Tag: Welsh

Saint Gildas

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Epistle of Gildas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Llancarfan Life: Gildas and King Arthur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey.

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

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

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae

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

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

Ambrosius Aurelianus, as he may have appeared.

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

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

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

Veneration

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

The gold and silver covered relics of Saint Gildas include:

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

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

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

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

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

References

 

 

 

 

Why the Anglo Saxon settlement of England was so successful

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

Anglo-Saxon political formation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angle, Saxon and Jute distribution in southern England.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural freedoms and kinship groups

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

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

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

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

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

“Saxon” political ascendancy in Britain

Saxon Emigration to the British Isles 5 c.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depiction of an Anglo Saxon shield wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bronze Anglo-Saxon Quoit Brooch.

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

Rural freedoms and kinship groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Material culture

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

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

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

Anglo Saxon Grubenhaus at Bede’s World Jarrow.

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

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

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

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

Julian Richards commenting on this and other evidence suggests:

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

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

Anglo Saxon settlement.

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

Culture of belief

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

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

Anglo Saxon Pagan feast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language and literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old English

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

Modern English

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

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

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

Nick Higham has provided this summary of the processes:

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

References

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

The Battle of Buttington

The Battle of Buttington was fought, in 893, between a Viking army and an alliance of Anglo-Saxons and Welsh.

The annals, for 893, reported that a large Viking army had landed in the Lympne Estuary, Kent and a smaller force had landed in the Thames estuary under the command of Danish king Hastein. These were reinforced by ships from the settled Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria, some of this contingent sailed round the coast to besiege a fortified place (known as a burh) and Exeter, both in Devon. The English king Alfred the Great, on hearing of Exeter’s demise led all his mounted men to relieve the city. He left his Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and ealdormen Æthelhelm, Æthelnoth, and others in charge of defending various towns and cities from the rest of the Viking army.

The king’s thegns managed to assemble a great army consisting of both Saxons and Welsh. The combined army laid siege to the Vikings who had built a fortification at Buttington. After several weeks the starving Vikings broke out of their fortification only to be beaten by the combined English and Welsh army with many of the Vikings being put to flight.

The Kingdom of Wessex.

Viking raids began in England in the late 8th century. The raiding continued on and off until the 860s, when instead of raiding the Viking changed their tactics and sent a great army to invade England. This army was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a “Great Heathen Army“. Alfred defeated the Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Edington in 878. A treaty followed whereby Alfred ceded an enlarged East Anglia to the Danes.

After Edington, Alfred reorganised the defences of Wessex, he built a navy and a standing army. He also built a series of fortified towns, known as burhs that ringed Wessex. To maintain the burhs, and the standing army, he set up a taxation system known as the Burghal Hidage. Viking raids still continued but his defences made it difficult for the Vikings to make progress. As the political system in Francia (part of modern day France) was in turmoil the Vikings concentrated their efforts there as the raiding was more profitable.

By late 892 the leadership in Francia had become more stable and the Vikings were finding it difficult to make progress there too, so they again attempted a conquest of England. In 893 two hundred and fifty ships landed an army in the Lympne Estuary in Kent where they built a fortification at Appledore. A smaller force of eighty ships under Hastein, landed in the Thames estuary before entrenching themselves at Milton, also in Kent.

The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred took up a position from which he could observe both of the Viking armies. The Vikings were further reinforced with 240 ships, that were provided by the Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria who had settled there after the wars of the 860s and 870s. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that they did it “contrary to [their] pledges.”

At some point Alfred’s army captured Hastein’s family. The annals report that Alfred was in talks with Hastein, but do not say why. Horspool speculates that it may well be to do with Hastein’s family, however while the talks were going on, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck northwestwards. They were overtaken by Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. They took refuge on an island at Thorney, on Hertfordshire’s River Colne, where they were blockaded and were ultimately forced to submit. The force fell back on Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined Hastein’s army at Shoebury.

Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed burh on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and when he arrived at Exeter, the Danes took to their ships. The siege of Exeter was lifted but the fate of the unnamed North Devon burh is not recorded.

Meanwhile, the force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. But they were met by the Western army that consisted of West Saxons, Mercians and some Welsh, it was led by three eldermen namely Æthelred the Lord of the Mercians, Æthelhelm the Ealdorman of Wiltshire and Æthelnoth the Ealdorman of Somerset.

The chronicle says that they “were drawn from every burh east of the Parret; both west and east of Selwood, also north of the Thames and west of the Severn as well as some part of the Welsh people”. Æthelred although a Mercian was married to Alfred’s daughter and thus as his son in law was able to cross the borders of Wessex in pursuit of Vikings. The combined Anglo-Saxon and Welsh army forced the Vikings to the northwest, where they were finally overtaken and besieged at Buttington.

Siege and battle

Battle of Buttington – A map of places named in the Burghal Hidage.

The western English army came up the River Severn, and besieged all sides of the fortification (at Buttington) where the Vikings had taken refuge. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that “after many weeks had passed, some of the heathen [Vikings] died of hunger, but some, having by then eaten their horses, broke out of the fortress, and joined battle with those who were on the east bank of the river. But, when many thousands of pagans had been slain, and all the others had been put to flight, the Christians [English] were masters of the place of death. In that battle the most noble Ordheah and many of the king’s thegns were killed.”

Depiction of a typical Viking fortified town.

The annals say that the Vikings came up the Severn from the Thames making the most likely candidate for the location of the battle as present-day Buttington, Welshpool in the county of Powys, Wales. Another place that has been suggested is Buttington Tump at the mouth of the River Wye, where it flows into the Severn but this is seen as less likely.

The Vikings who had taken to their ships after Alfred’s arrival, at Exeter, sailed along the south coast and attempted to raid Chichester, a burh according to the Burghal Hidage, manned by 1500 men. The chronicle says that the citizens “put many [Vikings] to flight and killed hundreds of them and captured some of their ships”.

According to the Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard writing nearly a hundred years later, “Hastein made a rush with a large force from Benfleet, and ravaged savagely through all the lands of the Mercians, until he and his men reached the borders of the Welsh; the army stationed then in the east of the country gave them support, and the Northumbrian one similarly. The famous Ealdorman Æthelhelm made open preparation with a cavalry force, and gave pursuit together with the western English army under the generalship of Æthelnoth. And King Æthelred of the Mercians was afterwards present with them, being at hand with a large army.”

References