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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The writing process: a ‘dark ages’ time-slip novel

Where did you get the inspiration for the book/series?

To be honest, my ideas come into my mind pretty much unbidden. I’m constantly curious about people, relationships, history, things around me, and I read and research a great deal, but of course it takes a lot of imagination to develop the ideas into a viable story. In the first of the Dr DuLac series, A Shape on the Air, I wanted Dr Viv to have a troubled relationship, to have a traumatic experience that would lead to a time-slip and a deep connection to another woman in the distant past. The idea for A Shape on the Air came from my interest in early medieval history which was my first research field, the post-Roman, early Anglo Saxon era, commonly called the Dark Ages. I’d been reading recent research, mainly archaeological stuff, that supported my view that it wasn’t so ‘dark’ in the sense of barbaric fighting, invasions, and brutality, but that it was actually marked by richness and diversity. I am also very interested in the concept of time and I’d wanted to write a time-slip for ages – but then you have to think, how could it actually happen to normal people in their everyday lives?

Do you write using pen and paper or on a computer?

I write on my computer so that I can easily edit as I go, but my research notes and planning notes and graphs are usually the old pen and paper, and post-its everywhere. I have a pinboard beside my desk and I fill it for the novel I’m currently writing, with pictures from the history I’m writing about and inspiration for characters. For example my inspiration for Dr Viv is a pic of Rachel Weiss (looking elegant and thoughtful) and Rev Rory is James Norton in the role of Rev Sidney Chambers (gorgeous!). And there are lots of pics of early medieval banqueting halls (mead halls), Anglo Saxon warriors and ladies, a dark ancient mere, and the prototype of Viv’s apartment which is actually somewhere I once lived just outside  Oxford.

Who is your favourite character out of your stories and why?

My favourite character is always the one I’m writing at the moment! In A Shape on the Air, I loved Dr Viv/Lady Vivianne (traumatised by Pete’s betrayal/Sir Pelleas’s brutality) and Rev Rory/Sir Roland (a hunk but also sensitive and caring), but I was especially fond of Tilly/Tilda who is very sweet and such fun I really enjoyed writing her.

If you were a character in your story, which would you like to be?

I think it would have to be Lady Vivianne because I guess 499 AD would have been an exciting time to live in, caught between the Roman world and before the Anglo Saxon era was properly established. It was a time of change and uncertainty but also an opportunity for making your mark. Women were respected as part of the leadership of communities and Lady Vivianne holds her own in difficult circumstances. And I think she’s a good person with the interests of her community at heart. Although she was brought up as the daughter of the king/chieftain, she is not arrogant or entitled; she wants a more equal world.

How and why did you choose the names for your main characters?

I started with Lady Vivianne. The names Vivianne, Nimue, Nivian etc are the names associated with the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend (which is important in the story) and I had to choose a name that could translate to a modern equivalent, hence Dr Viv. Likewise Sir Roland which was a common name in English and French medieval legend, and then Rory came from that. It was the same for all the other characters in the two time periods. I deliberately didn’t choose totally authentic pre-Anglo Saxon/Britonic names because that wouldn’t have worked with the dual times and additionally, they would have been more difficult to read! It was a conscious decision to approximate a modernisation of historic names. After all, I’m writing characters who are from different ‘tribes’: Briton, Celtic, Roman, Angles, Saxons!

What are your future plans as an author?

I’ve written the sequel to A Shape on the Air and it’s set in Madeira. It’s provisionally called The Dragon Tree. Again Viv has a traumatic experience, so you can guess what that leads to! It is a time-slip/dual time story and goes back to the 14th and 16th centuries on the island which were fascinating times. I’ve also written the third in the Dr DuLac series, The Rune Stone, which returns to my favourite early medieval mystery. It involved a lot of research into ancient runes which was fascinating. Moving house in between lockdowns created a hiatus for me (so much to do and hard to concentrate) but I’m now starting a new novel, Daughter of Mercia which has cross-overs to the Dr DuLac series. For the moment, I want to stick with early medieval/Anglo-Saxon time-slip mysteries, as this has become my identified author brand. But who knows …?

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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?