Who were the early Anglo- Saxons?

early Celtic/Anglo-Saxon cross in a Midlands country churchyard, England

The Roman occupation of Britain during the early fifth century AD began to disperse when Honorius requested the return to Rome of the legions and administrators. The remaining Romans who had intermarried with Britons and Celts, along with the ‘native’ ethnic groups with existing settlements across the countryside of England, strengthened their fortifications against marauders from north of the border. It seems that they had already established organised groups or small ‘kingdoms’ (I won’t call them ‘tribes’ which seems to me to connote primitivism) which were then strengthened and extended, possibly with settlements joining into larger groupings.

These ‘pre-Anglo Saxon’ kingdoms developed gradually as Angle, Saxon and Jutish migrants from northern parts of Europe headed increasingly for Britain, perhaps for land, crops, climate. From around 450 AD, the Anglo-Saxon-Jute communities began to grow, bringing with them their heritage and culture.  

We have long perceived this time as mysterious, dangerous, even barbaric, as ‘invaders’ fought brutally to gain land from the indigenous peoples. The idea, long held, was that as the glory of Rome had gone from our island with the withdrawal of the legions, the British had no defence against the invaders, and that eventually the indigenous ‘tribes’ were overcome and suppressed by the brutal Anglo Saxons. One version has it that the threats to Celtic-British communities or small ‘kingdoms’ led Vortigern, High King of the southern Britons, to call upon Angles, Saxons and Jutes from overseas to help quash the Picts and Scots who threatened his land.

The threat from the north appears to be real but the actions of Vortigern, and indeed his very existence, is disputed. Brutish Anglo Saxon invaders, or migrants who, by and large, integrated relatively peacefully into Celtic-British society? What’s your view?

By the way, the photograph at the top of this post is the original inspiration for the third in the Dr DuLac series, The Rune Stone. It’s called locally, the Saxon cross, but it bears evidence of earlier Celtic influences and suggestions of a very early Celtic/Anglo-Saxon settlement can be detected in the village.

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Is it time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’?

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The ‘Dark Ages’: barbaric, primitive, brutal, murderous? People illiterate, uncivilised. Tribes of Angles and Saxons marauding, hacking their way across Britain and cruelly wiping out the native Britons and Celts, slaying all in their path? Dark dangerous days after the Romans left; everything crumbled, decayed, ruined.

In the first of my Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, one thread in Viv’s narrative is the notion that the ‘dark ages’ tend to be misconstrued as primitive, that the ‘dark ages’ are only dark because we know little about them from the relative paucity of surviving evidence and artefacts. As a specialist in early medieval language, literature and history, I am excited by the idea that this historical period wasn’t primitive and barbaric, but in fact refined with a rich culture from its Roman, Briton and Celtic heritage – and indeed from rich foreign trade. Gold, jewelry, embroideries, tapestry wall hangings, crafted utensils, glass: the feasting halls of the chieftains would have glowed with wealth.

Let’s look at the more recent discoveries about the world of late fifth century Britain, for example the site near Lyminge in Kent, where an early feasting hall has been unearthed and evidence revealed of a good and settled domestic life. The Romans left us with not only an engineering and building heritage but also a cultural one. I am also intrigued by the exploration of the bronze age settlement at Must Farm in the fens, dating from long before the setting of my story, yet revealing a sophistication of crafts, utensils, clothing, domesticity and foreign trade all of which I am convinced would have become a surviving part of the British psyche. Both Lyminge and Must Farm discoveries are mentioned in my story.

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So, archaeological evidence is at last beginning to emerge and we have new and exciting tools to discover more. Domestic archaeology is also beginning to indicate that sites were occupied and developed long after Romans began to leave, and that there was continuity of occupation/population (eg Lyminge, Mucking, Barton Court, Orton Hall, Rinehall, West Heslerton, to name a few). Artefacts and building use suggest that there was a much more gradual change post-Roman occupation and during the migration of new waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, rather than a period of decline and sudden brutal invasions. Hence there was a slower cultural shift towards a settled British society. Of course, this is not to say that there weren’t any bitter inter-tribal battles going on for land acquisition, and between local chieftains for power supremacy, nor that there wasn’t deep suspicion of the Angles and Saxons by the native Britons and Celts.

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But the ‘modernist’ view is that there was much more mingling of Romano-British society than previously thought, through inter-marriage with Romans who remained after the Roman troop withdrawals, and a similar intermingling between Britons and the immigrant Angles and Saxons.

This view of gradual change and evolution from immigration and settlement, rather than sudden brutal change from invasion and suppression by Anglo-Saxon marauders, is one advocated by (among others) Professor Susan Oosthuizen (The Emergence of the English 2019). She offers some fascinating insights into evidence from documentary, archaeological, and landscape studies and her emerging view is that the ‘dark ages’ were not so dark, barbaric and brutal as we had previously imagined.

West Stowe Anglo Saxon village

So perhaps it’s time to ditch the ‘Dark Ages’ title. So what can we call this post-Roman pre-Anglo-Saxon period instead? Some academics use ‘early medieval’. Oosthuizen uses the term ‘late antique’ for the period 400-600AD (with ‘early medieval’ for 600-850AD). What do you think?

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Were the Anglo-Saxons here in my village?

On a cold, darkening winter’s afternoon, in a little country churchyard less than 100 years ago, the churchwarden and the gravedigger sadly collected their tools and prepared to bury their rector. However their spades struck something hard and unyielding.

What they found was a medieval stone cross shaft with the distinct carving of a warrior bearing a shield in his left hand and a long sword or seax in his right hand across his abdomen.

 

They eventually managed to raise it and it still stands today in the churchyard close to where it was found, on a modern plinth.

The current elderly churchwarden remembers his father telling him when he was a young child about his discovery. Someone had told him it was a 9th or 10th century Viking carving, but when I look carefully at it and compare with the Repton stone, below (courtesy of the Derby Museum) which depicts King Aethelbald, 8th century Christian king of Mercia, who is buried in the crypt at Repton church, it seems to me to replicate this very closely. Of course, Repton was the great centre of the reintroduction of Christianity into the midlands in the mid 7th century through the baptism of the Mercian royal family of Peada, an ancestor of Aethelbald. So Aethelbald would have had a strong connection to the Christian communities of this region of Mercia. It begins to figure …

Could this be an Anglo-Saxon cross shaft with Aethelbald’s image right here in our little village churchyard?

The top of the cross has never been found. I wonder whether it would be the typical celtic-style early Christian early Anglo-Saxon cross and circle?

We can’t dig the churchyard for the remains of the cross top because of the many graves there. But what an intriguing mystery! Is this Aethelbald?