Unifying the Kingdoms of Britain: The Kings of Wessex & The Birth of England, 871-1031.

Chaos in Christendom:

From the late ninth century until the mid-eleventh century in Europe, internal and external problems steadily weakened western Christendom. The Carolingian Empire had fragmented; no major military power existed in the West. The continued attacks of Muslims from the south, a new wave of attackers from central Asia, the Magyars (Hungarians) and the almost overwhelming movements of the Norsemen from Scandinavia, brought yet more fragmentation and chaos.

A contemporary chronicler lamented: Once we had a king, now we have kinglets! The end of the world seemed at hand. It was seriously expected by many as the end of the first millennium approached. For the Papacy, this was an era of despair; it no longer had Carolingian ‘protectors’ to come to its assistance. Popes became the captive partisans of one political faction or another, and the result was spiritual and moral decline. There was an almost total collapse of civil order and culture in Europe during the tenth century. Everywhere church property was either devastated and ransacked by foreign invaders, or fell into the hands of the catholic nobility. Noblemen treated bishoprics and monasteries as their private property to dispose of as they wished. The clergy steadily became indifferent to duty, and their ignorance and immorality increased.

‘Mind the Gap!’ – A Discontinuity of Evidence:

In archaeological terms, it is not easy to date many things In Britain precisely to the ninth century, which was clearly a time of discontinuity when much was lost and destroyed. A crisis can be inferred precisely because it is so difficult to bridge the gap between the ‘England’ predating the Viking raids, which had been a prosperous ‘country’ of towns, literature and liturgy, churches and palaces, kings and bishops, and the England of the ‘burghs’, the network of small fortified towns which existed after the early Danish occupations, built by Alfred and his descendants across the south of England and then extended northwards. In some cases, old Roman walls were used, as at Winchester, while other towns like Wallingford were laid out for the first time in rectangular patterns. The banks and ditches of a few can still be seen, as at Wareham in Dorset, where the whole circuit can still be walked. It was not only in England that townspeople retreated behind their walls: Hedeby got its ramparts at this time, and other towns, like Dorestad which was not fortified, seem to have disappeared. Southampton came to an end on its eighth-century site, and it was probably at this time that York and London, as walled cities, became once more the leading settlements of the land. Tenth-century towns became fortresses, where eighth-century towns had been largely undefended market places.

Following their peace terms with Alfred, the Vikings left Wessex and wintered in London where they also came to terms with the Mercians. The reinforcement army that had landed late in 871 was relatively fresh and its leaders, Guthrum, Oscytel and Anund, were determined to destroy Wessex. The year 872 seems to have been an uneventful one compared with the previous year of battles, but there can be no doubt that it must have been full of minor clashes and skirmishes. By this time both armies had acquired a healthy respect for each other. The Danes knew that, until the Saxons were finally conquered and crushed, their own gains could not be regarded as secure. The Saxons, or at least Alfred, realised that the Danes might come up the Thames via Reading, might drive up from Portsmouth and Southampton by Winchester, or might even swoop down from Northumbria through Mercia. Faced with this triple-pronged threat, he had to evolve a strategy that would defeat these ‘relentless heathen savages’. The Danes moved back up to Northumbria to suppress a rebellion against their puppet ruler Egbert before returning to the East Midlands to establish their winter quarters at Torksey.

Danish & Norwegian Raids & Conquests in the Ninth Century.

In 873 the Danes, basing themselves in Northumbria and establishing themselves in Lindsay, advanced into the centre of Mercia, defeating King Burgred in the following year. Since the arrival of their ‘Great Army’ in 865, the Danes had campaigned as a single unit and this concentration of force had been a vital factor in their success. The survivors of the original army were now in their ninth year of warfare and they decided to settle and support themselves in Northumbria. In doing so they established the northern Danelaw, centred on the Viking kingdom of York. In 874 they moved across to Repton in Derbyshire, conquered the Mercian kingdom, and installed a puppet king there. In the early 1980s, archaeologists investigated the standing structure of an interesting Saxon church. Outside its west end, they found a pit which they thought might be the end of a large ditch, curving round, with another ditch running through the graveyard. These ditches have been interpreted as a fort, a great bank and ditch semi-circle with the church as its central focus, perhaps used as a fortified gatehouse, a D-shaped area just above the old course of the River Trent. This fort might have been dug by the Vikings who wintered there in 879, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, taking over what had been the royal burial place of the Mercian kings, including Wystan, to whom the church is dedicated and who may have been buried in the crypt which still survives. The axe found in the churchyard seems not to have been dropped by an attacking Viking, trying to batter the door down, but rather to have been buried with someone according to Viking practice, but who was interred in the Christian churchyard.

In 1985, they found a boat-shaped pit that appeared to be a Viking dry dock or boat shed. Ship repair would have been a useful way for the Vikings to spend their time while holed up for the winter, and in those days the Trent would probably have been deeper and more navigable than now. They also found a stone chamber nearby, full of human skeletons, one of which was nine feet (2.7m) tall. It was divided into two compartments in one of which there were the remains of two hundred and fifty individuals, the large majority male, and associated with them were both coins and metalwork of the late ninth century, fitting the 874 date for Viking occupation. Dug through the mound were burials in which the bodies were not laid flat in the Danish manner, but crouched. It was initially thought that the bones might be the result of a defeat or massacre of the Mercian army and that after the bodies had been left elsewhere, perhaps on the battlefield, before being brought back for burial in this ancient Mercian burial place. But the mound and the crouched burials look far more like Vikings than Christian Saxons. Later examination of the bones shows that they had not suffered greatly from sword cuts. It seems more likely that we have a Viking chief (the giant) who was laid out with his followers, all of whom had died from a plague rather than in battle or from a violent massacre. Other Viking burials are surprisingly few and far between, especially in mainland Britain. In England only two other cemeteries than Repton have been found, one at nearby Ingleby and another group of burials under Kildale church in Yorkshire. Otherwise, all that we have are occasional scattered instances of burials with Viking objects. Since it was not normal practice for Saxons to bury grave goods with their dead, burials with Saxon objects in these centuries could be interpreted as being of Danish converts to Christianity in a period of transition in burial rites such as that prompted by the early English burials at Sutton Hoo. Perhaps, too, as the Vikings became Christians, they gradually ceased to have distinctive burials, even as early as 879, after their leader Guthrum had been baptised.

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Danish tombstone: A tombstone from St Paul’s Churchyard, London. The stone, originally painted in bright colours, is decorated in the extravagant 11th century Ringerike style of Scandinavian relief carving.

Vikings Return to Wessex – Raids & Counter-Raids, 875-79:

If Repton remained a central fortress for the Vikings during their first occupation, as late as 879, in 875 they had also been up in the north again, based on the Tyne and ranging far and wide and into Scotland. Meanwhile, however, Guthrum and two lesser chieftains moved to Cambridge, from where they determined to launch another attack on Wessex. For the time being the Danes seemed to have abandoned their efforts to split the kingdom in two by advancing from Reading. Doubtless, they knew that preparations had been made for them along the Ridgeway and other trackways. By this time Alfred had Wessex very well organised militarily and was an expert at lightning commando-style raids. It was the Danes’ own technique, but they themselves were particularly vulnerable to it. Alfred carried the war to them by sea. In 875 he engaged seven Danish ships, captured one, and put the rest to flight. He was not prepared to let his enemies settle down, but this phase of the war became a vicious deadlock with plenty of activity but no thrusting moves.

Suddenly the Danes broke the deadlock by advancing into Wessex from Cambridge late in 875 and next appeared at Wareham in Dorset. One large contingent marched to the coast, embarked and came round by sea: the ultimate effect was that a huge Danish force had outflanked the Wessex army and was now posing a threat from the rear. Many in this force were mounted, although they would not have contemplated fighting from horseback, horses being used mainly as personnel carriers. They had found it difficult to gain and keep the initiative during this campaign, partly because they had been surprised by the speed with which Alfred had countered their movements. Alfred seems to have moved almost as swiftly and he had the advantage that he was operating from interior lines. He swept down to Dorset and had the Danes boxed in before they realised what had happened. Instead of being able to forage and settle in, they had found themselves trapped, possibly because Alfred also had them blockaded by his navy off the Dorset coast. At all events, they decided to ask for terms. After a year of fighting, which appears to have ended as a draw, a peace on equal terms was ratified with treasure and hostages. The Danes even swore an oath on the ‘holy ring’, a most sacred Icelandic symbol, that they would promptly leave Wessex.

The Danish humiliation appeared to be complete as their grand strategy for enveloping southern and eastern England had trapped no one but themselves. Alfred trusted them, believing that they could not possibly break so important an oath. But, under the cover of darkness, they mounted their horses and slipped away to Exeter, evaded a shadowing force. Some re-embarked to meet expected reinforcements at sea, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that 120 ships were lost in a storm off Swanage. When he heard the news of the Danes’ treachery, Alfred cursed himself for trusting them but wasted no time in setting off in rapid pursuit. But the Danes had gained too much of a head start and were safely in the fortress at Exeter before he could intercept them. There they wintered in 876-77 and again asked for terms. Alfred knew, as did the Danes, that he could not afford to keep his army besieging them in Exeter where, despite their losses at sea, they still had enough ships to revictual. They would not, in any event, have to hold out for long. In the autumn of 876, the Danes knew that if Alfred did not break into Exeter immediately, his men of the ‘fyrd’ would have to withdraw to get in the harvest which was now due. If they did not, both his army and the people of his kingdom would starve, and their fighting fitness and qualities for the next campaigning season would also be seriously diminished. The Danes offered Alfred many more hostages of even higher rank so that he could not fail to accept their offer. This time they accepted the terms he offered in return and complied with them. Some went to Gloucester, with others eventually leaving Wessex for Mercia in August 877. It is unlikely that Alfred trusted them any more than he had done before the second truce, but he must have felt that for the time being he was in full control of his kingdom’s borders.

Alfred at Athelney & The Battle of Edington, 879:

Alfred the Great in a late thirteenth-century manuscript.

Throughout the years 871-78, Alfred had overcome great difficulties within his kingdom as well as in the war with the Danes. In 877, with the departure of the Vikings for a second time, Alfred believed that he had secured a firm and permanent truce. He disbanded his weary army and went into winter quarters. The Danes, however, broke all the rules of military engagement, and instead of laying up for the winter months, preparing their weapons, and feasting, they began a new campaign. On 6 January 878, under Guthrum, they made another surprise attack on Wessex. Alfred was spending Christmas and Epiphany at Chippenham, when they slipped up there quietly and set up a battle headquarters, launching a series of lightning raids far and wide on the astonished Saxons. Where they had come from, no one knew, but they were probably those among the invading army who had withdrawn to Gloucester or thereabouts. Surprise, speed and ruthlessness drove away all before them and unable to offer effective resistance and with his command already scattered across Wessex, Alfred soon found himself a homeless refugee. He went into hiding on the Isle of Athelney with a small band of loyal adherents, dispersing to different isolated farmhouses for safety and secrecy. Thus, the life of the King of Wessex was reduced to that of a fugitive in the woods and wetlands of Somerset. From his legendary hideout, he continued to organise resistance, but Wessex was soon overrun, its people forced to choose between flight overseas or submission to the Danes.

Alfred began the fight to reclaim his kingdom and ensure the survival of the English by launching guerilla raids from a fort built in the marshes. The Danes were not having matters all their own way, however, for it was reported to Alfred that an attempt by them to re-invade Devon by sea, with twenty-three ships, had been decisively defeated. The Saxons won this early and unexpected victory with the defeat at Countisbury Hill in Devon of a Viking army of twelve hundred landed by the fleet. Over eight hundred of the Vikings were killed by a force commanded by the Ealdorman Odda, and Guthrum’s hopes of a concerted attack up attack upon Alfred’s stronghold were dashed. Guthrum now lacked the necessary manpower to confine Alfred to the Somerset Levels and the King was able to raise the ‘fyrds’ from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. From his secure retreat, Alfred issued instructions for the mobilising of his army. It took weeks, during which time the Danes discovered his location and attempted an attack on him, but he had local guides and they did not, to find their way through the treacherous bogs and to avoid ambushes at places from which it was impossible to escape. Whether the tales of burnt cakes, disguise and espionage are true or simply legend, is immaterial. They certainly could have been. When he eventually moved out in May 878, he was joined by a host of men who had all been summoned to meet him at an exact time and place. In a carefully planned operation, the fyrds then set out to meet the Danes in open battle.

The Westbury White Horse was cut in the eighteenth century on the site of an earlier representation. It is generally accepted that the site of the Battle of Ethandun is to be found in the area of Edington in Wiltshire. Exactly where is more problematical. Two possible sites are the hill fort of Bratton Castle, whose slopes bear the Westbury white horse, and by Edington Hill, which lies approximately nine hundred yards (800m) south of the village.

In the second week of May 878, Alfred marched his new army to Iley Oak near Warminster en route for the Viking camp at Chippenham. Alfred found the Vikings at Edington about fifteen miles (24 kilometres) south of Chippenham. The place where he met them and fought his decisive battle has been a matter of some controversy. The name of the battle, ‘Ethandun’ has been taken to mean Heddington in Wiltshire, Ettingdon and Yattendon in Berkshire (which are highly unlikely), Edington in Somerset and Edington in Wiltshire. Both Philip Warner and David Smurthwaite agree on the latter. Here, Alfred, in Asser’s words, fought against ‘the whole army of the pagans’:

… fighting fiercely with a compact shield-wall against the entire Viking army, he persevered resolutely for a long time; at length he gained the victory through God’s will’.

But if opinions on the whereabouts of the battle site vary so much, no less do views of how the battle was fought even among those who prefer the Edington (Wilts) site. It has been inferred that the Danes, having heard that Alfred had broken out of Somerset, and somehow assembled an army, would have immediately set out to crush this possible danger before Alfred could rally too many forces and perhaps capture various strategic points. Their main headquarters were still at Chippenham and they would have headed southwest rapidly towards Somerset. Fourteen miles south of Chippenham they would then have turned towards Westbury. They would not, at this stage, have expected to be anywhere near the Saxon army. Doubtless, Alfred sent out some disinformation to the Danes and made sure they had no idea of the trap he was laying for them. Today, only some of the slopes of Edington Hill are covered with woods and bracken, but in 878 all of the slopes would have been covered. By May, the woods would have been leafy and opaque, providing a perfect ambush position. If matters went badly for the Saxons, because the Danes had too many troops, they could retreat up the hill and perhaps occupy the hillfort known as Bratton Castle or even go right back to Battlesbury Camp. But they were not there to fight a defensive battle. Their total aim was to catch the whole Danish force unawares. Their numbers were far greater than the Danes would have expected.

The Danes, who would have watched all the way, obligingly walked right into the trap. When their whole line of march was strung out along that dangerous piece of road, the Saxon attack hurled itself onto them with all the pent-up rage and hate of men who had been living on the run in the woods for months. The visitor to the battle site will have little difficulty in visualising the ambush, the Danes being tumbled down the slopes and then the bitter pursuit back to Chippenham. They were so shocked, cut up and demoralised by this sudden and overwhelming defeat that they lost heart. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler puts it succinctly and clearly:

And there fought against the whole army and put it to flight, and pursued it as far as the fortress, and stayed there a fortnight.

Some writers have suggested that the main fighting took place south of Combe Hill. This implies that the Saxons would have fought uphill on to Danish prepared positions. But, according to Warner, Alfred would never have risked such an attack, nor would the Danes have set up a defensive position on top of a barren ridge before setting out to deal with what they thought was merely an insurgent rabble fifty miles away. The Saxons pursued the Danes to Chippenham and blockaded the enemy camp. All the remaining Danish soldiers outside the fort they had built were killed, and all their horses and other animals were taken away. Alfred then set up camp in front of the fort’s gates, with his whole army. The remaining Danes surrendered after two weeks, suing for peace and offering Alfred hostages, but requiring none in return. It was, of course, a crushing blow to morale to have so great and victorious an army destroyed by an enemy they thought they had destroyed. When Alfred saw them coming out of the fort, the chronicler tells us ‘he was moved to pity’ and allowed them to leave his kingdom. Guthrum, the great Danish war leader, now decided he had been following false gods, and that they had betrayed him. How sincere he was, we cannot tell, but at the signing of the peace treaty at Wedmore, which this time was honoured, he promised to become a Christian and to let Alfred have him baptised. We are told that Alfred helped Guthrum up ‘from the holy font of baptism’. 

This was not, of course, the end of the Danish threat, for there were many different contingents throughout the kingdoms, but the main force had been defeated and from then onwards Alfred saw his strength and authority increase. Slowly, the tide of battle turned and though there was seemingly endless intermittent fighting, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been saved, and the first step towards converting the Danes from paganism had already been taken. At the end of 878, the Danish army left Wessex ‘for good’ and returned east to settle, so that East Anglia was added to the Viking settlements in Northumbria and Mercia to form what became known as ‘the Danelaw’. Alternatively, they returned to raiding on the Continent. With Wessex’s old rivals effectively eliminated, Alfred assumed leadership of all the Anglo-Saxons not already under Danish occupation and was able to restore all his kingdom’s defences. Ethandun was therefore a remarkable battle in many ways, not least because it completely reversed the fortunes of Alfred of Wessex. Within a few short weeks, he was restored from a fugitive to the most powerful ruler and Wessex from foreign domination to freedom. The victory also saved England from a total Danish conquest.

The English Kingdoms & the Danelaw – Defending Wessex:

Alfred forced the Danes into a truce in 880 by which the greater part of eastern and northern England was recognised as belonging to the Danelaw, with an agreed frontier along the Watling Street. Guthrum ruled from Hadleigh and kept a territory for himself which included most of Suffolk. Throughout the Danelaw, the two cultures merged, with the Danish contribution to English life being stronger in some areas than others. Despite being under occupation. throughout the whole county of Suffolk, there are only about fifty place names which derive from Old Norse, mainly in the north-east corner of the county, whereas Norfolk has four times this number, names such as Lowestoft. As Guthrum had become a Christian, even those who found themselves under new Danish landlords were able to practice their faith freely.

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Following the Battle of Edington, there was little more fighting on land, but in 884 there was the first major sea battle, fought in the Stour estuary on the Suffolk coast when Alfred’s new fleet pursued homeward a party of Danish raiders. He trapped them in the estuary and captured sixteen longships. He slaughtered their crews while Guthrum’s men looked on helplessly from the headland still known as Bloody Point. Back on dry land, the Saxon fyrd were required to fight at Rochester in 884, and at London in 886, by which Alfred secured control of the city, following a separate treaty. A glance at the map below shows us that he had also enlarged his own kingdom by adding a large part of Mercia. Alfred took steps to defend his kingdom by reorganising the Saxon army (the fyrd), strengthening his army of thegns, setting up boroughs (forts where soldiers lived permanently) and building a full fleet of ships. Wessex enjoyed relative peace until 892 when two more Viking armies arrived from Flanders. But this time, when one of these marched into Kent, it found its every movement dogged by Anglo-Saxon forces.

The defensive measures put in place by Alfred in the 880s now bore fruit and the Danes, faced with a war of attrition rather than of raid and counter-raid and challenged at sea by Alfred’s fleet, despaired of ever making real progress against Wessex. By 896 they were ready to give up the attempt and to settle in the Danelaw or return to the continent. Frustrated, the Danish army broke up that same year. In 918, when the final confrontation between the two kingdoms began, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex surrendered to Edward the Elder without a battle. Then, after a steady offensive by Alfred and Edward, the English territories were brought under one ruler for the first time, in 920. Now that East Anglia was part of a unified kingdom, it was no longer ruled over by East Anglian kings but by viceroys or earldormen, who collected taxes and raised the local militia, the fyrd, when the king needed it. The shires were divided into hundreds, each with its own court. Each hundred was composed of approximately a hundred carucates, or hides, defined as the amount of land which could be cultivated with one plough in the course of the year. It was approximately a hundred acres, enough to feed a family.

But Alfred’s work did not end there. He was determined to fight the ignorance of his people, an ignorance which he regarded as a worse enemy than the Danes. To train the future leaders of the nation, he set up schools for the sons of nobles and translated many books. He made good laws and forced the ealdormen, the chief nobles, to learn and observe them. He strengthened the Church by improving the services and by building monasteries. So he instituted a chronicle, unique in Europe, by causing the monks to write down the events of the time in what became the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. His great and varied achievements are summarised in these lines inscribed below his statue in Wantage:

Alfred found learning dead and restored it;

Education neglected and he revived it;

The laws powerless and he gave them force;

The Church debased and he raised it;

The land ravaged by a fearful enemy;

From which he delivered it.

Alfred’s attempts to revive learning can also be seen as part of his defence programme: by improving the quality of the clergy, God’s favour could be won for the kingdom. Having won the war, Alfred had set out to make sure that the peace he had made with the Danes would hold. The English living outside Wessex, for example in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire would gradually be drawn into the Danish orbit, yet his survival against the Vikings depended on men and money from these counties and others. Somehow he had to maintain political and cultural control of territory which was not his. He did this by appealing to a shared sense of Englishness, conveyed by the language. Alfred quite consciously used the English language as a means of creating a sense of national identity.

Alfred with his friend, counsellor and biographer, Bishop Asser.
A pen and ink drawing by Arthur J Chandler, based on a picture in a school textbook.

Within the Danelaw, the people obeyed the laws of the Danes, who built boroughs – like Derby – to defend themselves from attack either from English attacks or raids from foreign tribes or kingdoms. These ‘burghs’, like those built by Alfred on the other side of Watling Street, became centres of trade, for they were places of safety and merchants were attracted to them. The Danish gentry governed the surrounding countryside from these towns. Historical and linguistic evidence points to the influx of Danish settlers in certain localities of Britain, mostly near the northeast coasts of England. Besides -by, other common suffixes were -wick, -thorpe, -thwaite, -toft, as in Lowestoft, meaning a plot of land, and -scale, meaning a temporary hut or shelter. Linguistic and place-name evidence also suggests that there was considerable Danish settlement both in the northeast and the east Midlands, almost exclusively in areas bordering the coast and on the river estuaries. In becoming increasingly Christian, both the ruling and the settler Danes left more of a distinctive permanent imprint upon the English landscape than on the language. 

Without Alfred the Great, the history of the English language might have been quite different. He set about restoring his kingdom to its former greatness. He began rebuilding the monasteries and the schools. It was his inspiration to use English, not Latin, as the medium for the education of his people. At the age of nearly forty, amidst what he called the various and manifold cares of his kingdom, he learnt Latin so that he could translate (or arrange the translation of) various key texts, notably Bede’s History of the English Church and People. Alfred described his English language campaign in a famous preface:

Therefore it seems better to me … that we should also translate certain books which are most necessary for all men to know, into the language that we can all understand, and also arrange it … so that all the youth of free men now among the English people … are able to to read English writing as well.

Alfred understood that he needed culture and history to remind them of their loyalties. The saviour of the English language, he was also the founder of English prose. After Alfred’s reign, the English and the Danes learnt to live alongside each other in peace for generations. Because both of their languages had some common Germanic roots, the language frontier broke down and a kind of pidginisation took place that gradually simplified the structure of Old English.

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Alfred’s Political Legacy – The Age of Unification:

The process of political development in the ninth and tenth centuries from the kingdom of the West Saxons to the kingdom of the English, coupled as it was with the repeated claims to a kingship ‘of the whole of Britain’, must qualify as one of the grandest themes in the history of the British Isles. In England, the process was driven from the outset by a determination on the part of successive rulers (and their advisers) to transform a concept of the unity of the English people from an aspiration to political reality. It is a tale that can be told in various ways, exposing a truth that it is still not fully understood: but while anglocentric accounts of the period make good reading for the English, they do not have so much appeal for Irish, Welsh or Scottish readers of British history. The view of the period from the ‘Celtic’ kingdoms of the time would also have been very different. The tenth century was indeed an age of unification, not only for the English but also for other peoples with agendas and aspirations of their own. The concept of English unity was first attested to in letters written by ‘Pope’ Gregory ‘the Great’ in connection with the mission of St Augustine in 597, but this was given much wider currency when adopted by Bede as an organising principle of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. The Mercians had tried and failed to achieve Bede’s purpose, in the later eighth and ninth centuries, whereupon the Vikings had simplified matters by conquering the kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia, and by presenting themselves as the common enemy of all Anglo-Saxon peoples.

Only the West Saxons had stood firm and soon seized the initiative. Alfred the Great (871-99) saw clearly how Bede’s vision legitimised his political aspirations, and how advantage was to be gained from promoting a notion of ‘Englishness’ among all those whom he presumed to regard as ‘his people’. But this remained no more than a powerful narrative rather than an attainable political objective until long after his death. Wessex and Mercia remained separate kingdoms well into the tenth century and it was Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder (899-924) who forcibly extended West Saxon control over the Danes of eastern England and the Mercians. It was Alfred’s grandson, Aethelstan (924-39) who further extended Wessex’s control over those who lived in ‘the North’. The main difficulty with this ‘Greater England’ view of events is that it not only neglects developments in the non-English kingdoms of the British mainland but that it also overlooks the existence of a complex succession of polities transitional between ‘Wessex’ and ‘England’ and thereby obscures the factors that determined the movement from one stage in the process to the next.

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Guthrum’s Raids, Battles and the Consolidation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the late ninth century.

The kingdom of the West Saxons had already expanded eastwards in the central decades of the ninth century to absorb Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Essex; and in Alfred’s reign the process was taken a stage further when his kingdom was extended across the Thames into ‘English’ Mercia, thereby creating the distinctively ‘Alfredian’ polity known to his contemporaries as the ‘kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’. This new polity, with its centres at Gloucester and Winchester but the source of its prosperity was the Thames Valley including the newly-restored city of London, symbolised new cooperation of the Anglian and Saxon peoples. It arose not out of Bede’s vision of a unified ‘English’ people, but more directly from the complex political circumstances that drove the course of events in the late ninth century, and it would endure for nearly fifty years. The new polity is implicit already in Alfred’s treaty with Guthrum, the Danish king of East Anglia (c. 880); and it was Alfred’s rule over the Mercians, as much as his resistance to the Danes, that prompted a Welsh admirer to address him as ‘ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain’. Alfred’s polity passed to his son, Edward the Elder, and provided the political context in which he and his sister, Aethelflaed conducted the spectacular campaign against the Danes who had settled or set up their strongholds in East Anglia and Eastern Mercia. By 918 the frontier of Edward’s extended kingdom stretched down from Chester across the Midlands to the Fens.

What had emerged by the early tenth century was a whole network of defensible towns or ‘burhs’ across the south of England, into the Midlands and extending northwards. In many cases, Roman city walls were rebuilt, as in York, Winchester and Canterbury, and new hill-top fortified towns were fashioned, simply known as ‘burhs’, by King Alfred and his successors, most archetypically at Shaftesbury (Dorset). Tenth-century towns were strongholds, whereas in the eighth century they had been undefended ports and market-places. The idea of fortifying towns may have begun in Mercia, however, with towns like Hereford and Tamworth pre-dating Alfred’s burhs. Elsewhere in Britain, settlers of Norwegian origin had colonised parts of northwest Britain, including Cumbria. Although Alfred the Great had prevented the Danes from conquering Wessex, the kingdom’s interests were still threatened while the Danelaw existed. For the West Saxon dynasty to be fully secure the land occupied by the Danes had to be brought under English lordship. The descendants of Alfred were able kings. His son, Edward the Elder (900-924) oversaw the expansion of Saxon rule over the territory south of the Humber, thereby reconquering most of the Danelaw; the frontier remained there on Edward’s death in 924, although by then the rulers of the Hiberno-Norse kingdom of York, and of the northern English beyond the Tees, submitted to Edward, together with the rulers of Strathclyde and of the Scots.

Aethelstan (924-940), completed the conquest so that his rule extended northwards to encompass the whole of Northumbria, thus providing substance to the title ‘King of England’. The death of Sihric, King of York, in 927 provided Aethelstan with an excuse to invade Northumbria and drive out the Scandinavian monarchy. He finally drove Guthrum from York in 927 and established direct rule over Northumbria, thereby effectively bringing a unified ‘kingdom of the English’ into existence. He then divided the Danelaw into shires governed by the Danish boroughs. In this way, the names of the North Midland counties were taken from their county ‘boroughs’ – for example, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire. In the same year, at Eamont Bridge in Cumbria, Aethelstan demanded the presence of Constantine, the King of Scots and the rulers of Northumbria to swear loyalty to him. He had already demanded the same oath from Hywel Dda of Dyfed. At the same time, he was content to allow Guthfrith to remain on the throne of Northumbria. This enabled Constantine to increase his influence in Northumbria, especially in its western former British kingdom of Cumbria. It was the unrest this caused which led to Aethelstan’s invasion of Scotland in 934. A northern chronicler commented in this connection that Aethelstan brought under his rule all the kings who were in this island, and the king’s agents began to present him as King of the English, elevated by the right hand of the Almighty to the throne of the whole of Britain, or as King of Albion. These appellations were in his charters and on the coins. Of course, other rulers and peoples in the British Isles were more likely to have been provoked by these grotesque expressions of such grandiose pretensions, rather than having been willing to acquiesce in them.

Brunanburh, 937 – The Great Battle for Northern Britain:

Following his Northumbrian campaign, the Welsh princes and Constantine of Scotland acknowledged Aethelstan’s suzerainty, seemingly under some duress. The settlement appears to have been challenged, however, in 934, for Aethelstan mounted a combined land and sea operation which penetrated Scotland as far as Caithness without meeting serious opposition. The Scots avoided any major battles, leaving Aethelstan free to pillage their land. Constantine had now been humiliated twice and he was intent on destroying or at least severely diminishing the growing power of the Saxons, and so allied himself with Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dyflin in Ireland, and the British, Scots and Scandinavian rulers of the North and Ireland who formed themselves into an armed coalition in 937. Olaf invaded England, sailing up the Humber (or, more logically, the Mersey, see below) with a fleet of 615 ships to rendezvous with further troops from the northwest. Their intention was to place Olaf (or ‘Anlaf’) on the Northumbrian throne where he would rule a buffer state between the Scottish kingdom and the Saxon ones. Forming a very large army (estimates have ranged between sixty and twenty thousand), the coalition forces proceeded to ravage the north of England. It took Aethelstan some time to muster an army large enough to cope with this threat but towards the end of 937, he met the ‘invaders’ at Brunanburh, where he held back the forces from Wales and Scotland, who had united with the Northmen of Ireland, Northumbria, Orkney and the Hebrides and the men of Strath Clota (Strathclyde) against him. His joint Mercian and West Saxon army attacked at dawn in two divisions, Mercians against Scandinavians, Saxons against Scots. After a ferocious mélée, the invaders broke and in the words of the Chronicle,

The whole day long the West Saxons with mounted companies kept in pursuit of the hostile peoples, grievously they cut down the fugitives from behind with their whetted swords.

The Battle of Brunanburh, Chronicle for 937. Manuscript poem. The three short extracts from the poem, taken from the Parker Chronicle.

Here is the transcript of the poem, as written down in Old English:

937. Here athelstan king, of -earls lord, of men ring-giver & his brother also. edmund prince. life long honour. won in battle. of swords with edges. by burnanburh.

there lay man many-a. by spears killed. man northern. over shield shot. also scots too. weary of battle sated. west saxon forth. throughout day. troops in companies. on trail pursued. loathed people. hacked from army fugitives. from behind harshly. with swords millstone sharp.

not happened slaughter more. in this island. ever yet. of-folk felled. before this. of-sword with-edges. as to-us say books. ancient scholars. since from-east hither. angles & saxons. up came. over broad seas. britain sought. proud war smiths. welshmmen overcame. earls for-honour eager. country conquered.

Word-for-word translation from OE.

The modern English translation of this third extract is rendered as never before in our islands was there such slaughter. For years afterwards, it was simply known as ‘the great battle’ and it was certainly one of the greatest battles ever fought on British soil. Casualties were heavy and included five kings, seven earls and a son of the Scottish king. In England, the victory was seen as a national triumph and it was a further step along the path to national unity. Michael Livingston, who is surely the greatest expert on the battle, notes in his book, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook:

the men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains with us today, arguably making the the Battle of Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England, but of the whole of the British Isles. … in one day, on one field, the fate of a nation was determined.

Perhaps this should be amended to refer to the fates of all four future nations of the British Isles, which were all in the process of formation at this time, albeit in very different ways. Certainly, the fate of England was most determined by this event, in as far as the four remaining kingdoms of the English needed to repel the invading Danes and Northmen. Alfred’s son Edward and his daughter Aethelfled had reconquered East Anglia and Mercia, but Northumbria remained under the rule of the Norsemen. Scotland lay to its north, Aetelstan’s Saxon kingdom to the south, and both had an interest in its fate. Aethelstan wanted to fulfil his grandfather’s vision for a United English kingdom. Constantine feared and resented the growing power of the Saxons, which could only grow more powerful if Northumbria became part of a greater English state. The attempt to make Northumbria a buffer-state between the Kings of the Scots and the Kings of Wessex failed at Burnanburh and Northumbria was incorporated into the Saxon kingdoms so that the Kings of Wessex became the Kings of England. In his ‘Historical Note’ to the last of his recent novels on the period, Bernard Cornwell expresses the outcome of the battle both succinctly and with the historical novelist’s turn of phrase:

It is fair to say that before the battle there was no England. As dusk fell on that bloody field, there was.

Given its significance, therefore, it is perhaps curious that the battle has been so forgotten for so long. For centuries, no one even knew where it had been fought. Many claims were put forward, ranging from southern Scotland to County Durham or Yorkshire, and ingenious theories were advanced, mostly depending on place names and clues drawn from the ancient chronicles, but no satisfactory location for the battle was found. It seems improbable that the battle was fought at a site in Scotland, particularly if we accept that Olaf landed on the Humber or the Mersey. The other sites suggested in England have included one between Derby and Rotherham, as well as Bromborough on the Wirral side of the Mersey. In the twelfth century, a monk called John of Worcester wrote a history in which he said that Anlaf (Olaf) and Constantine brought a strong fleet from Ireland into the Humber, but it seems rather fanciful to suggest that he would sail this fleet halfway around the British coast, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, risking storms and shipwrecks, to reach the Humber, when the crossing from Dublin to the Wirral is so direct and short. What was lacking in the argument, however, was any archaeological evidence to support the West coast siting, but in the last few years evidence found by Wirral Archaeology has come to light in the form of artefacts and grave-pits that would place the battle firmly on the Wirral.

The map from Bernard Cornwell’s ‘War Lord’ showing locations in Northumbria mentioned in the historical novel, based on the accounts of the Battle.

The various accounts of the battle, most written years or centuries after the event, do not furnish us with many details of the course of the fighting. Some sources claim that Aethelstan reacted late to the challenge of battle, which poses the question as to why Constantine and Anlaf did not push further inland once they had concentrated their forces on the Wirral. The use of a pre-arranged battle site by the allies provides a good explanation for this. The Battle of Brunanburh was the founding event of the English nation, though the Norse did not abandon their ambitions. Aethelstan died in 940, just three years after his great victory, while Anlaf returned to England and successfully took over Northumbria’s throne before capturing a swathe of northern Mercia. Aethelstan’s successor, Edmund finally drove him out, re-establishing the Kingdom of England. The story of the making of England is not well known. School history tends to ‘skim’ and ‘skip’ swiftly over the Anglo-Saxon period, pausing only to mention Alfred before beginning a more detailed account of 1066 ‘and all that’. Yet William the Conqueror, himself the grandson of a Norse raider, captured a state of England that did not exist before Aethelstan’s victory at Brunanburh made the unification of the four kingdoms a possibility.

Coin of King Edmund (939-46)

Edgar the Peaceful – King of All England, 973:

After Aethelstan ravaged Scotland in 934 and routed the confederates of Britons, Scots and Norse-Irish at Brunanburgh three years later, the Dublin Norse were able to re-establish their links with York, and it was another twenty years before the Northumbrians accepted that their interests would be best served, and protected, by submission to the southern English king. Thus, it took a full century after the first Danish invasion, until 973, to fully reintegrate the whole country, when Alfred’s great-grandson, Edgar, was crowned King of all England in Bath, at his second coronation, and received the submission of even the Welsh and Scottish kings. This was followed by a carefully staged ceremony at Chester in which Edgar ‘coxed’ a boat of eight British kings along the River Dee:

{King Edgar’s} eight underkings, that is: Kenneth, king of the Scots; Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians; Maccus, king of many islands, and five others … swore that they would be faithful to him and be his allies by land and sea. On a certain day he went on board a boat with them, and with them at the oars, he took the helm and steered it skilfully on the River Dee.

Florence of Worcester (early twelfth century, referring to 973)

Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) was thus acknowledged as King of England by all the rulers of Britain. There was a tendency in the tenth century towards the consolidation or centralisation of political power in all parts of the British Isles, represented by the emergence of rulers with the ability to match their pretensions with actions. In retrospect, this tendency might be regarded as a form of progress, although there is no reason to suppose that it was seen in this way by contemporaries. Yet while there was no high kingship of Britain in the tenth century, despite the extravagant claims of Aethelstan, Edgar and others, few would deny that considerable progress was made during the period towards the establishment of a unified and well-regulated kingdom of England. The shire system, which had originated in Wessex, now extended throughout the land; a uniform coinage was in circulation, and kings, through their agents, were resolute in maintaining law and order. Significantly, there was no thought expressed of dividing the Kingdom when Edgar died in 975 and the succession was disputed, and it was only under the severest kind of external threat, that the English eventually succumbed to Danish conquest in the early eleventh century.

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Ethelred, from the Chronicle of Abingdon.

Ethelred the Unready & the Battle of Maldon, 991:

During the reign of Ethelred the Unready (978-1016; his nick-name implied that he was ill-advised rather personally lazy and unprepared), the Danes (now united under a king called Sweyn Forkbeard) renewed their attacks upon England. These began with fresh Viking raids in 981, which probed against centres of prosperity and population and yielded rich spoils in the form of Saxon treasure and slaves. Although the numbers of ships and raiders involved had been relatively few their attacks had been wide-ranging. Cheshire, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset had been particularly hard hit; Southampton, London, and the monastery at Padstow had been sacked. These successful ventures must have encouraged the massive expedition of 991 when ninety-three boat-loads of them anchored first off the Kent coast and then off Suffolk, where they landed an army which burnt Ipswich to the ground before marching to Maldon in Essex, where they met the English forces in what has been described as the most momentous battle of the Anglo-Saxon period. The entry for 991 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a bare outline of events surrounding the battle. Olaf, King of Norway, joined them. We are told that Olaf’s ships arrived at Folkestone…

… and ravaged round about it, and then from there went to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran it all. and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Brihtnoth came against him there with his army and fought against him; and they killed the eoldorman there and had control of the field.

Manuscript A

It seems probable that by this stage of the expedition the number of Viking ships would have been reduced by their dispersal on ventures around the coasts, or by the return of ships loaded with loot to Scandinavia. The Chronicle suggests that Brihtnoth fought specifically against Olaf’s forces so that the Viking army engaged at Maldon is likely to have been far fewer in number than the total that would be available from the disembarkation of ninety-three ships. Brihtnoth was a military leader of some experience who had held office since 956 and had evidently dealt with Viking raids before, including the defeat of an earlier one at Maldon in 988. Much of our evidence about what happened in 991 comes from two contemporary sources, The Life of St Oswald and The Battle of Maldon, an incomplete epic poem dealing with the clash, which is widely regarded as one of the finest battle poems of any period in British history. Although the beginning and end of the poem are missing, it supplies an evocative account of the battle itself and of Brihtnoth’s leadership.

The Vikings had established themselves on an island separated from the Essex mainland by a tidal river. The river could be crossed by a causeway, but only at low tide, and although Brihtnoth deployed his army on opposing shore, the Vikings were unable to engage the Saxons because it was still high water. As the armies waited for the water level to fall, the Vikings attempted to negotiate peace terms, a messenger shouting their offer across the water:

Bold seamen have sent me to you, and bade me say, that it is for you to send treasure quickly in return for peace, and it will be better for you all that you buy off an attack with tribute rather than that men so fierce as we should give you battle.

The Maldon poem also gives Brihtnoth’s defiant answer:

Not so easily shall you win tribute; peace must be made with point and edge, with grim battle-play, before we give tribute.

Brihtnoth’s army consisted of his hearth-troop of warriors and the local militia and he had taken great care to supervise their initial deployment, suspecting that the loyalty and steadfastness of some of his force might not be all that he could wish:

he rode and gave counsel and taught his warriors how they should stand and keep their ground, bade them hold their shields aright, firm firm with their hands and and fear not art all. When he had meetly arrayed his host, he alighted among the people where it pleased him best, where he knew his bodyguard to be most loyal.

As the tide began to recede, the Danes prepared to cross to the mainland, but Brihtnoth ordered three warriors, Wulfestan, Aelfhere and Maccus to hold the western end of the causeway. Brihthnoth was presumably seeking to inflict casualties on the Danes with minimum loss to his own force and also to demonstrate that to his levies that the enemy was not invincible. The defence offered by the three warriors was so successful that the Danes abandoned their attempts to force a passage and instead they asked that they be allowed to cross the causeway unhindered and Brihtnoth agreed. Although the poem criticises the East Anglian Ealdorman for this decision, it is difficult to see how he had any alternative. Having at last run the raiders to earth, he could not now refuse battle, for the Danes would then simply return to their ships and sail away to menace another part of the coast. The Saxons, therefore, fell back and allowed the advancing Danes room to deploy and Brihtnoth ordered his men ‘to form the war-hedge with their shields, and hold their ranks stoutly against the foe’. Well aware of the military deficiencies of his levies, Brihtnoth had no plans for executing an elaborate manoeuvre and he based his tactics on the ability of his men to absorb a frontal assault by the Danes. The battle opened with a discharge of spears and arrows followed by the savage, initial shock as the armies met:

They let the spears, hard as files, fly from their hands. well-ground javelins. Bows were busy, point pierced shield, fierce was the rush of battle, warriors fell on either hand, men lay dead.

The Saxon line stood firm and the Vikings must have fallen back to regroup. At this point a Danish warrior ‘strong in battle’ advanced towards Brihtnoth who, perhaps interpreting this movement as a specific challenge, stepped forward to meet him. It seems rash for a commander to hazard himself in this way but there may have been compelling reasons for accepting the challenge. Both armies were watching to see how the Saxon leader responded and Brihtnoth may have considered that the maintenance of his army’s morale required that he accept. His hearth-troop would, in any case, be close at hand should the Danes attempt any subterfuge. From the first moments, the combat went against Brihtnoth. He was twice wounded by spear thrusts, though not seriously enough to prevent him from killing two of his attackers before a Dane succeeded in disabling his sword arm. Sinking to the ground, Brihtnoth continued to urge his men forward but the Danes closed in and cut him down along with two warriors, Aelfnoth and Wulfmaer, who had rushed to their earl’s defence. With Brihtnoth’s death, a large part of the Saxon army fled and only a small band of his retainers continued the fight, determined to die alongside their lord. The warrior Aelfwine rallied the survivors of the hearth-troop:

Remember the words that we uttered many a time over the mead, when on the bench, heroes in hall, we made we made our boast about hard strife. Now it may be proved which of us is bold! … Thegns shall have no cause to reproach me among my people that I was ready to forsake this action, and seek my home, now that my lord lies low…

Their victory at Maldon inspired the Danes to attempt another permanent occupation of England, and the Saxons, disheartened by their defeat, made the first of those payments of tribute that came to be known as ‘Danegeld’. Olaf Tryggvasson, the victor of Maldon, returned to England in 994 allied with Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark. Their expedition comprised ninety-four ships and its objective this time was London. The citizens, however, defended their homes so effectively that the astonished Vikings were to abandon their planned invasion and revert to their customary practice of ravaging the south and east coasts. Edgar’s successor Ethelred, ‘the Unready’, regarded by many contemporaries and historians as a weak and foolish ruler, was quite incapable of resisting them. He bargained with his enemies and paid them ten thousand pounds to stay away, in part at the suggestion of Archbishop Sigeric, which only encouraged them to return.

To halt these destructive forays a Danegeld of sixteen thousand pounds was paid, for which Ethelred received the added bonus of Olaf’s baptism, which he himself sponsored, and Olaf promised never again to return to England in hostility. But no such promise was made by Sweyn Forkbeard or his son, Canute. The raiding that began in 997 was followed by twenty years of warfare, relieved only by fragile truces secured through the payment of Danegeld or by the resistance from London offered by Ulfcytel, Ealdorman of East Anglia. Ethelred raised the necessary money to pay Danegeld from his subjects by a tax that was so heavy that it ruined the freemen. The ealdormen grew disloyal and the English, having no great leaders to relate to, lost courage. On St Brice’s Day, 1002, Ethelred treacherously massacred the Danes. Sweyn returned In 1004, bent on revenge. East Anglia was therefore once more under Danish domination, mercilessly harried by Forkbeard. Confronted by the East Anglian ‘fyrd’, however, they were again forced to withdraw after a bloody battle. By 1012 the Danegeld debt had mushroomed to forty-eight thousand pounds.

The Final War of Invasion & the Battle of Ashingdon:

In 1013, the Danes returned for what would be a final war of invasion. Their king, Sweyn Forkbeard, who died the following year, sent Thorkell the Tall in command of a highly disciplined army. They landed at Ipswich and marched across Suffolk to meet Earl Ulfytel’s force near Thetford. Both sides suffered heavy losses in the battle, but during the following months, the countryside was completely devastated. Even the invaders were unable to find food. Demoralised and ill-led, the Anglo-Saxon armies rapidly succumbed to the new invaders, whose raiding was now a royal enterprise, directed by Sweyn and his son Canute. Sweyn briefly ruled England after Ethelred was driven into exile and although London chose Edmund ‘Ironside’ as his successor many of the noblemen of Wessex swore fealty to Canute, Forkbeard’s successor as King of Denmark. Edmund’s first campaign was therefore directed at restoring the kingdom’s allegiance to its old dynasty. After laying siege to London, Canute followed Edmund westwards and indecisive battles were fought at Penselwood in Dorset and Sherston in Wiltshire. Turning to the offensive, Edmund relieved London, parried a Danish raid into Mercia and drove Canute into Sheppey. With this change in England’s fortunes, some of Canute’s English supporters, including Ealdorman Eadric of Mercia, changed their allegiance to Edmund.

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The Battlefield at Assandun (Ashingdon), 18 October 1016.

Embarking on another raid, Canute sailed from Sheppey and anchored in the River Crouch near Burnham in Essex. Edmund moved to prevent the Danes, now loaded down with booty, from returning to their ships, and in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he pursued them and overtook them from in Essex at the hill which is called Ashingdon, and they stoutly joined battle there (Manuscript C). Edmund had mustered a large army there with contingents from Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia, and although his ill-trained levies could not match the Danes man for man, his superiority in numbers offered the chance of a decisive victory. As Edmund’s army made camp at Ashingdon Hill on the evening of 17 October 1016, the enemy was in full view just over a mile and a half away. Canute had little choice but to fight. To avoid battle and escape by land he would have to abandon both the spoils of his latest raid and his fleet. With an undefeated enemy so close at hand it would be foolhardy to attempt embarkation when his army would be hard put to defend itself. Instead, he assembled his force on a hill at Canewdon which stood between Edmund and the Danish fleet, where a low ridge connected the hills from which the armies faced each other. At the Danish end of the ridge, a slight rise of about a thousand yards in front of Canewdon offered Canute the opportunity to advance without losing the advantage of higher ground.

Edmund probably deployed his army in three divisions: the Wessex contingent under his own command, the Mercians under Eadric, and the East Angles under Ufcytel. Eadric, now in favour once again, was probably stationed on the right flank, with Edmund in the centre and Ufcytel on the left. Edmund began the battle by charging down the hill at ‘Ashingdown’ towards the Danes. The English left, due to the nature of the ground, advanced far more quickly than the right and a rapidly increasing gap opened between the flanks. As Edmund and Ufcytel clashed with the Danish line at least a third of the English strength remained uncommitted for Eadric had halted his division well to the rear. The Danish left, finding no troops to their front, turned inwards to envelop the unprotected English, who nevertheless continued the unequal struggle until late in the afternoon when Edmund was eventually able to escape with the survivors of his army. Thus, the English were defeated and Ulfcytel, the majority of Edmund’s troops and a large proportion of the English nobility were killed. Edmund retreated to Deerhurst on the Severn where shortly after the battle he and Canute met to agree on the partition of England (see the graphic below). The kingdom was divided between the two men, but when Edmund died in November, Canute took over the Kingdom of Wessex, and with it control of the whole Kingdom of England, which he annexed to his Scandinavian empire, though he agreed to rule England as a Christian king.

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A duel at Deerhurst between Edmund Ironside and Cnut the Great is depicted in the manuscript Historia Major by Matthew Paris, circa 1200-1259.

Canute, therefore, took over a well-formed and fully operational kingdom of England in 1017 and made it the centre of his so-called ‘North Sea Empire’ by extending his rule first over Denmark itself (following the death of his elder brother in 1018), then over Norway (after the expulsion of Olaf Haraldsson in 1028) and latterly, it seems, into parts of Sweden. For the next twenty-five years, England was no longer at the edge of the world, as shown on the map above composed by a priest working in the household of Sigeric of Canterbury around the turn of the millennium, but part of Canute’s empire. His English kingdom was dominated by two earls, Godwin of Wessex and Leofric of Mercia, the first representing the ‘new nobles’ of the Anglo-Danish régime and the other representing the entrenched political interests north of the Thames. The Anglo-Saxon map of the world, though originally composed in a short period of relative peace for England after the retaking of York in 954, sat at the edge of a period of violent confrontation and forced engagement with the rest of Europe.

Canute’s ‘North Sea’ Christian Empire & The Viking Legacy in the British Isles:

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To begin with, Canute rewarded his Scandinavian supporters with earldoms but came increasingly to rely on the Saxon noblemen at Court, especially Earl Godwin. On the right is a picture from a decorated manuscript, showing Canute and Queen Aelfgifu (Emma), receiving symbols of their power from Christ, and presenting a cross to the New Minster at Winchester. The double portrait acknowledges their importance to each other. England’s most important Christian shrine was at Beodricsworth, or Bury St Edmunds. The remains of the saintly king had been moved to the Abbey there in 902, making it a major centre of pilgrimage. Canute recognised its importance to his English subjects and so contributed liberally to the construction of a new church and founded a new community of Benedictine monks to guard the shrine. Canute (1016-35) was the ruler of a large northern empire. Soon after his conquest of England, he forced Norway to submit to him with an English army, but he always regarded England as the most important part of his empire. He maintained the Anglo-Saxon laws and gave power to Saxon thegns as well as Danish earls.

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He also became a devoted servant of the Church in Denmark and Norway and made a pilgrimage to Rome, during which he gained many privileges for the English Church. Both England and Scandinavia increased their trade. Many Danish merchants settled in London, which once more became an important centre of trade, as in early Saxon times. Because it was necessary for Canute to leave England for long periods, he divided the kingdom into four ‘earldoms’ based on the old kingdoms of East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Unfortunately, however, this revived old jealousies and rivalries. These divisions weakened the country and made it easy prey to enemies once Canute’s strong hand was withdrawn. It was during the troubled times of the Danish invasions that feudal society developed in England, as it had done in Europe when the Northmen attacked Charlemagne’s empire. Freemen gave up their land to the powerful thegns in return for protection; the thegns restored the land but demanded labour services in exchange.

Viking settlement in Ireland had been limited to fortified coastal settlements and in 902 they were temporarily expelled from Dublin by the Irish. Many of the refugees settled in northwest England, with further impacts on the Norse communities on the Isle of Man and the western Hebrides. But they returned to Ireland in 914, and from their bases at Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Dublin, sought for some time thereafter to reassert their political and commercial power on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Irish had plans of their own. The native rulers of Munster were soon in the ascendancy, eclipsing the power of the Southern Uí Néill; and in the person of Brian Boru (976-1014), they found someone whom they would come to regard as their saviour. But his hegemony collapsed after his death in battle against the Leinster-Viking coalition at Clontarf (1014).

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The Age of Unification, 10th-11th centuries. The Kingdom of Wessex was extended northwards and westwards to become ‘the Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons’ by King Alfred the Great, and his successors in the tenth century extended their rule over the Danes and Northumbrians. By about 900 the Scots had assimilated the Picts and by the 11th century, they had annexed the British kingdom of Strathclyde and also gained Lothian from England. Pictured in the top left-hand corner is the ruined St Magnus’ Church, Egilsay on Orkney, one of several churches built by Norse Settlers on Orkney. Before their conversion to Christianity in the early eleventh century, they had been the last pagans in the British Isles.

The Viking impact had its slightest impact on Wales where although the coast had its fair share of raids, mostly from Irish-based Vikings, especially in the tenth century, there were few settlements and these had no discernable political influence. The Welsh rulers seem to have acknowledged English overlordship almost as a matter of routine. In 918 Hywel Dda and his brother Clydog, rulers of the southern Welsh, Idwal of Gwynedd, ruler of ‘all the race of the Welsh’ had sought Edward the Elder as their overlord. Hywel Dda, styled ‘King of the west Welsh’, and Owain, king of the people of Gwent, were among those who submitted to Aethelstan in 927; and thereafter Hywel (died 950), Idwal (died 942) and Morgan ab Owain (died 974) were regular visitors to King Aethelstan’s court. The true feelings of the Welsh towards the English may, however, be more accurately reflected in the mid-tenth-century poem Armes Prydein Vawr (‘The Great Prophecy of Britain’), which foretold the day when the Welsh would free themselves from their ‘English oppressors’; and they never gave up hope. But, for the time being, it proved difficult for any ‘high king’ to establish any sort of lasting authority over the others.

In ‘mainland’ Scotland, by about 900 the Scots had assimilated the Picts and by the eleventh century, they had annexed the British kingdom of Strathclyde and also won Lothian from England. Kenneth II (971-95) and Malcolm II (1005-34) were more successful than Constantine had been in holding their own against the English. Lothian (between the Tweed and the Forth) was ceded by Edgar to Kenneth in 973, doubtless for good political reasons and Malcolm took rather more forceful possession of the region following his victory over the English at the battle of Carham in 1018. Not long afterwards, the kingdom of Strathclyde was absorbed more fully than before into the Kingdom of the Scots. The position further north is less clear. The rulers of Moray, and the earls of Orkney, retained some degree of independence but had little prospect of any lasting success against the kings of the Scots. In most parts of the British Isles, the Scandinavian settlers soon began to assimilate with the native populations through intermarriage and conversion to Christianity. Relatively few Viking burials and even fewer settlements have been identified, perhaps because the settlers quickly adopted the material culture and burial customs of the natives and so became archaeologically invisible, although waterlogged sites in Dublin and York have provided spectacular evidence of everyday life in Viking towns.

Scandinavian influence on place names is in fact the best guide to the areas of Viking settlement. In England, as shown on the map above, the process of assimilation was made easier, since the languages spoken by the Danes were similar enough to be mutually intelligible with a little effort. Though it was the Danes who finished up speaking English, English vocabulary was greatly enriched by loan words from Danish and Old Norse. One bilingual inscription, in Norse and Gaelic, is also known. Godred Crovan of Islay won control of the island at the battle of Skyhill in 1079 and made it the centre of a Norse kingdom that included all of the Hebrides. The kingdom survived under Norwegian sovereignty until 1266 when it was ceded to Scotland. By that time, the population had become Gaelic-speaking again, but Norse institutions such as the ‘assembly’ survived.

Viking Settlement on the Isle of Man.

The process of assimilation and coexistence between native and Viking can be clearly identified on the Isle of Man. Its strategic position in the middle of the Irish Sea made the Isle of Man attractive for Viking settlement. The evidence of pagan burials, containing weapons and sometimes ships and human sacrifices, indicates that substantial Viking settlement began in the later ninth century. The native Christian Gaelic-speaking population was not wiped out, but the distribution of typical Scandinavian place-name suffixes, like -by (‘village’) and -stathir (‘fields in meadowland’), shows that the settlers took the better, lower-lying land for themselves. The many silver hoards discovered suggest that the island prospered by its proximity to Dublin’s important Viking trading centre. After they adopted Christianity in the tenth century, the settlers erected a series of finely carved stone memorial crosses that incorporated Irish, northern English and Scandinavian runes, but several commemorate people with Celtic names, a sign of intermarriage between the two populations. Today, the Manx parliament continues to meet annually in the open air to announce legislation at ‘Tynwald’, the traditional assembly place of the Norse kingdom, as it has done for nine hundred years.

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The Anglo-Saxon Map of the World, c. AD 1000. The British Isles sit at the bottom left-hand edge of the map; it is the product more of monastic fancy than cartographical precision, yet its well-drawn outlines suggest it was partly based on a Roman original, but was drawn by someone who incorporated up-to-date information of the coastlines of Britain, Ireland and northern Europe.

By the later tenth century, England was a single political unit. From the time when Alfred burnt the cakes in despairing refuge in Athelney, it took him and his descendants a century to conquer and unite England. In 973, Alfred’s grandson Edgar was crowned in Bath and received the submission of even the Welsh and Scottish kings. We know this from written sources, but these are also consistent with the archaeological evidence. The burhs constructed under the House of Wessex look like parts of a logical system of defence for the whole country, including those in the ‘Danelaw’. The same coinage was used throughout the country and it was a good, standard quality, regularly recalled and reminted at mints existing in many places, especially in most of the burhs. There was better quality pottery, wheel-thrown and hard-fired, distributed from several sites in England over much of the eastern part of the country. Many more churches were built and there was a renewal of art associated with the Church. The country might have become politically unified simply as the result of a strong dynasty which, on the whole, the House of Wessex, from Egbert to Edgar, was. Also, if Offa had had equally vigorous offspring and descendants, Mercia might have swallowed up the whole of England rather earlier than Wessex actually did. The trend in fortifying towns may have begun first in Mercia but was copied in the Alfredian burhs. The coinage had also already been organised in the time of Offa. Taken alone, the English evidence seems to demonstrate the strength of the West Saxon dynasty in the ninth and tenth centuries, and of its achievement in uniting several small kingdoms into one centralised state. Put in the context of what was happening throughout the rest of northern Europe, the ‘Viking threat’ becomes much clearer.

Aerial view of the Viking fort at Trelleborg in Denmark, with the foundations of large bow-sided houses shown laid out in regular blocks.

There are signs of fortified towns in Scandinavia itself, signs that raiding or ‘viking’ was not confined to foreign countries. The arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia marked through the evidence of Christian burials and churches could of course be the result of foreign contacts and peaceful missions, like those which had already converted other Germanic peoples. The Vikings who settled in England, partly due to the prestige and civilised example of Alfred the Great and his successors, soon accepted Christianity, except in Orkney, where the old pagan ways held out until the mid-eleventh century, to the time of Earl Thorfinn and his successor St Magnus who, by his life and death, gave a new meaning to the Christianity of the northern islands before his martyrdom in 1117. The development of larger political units, especially in the formation of Denmark, and then Canute’s Scandinavian empire, was a parallel process to that taking place within the British Isles, and it may even have been as much a cause as a result of the Viking raids. The lack of direct evidence for widespread Danish settlement reflects the fact that there was not very much, although the weight of both historical and linguistic material does point to a noticeable influx in some areas.

Before the arrival of the Danes, Old English, like most European languages at that time, was a strongly inflected language. Common words like “king” or “stone” relied on word-endings to convey a meaning for which we now use prepositions like “to”, “with”, and “from”. In Old English, the “king” is se cyning, “to the king” is thaem cyninge. In Old English, they said they said one stan (stone), two stanas (stones). The simplification of English by the Danes helped to eliminate these word-endings so that today we simply use the same plurals for most native English words as in stone(s) and king(s). Apart from the obvious placename evidence mentioned above, the impact of Old Norse on the English language is hard to evaluate with much accuracy, precisely because the two languages were so similar. Nine hundred words, including such ‘high frequency’ words as get, hit, leg, low, root, skin, same, want and wrong, are certainly of Scandinavian origin and typically plain-syllabled. Words beginning with /sk/ like sky are Norse. There are probably hundreds more we cannot account for exactly, and in the old territory of the Danelaw in the North East and East Midlands of England there are thousands of Old Norse borrowings, words like beck (stream), laithe (barn) and garth (yard) survive in regional dialects. In many cases, these borrowings stood alongside their English equivalents. The Norse skirt originally meant the same as the English shirt. You can ‘rear’ (OE) or ‘raise’ (ON) a child. Other near-synonyms include ‘wish/want’, ‘craft/skill’, ‘hide/skin’. Thanks to the Danes, English was given another dimension, more light and shade, greater variety.

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Contemporary portrait from liber vitae, 1031

The pinnacle of the Vikings’ achievement, and of Danish integration into the British Isles and among the kingdoms, reached its high-tide mark in 1031, by when Canute (‘Cnut’), in addition to sitting on the Danish and English thrones, had conquered Norway and ruled over most of Scandinavia. Cnut went to Scotland with an army, and with the Navy in the Irish Sea, to receive, without bloodshed, the submission of three Scottish kings: Malcolm II, the future King Maelbeth and Lehmarc, king of Galloway and the Isle of Man, who also held lands across the North Channel. Nevertheless, it appears that Malcolm II adhered to little of Cnut’s power and that Danish influence over Scotland died out by the time of Cnut’s death. From then on the story of the Vikings in the West is one of rapid decline and their re-emergence as ‘Normans’ bent on conquest.

Post-Script Note – The Fall & Rise of the House of Wessex:

Edward the Exile, from a pedigree of Edmund Ironside in a 13th-century manuscript

Edward the Exile (1016 – 19 April 1057), also called Edward Ætheling, was the son of King Edmund Ironside and of Ealdgyth. He spent most of his life in exile in the Kingdom of Hungary following the defeat of his father by Cnut the Great. After the Danish conquest of England in 1016, Canute had Edward, said to be only a few months old, and his brother Edmund, sent to the Swedish court of Olof Skötkonung (who was either Canute’s half-brother or his stepbrother), supposedly with instructions to have the children murdered. However, Olof was an old ally of Æthelred the Unready, the princes’ grandfather; therefore, he instead secretly sent the Æthelings to the Hungarian royal court of King Stephen I, fearing they were unsafe in the north, where Cnut’s power was great. The boys found a peaceful home at the Hungarian royal court with King Stephen and Queen Gisela, until 1028. When they were about 12 years old, Cnut sent assassins to carry out his original orders to murder the boys. King Stephen sent the princes to Gardorika, the royal court of Kievan ‘Rus’, where they could be protected and educated by Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kyiv. In the 1030’s they were joined by another exiled prince, Andrew of Hungary.

By 1043 Edward was elevated “to a position of sole responsibility where England’s crown or dynastic alliances were concerned.” Prince Andrew returned to Hungary in 1046 to retake the throne; Edward and Edmund are likely to have accompanied him and fought with his army. On hearing that Edward was alive, Edward the Confessor recalled him to England in 1056 and made him his heir. The Exile finally arrived in England in 1057 with his wife and three children, but died within a few days, on 19 April, without meeting the King. He was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral. His eldest daughter, Margaret, born in Hungary, c. 1046, married King Malcolm III (‘Canmore’) of Scotland and was later canonised as Saint Margaret of Scotland (d. 16 November 1093). His son, Edgar Ætheling (c. 1051 – c. 1126) was elected and proclaimed King of England after the Battle of Hastings but submitted to William the Conqueror upon, or soon after the latter’s arrival at Westminster. Edward’s grandchild, Edith of Scotland, also called Matilda, married King Henry I of England, thus continuing the Wessex line into the post-Conquest monarchy of the English Plantagenets.

(Source: Wikipedia) 


Philip Warner (1973, ’76), Famous Battles of the Midlands. Glasgow: Fontana/ Collins.

Bernard Cornwell (2020), War Lord. London: HarperCollins.

Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

John Hayward, Simon Keynes (eds.) (2001), Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

McCrum, Cran & MacNeil (1987), The Story Of English. New York: Penguin Viking.

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British: From Ice Age to Norman Conquest. London: Guild Publishing.

David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

William Anderson & Clive Hicks (1985), Holy Places of the British Isles: A guide to the legendary and sacred sites. London: Ebury Press.

Philip Parker (2017), History of Britain in Maps. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (c. 1936), A Sketch-Map History of Britain & Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.


The Coming of the Northmen: from Coastal Raids to Inland Battles in Britain & Ireland, 789-871.

Pirates or Merchant Adventurers?

Out of the North, they came, more warriors from the fringes of the Baltic. Norsemen, Vikings, Danes, many names, but one overriding characteristic – they came first to raid and plunder in tall-prowed sailing ships that had carried these sea-rovers to the Mediterranean and the coasts of a new world across the northern ocean. Driven by poverty and discontent, these pagan warriors set forth in search of plunder and adventure. For more than half a century their sporadic visits devastated small coastal areas as they probed the strengths and weaknesses of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This was the beginning of what has been called the Viking Age, which lasted from the end of the eighth century until well into the eleventh century. From the late eighth century, the Argyll coast was continually ravaged by Vikings, while in the east more sustained raids on the Picts from 839 undermined the Pictish élite, paving the way for their take-over in 844 by a new Gaelic dynasty, headed by Cináed mac Alpín (‘Kenneth MacAlpin’, died 858), king of the Scots of Dál Riata, who now seized the kingship of the Picts. Before the end of the ninth century, this new kingdom had become known as ‘Scotia’ and it was not long before the Picts, together with their language and most of their cultural traditions, had disappeared from the history of the islands. This eastern Gaelic kingdom, with its new ceremonial centre at Scone, provided the basis for a Scottish state, which survived throughout the Middle Ages.

By around 800 it is possible to identify five or six kingdoms within Britain with the social and administrative characteristics of a state, while in Ireland large regional polities were being formed. However, we will never know how these kingdoms might have developed had they been left to their own devices. Viking raids and settlements led to cataclysmic upheavals and disintegration and transformation of the political landscape. Of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only Wessex survived. In the north, the Vikings were instrumental in the birth of the kingdom of Alba out of the dying ashes of the Pictish-Gaelic kingdom. In Ireland, the effect of the Vikings was to disintegrate attempts to create a unified Ireland until the eleventh century. Only Wales was to emerge from the Viking era battered and bruised, but little changed in territorial terms.

A carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, written and illuminated in Northumbria towards the end of the seventh century.

There had been many illuminated manuscripts produced in Britain and Ireland during the late seventh and eighth centuries. All the skills which had gone into creating a piece of convoluted animal ornament on something like the golden buckle from Sutton Hoo were redeployed in the creation of these illuminations.  Gold and enamel-working techniques were used for making the fittings for the covers of books, and the leather was probably also ornamented. Looking at a carpet page from one of the Lindisfarne Gospels, it can be seen that the overall pattern is made up of many tiny, intertwined animals. The manuscripts represent a fusion of Celtic, Germanic, and classical styles, with ornaments of beasts and spirals. Similarly, the sculptured stone crosses carry ornament of vine scrolls, clearly Mediterranean, with Germanic beasts sitting in their branches. Churches of this period may have been built of timber, much like ordinary houses: traces of post-holes under later stone-built churches are all that remain of these. In addition, a handful of stone buildings remain from the period, mostly in Canterbury or Northumbria, though it’s difficult to be sure which parts of these can really be eighth-century.

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In or around the year 789, a band of Norwegian Vikings killed a royal official at Portland in Wessex. Within a few years, Danish and Norwegian Vikings, ‘plunderers’ in Norse, had launched raids around the entire coastline of Britain and Ireland, as well as through the Channel and the coastlines of the Frankish empire. In 793, they attacked the monastery on Lindisfarne, the burial-place of St Cuthbert (634-686). Alcuin of York chronicled the attack on Lindisfarne:

Never before has such an atrocity been seen… The church of St Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans – a place more sacred than any in Britain.

He was clear that the reason for the visitation was the wickedness of the English, the explanation Gildas had given three centuries earlier, except that then it was the Englische who had been the instrument of God’s wrath upon the British, and now, according to Bede’s prediction, it was the peaceful, Christian English who had, within one generation, laid aside their weapons, preferring… to take monastic vows rather than study the arts of war and whose ‘pacifism’, or lack of preparedness, was to be rewarded by northern sea pirates assailing them in the next generation. With the benefit of hindsight, later chroniclers expressed a similar view, as the raids spread all around the coasts of Britain, Ireland, and France. For the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the year 793 was one of awesome significance:

In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne with plunder and slaughter.

Manuscript D.

The Viking attack on Lindisfarne was not the first Norse raid on Britain but to contemporaries, it was the most dramatic example yet of a force that was to become a deadly threat to the English kingdoms. Monasteries were the favourite targets of the Vikings, as the attacks on Iona and Lindisfarne had shown. Sited as they were on or near the coast or on navigable rivers, monasteries were rich, but also virtually defenceless and, being pagans, the Vikings were not deterred by the spiritual sanctions that protected the Church when Christians were at war with each other. Exploiting the speed of their longships to the full, the Vikings could attack, plunder and disappear over the horizon before local defenders could launch a counter-attack. The earliest Viking raids were carried out by small fleets of up to about a dozen ships, but the numbers recorded in contemporary annals began to increase in the 830s until, by the 850s, fleets of several hundred ships are reported.

The ship was excavated at Gokstad in Norway, now in the ship museum in Oslo. A replica of this was made in the nineteenth century soon after it was found and it was sailed from Bergen to Newfoundland in only twenty-eight days.

For at least another generation after these initial raids, however, the threat to the English kingdoms remained unfulfilled, and although isolated raids took place they did not become the major focus of Viking attention until 835. Continuing into the 840s, the sea-rovers raided and plundered the coasts around the British Isles in their tall-prowed sailing ships, probing the strengths and weaknesses of the Irish, British, Scottish, and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Their main areas of activity reflected the locations of their homelands, the Norwegians concentrating on Scotland, Ireland, and Cumbria, while the Danes focused on eastern and southern Britain. It was probably Ireland that suffered most severely during this first phase of Viking activity, partly due to its division into some half-dozen competing provincial kingdoms whose kings exercised a loose sway over dozens of quarrelsome tributary sub-kingdoms. This extremely decentralised power structure made any kind of coordinated defence difficult. Beginning in 836, the Vikings began to build fortified bases, called longphorts by the Irish, that were occupied only briefly, but a few became permanent settlements, which in the tenth century developed into Ireland’s first true towns. Dublin, founded in 841, was the most successful of these, owing much of its early growth to Viking slave trading. But it was to be the impact of the Danish Vikings on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was to prove most dramatic.

Marauders & Murderers?

A typical school textbook picture from the 1980s.

Viking raids were shocking to their victims, not only for their violence and unpredictability. Early medieval Christians confidently believed in the power of the saints: that they had not intervened to protect their monasteries from impious pagans surely meant that the Viking raids were an expression of the wrath of God against a sinful people. The raids were in reality caused by social and political developments in Scandinavia itself. Eighth-century Scandinavia was experiencing the early stages of state formation, and competition for power had created a violent, predatory society.

The popular image of the Vikings has followed that of the Christian chroniclers in painting them as wholly savage pagan marauders and murderers, whose only aims were slaughter and pillage, and whose path could be tracked and traced by the burning churches and the blood of martyred saints. These warriors fought without fear, since death in battle was their desired end, rewarded by eternal feasting in Valhalla. The familiar picture (above right) used to be of a giant axe-wielding Scandinavian, complete with winged helmet, blood dripping from his fulsome blonde moustache, with captive women slung over his shoulder, appearing suddenly out of the sea mist, then disappearing with equal speed to his wild northern homeland. The monastic commentators were even more biased than they had been about previous incursions and invasions since they were naturally especially appalled by the pagan raiders’ totally indiscriminate violence at holy places. Of course, in this respect, and in their own terms, they were very discriminating, since these places were full of wonderfully undefended heaps of loot for the taking. Accounts of numbers of ships and men were often also exaggerated by the chroniclers, especially when recounting defeats of the defenders, which they made seem less ignominious by laying stress on the overwhelming odds against their faithful few.

Kilpeck, Herefordshire. The door to this small church which contains some of the most important sculpture of the early twelfth century. Celtic, Nordic, and older indigenous symbols are brought together here in a remarkable synthesis. Note the chevron device on the lintel with the tree of life in the tympanum.

In Anglo-Saxon law, the definition of an army was more than thirty men, so the Danish armies which later began to invade eastern England and France probably numbered only hundreds, not thousands or tens of thousands, such as those mustered by the French-Norsemen, or Normans, at the end of the eleventh century. There is also the question as to how many warriors could fit into a ship, particularly relevant to the period of invasion and settlement, rather than that of the early raids. A ship bearing wives and property, bags and baggage, would not have had room for many warriors and their weaponry. Excavations of various Scandinavian towns and settlements have focused attention on domestic life, and the achievements of craftsmen and artists, while their travels have been redefined in terms of merchant adventure rather than piracy. In their long, narrowboats, the raiding parties made their raids all along the coasts of Europe, as the map below shows, carrying terror and destruction wherever they went. Ireland, an outstanding centre of Christian culture hitherto, recovered only slowly from the calamities which overtook it. Following the death of Charlemagne, no power was strong enough to withstand the raiders. They did much to destroy the civilization which had been so painstakingly rebuilt after the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. The map shows the lands attacked by the Northmen, extending from the Caspian Sea, in the east, to the west coast of Ireland, and even across the North Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. It also shows the lands in which they ultimately settled. In Russia, Swedish adventurers, under a leader called Rurik, established trading centres at Novgorod and Kyiv in 862. From this merchant kingdom, they attacked the wealthy city of Constantinople.


During the continuous and devastating attacks of the Northmen on Europe, law and order broke down. As there was no strong central government to help coastal village communities to defend themselves, they sought protection from powerful counts and nobles whom Charlemagne had entrusted with power. In return for this, those who could not protect themselves gave up their lands. There were thus a number of petty rulers all over western Europe acting almost independently from the Holy Roman Emperor, and the common people lived by working for these rich and powerful men, who gave them back sufficient land to meet their immediate needs. This was the beginning of the new order of society that historians have referred to as ‘feudalism’. Among the Northmen, initially, piracy was primarily a way for ambitious men to gain wealth, reputation, and an armed following to pursue their ambitions at home. However, the ineffectiveness of the opposition soon persuaded some Vikings that it would be possible to seize land as well as plunder. The earliest Viking raids were carried out by small fleets of up to about a dozen ships, but the number recorded in contemporary annals began to increase in the 830s until, by the 850s, fleets of several hundred ships are reported. But the extent and frequency of the Norse raids increased showing that their object was still to plunder rather than to settle.

Picture stone from Gotland in Sweden, showing scenes (probably) from Norse mythology, including representations of a boat and a larger ship.

The relatively orderly and peaceful progress of the eighth-century English towards Christian civilization was disturbed at the beginning of the ninth century by these attacks of the Northmen. The raids were widespread and included attacks on Northumbria, Lindsay, Mercia, and East Anglia, with the heaviest raids falling on the southern and eastern coasts. The attacks were not always successful, and several of their expeditions were met by strong English forces. A joint Norse-British army was defeated by Egbert of Wessex in 838 at Hingston Down and in 851 his son, Aethelwulf wiped out a Viking force transported by 350 ships at the Battle of Aclea, somewhere south of the Thames.

The Invasions of the Eastern Kingdoms:

Following the Battle of Ellandun, the Anglo-Saxons stopped fighting each other and turned their attention to fighting battles against the new invaders. The next half-century, up to 871, saw a succession of disastrous and bloody battles against the Danes. The dates and details of these encounters are not available, largely because there were few survivors among the Saxons to tell the tale. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had just settled into becoming Christian kingdoms with their peoples living in peaceful agricultural communities. The cruelty of the ‘Vikings’, their wholesale destruction and heathenism, caused them to be branded as uncivilized barbarians; however, in recent years, archaeological discoveries, like those at York but also throughout the British Isles, have established that the various Scandinavian groups had well-developed cultures of their own. But there is little doubt that to the eighth-century Saxons at least, they were an appalling problem. In their long, graceful boats, they could range far and wide, and it was not unusual for them to cover two hundred miles in twenty-four hours. On land they were able to appropriate horses, of which there were plentiful supplies in East Anglia, enabling them to raid further inland. When they were victorious they continued to raid towns and churches, monasteries and villages; if by any chance they encountered strong resistance they would simply move on to carry on their brand of destruction on areas where they would not have been expected. Their complete disregard for the lives of their ‘victims’ was matched by their fearless attitudes to their own deaths. In a storm they would drive their boats at full speed, glorying in the danger, often allowing them to be smashed against the rocks because they refused to shorten sail.

No wonder, then, that the Saxons soon included in their Christian services the words, From the Fury of the Norsemen, good Lord deliver us (A furore Normanorum libera nos). As the news of the vulnerability of England travelled back to Scandinavia with the early raiders, raids became more continuous and were made by larger bodies of men. Soon too, short of land in their homelands, they came to England to settle. From 841, we read that the Saxons began to turn their attention away from their own internecine squabbles:

In this year Ealderman Hercbehert was killed by heathen men and many were killed in Lindsay, East Anglia and Kent.

In 842 many were killed in London and Rochester.

In 843 King Aethelwulf fought against the crews of 35 ships at Carhampton, and the Danes had possession of the battlefield.

In 845 the people of Somerset and the people of Dorset fought against the Danish army at the mouth of the Parret and there made a great slaughter and had the victory.

This ‘fightback’ seemed to teach the Saxons that their survival and salvation lay in unity, difficult as that might be for them to achieve. But then, for the year 851, we read:

In this year the men of Devon fought against the heathen army at Wicgeanburg and the English made great slaughter there and had the victory. And the same year, 350 ships came into the the mouth of the Thames and stormed Canterbury and London and put to flight Brihtwulf, King of the Mercians, with his army, and went south across the Thames into Surrey. And King Aethelwulf and his son Aethelbald fought against them at Aclea with the army of the West Saxons and there inflicted the greatest slaughter that we ever heard of until this present day, and had the victory there.

Aethelwulf had obviously learnt something from his previous defeat enabling him to win this victory. Unfortunately, however, it was not enough, since the Danes continued to filter through defensive lines in all directions. Some had fortified themselves on the isles of Thanet and Sheppey and could not be driven out. In desperation, the West Saxons deposed Aethelwulf and elected his son in his place, but this did not change the downward spiral of events. The Danes burnt Winchester and sacked York, occupying large parts of Northumbria and making its surviving population serfs.


The Danes had wintered in East Anglia in 850 and on the Isle of Thanet in Kent in 854 but their expeditions had ended in a return to Scandinavia. In 865, however, a new and more dangerous situation arose with the arrival in East Anglia, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, of a ‘great heathen army’ from Denmark. Led by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, including Healfden, Ubba, and Ivar the Boneless, being already of royal blood, their object was conquest rather than plunder. They spent their first year subduing East Anglia and equipping themselves with horses so that they could undertake the conquest of Northumbria as a mounted force. The terrified East Anglians fell back before the invaders. King Edmund sought peace and by the terms of the treaty, the Danes were allowed to winter in Suffolk and were given horses to carry their baggage. Edmund’s speedy capitulation may have lacked valour, but it saved his people much suffering. For several months the Norsemen consolidated their position and prepared for the next campaigning season. In the Spring, Edmund and his subjects watched as their unwanted guests went westwards to attack Northumbria and Mercia. By seizing horses from the East Anglians, the Danes enjoyed the same mobility on land as their longships had given them at sea. First to succumb was Northumbria, which was engaged in a civil war at the time: In 866 they captured York and in 867 defeated a Northumbrian army which had succeeded in storming the Roman walls of the city. Two Northumbrian kings perished in the attack and the Danes installed an Englishman named Egbert as their puppet ruler. The whole of the kingdom between the Humber and the Tees was occupied. This northern thrust had been made by the ‘Great Army’ under two kings, Guthrum and Bagsaeg, but even after this, they were still set on further conquest.

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An Anglian helmet, excavated in the Coppergate, York. It includes a nasal (nose guard) and a mail protective skirt for the warrior’s neck.

In 869 they returned to East Anglia laden with spoil, flushed with triumph, and heedless of their former treaty with the East Anglians. They wintered at Thetford and used it as a base from which to ravage the monasteries and countryside of the region. Edmund could no longer honourably allow this rampage to go unchecked. He came forth to do battle and thus an insignificant king became a martyr, saint, and a legend, achieving greater fame in death than life. According to Roger of Wendover, a great battle was fought near Thetford, lasting from dawn till dusk, till the stricken field was red with the blood of the countless number who perished. Edmund, seemingly, won the day, but not long afterwards he and his bodyguard found themselves besieged in the Saxon fort at Framlingham, on top of the mound where the Norman stone-built castle now stands. He escaped northwards, and the rest is the stuff of legend, much of it confused. Some accounts portray him as a deliberate martyr, surrendering himself to save his people from further suffering. Others recount how he escaped his enemies by cunning, but before long was caught, tortured, and executed. Historians seem to agree that the site of his martyrdom was Hellesdon near Norwich. However, the people of Hoxne claim that their village was the scene of the sainted king’s last days. Apparently, he was hiding beneath a bridge when a bridal party happened to cross it, and the bride noticed a golden gleam in the water below, the king’s spurs. She exclaimed, and the king was taken by the Danish warriors guarding the bridge.

The details of Edmund’s death are more extensive yet shrouded in legend. The King’s standard-bearer was with him to the end and related the events to Bishop Dunstan, so that they were then incorporated into the tenth-century Passion of St Edmund, according to which, Edmund was brought to a tree in the neighbourhood, tied to it, and for a long while tortured with terrible lashes. Despite this brutal treatment, the Bishop relates that his constancy was unbroken, while without ceasing he called on Christ with a broken voice. This offended the pagan sensitivities of the Danes still further, apparently, and they began shooting arrows at various parts of his body, demanding that he renounce his faith. Know you not that I have the power to kill you? demanded the Danish warlord, to which Edmund replied, know you not that I know how to die? At last, they silenced him by cutting off his head, at which point legend takes over again. When the body was moved to Beodericsworth (Bury St Edmund’s) in the tenth century, it was claimed that the head and body had somehow perfectly reunited themselves, neither showing any signs of decomposition. By then, Edmund had become a folk hero for all the ‘oppressed’ Anglo-Saxons. Churches were dedicated to him and King Alfred issued memorial coins bearing his image. These stories surrounding Edmund reveal the apparent barbarism and ferocity which accompanied the Danish invasion, savagery made worse by the clash of religious cultures.

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By the later ninth century, many Vikings were as interested in settlement as in plundering. The Danes settled in the largest numbers, after their conquest of much of eastern England in 865-74.

The sheer, persistent violence of the Danish attacks broke up the old Heptarchy of the English kingdoms. Only Wessex survived, fortunate in the leadership of its kings, like Egbert and Aethelred. But then, in 871, it too met the full force of the Danes and it needed an exceptionally able king to first halt and then eventually repel them.

A Parallel Narrative of the Vikings – ‘Raiders into Traders’:

The Coppergate Dig in York.

From this point, however, another side to the Viking story also emerges. Quite naturally, modern Scandinavians have preferred to stress the more constructive aspect of their ancestors’ lives, and many British scholars have followed suit, especially the archaeologists who excavated the Viking settlement of Jorvik in York’s Coppergate in the 1970s. The excavations produced a sequence of buildings dating from the time when York was under Viking rule, from 866 to 954 (with a gap from 927 to 939). After the excavation, the York Archaeological Trust managed to persuade the developers to incorporate the imaginative Jorvik Museum in the basement of their new buildings.

Remains of a tenth-century wooden house with a sunken floor from York. This was probably a workshop, with perhaps a shop at the front,
but the modern street lies too close for the early street to be excavated.

Visitors can experience a literal journey back in time into a recreation of part of the tenth-century city, with its authentic houses, shops, pots and pans, people and clothes, animals, and even part of a ship. There are even attempts to replicate sounds, speech in Old Norse, and smells of all kinds of rubbish, even human excreta. In the 1980s this kind of museum was an entirely new experience, and a remarkable one too. It certainly changed our view of the Vikings. It also demystified the work of archaeologists for the general public, showing the exact processes of excavation and scientific analysis of finds. It was followed by Viking exhibitions in the British Museum and elsewhere which have pursued the same theme of the domestic Viking life with accounts of Scandinavian towns and trade, craft, industry, and art. Excavations in Scandinavia itself, like those in Britain, have begun to show a much clearer picture of what life was like in the ninth and tenth centuries. The small populations of Sweden and Norway mostly lived in farmsteads scattered along the shores of lakes or fjords, communicating by boat rather than overland. In Denmark, there were larger villages, neatly laid out along streets. There were also some more extensive settlements, which might even be described as towns. It is possible, therefore, to write books about the Vikings which concentrate on such things as their houses, art, and skill in woodcarving, with foreign travel thrown in as mostly peaceful trade or exploration. However, we know that whole families migrated and settled in Britain and Ireland and that armies of various sizes continued to maraud across Britain and Europe for generations. Why did this happen and what was their impact on the countries they invaded and settled in?

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Wooden bowls from the Coppergate excavations at York.

The Danish Conquest of the English Kingdoms, 870-71:

There is no clear, agreed answer to the first question. Medieval Norse sagas tell of oppression by kings which drove men from their homes, and centralisation of authority under stronger royal dynasties might well have led to conflicts as a result of which the unsuccessful contestants could well have decided to make their fortunes elsewhere. There may also have been pressure on land, caused either by rising populations or fluctuations in climate. The realisation that there were richer and more fertile lands of the British Isles and France which could not just be raided for wealth, but taken over altogether, would have been a powerful motivating factor for the younger sons of farmers scratching for a living on a narrow strip of land on a fjord. This would have been less true of Denmark, however, where the pressure might be better seen in terms of political or population pressure. In many cases, as with later great migrations, there was probably a complex of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors at work. Eventually, the invasion of eastern Britain became part of an expansionist, imperial exercise on the part of the Danish kings.


Having ravaged East Anglia, the Norse army next turned against Mercia but was content to come to terms when confronted by a joint Mercian and West Saxon force. The following year Wessex was invaded. Since it had overthrown the hegemony of Mercia at the battle of Ellendun in 825, Wessex had been the strongest Anglo-Saxon kingdom and the Danes were repulsed only after five hard-fought battles. For the next thirty years, the dominant struggle was between the Danes and Wessex, the strongest of the surviving Saxon kingdoms. After the deposition of Aethelwulf as King of Wessex in circa 855, his three elder sons, Aethelbald, Aethelbert and Aethelred ruled in succession, but with no greater success in stopping the incursions of the Danes. In 870, when the ‘Great Army’ sailed up the Thames and launched itself into Wessex, Aethelred came out to meet them, aided by his youngest brother, the eighteen-year-old Alfred. Aethelred’s contribution to what happened next tends to be overlooked in comparison with the deeds of Alfred, but this does not do him justice. Brilliant though Alfred turned out to be, he would have had no chance to display his abilities without Aethelred’s capabilities. Alfred was, of course, an exceptional individual in his time who had been sent as a child to be baptised by Pope Leo. From early youth, he had shown great promise as a scholar and had been given that special type of leadership that brings out the best in men whatever their abilities and interests. Vitally important at this time, however, were his military skills. He was an inspiring figure on the battlefield but also knew that there was a lot more to winning a war than a single victory. Thus when the Danes moved into Mercia, taking up winter quarters at Nottingham, Burgred, King of Mercia appealed to Aethelred and Alfred to help him. Alfred was just sixteen at the time, but already a veteran of many battles and skirmishes.

By this time the Danes were a large, well-organised force. But their size and scale conferred disadvantages on them as well as advantages. Smaller raiding forces could live off the land far more easily, had few factional or disciplinary difficulties, needed few orders and did not need to hold ground. this new ‘Great Army’ therefore had a major logistical problem, that of needing to be near adequate supplies of food. It also needed sufficient space to deploy under a unified command. Furthermore, it was no longer operating against unprepared monasteries or villages; it was now confronted with an armed countryside, full of look-outs, a place where food would be difficult to obtain and where stragglers or small foraging parties would be cut off and exterminated. They had lost the element of surprise along with much of its mobility. It could indeed send raiders on horseback for isolated forays but the mass of the army’s ranks was bound to be slow-moving and cumbersome. Alfred would have noted that. Like the Saxons, the Danes fought with swords sometimes, but their favourite weapon was the battle-axe. It was a two-handed weapon and in the hands of a skilled warrior could be used adroitly for thrusting and parrying. Nevertheless, although the axe was a far more versatile weapon than is usually believed, it carried one considerable disadvantage: it needed space. It could not be brought into action rapidly in a surprise attack unless those under attack were in open order (widely spaced). There is, of course, a peculiar fascination about a weapon which is swung, whether an axe or a broadsword, but there was often that it may do more damage to your own side than to your foes, Alfred would have noted this when he went with his brother to assist the Mercians at Nottingham and fought in a drawn battle with the Danes. The axe was much loved by the Danish warriors since they could slice a man in two in half with it, and literally carve their way to victory. But sentimentality about their weapons could also blind them to their limitations and the need for change.

The Battle of Ashdown, 871 and all that:

The Danes, flushed with their successes against the Northumbrians, East Anglians and Mercians, marched from Thetford to set up headquarters at Reading, where in late December they established a fortified camp between the Thames and the Kennet. They realised that they had not yet met the full power of Saxon resistance and that it would be concentrated somewhere west of them. They sent out a foraging party, which was scattered by a force under Aethelwulf, the Eolderman of Berkshire. Apart from all other strategic considerations, the Danes realised that they would be outnumbered, and they were already experienced enough in their hinterland campaigns to know that a disparity in numbers could be nullified if the inferior force was able to fight from behind defences, or at least from prepared positions. There were, of course, other factors that could mitigate being outnumbered: weapons, experience, training and tactics, but the most consistent was to build a fortification. They, therefore, made a rampart between the rivers Thames and Kennet on the right side of the royal city. We have two different accounts of these and subsequent events, one from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the other from Bishop Asser, Bishop of Sherbourne, and Alfred’s contemporary. While some of the Danes were making the defences, others ‘scoured the countryside for plunder’. They were soon proved right, however, in their expectations of resistance, for:

They were encountered by Aethelwulf, the eolderman of Berkshire, at a place called Englefield, both sides fought bravely and made long resistance. At length, one of the pagan jarls was slain, and the greater part of the army destroyed, upon which the rest saved themselves by flight, and the Christians gained the victory.

Four days later, the main Saxon army joined Aethelwulf and together they drove the Danish outposts into Reading and attacked the enemy camp, but their attack failed and Aethelwulf was killed. The Saxons retreated to the northwest, where King Aethelred and his brother Alfred attempted to rally their men. The twenty-two-year-old Alfred already held the rank secundarius, heir to the throne, or Aetheling, and his authority over the Saxon Army was already considerable, as Asser later recorded:

Four days afterwards, Aethelred, King of the West Saxons, and his brother Alfred, united their forces and marched to Reading, where, on their arrival, they cut to pieces the pagans whom they found outside the fortifications. But the pagans, nevertheless, sallied out from the gates and a long and fierce engagement ensued. At last, grief to say, the Christians fled, the pagans obtained the victory, and the aforesaid eolderman Aethelwulf was among the slain.

Bishop Asser

This was a disaster for the West Saxons and the Danes realised it. They themselves had sent out strong reconnaissance parties which had been beaten. The Saxons, over-confident perhaps, had thereupon attacked the Danes in their new stronghold. The Danes had not planned such a clever strategy in that they had drawn the Saxons to fight in a disadvantageous position, but once it had happened they had taken full advantage of it. Now was the time to follow up their victory and carve Wessex in half. Four days later – a day to recover and bury the dead, a day to regroup, a day to confer and get ready, and on the fourth, 7 January 871, the Vikings marched out of their camp to attack the Saxons. Marching the ten miles from Reading to Streatley, they came up the long slope of to the Ridgeway. No doubt they kept a wary eye to the right as they went diagonally up the track, and no doubt they still had their look-outs along the skyline. But nothing appeared and they would have concluded that Saxon morale had been destroyed at the barricades and there would be no more resistance in that part of the country. Once on top of the Ridge, they were safe from surprise attack; doubtless, the Saxons would now keep well out of their way.

Ordnance Survey Map

But the Saxons were there, in their hundreds, if not ‘thousands’, as they had remained within fifteen miles of Reading. Chroniclers have a loose way of describing the size of an army or the numbers killed in battle as ‘thousands’. On this occasion, it is doubtful whether either army numbered more than a thousand, for the Danes would have to have left a garrison to defend its base and the Saxons would have found it difficult to concentrate their forces until they knew exactly where and when the Danes would move. It seems probable that Aethelred and Alfred had received local fyrd reinforcements, if not those that they had awaited from Mercia, and that they had also used the short breathing space since the attack on Reading to revitalise their army. The Danes and the Saxons spent the night of the 7th-8th January camped just a thousand yards (900m) apart astride the Ridgeway on the Berkshire Downs to the northwest of Reading. The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recording the subsequent battle is brief, so we are fortunate to have a fuller account in Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred (supposedly) written only some twenty years after the Battle of Ashdown. Although Asser was not himself present at the battle, his friendship with Alfred, established in 885, must have meant that he heard an account of the battle from the King himself. Asser certainly visited the site of the battle and though his account must be regarded as somewhat partisan, he provides vital detail of the terrain and deployment of the armies.

Despite their recent defeat at Reading, Saxon morale was high and they were determined to fight. Alfred’s problem was to manoeuvre the Danes’ invasion column into a trap. It was no good fighting in a head-on clash along the Ridgeway. The Danes were hard to beat at the best of times and in a straightforward fight were as likely as not to come out the winners as they had, he knew only too well, at Reading. Alfred needed to be able to lure them into a position where they would be too cramped to make full use of their weapons. This would not be easy, though his army was deployed along the Ridgeway by Roden Downs, and just to the north of the Ridgeway and south of Lowbury Hill, site of an old Romano-British temple, was a superb battlefield, like a parade ground. It was an open piece of slightly hollow ground, and it still has what Asser described as a rather small and solitary thorn tree in the middle of it. The Danes would like that, as it would give them room to swing their axes. Alfred used a decoy party to draw them towards it: the Danes thought that this was the rest of the Saxon army and moved forward on them, but the Saxons fell back. At dawn on the 8 January, the Danes formed their battle-line. They divided their forces into two divisions, one commanded by the kings Bagsaeg and Healfdan and the other by the Danish earls. The Saxons conformed to this disposition, forming their army into two columns. So, it was very necessary for the Saxons to decoy all the Danes into the right position before they launched their attack. If the Saxons went in too soon the Danish rear party would come in behind and they too would be trapped. The column commanded by Aethelred was opposite that of the Danish kings and the column led by Alfred was opposite the earls. A pause then ensued and Aethelred decided to use the time in prayers for victory. When warning arrived that the Danes were preparing to attack Aethelred refused to move from his tent before he had finished hearing Mass, declaring (according to Asser) that he would not forsake divine service for that of men.

As they deployed on the battlefield which had been chosen for them, the Danes suddenly noticed that the main Saxon force was not in front of them but had suddenly appeared from behind them, cutting off their retreat. They suspected that they were the object of a tactical plan and they hastily re-formed, putting the two kings in the middle and positioning the earls, jarls and lesser chiefs at the front and on the flanks. They put stakes in the ground, as this was the tried and tested way of holding up an enemy charge; then they waited for the next Saxon move. The Saxons came forward and also put stakes in the ground against a possible Danish charge. Aethelred remained in his tent, praying, and took so long over his devotions that the Danes had already begun the battle when he finally arrived with his column. Alfred was in a desperate position until then, for without Aethelfred’s division he had not enough men for the tactical thrust he had planned. Alfred had to act quickly to avert a major crisis. The Danes had deployed on a ridge higher than that of the Saxon position and if he allowed them to charge down upon the Wessex forces, only half of whom would be ready to receive the attack, so defeat would be certain. Alfred decided that the only chance of victory lay in taking the initiative and attacking the Danes with his own column. His men gave a tremendous shout and charged into the advancing Danes. The battle lines met at a point marked by the thorn tree referred to above. As Asser put it,

Alfred, though possessing a subordinate authority, could no longer restrain the troops of the enemy unless he retreated or charged upon the them without waiting for his brother. At length he bravely led his troops against the hostile army, as they had before arranged, but without waiting for his brother’s arrival; for he relied on the divine counsels, and forming his men into a dense phalanx, marched on at once to meet the foe.

Asser also describes Alfred as acting courageously, like a wild boar in the furious melée that followed in which Aethelred’s troops soon joined. The king himself may still have been at his devotions even then, but it is possible that his late arrival with his immediate retinue was a useful and fresh reinforcement, tipped the balance of fighting in favour of the Saxons. What Alfred knew, and the Danes as yet did not, was that to the east of Lowbury Hill, and behind the Danish position, was a precipice falling to what is now marked on the map as ‘Dean’s Bottom’. ‘Denu’ is the Old English word for a ‘dene’ or valley, but it could also have derived from ‘Dane’. As Danish weapons have been discovered at the bottom of this steep valley, it seems as if at least part of Alfred’s plan worked. Driving with tremendous force onto the Danish lines he made them fall back to give themselves more room. The Saxon casualties would have been very high as they charge up the slopes onto an army that was prepared to receive them. Only superb leadership could have taken that Saxon force to the point at which the retreating Danes, unfamiliar with the countryside, would find a precipice behind them if they were not already over it. As their rear line steadied and came forward involuntarily the swinging axes would do as much harm to their own side as to the Saxons. Something like panic would infect the Danes for there are few more unnerving experiences than trying to confront an enemy who is trying to push you over a precipice. It was at that point that Aethelred’s men, heartened by the successful conclusion of his prayers, hurled themselves into the battle. To the Danes, it must have looked as though fresh tides of reinforcements were on the way.

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From Smurthwaite’s OS Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Left: Part of the battle site on the downs along the Ridgeway, as it appears today, showing the features described, including the Thorn Tree, Dean’s Bottom and Lowbury Hill.

As their casualties mounted, the Danes began to give ground until they suddenly broke and fled from the field in what became a complete and bloody rout. Bishop Asser described the way the battle ended:

And when both armies had fought long and bravely, at last the pagans, by the divine judgement, were no longer able to bear the attacks of the Christians, and having lost the greater part of their army, took to disgraceful flight. One of their two kings and five jarls, were there slain, together with many thousand pagans, who fell on all sides, covering with their bodies the whole plain of Ashdune.

There fell in that battle King Bagsac, jarl Sidrac the elder and jarl Sidrac the younger, jarl Osbern, jarl Frene, and jarl Harald, and the whole pagan army pursued its flight, not only until evening but until the next day, until they reached the stronghold from which they had sallied. The Christians followed, slaying all they could reach, until it became dark.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the death of two kings, not one, and the same number of earls. It says that many thousands were killed and they continued fighting until night. The remnants of the Danish army did not regroup until they were safely back among the earthworks at Reading. Although we can still not pinpoint the exact location of the Battle of Ashdown, the most likely area is that shown on the maps around Lowbury Hill northwest of Streatley along the Ridgeway. But although the Saxon victory was complete, it provided little strategic advantage since two weeks later Aethelred and Alfred were defeated by a Danish army at Basing to the south of Reading. A further defeat followed at a site called Meretun, as the following entry in the Chronicle reports:

And two months later, King Aethelred and his brother Alfred fought against the army at Merton, and they were in two divisions; and they put both to flight, and were victorious far on into the day, and there was great slaughter on both sides, and the Danes had possession of the battlefield. And after this battle a great summer army came to Reading.

In April 871 Aethelred died, perhaps as a result of wounds received in battle. Alfred succeeded to the throne and although he continued to fight, success eluded his armies. After a year of heavy fighting, the Danish threat was as strong as ever and Alfred was forced to buy peace. His efforts to drive the Danes out of Wessex met with very moderate success, though he and his brother had at least prevented the Danes from annexing part of the kingdom and had successfully defended their own royal capital. Clearly, there was some characteristic in these Danish armies on which the chroniclers omit to comment. The reason why they won so many battles both before and after Ashdown was not simply a matter of numbers. Both sides suffered enormous casualties. At Merton, the Saxons put the Danes to flight, but still somehow lost the battle. All in all, the course of the campaign in Wessex suggests that there was far more subtlety in these battles than simply a series of contests between spear-throwers and axe-swingers. It looks as if the Danes were more than capable of fighting delaying actions and then committing vital reserves at the critical moment.

Alfred was a highly intelligent general who never underrated his enemies nor the scale and scope of his task. The war was one of constant mobility and Alfred was constantly harassing and diverting the Danish invaders. Occasionally, as at Ashdown, his strategy brought him into a pitched battle and there were doubtless occasions when, unlike at Ashdown, he made a mistake and the Danes held the initiative. The Danes should not have had superiority in numbers, however, for the population of England was less than a million (probably 900,000) at the time; but Alfred may have known only too well that in a pitched battle the Danes were, man for man, better warriors than the Saxons. After losing Aethelred, Alfred – still a very young man – had to fight a war in which he dare not commit all his forces. One great defeat and his kingdom would be lost. At Wilton (near Salisbury), still in 871, a year of battles, the Saxons took on another huge Danish army and put it to flight, but had to retreat hastily when the Danes rallied. The cost to both sides was punitive. The Saxons were fighting for their kingdom so, even though outnumbered and often outfought, they made the Danes respect them. Eventually, after heavy losses on both sides, a truce was signed at the end of the year 871. Alfred was to emerge as the greatest of the ‘Old English’ kings; we may compare his work, albeit on a smaller scale, as equivalent to that of Charlemagne. He first drove the Danes back into East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. He paid them to leave Wessex in peace, and they did so for seven years until 878. During those years, he began to reorganise his kingdom, overcoming great internal difficulties.

Early Viking Settlements:

The Norwegians made early settlements in Ireland and the Faroe Islands, and we remember this because it was the latter, in the twelfth century that the eddas and sagas, the stories for which the Northmen were famous, were first written down. They told of gods and heroes, handed down for generations by word of mouth alone. They give us a glimpse into ancient society in northern Europe. Wherever they settled, the Northmen enriched the people they conquered with some of their best qualities – energy, courage and independence. They were very adaptable, quickly mingling with the people among whom they settled, absorbing their language and customs.

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The earliest substantial Viking settlement in the British Isles was probably in Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides: the exact date is unknown but it was certainly underway by about 850, and soon after Orkney had become the centre of a powerful Norse earldom. The isles were convenient bases for raiding the mainland. These raids were certainly destructive but sometimes native leaders were able to benefit from them. The British kingdom of Strathclyde was also weakened when the Dublin Vikings sacked their capital at Dumbarton in 870-71 and from that point, it fell increasingly under the influence of the Scots. Thus the early growth of the Scottish kingdom was largely the result of the Viking description of the ethnic relations of northern Britain. Its strategic position in the middle of the Irish Sea made the Isle of Man attractive for Viking settlement. Though the native Celtic population was not wiped out, the distribution of archaeological sites and Scandinavian place names shows that the settlers seized the best land for themselves. The many silver hoards suggest that the island prospered by its proximity to Dublin’s important Viking trading centre.


Meanwhile, York became perhaps the most significant ‘Viking’ settlement in Britain. It had been a legionary fortress and thriving civilian settlement on the Ouse in Roman times. A provincial capital in the third century, like other British towns, it fell into decay with the end of Roman rule, and the local Romano-British kings were supplanted by Anglian kings. Despite the demise of its empire, Rome retained residual prestige as a ‘badge’ of authority, which helped to ensure York’s survival as a power centre, if not as a fully functioning town. York’s revival as an urban centre of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria began with the growth of trade between Britain and the Continent in the seventh and eighth centuries. This stimulated the development of trading ports or wics, on navigable waterways, including Hamwic (Southampton), Gipeswic (Ipswich), Lundenwic (London), and Eoforwic (York). At York, the site of the legionary fortress continued to be occupied as a royal and ecclesiastical centre with an international reputation for learning, but the main focus of settlement was to the south, on the banks of the Ouse and its tributary, the Fosse. Both archaeological and literary sources suggest that the town’s main trade links were with Frisia and the lower Rhine.

The pointer on the left-hand side points to Coppergate, the site of the major archaeological dig carried out in 1976-81.

In England, the process of assimilation was made easier, as the languages spoken by the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes were similar enough to be mutually intelligible with a little effort. Though it was the Danish who finished up speaking English, English vocabulary was greatly enriched by loan words from Danish, including ‘sky’, ‘egg’, ‘sister’ and ‘skin’. The Danish settled areas of England later became known as ‘the Danelaw’ because of Danish influence on the legal customs there, which persisted until the Norman Conquest. In the Hebrides and southwest Scotland, a hybrid Gaelic-Norse population emerged, known to the Irish as ‘Gall-Gaedhil’ (‘foreign Gael’ ), from which Galloway gets its name. It was only in Orkney and Shetland that the settlers escaped assimilation to the natives – here it was the native Picts who adopted Scandinavian ways and speech. Almost all placenames here are Scandinavian, suggesting a particularly dense Viking settlement. Norn, a Scandinavian dialect, continued to be spoken in the northern isles until the eighteenth century when it was replaced by English.

A Pictish stone house at Buckquoy, Orkney. The oval, lobed shape is very different from later Norse rectangular buildings.

The revisionist view of the Vikings as peaceful traders and settlers has not always won support. Archaeologists like Anna Ritchie, working in the Orkneys, have argued for integration between the native Picts and the incoming Scandinavians. She excavated the settlement shown above where the objects found in both types of houses, Pictish and Viking, and what they revealed about the way of life of their inhabitants, did not seem to have changed much, if at all. On the island of Birsay, there are remains of both Norse houses and earlier Pictish ones, but the relationship between the two is not very clear. Of the Picts on Birsay, nothing now remains except a replica of a carved stone, shown below.

Carving of three Pictish warriors from Birsay, Orkney.

The island was later the home of the Earls of Orkney, so it may have been a Pictish centre of some importance since considerable amounts of metalworking debris have also been found there. Elsewhere, however, north of Galloway, it was not until the twelfth century, that the assimilation of the Viking settlers to the native Gaels was complete. In the Hebrides, excavations have also shown that native houses were succeeded by Norse, but in this case, the transition is seen as violent: the natives were displaced or suppressed. So similar evidence can be read to tell a rather different story. In northern and eastern England, there is surprisingly little direct evidence of Viking violence. There are signs of burning on the bishop’s throne from North Elmham in Norfolk, and an ingot mould from Whitby might have been used in melting down Viking loot. The stone from Lindisfarne which shows warriors waving axes may well commemorate a raid, and the monasteries at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth seem to have been burnt down at some stage. But this is not a very long list, and alternative explanations for all of these incidents could be found.

After it was captured in 866, York was made the capital of an important kingdom. By the end of the century, the area of the old Roman colony was being resettled and the population had reached about ten thousand, making ‘Jorvik’ a large city by contemporary standards and, in the British Isles, second only to London in size. Though they were pagans, the Scandinavian kings did not interfere with the Church, and they adopted other institutions of the Northumbrian kingdom, such as the mint, which continued to produce coins with both pagan and Christian symbols. York’s Roman walls were refurbished, and evidence suggests effective urban planning and the laying out of parts of the city into regular tenement blocks and streets in the early tenth century. To York’s established Continental trade links, the Vikings brought new connections with Scandinavia and Ireland. Viking settlement in Ireland remained limited, partly due to Ireland’s relative decentralisation compared with the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. There were no pre-eminent power centres to capture and the extended royal families of each of the main provincial kingdoms and sub-kingdoms meant that the Vikings had an endless succession of ‘kings’ to fight. The Vikings remained confined to their fortified coastal settlements, such as Dublin, from where they also raided the coasts of Wales as far as Swansea, named after one of their leaders, but there were few permanent settlements and no discernable cultural impact.

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A scene (and below) from the Jorvik Museum.

York would not have impressed visiting merchants from the more urbanised Mediterranean world. Only its churches were built of stone, and these were modest structures, mostly lacking towers even in the eleventh century. Most other buildings were built of timber, wattle, clay and thatch. Life in the crowded waterfront was damp, muddy and unhygienic – latrines were often dug within ten feet of wells used for drinking water. Settlement in other parts of the city was far less dense, allowing space for fields, vegetable gardens and orchards. The end of Viking rule in 954 did not interrupt York’s prosperity. The city’s Scandinavian population was not expelled – it had begun to assimilate with the native English through intermarriage and conversion to Christianity – and York retained an Anglo-Scandinavian character until well after the Norman Conquest.

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Certainly, the two decades after 865 were truly terrible for the Christian English of eastern Britain. Churches and monasteries were razed to the ground all along the east coast; holy books were burned and torn (the recently discovered Lindisfarne Gospel of John survived in Cuthbert’s grave); wayside altars were broken; monks, nuns, and priests became fugitives; the Anglo-Saxons either abandoned their Christian faith or met in secret to celebrate the holy mysteries in what could still be made to look like pagan shrines from their pre-Christian period. At the end of the eighth century, England had become a united, prosperous country, with towns and major ports, literature and liturgy, churches and abbeys, kings and bishops. If we then ‘fast-forward’ to the end of the ninth century, however, following the Viking raids, invasions, and settlements, given that it is not possible to date with certainty much of the archaeological evidence precisely, it is clear that the country had passed through a period in which much had been destroyed and lost. But turning away from the documentary evidence, or rather the lack of it, for the arrival of the Vikings in England, another way of assessing their longer-term impact is to try to find out, from archaeology, just how, and how far society changed between the eighth and tenth centuries in both the British Isles and Scandinavia.

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The stones at Jellinge in Denmark. The larger one, set up by Harald Bluetooth, carries a rather Nordic version of the crucifixion. Harold proclaims on the stone that he was the Harold who had won all of Denmark and Norway, and who had made the Danes Christian. He also probably transferred his father’s body from the pagan mound to the new Christian church at Jellinge. The runestones of Scandinavia and the crosses of northern England both lie firmly within the native traditions of their respective countries, but both show signs of a relationship between the pagan Vikings and the Christian Saxons which must have been far more complicated than the overrunning of one people by another.

Even if one does not take all of Harald Bluetooth’s claims on the Jellinge stone (pictured above) at face value, he does seem to have had a notable effect on the landscape. It was probably he who built the strange round forts which still show their form on the landscapes of Jutland, Seeland and Odense. These are all built to the same geometrical plan, with crossing streets and bow-sided houses laid out in squares. The siting of some of these forts shows little regard for topography. They were once interpreted as barracks for troops invading Britain under Harold’s son, Svein Forkbeard, but the dating is wrong for this and their location does not seem sensible for attacks on England. It is more likely that they were to do with imposing and maintaining internal control. There was already a tradition of large-scale engineering in Denmark before the tenth century, and it is interesting to speculate whether the English and Danish states would have developed anyway, without the stimulus provided by the need to organise for attack or defence. Taken altogether, however, the nature of the archaeological evidence for the North Sea region from the eighth to the tenth centuries does show that it was a time of great insecurity on both sides of that sea. The threat came from Scandinavia and was directed against the relatively peaceful and wealthy lands of Britain and the Carolingian empire. In her book, Blood of the British, Catherine Hills concludes that the Viking raids would have emerged even without documentary evidence, based on the archaeology of the period, but it would be less clear whether there was any kind of substantial settlement of Scandinavians. The weight of historical and linguistic material does point to a noticeable influx in some areas, but this has not left us with evidence of a sustained, widespread and substantial impact on the country they invaded.

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Aerial view of the Viking fort at Trelleborg in Denmark, with the foundations of large bow-sided houses shown laid out in regular blocks.

Appendix: ‘The Last Kingdom’ – Bernard Cornwell’s historical note on his novel.

Map prefacing Bernard Cornwell’s book, The Last Kingdom. Cornwell employed whatever spelling he found cited in the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names for the years nearest or contained within Alfred’s reign, 871-899 AD.

Alfred, famously, is the only monarch in English history to be accorded the honour of being called ‘the Great’ and Cornwell’s novel, and the ones that followed, have attempted to show why he gained that title. Broadly speaking, Cornwell wanted to demonstrate that Alfred was responsible for saving Wessex and, ultimately, English society from the Danish assaults, and his son Edward, daughter Aethelflaed and grandson Aethelstan finished what he began to create a political entity called ‘Englaland’. His intention was to involve his main fictional character Uhtred in the whole story. The first book begins in Northumbria in 866 and ends in 877 in the first decade of Alfred’s reign, which began in 871. Cornwell presents Alfred, following the record of him, as a very pious man who was frequently sick. A recent theory suggests that he suffered from Crohn’s Disease, which causes acute abdominal pains, and from chronic piles, details we can glean from Bishop Asser’s book.

Asser knew Alfred very well but came into the King’s life after many of the events he described had taken place, and there is an ongoing debate among historians as to whether Asser did write the biography, whether he based much of what he wrote on Alfred’s own records and recollections, or whether it was written a century after Alfred’s death. But even if it was ‘forged’, it still contains much that has ‘the smack of truth’, in Cornwell’s view, suggesting that whoever wrote it knew a great deal about Alfred. Certainly, the author wanted to present the King in a glowing light, as a warrior, scholar and Christian, but he does not shy away from his hero’s youthful sins. Alfred, he tells us, was unable to abstain from carnal desire until God generously made him sick enough to resist temptation. Whether Alfred did have an illegitimate son, Osferth is debatable, but it seems very plausible. More importantly in his novel, Cornwell rarely describes the Danish raiders and invaders as ‘Vikings’ but follows the early English writers who also rarely used the word which describes the activity of raiding, ‘to go viking’ rather than a people or tribe. The Danes who fought the ‘English’ in the ninth century were pre-eminently invaders and occupiers, or conquerors. As the novelist points out,

much fanciful imagery has been attached to them, chief of which are the horned helmet, the berserker and the ghastly execution called the spread-eagle, by which the victim’s ribs were splayed apart to expose the lungs and heart.

The latter, he also points out, was a later invention. The same seems to have been true of the berserker, the crazed naked warrior who attacked in a mad frenzy. Doubtless, there were insanely frenzied warriors, but there is no evidence that lunatic nudists made regular appearances on the battlefield. Neither is there a scrap of contemporary or archaeological evidence for the horned helmet. Danish and Norse warriors were far too sensible to place a pair of protuberances on their helmets which might enable their opponents to knock it off easily. Although iconic for many children and football supporters, they did not exist. What is well recorded is the Northmen’s assault on Christian shrines, churches and monasteries. The invaders were often described as ‘pagans’ who saw no reason to spare churches and religious houses from their attacks, especially because they often contained considerable treasures. But whether there were concerted attacks on northern monastic houses is debatable. Some of the sources for this are extremely late in origin, like the thirteenth-century chronicle written by Roger of Wendover, but what is certain is that many bishoprics and monasteries did disappear during the Danish assault of 866-78 which was not a great raid like the series of raids which had begun in the 790s and continued into the 870s. The ‘assault’ was a deliberate attempt to eradicate English society and replace it with a pagan Danish state.

Ivar the Boneless, Ubba, Healfdan, Guthrum, the various kings, Alfred’s nephew Aethelwold, Ealdorman Odda, who feature in the novel, are all historical figures. It is not certain exactly how King Edmund of East Anglia died, though he was certainly killed by the Danes and in one ancient version, the future saint was riddled with arrows, as described in the novel. The Ragnar of the novel, not to be confused with Ragnar Lothbrok (see the text above), is fictional, like Uhtred of Bebbanburg, though a family bearing the name of Uhtred did hold what became Bamburgh Castle later in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most of the major events described are historical; the assault on York, the siege of Nottingham, the attacks on the four kingdoms, all are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or in Asser’s Life of King Alfred which together are the major sources of the period. Cornwell used both these sources and also consulted a host of secondary works. Alfred’s life is remarkably well documented compared with those of other kings of the period, some of that documentation written by Alfred itself, but even so, as one academic has commented in the context of historical fiction, arrows of insight have to be winged by the feathers of speculation. Cornwell admits that he has ‘feathered lavishly, as historical novelists must’, but reasserts that much of his novel is based on real events. Guthrum’s occupation of Wareham, the exchange of hostages and occupation of Exeter all happened, as did the loss of most of his fleet in a great storm off Durlston Head near Swanage. Cornwell concludes with this assessment of Alfred’s legacy:

Alfred was the king who preserved the idea of England, which his son, daughter and grandson made explicit. At a time of great danger, when the English kingdoms were perilously near to extinction, he provided a bulwalk which allowed the Anglo-Saxon culture to survive.


Bernard Cornwell (2004), The Last Kingdom. London: HarperCollins.

Philip Warner (1976), Famous Battles of the Midlands. Glasgow: Fontana/ Collins.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1936?), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British: From Ice Age to Norman Conquest. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson & Clive Hicks (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles: A guide to the legendary and sacred sites. Lobon: Ebury Press.

David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

John Hayward, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.



The False Dawn: Saxons, Celts and Britons, 616-839 – From Edwin of Northumbria to Egbert of Wessex.

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The (no-longer-so-dark) Dark Ages:

Since the discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial in Suffolk in 1939, archaeology has continued to shed light on the ‘Dark Ages’, where documentary evidence is lacking. The distribution of pagan fifth-century Anglo-Saxon burials indicates the probable areas of earliest English settlement in Britain. The English ‘advance’ continued throughout the period – though both English and British kingdoms fought amongst themselves as often as they fought against each other. British and Irish missionaries spread Christianity throughout the islands and were followed by continental and native English missionaries who also took part in the successful conversion of the pagan English in the later seventh century. In his 1977 book, A Short History of Suffolk, Derek Wilson wrote that ‘The Dark Ages’ was a term rightly frowned upon by historians. The implication that when the light of Roman civilization was extinguished Europe was plunged into four centuries of barbaric, heathen gloom could no longer be accepted. The Romans were conquerors; so were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Technically, the Romans had been more advanced, with a written language, in which they were able to record their disdain for the ‘barbarians’ without reply, but there the contrast ended. Therein, of course, lies the true meaning of the ‘dark ages’, since the historian is dependent for his or her ‘light’ on the chronicles left by scribes. But with the evidence unearthed by archaeologists, these centuries no longer remain quite so ‘dark’.

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The reconstructed helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial, held at the British Museum.

Northumbrian Ascendancy:

We know that Aethelfrith of Northumbria fought a significant battle against the Britons near Chester, the ‘City of Legions’, around the years 615-16. One consequence of Aethrlfrith’s campaign in Cheshire appears to have been that his dynastic enemy, Edwin of Deira, formerly, it seems, in exile in Mercia, where he had married the daughter of the Mercian king Cearl, now had to seek refuge elsewhere, further away from the growing power of Aethelfrith. This provides the background to the appearance of Edwin at the hall of the Wuffing king, Raedwald. A version of this story appears in an early Northumbrian document, The Life of St Gregory the Great, written at Whitby about twenty years before Bede completed his account. One historian has argued that this implies that Edwin’s exile at Raedwald’s royal hall was ‘a well-known fact of Northumbrian history’. Edwin may well have regarded Raedwald as his last hope of refuge against his ruthless enemy Aethelfrith. Bede goes on to tell us how Raedwald was harbouring his dynastic rival, an that Aethelfrith therefore despatched envoys offering the East Anglian king great wealth if he would order Edwin’s killing. Raedwald refused this pressure three times, the last of which when they were accompanied by dire threats of invasion and war. Bede portrays Raedwald as being on the verge of yielding up Edwin, but Edwin then received an offer to be ‘spirited away’ by an unknown friend who would guide the prince to a place where neither Raedwald nor Aethelfrith could reach him. But Edwin declined the offer, saying that he would not break faith with Raedwald, whom he held in such high honour that he would even be prepared to surrender his life to him.

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From Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map of Britain & Europe to 1485.
Durham Cathedral: The Galilee or Lady Chapel of the cathedral, built in the transitional style, c. 1170, containing the tomb of the Venerable Bede.

Bede tells us how, then sitting alone outside the royal hall, Edwin was approached in his darkest hour by a mysterious stranger, who, like Ódin in disguise appearing to heroes of Scandinavian saga, made three prophecies in the form of three questions about his survival and future success. After the stranger had disappeared as mysteriously as he had now resolved to refuse to allow himself to be coerced by Aethelfrith’s bribes and threats. The friend then explained that it was Raedwald’s queen who had helped him make up his mind on the matter. As the Old English version of the story puts it,

She turned him from the evil direction of his mood, teaching him and admonishing that in no wise (it) became so noble (a) king and so excellent that he should his best friend put in need, (&) for gold sell (him), & his honour, for money’s greed & love forsake, which were dearer (than) all treasures.

T. Miller (ed.), The Old Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, p. 128.

Raedwald’s choice, then, was between peace with dishonour or war with honour, and his decision was to follow his pagan wife’s sound advice, in defence of the laws of hospitality and friendship. So Aethelfrith’s envoys were sent home for a third and last time, and Raedwald prepared for war. For Bede, this is just one episode in his narrative of his hero Edwin’s coming to the throne of Northumbria and his subsequent conversion to the church of Rome. Yet although the fate of the exiled prince Edwin may well have been one of the causes of the war between the two most powerful kings on the island of Britain at the time and can thus be seen as a contest between the overlord of north and the overlord of the south for the high kingship of all Britain.

The Battle of the River Idle:

Bede’s account of the war between Raedwald and Aethelfrith is brief, and not without some Northumbrian bias. He states that Raedwald assembled a great army and marched north to meet Aethelfrith before the latter had time to summon his whole strength. It seems unlikely that the battle-hardened Northumbrian king would have launched an invasion force against East Anglia without sufficient forces to carry through his threat, but Aethelfrith’s forces were probably depleted after his recent campaign against the Britons both before and after the Battle of Chester. He may have, at the same time, have over-extended his military resources and become over-confident by his victories across the north. Bede tells us that the great battle between the Northumbrians and East Anglians took place on the Mercian border on the east bank of the River Idle. The River Idle, seemingly named for its meandering through a broad flood plain, was a tributary of the Trent, formed part of Mercia’s border in Bede’s time, but it is not clear that that was the case in 616-17. Yet the Idle appears to have formed a section of the border between two administrative areas during the Roman period, especially at the point where it is crossed by the main Roman road to the north. This road also crosses the great natural boundary of river and marsh formed by the Humber estuary and its various tributaries. It runs in a north-westerly direction from a point on Ermine Street just north of Lincoln, crossing the Trent at Littleborough, the Idle near Bawtry, the Don at Doncaster, the Went at Wentbridge, the Aire at Castleford, from where it runs north to Tadcaster. The road was of great strategic significance for the peoples both north and south of the Humber.

Sam Newton, The Reckoning of King Raedwald.

The suggestion is then that it was along this strategic road into the north that Raedwald advanced with his army to confront Aethelfrith. If this was the case, it becomes easier to trace his route on the ground, in the following series of maps. That Raedwald could organise and lead a long-distance military expedition on this scale implies that he was an experienced commander. His initial advance out of East Anglia could have followed two possible routes. He could have led his army overland along the Roman road from Cambridge along the southern edge of the great Fenland barrier until he came to Ermine Street, and thence along King Street via Bourne and Sleaford to Lincoln. Alternatively, he could have advanced more rapidly if he used a fleet using the former Roman army ferry crossing from Norfolk to Lincolnshire, approaching Lincoln from the east. The old Roman city of Lincoln then formed part of the kingdom of Lindsey, but it is not clear whether Raedwald’s overlordship extended over ‘Lindissi’. By whichever means he arrived at Lincoln, from the city Raedwald would have marched north along Ermine Street and then turned north-west towards Littleborough, a stronghold some eight miles down the road at the paved ford over the Trent. The river Idle crossing was twelve miles up the road from Littleborough and it was there that the battle with Aethelfrith is likely to have taken place. From the fourth century, this crossing had was controlled from its east bank by a Roman fort enclosing an area of about half an acre and protected by triple ditches, still visible from the air today.

Bede states specifically that the battle was fought on the east bank of the River Idle, which would place it in the same location as the Roman fort if Raedwald had been coming up the road from Littleborough. Bede’s statement would also imply that Aethelfrith would have been fighting with his back to the river, which would have put him at a tactical disadvantage. It is possible that the fort was still usable as a strong point at this time, and, if so, Aethelfrith may have refortified and occupied it to strengthen his position. Bede also tells us that there were two royal casualties; Raegenhere, and Aethelfrith himself, both of whom were killed in the clash of arms, but Bede gives us no more detail of the battle itself. For that, we have to rely upon an Old English poem, now lost, but which was available to the twelfth-century historian Henry of Huntingdon. In his Historia Anglorum, Henry refers implicitly to an independent vernacular account of the battle when he states, “it is said that the River Idle ran red with English blood”. Henry then provides a detailed report of the battle:

The fierce king, Ethelfrid (Aethelfrith), indignant that anyone should venture to resist him, rushed on the enemy boldly, but not in disorder, with a select body of veteran soldiers, though the troops of Raedwald made a brilliant and formidable display, marching in three bodies, with fluttering standards and bristling spears and helmets, while their numbers greatly exceeded their enemies’.

The king of the Northumbrians, as if he had found an easy prey, at once fell on those columns of Raedwald, and put to the sword Raegenhere, the king’s son, with the division he commanded, his own precursors to the shades below. Meanwhile, Raedwald, enraged but not appalled by this severe loss, stood invincibly firm with his two remaining columns.

The Northumbrians made vain attempts to penetrate them, and Aethelfrith, charging among the enemy’s squadrons, became separated from his own troops and was struck down on a heap of bodies he himself had slain. The death of their king was the signal for universal flight.

The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Angolorum, Book II, ch. 30).

Some historians have been sceptical about the authenticity of this account, stating that Henry was simply drawing on his own imagination to reconstruct the manoeuvres by which the battle was lost and won… and such things should not be quoted as history. This may be a largely fictional account, but the possibility that Henry was drawing on an Old English ‘saga’ of the battle, using the phrase unde dicitur (‘as it is written’) means that it cannot be simply discarded as such. The clash of such warriors and their armies, as well as the deaths of Raegenhere and Aethelfrith, are the kinds of stirring events that could have been woven into an Old English epic poem. As referred to in my previous article in connection with the battle of Chester of 1615/16, the Welsh Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein), refer indirectly to the “Three Chieftains of Deira and Bernicia” who had performed “three Fortunate Slayings”, one of which was of Aethefrith by “Sgafnell, the son of Dissynyndawd”. This suggests that British warriors fought with Raedwald and Edwin against the Northumbrians at the River Idle, perhaps forming the third column, as referred to in Henry of Huntingdon’s account, of surviving troops from the battle of Chester, seeking vengeance against Aethelfrith.

Despite the absence of detail from the few available sources, the battle was undoubtedly more significant than Bede’s brief mention implies. Above all, it was a victory for King Raedwald which demonstrated his military power and leadership. The loss of his son must have been a heavy personal price to pay, but not only was his overlordship of the south assured, but it also seems likely that he was now overlord of the north as well. His victory at the River Idle would have meant that Raedwald would have gained overall power over the lands in the north and west where Aethelfrith had been the overlord, especially when his sons became exiles as soon as Edwin succeeded to the kingdom of Northumbria. Raedwald would have become an overlord of all the ‘English’ kingdoms, north and south, though Bede attributes this achievement to Edwin, though he is probably referring to the period after Raedwald’s death, as at this point the East Anglian king was the only English king to be baptised. The Battle of the Idle may be regarded as the first successful ‘trial by combat’ for a Christian Anglo-Saxon king. Raedwald’s triumph there might well have been seen to demonstrate the power of the new God to deliver the blessings of victory, and it may well have been a significant factor in the decision of Eadbald of Kent to accept baptism, enabling the re-establishment of Roman Christianity at Canterbury. Bede tells us nothing about the last years of Raedwald’s life, but there is no reason to doubt that he retained his prestige and power, becoming the most powerful Anglo-Saxon ruler south of the Humber. Neither does Bede record the death of Raedwald, but it may be inferred from the dating of circumstantial events that he had passed away by about 624-25. It was shortly after the Battle of the River Idle, in 617, that Raedwald succeeded as Bretwalda and he, in turn, was followed by Edwin of Northumbria, whom Raedwald had restored to his throne. Bede recorded that:

The glorious reign of Edwin over English and British alike lasted seventeen years, during the last six of which … he laboured for Christ.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731).
The foundations of the baptism of Edwin by Paulinus, in the west towers of York Minster

The impact of Christianity on Anglo-Saxon pagan society is well shown in the conversion by St Paulinus of the ‘great’ King Edwin of Northumbria (at least that is how Bede writes of him). Edwin had married the daughter of Aethelbert of Kent. She had been allowed to bring Paulinus with her as her confessor. Much pressure was brought to bear on Edwin who, as Bede records, was a wise and prudent man who often sat alone in silence for long periods, wondering which religion he should follow. After much reflection, he told Paulinus that he wished to consult his court. His ‘High Priest’, Coifi, recommended acceptance of Christianity and another courtier said that if Christianity could tell them more about what goes before this life and what follows, it was better than the old religion, then they should follow it. He compared the brief life of man on earth to the flight of a sparrow through the king’s mead-hall in the winter. After Coifi had asked to hear more from Paulinus, he himself volunteered to be the first to desecrate the temples of the religion of which he was the chief representative. Then carrying a spear and riding a stallion (both acts forbidden to a priest of his original religion) he went to the temple at Goodmanham, to the east of York, and hurled his spear at the temple, ordering it to be burnt. The great Minster of York rises on the site of the holy well where Paulinus baptised Edwin. Thus the Northumbrians adopted Christianity.

Christianity & the Heptarchy:

The maps on the right show how the Angles, Saxons and Jutes formed themselves into seven kingdoms, but they were sketched and published just after the second world war before the finds at Sutton Hoo were well known outside archaeological circles. Moreover, the frontiers shown are those of the early ninth century, as the inclusion of Offa’s Dyke reveals. The smaller kingdoms, such as East Anglia, were truly independent only for short periods, but one of these was the period of the reign of Raedwald, who became Bretwalda in 617, as confirmed by the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet Geffrei Gaimar, probably drawing on a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bede’s later chapter on the coming of Christianity to the East Anglian kingdom tells us of how circa 626-27, King Edwin of the Northern Angles (ruled c. 617-633) persuaded King Eorpwald of the Eastern Angles, Raedwald’s second son and eventual successor, to accept baptism. This would have meant that Raedwald was Bretwalda until, nearing death in 624-5, he handed the title to his friend and ally, Edwin. Recently, teams of archaeologists have been exploring a possible site at Rendlesham in Suffolk, located on the east bank of the River Deben some four miles upstream from Sutton Hoo.

Rendlesham is named by Bede as ‘the house of Rendil’ and as a royal site in the reign of Raedwald’s nephew, Aethelwald, who ruled circa 655-664. There is a reference to this in Bede’s account of the return of Christianity to the kingdom of the East Saxons at around the same time. It refers to the baptism of Swithhelm, king of the East Saxons, by the Celtic monk Cedd at Rendlesham. Bede’s casual reference to Rendlesham as a royal hall is of great significance because it implies a complex of buildings including a great hall beside the royal church where Swithhelm was baptised. Archaeological and landscape evidence suggests that at least part of the royal site at Rendlesham was located in the vicinity of St Gregory’s church.

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Raedwald’s successor, Eopwald, embraced Christianity only to be murdered soon after his accession by a pagan usurper, Ricbert, perhaps a stepson of Raedwald. Within three years the rightful heir, Sigebert, returned from exile among the Franks and regained the throne. The new king was an impressive and much-loved figure, possessing all the warrior skills of the Wuffings allied to a devotion to the Christian learning he had encountered in exile. On his return to East Anglia, he set Christian missionaries to work converting and educating his people. These were Felix, a sophisticated Burgundian brought up in the Frankish schools and Fursey, an Irish monk, aflame with Celtic zeal and mysticism. Felix was appointed Bishop of East Anglia by Archbishop Honorius in about 631. He established his base at Dummoc, an unidentified spot on the coast, possibly at Dunwich or Walton Castle (see the map below). There he built a cathedral and a school, and then set out as a Christian strategist to win the scattered souls of his large diocese over the following seventeen years. Bede calls him a pious cultivator of the spiritual field. As a young man, Fursey received a vision of heaven and hell and turned his back on home and comfort to become a wandering preacher. When he reached East Anglia, news of his holy life and heart-piercing eloquence soon came to Sigebert’s ears. He entreated the saint to stay and gave him the useless site of Burgh Castle as a base for his missionary work. There, using the stone from the ruined Roman fort and timber from the edge of the forest, Fursey built his monastery and his community imposed on themselves the full rigours of an ascetic discipline. For ten years, Fursey preached his way around East Anglia, winning hundreds with his exaltation of the love of God and his vivid descriptions of eternal bliss and damnation. He then returned to the kingdom of the Franks, where he died.

Fursey had a momentous influence on King Sigebert. Impressed by the teaching of the monks, the King resigned his pomp and power to become one himself. But these were difficult times for kings to give up office, with the conflict between the kingdoms of the Heptarchy evolving into a tri-cornered conflict between the great kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria in which the more minor kingdoms were merely pawns in a game which they nevertheless had to play. At the time when Sigebert vacated his throne, Mercia, under its pagan king Penda, was in the ascendant and in the 630s his forces were pressing hard on the East Anglian border. The traces of the earthworks hurriedly thrown up by the combined South Folk and North Folk can still be seen across today’s landscape, four lines of defence traversing the limestone ridge and obviously devised to fill the gaps between the natural obstacles of fen, forest and high ground through which the invaders had to come. The ‘Devil’s Dyke’, the most important of these, has a rampart which still stands over six feet tall, with a climb from the bottom of the ditch of ten metres. The first major crisis came in 636. The Mercians invaded in force and the East Anglians mustered to meet the challenge. But they had no confidence in their new king, Ecgric, and a group of them went over to Beodricsworth (Bury St Edmunds) Abbey to plead with Sigebert to lead them against the Mercians. But Sigebert refused to forsake his holy orders and eventually, his frenzied countrymen forced him to leave the cloister in his habit, convinced that even in this, the sight of him on the battlefield would inspire the East Anglians. They marched forwards and met the Mercians at some unknown point on the Icknield Way. Sigebert refused to forsake his vows, neither taking up a weapon nor armour. The battle was soon over, with both Sigebert and Ecgric among the dead, and their people routed.

Map of East Anglia showing the existing roads & route of the Icknield Way. (Sam Newton)

Penda placed Anna on the throne, Raedwald’s nephew, to rule East Anglia as a vassal kingdom of Mercia. Like his predecessor, he was more renowned for his piety than his skills as a warrior, and he had four daughters who were even more devoted to their faith, founding monasteries and nunneries. It was at some time between the end of Raedwald’s reign and Sigebert’s reign that the Sutton Hoo burial took place, so the identity of the ‘missing king’ is still an open question, but he was certainly one who ruled as a Christian – at least nominally – over a still predominantly pagan kingdom. Anna spent much of his time at his manor at Exning and may have made it his capital. The site near Newmarket had many advantages: it lay near the centre of the Devil’s Dyke defence line and was a good rallying point for military contingents of both the North Folk and the South Folk. It was also not far from the important monastic centre established by Felix at Soham.

St Gregory’s Church, Rendlesham.

This whole area, centred on Rendlesham, Sutton Hoo and the Deben valley represent the old heartland of the Wuffing kingdom. Peter Warner describes this territory as both the cradle and resting-place of the early East Anglian kingdom. It was eventually bestowed as a Liberty by King Edgar (959-975), thus confirming the re-establishment of St Aetheldreda’s Abbey of Ely. In the year that Raedwald’s nephew, King Anna died in the Mercian massacre under the powerful pagan King Penda (654), Botolph built a monastery on the Alde estuary at Iken. Etheldreda or Aethelthryth (to give her name its proper spelling) was a Wuffing princess, being the saintly daughter of King Anna, and she fell under the spell of holy Felix and his monks. Her only ambition was to lead a life of contemplation and prayer, but as a princess, she was twice married off, apparently surviving both these ‘unions’ with her virginity intact. After twelve years of marriage to her second husband, Prince Egfrid of Northumbria, he gave her freedom to go and live as a nun, and she founded an Abbey on the Isle of Ely, doubling as a monastery for monks as well as nuns. As founding Abbess of Ely, she was enshrined as a saint after her death on 23 June 679. Following Edgar’s gift of the Five Hundreds of Wicklow, as the area came to be known, it remained a coherent territory until the late nineteenth century. All of this evidence adds weight to the argument that Raedwald’s temple of the two altars was within this territory and may have stood close to the royal hall site of the Wuffing kings at Rendlesham.

A Modern Map of Suffolk, showing the rivers, routes, towns & villages.

The last Wuffing king died almost a hundred years after Anna and that century produced few events which the monastic scribes thought worthy of recording. It would appear, as Wilson states, that the last generations of the Wuffing dynasty produced no men of stature to compare with the founders of the house. On the other hand, the people of East Anglia seem to have been left in peace. Though owing allegiance to the kings of Mercia, they were far enough away from the main arena of political and military conflict to be left much to their own devices. We would be wrong to think of these early Saxon Christians as worshipping in impressive stone churches and minsters bearing any similarity to those built from the tenth and eleventh centuries. The first Suffolk churches were for the most part very simple affairs of wood and thatch, remaining so even into the Norman period. Stone was not a natural building material locally, and only where earlier edifices existed in the form of disused fortifications, like the Roman sea-fort at Burgh Castle, or pagan shrines, was the more permanent material used. It was often the simple Saxon peasantry who raised these first churches, more for reasons of personal comfort than for devotion. Originally, services were held in the open and the only permanent feature was the altar, often converted from an old pagan shrine. This may well also have been the nature of Raedwald’s ‘temple’ of two altars at Rendlesham. When regular attendance was required by parish priests appointed by bishops and commanded by the kings and earls or thegns, they decided to build themselves barn-like structures before the altar to protect themselves from the elements. Thus the first ‘naves’ were built, probably using disused longboats (the word ‘navy’ has the same origin as ‘nave’), and thus began the tradition of the nave of the church being the responsibility of the parishioners while the priests were responsible for the maintenance of the sanctuary. For these transitioning Anglians, the use of ships in religious matters may not simply have been symbolic.

Northumbria, Edwin & Oswald:

Over the course of the seventh century, Northumbria came to dominate its British neighbours through the aggressive energy of kings like Edwin, who became the first Christian king of Northumbria. His great military strength enabled him to conquer the small independent British kingdoms of Rheged and Elmet as the Anglian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira coalesced into a single, powerful unit capable of extending its authority west of the Pennines and even down as far as Wessex, where he led his army to victory. Eventually, Northumbrian rule encompassed Whithorn in Galloway and briefly stretched as far north as the Tay. But Edwin’s invasion of Gwynedd and his conquest of Anglesey and the Isle of Man led to a counter-invasion of Northumbria. In 632 the allied forces of Penda of pagan Mercia and King Cadwallon of Gwynedd defeated the Northumbrian army on the plain called ‘Haethfelth’ (Hatfield in Yorkshire) where Edwin was slain in 633. The Britons attempted to cement their victory through the devastation of Northumbria, but although the kingdom was again split into the territories of Bernicia and Deira, Cadwallon was himself defeated in 633 at Heavenfield by Oswald of Bernicia. This victory reunited Northumbria and destroyed hopes of a British revival led by Gwynedd. Under Oswald, Northumbria rose to pre-eminence in England, but in returning northern England to Christianity after Paulinus himself was forced to return south, Oswald turned to Iona rather than Canterbury. The Iona community sent a monk who was not well received and who returned in disgust. In discussing what had gone wrong with his mission another monk, Aidan, voiced criticisms of his approach and, while he spoke, it dawned on his brothers that Aidan should be sent. Aidan formed a great friendship with Oswald and founded his monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne within sight of the king’s fortress of Bamburgh on its proud rock overlooking the North Sea. This long low green island, with the Farne Islands as outriders, preserves the ruins of the later medieval monastery.

Lindisfarne, Northumberland. Ruins of the medieval monastery refounded on the site of St Aidan’s monastery. Lindisfarne Castle, restored by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is on the right of the picture in the distance. The island was where Cuthbert retired to and died.

Meanwhile, Oswald’s clash with the growing power of Mercia could not long be postponed. By this time, Mercia had emerged as the chief kingdom of the English Midlands, expanding westward to the Welsh marches and securing the area to the south of the Humber, under the rule of Penda. When Penda was not fighting the Northumbrians he was busy killing the kings of East Anglia on one side of his kingdom and wresting the lands of the ‘Hwicce’ from Wessex on the other (the Hwicce were once a very powerful tribe who formerly occupied a significant territory of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire). In 641 Penda defeated and killed Oswald at Maserfelth (Oswestry), assuming Oswald’s mantle as the most powerful ruler among the English kingdoms. Penda rampaged on elsewhere, and in 645 he was reported to have put Cenwedh of Wessex to flight because Cenwedh had deserted Penda’s sister.

Oswiu, Cuthbert & the Synod of Whitby:

Northumbria, meanwhile, had again reverted to separate kingdoms, Oswin, ruling Deira and Oswiu, Bernicia. At the same time, although unable to reconquer the whole of Northumbria, the Mercian king was still determined to destroy the residual power of Bernicia. One of Lindisfarne’s first bishops was St Cuthbert who as a shepherd boy in the Lammermuir Hills in 651 had a vision of angels bearing St Aidan’s soul to heaven. Inspired by that vision, he joined the monastic community of Melrose Abbey under its founder Eata, who then took him to be the ‘guest master’ at Ripon and then onwards to Lindisfarne where he made Cuthbert prior. But Cuthbert longed for solitude and was given permission to retire to the Great Farne Island where he lived in a sunken turf oratory. He was forced to leave his retreat when he was consecrated bishop and had to fulfil his new duties.

Monkwearmouth, Tyne and Wear. An arched doorway surviving from the early Saxon church. Here the Venerable Bede spent his early years as a monk.

The strategic nature of Exning, the new royal capital of East Anglia, was put to the test in 654 when King Anna fell foul of his overlord, Penda. His Mercian hordes once more marched along the Icknield Way and Anna prepared to defend the Devil’s Dyke. Archaeological activity has uncovered a large burial ground of the period and many of the skeletons bear the marks of violence. How long the defenders withstood the siege or whether treachery played a part in Anna’s downfall we shall never know, but we know that the Dyke was breached and that the Mercians pursued their fleeing opponents back to the capital and beyond. For more than fifty miles the chase went on until Anna and his remnant were brought to battle near Blythborough. There, according to Henry of Huntingdon, the chronicler, Penda fell upon the East Anglians,

… like a wolf on timorous sheep, so that Anna and his host were devoured by his sword in a moment, and scarcely a man of them survived.

After this disaster, little is recorded about East Anglia in the chronicles. The people of East Anglia seem to have been, for the most part, left in peace to trade with the continent. Penda next mobilised a formidable coalition, including the new King Aethelhere of the East Angles, and the British Prince Cadafael of Gwynedd. Faced by this massive array of military strength, Oswiu sued for peace, even offering a lavish bribe of treasure which Penda refused. Although outnumbered and on the verge of defeat, Oswiu vanquished the Mercian army at the River Winwaed (Yorkshire) in 655, killing Penda in battle, together with thirty princes, including Aethehere, thereby removing most of Penda’s ‘loyal’ allies. Though owing allegiance to the kings of Mercia, the East Anglians were obviously considered far enough away from the main centres of political and military conflict to be left to their own devices.

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Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, at sunset.

In one battle, at Winwaedfeld, Oswiu had thus removed the chief obstacle to the spread of Christianity and the whole of ‘England’ was, at least officially, a Christian country. Both Mercia and Wessex acknowledged Oswiu as their overlord. It also seemed that would now become the dominant kingdom, and that the title of Bretwalda a would become theirs by hereditary right. Then in 664, realising the disadvantages of having competing forms of Christianity, Oswiu summoned a synod at Whitby. Cuthbert’s life bridged the time of the reconciliation of the Roman and the Celtic churches in Britain. St Augustine’s failure to make friends with the Celtic bishops of the West had led to the long separation of the Celtic Christians from much of Europe and their use of a different method for calculating the date of Easter had led to a further sharp division between the branches of the Church. This was settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664 when the argumentative St Wilfred used his forensic talents to defeat the Celtic opposition in the debate, after which monks and priests like Cuthbert, brought up in the Celtic tradition, accepted the Roman ways. Impressed by the power and superior organisation of the Roman Church, Oswiu decided to expel the Celtic missionaries, who returned to Iona in the Western Hebrides. When Cuthbert felt the approach of death, he returned to the beloved solitude of his island, where he died in 687.

Ecgfrith, the Picts & the Celts:

The reunification of the Church prepared the way for the Anglo-Saxons to be united under one king. Before Oswiu died in 670 he had driven the Picts back to the Tay, extracted tribute from the Cumbrians and the Welsh, and established a strong though decentralised grip on his Saxon sub-kingdoms. He was an early exponent of the ‘scorched earth’ policy in keeping the lands between Northumbria and ‘Scotland’ so barren that not even a Pictish army could find sustenance on them. It was only with Oswiu’s death in 670 that Mercian power began to reassert itself under the leadership of Penda’s son Wulfhere. In 674 Wulfhere invaded Northumbria and with an army drawn from all of the southern kingdoms, but he was repulsed by Oswiu’s son Ecgfrith, who proved himself equally able. He captured Cumberland and Westmorland from the Britons and even invaded Ireland. But in 678 Ecgfrith was defeated in turn by Wulfhere’s brother Aethelred at the battle of Trent, in what proved to be the last clash between the armies of Mercia and Northumbria for a generation. It was also the final attempt by Northumbria to gain control of the southern kingdoms and henceforth the Northumbrian kingdom’s concern would rest primarily with the north. In 685 Ecgfrith led an army northwards against the Picts, despite the protests of his advisers, for his expedition was considered by them as unnecessary aggression. The Picts, led by their king Brude Mac Beli, retreated before Ecgfrith’s advance, drawing him into the difficult territory of the Sidlaw Hills. They turned upon the pursuers and defeated them in battle near a loch called Nechtanesmere, by Dunnichen Hill, south-east of Forfar, shown on the map below. Dark Age battle sites, as noted above, are notoriously difficult to place in specific locations. The Battle known as that of ‘Dunnichen Moss’ or Nechtanesmere was fought on the banks of a loch, or ‘mere’ which has since disappeared. Its location has been pinpointed to an area between Dunnichen and Letham, south of the modern road between Forfar and Arbroath.

The Battle site in relation to the modern OS Map, showing the location of the ‘mere’ (Crown copyright) from Smurthwaite (see Sources below).

The battle was more of a running fight or mélée with the Northumbrians, disorganised by the speed of their pursuit, finally trapped against the shore of the loch between Dunnichen and Dunnichen Hill and its presence would further have restricted the Northumbrian deployment and presumably have provided a source of reinforcement for the Picts. Ecgfrith’s bodyguard made a last stand around their lord, but both he and most of his army was slain. With Ecgfrith’s defeat, Northumbria’s hegemony in northern Britain was replaced by an independent kingdom of the Picts. Ecgfrith’s successors were weak, and this was quickly recognised both within and outside Northumbria. The Picts were soon back to harrying the north, while to the south, the immediate future lay with Mercia, whose rise foreshadowed the decline and eventual collapse of Northumbria. They made East Anglia, Kent and Essex dependent states, and took the territory to the north of the Thames from Wessex, while also annexing Northumbrian lands south of the Trent.

Anglo-Saxon Christianity & the Celtic Church:

The Ruthwell Cross, Dumfries & Galloway. A detail of the shaft of the Cross (c.670-750), showing (left) Christ with Mary Magdalene anointing his feet and (right) beasts in swirling ornamentation. The cross is carved with Latin and runic inscriptions.

The warlike ethos of the Anglo-Saxon tribes had often centred on the semi-divine nature of their kings who claimed descent from Woden. The strong individualism and marked personalities of the Christian saints stood out in severe contrast to the tribalism of the peoples they converted. These tribes were guided by myths from the ancient past: the very concept of law amongst the Anglo-Saxons was that of ‘the doom’, something that could only be interpreted, not altered. The role of the individual mattered only in the context of the tribe. The missionaries who came from other societies broke through the closed and parochial nature of the tribe, bringing the hope of a way of life that could develop and change the individual personality, offering the idea of conscience as the light of inner emotional truth, and at the same time revealing the attractions of an international civilization in learning and the arts of an order far removed from from the blood-thirsty legends of the Teutonic past. The missionaries exhibited time and time again the one quality the Anglo-Saxons prized above all others: courage.

And just as St Patrick had drawn on the Irish veneration of the number three, so the missionaries in England found in telling the story of the crucifixion minds already prepared by the legend of Woden sacrificing himself upon the tree, a myth perhaps underlying the great Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood, quotations from which were carved on the Ruthwell Cross. By about the time the Cross was carved, around 700, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was largely complete and the Church was becoming increasingly political, not least because of its vast land-holdings. Nevertheless, religious authority was not effectively centralised in this period, despite the claims of Canterbury and York to authority beyond their local political boundaries. In terms of church art and architecture, the Anglo-Saxons invested far greater artistic energy into their buildings than in monumental sculpture, except in Northumbria. By contrast, an interest in monumentalism in religious art continued unbroken in the Celtic regions in the post-Roman era, though styles evolved over time. Extremely fine, though distinct, sculptural traditions developed in Pictland, Argyll, Ireland and Wales. In some cases, the presence of a collection of sculptures is all that now remains to provide evidence of the importance of a particular church.

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During the eighth and ninth centuries, despite its return to the ‘Roman fold’, the Celtic Church grew in influence, wealth and organisation. This development was, as we have seen, closely intertwined with secular political and dynastic developments, not least because the same royal and aristocratic families dominated both the Church and the Crown. Frequently, a particular saint became identified with a specific kingdom, which meant that the spread of saintly cults was strongly influenced by political concerns. In Ireland, the cult of Patrick (and thereby Armagh’s claims to primacy) was promoted by the Uí Néill. Northumbria’s influence is reflected in the churches dedicated to Saints Oswald and Cuthbert. Nowhere is the relationship between cult and kingdom easier to appreciate than in Dál Riata, whose ruling dynasty looked to St. Columba as their patron and protector. Founded by Columba in 563, the Abbey on Iona grew to become the greatest ecclesiastical centre in the British Isles, establishing an extensive network of associate monasteries, spreading from northern Britain to Kells and Durrow in the Irish Midlands, to Derry in the north of Ireland, and to Lindisfarne in Northumbria.

These were places of great scholarship and spiritual devotion, but they were also repositories of great wealth. From the late eighth century, Iona was repeatedly raided by Vikings, so that Columban relics were moved from Iona to Dunkeld where there was great enthusiasm for dedications to Columba and other Ionian saints. Cuthbert’s body remained at Lindisfarne until the Viking attack on the Abbey in 875 when the monks in fleeing took it with them together with the head of St. Oswald and the relics of St. Aidan. These relics were kept at Chester le Street for over a century until later Viking attacks forced the monks to move again. They went south until they found the great hill at Durham where they built a church, now superseded by the cathedral, one of the greatest architectural achievements in Europe.

In the South, Christianity had become part of the fabric of English life by the end of the eighth century. In East Anglia, preachers were sent out from Dummoe on regular tours. The monks of Burgh Castle, Soham and Boedericsworth ministered to the souls in their immediate localities and they wandered the hamlets of Suffolk to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. The religious houses of early date in Suffolk were modest constructions, like most of the early churches and abbeys of East Anglia, built with local materials of wood and thatch. Throughout much of what was recognisably becoming ‘England’, and with the backing of kings and thegns, Christianity passed rapidly from the age of missionary zeal to the age of the established religion. The upkeep of churches and clergy met by grants of land and by special levels approved by royal writ. ‘Plough-alms’ was a penny for every plough team and was payable fifteen days before Easter. ‘Church-scot’, the principal ecclesiastical levy fell due at Martinmas (11 November). Tithes of produce and stock were originally non-obligatory donations for the relief of the poor and needy but before many decades had passed they, too, had become sanctified by law. Perhaps most unpleasant of the ecclesiastical taxes was ‘soul-scot’, the burial fee which, we are told, was best paid at the open grave. The eighth century was not an age free from turmoil, yet such local and national conflicts as did occur took place against a background of stable, established relationships. Priest and layman, thane and churl, warrior and monk, every man knew his place in society, knew what his God and his king required of him. But some, like Bede, suggested it was becoming a decadent society, a society going soft:

As peace and prosperity prevail in these days, many of the Northumbrians, both noble and simple, together with their children, have laid aside their weapons, preferring to receive the tonsure and take monastic vows rather than study the arts of war. What the results of this will be will be seen in the next generation.

But none of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms could withstand the next groups of violent invaders. They came out of the far north this time, warriors from the fringes of the Baltic Sea: Norsemen, Vikings and Danes. For the English, although themselves relative newcomers of fewer than three hundred and fifty years, never had ‘terrors like these’ appeared in Britain. They came to raid and plunder at first and for fifty years their sporadic expeditions devastated small coastal areas. During the last decade of the eighth century and the first half of the ninth century, the Viking warlords probed the strength and weaknesses of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

In the eighth and the ninth centuries, the various polities that had emerged in post-Roman Britain became increasingly state-like in their organisation and institutions. Successful kingdoms, such as Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Gwynedd, Fortrui and Dál Riata, fought wars to expand their territories into large regional hegemonies. In Ireland, a less centralised political landscape evolved. There, as many as three hundred small kingdoms (Tuatha) existed. These were consolidated under the shifting control of overkings, but the rule of even the most successful of the provincial dynasties, the Uí Néill, was more contingent and fluid than its counterparts in Britain. There, the most northerly of the major kingdoms, Fortrui’s era of greatness was ushered in by the Pictish triumph over the expansionist Northumbrians at the battle of Nechtansmere in 685 (detailed above) and continued for most of the eighth century. A political and cultural high point was reached during the reign of Óengus I (died 761). The British kingdoms in southern Scotland were ruled from imposing, rock-perched hill-forts: in the west, the most powerful British kingdom was ruled from Dumbarton, dominating the mouth of the Clyde; in the east, the British kings of Gododdin surveyed their lands from the equally dramatic Edinburgh Castle rock. The Clyde-based kingdom survived into the eleventh century, while Edinburgh fell to the Northumbrians in 638. Lothian remained under Northumbrian control and became linguistically and culturally ‘anglicised’.

Competing Kingdoms of the Heptarchy – Mercia & Wessex:

The seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the late eighth century.
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From the beginning of the seventh century to the beginning of the ninth century, the centre of power in the Heptarchy had passed from Northumbria to East Anglia (briefly) to Northumbria again, then to Mercia and finally to Wessex under Egbert, with its royal capital at Winchester. Generally good relations with the Welsh kingdoms to their west enabled the Mercians to campaign successfully against their Saxon neighbours. Offa, the son of Thingfrith, took the throne of Mercia amidst the civil war which followed the assassination of King Aethelbald in 757. The high watermark of Mercian hegemony came under Offa who ruled for thirty-nine years, from 757 to 796, achieving unprecedented power in southern Britain. Whereas Aethelbald had called himself King of the southern English, Offa was the first ruler to be styled ‘King of the English’, aspiring to rule all of the Heptarchy and to dominate the south, including Kent and Wessex.

Offa might with justice be called the first King of England, more than simply the successful leader of a regional faction, as Penda had been. All that we know of him shows the statesman, the strategist, and the man who was rightly respected in other countries. He was a contemporary of the great Charlemagne. Throughout the first half of the eighth century a protracted struggle had gone on along the ‘border’ areas, now called the ‘marches’. Offa defeated and drove back the Welsh from the line of furthest advance marked by various short dykes, building his long dyke from Chepstow in the south to a point two miles from Prestatyn in the north. This was probably begun following the the last Welsh action in 784. Offa’s Dyke is still impressive and it needs little imagination to visualise what it must have symbolised twelve hundred and fifty years ago. But it would have offered no more than token defence to an army, and was probably no more than a boundary, as it still is along some of its lengths. I have written extensively about Offa’s Dyke elsewhere on my website: chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com.

Offa’s Dyke on Llanfair Hill from Spoad Hill.

Precisely the same applies to Wansdyke, an impressive fortification that stretches from Portishead on the shores of the Bristol Channel to the Inkpen Beacon in Berkshire, a distance of sixty miles. The bank is high enough and the ditch deep enough to offer a considerable obstacle to an advancing army, but its delaying effect would only have been temporary. It was probably built by Egbert who became King of Wessex in 800, but may have been started by his predecessor Kenulf. After Offa had died in 796, the new king of Mercia, a warlike predator, raided Kent, captured its king, cut off his hands and blinded him. The Wansdyke might not stop an army but it would stop similar lightning raids on Wessex if properly patrolled. Egbert was no mean warrior himself. In 815 he ravaged Cornwall from east to west; if he went this far from his base at Winchester he would need some sort of defensive line between his own kingdom and that of the turbulent Mercians. Beornwulf seems to have become King of Mercia by a coup d’état in 824. Like all usurpers who obtained the throne by an adroit move, he needed to give his army something to do and something to think about, as well as some rewards, lest they should look upon their new ruler with too critical an eye. There was, of course, every chance of him being toppled off the throne by an incursion from Wessex.

The ascendancy of Mercia was, however, abruptly ended following its defeat by Egbert of Wessex (died 839) at Ellendun in 825. Distracted by internal conflict, Mercia temporarily forfeited its supremacy in the south and Offa’s re-establishment of that dominance brought him into conflict with Sussex, Kent, Wessex and Wales. A crippling blow had been struck against Wessex in 779 at the battle of Bensington in Oxfordshire and it was not until Egbert, exiled by Offa, returned to take the throne of Wessex in 809 that the southern challenge to Mercia was rekindled. We know little of Egbert’s reign during the next twenty years but it is safe to assume that he was preparing for the period of intense military activity which he unleashed in 825. Egbert first turned westward advancing to Galford where his defeat of a British army brought eastern Cornwall within his control. Beornwulf, king of Mercia, had mobilised his forces but he did not take advantage of Egbert’s absence to immediately attack the heartland of Wessex. But then Beornwulf decided on a pre-emptive strike. He probably moved east as if to target in south-eastern England and then doubled back and came racing down the Berkshire Ridgeway. At Overton he twisted again, leaving the Ridgeway, and having made a survey from the observation point of Silbury Hill, he would then have come up the track by All Cannings Down. On the way he would have encountered other defensive earthworks, for this was clearly considered to be a vulnerable spot. Egbert, justifiably alarmed at this presence of a Mercian host on his northern border, had returned eastwards and the armies of Wessex and Mercia confronted each other at Ellandun, thought to be Allington, which is on the other side of the Wansdyke and therefore far removed from from the battlefield. We now believe that the battle was fought on the slopes between Allington Down and All Cannings Down.

Beornwulf was no novice at the art of war; whatever qualities he might have lacked, tactical appreciation would not be among them. He would know very well that if he made his approach to the Wansdyke too obvious, a suitable reception would be there to meet him. He would therefore have wished to have achieved one of the first principles of war, deception of the enemy, and having come down the Ridgeway rapidly, possibly with the advantage of surprise, he would have then sent a brief a small party ahead to suggest that he was marching by the quickest possible route to Salisbury. At that point Egbert would throw everything in his way, he hoped, but Beornwulf by a swift change of direction would be over the Wansdyke and on Egbert’s flank, if not actually behind him. However, although heavily outnumbered, Egbert chose to attack first and after a protracted struggle, his army gained the field and a decisive victory. Mercian losses were heavy for, in the words of the Chronicle,

Egbert had the victory and a great slaughter was made there.

So how did Egbert gain the victory in such adverse circumstances, and why did it turn into such a ‘great slaughter’? Undoubtedly, Egbert was the more experienced general. He had been on the throne for many years and had fought several successful campaigns against the Britons. He would have had spies and scouts in Mercia, and some even in circles very close to Beornwulf’s councils. As a good soldier, he would have believed in winning his battles before he fought them. Winning this battle would have involved preparing all possible approach routes so that an invading army would already have encountered significant resistance before it reached the Wansdyke. The ground at Allington must have looked highly dangerous, with forward earthworks, flanking slopes, deceptive hollows and an enclosed arena. Once among those slopes Beornwulf’s army would have little room for manoeuvre in any sense of the word. It’s possible to visualise his army as being trapped between the two sets of earthworks, desperately trying to force its way up to the Wansdyke and breakthrough, harassed by flank attacks, and unable to retreat and regroup without being disrupted. This was, it must be remembered, Saxon upon Saxon, the same weapons, the same techniques, the same dogged courage. Both armies would have learnt something from their forays against the Britons, and both probably had Cornish or Welsh in their ranks as bowmen or spearmen.

The West Saxons would have had some advantage from the fact that they were uphill to the Mercians; in all battles where hand-thrown missiles – spears, axes, darts, even arrows – were used the men on the upper slopes had a slight but vital margin of range. Missiles could be flighted to carry further from a height. Having put his men into that disadvantageous attack, Beornwulf would not be able to recover them and prevent their slaughter. Like many brilliant tactical moves, his rapid feint and change of direction deserved success. Unfortunately for him and his army, he met an even shrewder tactician. Beornwulf succeeded in escaping from the battlefield and fled eastwards to the East Angles, who killed him later in the same year. The ascendancy of Mercia was at an end and henceforth the Anglo-Saxon destiny would be controlled by Wessex. Egbert dispatched his army with his son Aethelwulf to Kent where they defeated Baldred and secured the submission not only of Kent but also of Essex, Surrey and Sussex. Four years later in 829, Egbert invaded and conquered Mercia with a great army and carried all before him as far as the Humber. The Northumbrians fought back but were themselves decisively defeated at Dore, being forced to accept Egbert as Bretwalda. He also took the title of ‘King of the Mercians’ for a year before the kingdom regained its independence and he turned his attention to conducting a successful campaign against the Welsh.

Before moving on from Ellandun, we should mention the other sites which other writers have suggested. Wroughton, immediately south of Swindon, has been claimed as a likely site, and so has Lydiard Tregoze, just to the west. Amesbury, also in Wiltshire, has also had its supporters. However, at none of these places is there any reason why they should have chosen for a major battle, in contrast to Allington which is in exactly the right place for the tactical and strategic situation of the time.

Locations of Power – The Kingdoms of Britain:

The series of earthworks known as Offa’s Dyke defined the frontier between the Britons and the Mercians. Within Wales, the post-Roman political landscape survived more intact. Topography, in the form of mountainous borders that defied potential enemies and political resilience, allowed the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys, in particular, to consolidate their territories and develop into durable kingdoms and ‘principalities’, that would last until the Norman Conquest of Wales in the twelfth century. In Ireland, aggressive kings constructed elaborate structures of overlordship that allowed a few royal kindred groups to dominate whole provinces. These kindreds were large and complex, resulting in a great deal of competition for royal succession. Despite this inherent instability, exceptionally successful dynasties were able to construct and maintain large polities. The large northern and southern branches of the Uí Néill effectively dominated most of the north and east Midlands, while the Eoganacht dynasty came to rule Munster.

Traditionally, the extension of the kingdom of Dál Riata was not so much a recent Irish colony as the eastern part of a Gaelic-speaking zone that straddled the North Channel. The physical proximity and maritime culture encouraged deep connections between western Scotland and Ireland, which persisted throughout the Middle Ages. The characteristic form of royal settlement in Celtic-speaking Britain was the hill-fort. Although sometimes built on the sites of Iron Age hill-forts, the early medieval hill-fort was a new phenomenon. It tended to occupy a craggy knoll, rather than towering heights, and the elaborate masonry or earthwork ramparts were enclosed relatively small areas suitable for the residence of the king and his extended household. Although they are architecturally quite different from the later medieval castles, these fortified dwellings served a similar range of domestic, administrative and ceremonial functions. Where these have been excavated (for example, at Tintagel and Dunadd in Argyll) they have produced similar kinds of evidence for the manufacturing of fine metalwork and the importation of pottery, glassware and wine from the continent via the Irish Sea. These finds attest to regular trade with Gaul. Early medieval kings were keen to legitimise their power by associating themselves with sites of ancient authority. This is most obviously apparent from Dunadd, the chief royal fortress of Dál Riata, which, as shown on the map below, occupies a rocky knoll overlooking the richest prehistoric ritual landscape in western Scotland. Since Neolithic times people have been coming to the Kilmartin valley in Argyll to bury their dead, erecting standing stones and creating rock art on outcrops. These ancient associations cannot have been lost on the founders of Dunadd and were arguably a primary motive for the site’s selection.

The Kilmartin valley in Argyll, shown on the map above, is the site of one of Scotland’s richest archaeological landscapes, with a continuous series of monuments dating back to the Neolithic age. These monuments confirmed the valley as a site of power and were almost certainly one of the reasons why the Scots of Dál Riata chose the craggy hill of Dunadd as the site of their capital. The large royal fort they built there included some symbolic carvings probably associated with the appointment of kings. A remarkable series of carvings near the summit of Dunadd suggest that it served as the inauguration place of the kings. The carvings included a single-shod footprint, a rock-cut basin, an incised boar and an ogham inscription. The footprint echoes royal ceremonies documented in Ireland, with their symbols of the physical union between the king and the land, and is part of a broader phenomenon found throughout Britain and Ireland where royal authority sought to create links with the ancestral path through the re-use of ancient sacred places. The highest point of the Dunadd complex was occupied by a fortified dwelling, built in the local dry-stone tradition. Such dwellings, first known from the Iron Age, are ubiquitous in western Scotland and are taken to indicate the presence of free property-owners. At Dunadd, however, the building was enclosed within two additional ramparts, creating considerable additional space for the royal household. Within this area was a royal workshop where fine metalworkers made brooches and other jewellery. The growth and development of Dunadd are closely linked to the fate of Dál Riata. It was founded in the sixth century and grew into the most important royal site in Argyll during the seventh and eighth centuries. The complex survived sacking by Picts in the mid-eighth century, only to be abandoned as the centre of Scottish power shifted east in the ninth century.

Early British & English battles, 410-1060.

It was to take advantage of similar associations with past power that Anglo-Saxon rulers sometimes reoccupied ruined Roman sites, most typically at Winchester and York, where the late Roman town walls may have provided a measure of security along with prestige. They developed an élite architectural tradition that had more in common with post-Roman practices on the Continent. Bamburgh, Northumbria’s royal seat, is the major exception to the rule. It is a former British hill-fort perched on a coastal crag, a clear indication of the native contribution to the social structure of Northumbria. Conceptually, at the heart of the Anglo-Saxon royal complex was the hall, where the main ceremonial and administrative business of the lord was conducted. Excavations of royal halls, such as at Yeavering and Northampton, suggest that the descriptions of the magnificent hall of Heorot in Beowulf may not be greatly exaggerated.

Unlike the British hill-forts, Anglo-Saxon royal centres do not seem to have been a focus of either trade or manufacturing. However, the Anglo-Saxons did participate in a cross-Channel trade network, which encouraged the development of royal emporia and coinage. Newly-established trading centres, such as Hamwith (Southampton) and Ipswich, quickly developed into significant towns, which became the commercial rivals of London. Despite East Anglia’s decline as a dynastic power after the fall of the House of the Wuffings, trade with the continent continued and in the eighth century, the minting of silver coins called sceattas began there. These coins have been found across a wide area of Frisia and northern Germany while imported items of bronze, iron and pottery have been excavated from East Anglian sites. Ipswich was almost certainly the leading port and industrial centre of the region. Kilns discovered there once produced large quantities of pottery which were diffused over a wide area of England and northern Europe. Dunwich, too, was a thriving fishing port that could pay the king an annual rent of sixty thousand herrings. Clearly, economic prosperity was not dependent on political power and prestige. It was also during this period that Norfolk and Suffolk began to emerge as distinct entities. There had always been differences between the settlers north and south of the Waveney, and these differences asserted themselves more as the power of the Wuffings declined. This division was the result of the reorganisation of the bishoprics by Archbishop Theodore shown on the map of the Heptarchy above, confirming the establishment of the Roman-Saxon Church. He divided the East Anglian diocese, with a new ‘seat’ at North Elmham for Norfolk, while Suffolk’s church continued to be administered from Dummoc.

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By the time of Egbert’s reign, the Anglo-Saxons were a very different people from those who fought the legendary Battle of Badon in 516, or even the Battle of the River Idle a century later. They were now all Christian and in many ways cultured and civilised. They had established settlements by clearing forests, often naming them after the local chief, as in Wolverhampton (‘Wulfhere’s home village’) and Birmingham (‘Beormund’s people’s home’). Egbert’s campaigns of 825 and 829 marked an important stage in the growing political unity of the English: he brought the resources and strength of the south, from Kent to Cornwall, under centralised authority at the time when the very existence of England was to be challenged by the warriors of Scandinavia. Wessex came to overshadow their Kentish and South Saxon neighbours while expanding westwards into British territory. Throughout this period, London, still the largest port in Britain, remained the greatest political prize in Britain, and control of London was the source of an extended conflict between Mercia and Wessex, ended only by the disruptions of the Viking wars. Egbert was not always successful. In 836 he lost a battle to the Vikings, though two years later he won an even larger battle against the combined forces of the Vikings and the Welsh at Hingston Down near Plymouth. By that time something was known of the relentless northern warriors, and though they were called ‘Danes’, many were from other Scandinavian countries as well. At this stage, Egbert was the only English king to put up much resistance against them, and after his death in 839 England sank steadily into decline. Egbert was a remarkable king, reigning over Wessex for thirty-seven years, the ancestor of all of England’s future monarchs except for the Tudors. His early life had been spent at the court of Charlemagne, which prepared him to become a great king, but like many of those who followed him, he would never have obtained the throne at all if a cousin had not died prematurely.

(to be continued)


William Anderson & Clive Hicks (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles: A guide to the legendary and sacred sites. London: Ebury Press.

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British: From Ice Age to Norman Conquest. London: Guild Publishing.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Sam Newton (2003), The Reckoning of King Raedwald: The Story of the King linked to the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial. Colchester: Red Bird Press.

Stephen Driscoll et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Philip Warner (1973, ’76), British Battlefields: The Midlands. Glasgow: Osprey Publishing/ Fontana.

David Smuurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of Britain & Europe to 1485. London: Harrap.


Battles of the Britons: Seawolves, Settlements & Saints, circa 415-615.

The Disintegration of Roman Britain:

Richborough Fort, Kent. The remains of the walls of one of the several forts built by the Romans on Britain’s south and east coasts in response to raids.

With the removal of Rome’s military support by around 411 the centralised adminisration of occupied Britain disintegrated, although the form and values of Roman life were not instantly overthrown. It was still hoped that Britain would become a Roman province again and an appeal for military aid was made to a Roman army campaigning in Gaul as late as 446. Once the Roman legions had withdrawn and imperial power within the British Isles had evaporated in the early fifth century, an older political pattern reasserted itself. Both in Britain and in Ireland the fundamental units of authority were the petty kingdoms, based upon the force of warrior bands sustained by booty and tribute. The Christian Church became a part of these societies only gradually. Already well-established in Roman Britain, Christianity in Cambria (or ‘Waleas’, ‘land of foreigners’ as the Anglo-Saxons called it), Cornwall (West Wales) and Cumbria, areas where the there was no sharp break with the Roman past. In Ireland, Strathclyde, and other kingdoms and territories north of Hadrian’s Wall, areas which were not continuously part of the Roman Empire, ‘Celtic’ missionaries introduced Christianity in the fifth, sixth and early seventh centuries, and went on to spread the faith among the Northumbrians and the Angles who had settled along the North Sea coasts during the fifth and sixth centuries. But from the time of their arrival until the beginning of the seventh century, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes remained largely impervious to Christianity. They remained true to their gods, Woden and the other deities in the Northern pantheon. The Romano-British Church was more interested in converting the remaining Celtic pagans on a line stretching from Dorset up to Strathclyde. Although a Roman mission under Augustine converted the Jutish kingdom of Kent in 597, it took a further generation for it to become properly established, and a further century for the whole of the British Isles to become part of ‘Christendom’.

The collapse of the Roman province of Britannia created a vortex that drew Germanic migrants from across the Channel and propelled native peoples around the British Isles. Although in many respects the social and political consequences of that two hundred year period of immigration were felt most strongly in southern and eastern Britain, where Roman culture had become most entrenched, the upheaval affected all parts of the islands. The coming of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes is the most important event in the history of those islands. But we have only a vague idea of what actually happened during the two hundred years of the incursions and settlements. The Saxons themselves left no contemporary written records, though their burial-places have provided rich sources of archaeological evidence. Britain was at first raided and then settled by the Saxons from North Germany, from the land between the rivers Ems and Elbe; by the Angles from what is now Southern Denmark; and by a smaller group, the Jutes, who came from Frisia, on the shores the Zuider Zee. The map above shows that the Jutes attacked Kent and the Isle of Wight, that the Saxons went to Southern England, and the Angles went to land further north in what became known as East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. The attacks were first made by small bands of warriors, at different parts of the coasts and at different times. There was no co-ordinated full-scale invasion. Possibly uniting for a time under a single leader, they moved speedily up the rivers in their long-boats, storming and destroying Roman towns and killing remaining inhabitants. Many Britons had already fled westward. After they had completed their work of destruction, the raiders turned back to settle and cultivate the lands they had ravaged. The map below illustrates the progress made in the settlement of the country between the fifth and seventh centuries.

Anglo-Saxon Incursions, Migration and Settlement:

A drawing from a UK school textbook.

The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons coincided with a drastic decline in towns and a reorganisation of the landscape, partly as a result of large-scale population movement. London was probably the only place where some semblance of urban life continued, and even there the centre shifted to the west, to an area outside the Roman walls. Elsewhere, towns were largely abandoned, some never to be reoccupied, others, like Winchester and Canterbury, eventually to be reborn as royal centres. A handful of new trading points were established, as at Hamwith (Southampton) and Ipswich. In the North and the West some Roman fortresses became local political centres, notably at York and Carlisle, but most were ignored. The arrival of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as they became known by later historians, initiated a period of struggle and decline, which saw the mass migration both across the North Sea and the Irish Sea, as well as the creation of a new political order out of the warfare and chaos which was endemic in post-Roman Britain.

Battle of Badon - Wikipedia
Arthur leading cavalry charge at Mount Badon in an 1898 illustration for Idylls of the King

From the perspective of the Celtic- and Brythonic-speaking peoples, this provided the context for the heroic, though largely legendary, efforts of ‘King Arthur’ or ‘Artorius’ in resisting the Anglo-Saxon expansion into western Britain. From this period of incursion and settlement, traditionally referred to as ‘the Dark Ages’, emerged a pattern of of ethnic, cultural and linguistic development which calls into question this epithet. Nonetheless, it does hold a substantial element of truth when applied to the sources available to the historian. Written evidence in the form of manuscripts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the De Exidio de Conquestu Britanniae of the monk Gildas, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation and the tenth-century compilation of known as Nennius’ History of the Britons, allow the outline of events to be constructed, but the interpretation placed upon them by these sources is at best ambiguous, and at worst totally misleading.

Early British Battlefields, from c AD 490.

Fortuitously, additional sources in the form of charters and statutes, archaeological evidence and the study of place names, can be used to qualify and amplify the narrative. The major themes that emerge are the transition of the ‘English’ peoples from groupings of small kingdoms into a single monarchy; the assimilation of the Anglo-Saxons, and the conversion of the English to Christianity. The outcome of battle was fundamental to the development of the first two, and war, on occasion, was the precursor to the advance of Christianity over paganism. We will never know the full extent of the fighting between Briton and Anglo-Saxon but The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does throw some light on the nature of warfare at the time. The desire to annexe and settle enemy territory was one of the prime reasons for war, but there were other motives. Battles could result from feuding between rival claimants to the throne, from the harbouring of domestic exiles, from the attacks of marauding war-bands, and from raids aimed at seizing livestock, especially valuable cattle. Warfare took a number of different forms, including attempts to repel seaborne landings, and to capture strongholds such as Roman fortifications or pre-Roman hill-forts and river crossings. River lines formed a natural defensive position and battles often centred on fords or other crossing points.

The Roman legions had come to Britain as professional soldiers under orders to conquer an island whose possession might further the interests of Rome. But long before they left, a new force had appeared on the scene. They had first appeared in the Channel as early as the second century. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes came as peoples hungry for land and loot. Finding that Britain could satisfy their desires, settlement and eventually folk-migration followed. The initial incursions were resisted by the native Britons, but their dynasties and armies were gradually pushed westwards over the course of the two centuries that followed. The Anglo-Saxons, as the different tribes became collectively known, were great fighters and seafarers and, when they settled, skilful farmers. The Romans had held a healthy respect for them and even admired them, having first encountered them on the northern borders of their continental empire, but they had also created a special command to deal with their marauding ways around the eastern coastline of Britain. This had come under the ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’ who had a chain of forts and a fleet of warships to help in the task of defending the island from attack across the North Sea. The Romans have traditionally seen as land-based people, moving their armies swiftly along their magnificent straight roads to confront their enemies in set-piece battles. In fact, they were extremely flexible in their military strategies, and adaptable in their use of seaforts and navies to keep the ‘sea-wolves’ at bay. The Romans had done everything they could to integrate themselves into British life over their four centuries of occupation, but the fact that they were still seen by many natives as occupiers is perhaps borne out by their failure to train and equip the Britons to defend themselves against external attacks.

The Defence of Britannia’s Shores:

Reculver Church, Kent, from the air, showing the surviving west end with the foundations of the rest of the building marked out on the ground. The Romans built a small fort there at the time of their conquest of Britain in 43 AD, and, starting late in the 2nd century, they built a larger fort, or castrum, called Regulbium, which later became one of the chain of Saxon Shore forts. Following the withdrawal of the Western Roman Empire in the early C4th, the Britons again took control of the lands until Anglo-Saxon invasions shortly afterward.
By the 7th century Reculver had become a landed estate of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Kent. The site of the Roman fort was given over for the establishment of a monastery dedicated to St Mary in 669 AD. 

It is perhaps not entirely fair, therefore, to blame the subsequent successful incursions by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons on the lack of military experience and preparadeness of the Britons themselves. Many Britons had served with some distinction in the Roman legions, as I detailed in my previous article, and had fought their way across Gaul as far as the western imperial capital itself. They were as skilled and brave as their fellows in arms from anywhere else in the empire. The tales of Macsen Wledig in the Welsh Mabinogion are testimony to this. But the Britons did not seem to appreciate early or widely enough the new form of coastal warfare that they needed to employ against the incursions which followed Rome’s withdrawal. For one thing, the seaforts built by the Romans needed contant reinforcement and garrisoning against forces that were more numerous and more experienced in this form of warfare. But on at least one occasion the Britons did use exactly the right tactics against their opponents, and that was at Mount Badon. The Jutes had arrived first, by invitation, and were the first to settle and establish themselves in Kent. Having quarrelled with and driven out their hosts, they demanded a large slice of the south-east. There were still Romans in Britain at that stage, but they were without any military power. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 443, we read:

In this year the Britons sent across the sea to Rome and begged for help against the Picts, but they got none there, for the Romans were engaged in a campaign against Attila, King of the Huns. And then they sent to the Angles, … and made the same request of the chieftains of the English.

At this time the Vandals marched through Gaul and into Spain, plundering as they went (see the map below). After crossing the strait of Gibraltar, they easily took control of North Africa before re-crossing the Mediterranean to attack Rome in 455. Meanwhile the Huns, continuing their destructive march, had also entered the Roman Empire. Led by Attila, they ravaged the land as far as Constantinople. They then moved westward towards Gaul where at Chalons, near Troyes, in 451, the Visigoths and Romans united to oppose them. Attila turned back towards Italy, but the Pope persuaded him to withdraw across the Danube. The next year Attila died and the Huns fell into disorganised groups, ceasing to be a threat to the Empire. However, the Barbarian invasions of the Empire continued into the sixth century, most notably by the Franks, as shown on the map above, at the same time as the incursions into Britannia continued unabated. The Emperor Justinian (527-565) attempted to recover the provinces lost to the barbarians, and his general had some success in this in Africa, Spain and Italy. But these provinces were soon easily lost again, to the Moors and the Lombards, because they were too far away from Constantinople.

Unfortunately for the Britons, they soon discovered that their hoped-for saviours proved to be the next aggressors themselves. Two military strategies appear to have been put forward to deal with the barbarian threat after the break with Rome. Each policy was supported by rival adherents whose partisanship developed into mutual hostility and war. The rival leaders may have been Vortigern and Ambrosius Arelianus; it appears that the former, whom Gildas describes as superbus tyrannus, was the principal military leader of the Britons in the fifth century. The name ‘Vortigern’ can be translated as ‘high king’ although the exact status of this figure remains uncertain. What is widely accepted is that he was responsible for bringing Saxon mercenaries to Britain to provide a defence against attack by Picts and Scots. It is possible, however, that the real significance of this strategem was to repel a Roman landing from Gaul in support of Ambrosius. Thus Vortigern’s decision to base the mercenaries along the North Sea Coast and to surrender Kent as an area for further settlement can be explained by the need to create a ‘buffer zone’ against an attack from across the Channel.

A Pictish stone standing by the roadside in Tayside. Ornamented with a hunting scene and striking, but incomprehensible symbols. The other side is carved with a great cross.

Vortigern’s employment of barbarian allies was by no means original and it is probable that Germanic settlers co-operated in the defence of forts and towns even before the Romans withdrew. Whatever the precedents, Vortigern’s policy was a catastrophe for the Britons. The mercenaries comprised Angles, Saxons and Jutes and it seems certain that their role as allies started earlier and developed more gradually than is suggested by Bede’s later account of a single mass descent led by Hengest and Horsa around 450. At first the visits of the Saxon warriors were no real threat, as they accepted land and money in return for their military service, but as reinforcements arrived from their homelands across the North Sea and their strength increased they were encouraged to rebel by the apparent weakness of their hosts. Consolidating their hold on the eastern coastal areas, they launched savage raids to the north and the west. Vortigern’s allies turned on him and swarmed all over southern and eastern Britain, carving out independent estates and kingdoms for themselves. Hengist and Horsa fought Vortigern at a site called Aegelsthrep where Horsa was killed, and then Hengist and his son Aese won a decisive victory against the Britons at Creacanford, a site which cannot easily be identified. Now the floodgates were opened and a succession of warlords crossed the North Sea in their long shallow-draught boats to probe the coast, rivers and inlets of East Anglia in search of land which was vacant or could easily be made vacant.

Who were the Invaders?

The Nydam boat at Schleswig Holstein, Western Germany, built around 400.

Who were these Anglo-Saxons from whom the greater part of our present population is descended? They were fishermen-farmers from Schleswig-Holstein, North Germany, the North Frisian Islands and, perhaps, from Denmark. Pottery finds suggest that we are here dealing with quite a large number of distinct communities who came severally and over a long period of years in their seventy-foot-long, oar-propelled boats. This was no concerted invasion, but a piecemeal settlement similar to that of the Celts which had taken place over the millenia ‘before the Romans came from Rye’. They rowed up the rivers, first advancing from the Wash and penetrating the Breckland. Later raiders pushed up the Deben, the Gripping and the Orwell to establish settlements on the Sandlings. The new culture established itself rapidly and completely. All Latin traces quickly vanished as Romano-British landowners fled westwards or established a modus vivendi with the strangers. The peasantry found it easier simply to adopt the language and customs of their new masters. Old names were soon lost without trace, and new ones appeared, like Gipeswic (‘the settlement by the estuary’ – Ipswich), Sudbyrig (‘the southern fort’ – Sudbury). ‘Ham’,’Wic’, ‘Tun’, ‘Weorde’ are all words, suffixes which indicated small settlements, fortified homesteads where single families lived with their servants. Notably, the newcomers had no word for town since the concept of urban life and the complex social interrelationships it implied was alien to them. The Saxons, like most Britons, lived in small self-sufficient units, in round houses of timber and thatch within stockades which provided shelter for man and beast. The communal fire was the centre of every homestead, while the ‘thegns’ lived in more imposing timber halls where they feasted their warriors, discussed forthcoming campaigns and listened to songs and sagas of ancient valour.

Reconstructed Anglo-Saxon houses at West Stow, Suffolk. The one in the foreground has probably been built with a slightly over-tall roof, when compared to the source below.
Different reconstructions of an Anglo-Saxon building based on the same excavated evidence from an Anglo-Saxon settlement at Cowdery’s Down , near Basingstoke, Hampshire, excavated by Martin Millett.

Vortigern disappears from the historical record by 460 and thereafter British resistance to attacks centred on the leadership of two men with Latin names, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Artorius (Arthur). In 477, the formidable Aelle arrived with his three sons and killed many Britons and drove some into flight. Aelle was clearly a warrior king whose principal pastime was making himself an intolerable nuisance to his neighbours both in his homeland and across the North Sea. He found Britain a tempting target with people to be plundered and occupied. One of the his sons, Wlencing, gave his name to Lancing near Shoreham, and another, Cissa, to Chichester. The Britons made the fatal mistake of trying to hold him off from fixed defences with no sally-ports, resulting in them becoming besieged in old Roman forts, as at Pevensey. Aelle and Cissa captured the fort and killed every man, woman and child within its walls. After this massacre, Aelle founded the Kingdom of the South Saxons, later becoming the County of Sussex. From its founding, the Saxons arrived in increasing numbers. Some landed further west, and founded the Kingdom of the West Saxons or Wessex; others founded the Kingdom of the East Saxons, the County of Essex. Angles, Saxons and Jutes all came from contiguous areas on the continent, and it is surprising that the early chroniclers were expert enough to be able to distinguish between them. All were formidable in war, but none more than the Saxons whose achievements were only too well known on the Continent. One of sources is the sixth-century monk, Gildas, who described their effect on Britain:

… famine dire and most famous sticks to the wandering and staggering people, priests and … swords on every side gleaming and flames crackling were together mown to the ground … fragments of bodies covered with clots as if congealing of purple-coloured blood, mixed in a sort of fearful winepress, and burial of any kind was there none except the ruins of houses, the bellies of beasts and birds in the open …

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Archaeology has begun to shed some light on the ‘Dark Ages’, where documentary evidence is lacking. The distribution of pagan fifth-century Anglo-Saxon burials indicates the probable areas of earliest Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain. As the map above shows, the ‘English’ advance continued throughout the period – though both English and British kingdoms fought as often among themselves as against each other. Inscriptions in the Irish ogham alphabet, also adopted by the Picts, point to each area of Irish settlement in the southwest, west Wales and soutwest Scotland; Latin memorial stones reflect successful British campaigns to drive the Irish out. Meanwhile, British and then Irish missionaries spread Christianity throughout Ireland and Picts; by the end of the period Irish, continental and native British missionaries had also begun the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons.

Map A above shows how the Jutes, who came from Frisia, attacked Kent and the Isle of Wight, while the Angles went further north into East Anglia, the Midlands and Northumbria, while the Saxons settled mainly along the southern coasts. Map B illustrates the progress made in the settlement of the country between the mid-fifth century and the end of the sixth century.. Map C shows the lengthy nature of the struggle between the retreating Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. The two battles of Deorham in 577 and Chester in 613 are marked, since they separated the Britons into three regions.

At first the Britons could do little except flee or stand and be slaughtered. Many chose to take their chances in the woods, for there was no safe haven in the towns the Romans had left. The Saxons did not occupy the buildings they had not destroyed; this concept of the civilised life was beyond their grasp, but they did make use of the Roman roads to penetrate deep and wide into Britain. Out of their misery the Britons had to develop a new form of life and warfare. Like their ancestors of some five hundred years before they began to display the skills of guerilla fighting which had impressed the first Roman invaders. We know from Roman accounts that the Britons were highly mobile, could race around in chariots, alight, fight and leap back on to their horses and chariots. But these skills had long been forgotten, and were never completely revived. Instead the Britons evolved a more cautious form of warfare, with a technique of ambush. They were slow, however, to learn the strategy of avoiding pitched battle, as we can read in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

495: In this year two chieftains, Cerdic and his son Cynric came with five ships to Britain at the place which is called Cerdicesora, and they fought against the Britons on the same day.

501: In this year Port and his two sons Bieda and Maegla came to Britain with two ships at the place … called Portsmouth and there they killed a young British man of very high rank.

508: In this year Cerdic and Cynric killed a British king whose name was Natanleod and five thousand men with him, and the land right up to Charford was called Netley after him.

514: in this year the West Saxons came with three ships at a place which is called Cerdicesora and Scuf and Wihtgah fought against the Britons and put them to flight.

These early battles or skirmishes were strenuous and bloody enough to impress the chroniclers but they were not decisive. The Saxon raiders would celebrate their victories with plunder and senseless destruction but at this stage they had few constructive ideas as to how to consolidate their gains. Had they been well led, the Britons could have ambushed these marauders on their return to the coasts and recaptured most of the spoils. But apart from certain isolated occasions, they seldom did so. The Saxons either set sail for their homeland or settled near the coast in this new territory. Many of the Britons had fled far beyond the farthest point of Saxon penetration, deep though that was in places, in order to gain the protection of the ancient hillforts. The Saxons referred to all the Britons as the ‘Waelisch’, which meant ‘foreigners’ or, perhaps more precisely, ‘outlanders’, which gave the name to the territories where some of the Britons settled and survived, and eventually to the nation which emerged from the Dark Age principalities and kingdoms of Powys, Gwynedd and Dyfed. Gildas’ account of the misfortunes of these ‘refugee’ Britons was substantiated by Bede, who wrote:

Consequently some of the miserable remnants, being taken in the mountains, were slain in heaps. Others, constrained by hunger coming forward, yielded hands to their foes to undergo for the sake of food perpetual slavery, if indeed they were not immediately killed. Others, sorrowing, sought countries over sea. Others, remaining in the fatherland, led a wretched life in mountains, woods, and steep crags, always with apprehensive mind.

Artorius, The Battle of Badon & The British Resistance:

But both Gildas and Bede were glossing their chronicles with their own tales of woe and narratives of defeat and misery to the situation, which was never as bad as they made it seem, if we take into account other sources of evidence, which testify to the determination of the royal dynasties of the Britons to resist and even defeat the ‘seawolves’ from the security of their own heartlands in the West. They therefore reverted to being leaders of guerilla ‘warbands’. Apart from the abandoned Roman towns and roads, and the Britons’ own trackways and upland forts, most of Britain was still covered with forest, thickets, moorland and marsh. Little of the land had been drained or cleared in Roman times and by 516 more than a century had passed since more peaceful times, during which drainage system had been neglected and thickets had been allowed to grow back. The Britons had no shortage of inaccessible hideouts; their problem was to find the leaders to organise their resistance, train their scattered bands, and mount an effective series of counter-attacks. But the Britons had such leaders, first in Ambrosius Aurelianus and then Artorius, known in legend and literature as Arthur.

The truth is that the fortunes of war swung much more evenly between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons after the initial coastal clashes and incursions, but after the loss of the fort at Pevensey in 477, Britons seem to have begun and ended a series of campaigns lasting nearly forty years with significant victories. The first was achieved under Ambrosius, but the concluding victory at Mount Badon was probably gained by a force under Artorius’s command. The Historia Brittonum lists twelve battles fought and won by Arthur of which only one, fought in the Caledonian Forest, can be identified to a particular site with any degree of confidence. Mont Badon, the last of the twelve, was probably fought at some point between 494 and 499, though some sources date it to 516, on a site in the south-west Midlands. Attempts to identify the precise site of the battle have centred, perhaps mistakenly, on the search for a suitable hill-fort. It has been suggested that the British name for the the site was ‘Din Badon’ meaning ‘Badon Fort’, and that the defeated Saxons translated this into ‘Baddanburg’ or ‘Badda’s Fort’, thereby implying a link with one of five modern Badburys between Dorset and Lincolnshire. Favoured sites have included Badbury Rings in Dorset and Badbury by Liddington Castle in Wiltshire. Archaeologists and military historians think that they have found the likely British stronghold at the latter, an Iron-Age fort on a nine-hundred-foot hill. It has a useful high bank and ditch, and on the hill slopes are traces of other works which made the path of the attacker hazardous. Here, it seems, the Saxons located the rest of the force which had inflicted such damage on them the previous day (see below). Perhaps there had been another brush at the crossroads and the Saxons had been led in pursuit to Liddington. Up till recent times Liddington was known as Badbury Castle, i.e. the ‘burgh’ at Bad(on). But, as noted below, we may not need to locate a hill-fort site. Welsh tradition identifies Badon with Bath and It is possible that the battle was fought on one of the hills surrounding the town.

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The Battle of Mount Badon or Mons Badonicus has been somewhat of a mystery for over fifteen hundred years. Records are scanty and there has been much speculation over its exact site. It was an enormously important battle, and its result delayed the subjugation of Britain for at least fifty years. It was undoubtedly a masterpiece of strategic and tactical planning. Perhaps much of the mystery stems from the fact that Badon was chronicled by scholars and monks who were far away in both place and time, and who did not know the area in which it was reputedly fought. Today, the obscurity of Badon seems a little less impenetrable, at least from a military strategist’s point of view.

Quoted in Philip Warner’s (1976) book, Famous Battles of the Midlands, one such strategist, Col. Burne accepts most of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century account of the battle while acknowledging that on some matters, Geoffrey’s versions of events, not least concerning ‘King Arthur’, were somewhat imaginative. There has been much discussion and debate as to who Arthur may have been, but there now seems to be a consensus among historians that (if he is one and the same as the historical Artorius) he was not a ‘king’ but rather a ‘warlord’, the military leader of the forces of a number of small British kingdoms. Whether this general of the Britons was Ambrosius Aurelianus or Artorius, or both, can never be established. One theory is that ‘Arthur’ was one of the names by which Ambrosius was known to his men. Ambrosius has been identified as a Romano-British aristocrat whose parents had been mudered by Saxon pirates. He had narrowly missed being killed himself, and decided to set up a resistance force. Guerilla leaders seldom use their own names, of course (we need only think of ‘Robin’ Hood or ‘Che’ Guevara). Gildas describes him in the following terms:

Ambrosius Aurelianus being leader, a modest man, who alone by chance of the Roman nation had survived in the collision of so great a storm, his parents doubtless clad in the purple, having been killed in the same, whose progeny now in our times having greatly degenerated from their ancestral excellence, to whom, the Lord assenting, victory fell.

Bede put it a little more coherently when he wrote later, based on Gildas:

But when the hostile army, having destroyed and dispersed the natives of the island returned home, the Britons by degrees to resume strength and spirit, emerging from their hiding places, wherein they had concealed themselves, and with one accord imploring celestial help lest they should be destroyed even to extermination. They had at that time for their leader Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, … Under this leader therefore the Britons took heart, and challenging their victors to battle obtain the victory …

There is, according to Warner, no reason to believe that Arthur and Ambrosius were not different people, that the former had his headquarters in the West, perhaps at South Cadbury near Glastonbury and/or Tintagel in Cornwall (both pictured below), where he trained his forces and into which the Saxons were not able to penetrate, and that Ambrosius was was based in Gwynedd, where he became an expert in hill-fighting. But it was just possible that they were one and the same man, in keeping with elements of the folklore passed down through legend and literature. The Latin meaning of Ambrosius is ‘immortal’, and the name lives on in the Welsh name ‘Emrys’. Aurelianus means ‘golden’ and ‘Arthur’ is thought to derive from the Brythonic word for ‘bear’, a suitable nickname for a guerilla leader. Of the twelve battles supposedly fought by Arthur, seven were connected with rivers. It has been suggested that actions fought at river crossings gave the mounted Britons a natural superiority over Anglo-saxon infantry, but in fact the advantage of deploying cavalry probably lay in the speed and and mobility they offered in reaching the battlefield. Arthur’s horsemen were not the heavy cavalry suggested by the legendary tales of chivalric ‘knights’ and would not have been able to deliver effective shock action. They would not have ridden down opposing infantry with horse and lance but used the horse as a mobile platform from which to throw their spears before attacking with swords drawn. The emphasis of warfare still lay firmly with individual feats of arms rather than with the unity of action required in a disciplined cavalry charge.

We see from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the main Saxon raids were separated by several years. There would be a raid, a battle or two, and the return to the homeland or the shoreline, as referred to above. The early Saxon incursions had neither the administrative nor the necessary logistical support to mount a long campaign into areas of the hinterland where where the opposition was unknown and and food supplies would be precarious to say the least. But in 516, according to Gildas, a Saxon force of considerable strength was moving along the Ermine Way between Silchester and Swindon. Whether it was in 516 or twenty years ealier, as suggested above, makes little difference: It was a tough, resourceful fighting force which was moving north-west along the straight Roman road, but as the mile succeeded mile, with not a Briton in sight, it looked as if the Saxon warrior’s reputation had cleared the way before them. They saw no reason to use scouts or proceed cautiously. At the end of this stage, there was said to be another old Roman town, and after that the sea again. They were right. Swindon lay ahead, and after that the ‘Severn Sea’, known now as the Bristol Channel. But, unknown to them, Ambrosius and his Britons were marching in the same direction along the Severn and the Avon. As they approached Badon, or Bath, it looked no different from anywhere else along the route. They marched along the plateau, down the dip and up the slope into what is now Baydon village. When they were half-way up that slope, the trap was sprung. It is not difficult to reconstruct the probable sequence of events. Possibly two swift flank attacks took place from the cover close to the road, with another force directly in front including cavalry which would send the Saxons reeling back down the hill, and there was probably an attack around the rear over the route they had just covered; this would ensure that once they had tumbled to the bottom of the dip, the advanced Saxons would have stayed there, since It would have been an impossible position for the Saxons to fight their way out of.

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Battle of Badon, Map One from Warner (see Sources below): The First Phase (Day) of the Battle.

Nennius, a ninth-century historian, stated that Arthur was the victor of Badon, and that it was the last of twelve consecutive victories. He gives the Saxon casualties as 440, but there is no reason to consider the figure as anything more than a wild guess. The Saxon army was probably about three thousand-strong and was spread out along the road. Once the initial ambush had succeeded, with devastating effect, the Britons no doubt faded away into the ‘undergrowth’. The Saxon rear party came up and took stock at Baydon itself, but the next day they decided to press on, albeit cautiously. About five miles on from Baydon, the Ermine Way is crossed by the Ridgeway, one of the great strategic roadways of Britain. Form the west, it stretches through what are Wiltshire and Berkshire and then links up with even older Icknield Way, running right through to the Wash. It was an old road during Roman times, and to the Saxons who suddenly came across this important trackway crossing their own it showed why they had been ambushed at Baydon; this was the highway on which the Britons linked up. Where there was a crossroads the chances were that there would be a means of defending it.

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Warner: Phase Two of the Battle, on Liddington Hill (see below).
Battle of Badon - Wikipedia
Liddington Hill, with the earthworks of the ‘camp’ showing on the right-hand edge.. Wikipedia.org.

The second phase of the battle is somewhat confused by the fact that some writers, most notably Geoffrey of Monmouth, considered that the the Saxons occupied the hill fort and the Britons were attacking them. But it seems more likely that the Saxons, thinking that they had come to the last stronghold of the Britons in that area, were determined to destroy it and avenge the losses of the previous day.

But as they pressed to the assault they naturally found the tall and steep hill a tougher proposition than they had expected. But once committed there would be no thought of drawing back. And once more the cavalry for which both Ambrosius and Artorius were famous would come into action. Some think that much of the battle took place on open ground between Liddington and Badbury. Perhaps the last stages did, when the Saxons had been flung back from the hill slopes, retired to the hollow field below it on the north side, and then, tired and dispirited, were cut to pieces by the British cavalry coming from either side of the Ridgeway.

Writing several hundred years later, Geoffrey of Monmouth describes the slain Saxons as being ‘many thousands’. Whatever the actual number, the Saxons conceded that their invasion army, the strongest they had been able to muster, had been annihilated. It was clear that if that had been the fate of what had looked like an all-conquering army, central Britain was best left alone for the time being. No other battle compares with the achievement of Badon. There the pride of the Saxon army was outwitted, crushed and finally destroyed by a conglomerate force which behaved with superb discipline and was clearly expertly led. It is no wonder that accounts of it survive in Welsh epic poetry and European ‘Arthurian’ literature. One of the early legendary documents, The British Easter Annals, links Arthur specifically with the battle of Mount Badon:

… in which Arthur carried the cross of our lord Jesus Christ three days and three nights on his shoulders and the British were victorious.

Nennius gave a more detailed but more fanciful account in his ninth-century ‘history’:

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The detail of both these entries should not, of course, be interpreted literally. ‘Three days and three nights’ merely implies a lengthy battle, and Arthur would have borne the cross as his symbol in the form of an amulet. Gildas supports the contention that the battle was a series of attacks and repulses, which he describes as a ‘siege’, with the implication that either the Saxons or the Britons occupied and fortified a hill-top from which they were prepared to resist the attacks of the enemy. But it may simply have been the case that the Saxon army occupied an elevated position in order to reduce the effectiveness of Arthur’s cavalry. The Britons still managed to launch decisive attacks and a statement in the Historia Brittonum describes a single charge in which Arthur and his forces slew nine hundred and sixty of the enemy. It is difficult to accept the numerical accuracy of so precise a figure, but the victory gained by the Britons was undoubtedly comprehensive. While it is overstating the result of the battle to suggest that the Saxon threat was eradicated for half a century, Gildas does describe the far-reaching consequences of Badon, stressing the resulting peace and the cessation of foreign wars.

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South Cadbury, Somerset. A view showing a rampart of the Iron Age hillfort, a site containing a Celtic temple with ritual pits. Traditionally the site of Arthur’s Camelot, South Cadbury was refortified in late Roman times and at the start of the Dark Ages.

An ‘Arthurian’ site further south-west, in Somerset, is the hillfort of South Cadbury, traditionally claimed to have been the site of King Arthur’s Camelot. This is an Iron Age hillfort reoccupied and fortified not only in the fifth-sixth century, but also in later Anglo-Saxon times. Geoffrey of Monmouth associated the site with Arthur’s last battle with Mordred, which followed his pursuit of Mordred as far as the river Camel, and ended with his death from wounds received during the battle. Of course, as the map above shows, the sites connected with Arthur range up and down Britain, from Tintagel in Cornwall where, according to legend, he was born, and which was known to have been an important monastery in the early Dark Ages, to Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. The Arthur we think of today is a figure symbolising the defence of Christian civilization and the establishment of earthly rule on a basis of justice and compassion: he and his legends surrounding his knights and his court on the one hand derive from the traditions and beliefs going back into the pagan Celtic era, and on the other hand areseen through the screen of a later medieval chivalric society. The Arthur of South Cadbury – ‘Camelot’ – who defeated the Saxons at the great battle of ‘Mons Badonicus’, whether at Liddington Castle near Swindon or in the South Cotswolds near Bath, or both, at some point between 494 and 516, must, by nature of the evidence, have been far more local and provincial in his outlook than the legends suggest. Nevertheless, he would seem to have done much to save Romano-British Christian culture at a time when it was threatened with extinction by the pagan Anglo-Saxon advance.

Part of the promontory at Tintagel, Cornwall. Most of the visible remains are of medieval buildings, but they overlie occupation layers of the fifth or sixth centuries.

The Saxon Advance Resumed – Salisbury & Dyrham:

The Britons had at least gained a breathing space in which to prepare to meet the renewal of Saxon pressure. It was forty years before the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Saxons in Wiltshire again. In 552, Cynric ‘fought against the Britons at a place called Salisbury’. It is not recorded as a Saxon battle victory, however, but only as a skirmish. In all probability it was an attempt by the Saxons to capture the ancient earthwork fortress of ‘Old Sarum’ near the city. In 556, Cynric again recorded as fighting against the Britons at Barbury, supported by Ceawlin. This was, in fact, the battle of Beranburgh, just north of Barbury Castle, another Iron-Age fort. It would have been an important nodal-pont where six roads meet, and there can be no question that plenty of battles and skirmishes must have been fought in the area. In spite of the setbacks of Badon, the Saxons continued to make steady progress over the following forty years, consolidating their gains elsewhere in Britain. Now they were coming as immigrants, to settle; now too they were beginning to have a better appreciation of the potential of the country they were attempting to conquer. By this time they had been in contact with the coasts of Britain for three hundred years. Some time in the sixth century, Saxons reoccupied the city of London, which became the the territory of the Middle Saxons, or Middlesex. So now we had a number of Saxon ‘kingdoms’ in the south, together with the Jutes of Kent, the Angles of East Anglia, the Kingdom of Northumbria (north of the Humber) – divided into Bernicia in the far north and Deira in the south, mainly modern-day Yorkshire. Combined forces from these areas had forced their way into the Midlands to create Mercia. But this was a ‘march’, a border territory, and it extended to what is now Staffordshire, with changing territorial control and borders until the ninth century. Beyond that the Britons were in force in the kingdom of Powys, and among their bases were Wroxeter and Chester, both significant Roman towns. They were now calling themselves the Cymry, meaning ‘comrades’ or ‘fellow countrymen’.

In effect, therefore, the Anglo-Saxons now held the eastern half of the country and some of the Midlands, and the Britons held the western parts of the island, from Cornwall in the extreme south-west to the northern kingdom of Strathclyde, including the areas corresponding with the modern-day Welsh border counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire. This temporary partition or stalemate was set to continue almost indefinitely unless the Saxon invaders could effect a strategic breakthrough. To achieve this, it was necessary to cut a line through the British areas to the sea, and then widen it. Clearly it would be extremely difficult to do this in the north-west, though that would also have to be done eventually. The obvious point for a drive forward was where the invading Saxon army had tried in the late fifth or early sixth century. New military leadership had emerged in Cynric and Ceawlin. The former put the Britons to flight at Salisbury in 552, and in 560 we read that Ceawlin succeeded to the Kingdom of Wessex and Aelle to Northumbria.

Some of these warrior kings traced their descent back to Woden, like the ‘Wuffings’ of East Anglia (see appendix one below). Early in the sixth century a group of settlers arrives in the Sandlings of Suffolk. They came from what is now Sweden and their leader’s name was Wehha. Whether they were simply better warriors than other bands or whether ovrercrowding forced them to become more aggressive and take the role of conquerors we cannot determine. What we do know is that Wehha’s family established the first kingdom of East Anglia. From their base at Rendlesham they ranged along the coasts and rivers forcing their will on all the settlements, demanding allegiance and payment of tribute. Within fifty years the Wuffings had brought most of East Anglia under their sway and the kingdom reached its zenith during the reign of Raedwald (c. 599-625), about whom I have written extensively in other recent articles published on my site.

The cover of Sam Newton’s book. http://www.red-bird.co.uk

Back in the west, meantime, Ceawlin had clearly become an outstanding warrior. He and his brother smetimes fought side by side, at other times went on separate campaigns. In 568, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, ‘Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Aethelbert and drove him in flight into Kent’. Aethelbert was a powerful king, so this was no mean achievement. The quarrel had no doubt sprung from a border incident. Three years later, in 571, we hear of Cutha again in action, defeating the Britons at Biedcanford and capturing four towns: Limbury, Aylesbury, Bensington and Eynsham. This is an interesting campaign, since it looks as if he gathered a force (of Wuffing warriors?) in East Anglia and then drove west through Bedford and Aylesbury, reaching the Thames at Benson just north of Wallingford, and then travelling along the river to Eynsham, a Bronze Age settlement which grew up near the historically important ford of Swinford on the River Thames flood plain. Here he was on the edge of British-held territory, and the opposition would have no doubt been too strong for him to continue. The Chronicle also tells us that he died in this year: Perhaps he had been wounded by British swords, or the Thames Valley marshes proved even deadlier. But as one warrior fell and was laid ceremoniously to rest, there were, it seemed, as many as a dozen others ready to take his place. They often bore the same name or names remarkably similar to their immediate forbears, as the following entry for 577 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In this year Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against the Britons and killed three kings; Conmail, Condidan and Farinmail, at the place which is called Dyrham: and they captured three of their cities, Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath.

So, four years after Cutha’s great campaign, which nearly cut right across from east to west, an even more significant victory was achieved. Doubtless the Anglo-Saxons had by this time sailed around the coasts and gained a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the British positions. If Cuthwine’s thrust could have been sustained it would have struck at almost precisely the same point that Ceawlin reached. During the previous twenty years, as King of Wessex he had gradually been pushing back the north-west borders of his kingdom. Under normal conditions, the three kings of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester would have been fighting each other, disputing some border territory, but they had held their strategic and tactical conferences. Although these essentially Roman towns were still populated, no longer possessed the political and economic importance they enjoyed under Rome. By a stroke of good fortune, Ceawlin’s invasion route led right through the centre of their territories so there could be no question of one of them fighting for his life while another stood idly by pondering when or where to intervene, if at all. A look at the map below shows that Ceawlin was planning to slip through the middle of their strongholds and break through on to the flood plains of the Severn Estuary at Berkeley. But the movements of his large army would doubtless have been faithfully reported by scouts and spies, and even though he had slipped past Bath there must been a huge force waiting to confront him elsewhere. As it happened, it was at Dyrham, but it was in a badly-chosen position. Nevertheless, even Ceawlin must have drawn breath when he came to Dyrham and wondered who would be standing victor on that field by nightfall.

Source: Warner (1977).

Another look at the map suggests that Ceawlin had brought his army through West Littleton. He may have thought that his three principal opponents were mainly intent upon guarding their own cities but, as it proved, they had concentrated their forces at the point he was almost certain to try to pass, Hinton Hill. Needless to say there have been a host of other theories about approach routes he might have chosen but they all lead to Hinton Hill. That this decisive battle took place near the modern village of Dyrham, seven miles north of Bath, is beyond doubt, and the precise location of Hinton Hill has been agreed on by many historians, one mile to the north of Dyrham (originally ‘Deorham’). This is the site of an Iron Age hill-fort, identified as ‘Dyrham Camp’. However, this name is of late-nineteenth-century origin, and in earlier centuries it was known as ‘Barhill’ an ‘Burrill’. It would therefore be wrong to accept uncritically that the fighting took place at the hill-fort, although this remains a possibility. A Saxon presence astride the commanding six-hundred-foot escarpment at Hinton was a challenge which the Britons could not ignore, and the forces of the three towns combined under their kings for a concerted attack upon the army of Cuthwine and Ceawlin. The battle may have taken the form of an attack by either side upon the fort on Hinton Hill but it could equally, and perhaps more probably, have been fought on the banks of the tributary of the River Boyd which flows below the south-west face of the escarpment.

The Battle went decisively in favour of the Saxons, for all three British kings perished, suggesting that the Britons ended the battle surrounded and unable to escape. A Saxon attack launched at dawn from the escarpment, with the advantage and impetus of a downhill charge, may have swept through the British position before they could form to receive it. It looks as if Ceawlin’s warriors were first confronted about three hundred yards ahead of the camp position. The Britons would have had bows, but these were not as formidable as they were later to become. Such armour as they had was light, on the Roman model, but it is unlikely that many would have possessed it. The Saxon rank and file had no armour at all, but their leaders usually had a chain-mail shirt and an iron framework helmet. They had spears, bows and shields. The spears – on both sides – were simple seven-foot shafts with iron heads, which could be used for thrusting or thrown like a javelin. At this time, a spear was considered to be a more flexible and reliable weapon than a bow. After the first exchanges of spears and arrows at Dyrham it was undoubtedly close-quarter combat. Apart from these few facts about the place, the result and the names of the three kings, nothing else is known about the course of the battle, and, in the absence of any written contemporary accounts, the secondary accounts differ as to who was attacking and who defending, and from where. The Saxons seem to have possessed greater numbers, greater than the Britons had anticipated. The important outcome was that Ceawlin succeeded in breaking through to the Severn. He captured Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath with ease, for most of the usual defender of these towns were lying dead on the slopes of Hinton Hill. He had split the ‘Waelisch’ into those in the West, Cornwall and Brittany, and those in Wales and north-west Britain. But there were plenty of battles and skirmishes to follow. Seven years after Dyrham, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

584: In this year Ceawlin and Cutha fought against the Britons at the place which is called Ferthanleag and Cutha was killed there, and Ceawlin captured many villages and countless spoils and in his anger returned to his own land.

Ferthanleag was probably Fringford, a village four and a half miles north of Bicester (today’s Oxfordshire). In 593, a last significant entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Ceawlin ‘perished’, probably with sword-in-hand, and Aethelfrith succeeded to the Kingdom of Wessex. Four years later, we hear that the new king continually fought and contended against the English or the Britons or the Picts or the Scots.

The ‘Age of the Saints’ & The Consolidation of Christianity:

St Ninian’s Cave, Whithorn, Galloway, , used in the early fifth century as a cell by St. Ninian for his devotions.

Up to the time of their defeat at Dyrham in the mid-sixth century, the Britons’ missionaries converted the pagans of the more remote areas of western Britain and then converted Ireland and those parts northern Britain that the Romans had never reached. This brought the British Isles into what is sometimes referred to as ‘the Age of the Saints’. The process of conversion had begun, in fact, shortly before the Roman withdrawal, in northern Britain. In 397 St Ninian introduced Christianity to Galloway, outside the province itself, where he built a small stone church covered with white plaster at Whithorn. Remains of a building corresponding to this description have been uncovered in excavations. The remains are now housed in the thirteenth-century Premonstratension priory and include the Latinus Stone of 450, the earliest record of Christianity in Scotland. Three miles away on the coast can be seen St Ninian’s cave (above), which he used as an oratory. Inside the cave and on the rocks outside are carved votive crosses which are said to date from the eighth century. The complete conversion of Scotand to Christianity was carried out by Irish missionaries in the tenth century. Christians had first arrived in Ireland to escape the barbarian invasions on the continent. By 431 there were enough Christian converts for Rome to appoint a bishop for them. When the Angles, Saxons and Jutes settled in Britain, they continued to worship their own pagan gods, and they attacked the Christian religion which had continued to spread among the Britons, especially in Wales and Cornwall, where Christianity survived and thrived. However, the Britons made no attept to convert the ‘invaders’, preferring to send missionaries like Patrick to Ireland.

Whitesands Bay in Pembrokeshire, near St David’s, from where Patrick set sail to begin his mission to Ireland.

Patrick, a native of Cambria who had spent some time in Ireland after being captured as a slave by pirates, returned there on his great mission from 432 to 461. Not only did he teach the Christian message, but he also spread Roman civilzation there. Patrick’s conversion of the Irish kings had practical benefits for the success of his mission: on a wider scale, it led to a happy and fertile fusion between Christianity and Celtic traditions that flowered for hundreds of years in the manuscripts, metalwork, sculpture and architecture of Ireland. The country became a great centre of learning and art. In preaching the Trinity, he found the Irish people already prepared by the Celtic veneration of the number three. He died in 461, but though he had introduced episcopal administration of the Church, the path the Celtic Church followed in Ireland was heavily influenced by eastern monasticism, brought to Ireland via Tours. It integrated better with native Irish customs than did the Roman rites. Irish monks became famed for their missionary zeal. What these early monks would do to find freedom to pray and contemplate is shown at its most extreme at the island of Skellig Michael, eight miles off the south-west Irish coast. There the ‘beehive’ cells of the monastery testify to the heroic disregard of bodily sufferings or rather the inviting of them as the monks strove to dispossess their inner natures of personal desires and thoughts in their surrender to divine contemplations. A great number of early monastic sites survive, often in more kindly surroundings. In such monasteries, much of permanent value from the ancient world was preserved for Western civilization. The saints and monks loved learning and in their desire for knowledge and its transcendence, they changed themselves, returning to the European mainland with the gifts they had received, founding monasteries there and becoming bishops.

Iona, Inner Hebrides. The holy island of St Columba: a view of the cathedral looking across the sound to Mull.

Some of the travelling saints journeyed unwillingly. Columba (or Columcille) left Ireland in 563 at the age of forty-one, as a penance for unwittingly causing a war by copying out a Vulgate belonging to his old tutor. He had already established two noted monasteries at Derry and Durrow. Accompanied by twelve ‘disciples’, he set sail northwards and came to the island of Iona in the Hebrides. On landing, he climbed a hill to make sure he could not see Ireland so that he would not ‘be tempted by the shadow of his homeland on the water’. He then founded a monastery from which for thirty-four years he worked for the conversion of Scotland. Known earlier as the island of the Druids, Iona possesses sacred wells which were probably the scenes of earlier pagan rites, as well as Sithean Mor, ‘the great mound of the fairies’ or rather ‘the Hill of Angels’ because there is a record stating that Columba was praying there when he was visited by a band of angels. But there are few remains of Columba’s own time, except his cell and his stone bed. The cathedral is largely of the sixteenth century, incorporating a twelfth-century nunnery and an ancient oratory which held the saint’s shrine. From Iona, Columba travelled across Scotland, meeting St Mungo who was buy at work converting the people of Strathclyde, visiting Dunadd, the seat of the Scotic kings of Dalriada, and founding Christian settlements on the mainland. He died on Iona in 597, the same year that the Augustine brought Roman Christianity to the Jutes of Kent.

But if Christianity was not before the end of the Roman province, it was already becoming so by the end of the fifth century, by which time it was sufficiently vigorous to reach beyond the Roman frontiers. Patrick is only the most famous of several missionaries to Ireland and northern Britain who had a profound effect on the political as well as the religious landscape. Within a few generations, the Irish were bringing monastic Christianity back to Britain and the Continent. The most famous of the Irish foundations was undoubtedly Columba’s monastery on Iona, and during the sixth and seventh centuries Iona emerged as the greatest Christian centre in northern Britain, with strong political links that extended its influence into Bernicia through the monastery of Lindisfarne, the great Northumbrian monastery, was founded by a monk from Iona, Aidan, ‘the candle of the north’. This influence of Iona spread far, not just across Scotland, but also throughout the North of England. Monks from Iona converted the inhabitants of both the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland – the Picts and the Scots – and later, the Angles of Northumbria. Only in this one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is there significant evidence for cultural integration between incomers and natives. Here the level of Anglian settlement was lighter and a high degree of continuity can be seen in the landscape and social institutions of the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.

By contrast, there was a much greater degree of social integration among the different Celtic peoples of western Britain and Ireland. For a time, Dál Riata in western Britain spanned the North Channel; elsewhere, ogham inscriptions are a permanent record of a more ephemeral Irish presence. The Irish Sea served as the main conduit by which the Britons and Gaels maintained contact with the continental Christian heirs to Rome. Finds of pottery and glass provide evidence for a vigorous trade with the Mediterranean and western Gaul, in which wine was was probably the most important import. At the time, wine was the most prestigious alcoholic drink, but perhaps more importantly it was essential for the conduct of the Christian mass.

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Thirty years after St Columba had started his sacred mission in Iona, a group of missionaries from Rome, led by Augustine, landed in Kent (597). ‘Pope’ Gregory had sent them and they had some early success with the conversion and baptism of King Aethelbert of Kent, who was also recognised as the ‘Bretwalda’ or senior ruler in the Heptarchy, and King Raedwald of East Anglia, who was therefore ‘subject’ to Aethelbert. When the latter ordered the East Anglian king to be baptised, Raedwald complied. Officially, therefore, according to the Roman tradition, East Anglia became ‘Christian’ during the reign of Raedwald, probably circa 603. But his ‘conversion’ did not go very deep, and his queen’s strong adherence to the old faith ensured that her husband would only regard the Christian God as a recruit to the company of Woden, Thunor and Frig. But the two religions were were now locked in a combat which would prove fatal for one or the other. Aethelbert allowed Augustine to build a church at Canterbury, but his successor reverted to paganism, and Augustine was forced to abandon his mission.

The tenthh-century cross of St Martin standing near the cathedral is one of the few surviving of 360 crosses that once stood on Iona.

In Augustine’s absence, the Celtic missionaries from the north continued the work of coverting the English kingdoms, beginning with East Anglia, into the seventh century. The Celtic churches, monasteries and missions had lost touch with Rome over the previous two hundred years. They conducted their services differently and though their bishops organised their churches efficiently, the Bishops of Rome wanted a uniform and centralised church under their control. Gregory was the first of them to use the title ‘Pope’ and to be widely recognised as such, but this was by no means universal and the Irish bishops were keen to maintain their independence from Rome. This led to may disputes between the Irish and Roman missionaries later in the century (see the map above). The conversion of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons was enabled by the growing stability of their nascent kingdoms in the late sixth and early seventh centuries and, in turn, the growing influence on the lives of the people, making them less warlike and more willing to accept just laws and preparing the way for them to become more united in their allegiances to both church and state.

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The Formation of the Cultures & Kingdoms of the Isles:

The maps above, of the south-east and below, of East Anglia, show how natural obstacles, such as marsh or forest, helped to keep separate the groups of settlers. The Jutes’ bridgehead in Kent was protected to the north by the marshes along the estuary of the Thames, while to the south spread the impassable forest of the Weald. The South Saxons were confined to the coastal plain between the Weald and the Channel coast. The Middle Saxons settled on the patches of well-drained gravels along the lower Thames, and were protected to the north by the thick forests covering heavy, uncultivable clays (e.g. Epping Forest). As the settlements became established, the political focus of the settlers became centred less on defeating the Britons in the North and West and more on the dynastic struggles of the kingdoms of the Heptarchy; Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Kent. At the beginning of the seventh century Northumbria was divided into the two separate Anglian kingdoms of Bernecia and Deira, the former centred on Bamburgh, the latter upon the Yorkshire Wolds. The transformation of these isolated English settlements into the most powerful kingdom in northern Britain was begun by Aethelfrith, the last pagan king of Bernicia, who reigned c. 593 to 616. The expansion of Bernecia was achieved through Aethelfrith’s considerable military skill, and his first opponents were the Scots of Dalriada (Argyll). Under their king, Aeden Mac Gabran, the Scots pushed southwards into Bernecia but were defeated by Aethefrith at Degastan in 603. Aedan’s army was all but wiped out and this decisive victory secured Northumbria from attack from the north.

Aethelfrith next turned south-west, moving against the Britons of Powys. Whether he advanced southwards from Carlisle or westwards through the Kingdom of Elmet it must have been a difficult march, but such was his speed that the Britons were taken by surprise and forced to give battle before their full strength had been mustered. Only the followers of Selyf ap Cynan of Powys, supported by men from the province of Gwynedd, took the field against Aethelfrith at the Battle of Chester in c. 615. Nearly 1,200 monks from Bangor-on-Dee, from an abbey going back to the foundations of Christianity in Britain, also took to the battlefield, whether to offer prayer in support or to fight alongside the Britons is not entirely clear. Whatever their purpose, Aethelfith’s pagan troops were not troubled by any possible distinction between warriors and non-combatants and they slaughtered the monks as a preliminary to the main battle. The Britons were comletely defeated, and both their leaders, Selyf ap Cynan and Cadwal of Rhos were killed. It is difficult to say whether Aethelfrith launched the campaign the campaign as a raid or as a deliberate attempt to drive a final wedge between the Britons of Wales and those in Cumbria and Strathclyde, but if the latter was the case it is strange that the battle was not followed by Northumbrian settlement in the west.

Bangor-on-Dee. The site of the original abbey is thought to be close to the medieval bridge.

Nevertheless, this final battle between the Britons and the Saxons at Chester in c. 615 was significant in completing the separation of the Britons into four regions; West Wales (including Cornwall), North Wales (Wales), Cumbria and Strathclyde. These regions, with their many moors and mountains, were not attractive to the largely ‘lowland-bred’ Anglo-Saxons.The absence of any significant immediate or lasting result from the battle may perhaps be explained by the death of Aethelfrith one year later at the hands of Raedwald of East Anglia at the battle of the River Idle the following year, in which Britons are thought to have fought to avenge their losses at Chester. The Welsh Trioedd Ynys Prydein (‘Triads of the of the Island of Britain’), dating from the thirteenth century, refer indirectly to the Battle of the River Idle. Triads ten and thirty-two describe the “Three Chieftains of Deira and Bernicia” who had performed “three fortunate slayings”. One of these chieftains was ‘Sgafnell the son of Dissyndawd’, who is remembered for his “fortunate slaying” of ‘Edelfled’ (Aethelfrith). It has been argued that these references imply that British warriors with grievances against Aethelfrith fought as Raewald’s allies at the Battle. The new political order of the Heptarchy was later identified by the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers as providing the origins of the English nation.

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The Angles who settled in the land between the Wash and the Thames estuary were confined by the marshes of Fenland to the west and the dense forests on heavy clay soil to the south. In this compact area the kingdom of East Anglia developed, the estuary of the Yare and the Wensum dividing the North Folk (Norfolk) and the South Folk (Suffolk). In the north and in the Midlands the boundaries of settlement were not so clearly defined by geographical obstacles, and, with rulers who were always fighting each other and frontiers that were ill-defined and always changing. Although we continue to refer to a ‘Heptarchy’, as shown with their ninth-century boundaries on the map below, in fact, the smaller kingdoms were independent only for short periods, and there were never seven kingdoms at any one time. It is natural that, during the early struggles between the kingdoms, one ruler should try to make himself supreme over the rest. He was recognised as ‘Bretwalda’, meaning ‘overlord’ or ‘high king’. In the period to 616, the title passed from Aethelbert of Kent to Raedwald of East Anglia and on to Edwin of Northumbria. When Raedwald’s ship burial at Sutton Hoo was uncovered in 1939, many objects of Celtic and British design were among the treasures discovered. In addition, a mixture of pagan and Christian symobols was found on these goods.

A magnificent gold belt-buckle, decorated with intricate animal interlace patterns, from the early seventh century Sutton Hoo ship burial. Suffolk Anglo-Saxon metalwork was strongly influenced by Celtic craftmanship.

The Church at Rendlesham, thought to have been built on the site of Raedwald’s shrine.

At the local level, the Anglo-Saxons disliked living in towns and their arrival coincided with a drastic decline in urban life and a reorganisation of the landscape, partly as a result of large-scale population movement. London was probably the only place where urban life continued on any significant scale. Many Roman towns were ‘robbed out’ and left abandoned, like Silchester, where Arthur was said to have been made ‘Bretwalda’ of the Britons. The newcomers settled in villages at some distance from the Roman roads, the suffixes ‘-ham’ or ‘-ton’ in a place-names denoting the site of a Saxon village. Wherever they settled they farmed the land. Ruled by kings, their most important landlords were called Thegns, holding land granted by the king and having certain rights over the ‘free men’, small-holding farmers.

The ‘Thegns’ presided over the ‘moots’, where matters of common interest were discussed, and a rough sort of justice was carried out. Freemen could be summoned by the king to serve in an army called ‘the Fyrd’. There were also slaves, including some of the Britons whose lives had been spared during the raids. Aerial photography has also revealed the survival of Celtic field patterns into the Saxon period, suggesting that many British farmers stayed on their lands after their warlords had moved westward.

There can be little doubt that the long period of conflict that followed the Roman withdrawal from Britain heightened ethnic tensions and refined the competing identities. A new political landscape, consisting of small kingdoms that owed little to the Roman provincial structures, emerged, largely on ethnic-linguistic lines. In many respects both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon social organisation was similar, but there were profound linguistic and religious differences. By the time of the collapse of the Roman province, Christianity had a significant number of adherents in Britain, while the Saxon homelands remained resolutely pagan. The Anglo-Saxon population in Britain remained pagan until well into the seventh century, regardless of dynastic decisions. Following the English settlement, there were three broad cultural ‘zones’: Britain was divided between the ‘English-speaking’ east and the ‘Celtic-speaking’ north and west where the Brythonic language, ancestral to Welsh, and Pictish languages persisted, while in Ireland and in enclaves in the western highlands and islands, different Gaelic languages were spoken. These zones to some extent reinforced cultural distinctions establihed in the Roman period, and the most Romanised part of Britannia, where there had been towns and villas, broadly corresponds to the area occupied by the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. These zones, while not static, can be mapped through early medieval place-names.

Within the ‘British zone’, there is a far greater degree of continuity in the settlement record, particularly regarding centres of power. Edinburgh Castle stands on a hill that was first occupied in the Bronze Age and typifies a preference for prominent, defended strongholds. Some Dark Age hillforts, like South Cadbury, were reused Iron Age hill-forts; others, like Dumbarton or Bamburgh, were newly built on strategic landmarks. In instances where the local setting can be reconstructed, the prehistoric ritual landscape seems to have played a part in the selection of the site. Despite this cultural continuity, British kingdoms started to appear at the same time as the earliest Anglo-Saxon ones. In Ireland, too, this was an era of political reorganisation. Large provincial divisions came to overlie a network of smaller kingdoms, whose ruling élites began to appear in the sixth century. The preferred settlements of the Irish nobility were either elaborately defended homesteads (ring-forts) or artificial islands (crannogs). Links to the past remained strong, and some of the pre-eminent prehistoric religious complex, notably Tara and Emain Macha, which were believed to have been the seats of mythological kings, as a result retained a great symbolic significance. Different communities of religious belief are apparent from the range of material culture left behind. From an archaeological perspective, the most pronounced differences relate to funerary practice. The British and Irish erected inscribed memorial stones, but their burials were neither clothed nor furnished. The British inscriptions, written in Latin, are unmistakenly Christian. The Irish examples, written in Gaelic using an indigenous ogham alphabet, are more ambiguous, but may be Christian. The so-called ‘symbol stones’ of Pictland represent a related tradition, though employing a pictorial rather than an alphabetic system.

Here, the contrast with the Anglo-Saxon world is profound. Here there are no inscribed memorial stones, and burial practice followed the traditions of their continental homelands. The scale of Anglo-Saxon settlement can be gauged from the widespread distribution of fifth-century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. The earliest hint of Anglo-Saxon presence is seen in graves from late Roman cemetaries that contain belt-fittings and other metalwork regarded as stylistically Germanic. During the fifth and sixth centuries a wide range of burial rites developed, which included the elaborate use of clothing and equipment to signal social position and to mark out special individuals at burial or cremation. Important graves might be further dignified by the construction of a mound or barrow. Traditionally, such burials were have been taken as reflecting pagan religious belief, but arguably they were to reinforce the social order or to express political aspiration. The patterns of burial rites within individual Anglo-Saxon cemeteries tends to be the same, but there is a huge range of minute ritual variation between cemeteries.This can be interpreted as the means by which neighbouring settlements sought to strengthen group identity. The artefacts recovered from cemetery excavations reveal the technical accomplishments and rich material culture of the early English peoples, but they also offer insghts into the beliefs and values of a society dominated by its warrior aristocracy. The prominence of weaponry in male graves leaves little doubt as to the role of arms and warfare in defining social status. Clothing, jewellery and domestic objects formed the vocabulary of the female burial rite.

Skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon woman from Sowerby, Humberside, buried with a bead necklace and bronze brooches.

Zones of Transition & Questions of Identity:

The precise nature of the transition from Roman Britain to an island divided between ‘zones’ of Anglo-Saxons and Post-Roman Celts is not as clear as we might think. At first sight, the traditional picture of a violent replacement of one people by another seems to be borne out. But closer examination raises a number of questions, which may be resolved by work still in progress. A lot more of Roman Britain could have survived, even in the east, than used to be suspected. And there is no reason why the same course of events in one region should have been repeated across others. In some areas of Norfolk, for example, there may have been wholesale replacement of the original population by another, while elsewhere settlers may have been a subordinate minority, there on sufferance. Or in other areas, the newcomers may have come to an agreement with the natives. In Northumbria, there was a new ruling élite, but the population seem to have remained largely British. When, in later centuries the peoples of south and eastern Britain called themselves Angles or Saxons, we have to allow for the possibility that this may not have reflected a straightforward ethnic fact. Writing in the eighth century, Bede was sure of his own ‘Englishness’ and unenthusiastic about the Britons. Yet there is little evidence for mass immigration of Anglo-Saxons north of York. Bede was writing at Jarrow in Northumbria, where the ruling dynasty, and their immediate retinue, may well have been Anglian. But the rest of the population was of British descent, who, however, identified with their rulers, either willingly or because it was prudent to do so. The sense of belonging to a particular area, East Anglia or Sussex, Northumbria or Kent, would have increased as time went by. But many areas we now think of as ‘English’, like Somerset (‘England’s pastures green’ according to Blake’s ‘misnoma’) and the West Midlands, were not even nominally Anglo-Saxon until long after the first migrations.

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Glastonbury Tor, Somerset.


William Anderson & Clive Hicks (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles: A guide to the legendary and sacred sites. London: Ebury Press.

Sam Newton (2003), The Reckoning of King Raedwald. Colchester: Red Bird Press.

Philip Warner (1976), Famous Battles of the Midlands. Glasgow: Fontana.

Stephen Driscoll (et. al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British: From Ice Age to Norman Conquest. London: Guild Publishing.

David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

Appendix One: Sam Newton’s Genealogy of the ‘Wuffings’.

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Appendix Two: Matthew Paris’s Map of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.

Source: Philip Parker (2017), History of Britain in Maps. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

No maps of Britain have survived from the period of the fifth to the eleventh centuries, a crucial time in the nation’s development which saw the collapse of the Roman province of Britannia, waves of invasions by Germanic barbarians and, ultimately, the emergence of unitary kingdoms in England and Scotland. Yet cartographic representations of this formative period do survive from a little later, for example in the form of a schematic map showing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by Matthew Paris, a thirteenth-century Benedictine based at the Abbey of St Albans. Paris gives then numbers, establishing the primacy of Kent as the earliest kingdom, and Essex as the most recent. Although elsewhere he repeats the traditional mythology that all these kingdoms emerged within a single generation, Paris confesses that with the passing of time it was difficult, in his time, to elucidate the dimensions, frontiers and even the chronological ordering of these kingdoms. His scheme was an oversimplication. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes who crossed the North Sea in the decades following the collapse of Roman authority did not establish neat territory kingdoms. As the invasders pushed further north and westwards, the war-bands and the authority of local chieftains coalesced into larger units, which became the seven kingdoms. But even in the eighth century, their were less powerful territories, particularly in the West Midlands, which remained independent, though usually shown in more recent maps as part of Mercia.


C. S. Lewis’s Tales of Narnia, from Genesis to ‘Shadowlands’ – Stealing Past Dragons.

A Life Between Faith and Literature:

Monochrome head-and-left-shoulder photo portrait of 50-year-old Lewis
Lewis, age 48
22 November 1963 (aged 64)
Oxford, England

Clive Staples Lewis became the most popular defender of orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world in the mid-twentieth century. Born in Belfast in 1898, he was brought up an Anglican and educated at Malvern College. As a young man, C. S. Lewis had served in the trenches of World War One and, by the time he went up to Oxford in 1917, he had become an atheist. After a long intellectual battle, he became a Christian in 1931. Gifted with an extraordinary intellect and a reasoning mind, his conversion triggered off a rich variety of creativity. His international best-seller, The Screwtape Letters (1942) won him the reputation of being able to ‘make righteousness readable’. He wrote many other works of theology and fantasy with theological dimensions, but remained a Professor of English Literature, first at Magdalen College, Oxford, until 1954, and then at Cambridge.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Over the years he also wrote many works of literary criticism, the best known being The Allegory of Love. Lewis achieved further fame as a preacher, debater, and a brilliantly effective ‘apostle to the sceptics’. Believing, as he said, that all that is not eternal is eternally out of date, he was completely orthodox and therefore admired by Christians from all branches of the church.

A jovial and ‘saintly’ man, he was a prolific author and could have amassed a fortune, but following his conversion he gave away most of his earnings to charities. His autobiography, Surprised by Joy, traces the story of his conversion.

In 1940, when the bombing of Britain began, he took up duties as an air raid warden. He also began giving talks to men in the Royal Air Force, who knew that after just thirteen bombing missions, most of them would be declared dead or missing. Their situation prompted Lewis to speak about the problems of suffering, pain and evil, work that resulted in him being asked by the BBC to give a series of wartime broadcasts on the Christian faith. By 1940, Lewis, known as ‘Jack’ to family and friends, was already an established writer of serious books on literature and religion but, as a bachelor who did not know many children, he had never thought of writing a book for young readers. The nature of the Second World War changed that, because it was ordinary citizens, including children, who suffered most, as their small island home was bombarded by four hundred planes a night in the infamous “Blitz” that changed the face of war, turning civilians and their cities into the front lines.

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Delivered over the air from 1942 to 1944, his speeches were gathered into the book Mere Christianity (1944, 1952; 2016 issue cover picture above) in which he set out his straightforward view of his faith, as demonstrated in the following quotation, dealing with a popular view of Jesus:

I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

It was also during the Second World War, when children from London were being evacuated to the country, four youngsters were billeted at Jack’s home, The Kilns, near Oxford. Surprised to find how few imaginative stories his young guests knew, he decided to write one for them and scribbled down the opening sentences of a story about four children who were sent away from London because of the air raids and went to stay with an old professor in the country. That is all he wrote at the time, but several years later he returned to the story. The children (now named Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) found their way into another world, a world that he eventually named ‘Narnia’. More pictures came into his mind: ‘a queen on a sledge’ and ‘a magnificent lion’. For a long time, he did not know what these meant, nor what the story was about. As he put it later:

But then, suddenly Aslan came bounding in… I don’t know where the Lion came from or why he came. But once he was there, he pulled the whole story together.

The Mountains of Mourne in Ireland inspired Lewis to write about the landscape in The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis wrote, “I have seen landscapes … which, under a particular light, make me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.”
Photo by Marksie531 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1088242

After that, all kinds of elements went into the making of Narnia. There was the intriguing question of the youngest evacuee as to what was behind the big old wardrobe of which stood in The Kilns. And there were his own childhood memories: how he and his brother, Warnie, used to climb into that very wardrobe, made by their grandfather, and tell each other stories in the dark. Some of Jack’s inspiration came from the books he had loved as a child: the talking animals in the tales of Beatrix Potter; the magical adventures that happened in the stories of E. Nesbit, such as The Railway Children (1906)the wicked queen from a Hans Andersen fairy tale; the dwarves from the old German myths; Irish folk tales, myths and legends, and mythological creatures from the legends of Ancient Greece. But these were just some of the ingredients for what Jack mixed into an entirely original confection of the oldest stories ever told, those of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.

The stories in these seven books began as a series of pictures in the author’s head. When he was forty, he decided to try to make a story out of it. He once said, “People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself.” In doing so, he wrote books that millions of others also wanted to read. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950 with illustrations by Pauline Baynes, a young artist who perfectly captured, in line drawings, the pictures that ‘Jack’ Lewis had imagined. It began with the image of a snowy wood with a little goat-footed faun scurrying along carrying an umbrella and a pile of parcels. He later recalled that this picture had been in his mind since he was about sixteen.

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Excellent as Lewis’s descriptions are, the books are so enhanced by the illustrations of Pauline Baynes that it would be a serious omission not to refer right from the start to her part in the success of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ as the books became known eventually. The combination of stories and illustrations is one of the happiest in children’s literature, for recalling in 1978 her meetings with the author, she told a documentary film maker:

C. S. Lewis told me that he had actually gone into a bookshop and asked the assistant there if she could recommend someone who could draw children and animals. I don’t know if he was just being kind to me and making me feel that I was more important than I was or whether he’d simply heard about me from his friend Tolkien.

Lewis had indeed admired Pauline Baynes’ illustrations of Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham (1949) and he wrote to Walter Hooper that he had ‘endless admiration’ for her illustrations to his Narnian books, particularly her drawings of his animal characters. Hooper wrote that of all those who had drawn anthropomorphic beasts and fantasy creatures, she was very near the top of the list. Walter Hooper was born in 1931 in North Carolina, and began corresponding with C. S. Lewis in 1954, while serving in the US Army. After ending his service, he read theology and then lectured on Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Kentucky. He was later to become Lewis’s secretary (see below) and Trustee of his estate.

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The seventh and last book for children in C. S. Lewis’ Tales of Narnia is The Last Battle, first published in 1956. This was just a year after the ‘first’ book, The Magician’s Nephew was published in 1955, though actually the sixth book Lewis wrote. It told of how the journeying between the two parallel worlds, ours and Narnia, began, as well as explaining various mysteries, such as how the wardrobe came to be a door into Narnia, and why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood. This final book, The Last Battle, as the cover of its 1961 reprint (above) shows, won the Carnegie Award for the best children’s book of 1956, the highest mark of excellence in children’s literature.

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Seeking Joy Within – ‘Hwyl’ & ‘Hiraeth’:

In Lewis’ autobiography (1955), Surprised by Joy, we get the impession of two lives, the ‘outer’ and the ‘inner’, the life of the intellect and the life of the imagination – being lived over against each other, albeit at the same time. The ‘outer’ life is chiefly concerned with those things that he spoke and wrote about openly: namely the ‘Animal-Land’ of his childhood which gradually metamorphosed into ‘Narnia’. Yet grown-up matters, which were all-in-all to Lewis when he wrote about Animal-Land, find no mention whatsoever in The Chronicles of Narnia. The ‘inner’ life – and this is what Surprised by Joy is mainly about – essentially the story of Joy (i.e., intense longing) working on his imagination. Narnia would never have come into existence had Lewis not come to understanding the meaning and purpose of deep-felt ‘Joy’, what, in my understanding, the Welsh refer to as ‘hwyl’, though, in many ways, in Lewis’ definition, it is closer to the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’ which is used for a sense of heart-felt longing, akin to homesickness. These ancient ‘Cymric’ words have no one-word equivalent in modern English which captures the intensity of the feelings they express.

In his autobiography Lewis defines Joy by first recording three experiences from his early childhood. While standing by a flowering currant bush on a summer day there arose in him the memory of a yet earlier morning in which his brother had brought into the nursery a toy garden. This memory within a memory caused a sensation of desire to break over him. Before he could know what he desired, the desire itself was gone and he was left with a ‘longing for the longing that had just ceased’. His second ‘glimpse of Joy’ came through Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. This little book troubled him with the ‘Idea of Autumn’, and he was plunged once more into the experience of intense desire. The third came to him while reading Longfellow’s poem Tegner’s Drapa. When he read,

I heard a voice that cried,

Balder the beautiful

Is dead, is dead …

… his mind was uplifted into huge regions of the northern sky. At the very moment he was stabbed by desire, he left himself falling out of that desire and wishing he were back in it. Lewis tells us that Joy, the quality common to these three experiences, is an unsatisfied longing which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. It was when he went to boarding school in Malvern, Worcestershire, that his eyes fell on one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods, that his sense of joyful longing returned. In an instant, he was plunged back into the past of Balder and sunward sailing cranes, and felt the old inconsolable longing. The memory of his own past Joy and the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ flowed together, he said, into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which … had eluded me at the vey moment when I could first say “It is”.

The young Lewis made many mistakes in his pursuit of Joy. As the old thrill became less and less frequent, he attempted most desperately to ‘have it again’. He turned from one medium of Joy to another, hoping always to find permanent satisfaction. He shifted to erotic pleasure, only to find that Joy is not a substitute for sex, sex is very often a substitute for Joy. Lewis lost his virginity while at Malvern, but it was ‘potent, ubiquitous and unabashed’ eroticism of William Moris’s romances which chiefly persuaded him that sex might be the substance of Joy. When he went up to Oxford after serving in the trenches during World War One, Lewis was determined that there were to be no flirtations with the idea of the supernatural. All the images he associated with Joy were, he concluded, sheer fantasies. He had at last ‘seen through’ them, and the important thing was to get ahead with the ‘good life’ without Christian ‘mythology’.

It is therefore surprising how, one by one, all Lewis’s reservations about the Christian faith were swept away, as described in Surprised by Joy. After long searching and with much reluctance, he was brought to his knees in the summer of 1929 and forced to admit that God was God. As Walter Hooper remarked, He who is the Joy of all men’s desiring came upon him and compelled him by divine mercy to surrender a long-besieged fortress. His surrender, however, was in becoming a Theist. The ‘second stage’ of his conversion came two years later while riding to Whipsnade Zoo in his brother’s motorcycle sidecar. When they left Oxford, he did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God; when they reached the zoo, he did. After that, the old ‘bittersweet stabs of Joy’ continued as before. But now he knew to what, or rather to whom they pointed.

Fairy Tales for Children & Adults – Faith & Heaven:

Ernest H. Shepherd’s 1959 colour illustration for Kenneth Grahame’s (1908) book, The Wind in the Willows. London: Methuen. Chapter II: The Open Road: ‘Sitting by the side of the cart Toad talked about all he was going to do.’

There was, however, a good stretch of time between his conversion on the way to Whipsnade and his writing of the Tales of Narnia. Throughout this time, Lewis remained open to those physical similarities that men and beasts have in common. This is why he felt that Kenneth Grahame, in The Wind in the Willows, made exactly the right choice in giving his principal character the form of a toad. The toad’s face, with its fixed ‘grin’, bears such a striking resemblance to a certain type of human face that no other animal would have suited the part so well. Lewis saw these physical similarities as extending still further: some animals can be most interestingly used in pictures and literature as representing the actual archetypes of some human and animal characteristics. He had an uncanny eye for their specific traits, as exemplified in his poem Impenitence:

… cool primness of cats, or coney’s

Half indignant stare of amazement, mouse’s

Twinkling adroitness,

Tipsy bear’s rotundity, toad’s complacence …

… cry out to be used as symbols,

Masks for Man, cartoons, parodies by Nature

Formed to reveal us.

There is no credit for this illustration showing a scene from The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’.

In his 1980 Fount paperback, Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to the Chronicles of Narnia, Walter Hooper argued that there was also an important connection between Lewis’s personal experience of intense longing and the Narnian Chronicles. Surprised by Joy is the story of how this longing led to Lewis’s conversion. But one of his reasons for writing the book was that he felt it to be a common experience, easily misunderstood, difficult to bring to the forefront of consciousness, and of immense importance. The Pilgrim’s Regress, which is partly autobiographical, is the story of Pilgrim’s quest for a far-off island, the vision of which has stung him with ‘sweet desire’. When Lewis realised that the word Romanticism in the subtitle was misunderstood, he wrote a preface to the third edition (1943) explaining the meaning he gave the word. For him, it meant ‘Joy’, the same Joy, or longing, that we can feel for our own far-off country, as in the Cymric hiraeth: ‘the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell’, as he wrote in the Weights of Glory in 1965. A longing which, although painful, is felt somehow to be a delight. A hunger more satisfying than fullness; a poverty better than any wealth. A desire which is itself the object of desire, so much so that the new desiring becomes an instance of the original one. We feel we know what the object of our desire is, but in the final achievement of that desire, we know that the real object of our desire is somewhere else entirely …

eluding us like the cuckoo’s voice or the rainbow’s end. “All I want”, someone will say, is a university degree, or a happy marriage, or a steady job … But when he is married or settled into the right job, or gets whatever it was he wants, it proves itself to be a cheat. It is not enough. It is not what he is actually looking for.

Lewis reasoned that if we find in ourselves a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for a different world. A happy marriage or a successful career was never intended to satisfy our desire for the far-off country; more likely they were meant to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. The far-off country is of course Heaven and nothing other than God can be our ultimate bliss. There is a connection between our between our longing for Heaven and fairy tales such as those Lewis wrote, although almost every aspect of modern life fixes our minds on this world, and to bring up the subjects of Heaven and fairy tales in some quarters was to be howled down as nostalgic, romantic, sentimental, or adolescent. Many literary critics, writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, equated ‘fantastic’ literature with ‘escapism’ and wishful thinking.

Lewis said that ‘marvellous’ literature evoked his desire for Heaven; at the same time, he believed that there is no literature less likely to give a person a false impression of the world than are fairy tales. His thoughts on the subject are clearly revealed in his essay, ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’. In it he first of all draws our attention to a fundamental point made by his friend J. R. R. Tolkien that fairy tales were not originally written for children but gravitated to the nursery when they became unfashionable in literary circles. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example, was written and published as a two-volume satirical work in 1726 and was only re-published by J. M. Dent in a collection of Tales for Children from Many lands, edited by F. C. Tilney, in circa 1910, illustrated in colour by Arthur Rackham. Tilney wrote that, in preparing the first edition for children,

… one should think of that immortal work more as a fairy tale than as a contribution to literature of the ‘Utopia’ order; for it is a great punishment to the youthful mind to have its breathless rapture stayed whilst the understanding labours over arid tracts of social and political import never intended for it.

Some children and some adults like fairy stories, some do not. So-called ‘realistic’ stories, Lewis maintained, are far more likely to deceive than are fairy tales, because, though the adventures and successes in them are possible, they are almost infinitely improbable. While it is possible to become a duke with a palace or a millionaire with a yacht, it is improbable that this will happen to all but a very few of us. On the other hand, no one expects the real world to be like that of the fairy tales. The longing for fairyland is a different sort of longing, for it cannot be supposed that the boy who longs for fairyland really longs for the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale. Lewis wrote further on this theme in his essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children:

It would be much truer to say that fairyland arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension in depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.

Many professional educators of the 1950s and ‘60s claimed that the Narnian battles and wicked characters frightened children and gave them nightmares. While Lewis agreed with them that nothing should be done likely to give the child those haunting, disabling pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless, he was strongly opposed to the notion that we must keep out of the child’s mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. In this matter, he declared himself to be on the side of ‘the human race’ against ‘the modern reformer’:

Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.

In 1963, Walter Hooper travelled to Oxford simply to have afternoon tea with C. S. Lewis, and within a week the Professor asked him to become his companion-secretary, a post he fulfilled for the remaining months of the Professor’s life, also becoming for him ‘the son I should have had’. Besides being joint author of a biography of Lewis, he edited ten volumes of Lewis’s works, and also continued to deal with a lot of the Professor’s ‘fan-mail’, much of it from children. Hooper claimed that while he had met some adults who consider Lewis’s fairy tales too violent for children, he had never met a child who did not love the Narnian tales intensely. During his lifetime Lewis received thousands of letters from children and, seventeen years after his death, it was still Hooper’s responsibility to answer these letters which children from all over the world continued to address to the author.

It would perhaps, have been an intelligent guess to assume that Lewis began with the things he wanted to say about Christianity and other interests and then fixed on the fairy tale as a way of saying them. But that is not what happened. Lewis said he could not and would not write in that way; that he never actually ‘made’ a story. It all began with seeing ‘pictures’; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. It was, he remembered, more like ‘bird-watching’ than talking or building. Sometimes a whole set of images would join themselves together, but it was necessary to do some ‘deliberate inventing’, contriving reasons as to why characters should in various places be doing various things.

‘As she stood looking at it, wondering why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood and wondering what to do next, she heard the pitter patter of feet coming towards her. And soon after that a very strange person stepped out from among the trees into the light of the lamp-post.’
Chapter One, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Biblical,Theological and Literary Parallels:

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These books also represent his most delightful approach to the Word of God, and are probably his most loved works, even for those adults who have also read some of his other literary and theological works. Lewis believed that there are three elements in all developed religions, and in Christianity one more. The first is the experience of the Numinous. If you were made aware of a mighty spirit in the room with you, you would feel a sense of wonder and a sense of inadequacy at one and the same time. The shrinking feeling which the numinous object excites in you is awe. A good biblical example of this is Jacob’s vision of a ladder reaching from earth to Heaven upon which ascend and descend the angels of God:

On this journey, Jacob lay down to sleep with his head on a stone and had a vivid dream. He saw a vision of a gigantic stairway, with its bottom on earth and its top reaching all the way up and down it. Angels were climbing up and down it. At the top was God. He spoke to Jacob and promised, “I will give this land to you and your many descendants.”

Genesis 28.

When Jacob awoke, he felt amazed that God had spoken to him and exclaimed ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How dreadful is this place!’ (Genesis 28: 16f).

The second element in religion is the consciousness of a moral law, and the third appears when we realise that the numinous power is the guardian of the morality to which we feel an obligation. The fourth is unique to Christianity: the historical event through which we recognise that the incarnate Son of God is the ‘awful haunter of nature and the giver of the moral law’. In each of the Narnian stories, all these elements are vested in the person of the great, golden Lion of Narnia, but it is the Numinous, the dreadful presence, that a first strikes us so directly. When, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children first hear the name of Aslan, something jumps in their insides. When they see him, they know that they are face to face with one who is both great and terrible. The sight of his great royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes causes them to go ‘all trembly’ (chapter twelve). He is a figure of immense power and beauty.  When, after his ‘resurrection’,

‘he opened his mouth to roar, his face became so terrible that they did not dare look at it. And they saw all the trees in front of him bent before the blast of his roaring as grass bends in a meadow before the wind.’

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, chapter fifteen.

Walter Hooper commented that:

There is never any doubt in anyone’s mind that Aslan is the Lord of that world. Even his enemies believe this (‘the devils also believe, and tremble’, James 2: 19). If I had not read the Narnian Chronicles, I could not have believed an author could concentrate so much good into one being – none of the soulful, over-nice qualities we sometimes find in people we feel we ought to like but cannot. Here, in this magnificent Lion is absolute, thrilling goodness beyond anything we could imagine. Qualities we think of as opposites meet in him and blend.

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From Chapter Nine of ‘The Magician’s Nephew’: ‘The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lifting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, ripping music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave.

Nowhere in the Narnian books is the large, embracing love of Aslan for every creature in all worlds so poignantly felt as when Digory, in chapter twelve of The Magician’s Nephew, is anxious to draw the Lion’s attention to the fact that his mother lies dying and blurts out:

‘But please, please – won’t you, can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?’ Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at his face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears shone in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

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‘My son, my son’, said Aslan. ‘I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.’

But later, when he has given up all hope of a magical cure, Aslan sends Digory into a dream, and allows by him to pluck an apple from a tree, the ‘Apple of Youth’ and to take it home to his mother to eat and miraculously recover.


There are others whom Aslan is unable to help. In The Last Battle, there are the Dwarfs who are so determined not to be taken in that they stop their ears and close their eyes against anything that can do them good. When, for instance, a glorious feast is spread before them, pictured above, they see and taste only such fare as they would expect to find in a stable. ‘The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs’, they constantly reiterate to their spurious comfort and their eternal undoing. Aslan says of them,

“They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is there only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

The Last Battle, chapter thirteen.

And when, again in The Magician’s Nephew, the self-imposed blindness of Uncle Andrew, the ‘magician’, erects a barrier between himself and the comfort that Aslan longs to give him, the Lion says,

“Oh, Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!”

The Magician’s Nephew, chapter fourteen.

This is reminiscent of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, reported by Matthew (23: 37). But Lewis maintained that at first there was nothing specifically Christian about the pictures he was seeing in his mind, but that that element, as with Aslan, pushed its way in of its own accord. In another of his essays in Of Other Worlds; Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said, touching directly on the Narnian stories, Lewis wrote that he chose the fairy tale as the form for his stories because of its brevity, its severe restraints upon description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’.

“Do not fly too high,” said Aslan. “Do not try to go over the tops of the great ice-mountains. Look out for the valleys, the green places, and fly through them. There will always be a way through. And now be gone with my blessing.” “Oh, Fledge!” said Digory, leaning forward to pat the Horse’s glossy neck. “This is fun. Hold on to me tight, Polly.” The Magicians Nephew, chapter twelve.

It was a form he had long been in love with, and when the time came, he felt he would burst if he did not write one. Choosing the form, he said, was allowing the author in him to have its say. But then the man in him began to have his turn. He also saw how stories such as he had in mind could ‘steal past’ certain inhibitions that he had had in childhood. He believed that the reason we find it so hard to feel as we ought to about God and the sufferings of Christ is because an obligation to do so freezes feelings. He found that:

The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all of these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

So, yes, in reading the stories, we come to understand that Aslan represents Christ, but we do not want to spoil Lewis’ attempt to get past those ‘watchful dragons’ by explaining who Aslan is in advance. An ‘explanation’ on our part is, says Hooper, unwise, as it would be likely to frustrate Lewis’ purpose and blunt the effectiveness of the books. It is often, precisely because many readers, both children and adults, do not know who Aslan is before they start reading that the Narnian tales have been so effective in ‘getting into the bloodstream of the secular world.’ The stories were not written to be deciphered, but to give pleasure as an unconscious preparation of the imagination. Hooper argues that if the fairy tales succeed in breaking down the partition of prejudices that prevent non-believers from even thinking about the Christian tenets, then our efforts will be very much in demand.

As Walter Hooper is at pains to point out, we will not find an exact, geometrically perfect equivalent of Christ’s Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, and Ascension in the Narnian stories. We are not meant to. This is why we should not press the analogies too closely or expect to find in the tales the same logic we find in the Christian story. For example, Lewis uses the term ‘incarnate’ rather loosely here, for Aslan is never incarnate as Lion in the same way that Christ was Man. Quite apart from the biblical parallels with ‘the Lion of Judah’ (Genesis 49: 9), Narnia is after all predominantly a world of animals, and the Lion, the traditional King of Beasts, seems the most natural and appropriate choice for Lewis to have made for his ‘hero’. Nevertheless, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe we see the Lion undergoing something genuinely like the passion of Christ:

But how slowly he walked! And his great, royal head drooped so that his nose nearly touched the grass. Presently he stumbled and gave a low moan.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, chapter 14.
“Stop!” said the Witch. “Let him first be shaved.”

But the most reliable hints about the new, resurrected nature are found, not in this first told tale, but in the final chapter of The Last Battle, which will be discussed last below. For now, it is important to accept Lewis’ own advice on reading mythological literature. Writing about the medieval books of Malory’s Arthur and Chrestien’s Lancelot:

Within a given story, an object, person, or place is neither more nor less nor other than what that story effectively shows it to be. The ingredients of one story cannot ‘be’ anything in another story, for they are not in it at all.

Even those most integrally involved in the Chronicles did not immediately make the connections between the Gospel stories and the Narnian tales. Pauline Baynes told Hooper that, while she was deeply moved by the story of the self-sacrifice made by Aslan, it was only after she had finished illustrating The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that it broke on her who he was meant to ‘represent’. Even those likenesses which seem to bear the closest resemblance to historical events in this world can be so similar without being the same. These similarities did not need a mature theological analysis for their perception; indeed, children, whom Lewis regarded as the most aware of his readers, were the first to respond to the ultimate likeness. Lewis replied to one little girl:

All your points are in a sense right. But I’m not exactly ‘representing the real (Christian) story in symbols. I’m more saying, ‘suppose there were a world like Narnia, and it needed restoring and the Son of God (or the Great Emperor-Over-Sea) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, all have been like?’

Lewis then set out in his letter seven points of similarity which were also ‘the same thing as you thought but not quite’. For example, ‘the Ape and Puzzle, just before the Last Judgement (in the Last Battle) are like the coming of Antichrist’. But Hooper argues that such parallels, variously transfigured as they are in Narnia, are not what the books are about. It is not the identifiably biblical elements which make us think of the Narnian stories as Christian. Almost every page of every book is suffused throughout by with moral substance of a quality which no-one, whatever their confessional beliefs, could object to. The tales are not based around premeditated moral themes, however, but these themes grew out of the telling and are as much a part of the narrative as scent is to a flower.

The Chronology of Narnia:                         

Lewis had not drawn out a scheme for the whole Narnian series before writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, although he wrote ‘An Outline of Narnian history so far as it is known’ after all the books had been written. He gave the Outline to Walter Hooper, who re-produced and published it as it appears below. All told, there are 2,555 Narnian years between its Creation and its End: only fifty-two Earthly years pass during those Narnian ones, however. Lewis had long entertained the thought that other worlds might measure qualities in different ways. The ‘thickness’ of Narnian time not only provided the children with more interesting and varied adventures than they might otherwise have had, but Lewis seems to have found in it a means of demonstrating a great truth. That is that, as we do not know what stage of the world we are living in at any given moment or period, we cannot possibly understand the meaning of the whole of history until it is over. To use Lewis’s favourite analogy:

We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who are the minor characters. The Author knows.

In examining the table below, however, we need to remember that while Lewis had entertained various notions of time before writing any of the Chronicles, he had not worked out anything like a ‘scheme’ of Narnia/ Earth equivalence. Having finished all the books in the sequence, he then devised the following chronology, then passing it to Walter Hooper, who added his personal comments about why Lewis decided to leave the Tales as they are today:

Because there was no definite scheme from the beginning, there are a few inconsistencies in the stories. Initially, most children, and adults, read them in the order they could buy them in the bookshops, as they were published. Now, it is probably better to read them in their proper chronological sequence, although experience suggests that, with the possible exception of The Last Battle, they can be enjoyed in any order. The correct order, as Lewis asked Hooper to copy it down was: The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle. All were published between 1950 and 1956. However, on the back of another book Lewis was writing in 1939 or 1940, Walter Hooper later found what he believed to be the germinal passage of what ten years later became his first story:

This book is about four children whose names were Ann, Martin, Rose and Peter. But it is mostly about Peter who was the youngest. They all had to go away from London suddenly because of the Air Raids, and because Father, who was in the army, had gone off to the war and Mother was doing some kind of war work. They were sent to stay with a very old Professor who lived by himself in the country.

Ross Wilson’s statue of Professor Kirke (Digory) in front of the wardrobe from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in East Belfast
By “Genvessel” – https://www.flickr.com/photos/genvessel/149269475/in/set-72057594139281324/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=826864

This ‘beginning’ of this story has been seen as something of a ‘mirror image’ of how Lewis himself had entertained four real schoolgirl evacuees soon after the outbreak of war. However, if his characters were based on particular real personalities, these could have been drawn from any combination of the dozen evacuees that stayed with him during the first year of the war, especially given the balance between boys and girls among his characters. It is unclear how much of the story Lewis wrote down over the next decade, but these characters had evolved by 1950 into Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, with Peter becoming the eldest sibling. The youngest, Lucy, hides in the wardrobe in the spare room and discovers it to be an entrance into the world of Narnia. She meets a faun there, Mr Tumnus, from whom she learns that Narnia is ruled by the White Witch, who has cast the country into perpetual winter. …                      

And so Lucy found herself walking through the wood arm in arm with this strange creature as if they had known one another all their lives.’
Chapter Two, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

While we know that Lewis wavered occasionally in ordering some of the events in the first six Chronicles of Narnia, and that he had to do a little ’deliberate inventing’ here and there, no one can say that that he gave no inklings of the ’twist’ he was to put in The Last Battle.

A Doorway to Heaven and a Re-birth of Images:

By the time C. S. Lewis became a Christian he had already come a long way towards seeing that ‘Joy’, the deepest of longings of all men is, at the bottom, a desire for Heaven. In this context, from the last book that C. S. Lewis was to write, Letters to Malcolm, the final paragraphs have become possibly the most famous he was ever to pen:

I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity, I do think that while we are in this ’valley of tears’, cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial  condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous.

For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate and beautiful order?  How can you find any image of this in in the ’serious’ activities  either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some ways, a ’via crucis’…

… It is only in our ‘hours-off’, only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. … But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.

In the first six stories of Narnia, hint after hint is thrown out in all the other stories that no-one may ‘camp’ indefinitely in Narnia, just as no-one may live for ever in this world. But it would not be fair to suggest that anything remotely like despair is what Lewis was after. Every hint of impending separation frpom the old Narnia is underpinned by persistent intimations of how great a loss it would be to lose the royal and all-loving Aslan, how complete would be our happiness to enjoy him for ever. The English children in the tales are, from a Narnian point of view, ‘Gentiles’ from an unknown world who become Narnians by adoption. There are, however, native Narnians, who, when they see the Lion for the first time, feel a natural and spontaneous devotion to the person of the divine Aslan. Aslan, the “magnificent lion”, plays an important role in every story: in The Magician’s Nephew (1955), he gives life to Narnia in a ‘Genesis’ saga; in the final volume of what is now known as “The Chronicles of Narnia”, The Last Battle (1956)Aslan concludes the story by leading its faithful friends into a new world.

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… the whole thing was rather like a theatre. The crowd of Narnians were like the people in the seats; the little grassy place just in front of the stable, where the bonfire burned and the Ape and the Captain stood to talk to the crowd, was like the stage; the stable itself was like the scenery at the back of the stage; and Tirian and his friends were like people peering round from behind the scenery. … Rishda Tarkaan dragged the Ape up close to the fire. … “Now monkey” said Rishda Tarkaan in a low voice. “Say the words that wiser heads have put in your mouth.” “Do leave me alone,” muttered Shift. But he sat up straighter and began, in a louder voice – “At this very moment, when the Terrible One himself is among us – there in the stable just behind me – one wicked Beast has … dressed itself up in a lion skin and is wandering about in these woods pretending to be Aslan.
(From chapter XI, The Great Meeting on Stable Hill).

But from here we must move on to the culmination of the triumphant theme of Joy as ‘the serious business of Heaven’. In the opinion of Walter Hooper, The Last Battle is the best written and ‘the most sublime’ of all the tales of Narnia, ‘the crowning glory of the whole Narnian creation’. Everything else in all the other six stories finds its ultimate meaning in relation to this seventh and final book. It must be read last of all, because, as Lewis would say, you have to understand the ‘play’ by seeing it through to its end. In it, Lewis takes us to the end of Narnia, and beyond. The story recounts the end of Narnia, many centuries after Aslan was last seen moving visibly through the world. Shift the Ape dresses the simple ass, Puzzle, in the skin of a lion and deceives the Talking Beasts and the dwarfs into thinking that it is Aslan himself. Lewis’s didactic purpose ought to be clear to those who are conversant with orthodox Christianity. He uses his own invented world to illustrate what the Church has been teaching since its beginning, but which is becoming more and more neglected or forgotten. Namely, that this world will come to an end; it was never meant to be our real home – that lies elsewhere; we do not know, nor can we, when the end will come, but we know that it will come from without, not from within. Most of the events in The Last Battle are based on the apocalyptic prophecies recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. The treachery of Shift the Ape is clearly suggested in the words of Jesus:

“If any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”

Matthew 24: 23f
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By that deception the Calormenes who worship the devil Tash are enabled to overrun the country. Tirian, the last king of Narnia, prays to Aslan for help and is rescued from the Calormenes by Eustace and Jill, who have been mysteriously pulled into Narnia from a moving train. They then steal Puzzle from the stable. At this point, the story also becomes painful to read because we begin to sense that almost everything we have come to love in the all the old, familiar Narnia, is about to be taken from us. Our sense of loss is made more excruciating because we are allowed, even encouraged, to believe that things will eventually get back to ‘normal’. We feel certain that the King, at least, will not be deceived by Shift the Ape’s trickery: but he is. When Eustace and Jill arrive, we feel reassured that that it will only be a matter of time until all is put right. Yet, despite their willingness to help, there is so little they can do without Aslan. Shift the Ape almost succeeds in deceiving even the most faithful followers of Aslan, first through trickery and, later, through the deliberate confusion of Aslan with the devil Tash as ‘Tashlan’. As the ape is a parody of a man, so his ‘new theology’ is a parody of the truth. We are prepared for ordinary wickedness in an adventure story, but we are now moved into a new and dreadful dimension where ordinary courage seems helpless in the face of sheer evil. Nevertheless, our hearts warm as Jewel the Unicorn recounts the centuries of past happiness in which every week and day in Narnia had seemed better than the last:

As he went on, the picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill’s mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill on to a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and corn-fields, which spread away and away till it got thin and misty from distance. And she said:

“Oh, I do hope we can soon settle the Ape and get back to those good, ordinary times. And then I hope they’ll go on for ever and ever and ever. Our world is going to have an end someday. Perhaps this one won’t. Oh Jewel – wouldn’t it be lovely if Narnia just went on and on – like what you said it has been?”

“Nay, sister,” answered Jewel, “all worlds draw to an end; except Aslan’s own country.”

“Well, at least” said Jill, “I hope the end of this one is millions of millions of millions of years away.”

The Last Battle, chapter eight.

But moments later the party came to a sudden halt. …

The King and Eustace and the Dwarf were all staring up at the sky. Jill shuddered, remembering what horrors they had seen already. … “I dare say,” said the Unicorn, “from its flight, that it is a talking bird.”… If one had known what was to happen next it would have been a great treat to watch the grace and ease with which the huge bird glided down. He alighted on a rocky crag a few feet from Tirian, bowed his crested head and said in his strange eagle’s-voice, “Hail King … when you have heard my news you will be sorrier of my coming than of the greatest woe that ever befell you.”

Farsight the Eagle (above) brings word that Cair Paravel, the high seat of all the Kings of Narnia, has been captured by the Calormenes. And, as he lay dying, Roonwit the Centaur asked the King to remember that,

‘… all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no-one is too poor to buy.’

Last Battle, chapter eight.

From this point onwards, Lewis lets go the full power of his imagination, and we are carried relentlessly forward into what is truly the last battle for Narnia, in front of the stable.

Tirian and the remnant of the faithful Narnians are either slain in the Last Battle or make their way to the stable, which seems much bigger on the inside than the battlefield they have come from. Drawing out this brilliant piece of symbolism, Lewis has Jill say in a moment of selfless appreciation:

In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

Last Battle, chapter thirteen

Numbered among the blessed in the eternal Narnia is Emeth the Calormene, whom Aslan has redeemed. Lewis had already justified this departure from his stereotyping of the Calormenes as the forces of evil by asking, in his 1952 edition of Mere Christianity:  

Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in him? But the truth is God has not told us what his arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know him can be saved through him.

Emeth sought Aslan with all heart even when circumstances make it all but impossible to find him. And though he did not know Aslan until he went through the Stable door, it is Aslan, nevertheless, who becomes his Saviour there. The beautiful telling of Emeth’s meeting with Aslan echoes many Gospel utterances, especially…

“… and other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

John 10: 16.

Lewis goes on to describe how the Stable is transformed into a magical door which appears in front of Peter, Tirian and the ‘children’, the reunited kings and queens:

Tirian looked and saw the queerest and most ridiculous thing you can imagine. Only a few yards away, clear to be seen in the sunlight, there stood up a rough wooden door, and round it, the framework of the doorway: nothing else, no doorway, no roof. He walked towards it, and the others followed, watching to see what he would do. He walked round to the other side of the door. But it looked just the same from the other side: he was still in the open air, on a summer morning. The door was simply standing up by itself as if it had grown there like a tree. …

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Tirian put his eye to the hole. At first, he could see nothing but blackness. Then, as his eyes grew used to it, he saw the dull red glow of a bonfire that was nearly going out and, above that, in a black sky, stars. …

The Calormenes discover in that same stable the odious Tash (in whom they have lost faith) who carries off the Calormene leader and Shift the Ape.

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He looked around again and could hardly believe his eyes. There was the blue sky overhead, and grassy country spreading as far as he could see in every direction, and all his new friends around him, laughing …The sweet air grew suddenly sweeter. A brightness flashed behind them. All turned. Tirian turned last because he was afraid. There stood his heart’s desire, huge and real, the golden Lion, Aslan himself, and already the others were kneeling in a circle round his forepaws and burying their hands and faces in his mane as he stooped his great head to touch them with his tongue. Then he fixed his eyes upon Tirian, and Tirian came near, trembling, and flung himself at the Lion’s feet and the Lion kissed him and said, “Well done, last of the Kings of Narnia who stood firm at the darkest hour.” …

He went to the Door, and they all followed him. He raised his head and roared, “Now it is time!” then louder “Time!”; then so loud that it could have shaken the stars, “TIME.” The Door flew open.

Aslan then passes through to the door to his kingdom. As all the kings and queens of Narnia stand beside Aslan at the door, on his right, they see through the open doorway another black shape, this time the shape of a man, the hugest of all giants. He is standing on the high moorlands to the North. Jill and Eustace remember how once, in the deep caves beneath those moors, they had seen this great giant asleep and had been told that his name was Father Time and that he would wake at the end of the world. He now raises a horn to his mouth and makes a sound ‘high and terrible, yet of a strange, deadly beauty.’ With this terrible beauty that makes the heart ache, we are told of how Aslan goes to the Stable door and holds his Last Judgement. Those who are worthy pass in, the others turn away into darkness. Inside the doorway, the children witness the beginning of the end of the world of Narnia, with the stars falling from the sky and the arrival at the doorway of all kinds of creatures, men and mythical beings, ‘by thousands and by millions’, all running towards where Aslan stood:

The creatures came rushing on, their eyes brighter and brighter as they drew nearer to and nearer to the standing Stars. But as they came right up to Aslan one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face; I don’t think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly – it was fear and hatred: except that, on the faces of Talking Beasts, the fear and hatred lasted only a for a fraction of a second. You could see that they suddenly ceased to be Talking Beasts. They were just ordinary animals. And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to the right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow, which… streamed away to the left of the doorway. …

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But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan’s right. There were some queer specimens among them. … Among the happy creatures who came crowding round Tirian, and his friends were all those whom they had thought were dead. There was Roonwit the Centaur and Jewel the Unicorn and the good Boar and the good Bear, and Farsight the Eagle, and the dear Dogs and Horses, and Poggin the Dwarf.

Farther in and higher up!

This dramatic re-telling of Jesus’ last parable of ‘The Sheep and the Goats’ serves as a prelude to the drowning of Narnia by a great ‘tidal wave’ or ‘tsunami’.

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“Farther in and higher up!” cried Roonwit and thundered away in a gallop to the West. And though they did not understand him, the words somehow set them tingling all over.

The water came swirling up to the very threshold of the Doorway (but never passed it) so that the foam splashed around Aslan’s forefeet:

Then Aslan said, “Now make an end.”

The giant threw his horn into the sea … Then he stretched out one arm… across the sky till his hand reached the Sun. He… squeezed it in his hand as you would squeeze an orange. And instantly there was total darkness.

Everyone except Aslan jumped back from the ice-cold air which now blew through the Doorway. Its edges were already covered with icicles.

“Peter, High King of Narnia,” said Aslan, “Shut the door”.

Peter, shivering with cold, leaned out into the darkness and pulled the Door to. It scraped over ice as he pulled it. Then, rather clumsily… he took out a golden key and locked it. They had seen strange things enough through that Doorway. But it was stranger than any of them to look round and find themselves in warm daylight, the blue sky above them, flowers at their feet, and laughter in Aslan’s eyes. He turned swiftly around, crouched lower, lashed himself with his tail and shot away like a golden arrow.

“Come farther in! Come farther up!” he shouted over his shoulder. But who could keep up with him at that pace? They set out walking westward to follow him.

As Night Falls on Narnia, the children and their friends are led into a land Farther Up and Farther In, where they must say Farewell to Shadowlands (the titles of the last three chapters). After this dazzling feat of the imagination, one might reasonably expect that Lewis could not help but let us down in ‘unwinding’ his story. He knew that the merest slip of the pen could have cast a shadow of incredulity over all that went before, and he proceeded very cautiously in opening the children’s eyes to where they are. The question was how to portray Heaven? How to make it heavenly? How to ‘unwind’ upwards? The answer lay in finding, and then trying to describe the differences between the earthly and the eternal worlds. In order to stride the pitfalls involved in this, it is necessary to avoid calling this an ‘allegory’. Lewis claimed that none of his Narnian stories were ‘allegories’ in the traditional sense of the term: by allegory he meant the use of something real and tangible to stand for something real but intangible. Anything immaterial can be allegorised and represented by physical objects, but Aslan, for example, is already a physical object. To try to represent what Christ would be like in Narnia is to turn one physical being into another, and that does not fall within Lewis’s definition of what constitutes an allegory. On the other hand, there is much in the tales, and especially in The Last Battle, which would fit Lewis’s own description of symbolism, that we are the ‘frigid personifications’; the heavens above us are the ‘shadowy abstractions’. He believed that Heaven is the real thing, of which earth is an imperfect copy.

Therefore, after some time, the children begin to recognise the landscapes around them as ‘Narnian’; that is, they recognise significant features of the world they have left behind them which they had watched being destroyed. Yet they appear curiously different, changed for the better.

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Suddenly Farsight the Eagle spread his wings, soared thirty or forty feet up into the air, circled round and then alighted on the ground.

“Kings and Queens,” he cried, “we have all been blind. We are only beginning to see where we are. From up there I have seen it all – Ettinsmuir, Beaverdam, the Great River, and Cair Paravel still shining on the edge of the Northern Sea. Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia.”

As they rejoice in this discovery, Lord Digory, whom we first meet as Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, explains to them the difference between the two: the Narnia that was destroyed was not the ‘real Narnia’, but only a temporary shadow of the real Narnia which was always there and always would be there. All of the ‘old Narnia’ that mattered, including all the “dear creatures” had been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. Of course, this ‘new Narnia’ was as different “as a real thing is from its shadow or as waking life is from a dream.”

One especially important detail which can be easily overlooked, is the manner in which the children’s resurrected bodies differ from their earthly ones. They discover that they can scale waterfalls and run faster than an arrow flies. This is meant to be a parallel to the gospel accounts of Christ’s risen body: though still corporeal, He is able to move through locked doors (Jn. 20: 19) and ascend bodily into Heaven (Mark 16: 9). But whereas Christ had been the ‘first fruits’ of the Resurrection, all now share in this mighty and glorious immortality as prefigured by Paul when he wrote:

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

I Corinthians 15: 51f.

The children now went ‘farther up’ into ‘the Western Wild’, which they had never seen, but the Lord Digory and Lady Polly had journeyed there on the very day the world was made. They all ran faster and faster until they found themselves at the bottom of a smooth green hill. It sides were as steep as the sides of a pyramid and round the very top of it ran a green wall: above the wall rose the branches of trees whose leaves looked like silver and their fruit like gold’. Reaching the top, they found themselves facing great golden gates. A horn sounded from inside and out came a little, sleek, bright-eyed Talking Mouse with a red feather stuck in its left paw resting on a long sword. It was, as they all cried out “Reepicheep!”

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He urged them all to come inside the golden gates into the garden inside, which had a delicious smell and a ‘cool mixture of sunlight and shadow’ under the trees and a springy turf… dotted with white flowers. The very first thing that struck everyone about the garden was that it was far larger than it had seemed from the outside. There they met everyone else they had journeyed and sojourned with on the adventures in Narnia; Puddlegum the Marsh-wiggle (see the BBC photo below) and all the other heroes, and a host of friends from the first six books. Looking around the garden, and talking with her old friend Mr Tumnus, the Faun, Lucy realised that the garden was not really a garden but another whole world, with its own rivers and woods and seas and mountains, which she already knew. She observed that:

“This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the one below. … I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia …”

The Last Battle, chapter sixteen.

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The children are shown that ‘no good thing is destroyed’ and that all the countries that were worth saving have become parts of the whole – ‘spurs jutting out from the great mountains of Aslan’. Uneasy, however, that their Joy may yet be snatched away from them and that they may be sent back to earth, they turn to Aslan who answers the question in their minds:

“Have you not guessed? The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as he spoke, he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title of the page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no-one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

The Last Battle, chapter 16

Returning to the Shadowlands – A Tailpiece:

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Brian Sibley’s 1985 book, Through the Shadowlands, was given the prestigious Gold Medallion Book Award. It was later re-published as The True Story of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. He was also a distinguished broadcaster and authority on the Narnia Tales, serialising them for BBC radio, and was asked to be a consultant to the BBC Film of his book, the screenplay Shadowlands having been written by William Nicholson in 1985. It was aired on British television and starred Joss Acland and Claire Bloom. It was also staged as a theatre play with Nigel Hawthorne in 1989. It was then made into the phenomenally successful 1993 feature film of the same name starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger (pictued above and below). Live-action film adaptations have been made of three of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), Prince Caspian (2008) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).

The Cover of the BBC DVD of the TV series of The Siver Chair, starring Tom Baker as the Marsh-wiggle, Puddlegum, together with Jill and Eustace, the child characters who also feature prominently in ‘The Last Battle’.

These followed on from an earlier BBC television series broadcast in the 1990s, which brought four of the books to the small screen, ending with The Silver Chair in 1996 (above). In 1998, for the centenary of Lewis’s birth, Brian Sibley also wrote a special introduction for the book, The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, a compendium of all seven stories, with original drawings by Pauline Baynes coloured by the artist herself, as shown in the text above. Her work on the Chronicles, therefore, had spanned five decades.

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Walter Hooper (1980), Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. London: Fount Paperbacks (Collins).

Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Martin Manser (2000), Bible Stories. Bath: Parragon

C. S. Lewis (1956, 1961), The Last Battle: A Story for Children. London: The Bodley Head.

C. S. Lewis (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia. London: Harper Collins.

C. S. Lewis (1944, 1952), Mere Christianity. London: William Collins (HarperCollins).


The Establishment of Constantinian ‘Christendom’ in Europe & Decline of the Roman Empire in Britain, c. AD 210-410:

The Growth of Christianity under Persecution, c. 180-260:

Italy, Dalmacia, Pannonia & The Eastern Roman Empire, showing the ‘barbarian’ threat, in the third & fourth centuries.

The Roman Empire bequeathed by Marcus Aurelius in AD 180 was recognisably the same state as that created by Augustus in the previous century. After two more centuries, however, it had been transformed by the triumph of barbarism and Christianity. The key changes had been the extension of Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire in 212 and the entry of Christians into the highest ranks of the ruling classes – including, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, traditionally dated to 312, the Imperial throne itself. Between those two dates, however, the experience of Christians throughout the empire was one of almost perpetual persecution. In AD 250 the most violent persecution the church had faced was instigated by the Emperor Decius (249-51). Imperial edicts commanded all citizens of the Empire to sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods. Those who did so were given certificates, known as libelli, as evidence that they had obeyed the order. Those who refused and were unwilling to obtain false libelli from sympathetic or corrupt officials were executed. Many Christians complied to save their lives, and others were able to acquire false certificates, but an unknown number were imprisoned or executed, among them the bishops of Rome, Antioch and Jerusalem. Within two years, Decius was killed in battle by the Goths and although his successor, Emperor Gallus (251-53) continued the persecution, it was not as widespread as under Decius. A few years later, persecution was renewed with a fresh ferocity, towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Valerian (253-260). On this occasion the church leaders were given an order to worship the old gods, under the threat of exile and imprisonment. They were forbidden to hold church meetings and members of their congregations were prevented from visiting Christian cemeteries on pain of death. A further edict then prescribed death for church leaders and the confiscation of property, slavery and even death for other Christians who would not desert the faith. Again, only war with foreign invaders, this time the Persians, put an end to the ordeal.

By the middle of the third century, the Romans in Britain had new enemies to contend with: raiding from Europe gathered momentum, and people of Germanic stock – later named Anglo-Saxons – may have been allowed to settle, especially in the east of Britain; it has been argued by some that they may have been granted land in exchange for their labour in building town walls. By the latter part of the third century, however, the east coast was witnessing new fortifications in the form of the ‘castle-like’ forts of the ‘Saxon Shore’, stretching from the Wash to Southampton Water. There is little indication as to how such forts were manned, but their military personnel may have been few, defending their forts with pieces of heavy artillery mounted on bastions. These large forts may also have offered shelter to elements of the civilian population. Such forts, however, must have operated less like police stations and more like defended strong points. Their chief characteristics, apart from the bastions, were the height and thickness of the walls and the small number of access-points.  

The Western Roman Empire, c. 180-395.

The ‘End of Roman Britain’ is a concept that has been much misunderstood in the past; we now see a Roman disengagement from Britain as a gradual process rather than as an event, and we appreciate better the degree to which many Britons regarded Roman culture as their own, and as something to be defended. The third and fourth centuries do not represent a period of uniform decline; indeed, although it cannot be denied that generally three periods were more fraught – militarily, politically and economically – some parts clearly prospered, at least in the first part of the third century. In general, Britain appears to have been less accutely troubled by ‘barbarian’ incursions than other parts of the empire. Militarily, the northern frontier appears, as a result of the campaigns of Septimus Severus, to have been relatively free of disturbance until the later years of the century when the threats from the Picts from beyond Hadrian’s Wall, and the Scots, from Ireland, are first mentioned in the classical sources. The Picts – their Roman nick-name meaning ‘painted’ or ‘tattooed’ people – were the same people as the Iron Age groups previously known to the Romans as ‘Caledones’ (Caledonians); their principal homelands were in the Moray Firth and Strathmore. The most celebrated of their artefacts were the decorated with symbols and the years of the Picts re-emergence saw the reconstruction of the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall, although the wall itself as a linear feature appears to have had a diminishing role in a developing strategy of defence in depth.

The Period of Invasion & Anarchy, c. 260-290:

On the continental borders of the empire – especially those with Germanic peoples – the pressure from barbarians for admittance, not just as mercenaries but as permanent settlers grew ever more intense. The vast extent of the frontiers could not be policed effectively and the trickle of immigrant communities could not be completely staunched. Raids en masse were almost as hard to cope with for the over-stretched imperial authorities. Those of the mid-third century, which devastated so much of Gaul and penetrated Italy, coincided with internal political crisis and almost dissolved the empire.  In 260 Valerian was captured and humiliated by the Persians. His son, Gallienus, was confronted by a near-fatal combination: mutinous armies and invading barbarians. ‘Thirty tyrants’ – in reality, eighteen contenders for the purple – competed to usurp his throne.  Empire-wide authority was effectively unenforceable, and the state seemed about to dissolve into defensible regional networks of self-help. The most promising of these was the ’Gallic empire’ which lasted for nearly twenty years after the election after the election of the general Posthumus on the Rhine frontier in 259 in a typical proclamation of the time, following a dispute over booty. He defeated Frankish and Alemannic raiders in Gaul and called himself ’the saviour of the provinces’ (see the map below). He was killed in a mutiny in 268, and his territories were reconquered from his successors by Aurelian in the 270s. Yet his experiment seemed to offer a glimpse of a workable future: the adherence of neighbouring provinces briefly pre-figured future administrative divisions; and his capital at Augusta Teverorum (Trier) became one of the centres of autonomous government under the devolved system established by Diocletian.

The anarchy and invasions of the third quarter of the third century were checked by the energy and generalship of Aurelian (270-75), but the next six emperors all ruled briefly and died violently. Not until the fourth quarter, however, did the struggle to exclude mass migrations of barbarians become hopeless. The Visigoths were the first people to be admitted en bloc. In about 275, when the Romans abandoned trans-Danubian Dacia, the Visigoths were settled in the vacated territory. Britain did not escape the political and economic problems that divided the empire in this period: the virtual collapse of the coinage and the miltary and political anarchy both manifested themselves in Britain. On two occasions, Britain became ‘separated’ from the empire – in the ‘Independent Empire of the Gauls’ (259-73), and again in the ‘British’ rebellion, which was headed by Carausius and Allectus (286-96). Carausias, then the Admiral of the Roman fleet, landed in northern Britain in AD 267, marching to York, where he had himself declared Emperor. He ruled his ’empire’ in Britain for seven years, before being assassinated by his minister, Allectus, in 274. The assassin ruled for two more years until he was then killed in battle against the forces of Constantius Chlorus, who then succeeded as emperor and ruled from York for a further ten years. With him began one of the most violent, socially and culturally disruptive periods in Christian history, beginning in a maelstrom of persecution and slaughter exceeding the brutal destruction of the Druids by Suetonius Paulinus and the atrocities in the wake of Boudicca’s rebellion in AD 60 to 62. Prior to the ascent of Constantius to the throne of the Roman Empire, tragic storm-clouds had gathered over Rome, where revolution and assassination had been disposing of one emperor after another and there was a confusing medley of predatory Roman military figures who raised armies and layed claim to the imperial throne.

Britain & the Diocletian Persecutions, c. 290-310.

In the pre-Christian era, as Caer Efroc, York had been one of the Druidic centres, continuing so until King Lucius nominated London, York and Caerleon on Usk as the three great archbishoprics of Britain. Before Constantius Chlorus defeated Allectus at York in 296 AD he had already become the recognised emperor of Britain, Spain and Gaul. By that time the boundaries of Gaul extended far into the European continent, incorporating the modern-day territories of Belgium, Holland and part of Germany. Tréves (Trier) had long been the capital of Belgic Gaul. The Constantinian narrative therefore begins with the proclamation of Constantius at York as Emperor of Rome. He was the first Emperor to be recognised as such by the whole populace of the fourfold domain. Only he and his son, Constantine the Great, were able to acquire imperial sway over this vast territory. Six years before he became Emperor, he had renewed and enlarged the Archbishopric of York in AD 290 at the request of his British-born Christian wife. After that York became an outstanding royal and religious city in Britain. Besides the debilitating effects of the civil war in the empire, Britain also experienced the effects of the major administrative changes brought in by Diocletian from 294; the province, which had already been split into two by Severus – Britannia Superior (south) and Britannia Inferior (north) – was divided into four. Diocletian, proclaimed emperor at Nicomedia in 284, was able to exploit reactions against instability. During the first ten years of his reign he devised a new system for governing the Empire as the union of four effectively autonomous imperial territories. In theory, the four emperors formed a college under Diocletian’s presidency, but in practice each ruled his own territory. In the west, Maximium’s title of Augustus gave him direct rule over Italy and Spain; his subordinate ’Caesar’, Constantius Chlorus, ruled Britain and Gaul. He was represented in London by a new officer, a vicarius. Further, military and administrative authority were separated for the first time, as Diocletian tried to secure his own position by fragmenting the power bases of potential rivals.

Diocletian was pre-eminent in the rest of the Empire, and his ’Caesar’, Galerius, shunted between marchland-areas of special responsibility in Illycum and on the Persian frontier. Their capitals were close to theatres of frontier warfare but consciously rivalled Rome. By the force of Diocletian’s personality and of their common interest in preventing rebellion, the four emperors remained loyal colleagues. As a result of his reforms, a few decades of relative peace had followed the advent of Diocletian to the imperial throne. But once the frontiers had been secured, he turned his attention to potential threats within the empire and in 303, he began the most severe persecution of the Christians to date. In many ways, this was surprising, since by this time the ‘new’ faith had reached the immediate imperial family and household. Many of his slaves and servants were, as well as his wife and daughter, were believers, together with many others in high places around him who were either Christians themselves or favourably disposed to the faith. On Diocletian’s orders began what is often described as the worst persecution of Christians ever. In his Edict, he ordered churches to be pulled down, the sacred scriptures to be gathered together and burnt, along with other Christian literature on which they could lay their hands. Libraries, schools of learning and the private homes of Christians were all destroyed. Those Christians who were not killed in cold blood were imprisoned from where they were often ‘throw to the lions’ in the Colisseum. None were spared, regardless of age or sex: even babes were cruelly killed in their parents’ arms.

Diocletian’s action may have been intended to gain more enthusiastic support from the army, which tended to be strongly anti-Christian, especially since many of the churches were against military service by their members. The Roman emperor struck with sudden apalling savagery at the Christians. He blamed them for the series of disasters over the years that had decimated the Roman arms to such an extent that they were no longer able to defend their own frontiers successfully. His action may have been intended to gain more enthusiastic support from the army, which tended to be strongly anti-Christian, especially since many of the churches were against military service by their members. Rome was beginning its long decline, and Diocletian sought to avert imperial disaster by exterminating the Christians, their churches and other possessions. The bestial cruelty lasted for fifteen years.  Diocletian issued four edicts against Christianity which were enforced with varying degrees of severity. The orders of 303 ordered the destruction of all church buildings, the confiscation of Christian books, the dismissal of Christians from government and army, and the imprisonment of the clergy. A further edict in 304, ordered all Christians to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. In Asia Minor an entire town and its inhanitants, who were predominantly Christian, were destroyed. In Rome church property was confiscated and many Christians were martyred. Christians in Palestine, Syria and Egypt suffered particular violence.

The clear-storey windows of a basilica are plainly visible in this picture of the fourth-century cathedral of Aquileia in Veneto, Italy.

The persecution flamed across Europe for several years before it struck the shores of Britain with full force. There, the Romans were frustrated by the zeal of the martyrs. The infuriated Diocletian was aided by Maximian, who is recorded by the Roman historians as being even more brutal. His atrocities are claimed to be beyond description. He caused his finest Legions, exclusively composed of Gauls, to be butchered to the last man because they were Christian. He was blind with maniacal hate. The Roman Emperor poured a huge army into Britain, while Maximian carried on his destructive course on the continent. The British kingdoms were more united as they responded to the battle call of Constantius. Within a year, they had terminated the Diocletian persecution in Britain, inflicting a series of defeats on the Roman Army, driving it back to the continent. But before the British Army secured its overall victory, the Romans had inflicted great destruction, levelling churches, universities and libraries, and sacking towns. The slaughter was terrific, totalling a list of British martyrs that far exceeded the loss of British martyrs in all the persecutions of the previous century, going back to St Alban. According to Gildas, the martyrs included several leading prelates; the bishops of Llandaff, Chester, York, London, Penrhyn (Glasgow), Carlisle, in addition to ten thousand communicants of different grades in society.  It has been too easily assumed however that, following the Diocletian destruction, everything in fourth-century Britain manifested decline: although the walling of towns had undoubtedly imposed crippling financial burdens on civitas administrators, thus reducing their ability to engage in general refurbishment programmes, many towns at least offered safety, and some positively flourished – for example, Cirencester. The continued success of such towns is to be explained by the fact that in some areas, at least, agriculture remained vibrant. For some villas, the first half of the fourth century represented a heyday, with large estates centred on sites such as Chedworth, Turkdean, Woodchester (all in Gloucestershire), Bignor (Sussex) and Lullingstone.  

Constantinian Conquest & Consolidation, c. 310-360:

At the height of the most severe of the persecutions directed against the Christians in 305, Diocletian and Maximian were were able to take the unprecedented step of ’retiring’ from imperial office; for Diocletian this meant becoming a gentleman-farmer on his estate  on the coast of Dalmatia. Behind them, they left a trail of destruction across Europe, so that the outcome of their retirement was not entirely peaceful. Diocletian had continued and accelerated the tradition of ’slicing’ provinces into ever-smaller units: there were perhaps about fifty at the start of his reign and he seems roughly to have doubled their number. This made taxation, administration and jurisdiction more thorough but multiplied bureaucracy – especially when a layer of supervision was added to the provincial structure in the form of thirteen ‘dioceses’, groups of governorships overseen by imperial ‘vicars’. Perhaps the most far-reaching aspect of his reform was in personnel: the traditional senatorial élite was passed over in favour of a new ‘aristocracy of service’, intended to be directly dependent on imperial patronage. Diocletian had succeeded in settling the administrative pattern of a divided Empire for its final centuries.

During the process of the rehabilitation of the British churches undertaken by Constantius and his Christian wife, the chief ruler of the western Empire died at York in AD 306. Immediately, his son Constantine declared himself Emperor of the Roman Empire, taking command of the armies of Britain and Gaul. He demanded recognition from Galerius, the pre-eminent Emperor in the East, who granted him only junior status. Soon Maxentius, son of Constantius’ predecessor in the West, murdered the senior Western emperor and usurped his position. Constantine massed a powerful army in Britain and sailed to Gaul (modern-day Germany), from where he marched upon Rome. His rival, Maxentius, foolishly sallied forth to meet him and the two armies clashed on the banks of the Tiber where Constantine won an overwhelming victory at the famous battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. In this way Constantine, later called the Great, became the sole emperor in the West. After a further tussle with Licinius, successor to Galerius in the East, Constantine emerged as the supreme overlord of the Roman Empire. Two years later, he called the first Christian church council since the one reported in the Acts of the Apostles. This took place in Arles in AD 314. The map below of Constantine the Great’s empire shows how, as its capital, Rome was not in a good position from which to dispatch troops to the distant frontiers threatened by the barbarians. To face their growing pressure and that of the Persians and the Parthians from the east, the Emperor Constantine (AD 306 – AD 337) removed the Imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople. Between 324 and ‘37, Constantine formalised the division of the Empire into eastern and western halves by founding a ‘second Rome’ at Constantinople, where he resided, and devolving western government to his sons.

It had been an old Greek city which was easy to fortify and much of its trade centred on its fine harbour, the Golden Horn. Through centuries of disturbance, its emperors had succeeded in holding together the eastern half of the Empire, but Constantinople was too distant from the western provinces, which were falling before the savage attacks of the barbarians, for them to be controlled from the new capital. Although Constantine briefly reintroduced a unified control over the whole empire, fragmentation of imperial rule dominated the politics of the fourth century, against a background of increasing pressure on the frontiers. From his time onward, not only was the seat of the emperor transferred to the east, but the centre of gravity of the empire as a whole began to shift in the same direction. The last great imperial monument of Rome – the basilica of Maximian in the Forum – dates from just before his time; the Arch of Constantine, though impressive, is a second-rate construction, employing a lot of recycled reliefs.

The Roman Empire under Constantine, 324-37.

Eventually, the Emperor Constantine decided to tolerate a religion that could not be overthrown. This decision was reached after a victory at the battle of Milvian Bridge, which he had fought ’under the sign of the Cross’. It was useful for him to be able to bind together an organisation which comprised so many different sorts of people. He strengthened his empire by recognising the bond which united its citizens. Thus, the persecution came to an end, and some years later Christianity was recognised by the emperors as the official religion of the Empire. The chief bishops of the early Christian Church resided at Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem. Nicaea is noted as being the scene of a very important meeting of bishops in AD 325. They condemned the teaching of Arius, who had converted some of the German tribes, but who denied that Christ was fully God. Although Constantine did not establish Christianity as the religion of the empire, his patronage ensured its irreversable ascent.

Constantine also continued the the diocesan structure, splitting Moesia into two: Dacia, on the northern bank of the Danube, and Macedonia. In effect, by the 330s, Constantine’s system resembled that  devised by Diocletian, with one ’Caesar’ ruling the ’Prefecture’ of Gaul, another Italy and two others commanding on the eastern fronts. The third great council of the Church was held at Byzantium in AD 337. Although the Bishop of Rome was present, it is interesting to note that it was the Bishop of Constantinople who presided. For twenty years Constantine laboured to extend the system of ‘constitutional Christianity’. For him, the Christian Faith stemmed not from Rome, but from Jerusalem. For this reason, he set up his government in Constantinople and there transferred the Imperial throne. The Roman Emperor, as head of the state religion, had always been responsible for maintaining good relations between the people and their gods. Constantine naturally saw himself in a similar role as Christian Emperor. Strife in the Church, such as the Donatist and Arian controversies, was likely to bring down the wrath of the Christian God on himself and the people entrusted to his care. It is difficult to understand why the church readily accepted, indeed asked for, the intervention of the Emperor in affairs so clearly outside his expert knowledge. The only Christian precedent for the role of a Christian emperor was that of the Old Testament kings of Israel, who had a great deal to do with maintaining peace and purity of religion in their kingdoms.

In the Byzantine East, once the doctrine that the Emperor was above the church had been established, it was never effectively challenged. Constantine’s handling of the Arian controversy was astute and the Council of Nicaea, where the controversy should have ended, was his great triumph. Constantine died in 337, tolerant towards Arian sympathisers. He thus failed to achieve his goal of unity in the church. Against this must be balanced his successes. He had begun to Christianise the Empire, and his founding of Constantinople shifted the focus of the Empire eastward, contributing both to the decline of the West and the independence of the Western church. The effect of Nicaea and its Creed far outlived his own failure to solve the Arian controversy. Finally, he established, permanently in the East and for a time in the West, his own answer to Bishop Donatus’ question,

What has the Emperor to do with the church?

The three sons of Constantine, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans, divided up the Empire on his death in 337, though the matter was not finally settled until all rivals were eliminated several months later. Constantine’s sons preserved his Christian principles as founders of the Byzantine Empire: Constantius received the East and therefore backed the reaction against Nicaea, which was still strong there. The other two brothers, in the pro-Nicene West, soon fell out and in the war which resulted Constantine II was killed in 340. Ten years later, Constans was murdered by a usurper, Magnentius, who was in turn defeated two years after that, by Constantius (353). The sons of Constantine were bolder than their father in the attack on paganism. Constantine had had to proceed slowly since most of his subjects were still pagan, especially in the Army, and in the nobility, from whom he drew his officials. His ‘Edict’ of Milan (313) proclaimed toleration for both Christian and pagan subjects. He had closed a few temples that were particularly offensive to Christians, such as those dedicated to ritual prostitution, and also banned private sacrifices and divining and later public sacrifices as well. His sons were able to proceed more vigorously. A law of 341 suppressed pagan cults and in 356 Constantius closed the temples and prohibited sacrifice on pain of death. The law seems not to have been rigorously enforced, however, since priesthoods and rituals continued at Rome and elsewhere. In 357, on a visit to Rome, Constantius removed from the Senate House the altar of Victory on which incense had been offered since the time of the Emperor Augustus. 

The Empire was now united under Constantius, who was increasingly inclined towards Arianism. His efforts to unite the church under an anti-Nicene banner are seen in a series of councils held in various parts of the Empire from 354 to 360. Through these he finally succeeded in forcing an anti-Nicene creed on reluctant bishops, and secured the condemnation of Athanasius, leader of the Nicene party. The climax of imperial intervention came at Milan in 355, if Athanasius’ own account is to be believed. Certain bishops were summoned before Constantius at his palace and ordered to condemn Athanasius. When they dared to appeal to the church canons (laws), the Emperor replied: Whatever I will, shall be regarded as a canon … Either obey or go into exile. Athanasius eventally chose the latter, but at first neither he nor the pro-Nicene bishops at first questioned the Emperor’s authority, despite the fact that Christianity, though the favoured religion, was not yet the official religion of the Empire. They held that he was simply wrong, deceived by his advisers. By 358, however, Athanasius’ views had changed:

When did a judgement of the church receive its validity from the Emperor? … There have been many councils held until the present and many judgements passed by the church; but the church leaders never sought the consent of the Emperor for them nor did the Emperor busy himself with the affairs of the church …

Even Ossius of Córdoba, who had helped shape Constantine’s policy towards the church, now quoted the words of Jesus against imperial interference:

Do not intrude yourself into church matters, nor give commands to us concerning them … God has put into your hands the kingdom; to us he has entrusted the affairs of his church … It is written,

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Constantius was, however, acting in the spirit of Constantine to bring about unity in the Empire. He believed that the church was on his side since he had the support of a large number of Eastern bishops, where Christianity was stronger. But his reign does show how truth and liberty may suffer when unity is made the ultimate goal.   

Security, Independence & Toleration, c. 360-410:

Britain had become embroiled in the rivalry between Constantine’s sons in the 340s, and again in the rebellions of Magmentius in the early 350s and of Magnus Maximus in the 380s. Both the Roman authorities and the Romano-British felt a continuing  need to maintain Britain’s place in the empire; this was probably due to the fact that its island status gave it relative security as a source of supplies and raw materials for the armies trying to defend provinces on the Continent. This was dramatically demonstrated by the decision of Julian (in 359), following a disaster on the Rhine, to send six hundred transport ships to Britain to requisition supplies with which to effect recovery. While there is certainly evidence of the faith in Britain – for example in the fine mosaics and wall-paintings from the villas at Hinton St Mary (Dorset) and Lullingstone (Kent) – its spread is poorly understood because of the paucity of written evidence and the often contradictory nature of the surviving structural and artefactual evidence.

Europa and the bull: A floor mosaic laid c. 350, from Lullingstone villa in Kent, depicts the myth of Europa’s abduction by Zeus disguised as a bull. The early fourth century was a ‘golden age’ for British villas but almost all had been abandoned by the end of the century.

Recently, late buildings of of a basilican type have been recognised at forts, such as Vindolanda and Birdoswold, and are thought by some to have been churches. While some ‘Christian objects’ are very mundane in character, others suggest considerable wealth, such as the collection of ‘plate’ found at Water Newton, and now in the British Museum. At the same time, however, the continuing strength of pagan cults suggests that Christianity may not immediately have appealed to the wealthier administrative classes. This is demonstrated by the extensive temple complex of the god Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire, none of which was constructed before the 360s. By then, those classes, especially in the north, were concerned with the new threat from the Picts:

But in Britain in the tenth consulship of Constantius (AD 360) … raids of the savage tribes of the Scots and the Picts, who had broken the negotiated peace, were laying waste the border regions, so that fear seized the provincials.

Ammianus Marcellinus, History (mid-380s).

As can be seen on the map above, the Picts dominated Britain north of the Forth-Clyde Isthmus, both during the late Roman period and into the ‘Dark Ages’. However, the distribution of the most distinctive Pictish monuments, such as square barrow cemeteries, symbol stones and power centres – usually forts on steep craggy hills or coastal promontories, show that their heartlands were east of the Highlands.

In 361, Julian, a nephew of Constantine who had escaped the blood-bath that had followed his uncle’s death, became emperor. He revealed that he had been a secret pagan for some years, following his unhappy childhood spent at the Christian court of Constantius. In his education, he had felt closest to Plato and the other great philosophers of ancient Greece. He therefore attempted to convert the empire to a syncretic religion, akin to that of the younger Constantine, that he called ‘Hellenism’, based on the worship of Plato’s ‘Supreme Being’ and his chief representative, the life-giving Sun. Julian paid tribute to the Christian church by incorporating some of what he regarded as the more successful features of Christianity into his ‘Hellenism’. He tried to set up a hierarchy, like that of the Church, with metropolitans of provinces set over the local priesthoods and answerable to the emperor as Pontifex Maximus.

Julian was most concerned that the ‘Hellenists’ should be equal in holiness and charity with the ‘Galileans’, as he called the Christians, and that the lives of his priests should be worthy of their high calling. Although Julian restored pagan worship all over the empire, taking away the special privileges enjoyed by Christian clergy, there was no return to persecution by the state. In fact, toleration was decreed for all religions. Pagans were particularly favoured in the civil service, and imperial justice was not even-handed when settling the violent disputes that arose in some cities over the religious changes. But Julian raised the strongest protest by prohibiting Christians from teaching literature in the schools. He knew that the Christian aristocracy would continue to send their children to ordinary public schools, even if their teachers were pagan; they would thus be exposed to pagan propaganda. On hearing that Julian had ordered him into exile, Athanasius told his weeping congregation:

Be of good courage; it is but a cloud which will quickly pass away.

He was right, for the zeal had soon gone out of Julian’s ‘Hellenism’. Its failure was apparent even before his death in 363.The emperors who followed were Christians. Both Jovian and his son, Valentinian I (364-75). Following a bloody battle between supporters of two rival candidates to be bishop of Rome in the reign of Valentinian, which left one hundred and thirty-seven dead in a Roman basilica, Ammianus (a pagan historian) concluded that the Roman bishopric had become a prize worth fighting for, and went on to describe the opulence of the clergy in the city, …

enriched by offerings from women, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, and feasting luxuriously, so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets.

Not all lived luxuriously, however, and many, like bishops Ambrose and Augustine, lived frugal, even austere lives, and recommended their congregations to follow their example. Ammianus praised Valentinian because …

he kept a middle course between the different sects of religion; and never troubled anyone, nor issued any orders in favour of one kind of worship or another …

Valens (364-78), the younger brother of Valentinian, who had been chosen by him to rule in the East, was less tolerant. He did not attack paganism, but did proceed against the Nicene party, and exiled some of the bishops. Valens was killed at the battle of Adrianople in 378, however, and subsequent emperors, both East and West, were more orthodox in doctrine.

In the meantime, Britannia with its great city of Londinium – Caer Lludd – had become a diocese of four or five provinces, incorporated into a prefecture of the Gauls along with Gaul and Hispania, which was run from Trier in the Rhineland and provided an arena for ambitious generals. Unlike the Gallo-Romans, its notables tended to shun the imperial service, and many had adhered to the Christian heresy of Pelagius, a British cleric who stressed the idea of grace and whose creed seems to have become the ideology of those discontented with imperial administration. The cycle of terminal crises hit Britain in 367, when a turning-point came with the widespread attack in by most of the enemies of Roman Britain, known as the conspiracy of the Barbarians; it was probably a climax rather than a sudden event. The barbarian forces attacked from the Highlands, Ireland and Gaul. Britain was overrun by Picts and Scots, serfs and slaves rebelled, and an entire province seceded from the Empire. General Theodosius had to fight his way across the island to restore order. The two principal commanders of Britain’s defences were the Duke of Britain and the Count of the Saxon Shore. The former was captured and the latter was killed. But by 370 Count Theodosius had restored order. He rebuilt the damaged portions of Hadrian’s Wall, withdrew the outlying garrisons and relied on treaty relationships with neighbouring tribes to provide a buffer zone to the north of the province. Considerable damage had been done, although much of it was quickly repaired, and measures were taken to prevent a considerable recurrence: a new system of watchtowers were was put in place on the coast of the north-east and western coasts, with some new forts being built at Cardiff, Caergybi and Lancaster. Theodosius undertook a major programme of reconstruction which seems to have opened up a new period of unprecedented prosperity for the British aristocracy and merchant classes.

Richborough Fort, Kent:
The walls of the Saxon Shore fort in, one of the several built by the Romans on Britain’s south and east coasts in response to raids by Germanic pirates.

Gratian (378-83) who had succeeded his father Valentinian in the West, also became ruler of the East on the death of Valens. Wisely recognising that he could not govern the whole empire alone, however, he chose the experienced soldier, Theodosius, to rule the East. Gratian was a Christian, well-educated and cultured and an accomplished sportsman. The reigns of Gratian and Theodosius I (379-95) finally determined the fate of paganism. Both were in the orthodox tradition of Valentinian and Valens, but the imperial policy of outlawing heresy and paganism during these years was largely the work of the great bishop Ambrose who was elected to the see of Milan in 374 at the young age of thirty-four. He held the position for twenty-three years and became influential in imperial matters because Milan, rather than Rome, was the Emperor’s western residence at the time. The Western Emperors Gratian and Valentinian II (383-92), also came under Ambrose’s direct influence, as did Theodosius when in the West. Under Ambrose’s influence, Gracian began to suppress both pagans and heretics. He confiscated the revenues of the Vestal Virgins and other Roman priesthoods and refused the title of Pontifex Maximus (High Priest), which previous Christian emperors had taken. He was unsuited for government, however, both by temperament and training, and his inability to win the loyalty of the armies resulted in his death during the rebellion led by the Iberian-Celtic officer, Magnus Maximus, in 383. By this time, many in the legions were thoroughly disenchanted by the constant shifts in Rome’s religious policy, and they reacted when another wave of troubles were precipitated by the Emperor Gratian’s onslaught on paganism. The classical cults provoked yet another army coup in Britain, and in 383 Magnus Maximus was ‘raised up’ by Theodosius and the army of the West and, though Christian himself, struck back for the Empire aginst its Emperor.

Illustration from a 14th-century Welsh manuscript thought to intend to depict Magnus Maximus. Llanbedlig Hours.

Maximus (c. 335–28 August 388) became known in the early Welsh narratives as Macsen Wledig (‘Wledig’ = ‘Prince’, ‘ruler’ or ‘emperor’) [ˈmaksɛn ˈwlɛdɪɡ]; he was Roman emperor in the western portion of the Empire from 383 to 388 after he invaded Gaul and usurped the throne from emperor Gratian in 383, through agreement with Roman emperor Theodosius I. Maximus was born c. 335 in Galicia, in Northern ‘Hispania’, on the estates of Count Theodosius (the Elder), to whom he claimed to be related. Maximus was, in fact, the son of the general Flavius Julius Eucherius. According to Hewin’s Royal Saints of Britain, he was a ‘Roman-Spaniard’ related both to Theodosius and the family of Constantine the Great, and of royal British descent on his mother’s side. Near contemporaries described him as being offended when lesser men were promoted to high positions.

Since he came from Celtic Galicia, it is possible that that he spoke a kindred language to that of the Britons that they could understand, which would explain his popularity among the British legions. He was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul while Gratian’s brother Valentinian II retained Italy, Pannonia, Hispania, and Africa. Maximus was a distinguished general; he had probably been a junior officer in Britain in 368, during the quelling of the Great Conspiracy with Theodosius, with whom he had also served in Africa in 373. Assigned to Britain in 380, he defeated an incursion by the Picts and Scots in 381. In 387, however, Maximus’s imperial ambitions led him to invade Italy, resulting in his defeat by Theodosius I at, or after the Battle of Poetovio in 388. In the view of some historians, his death marked the end of direct imperial presence in Northern Gaul and Britain. For the purpose of legend, at least, this man had the makings of a hero of the Britons. He was certainly to be a hero to the Bretons in later years, since one of the legends suggests that he began a colony of Britons there, which later became Brittany or ‘Llydaw’ in Welsh (see the appendix below).

Solidus of Magnus Maximus, The ‘Emperor in the West’, ‘Macsen Wledig’ in early Welsh legend.

In 381 and 385, Theodosius prohibited sacrifices for divination, which seems to have stopped all sacrifice. Petitions to destroy individual temples, or convert them into Christian churches, were received, and many were destroyed. Theodosius ordered all the temples of Alexandria to be demolished following pagan-Christian unrest. Finally, in 391, he prohibited all sacrifices and closed all temples. The next year private pagan worship was forbidden too. Paganism had one last chance in the West during the brief reign of the usurper Eugenius. His chief supporters were zealous pagans who restored the ancient worship in Rome, but the final triumph of Theodosius in 394 put an end to his uprising. Nevertheless, the laws against paganism were not rigidly enforced, and pagan worship continued openly in some places for several generations and in secret for much longer. Across much of the empire the countryside remained pagan for several centuries and pagan believers still managed to attain high positions in the empire, while it lasted.

Theodosius had also begun to act against heretics early on in his reign. In 380 he ordered all his subjects to subscribe to the faith brought to Rome by Peter, and in the following year he summoned the Council of Constantinople which drew up a fresh definition of the faith based on the Nicene model. But Arianism was no longer a significant movement within the empire, although it still held sway among the Gothic tribes, still largely beyond its frontiers. The most significant among these were the Visigoths. After border trouble in the 320s, those in Dacia had been granted federate (allied) status, but by the late 360s relations had greatly deteriorated. Even so, long experience of the Romans as neighbourshad profoundly influenced Visigothic culture. They had been converted to Christianity, although to Arianism. In 376, a Hun invasion obliged the Dacian Visigoths to beg the Romans for refuge, and an allowed 200,000 were allowed over the Danube. But they were then left to starve, provoking a terrible revenge which culminated in the Visigoths’ victory over the Romans at Adrianople in 378, thereby destroying the Roman reputation for invincibility. They forced the emperor to grant them lands in Thrace, but were soon dissatisfied with these barren lands and, under their leader Alaric, ravaged Greece and invaded Italy, eventually capturing Rome in AD 410.

Although Constantine had been the first Christian emperor, Christianity was not definitively established as the official religion of the western Roman empire until 395 AD. In that year, the rise of the Church from persecution to predominance was completed when the Emperor Theodosius proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the empire and reduced pagan traditions to the underprivileged status formerly imposed on Christians. The imperial élite was becoming more diversified: Christian bishops became servants of the state; the old ruling class was displaced by a new meritocracy; barbarian technicians were increasingly appointed to military commands, and the senatorial aistocracy began, especially in Italy, Gaul and Asia Minor, to withdraw from civic life and political responsibility, retiring to the management of their estates. After Theodosius’ death in 395, the Empire was divided between his sons Honorius (west) and Arcadius (east), so that the Roman territories were never again ruled by a single emperor. One emperor ruled the eastern half from Constantinople, the other ruling the western half from Ravenna. In the city of Constantinople, the Greek language and culture had never been forgotten.The emperor there gave up Roman ways for Greek ways, and behaved like an eastern potentate. The Christian religion thrived there, and beautiful churches were built, where the people worshipped in Greek. Differences arose between the Greek Christians in the east, who looked to the Bishop of Constantinople, and the Roman Christians in the west, who followed the Bishop of Rome.

The carvings on this fourth-century sarcophagus portray biblical incidents including Peter hearing the cock crow and Jesus’ arrest in the garden.

Henceforth, however, the empire could not guarantee to manage the barbarian war-bands whom it was forced to admit in increasing numbers. In Roman relations with other barbarian groups too, there were periods of tense collaboration; but from 395 to 418 the Visigoths undertook a destructive migration across the empire, terrorising the areas they traversed. Yet the Visigoths and other Germanic peoples did not come simply to destroy; they wished to share in the wealth and security of Rome. As the Roman armies came increasingly to depend on Germanic recruits and commanders, the difference between Roman and non-Roman diminished, especially in the west. In the decades which followed, the western provinces fell progressively under German control, but this did not denote a sudden ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’. The end of the empire was no sudden event. The power of the emperors gradually declined, for they could not for ever stand the strain of providing men and money for the great armies defending the long frontiers from the attacks of the barbarian tribes, chiefly the the Germanic tribes; Vandals, Franks, Saxons, Lombards, living on the shores of the Baltic, and the Goths who had wandered south to the shores of the Black Sea. For a time the the Romans had welcomed German barbarians into their armies. These mercenaries had become skilled in Roman methods of fighting and influenced by Roman ways of life. From central Asia the Huns, fiercest and most destructive of all the barbarian tribes, moved westwards in search of fresh pastures for their cattle. Terrified by the pressure from the Huns, the Germans plunged into the Roman Empire, with the Visigoths being just the first to enter.

Perhaps the most damaging development was a loosening of the communications system and the command hierarchy that had been so characteristic of the Romanised province of Britain; as a result, many sites – forts and towns, especially, may have become isolated strong points, in which local militias, perhaps made up in part of the remnants of the Roman Army, defended and supported their homes and families. Recent archaeological work at Birdoswold and other forts on Hadrian’s Wall, has lent some support to this notion; to some degree, this changing picture may  account for the new style of building in forts, which saw the so-called ‘chalet-barracks’ replace the orderly structures characteristic of the early Roman period, possibly as part of fortified Romano-British villages. The somewhat confused source material relating to the later fourth and early fifth centuries (Zosimus, for example), has been taken to indicate that, while Rome tried to keep the British within the empire, the British themselves wanted their independence, and that there were pro- and anti-Rome parties in Britain. Such evidence needs to be treated with caution, however, as it is evidently the case that elements within the field armies were being sent to Britain towards the end of the fourth century. It is not clear what they were trying to achieve, however. Barbarian raids continued but despite rebellions by the Roman commanders of Britain and the withdrawal of troops from the garrison no large scale campaigns were needed against the Picts, Scots and Saxons until those launched by Stilicho in 396 to 398. Until the final Roman withdrawal, a major responsibility for defence appears to have rested with the mobile field army of infantry and cavalry commanded by the Count of the Britains (Comes Britanniarum). In AD 409, Britain finally broke free from the Roman Empire. For nearly the following entire four hundred years it fought for its life.

How Roman & how Christian were the Britons by 410?

Inside Britain, however, it is now thought that that different approaches were emerging regarding the most efficacious means of achieving what was evidently a common goal – that of retaining a Romanised culture in the face of the new invasive cultures that threatened it. Some, probably the remnants of the civitas leaderships, wanted to work for an institutional re-engagement with Rome – an aim that was maintained into the mid-fifth century. Others, on the other hand, local warlords like ‘King’ Vortigern or the mythical Artorius, were more realistic and independently-minded, preferring to take their salvation into their own hands. It has been suggested that such leaders may have been influenced by the the contemporary Christian heresy of Pelagianism, which originated in Britain. Pelagius is the only Romano-British scholar we know by name, we might call him the first British nonconformist, who established the ‘heresy’ in the fourth century. But there seems no reason to doubt that many of the better-off had begun to think of themselves as Roman by that time. By the fourth century, villas in Britain , especially those in the southwest, had reached high standards of comfort. The many clustered around Bath may refelect the attractions of that city and it seems to have been a good idea to live near a town, but outside it. Of course, many villas were simply working farms which depended on urban markets, but even the luxurious country houses.

Hinton St Mary Mosaic | Archaeology Travel
The Hinton St Mary Mosaic.

At Bignor in West Sussex the sequence of building follows a pattern seen elsewhere – a timber building of not very elaborate design was constructed in the second century, then succeeded by a plain rectangular stone building which was gradually enlarged during the third century, and then replaced by a much larger and grander country house in the fourth century. Some of the mosaics in these late villas suggest well-educated owners, well versed in the classics. At Bignor there is one of Venus with cupids dressed as gladiators, which has been described as ‘probably technically the best mosaic in Britain’, and there are others which show episodes in the life of Ganymede. At Woodchester in Gloucestershire there is a mosaic with a wonderful frieze of animals – including a leopard, a lion, and a tigress, though the elephant has been largely destroyed. This, like several other examples, relates to the story of Orpheus, whose cult seems to be celebrated in a number of mosaics. There is also a magnificent early Christian mosaic at Hinton St Mary in Dorset. It is this sort of milieu which produced Pelagius, whose ‘heresy’ required two visits from St Germanus in the fifth century to combat. But in other mosaics and other forms of art, a native reluctance (or simply a lack of skill) for naturalistic expression can be seen through ostensibly classical forms. Some of the sculpted stone heads of gods look more like the grim stylised heads of Celtic cults.

The Mildenhall treasure:
A fourth-century silver dish from the treasure hoard found at Mildenhall, Suffolk. The treasure was buried for safe keeping but its owners were never able to recover it – a sign of insecure times.

From some points of view, Romanitas descended like a blanket over Britain for four centuries, and from archaeological evidence alone one might be justified in imagining there was a huge invasion followed by a folk migration. Yet we know that there was no mass immigration and that much of the native population survived. On the one hand the Roman conquest is a model for the successful integration of a new way of life through effective government supported by a well-organised army. It shows how a minority can dramatically affect the majority, even down to the language spoken, in some levels of society, and the shape of cooking pots. On the other hand, at the end of the four centuries, much of Roman culture seems to have simply melted away with remarkable speed and completeness. From other points of view therefore, nothing was left but a taste for Mediterranean wine, which many prehistoric chiefs had already acquired anyway, while ways of organising society, economy and art in the post-Roman centuries seem to have been remarkably similar to those existing in the pre-Roman period, to the extent that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two on excavated sites. So, was the Conquest really as complete as the Roman historians would have us believe and as certain great works might make it look?

Fourth-century Roman silverware found at Traprain Law, a fort near Edinburgh in Scotland which had been within the Roman sphere of influence, and for a time also within the province.

Here, we need to revisit the reasons for the Roman ‘invasion’. The main stimulus appears to be both economic and political. There was a need to protect Gaul from a potentially hostile Britain, or from tribal raiding parties and ‘pirates’. Added to this, the legions needed to be kept occupied in the days when the Empire was still expanding across the continent. Thirdly, the island’s grain and mineral supplies were attractive, especially for maintaining the army. But the political ambitions of generals and the need for emperors to continue to acquire foreign conquests to bolster their position at home, was perhaps the most crucial factor. As we have seen, the history of the initial conquest and the subsequent subjugation of the province were bound up with the favours and fortunes of successive Roman leaders. It was important for Claudius to appear to be leading the army across the channel, the Thames and into Colchester, thus consolidating his position by conquering a land beyond the end of the known world. The Romans did not conquer Britain out of zeal to civilise barbarians, but for their own purposes, which were the result of policies with far wider implications across their extensive Empire.

The stretch of road known as Wade’s Causeway on Wheeldale Moor, North Yorkshire.

The implantation of so large an army, originally entirely foreign, was bound to have a dramatic impact on the local population, the remains of which are still visible on the landscapes and townscapes throughout the island. There are the roads, miles upon Roman miles of them, some buried under modern roads that follow the same direct routes and contours; others only visible from the air, where they can be seen cutting straight across fields, or preserved as boundaries and trackways. Some of these, as Matthew Paris’ map of pre-Roman roads reveals (see my previous article on the Roman Conquest), had already been there for Julius Caesar’s legions to follow northwards as far as St Albans, and were long-established Iron Age trading routes, reaching as far as modern-day Shropshire (including metalled sections) and Norfolk. Some original stretches of Roman road are still visible today, such as Wade’s Causeway on Wheeldale Moor in North Yorkshire (pictured above). The gravelled surface has long since gone, but the stone foundation slabs are still there.

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A stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, one of the most dramatic monuments of Roman Britain.

Yet within the Empire, as for many centuries after its end, water transport was far more useful for trading purposes. Even for moving stock a metalled road was probably not that useful, especially if it was in regular use by the legions and mounted messengers. Both prehistoric and medieval routes were tracks, some – like the drovers’ roads of Wales, quite wide and robust – rather than metalled roads. Roman roads were vital for marching soldiers and high-class horseback traffic, but they would not have been much help to farmers. Wade’s Causeway is so-called because it was used effectively by General Wade’s British redcoats marching against the 1745 Scottish Jacobite Rising. Forts could be of many sizes, but most were of one shape, rectangular. Early forts, like the reconstructed Lunt Fort near Coventry, originally built after Boudicca’s revolt in the AD 60’s, were built of earth and timber. In Carlisle, a sequence of later fort structures has been found from around AD 78, apparently built to bolster Agricola’s Caledonian campaigns. In the second century, the stone forts built along Hadrian’s Wall, have yielded much information, of course, as referred to in the previous article in this series, but Hadrian may also have had something to do with a quite different project, which, although apparently civilian, had a certain military ‘flavour’ to it.

Reconstruction of the tower at Stonea in the Cambridgeshire Fens, based partly upon a surviving tower at Anguillara, near Rome.

This was the construction of a new town in east, at Stonea, near March in present-day fenlands of Cambridgeshire. Earthworks of very many Roman villages existed in this area, until they fell victim to ploughing. The Romans carried out massive drainage operations and the Car Dyke, which they constructed, was once thought to have been a canal, but now looks like a series of discontinuous ditches, useful for drainage but not for transport. The site at Stonea may have been planned as the administrative centre of imperial estates in this newly occupied region, and it may have been another of Hadrian’s ‘bright ideas’, as it was founded during his reign, in the early second century. The most dramatic archaeological find was the massive foundations of a great stone tower. A reconstruction of this, based on a surviving tower in Anguillara in Italy, north of Rome, is shown in the picture above. A tower such as this, arising out of the flat fenland must have dominated the landscape, much as Ely Cathedral has since. After about eighty years, at the end of the second or beginning of the third century, the whole place was abandoned, ad stores were dumped in the ditches, leaving nearly complete pots and glass vessels to be excavated, as shown below, suggesting that the inhabitants were quite prosperous.

A Collection of nearly complete pots from Stonea.

Other towns were founded from the start as native centres, partly to replace the old hillforts and to encourage the cultivation of Roman virtues. At Silchester, referred to in my previous article, the whole circuit of the wall survives, because it has never since been built over. It sits in an enclave of Hampshire, where the county boundary takes a loop into Berkshire, perhaps preserving the limit of the territory of the Roman town. The basilica, shown below, was probably something like a town hall and law court, although, like many other terms used in relation to Roman Britain, the meaning of the word in this context is not entirely clear. The basilica was built in the early second century, when the local civic authorities constructed a magnificent building to replace an earlier timber structure. The marble they used for the columns came not only from Purbeck but also from the Mediterranean. Yet before the middle of the third century, this imposing structure had been converted into a row of workshops for ironworking.

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The basilica at Silchester viewed from the north. The north range with traces of an early apse can be seen at the bottom of the photo. The pitted floor of the basilca is caused by metalworking activity and Victorian excavation.

Silchester (above) could hardly have been further away from a dangerous frontier, so if it looked at best run down during the last two centuries of Roman rule, what state were the other towns in? Some, like Stonea, had failed altogether, of course. At Wroxeter (below), the sequence of decline seems to be that the large basilica at one side of the baths was demolished early in the fourth century, except for the dramatic bit of wall known as ‘The Old Work’. A series of small wooden buildings was built, and then swept away before the whole area was covered with fine rubble consisting of the ground-up remains of buildings, and whoever the builders were, they could mobilise a significant amount of labour to match their grandiose ideas. A large and imposing timber house was constructed, with two storeys and classical porticoes. Clearly, there was still some idea of maintaining a Roman lifestyle, but we do not know whether the porticoed house was the focus of a small, settled nucleus within the old walls, like a chief’s palace or fort, or whether we should think of it in terms of similar late occupation over other parts of the town.

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There is therefore a question-mark over the end of Roman towns. Some evidence points to early abandonment and to the fact that urbanism did not develop a solid base among the native population, whilst at Wroxeter we have a suggestion that life in that town may have gone on far longer than might have been expected. On the Continent, the picture is sometimes clearer than in Britain, since in some places more substantial remains have been preserved. But even then, the story is not always straightforward. For example, Trier, on the Rhine frontier of the Empire, by a crossing of the Moselle and was an imperial capital in the fourth century. Constantine the Great was responsible for some of the buildings which can be seen today. The survival of masonry from the Roman period is considerable: parts of the city walls were incorporated into the medieval circuit, the piers of the bridge are Roman, there are parts of two bath complexes, one so large you can get lost in the maze of drains which are high enough for people to be able to walk along them upright, and almost the whole of the north gate, preserved by its conversion into a medieval church (pictured below). There is also an amphitheatre, and a large building called the basilica, and part of the Cathedral is Roman in origin, incorporating part of an enormous church built by Constantine. At first look, there is a clear continuity from Roman to medieval. But if we look at the modern street plan, which partly preserves the medieval pattern, we see a network of lanes which bear no relationship to the underlying Roman grid. Much of the city must have collapsed in ruin for such completely different street alignments to emerge.

The ‘Porta Nigra’ at Trier, on the banks of the Moselle in western Germany. The Roman gate was preserved by its conversion into a medieval church.

From the early fifth century, when the Roman army exited Britain, hillfort sites such as South Cadbury in Somerset, Glastonbury Tor and Tintagel, an early cliff-top castle which had clearly been exploited as a defensive site before the fifth century. They also became safe havens for craftsmen, like the metalworkers of Glastonbury Tor. It was probably in such places that the La Téne art styles revived and where such things as the bronze enamelled escutcheons of hanging bowls were made, or the penannular brooches, named from their broken ring-shape. The masterpieces of metalwork and manuscript illumination which were to be made in early Christian Britain emerged from this tradition, which had somehow reappeared after four centuries of Roman rule. The towns, villas, mosaics, and statues tell us about the emperors, the army, and the native aristocracy, and by the fourth century it is probably fair to see the upper classes as ‘Roman’ in lifestyle, aspiration, and attitude. It is always much more difficult to find out about the mass of the population. But the evidence shows that even the ‘peasants’ were to some extent Romanised. They used wheel-thrown pottery in quantities, and left it lying about their houses and even in the fields. They seem to have used money, since small change is found on quite ordinary settlement sites. Graffiti scratched on odd bits of writing tablets also show that quite ordinary people had at least a little Latin. After a few generations, peasant houses became rectangular instead of round and eventually timber farmhouses were replaced in stone.

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Glastonbury Tor, which a site for metalworking in Late Roman times.

The internal peace of Britain, until barbarian raids became too serious, should have meant that fewer people and animals were killed in fighting, and that fewer buildings and crops were burnt by internal raiding. As a result, the population and living standards must have risen. Yet there was no major technological change and farming methods had changed little from pre-Roman times. A large proportion of crops would have gone in tax, which would have depressed any general rise in prosperity. In some regions, there was extraordinarily little visible change, and even the round huts continued in use well into the post-Roman period, especially in the remoter upland parts of the island. The lives of the inhabitants of these places would not have changed simply because they had officially become part of the Roman Empire. Nor would they have changed again when that ceased to be the case. It is probably the fact that the peasantry did not undergo a complete and permanent change in their lifestyle that explains why Britain, perhaps surprisingly, reverted to a prehistoric way of life within a generation or two of the severance of central control, when Rome could no longer protect itself, never mind its offshore islands.   

In the west of Britain it is possible to argue for a view of Roman Britain as a transient, passing phase, which left people much the same afterwards as they were before. It is also clear that there were people there in the post-Roman centuries, people who were descended from the previous inhabitants with a few traces of Romanitas grafted onto their prehistoric lifestyle. In the east of Britain, it has been thought that there was a much more dramatic change, and an extinction of much that had gone before, with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. In the final analysis of the end of Roman Britain, the effect of the ’barbarian’ incursions was to disturb the Romanised ruling classes beyond the point of recovery; it was, in other words, a lack of ability rather than a lack of will that determined the end of Britannia – a gradual and uneven process, however, in which, once again, the British ‘became different without knowing it’ as they had done four centuries earlier.

A contemporary cartoon, showing the popular view that the Britons suddenly became Romans after a good wash, shave and brush-up!

Appendix – Legends of the Fall of Rome:

In their introduction to their (1974) translation of The Mabinogion, the Medieval Welsh tales, Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones wrote about the shorter piece The Dream of Macsen Wledig, a legendary version of Maximus’s career, confirming the details above, adding that after Gratian’s assassination and the flight of Valentinian, Maximus became the ‘master of Italy’, but was himself put to death by Theodosius at Aquiela in 388. The importance of the story is that it shows a strong and nostalgic interest in the old Roman grandeur, and the (exaggerated) contribution to it of British soldiers. According to G Jones and T Jones, although flawed in construction,

‘Macsen’ is a joy, with its firm outlines, good proportions and delicate yet glowing workmanship.  

Prys Morgan (1986) compared the legends to other myths of origin or emergence. For the Welsh, the departure of the Roman legions symbolised the end of Roman rule in Britain and the beginning of a separate existence for the British or Welsh in the islands. In the Welsh legends of Macsen, he was connected with ‘Cambria’ through his wife Elen, supposedly from Segontium or Caernarfon, after whom stretches of straight road were called Elen’s Causeways (‘Sarn Elen’), and from whom were descended not only Vortigern but also many of the early princes and rulers of Wales. The legendary ‘Elen’ was also mixed up with ‘Helena’, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, because the myths of origin were not only Romano-British in character, but also strongly Christian. He comments further about the Medieval mythology:

The retreating, ever more constricted, Welsh people were sustained by telling themselves that they were the primary people of the British isles, their power had been diminished by foul, not fair, means, that the origin of their government and ruling families was Roman and Imperial, … and that they had been Christians for centuries, Perhaps since the visit of Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, and that they were utterly different from pagan Anglo-Saxons with their recent veneer of Christianity.

In the early twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Breton who bridged the gap between Norman and Welsh civilisation, gave a new lease of life to the myths and legends described, adding to them many historical legends of the kings of Britain. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), the basis for many English and Welsh legends, Maximianus, as he calls him, was a Roman senator, a nephew of Coel Hen through Coel’s brother Ioelinus, and king of the Britons following the death of Octavius (Eudaf Hen). Geoffrey writes that this came about because Octavius wanted to wed his daughter to just such a powerful half-Roman-half-Briton and to give the kingship of Britain, as a dowry, to that husband, so he sent a message to Rome offering his daughter to Maximian. Although the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig is written in later manuscripts than Geoffrey’s version, the two accounts are so different that scholars agree the Dream cannot be based purely on Geoffrey’s version. The Dream’s account also seems to accord better with details in the Triads, so it perhaps reflects an earlier tradition.

Macsen Wledig, the Emperor of Rome, dreams one night of a lovely maiden in a wonderful, far-off land. Awakening, he sends his men all over the earth in search of her. With much difficulty they find her in a rich castle in Wales, daughter of a chieftain based at Segontium (Carenarfon), and they lead the Emperor to her. Everything he finds is exactly as in his dream. The maiden, whose name is Elen, accepts and loves him. Macsen gives her father sovereignty over the island of Britain and orders three castles built for his bride:

The maiden he had seen in his sleep he saw sitting in the chair of red gold. “Empress of Rome,” said he, “all hail!” And the emperor threw his arms around her neck. And that night he slept with her.

And on the morrow the maiden asked for her maiden fee, because she had been found a maid; and he asked her to name her maiden fee. And she named for her father the Island of Britain from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, and the three adjacent islands, to be held under the empress of Rome, and that three chief strongholds be made for her in the three chief places she might choose in the Island of Britain. And then she chose that the most exalted stronghold should be made for her in Arfon, and soil from Rome was brought there so that it might be healthier for the emperor to sleep and sit and move about. Later, the other two strongholds were made for her, none other than Caer Llion (Caerleon) and Caer Fyrddin (‘Maridunum’, modern Carmarthen).

In Macsen’s seven-year absence, a new emperor seizes power and warns him not to return. With the help of men from Britain led by Elen’s brother Conanus (Welsh: Cynan Meriadoc, Breton: Conan Meriadeg), Macsen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Macsen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that becomes known as Brittany, or Llydaw in Welsh, the Britons whom Cynan settled there became known as ‘Brytanieid’. This supplied the myth for the origin of the Breton language.

According to the historian, Gwyn A Williams, what is remarkable about the legend of Macsen Wledig is that he was to become absolutely central to the Welsh historical tradition after they entered the annals hundreds of years later. Gildas, writing in the sixth century, dated the fall of Roman Britain from ‘the withdrawal of the legions’ by Maximus. Welsh tradition was to assert that he had done something wonderful for the Welsh people. He certainly took soldiers from Caernarfon with him, and he was said to have transferred government to British notables. The origin-legends of the dynasty of Gwynedd in the north-west had Maximus transfer their legendary founder Cunedda from Scotland to Anglesey and the dynasty was to be central to the history of the Welsh; the Welsh princes derived from them. The early poetry and traditions of the Welsh are steeped in the heroic legends of North Britain and suffused with memories of Maximus. Nearly every dynasty which was to claw its way to power in Wales took pains to construct its genealogy with links to Maximus. Gwyn Williams concluded:      

In a very real sense, Wales can be said to begin with the British hero Maximus. Wales is born in AD 383 with Macsen Wledig.

However, this is a Wales of the mind, created much later. There was almost certainly a strong oral tradition, but the Macsen of history was manufactured in the ninth century, by royal genealogists of the second dynasty of Gwynedd which had just come to power. To those ninth-century minds, what had become their country, Wales, began with Macsen the British Roman Emperor. It had taken five hundred years for that Wales to appear on the ground. It emerged then out of the ruins of the independent British state which Romano-Britons created and of whose creation Macsen Wledig had been a herald.

The Welsh, like most of the peoples and nations of Western Europe, struggled painfully to birth as bastard children of the late Roman Empire.    


Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British: From Ice Age to Norman Conquest. London: Guild Publishing.

David Shotter, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

András Bereznay, Jeremy Black, et. al. (2002), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books.

Tim Dowley, et. al. (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

George F. Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London: Covenant Publishing.

Prys Morgan (1986), ‘Keeping the Legends Alive’, in Tony Curtis (ed.), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press.

Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones (1974), The Mabinogion. London: Dent (Everyman’s Diary).


Good King Lucius & The Establishment of Christianity in Britain: War, Economy & Religion, c. AD 60 – c. AD 210

The Christian Faith, Native Religious Traditions & Society:

In the first and second centuries AD, the Christian faith spread very widely among the the poor and the slaves, to whom Christ’s teaching offered new hope and comfort. Excellent new communications by land and sea, and the movement of Roman troops, assisted the spread of the faith across all parts of the vast empire. Churches were organised and supervised by bishops, or ’elders’. Christians were, however, persecuted by successive Roman emperors because they refused to put their duty to the State before their devotion to the ’One God’. Since they were so loyal to their beliefs and showed such courage under persecution, these early Christians gained respect for their faith and their numbers grew. By the year AD 140, all the original disciples, apostles, and all those who had been associated with them were long-since deceased; the last of them probably being the children of Pudens and Claudia, whom Paul referred to at the end of II Timothy (4 v. 20).

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The ancient church in Rome, associated with St Pudens (for more information, see my previous article). The Basilica of Santa Pudenziana is recognized as the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome. It was erected over a 2nd-century house, probably during the pontificate of Pius I in AD 140–55, re-using part of a Roman bath facility, still visible in the structure of the apse. 

A few of them, perhaps including Paul, had fulfilled the command to go to all corners of the known world, both east and west, preaching the Gospel. It is difficult to believe that this handful of men and perhaps women could have achieved such a formidable missionary enterprise within little more than thirty years of Jesus’ death, but there is sufficient evidence in the New Testament, apocryphal and early church sources to believe that they did, leaving aside the more obvious myths and legends. For the second and third generations of Christians, the task of spreading their faith to the various native populations of the Roman empire was still fraught with danger. This was especially the case in Britain, where, after the initial conquest carried out by AD 83, the missionaries lacked either the protection of friendly tribes or that of sympathetic governors against tribes who were still hostile to both armies and missionaries from Rome and determined to continue worshipping their own gods rather than the Christian one. For another century and a half, until the time of Constantine, Christianity remained a minority, often persecuted religion in the province, as in the empire as a whole.

Bath, Somerset. The Great Bath sacred to the Celtic goddess Minerva and once associated with a temple dedicated to her.
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In fact, the conquerors were far more tolerant of the native religion of the Celts once they had destroyed the power of the Druids. As long as the due rites had been paid to the gods of the state, including tribute to the god-emperor, the Romans had a remarkably ecumenical attitude to religion. The toleration of native cults eventually led to a fusion of beliefs which appears in the style and flavour of the best Romano-British art, most notably at Bath. The hot springs of Bath had been under the care of a Celtic goddess, Sul. The Romans, from an early stage of their occupation, used Bath, or Aquae Sulis as they called it, as a convalescent centre for sick legionaries. Around the sacred spring of Sul, now beneath the later King’s bath, grew up a resplendent series of buildings connected either with worship or with healing or with both. They identified Sul with Minerva and built a magnificent classical temple to this composite goddess.

The resilience of the native religious traditions is shown not only at Bath but right throughout Britain in the whole period of Roman occupation. At Lydney in Gloucestershire in the latter years of the fourth century a temple complex was built to the Celtic god Nodens, a god of hunting and the sea who was also regarded as a powerful healer. The temple was set beside a guest-house and a building where the patients and suppliants probably spent the night in the hope of a dream or a visitation from the Greek god of healing, Aescapulius. Egyptian practices in which sleep and dreams were considered of the greatest therapeutic nature, part of a multi-cultural pagan religious mix.

Unlike Bath, most Romano-British towns have survived or been resettled so successfully that it is difficult to capture their original sacred nature. It suited Rome to rely on local leaders for local administration; as in Rome itself, such responsibility fell to the wealthy, as they were expected to contribute personal wealth as well as effort. The pre-Roman tribal leaders and their descendants became the core of the new administrative system. The Romanised tribes (civitates) did not necessarily correspond precisely in territorial terms with their predecessors, but they provided an important element of continuity. Within these territories, sites were chosen for towns to act as the administrative centre. These were the successors of tribal meeting-places, though they did not usually occupy the same sites. They were more likely to be built on lower ground, and often developed from vici that had appeared early in the Roman occupation – and so were closely integrated into the system of communications. Corinium (Cirencester), for example, established on the site of an early fort, succeeded in the tribal centre of Bagendon as the administrative centre of the Romanised Dobunni, and became one of the most thriving towns of Roman Britain. Interestingly, Corinium generated a greater level of social and commercial activity than nearby Glevum (Gloucester), one of a number of colonia or settlements created for legionary veterans. Corinium’s success is a measure of the opportunities – commercial, agricultural and industrial – available to Romanised Britons.

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The social and political rewards available to those who took on administrative responsibilities must have been considerable, for the financial burden was substantial: they had to pay for building and repair work in the towns, for local religious and secular ceremonials, and even for shortfalls in local tax payments – or be prepared to raise loans to cover these. A particularly heavy expense in the later years of Roman Britain arose from the walling of towns. The towns of Roman Britain may not have enjoyed the magnificence of those in other parts of the empire, but they certainly had similar facilities: a forum (public square), baths, temples and places of entertainment. They were also places of work, and much industrial raw material and agricultural produce was taken into towns to be processed into saleable items. Such towns, both large and small, were places of noise and bustle. The links between urban and rural life were strong, especially since many of those who administered the civitates made their money from industries whose raw materials came from the local countryside, or from local agriculture; records on writing tablets from Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall provide evidence of this. The small scale of the abandoned town of Silchester, revealed in the aerial photograph below, shows that although the south-east became the most urbanised area of Britain, British towns remained small compared to those on the Continent.

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Silchester is one of the few Romano-British towns that never regained their status after the Dark Ages. It was the tribal centre of the Atrobates and the Romans called it Calleva Atrebatum. Although there have been several excavations there and many important discoveries, both of buildings and of artefacts, have been made on the site, nothing remains above ground except long expanses of the walls and an amphitheatre outside the town. The stone facing has long been ripped away from the walls so what one walks beside is a long, rugged cliff of large flints embedded in mortar, strengthened with courses of flat sandstone. The isolation of the place, in the north Hampshire countryside, and the lack of any buildings except a farm and an old church built on or close to the site of one of the Romano-British temples at the edge of the walls concentrate the mind upon the significance of the changes brought about by the Roman invasion. Aerial photographs show clearly, together with other reconstructions in the Silchester museum, the grid system on which the first Romano-British towns were laid out, following the Etruscan pattern. The temples suggest a fusion of Celtic and Roman beliefs. Also beneath the soil lie the remains of an early Christian church, said to be the earliest north of the Alps. Silchester also appears in the later Arthurian legends as the town where Arthur was crowned, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth.

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As the map above shows, Roman Britain was divided into two broad social and economic zones. In the fertile lowlands of the south and east a prosperous agricultural economy developed based on villas. Culturally, this area became the most Romanised area of the province. Rural settlement patterns varied between the lowland and highland areas of Roman Britain. In the lowland areas south and east of a line from the Humber to the Severn, villas were a major feature of the landscape. These ranged from small, rectangular cottages to large country houses, according to the resources of their owners. Most were built on the profits of arable estates or stock-rearing. To the north and west of this line, there were few villa estates, so that these areas were valued as much for their mineral resources as for their agriculture. Both farming and settlement here showed greater continuity with Celtic pre-Roman practices.

Circular and rectilinear huts were more frequent in the upland areas of the West Country, while in northern ‘Cambria’, the Pennines and the Southern Uplands of Caledonia no remains of villas have been found at all. There, rural settlements consisted entirely of native people and retired soldiers. Unprepossessing as their huts and farm buildings may seem, the economic opportunities they offered were no less significant than those of their richer counterparts in the south and east. Some civitates in northern Britain – for example, the Brigantes and the Carvetii – grew considerably under Roman rule.

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Fishbourne Palace and its surroundings. This south coast area (West Sussex today) was part of the territory of the pro-Roman Atrebates, and one of the first areas of Britain to become Romanised. The old tribal centre at Selsey was abandoned in favour of a new town, with typical Roman amenities such as an amphitheatre. Many villas developed in the surrounding countryside, including one of palatial proportions at Fishbourne.

Although the Romans rated military glory highly, conquest had never been an end in itself. If a province was to be fully integrated into the empire, the willing cooperation of its people had to be guaranteed through a process of Romanisation. In Britain as elsewhere, conquest created the conditions in which this transformation could be achieved. This process has been demonstrated by archaeological evidence from chance discoveries around the city of Noviomagus Regnensium (Chichester), the tribal capital of the Atrebates (Regnenses) which have not only revealed a major palace site at Fishbourne but have also provided an insight into Rome’s policies towards the British ruling classes in the earliest days of the invasion. The Artebates had a long history of good relations with Rome and readiness to trade with the Roman empire: the tribal leader, Verica, was a client of Rome whose discomfiture at the hands of Caractacus had provided one of the reasons for the Roman invasion. The attitude of the Atrebatic leaders explains why their territory provided a secure base for the Roman army; pro-Roman sentiment is also hinted at in dedication to the Roman gods Neptune and Minerva made by the obviously privileged local leader, Cogidubnus. His pre-Roman centre was at nearby Selsey, and he appears to have been left in charge of a semi-independent portion of the Atrebates with the descriptive name Regnensis (‘people of the kingdom’ – that is, self-governing, rather than under direct Roman rule). In Nero’s reign (54-68), the military buildings at Fishbourne were updated to what has been called a proto-palace. In about 75, this was in its turn replaced by a palatial villa constructed around a garden courtyard, and well-appointed internally with mosaics, wall paintings and statuary of Mediterranean origin. The villa retained its high status well into the second century, probably belonging to the local client king or a senior Roman official.

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The Fishbourne Mosaic: This floor was part of the palatial villa built about AD 75. The villa may have been built for the British client-king Cogidubnus rather than for a Roman, showing that, from an early date, the spread of Roman tastes in art and building was an important part of Romanisation.

The Romano-British, the Roman Army & the Frontier:

The traditional view of the Britons as sullen opponents of Rome over four centuries has to be abandoned, therefore. The Romano-British benefited from a range of economic and social opportunities offered by the Roman occupation. This was made possible by the treaties secured first by Agricola and then by Hadrian. Tacitus states that from AD 43 to AD 86, sixty major battles were fought on British soil, but the following thirty years saw a period of relative peace in which the only fighting was on the Caledonian frontiers.

A Bronze Roman Shield (in the British Museum)

The original intention of the Roman commanders had been to delay the conquest of the North until the Midland tribes were subdued; the treaty with Cartimandua had been intended to make this possible. After Caractacus’s capture, however, her position among the Brigantes proved less than secure, not least because of anti-Roman sentiment stirred up by her own husband, Venutius. The rivalry between them forced Rome’s hand: Roman military and naval forces began to intervene in the North in the fifties and sixties, operating from bases such as Viroconium (Wroxeter) and Deva (Chester). Rome’s difficulties in the North came to a head in 69, when Venutius took control of the Brigantes; Roman forces had to rescue Cartimandua from her stronghold, a hill-fort at modern Barwick-in-Elmet. The Roman response to Venutius’ coup was severely hampered by the upheavals of the ‘Year of the Five Emperors (68-9), an empire-wide political and military struggle between the rival successors to Nero in which the British legions were involved. The eventual victor was Vespasian, who established the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 96 AD. Vespasian was determined to renew the programme of conquest in Britain, evidently intending to bring the whole of mainland Britain into the Roman province. Venutius was dealt with by the governor, Marcus Vettius Bolanus, who thereby laid the foundations for substantial territorial gains under Quintius Petillius Cerialis (71-74) who, in the north, advanced into the territory of the Brigantes. Under Julius Frontinus (74-8) the scene of military activity then moved to Cambria where his defeat of the Silures and the Ordovices was later consolidated by Agricola in a swift campaign which ended in the capture of Anglesey.

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The Roman Conquest & Pacification of Britain in the First Century AD

As governor, Agricola (77-83) then turned to the north where he planned to build upon the defeat of the Brigantes by the expansion of Roman control to Chester in the West and York in the East. Cerialis probably secured most of the territory up to Luguvalium (Carlisle) and Coriosopitum (Corbridge), establishing a legionary fortress at Eburacum (York). In Caledonia, Cerialis cultivated the Votadini, whose grain was of value to Rome, as a Roman client. He also separated the Venicones of Fifeshire from the Caledonian hillspeople by a line of forts and watchtowers now known as the Gask Ridge limites. Between 79 and 81, Agricola pushed forwards with legionary columns from Chester and York. He reached the line of the Forth-Clyde isthmus and then pushed on to the Tay estuary, establishing forts to consolidate the ground won. Agricola’s governorship is well recorded, thanks to a biography written by Tacitus, his son-in-law. However, the chief author of policy in any province was the emperor; during Agricola’s governorship, three different men held this position: Vespasian (until mid-79), Titus (until late 83) and Domitian (83-96). Vespasian favoured total conquest, while Titus was more circumspect, perhaps preoccupied with unfolding problems on the Danube which led to the removal of legionary troops from Britain in AD 80.

Until the early 80s AD, total conquest was the Roman goal in Britain. The frontiers (limites) were merely zones around fortified roads that temporarily seperated friendly tribes from enemies. In the summer of 83, Agricola planned to bring the Caledonian tribes to battle, even though his own command had been reduced by the transfer of both legionaries and auxiliaries to the defence of the Rhine frontier. Domitian permitted a resumption of the colonial advance, but perhaps with the limited objective of reducing the fighting power of the Caledonians, in case further troop withdrawals should prove necessary. Agricola advanced with his troops in an attempt to encircle the Highland massif, building forts to block the exits provided by the glens. His campaign camps suggest that he provoked the battle by denying the Caledonians access to the coastal lowlands to their east and northeast, just as the Gask Ridge forts had blocked the glens through which they could reach the lowlands to their southeast. A serious reverse befell the IXth Legion when a Caledonian force broke into the legion’s camp during a night attack. The situation was only restored by the arrival of Agricola with reinforcements.

Agricola may have had personal misgivings about Domitian’s policy, but did his duty: at the battle of Mons Graupius in 83, he effectively committed genocide on the Caledonians. Determined to restore the security of their Highland refuge, the Caledonian tribes assembled their greatest strength and confidently awaited Agricola’s approach at Mons Graupius. A tribal army of thirty thousand under its leader Calgacus confronted a Roman force of roughly equal strength. Agricola kept the IXth and XXth legions in reserve, forming his main battle line from eight thousand auxiliary infantry and five thousand auxiliary cavalry. Since the Caledonians occupied the high ground and their position was screened by a line of chariots, Agricola launched his cavalry against the charioteers while his infantry engaged in an exchange of missiles with the enemy. When the charioteers began to give ground, Agricola advanced with his Batavian and Tungrian infantry to bring the tribesmen to hand-to-hand conflict.

As the auxiliaries drove into the Caledonian line, the mass of tribesmen to the rear began to move forward, down the slope, overlapping the Roman flank. Agricola halted this threat with a charge by auxiliary cavalry which broke through the opposing line and wheeled round to take the enemy infantry in the rear. As the cavalry broke into their ranks, the tribesmen turned and fled, leaving ten thousand dead on the battlefield. According to Tacitus, the Roman loss was 360 auxiliaries. It was a remarkable outcome, particularly as it had been achieved solely by auxiliaries, but it was not the victory for which Agricola had hoped. Over two-thirds of the Caledonian army had escaped leaving the tribes with sufficient strength to threaten the northern border of the province. The site of Mons Graupius has still not been conclusively identified but the location of a large Roman camp near Inverurie to the north-west of Aberdeen suggests that the mountain known today as Bennachie, 1733 feet (528 metres) could be Mons Graupius. It appears that Agricola continued his advance to the shores of Moray, and even to modern Inverness: recent excavations have revealed camps at Thomshill and Cawdor.

Agricola had seen his victory at Mons Graupius as an opportunity to complete the conquest, but the emperor Domitian, with responsibility for the whole empire, had to reflect more circumspectly. Recognising the futility of the strife and the decimation of its legions from the forty-year war, Rome had found her military defence so weakened that she was hard put to defend her own frontiers elsewhere. Agricola, who had experienced the mettle of the British on many a battlefield, was more broadminded than any of his predecessors. He was convinced that the Britons were oblivious to persecution and war. Like Julius Caesar, he realised that neither defeat nor privation would discourage their warriors. He effected a more humane policy by inaugurating a treaty that incorporated the tribes as allies in the empire, recognising all their native freedoms and kingly prerogatives. He was recalled to Rome in AD 83; despite the suggestions of Tacitus, there appears to be nothing sinister in this, as his tenure had already been extended to twice the norm. His departure did not coincide with a Roman plan to abandon Caledonia. Indeed, it is likely that the building of a new legionary fortress at Inchtuthil is attributable to his unknown successor as governor. Such a commitment implies an intention to remain in the area for some time.

After Agricola, the Romans withdrew to the Cheviots and Hadrian’s Wall. They briefly reoccupied the lowlands and southern uplands, building the Antonine Wall, but only Severus’ campaigns finally brought security in the Hadrianic frontier zone until the end of the fourth century.

The Roman Advance Halted – Two Treaties & Two Walls:

By neutralising the last remaining enemy tribes in the British Isles, Agricola’s victory at Mons Grapius made it possible for Rome to halt its territorial expansion within Britain at a time when frontier problems in Europe were mounting. Britain could no longer take priority over these problems. The period of the conquest was over; that of occupation and consolidation took over. With the empire under pressure on the Danube, Domitian began to withdraw troops from Britain. By 87 the building of the new fortress had been abandoned, and one of the four British legions in Britain, Legio II Adiutrix, was in the process of transferring to the Continent.

By the end of the first century AD, Roman expansion in Britain had come to a halt. The territory won by Agricola beyond the Forth-Clyde line was therefore abandoned. The essential pattern of the Roman Conquest in Britain had been set, and thereafter the central, south-eastern and the south-western areas of the province enjoyed two hundred years of comparitive tranquility. The north and to a great extent the west remained militarised zones, constantly garrisoned and patrolled. Normally the garrison of Britannia was a strong one, comprising in the region of fifty thousand men, but at times of crisis in the empire its strength would be depleted by the transfer of troops to deal with whatever emergencies had arisen. The inevitable consequence was a resurgence of conflict on the under-guarded northern and north-western frontiers. Raiders, whether Picts, Scots or Saxons, could wreak considerable havoc, attacking forts and looting settlements. Once the wider emergency had been settled to Rome’s satisfaction, retribution followed, often in the form of an imperial task force which restored order by burning tribal strongholds, destroying livestock and crops, and building yet more forts. It was when Rome could no longer deliver such retribution that imperial rule in Britain began to falter.

The last forts north of the Forth-Clyde line were evacuated around 103, as the legions formed a new frontier zone around the road now known as Stanegate. Over the next twenty years, the Roman legions in the north progressively withdrew from the southern uplands, occupying a zone between the Cheviot Hills and the Tyne-Solway line (as shown on the map above). To deter raids from the north the forts along this military road were refurbished and additional posts built. This frontier eventually ran from Arbeia (South Shields) to Kirkbride, and consisted of the road itself, strengthened by a palisade and ditch, and forts, such as Vindolanda, fortlets and watchtowers. Our knowledge of this period is limited, but it seems that on the accession of emperor Hadrian in 117, the western end of the Stanegate was under threat from the tribes to its north. Serious fighting occurred broke out in 118, but by 119, stability on the northern frontier had been restored, and it was probably then that the Romans began work on a turf wall from the Ituna (Irthing) to Maia (Bowness).

The highest section of Hadrian’s Wall, at Cuddy’s Crags near Housesteads, looking east. This part of the wall follows the Whin Sill escapment.

In AD 120, Hadrian developed the terms of Agricola’s treaty, which had merely permitted the Romans to hold certain military bases in Britain. The two treaties taken together eventually helped to create the long peace between Rome and Britain that lasted up until the Diocletian persecution of circa AD 300. In 122, following a renewal of fighting, however, Hadrian himself visited Britain with a new plan: to construct a stone wall from Pons Aelii (Newcastle) to join the turf wall at Willowford. During his visit, he decided that his policy of replacing his predecessor, Trajan’s stance of imperial expansion with one of retrenchment would be extended to Rome’s northernmost frontier. Trajan’s policy is best demonstrated in his ‘Column’, sections of which are shown below.

This stone wall, which occupied the ridge to the north of the Stanegate, was intended to enhance the former frontier but actually superseded it, eventually becoming a much more elaborate military complex. In its final form, it consisted of a ditch to the north, the wall itself with forts, mile-castles and watchtowers along it, and a military road with a vallum (embanked ditch) to the south. Territory to the north was supervised, creating a substantial frontier zone. By the time of Hadrian’s death in 138, the turf wall had been rebuilt in stone, and the fortifications extended along the coast to Alauna (Maryport). The purpose of these structures was given at the time as ‘to separate the barbarians from the Romans’. They were certainly intended to facilitate the supervision of movement across the frontier and the collection of taxes from the crossing. Additionally, they allowed patrolling and other forms of intelligence gathering. The wall’s construction in stone also suggests that it was intended to provide a demonstration of Roman organisation and technology, and to serve as a monument to an emperor who well understood the connection between buildings and political power.

The new emperor, Antonius Pius, following his accession in 138, decided to abandon Hadrian’s Wall and to reoccupy lowland Caledonia, territory up to a line from the river Clota estuary to the Bodotria estuary (the Forth-Clyde isthmus) and around 140 he commissioned the construction there of a new wall, a hundred miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. This was built throughout of turf, though there are signs that a stone construction was originally anticipated and it was probably intended to resemble Hadrian’s Wall in form. The Antonine Wall, as it became known, was thirty-seven miles long, subsequently modified in favour of a design with forts of varying size at much shorter intervals. Little is known of what precipitated the advance, although the fact that disturbances continued intermittently through the second century among some of the tribes between the walls suggests that the objective may have been closer policing of these tribes. It acted as the frontier for some twenty years before Hadrian’s Wall was recommissioned. Similarly uncertain is the explanation for the apparent break in the reoccupation of the southern uplands in the mid-150s, but the emperor Marcus Aurelius decided in 163 to permanently abandon the Antonine frontier zone and reoccuppy Hadrian’s Wall.

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The ‘Rudge Cup’ dates from the early 130s,T: It is a small bronze, enamelled bowl found in 1725 down a well in Wiltshire and bears one of the few cartographic images from the Roman villa at Rudge. It is adorned with a series of rectangular grids and crenallations, above which is a brief inscription. These have been interpreted as representing Hadrian’s Wall, with the writing referring to the names of five forts at the westwern end of the Wall; the Latin name of Castlesteads fort, Camboglans, is visible in the photograph (see the map below). Two other metal vessels have subsequently been found in Staffordshire and in Amiens in France, suggesting a possible ancient trade in momentoes or souvenirs for soldiers who had served as part of the Hadrianic garrisons (shown below).

After 163, therefore, the permanent frontier line ran from the Segedunum (Wallsend) on the Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west, providing along the Wall’s eighty (Roman) mile course. This was now a stone construction along its entire length, with a series of forts built alongside it to house the fortification’s garrison. The five listed on the Rudge Cup – Mais (Bowness-on-Solway); Aballsva (Burgh-by-Sands); Uxelodunum (Stanwix); Camboglans (Castlesteads); Banna (Birdoswald) – held units of auxiliaries, non-citizen soldiers, of whom some thirty to thirty-five thousand supplemented the fifteen thousand men of the three legions based at York, Chester and Caerleon.

The forts along Hadrian’s Wall were punctuated by milecastles and turrets, smaller fortifications which held detachments from the main units. The role of this garrison was probably a deterrent and supervisory one, monitoring movements among the tribes to the north of the Wall, controlling passage south and in the main area of Roman Britain and , exacting tolls from those who passed through its gates and handling any small-scale incursions. Any larger breaches or invasions would be dealt with by pulling troops back from the Wall and by II Augusta Legion based in York. Periodically emperors embarked on punitive expeditions to the north, such as Septimus Severus who arrived in Britain in 208 to restore order to the frontier. Up to that point, continuing tensions in the frontier zone had been handled with a combination of military force, diplomacy and subsidies. In that year, Septimus Severus, from bases at Coriosopitum (Corbridge) and Arbeia (South Shields), led a new and well-organised combined military and naval advance into northern Caledonia, perhaps with genocide as his aim. But he was to die at York. A successful campaign, though apparently without pitched battles, followed up by intense diplomacy, finally brought a stability to the northern frontier which was to hold for more than a century.

Thereafter, Hadrian’s Wall remained the principal fortified line for another two hundred years until its abandonment in 409. The northern tribes are recorded as having breached it on several occasions, most notably in 367 when a ‘barbarian conspiracy’ of Picts, Scots and Irish almost overran the province before being thrown back by Count Theodosius, a special military envoy dispatched by the Emperor Valentinian. In the west and the east the province came under attack by seaborne raiders. From Ireland, which the Romans had never attempted to conquer, raids were launched against the west coast of Britain, and coastal forts such as Cardiff (Caerdydd) and Lancaster were enlarged or reconstructed in such a way as to give protection from the sea. By the end of the second century, Saxons were already raiding the south-east coast and the erection of forts at Brancaster and Reculver in the early third century was the beginning of a major coastal defence system. The series of fortifications from the Wash to Southampton Water which became known as the Saxon Shore, denied the raiders entry to the river estuaries which could carry them inland. The forts served as as a base from which garrisons could contest Saxon landings, and ships of the Classis Britannia could attempt to meet the enemy at sea.

Lleurug Mawr (Lucius)/ The ‘Great Luminary’ of the Britons:

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King Lucius (middle) from the East Window in York Minster

The first mission to Britain for which we have any detailed evidence was, apparently, one sent by ‘Pope’ Eleutherius (died 24 May 189), also known as Eleutherus, who was the thirteenth bishop of the Roman Church from c. 174 to his death (The Vatican cites 171 or 177 to 185 or 193.) He is linked to several legends, one of which credited him with receiving a letter from “Lucius, King of Britain” or “King of the Britons”, declaring an intention to convert to Christianity. No earlier accounts of this mission have been found and the account of the letter is now generally considered to be a pious forgery, although there remains disagreement over its original purpose. Haddan, Stubbs, and Wilkins considered the passage manifestly written in the time and tone of Prosper of Aquitaine, secretary to Pope Leo the Great in the mid-5th century, who was supportive of the missions of Germanus of Auxerre and Palladius. Duchesne dated the entry a little later, Boniface II’s pontificate around 530, and Mommsen to the early 7th century. Only the latter would support the conjecture that it aimed to support the Gregorian mission to the Anglo-Saxons led by Augustine of Canterbury, who encountered great difficulty with the native British Christians, as at the Synod of Chester. Indeed, the Celtic Christians invoked the antiquity of their church generally to avoid submission to Canterbury until the Norman conquest, and more recently, since the English Reformation and the reign of Elizabeth I, it has been used to legitimate the Church of England as contrasted with the rule of Rome (there are references to the first-century kings of Britain in the coronation liturgy and the royal genealogy). From the eighth to the eleventh centuries, no arguments invoking the mission to Lucius appear to have been made by either side during the synods between the Welsh and Saxon bishops.

Lucius is first mentioned in a 6th-century version of the Liber Pontificalis, which says that he sent a letter to Pope Eleutherius asking to be made a Christian. The story became widespread after it was repeated in the 8th century by Bede, who added the detail that after Eleutherius granted Lucius’ request, the Britons followed their king in conversion and maintained the Christian faith until the Diocletianic Persecution of 303. Bede was the first authentic British source to make mention of this story and he seems to have taken it, not from native texts or traditions, but from The Book of the Popes. Subsequently, it appeared in the 9th-century History of the Britons traditionally credited to Nennius: The account relates that a mission from the pope baptised Lucius, the Britannic king, with all the petty kings of the whole Britannic people. ‘Petty’ is not a slur here, but an indication of the supremacy of Lucius as ‘Braetwalda’ or ‘High King’ of the Britons. In the twelfth century, more details began to be added to the story. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mid-twelfth-century pseudohistorical History of the Kings of Britain goes into great detail concerning Lucius. Geoffrey of Monmouth was born in the early years of the century, studied at Oxford, and was probably a Benedictine monk. Archdeacon of Llandaff, circa 1140, and Bishop of St Asaph in 1152-54, when he died. In his History, Geoffrey names the pope’s envoys to him as Fagan and Dyfan:

… being minded that his ending should surpass his beginning, he dispatched his letters unto Pope Elutherius, beseeching that from him he might receive Christianity. For the miracles that were wrought by the young recruits of Christ’s army in divers lands had lifted all clouds from his mind, and panting with love of the true faith, his pious petition was allowed to take effect, forasmuch as the blessed Pontiff, finding that his devotion was such, sent unto him two most religious doctors, Pagan and Duvian who, preaching unto him the Incarnation of the Word of God, did wash him in holy baptism and converted him unto Christ.

George F. Jowett, in his 1961 book, The Drama of the Lost Disciples, claimed that St. Timotheus journeyed from Rome to Winchester to baptise Lucius, at the same time consecrating him as Defender of the Faith, in AD 137. According to his genealogy, Lucius was the son of Coel (of ‘Old King Coal’ fame), as also stated by Geoffrey, and could trace his ancestry back to Llyr (‘Lear’). Welsh sources variously give his birthplace as Llanilid in present-day Glamorgan or Ewys in Monmouthshire. Others refer to Colchester. His native name was apparently Lleurug Mawr, meaning ‘Great Light’. The Romans Latinised his name as ‘Lucius’, from the Latin ‘Lux’, carrying the same implication as the Celtic to the Romans, ‘the Great Luminary’.

Jowett claims that Lucius made his royal seat at Caer Winton, romanised to Winchester. The city was founded by the British ‘king’, Dunwal Molmutius, one of the legendary ‘three wise British kings’, who made Winchester his royal capital in circa 500 BC, instead of the older capital of London (‘Llundain’ in Welsh). It was also known as the ‘White City’, due to the chalk walls with which he surrounded the city. Even when London was re-established as the royal capital of Britain, Winchester continued to be known as ‘the Royal City’ and, in the time of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, it was the royal capital of Wessex. William the Conqueror refused to consider his coronation at Westminster valid until he had been crowned a second time at Winchester, no doubt as a cover for his usurpation of the Royal House of Wessex, which Edward the Confessor had named as his successors so that William could justify his rightful claim to the British throne, where all true British Kings had been crowned. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that Lucius’ baptism had a major effect on his subjects and man others among the Britons leading to mass conversion to the Christian faith and its establishment as a national faith:

Straightway the peoples of all the nations around came running together to follow the King’s example, and cleansed in the same holy laver, were made partakers of the kingdom of Heaven. The blessed doctors, therefore, when they had purged away the paganism of well-nigh the whole island, dedicated the temples that had been founded in honour of very many gods unto the One God and unto His saints, and filled them with divers companies of ordained religious. … there did they set up bishops and archbishops … in the three noblest cities, in London, … in York and in Caerleon … from these three was superstition purged away, and the eight-and-twenty bishops, with their several dioceses, were subordinated unto them.

At last, when everything had been thus ordained new, the prelates returned to Rome and besought the most blessed Pope to confirm the ordinances they had made. And when the confirmation had been duly granted, they returned into Britain with a passing great company of others, by the teaching of whom the nation of the British was in a brief space established in the Christian faith. …

Meanwhile King Lucius the Glorious, when he saw how the worship of the true faith had been magnified in his kingdom, did rejoice with exceeding great joy, and converting the revenues and lands which formerly did belong unto the temples of idols unto a better use, did by grant allow them to be still held by the churches of the faithful. And for that it seemed him he ought to show them yet greater honour, he did increase them with broader fields and fair dwelling-houses and confirmed their liberties by privileges of all kinds.

Besides Geoffrey of Monmouth, there is a wealth of material extolling the exemplary life of Good King Lucius, among which are the writings of Bede, Nennius, Elfan, Cressy, William of Malmesbury, Ussher (who states that he had consulted twenty-three works on Lucius: Rees, Baronius, the Welsh Triads, The Mabinogion, Achai Sant Prydain, and many other reliable works, all of which pay tribute to the Christian monarch). Another twelfth-century Welsh source, The Book of Llandaff by Alford placed the court of Lucius in southern Wales and names his emissaries to the pope as Elfan and Medwy. According to Geoffrey, Lucius died in AD 156, and was buried in ‘the church of the first see’. However, earlier sources suggest that this date must have been later, towards the end of the second century, if this mission occured during the pontificate of Eleutherius. In A Guide to the Cathedral, compiled at Gloucester in 1867, the Rev. H. Haines wrote:

King Lucius was baptised on May 28, A.D. 137 and died on December 3, 201. His feast has been kept on both these days, but the latter is now universal.

Many researchers and writers seem to have confused the date of his baptism with his date of birth. Some sources suggest that this was around AD 120, possibly as early as 117. He was clearly an adult at the time of his baptism, which took place after his conversion to Christianity. There is also a great deal of variance concerning the date of his death, but more than one source has 181 or 201, so we have no reason to doubt Rev. Haines’ account. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account is clearly wrong. In fact, Jowett refers to the year 156 as marking the date when, at the ‘National Council’ at Winchester, Lucius ‘established Christianity as the National Faith of Britain’. Jowett quotes the British Triads in support of this assertion:

King Lucius was the first in the Isle of Britain who bestowed the privilege of country and nation and judgement and validity of oath upon those who should be of the faith of Christ.

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A second century statue of Mercury, the god of commerce, holding a money bag. The statue was found in the Walbrook Temple of the god Mithras, whose cult was popular with merchants.

However, his suggestion that this somehow the establishment of Christianity by Act of Parliament is anachronistic and without foundation in the source material. Neither is it likely that the emissaries of the ‘Pope’ had purged away the paganism of well-nigh the whole island as Geoffrey of Monmouth suggested. As the relics in villas and temples tell us, like the ones pictured here, pagan beliefs and practices were alive and well, and widespread, long into the fourth century. It is difficult to believe that this was due solely to the restoration of pagan icons following the persecution of Christianity under Diocletian. Second and third century finds near the site of the Temple of Mithras at Walbrook in London, which are of Italian origin, suggest that both pagan religion and commercial life in London remained vibrant and wealthy, with the local demand for expensive works depicting pagan deities increasing.

This evidence belies the statement that ‘superstition’ was ‘purged away’ by Christian missionaries. The more inward spiritual needs of people were met by the mystery religions of the classical world, the most notable of which were those of Cybele, Isis and Mithras. It would seem that there was a temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis in London and a triangular temple at Verulamium, from the furnishings found during excavations, has been identified as a shrine of the mother goddess Cybele, the object of wild and ecstatic rites. Her priests would castrate themselves in her honour. We have much fuller evidence of the worship of Mithras, partly because his cult was particularly popular among Roman soldiers. Mithraism, which had its origins among the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, was a Sun religion imported into the empire in the first century BC. Depicted as a beautiful young man wearing a Phrygian cap, Mithras was a god of the Zoroastrian pantheon and was frequently addressed as Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. He was supposed to have been born from a rock and in the course of his adventures he seized and sacrificed a huge bull by which he won salvation for mankind. This bull sacrifice is frequently depicted in art, notably in the sculptures found associated with the Temple of Mithras, the Mithraeum, discovered in London in 1954 and moved to a nearby site in the open air to enable it to be reconstructed and preserved.

Roman London in the second-third century AD, seen from the south-east. The entire city occupied roughly the area of the modern City of London, from the Fleet river in the far west to the site of the later Tower in the east. The Walbrook Temple of Mithras is located in the centre of the City, behind the governor’s residence. A major temple of the imperial cult was located closer to the Thames bridge.

Once the Mithraeum stood close to the Walbrook, a stream held sacred spring held sacred by the Celts who would fling sacrificial heads into its waters. Now its mysteries are bared to the vulgar and the curious where once masked devotees wearing the heads of birds and beasts would strike awe into the hearts of initiates. Another Mithraeum exists at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall, close to the sacred spring of the Celtic nymph Coventina. This Mithraeum was founded soon after AD 205 and it was probably desecrated by Christians in the early fourth century after the proclamation by the British-born Emperor Constantine of Christianity as the state religion of the Empire. The stern demands of the cult in terms of physical and moral courage and its stages of initiation through seven grades won by ordeals and tests would have won the adherence of many soldiers. The ordeal pit in which devotees were subjected to extremes of heat and cold may still be seen at Carrawburgh. Mithraism was a cult for men alone. It was looked on with favour during the later years of empire because its adherents never refused the sacrifices and oaths of the official state religion. This was what the Christians insisted on doing, inviting martyrdom and terrible sufferings by their recusancy.

Coventina - Wikipedia

For centuries the legend of Lucius, this “first Christian king” was widely believed, especially in Britain, where it was considered an accurate account of Christianity among the early Britons. During the English Reformation, the Lucius story was used in polemics by both Catholics and Protestants; Catholics considered it evidence of papal supremacy from a very early date, while Protestants used it to bolster claims of the primacy of a British national church founded by the crown. Certainly, Lucius’ declaration was well-received by Christians in other lands. Sabellius, writing in AD 250, shows how it was acknowledged elsewhere beyond the shores of Britain:

Christianity was privately confessed elsewhere, but the first nation that proclaimed it as their religion, and called itself Christian, after the name of Christ, was Britain.

Gilbert Génébrard was a sixteenth-century French Benedictine exegete and Orientalist. He declared:

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Gilbert Génébrard (12 December 1535, Riom, Puy-de-Dôme – 16 February 1597, Semur, Côte-d’Or)

The glory of Britain consists not only in this, that she was the first country which in a national capacity publicly professed herself Christian, but that she made this confession when the Roman Empire itself was pagan and a cruel persecutor of Christianity.

This statement is important, proving the invalidity of the claim by the Roman Catholic Church, centuries later, that the founding of a ‘national’ church in Britain was brought around by ‘Pope’ Eleutherius of Rome. The fact is that no allusion was made to this claim by the church at Rome until the Augustinian Mission in 597, over four hundred years after Lucius’ declaration. Then, Augustine was angered by the British bishops telling him:

We have nothing to do with Rome. We know nothing of the Bishop of Rome in his new character of the Pope. We are the British Church, the Archbishop of which is accountable to God alone, having no superior on earth.

Writing almost a millenium later, the Elizabethan Francis Bacon used this rejection of Augustine’s authority to justify the English Reformation, writing in his Government of England:

The Britons told Augustine they would not be subject to him, nor let him pervent the ancient laws of their Church. This was their resolution, and they were as good as their word, for they maintained the liberty of their Church five hundred years after this time, and were the last of all the churches of Europe that gave up their power to the Roman Beast, and in the person of Henry VIII, that came of their blood by Owen Tudor, the first that took that power away again.

In this way, the old British legend of Lucius became one of the popular myths of the Tudor state and part of its Protestant propaganda during and following the break with Rome. On the other hand, it did have certain facts to support it. Gregory I was not appointed Pope. That title, equivalent to ‘Universal Bishop’, was first given by Emperor Phocas in AD 610 to Boniface III, as a result of the division of the Empire and the Church into Eastern, based on Constantinople, and Western, on Rome. During the alliance with the Empire, however, the heads of the British church were never anything but bishops, and they inherited their apostolic succession from the original apostles of Christ. Yet in later years, it became a habit of many Roman church writers to refer retrospectively to all the former ‘bishops of Rome’ as ‘Popes’, including Peter, Paul and Linus. By making the spurious claim that Lucius had pleaded with the Bishop of Rome, ‘Pope’ Eleutherius, to send his representatives to Britain to convert him and proclaim Britain Christian, the Roman church was able to claim the British church as its own.

In AD 170, Lucius founded his church at Winchester, which later became Winchester Cathedral. In AD 183, he sent his two emissaries, Medwy and Elfan, to Rome to obtain the permission of Bishop Eleutheris for the return to Britain of some of the British missionaries aiding him in his evangelising role within other parts of the Roman Empire in order that he, Lucius, could better carry out his evangelisation in Britain. In the same year, the missionaries returned to Britain. In his letter to King Lucius, Bishop Eleutherus plainly shows that he is aware that Lucius possessed all the necessary knowledge of the Christian teaching beforehand and needed no advice from him and that he had no part in evangelising the whole of Britain. As Geoffrey of Monmouth testified, Lucius also established the three famous Archbishoprics of London, York and Caerleon on Usk. In AD 179 he is also reputed to have built St Peter’s on Cornhill. The church is often referred to as the finest Christian Church ever erected in London. During the ensuing centuries, this church was enlarged but was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, which almost completely levelled the ancient city. The tablet telling the history of this great church, embedded in the original walls, survived the Great Fire and has since been preserved in the vestry. It bears the following inscription:

Bee it knowne to all men that the yeare of our Lord God 179, Lucius, the first Christian King of the land, then called Britaine, founded the first church in London, that is to say, the church of St Peter upon Cornhill. And hee founded there an Archbishops See and made the church the metropolitaine andchief church of the kingdome; and so indured the space of four hundred years unto the coming of St Austin the Apostle of England, the which was sent into the land by St. Gregoire, the doctor of the church in the time of King Ethelbert. … And in the yeare of our Lord God 124, Lucius was crowned king and the yeares of his reign were seventy-seven yeares.

Among other churches founded by Lucius were those at Llandaff and St. Mellons in Cardiff, still referred to as Lucius’ church. He is also said to have founded the church of St. Mary de Lode in the city of Gloucester, where he was interred. Lucius was also the first British monarch to mint his coins displaying the sign of the Cross on one side and on the other side his name, ‘Luc’: In the coin collection held by the British Museum there are two coins which bearing these motifs. From Claudius to the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, no coins with the Roman emperors’ motifs have been found in Britain. But from Hadrian onwards, complete sets of Roman coins are found. This indicates the shift from hostility to compromise in the attitudes of Britons towards the Roman ‘occupation’ which had taken place by the 140s. The coins of the British kings were all minted at Colchester, confirming its continuing importance as a centre for British royalty well into the second century, certainly more important than London at this time.

King Lucius was first buried where he died, in Gloucester, but was later reinterred at St. Peter’s on Cornhill. Much later, his remains were again moved to Gloucester, where they were placed in the choir of the Franciscan church by the Earls of Berkley and Clifford, founded by the two families. Bede, writing in AD 740, sums up the picture of Lucius in a few brief words, but with his characteristic eloquence:

The Britons preserved the faith which they had nationally received under King Lucius uncorrupted and entire, and continued in peace and tranquility until the time of the Emperor Diocletian.

Bede: Book I, chapter 4.

We must conclude, therefore, that the earliest sign of Christianity coming to Britain is this record by Bede. The earliest archaeological evidence comes from Manchester, dated to later in the second century. The savage Diocletian persecution, which came to Britain at the very end of the following century, broke the peace and produced the conquering Constantine. The great peace which had settled over the Island, beginning with Agricola’s treaty in AD 86, continued for a period of two hundred years. There is no mention of any major British-Roman military conflict during the second and third centuries until the year 287, which I shall return to in my next article in this series.

The Legends of the ‘Proto-Martyr’, St Alban of Verulamium:

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Saint Alban (Source: Wikipedia)

The Diocletian persecution is described as the tenth Christian persecution, beginning with the Claudian Edict of AD 42. Until recently, it was generally thought that St Alban suffered under this persecution and was martyred in 303, but it is now thought that his martyrdom took place during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus on 22 June 209. St Alban (Latin: Albanus) is venerated as the first recorded British Christian martyr, for which reason he is considered to be the British protomartyr. Along with fellow Saints Julius and Aaron, Alban is one of three named martyrs recorded at an early date from Roman Britain (“Amphibalus” was the name given much later to the priest he was said to have been protecting).

Alban is traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Verulamium (St Alban’s) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and his cult has been celebrated there since ancient times. But little is known about his religious affiliations, socioeconomic status, or citizenship. According to the most elaborate version of the tale found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in the 3rd or 4th century, Christians began to suffer “cruel persecution”, and Alban was living as a citizen in the important municipium of Verulamium. However, Gildas says he crossed the Thames before his martyrdom, so some authors place his residence and the site of his martyrdom in or near London. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists the year of this as 283, but Bede places it in 305, … when the cruel Emperors first published their edicts against the Christians. In other words, it was sometime after the publication of the edicts by Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian in 303 and before the proclamation of toleration in the Edict of Milan by co-ruling Roman Emperors Constantine I and Licinius, in 313. In stating this, Bede was probably following Gildas.

Stained glass in St Albans Cathedral in England, showing the death of Saint Alban

There is little differentiation in the story of his martyrdom, however. According to the version told by Bede, Alban was a pagan who sheltered a Christian priest from persecution. He was converted by the priest and when soldiers came to seize the priest, Alban, wearing the priest’s cloak, gave himself up instead of his guest. Led before the magistrate, he was asked to make the customary sacrifices and refused. “What is your family and your race?” demanded the judge. “How does my family concern you?” replied Alban: “if you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian, and am bound by the laws of Christ.” “I demand to know your name”, insisted the judge, “tell me at once”. “My parents named me Alban”, he answered., “and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.” The infuriated magistrate ordered him to be flogged and then, because Alban still resisted, beheaded. Led to execution outside the to the hill where his abbey now stands, Alban came to the river Ver and which could not be crossed because of the crowd gathered on the bridge. At his prayer, the waters of the Ver parted and Alban and the soldiers crossed over and up the hill. The soldier appointed to execute him threw away his sword and begged to join him in martyrdom. At the summit of the hill, Alban prayed for water and a spring bubbled up. Then he was beheaded and the soldier who had refused to execute him was beheaded as well. As for the substitute executioner, his eyes dropped out of his head onto the ground. In later legends, Alban’s head rolled downhill after his execution, and a well sprang up where it stopped. Bede writes that the magistrate was so astounded by these miracles that he called a halt to the persecutions and was himself converted.

A View between a gap in the Roman walls of Verulamium, looking towards a lake formed by the waters of the river Ver, showing the tower and nave roof of St Alban’s Abbey, the site of the martyrdom. The Norman tower was built of Roman bricks from Verulamium.

British historian John Morris suggested the earlier date for Alban’s martyrdom on the basis of claims in the Turin version of the Passio Albani, unknown to Bede, which states,

Alban received a fugitive cleric and put on his garment and his cloak (habitu et Caracalla) that he was wearing and delivered himself up to be killed instead of the priest… and was delivered immediately to the evil Caesar Severus.

According to Morris, Gildas knew the source but mistranslated the name “Severus” as an adjective, wrongly identifying the emperor as Diocletian. Bede accepted the identification as fact and dates St Alban’s martyrdom to this later period. As Morris points out, Diocletian reigned only in the East and would not have been involved in British affairs in 304; Emperor Severus, however, was in Britain from 208 to 211. Morris thus dates Alban’s death to 209. However, the mention of Severus in the Turin version has been shown to be an interpolation into an original text, which mentioned only a iudex or ‘judge’.

Alban’s fame spread abroad and lasted into the Dark Ages. His body was rediscovered in the eighth century by the Saxon King Offa who richly endowed the abbey. The present great church, the second-longest in England, was built by the first Norman abbot, Paul of Caen, using Roman bricks from the ruins of Verulamium. The site of Alban’s shrine behind the high altar is one of the most charged of all the holy places of early British Christianity. As William Anderson remarks,

The air sings with the words of Christ; “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”, and about you rises the the evidence of the civilizing force that derives from true sacrifice and fructifies throughout the succeeding centuries the resources of art.


David Shotter, et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Philip Parker (2017), History of Britain in Maps. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

William Anderson, Clive Hicks (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles: A guide to the legendary and sacred sites. London: Ebury Press.

George F. Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London: Covenant Publishing.

Ernest Rhys (ed.) (1912), Histories of the Kings Of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Sebastian Evans). London: Dent & Sons.