Living with the Anglo-Saxons

What would an Anglo-Saxon ceorl’s house look like?

The image above gives you some idea, but the early Anglo-Saxons would not have a hearth and chimney like this! Nor would their walls be of stone – they would be wooden, which is why so little from that time has survived.

A ceorl’s house was basic with few adornments, unlike the homes of the wealthy higher classes, and would have looked to us more like large huts or barns. Indeed the animals would share the room with the family. Ceorls were ‘freed-men’ and often were in charge of a portion of fields or livestock. The family’s own animals, bred for food or milk, were housed at one end of the house for winter shelter: a goat, a cow, a sheep.

The house would measure around 10 metres by 5 metres with wooden floors which could be covered with fragrant herbs. The walls were of upright planks of wood slotted together or of wattle and daub. There were window openings, but no glass, and a central hearth for cooking. There was no chimney and often no hole for the smoke to escape, so the living quarters would have been very smoky and unpleasant especially in winter when the animals joined the family indoors. The roof would be thatched and blackened by the smoke. Bedding would be perhaps a large bag stuffed with straw or wool if the family had sheep to shear.

The family’s table would be a trestle arrangement that could be easily taken down and stored between meals. Food would need to be hung high in the roof, away from predators. They would eat whatever they could acquire from their animals, mainly chicken, pork, beef and lamb, their small plot of land for vegetables, and the hedgerows for berries. Their diet would be fresh as there were few ways of storing: salt was precious for preserving meat, for instance, and ice-houses only for the wealthy. They would drink ale rather than water which was often contaminated. Wine was rare in a ceorl’s house but frequently drunk in the chieftain’s hall. Bread made from spelt, rye or oats, could be baked in communal basic ovens. There was little sugar in their diet and skeletal remains show good dental health. For a sweetener they used honey from their own or communal hives, and this is one of the main ingredients of the favoured alcoholic drink of mead.

Water for washing and cooking could be collected in pots from the stream or village well, if they were lucky enough to have one accessible. The ceorl’s home would have a small plot of land outside the building for vegetables for the family’s use, and nearby a ‘midden’ or primitive toilet area, the contents of which would be used for manure on the vegetable plot.  

For more, you may like to read my novel A Shape on the Air, an Anglo-Saxon mystery time-slip, set in the present day and 499 AD grounded in detail on domestic life of the time, available at

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

Living with the Anglo-Saxons

What did the early Anglo Saxons wear?

Certainly not animal skins wrapped around their torsos, the popular image of ancient Britons, nor togas left over from the Roman occupation of Britain! From the 5th to the 7th century clothing was perhaps surprisingly well refined and often richly dyed and decorated, especially for the higher classes of society. Of course, it depended on your social class, and the lower classes wore simpler garb of rougher cloth (working class serfs, peasants and even geburs who kept small parcels of land, and ceorls who were freedmen). But even so, the garb was not unlike our clothes today. For the higher ceorls and the thegns and their ladies, clothes were highly decorated and accessorised by brooches of gold and jewels.

Upper class ladies often wore several layers, as heating even in the richest houses was rudimentary: a chemise or shift in linen or wool, then on top of this,  a long sleeved full-length under-dress, or kirtle, again of linen or wool or maybe a soft cotton fabric from lime tree fibres. On top was an over-gown dyed with more expensive dyes such as deep reds, purples and blues and lavishly trimmed with braid or fur. It would be fixed around the waist with a leather belt from which hung a pouch for keys and other valuables, a cross between a modern-day pocket and a purse or bag. On top would be an embroidered mantle or cloak fixed with a gold brooch at the shoulder, often jewelled or metalworked. Later in the period, kirtles would be fashioned with gores lined with silk or brocade to match the over-gown or trim.

Ladies’ hair would be twisted and bound or braided. Unmarried girls wore their hair more loosely. Headwear for ladies was a head rail often decorated with silver-work or jewels which fixed the veil beneath. Later, ladies tended to wear a type of wimple and veil reminiscent of nuns or a coif or crespine.

What of the men? As you might expect, theirs were simpler than the ladies. Men of lower class would wear simple tunics, often rough-spun with hose beneath, with higher class thegns and above sporting woollen or linen undergarments and woollen hose beneath their tunics topped with heavy fur-lined cloaks, fixed with gold brooches. Heavy leather belts held daggers and knives not just for fighting but for cutting food in the mead hall feasts.

For more about Anglo-Saxon life, why not read my novel, A Shape on th Air, a time-slip from the present day to 499 AD

http://myBook.to/ASOTA

A corner of Derbyshire – Chatsworth: nooks and crannies

If asked to name a stately home in Derbyshire, and although there are many houses worth a visit (Haddon Hall, Hardwick Hall, Kedleston Hall and more), I would guess that most of us would know Chatsworth, near Bakewell (famous for pudding – not ‘tart’, thank you!) the home of the Duke of Devonshire and home to the Cavendish family since 1549, passed down through 16 generations.

Until recently we lived in Derbyshire and enjoyed nearby areas that many folks would choose to visit for holidays or days out. Chatsworth was always somewhere to take walks through the beautiful grounds or nose around the grand rooms. But I was also interested in its fascinating history.

Chatsworth sits on an estate the size of Washington DC and has played host to many famous people from Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens to John F Kennedy.

It’s also been host to many scandals. The decadent and glamorous 18th century Duchess Lady Georgiana  Spencer, wife of the 5th Duke and ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, who, like her descendent, talked of the third party in her marriage, one Lady Elizabeth Foster who moved in with them as a menage de trois. Georgiana herself was locked in scandal, her tumultuous financial affairs bringing her notoriety.

There was also the matter of a scandalous affair between JFK’s favourite sister, Kathleen, and the Devonshire heir William (Billy) Cavendish, who was subsequently killed in action in WWI.

In the summer of 2018, a ‘secret’ in the garden was revealed. The long extraordinarily hot summer scorched the lawns and revealed the outlines of the geometrically designed flower beds and paths from 1699 – before Capability Brown’s design at the house? Its existence was known, although never seen for generations, as it’s illustrated in a painting in the Chatsworth Collection in the House.

2018 also brought another dramatic event. The lavish house had been carefully renovated over 10 years and was finally revealed in all its glory. Each window on the west and south terraces was revamped in 1500 sheets of gold leaf at a cost of about £33 million and 4000ft of fabric was used to repair the curtains.

One of the secrets I would have liked to seen revealed would be the designs of the fashion icon Georgiana, but apparently the clothes were made from such fine and expensive fabric that they were either reused or handed down to her Lady’s maid. Lucky maid!

PS. A number of my novels are set in Derbyshire: A Shape on the Air, for example, Dr Viv works at the university and Rev Rory is vicar of a small parish in the county, and the two sequels coming soon (The Dragon Tree and The Rune Stone) continue the setting. Available at http://myBook.to/ASOTA