” or “insolent” (German frech, Middle Dutchvrac, Old English frǣc and Old Norwegianfrakkr), may also be significant.
Eumenius addressed the Franks in the matter of the execution of Frankish prisoners in the circus at Trier by Constantine I in 306 and certain other measures:Ubi nunc est illa ferocia? Ubi semper infida mobilitas? (“Where now is that ferocity of yours? Where is that ever untrustworthy fickleness?”). Feroces was used often to describe the Franks.
Contemporary definitions of Frankish ethnicity vary both by period and point of view. A formulary written by Marculf about 700 AD described a continuation of national identities within a mixed population when it stated that “all the peoples who dwell [in the official’s province], Franks, Romans, Burgundians and those of other nations, live … according to their law and their custom.” Writing in 2009, Professor Christopher Wickham pointed out that “the word ‘Frankish’ quickly ceased to have an exclusive ethnic connotation. North of the River Loire everyone seems to have been considered a Frank by the mid-7th century at the latest; Romani were essentially the inhabitants of Aquitaine after that”.
Two early sources that describe the origin of the Franks are a 7th-century work known as the Chronicle of Fredegar and the anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written a century later.
The author of the Chronicle of Fredegar claimed that the Franks came originally from Troy and quoted the works of Vergil and Hieronymous, and the Franks are mentioned in those works, by Hieronymous. The chronicle describes Priam as a Frankish king whose people migrated to Macedonia after the fall of Troy. In Macedonia, the Franks then divided. The European Franks reached Francia under King Francio, just as Romulus went to Rome. Another branch, under King Turchot, became the Turks. Fredegar stated that Theudemer, named king of the Franks by Gregory, was descended from Priam, Friga and Francio.
Another work, the Gesta, described how 12,000 Trojans, led by Priam and Antenor, sailed from Troy to the River Don in Russia and on to Pannonia, which is on the River Danube, settling near the Sea of Azov. There they founded a city called Sicambria. The Trojans joined the Roman army in accomplishing the task of driving their enemies into the marshes of Mæotis, for which they received the name of Franks (meaning “savage”).
A decade later the Romans killed Priam and drove away Marcomer and Sunno, the sons of Priam and Antenor, and the other Franks.
In 292 Constantius, the father of Constantine I defeated the Franks who had settled at the mouth of the Rhine. These were moved to the nearby region of Toxandria. Eumenius mentions Constantius as having “killed, expelled, captured [and] kidnapped” the Franks who had settled there and others who had crossed the Rhine, using the term nationes Franciae for the first time.
The Salians, who eventually became the Merovingians, were first mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus, who described Julian‘s defeat of “the first Franks of all, those whom custom has called the Salians,” in 358. He promoted them to the status of fœderati within the Empire. The 5th century Notitia Dignitatum lists their soldiers as Salii. Jordanes, in Getica mentions the Riparii as auxiliaries of Flavius Aetius during the Battle of Châlons in 451: “Hi enim affuerunt auxiliares: Franci, Sarmatae, Armoriciani, Liticiani, Burgundiones, Saxones, Riparii, Olibriones …” The Riparii may not have been the Ripuarian Franks, as they do not appear for certain under that name until their final subjugation by Clovis I.
The Franks are mentioned in the Tabula Peutingeriana, an atlas of Roman roads. It is a 13th-century copy of a 4th or 5th century document that reflects information from the 3rd century. The Romans knew the shape of Europe, but their knowledge is not evident from the map, which was only a practical guide to the roads to be followed from point to point.
In the middle Rhine region of the map, the word Francia is close to a misspelling of Bructeri. Beyond Mainz is Suevia, the country of the Suebi, and beyond that is Alamannia, the country of the Alamanni. Four tribes at the mouth of the Rhine are depicted: the Chauci, the Amsivarii (‘Ems dwellers’), the Cherusci and the Chamavi, followed by qui et Pranci (‘who are also Franks’). The Tabula was probably based on the Orbis Pictus, a map of twenty years’ labour commissioned by Augustus and then kept by the Roman’s treasury department for the assessment of taxes. It did not survive as such. Information about the imperial divisions of Gaul probably derives from it.
Claudius Ptolemy‘s two maps of Germany portrayed Germania Inferior on the left bank of the Rhine, which was populated by Germanics, including those who had occupied the region before the Romans, and Magna Germania on the other side of the river, which acted as the Roman frontier. Tensions between the Empire and the Franks existed because of this artificial division: the Franks saw no reason why they should be kept from settling on either side of the river and eventually they convinced the Emperors to allow this to happen.
The topography of the mouth of the Rhine was even more troubling: the Rhine divided far inland into a fan of outlets, in which there was a significant settlement area, the island of Batavia. The Romans diverted the Rhine into the Yssel through a canal, which emptied into an inland lagoon. After the construction of the canal, Batavia was left under Roman jurisdiction, although it was settled by Germanics.
Ptolemy’s maps reflect generally the same tribal names as the Tabula Peutingeriana, except that the Tabula does not mention the Sicambri. This difference suggests that, in the few decades between the Ptolemaic map and the Tabula, the Sicambri were absorbed by the Franks.
The Romans held Lacus Flevo and all the marsh and riverland to the south. The Frankish confederation probably began to coalesce in the 210s, north of the Roman province called Germania Inferior which had been settled earlier by Celticised Germanic immigrants, known to Julius Caesar as the Belgae (among them, the notable Tungri). Along the Rhine itself were a number of cities constituting the interface between Roman and Germanic civilisation. Germanics who settled south of the Rhine without Roman authority were punished.
Franks interested in reoccupying the Roman-controlled left bank of the Rhine marauded these Romans to the south by land and sea using the tactics of forced marches and surprise attacks. During the 3rd century, the Franks attempted to appropriate Batavia to the south of Lacus Flevo. This time the Romans allowed them to stay, settling them in Toxandria (near modern Antwerp), where they became an independent maritime power known as the Salians, or “maritime people”.
Other Franks, from Mainz to Duisburg, raided across the Rhine and at some point acquired the name Ripuarians, or “river people”. Both groups remained politically distinct until Clovis, a Salian and a member of the Merovingian dynasty, unified Francia.
The Franks were described in Roman texts both as allies (laeti) and enemies (dediticii). About the year 260 one group of Franks penetrated as far as Tarragona in present-day Spain, where they plagued the region for about a decade before they were subdued and expelled by the Romans. In 287 or 288, the Roman Caesar Maximian forced the Salian leader Genobaud and his people to surrender without a fight. Maximian then forced the Salians in Toxandria (the present Low Countries) to accept imperial authority, but was not able to follow on this success by reconquering Britain.
Some decades later, the Salian Franks controlled the River Scheldt and were disrupting transport links to Britain in the English Channel. Although Roman forces managed to pacifiy them, they failed to expel the Franks, who continued to be feared as pirates at least until 358, when, according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, Julian the Apostate allowed the Franks to settle as foederati in Toxandria. By the end of the 5th century, the Salian Franks had largely moved to a territory (what is now the Netherlands south of the Rhine, Belgium, and northern France), where they formed a kingdom that eventually gave rise to the Merovingian dynasty.
Merovingian kingdom (481–751)
Numerous small Frankish kingdoms existed during the 5th century around Cologne, Tournai, Le Mans, Cambrai and elsewhere. The kingdom of Tournai eventually came to dominate its neighbours, probably because of its association with Aegidius, the magister militum of northern Gaul. A Frankish king, Childeric I, fought with Aegidius in 463: historians have assumed that Childeric and his son Clovis I were both commanders of the Roman military in the Province of Belgica Secunda and were subordinate to the magister militum.
Clovis later turned against the Roman commanders, defeated Syagrius in 486 or 487 and then had the Frankish king Chararic imprisoned and executed. A few years later, he killed Ragnachar, the Frankish king of Cambrai, and his brothers. By the 490s, he had conquered all the Frankish kingdoms to the west of the River Maas except for the Ripuarian Franks and was in a position to make the city of Paris his capital. He became the first king of all Franks in 509, after he had conquered Cologne. After conquering the Kingdom of Soissons and expelling the Visigoths from southern Gaul at the Battle of Vouillé, he established Frankish hegemony over most of Gaul, excluding Burgundy, Provence and Brittany, which were eventually absorbed by his successors.
Clovis I divided his realm between his four sons, who united to defeat Burgundy in 534. Internecine feuding occurred during the reigns of the brothers Sigebert I and Chilperic I, which was largely fuelled by the rivalry of their queens, Brunhilda and Fredegunda, and which continued during the reigns of their sons and their grandsons. Three distinct subkingdoms emerged: Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy, each of which developed independently and sought to exert influence over the others. The influence of the Arnulfing clan of Austrasia ensured that the centre of political gravity in the kingdom gradually shifted eastwards to the Rhineland.
The Frankish realm was reunited in 613 by Chlothar II, the son of Chilperic, who granted his nobles the Edict of Paris in an effort to reduce corruption and reassert his authority. Following the military successes of his son and successor Dagobert I, royal authority rapidly declined under a series of kings, traditionally known as les rois fainéants. After the Battle of Tertry in 687, each mayor of the palace, who had formerly been the king’s chief household official, effectively held power until in 751, with the approval of the Pope and the nobility, Pepin the Short deposed the last Merovingian king Childeric III and had himself crowned. This inaugurated a new dynasty, the Carolingians.
Carolingian empire (751–843)
The unification achieved by the Merovingians ensured the continuation of what has become known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian Empire was beset by internecine warfare, but the combination of Frankish rule and Roman Christianity ensured that it was fundamentally united. Frankish government and culture depended very much upon each ruler and his aims and so each region of the empire developed differently. Although a ruler’s aims depended upon the political alliances of his family, the leading families of Francia shared the same basic beliefs and ideas of government, which had both Roman and Germanic roots.
The sons of Louis the Pious fought a civil war after Louis’ death, which ended when the Frankish lands were divided between them. Charles the Bald was given West Francia, which would later become France, Louis the German received the eastern lands, which would later become Germany and Lothair I was given Middle Francia, which consisted of Lotharingia, Provence and Northern Italy. Middle Francia was not united, and by the next generation it had disintegrated into smaller lordships, which West Francia and East Francia fought for control over.
Participation in the Roman army
Germanic peoples, including those tribes in the Rhine delta that later became the Franks, are known to have served in the Roman army since the days of Julius Caesar. After the Roman administration collapsed in Gaul in the 260s, the armies under the Germanic Batavian Postumus revolted and proclaimed him emperor and then restored order. From then on, Germanic soldiers in the Roman army, most notably Franks, were promoted from the ranks.
A few decades later, the Menapian Carausius created a Batavian–British rump state on Roman soil that was supported by Frankish soldiers and raiders. Frankish soldiers such as Magnentius, Silvanus and Arbitio held command positions in the Roman army during the mid 4th century. From the narrative of Ammianus Marcellinus it is evident that both Frankish and Alamannic tribal armies were organised along Roman lines.
After the invasion of Chlodio, the Roman armies at the Rhine border became a Frankish “franchise” and Franks were known to levy Roman-like troops that were supported by a Roman-like armour and weapons industry. This lasted at least till the days of the scholar Procopius (c. AD 500 – c. AD 565), more than a century after the demise of the Western Roman Empire, who wrote describing the former Rhine army as still in operation with legions of the style of their forefathers during Roman times.
The Franks under the Merovingians melded Germanic custom with Romanised organisation and several important tactical innovations. Before their conquest of Gaul, the Franks fought primarily as a tribe, unless they were part of a Roman military unit fighting in conjunction with other imperial units.
At this time the Franks, hearing that both the Goths and Romans had suffered severely by the war … forgetting for the moment their oaths and treaties … (for this nation in matters of trust is the most treacherous in the world), they straightway gathered to the number of one hundred thousand under the leadership of Theudebert I and marched into Italy: they had a small body of cavalry about their leader, and these were the only ones armed with spears, while all the rest were foot soldiers having neither bows nor spears, but each man carried a sword and shield and one axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at a signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men.
His contemporary, Agathias, who based his own writings upon the tropes laid down by Procopius, says:
The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is very simple … They do not know the use of the coat of mail or greaves and the majority leave the head uncovered, only a few wear the helmet. They have their chests bare and backs naked to the loins, they cover their thighs with either leather or linen. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this. At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached. They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapons except the double edged axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long. They can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin, and also in hand to hand combat.
While the above quotations have been used as a statement of the military practices of the Frankish nation in the 6th century and have even been extrapolated to the entire period preceding Charles Martel‘s reforms (early mid-8th century), post-Second World War historiography has emphasised the inherited Roman characteristics of the Frankish military from the date of the beginning of the conquest of Gaul.
The Byzantine authors present several contradictions and difficulties. Procopius denies the Franks the use of the spear while Agathias makes it one of their primary weapons. They agree that the Franks were primarily infantrymen, threw axes and carried a sword and shield. Both writers also contradict the authority of Gallic authors of the same general time period (Sidonius Apollinaris and Gregory of Tours) and the archaeological evidence.
The Lex Ribuaria, the early 7th century legal code of the Rhineland or Ripuarian Franks, specifies the values of various goods when paying a wergild in kind; whereas a spear and shield were worth only two solidi, a sword and scabbard were valued at seven, a helmet at six, and a “metal tunic” at twelve. Scramasaxes and arrowheads are numerous in Frankish graves even though the Byzantine historians do not assign them to the Franks.
The evidence of Gregory and of the Lex Salica implies that the early Franks were a cavalry people. In fact, some modern historians have hypothesised that the Franks possessed so numerous a body of horses that they could use them to plough fields and thus were agriculturally technologically advanced over their neighbours. The Lex Ribuaria specifies that a mare’s value was the same as that of an ox or of a shield and spear, two solidi and a stallion seven or the same as a sword and scabbard, which suggests that horses were relatively common. Perhaps the Byzantine writers considered the Frankish horse to be insignificant relative to the Greek cavalry, which is probably accurate.
Composition and development
The Frankish military establishment incorporated many of the pre-existing Roman institutions in Gaul, especially during and after the conquests of Clovis I in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Frankish military strategy revolved around the holding and taking of fortified centres (castra) and in general these centres were held by garrisons of milities or laeti, who were former Roman mercenaries of Germanic origin. Throughout Gaul, the descendants of Roman soldiers continued to wear their uniforms and perform their ceremonial duties.
Immediately beneath the Frankish king in the military hierarchy were the leudes, his sworn followers, who were generally ‘old soldiers’ in service away from court. Some historians have gone to the length of relating their oath-making to the later development of feudalism. The king had an elite bodyguard called the truste. Members of the truste often served in centannae, garrison settlements that were established for military and police purposes. The day-to-day bodyguard of the king was made up of antrustiones (senior soldiers who were aristocrats in military service) and pueri (junior soldiers and not aristocrats). All high-ranking men had pueri.
The Frankish military was not composed solely of Franks and Gallo-Romans, but also contained Saxons, Alans, Taifals and Alemanni. After the conquest of Burgundy (534), the well-organised military institutions of that kingdom were integrated into the Frankish realm. Chief among these was the standing army under the command of the Patrician of Burgundy.
In the late 6th century, during the wars instigated by Fredegund and Brunhilda, the Merovingian monarchs introduced a new element into their militaries: the local levy. A levy consisted of all the able-bodied men of a district who were required to report for military service when called upon, similar to conscription. The local levy applied only to a city and its environs. Initially only in certain cities in western Gaul, in Neustria and Aquitaine, did the kings possess the right or power to call up the levy. The commanders of the local levies were always different from the commanders of the urban garrisons. Often the former were commanded by the counts of the districts. A much rarer occurrence was the general levy, which applied to the entire kingdom and included peasants (pauperes and inferiores). General levies could also be made within the still-pagan trans-Rhenish stem duchies on the orders of a monarch. The Saxons, Alemanni and Thuringii all had the institution of the levy and the Frankish monarchs could depend upon their levies until the mid-7th century, when the stem dukes began to sever their ties to the monarchy. Radulf of Thuringia called up the levy for a war against Sigebert III in 640.
Soon the local levy spread to Austrasia and the less Romanised regions of Gaul. On an intermediate level, the kings began calling up territorial levies from the regions of Austrasia (which did not have major cities of Roman origin). However, all the forms of the levy gradually disappeared in the course of the 7th century after the reign of Dagobert I. Under the so-called rois fainéants, the levies disappeared by mid-century in Austrasia and later in Burgundy and Neustria. Only in Aquitaine, which was fast becoming independent of the central Frankish monarchy, did complex military institutions persist into the 8th century. In the final half of the 7th century and first half of the 8th in Merovingian Gaul, the chief military actors became the lay and ecclesiastical magnates with their bands of armed followers called retainers. The other aspects of the Merovingian military, mostly Roman in origin or innovations of powerful kings, disappeared from the scene by the 8th century.
Strategy, tactics and equipment
Merovingian armies used coats of mail, helmets, shields, lances, swords, bows and arrows and war horses. The armament of private armies resembled those of the Gallo-Roman potentiatores of the late Empire. A strong element of Alanic cavalry settled in Armorica influenced the fighting style of the Bretons down into the 12th century. Local urban levies could be reasonably well-armed and even mounted, but the more general levies were composed of pauperes and inferiores, who were mostly farmers by trade and carried ineffective weapons, such as farming implements. The peoples east of the Rhine – Franks, Saxons and even Wends – who were sometimes called upon to serve, wore rudimentary armour and carried weapons such as spears and axes. Few of these men were mounted.
Merovingian society had a militarised nature. The Franks called annual meetings every Marchfeld (1 March), when the king and his nobles assembled in large open fields and determined their targets for the next campaigning season. The meetings were a show of strength on behalf of the monarch and a way for him to retain loyalty among his troops. In their civil wars, the Merovingian kings concentrated on the holding of fortified places and the use of siege engines. In wars waged against external foes, the objective was typically the acquisition of booty or the enforcement of tribute. Only in the lands beyond the Rhine did the Merovingians seek to extend political control over their neighbours.
Tactically, the Merovingians borrowed heavily from the Romans, especially regarding siege warfare. Their battle tactics were highly flexible and were designed to meet the specific circumstances of a battle. The tactic of subterfuge was employed endlessly. Cavalry formed a large segment of an army, but troops readily dismounted to fight on foot. The Merovingians were capable of raising naval forces: the naval campaign waged against the Danes by Theuderic I in 515 involved ocean-worthy ships and rivercraft were used on the Loire, Rhône and Rhine.
In a modern linguistic context, the language of the early Franks is variously called “Old Frankish” or “Old Franconian” and refers to the West Germanic dialects of the Franks prior to the advent of the Second Germanic consonant shift, which took place between 600 and 700 CE. After this consonant shift the Frankish dialect diverges, with the dialects which would become modern Dutch not undergoing the consonantal shift, while all others did so to varying degrees and thereby became part of the larger German dialectal domain.
The Frankish language has not been directly attested, apart from a minute amount of runic inscriptions found within contemporary Frankish territory such as the Bergakker inscription. The distinction between Old Dutch and Old Frankish is largely negligible, with Old Dutch (also called Old Low Franconian) being the term used to differentiate between the affected and non-affected variants following the aforementioned Second Germanic consonant shift.
A significant amount of Old Frankish vocabulary has been reconstructed by examining early Germanic loanwords found in Old French as well as through comparative reconstruction through Dutch. The influence of Old Frankish on contemporary Gallo-Roman vocabulary and phonology, have long been questions of scholarly debate. Frankish influence is thought to include the designations of the four cardinal directions: nord “north”, sud “south”, est “east” and ouest “west” and at least an additional 1000 stem words.
Art and architecture
Early Frankish art and architecture belongs to a phase known as Migration Period art, which has left very few remains. The later period is called Carolingian art, or, especially in architecture, pre-Romanesque. Very little Merovingian architecture has been preserved. The earliest churches seem to have been timber-built, with larger examples being of a basilica type. The most completely surviving example, a baptistery in Poitiers, is a building with three apses of a Gallo-Roman style. A number of small baptistries can be seen in Southern France: as these fell out of fashion, they were not updated and have subsequently survived as they were.
Jewelery (such as brooches), weapons (including swords with decorative hilts) and clothing (such as capes and sandals) have been found in a number of grave sites. The grave of Queen Aregund, discovered in 1959, and the Treasure of Gourdon, which was deposited soon after 524, are notable examples. The few Merovingian illuminated manuscripts that have survived, such as the Gelasian Sacramentary, contain a great deal of zoomorphic representations. Such Frankish objects show a greater use of the style and motifs of Late Antiquity and a lesser degree of skill and sophistication in design and manufacture than comparable works from the British Isles. So little has survived, however, that the best quality of work from this period may not be represented.
The objects produced by the main centres of the Carolingian Renaissance, which represent a transformation from that of the earlier period, have survived in far greater quantity. The arts were lavishly funded and encouraged by Charlemagne, using imported artists where necessary, and Carolingian developments were decisive for the future course of Western art. Carolingian illuminated manuscripts and ivory plaques, which have survived in reasonable numbers, approached those of Constantinople in quality. The main surviving monument of Carolingian architecture is the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, which is an impressive and confident adaptation of San Vitale, Ravenna — from where some of the pillars were brought. Many other important buildings existed, such as the monasteries of Centula or St Gall, or the old Cologne Cathedral, since rebuilt. These large structures and complexes made frequent use of towers.
A sizeable portion of the Frankish aristocracy quickly followed Clovis in converting to Christianity (the Frankish church of the Merovingians). The conversion of all under Frankish rule required a considerable amount of time and effort.
Echoes of Frankish paganism can be found in the primary sources, but their meaning is not always clear. Interpretations by modern scholars differ greatly, but it is likely that Frankish paganism shared most of the characteristics of other varieties of Germanic paganism. The mythology of the Franks was probably a form of Germanic polytheism. It was highly ritualistic. Many daily activities centred around the multiple deities, chiefest of which may have been the Quinotaur, a water-god from whom the Merovingians were reputed to have derived their ancestry. Most of their gods were linked with local cult centres and their sacred character and power were associated with specific regions, outside of which they were neither worshipped nor feared. Most of the gods were “worldly”, possessing form and having connections with specific objects, in contrast to the God of Christianity.
Frankish paganism has been observed in the burial site of Childeric I, where the king’s body was found covered in a cloth decorated with numerous bees. There is a likely connection with the bees to the traditional Frankish weapon, the angon (meaning “sting”), from its distinctive spearhead. It is possible that the fleur-de-lis is derived from the angon.
Some Franks, like the 4th century usurper Silvanus, converted early to Christianity. In 496, Clovis I, who had married a Burgundian Catholic named Clotilda in 493, was baptised by Saint Remi after a decisive victory over the Alemanni at the Battle of Tolbiac. According to Gregory of Tours, over three thousand of his soldiers were baptised with him. Clovis’ conversion had a profound effect on the course of European history, for at the time the Franks were the only major Christianised Germanic tribe without a predominantly Arian aristocracy and this led to a naturally amicable relationship between the Catholic Church and the increasingly powerful Franks.
Though many of the Frankish aristocracy quickly followed Clovis in converting to Christianity, the conversion of all his subjects was only achieved after considerable effort and, in some regions, a period of over two centuries. The Chronicle of St. Denis relates that, following Clovis’ conversion, a number of pagans who were unhappy with this turn of events rallied around Ragnachar, who had played an important role in Clovis’ initial rise to power. Though the text remains unclear as to the precise pretext, Clovis had Ragnachar executed. Remaining pockets of resistance were overcome region by region, primarily due to the work of an expanding network of monasteries.
The Merovingian Church was shaped by both internal and external forces. It had to come to terms with an established Gallo-Roman hierarchy that resisted changes to its culture, Christianise pagan sensibilities and suppress their expression, provide a new theological basis for Merovingian forms of kingship deeply rooted in pagan Germanic tradition and accommodate Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionary activities and papal requirements. The Carolingian reformation of monasticism and church-state relations was the culmination of the Frankish Church.
The increasingly wealthy Merovingian elite endowed many monasteries, including that of the Irish missionary Columbanus. The 5th, 6th and 7th centuries saw two major waves of hermitism in the Frankish world, which led to legislation requiring that all monks and hermits follow the Rule of St Benedict. The Church sometimes had an uneasy relationship with the Merovingian kings, whose claim to rule depended on a mystique of royal descent and who tended to revert to the polygamy of their pagan ancestors. Rome encouraged the Franks to slowly replace the Gallican Rite with the Roman rite. When the mayors took over, the Church was supportive and an Emperor crowned by the Pope was much more to their liking.
As with other Germanic peoples, the laws of the Franks were memorised by “rachimburgs”, who were analogous to the lawspeakers of Scandinavia. By the 6th century, when these laws first appeared in written form, two basic legal subdivisions existed: Salian Franks were subject to Salic law and Ripuarian Franks to Ripuarian law. Gallo-Romans south of the River Loire and clergy remained subject to traditional Roman law. Germanic law was overwhelmingly concerned with the protection of individuals and less concerned with protecting the interests of the state. According to Michel Rouche, “Frankish judges devoted as much care to a case involving the theft of a dog as Roman judges did to cases involving the fiscal responsibility of curiales, or municipal councilors”.
The term Frank has been used by many of the Eastern Orthodox and Muslim neighbours of medieval Latin Christendom (and beyond, such as in Asia) as a general synonym for a European from Western and Central Europe, areas that followed the Latin rites of Christianity under the authority of the Pope in Rome. Another term with similar use was Latins.
Modern historians often refer to Christians following the Latin rites in the eastern Mediterranean as Franks or Latins, regardless of their country of origin, whereas they use the words Rhomaios and Rûmi (“Roman”) for Orthodox Christians. On a number of Greek islands, Catholics are still referred to as Φράγκοι (Frangoi) or “Franks”, for instance on Syros, where they are called Φραγκοσυριανός (Frangosyrianos). The period of Crusader rule in Greek lands is known to this day as the Frangokratia (“rule of the Franks”). Latin Christians living in the Middle East (particularly in the Levant) are known as Franco-Levantines.
During the Mongol Empire in the 13-14th centuries, the Mongols used the term “Franks” to designate Europeans. The term Frangistan (“Land of the Franks”) was used by Muslims to refer to Christian Europe and was commonly used over several centuries in Iran and the Ottoman Empire.
The Chinese called the Portuguese Folangji 佛郎機 (“Franks”) in the 1520s at the Battle of Tunmen and Battle of Xicaowan. Some other varieties of Mandarin Chinese pronounced the characters as Fah-lan-ki.
During the reign of Chingtih (Zhengde) (1506), foreigners from the west called Fah-lan-ki (or Franks), who said they had tribute, abruptly entered the Bogue, and by their tremendously loud guns shook the place far and near. This was reported at court, and an order returned to drive them away immediately, and stop the trade.
— Samuel Wells Williams, The Middle Kingdom: A Survey of the Geography, Government, Education, Social Life, Arts, Religion, &c. of the Chinese Empire and Its Inhabitants, 2 vol. (Wiley & Putnam, 1848).
The Mediterranean Lingua Franca (or “Frankish language”) was a pidgin first spoken by 11th century European Christians and Muslims in Mediterranean ports that remained in use until the 19th century.
Examples of derived words include:
Frangos (Φράγκος) in Greek
Frëng in Albanian
Frenk in Turkish
al-Faranj, Afranj and Firinjīyah in Arabic
Farang, Farangī in Persian, Faranji in Tajik.
Ferengi or Faranji in some Turkic languages
Feringhi or Firang in Hindi and Urdu (derived from Persian)
Phirangee in some other Indian languages
Parangiar in Tamil
Parangi in Malayalam; in Sinhala, the word refers specifically to Portuguese people
Barang in Khmer
Feringgi in Malay
Folangji or Fah-lan-ki (佛郎機) and Fulang in Chinese
Farang (ฝรั่ง) in Thai.
Pirang (“blonde”), Perangai (“temperament/al”) in Bahasa Indonesia
In the Thai usage, the word can refer to any European person. When the presence of US soldiers during the Vietnam War placed Thai people in contact with African Americans, they (and people of African ancestry in general) came to be called Farang dam (“Black Farang”, ฝรั่งดำ). Such words sometimes also connote things, plants or creatures introduced by Europeans/Franks. For example, in Khmer, môn barang, literally “French Chicken”, refers to a turkey and in Thai, Farang is the name both for Europeans and for the guava fruit, introduced by Portuguese traders over 400 years ago. In contemporary Israel, the Yiddish word פרענק (Frenk) has, by a curious etymological development, come to refer to Mizrahi Jews and carries a strong pejorative connotation.
Some linguists (among them Drs. Jan Tent and Paul Geraghty) have suggested that the Samoan and generic Polynesian term for Europeans, Palagi (pronounced Puh-LANG-ee) or Papalagi, might also be cognate, possibly a loan term gathered by early contact between Pacific islanders and Malays.
Woodruff, Jane Ellen; Fredegar (1987). The Historia Epitomata (third book) of the Chronicle of Fredegar: an annotated translation and historical analysis of interpolated material. Thesis (Ph.D.). University of Nebraska.