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How the Taliban Began – Afghanistan 1994-97 – John Simpson’s Journal (and how different are they now, really?)

The Road to Kabul:

Recent developments in Afghanistan, particularly over the past fortnight, together with this week’s (18th August) emergency debate in the House of Commons, have prompted me to write further on the question of Afghanistan, taking an even longer view of the key issues of the past quarter century. In my last post on this, I went back to 2001, when NATO troops first arrived in the country after the events of 9/11 in the United States. In his 1998 book, Strange Places, Questionable People, John Simpson, the BBC’s chief international correspondent and World Affairs Editor, described his first meeting with Taliban soldiers in 1996. This was soon after ‘the Taliban’ – the name means ‘religious students’ – began in the refugee camps around the Pakistani border town of Quetta and swept across into Afghanistan in 1994, in rage at the then Afghan government’s failure to impose the basics of fundamental Islam. At that point, they were not particularly good fighters, but they were Pashtu-speakers who had played intelligently on the linguistic divisions inside Afghanistan and had gained the support of many groups that disliked the lordly ways of the Tajik-speaking government in Kabul. Simpson described his roadside encounter with a group of fighters:

I couldn’t tell the difference between them and any other mujahaddin group. And perhaps there wasn’t any difference: a clever mixture of bribery and good propaganda had won over dozens of local warlords to the Taliban side. They were crouched behind a makeshift wall of piled-up rocks beside the road, and we had just made the nerve-racking journey by car between the two front lines, on the the outskirts of Kabul. These men had no objection whatever to being filmed. Nor did their commander, though he was still nervous about his new masters (he had only recently changed sides) he insisted that someone else had to do the talking on camera for him.

Chapter 17, The Mountain of Light. p 501.

It was only when the film crew went south to Kandahar, the ‘Taliban capital’, that they found ‘the real thing’. They were very alarming indeed, Simpson wrote, noting also that Kandahar was well-known for its homosexuality, and that it was commonplace to find Taliban soldiers with mascara’d eyes, painted fingernails and toenails and heeled gold sandals. Of course, they also carried AK-47’s.

Some of the Taliban’s greatest gains had been achieved through deal-making rather than fighting in the field. By this means, they had gained control of half the territory of Afghanistan, from Herat in the West to the border of Pakistan, and with it almost half the population. At that point, they were besieging the capital, Kabul itself. Their main centres, Kandahar and Herat, were on the Pakistani telephone system, and Pakistani banks flourished in several of their towns and cities. But there was no denying that their main motivation was ‘radical Islam’. In their centres, there were fewer women on the streets than in Kabul, and those who did appear were covered from head to toe in the traditional burkhas. Confiscated televisions were hung up on the same streets as if they were executed criminals on gibbets. Television was evil because it presumed to capture the likeness of living creatures, something that, according to their interpretation of the Qu’ran, was considered blasphemous. Kandahar was, therefore, far from being an ideal place for a television team to work. An aggressive young mullah was appointed to the role of chaperone. On the flat roof of one building, Simpson recorded a piece to camera, including pictures of people walking in the streets below:

JS: The Taliban are probably the most extreme Islamic fundamentalistic group in the world. By comparison with this place, Iran and even Saudi Arabia seem positively liberal. We aren’t allowed to film any living creature, because that would constitute making a graven image of it. The Taliban police Kandahar very intensively, and those who don’t necessarily support the régime here are too frightened to speak to us. It’s hard to move here without being watched or stopped and questioned.

Transcript of report for The Nine O’Clock News. Kandahar, 27.4.96.

On the morning after the television crew arrived in Kandahar, Mullah Omar Akund, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, was to reveal the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, donated centuries before to Kandahar, before the eyes of an expected crowd. The cloak was only shown publicly at moments of great significance; the last time had been more than sixty years before. Now, as the Taliban prepared to open their great onslaught on Kabul, they took it out again. People gathered around the crew in large numbers, staring through their vehicle’s windows with curiosity, not having seen Europeans before. It had happened the night before as well, but that had been far more menacing. Men with terrifying scars, one with an empty eye socket pressed their faces against the glass. It was very hot inside the vehicle and the crew was getting very uneasy inside. One of them joked, “Don’t look now, but the crowd’s turning ugly!” That morning, during the ceremony of the Prophet’s cloak, they went largely unnoticed among the distracted crowds. They were able to get some extraordinary pictures, as Mullah Omar held up an ancient piece of pale brown material. The emotion of the crowd was intense, with people weeping aloud and tearing the turbans off their heads to throw them up into the air and touch the cloak. Simpson comments that … it was like watching Peter the Hermit preaching the First Crusade. The result was rather similar, as within a few months the Taliban had taken Kabul.

Mullah Omar. In 2015, The Taliban admitted that he had died a few years earlier. He was officially replaced.

As the Taliban seized control of Kabul, it brought in a brutally conservative version of Islamic rule, as it had promised from its inception. Women were barred from most work and education, and punishments including stoning and amputation were were introduced. Over their next five years in power the Taliban continued their brutal and misogynist policies. In 2001, they blew up the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas. The picture below shows a Hazira boy flying a kite near the site of the statues.

The Taliban in Power, Invasion and War; 2001-2014:

The giant sixth-century Buddha statues, destroyed by the Taliban, in Bamiyan province. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty.

Then the 9/11 attacks prompted an ultimatum from the US for the Taliban to hand over Osama Bin Laden. Mullah Omar refused, leading to a US-led coalition invading the country. By November 2001, they had taken Kabul, and by December Hamid Kazai was installed as Afghanistan’s new President.

US troops board a helicopter during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Photo: Universal History Archive/ Getty.

During their time in Afghanistan, it proved impossible for the BBC crew to persuade any senior figure in the Taliban to record an interview with them on camera. One of them agreed to have his answers recorded, but wouldn’t show any part of himself to the camera. Some Taliban leaders, more moderate, were sympathetic to the idea but felt their position within the organisation would suffer if it were known that we had made a graven image of them. On their last day in Kandahar, they went to see the Mullah Balouch, who had a fearsome reputation as a strong supporter of the punishments ‘drawn from’ the Sharia or ‘Islamic law’, he tried to persuade the surgeons under his control to cut off the hands and feet of convicted criminals. If they refused, he would do it himself. By all accounts he rather enjoyed it. Simpson’s crew found him in his office, surrounded by petitioners, whom he waved away. With the camera running, Simpson went over to him and asked whether he was willing to be interviewed. The Mullah replied,

It is idolatry to show a person’s face only, since a graven image can be made from that. But if you show me down to the waist, no graven image can be made from it.

Strange Places, Questionable People, p. 504.

The journalist did not understand this reasoning but was happy to accede to the now ‘moderate’ Mullah’s wishes. He proved to be a frank interviewee, except on the question of his own involvement in the brutal punishments of criminals. He absolutely denied cutting off anyone’s hands or feet himself, even though what he had done was a matter of public knowledge in Kandahar. Perhaps he realised the effect, even then in pre-internet times, that it might have had on a Western audience had he admitted it. But he insisted that it wasn’t in any way strange that a minister of health should try to persuade hospital surgeons to amputate perfectly healthy limbs. Simpson let this answer pass, since ‘liberals’ were in short enough supply in the Taliban ‘ranks’. It therefore seems difficult, from Simpson’s memoirs and recordings, to make comparisons between the Taliban of 1996 or 2001 and that of 2021. But among its ‘mainstream’ leadership today, we can see for ourselves none of the hostility to being filmed that was so obvious to the correspondent twenty-five years ago. The same idiosyncracies and contradictions are also apparent, and may be exploited by skilful negotiators, especially if these are experienced Afghan leaders. More than that, naked propaganda has been replaced by a slick, twenty-first media machine among the leadership of the movement. This has shown itself to be both receptive to nuances in western diplomatic and military strategies and transmissive of reassurances to the Afghan people, even if the various audiences remain skeptical of these and far more sophisticated in their responses due to the major changes that have taken place just in the last five years of relative peace.

The Trump ‘Deal’ and its Aftermath, 2020-21:

In 2014 the NATO powers declared its war over, ending their combat missions, shifting to training and advising Afghans. But Afghan security forces remained reliant on the allies for support, especially air cover. In 2020 US President Donald Trump signed a bilateral withdrawal deal with the Taliban claiming that it laid the groundwork for peace talks between Afghans, but the subsequent meetings were slow to start and soon spluttered to a halt. With violence continuing to escalate against Afghan government forces, in April this year, the incoming US President Joe Biden reiterated that the remaining US troops in Afghanistan would be home by 11 September, a timetable that was soon accelerated. As western troops began to depart, a combination of western and Afghan jounalists were reporting on how the Taliban became resurgent on the ground, having been utterly routed just twenty years previously. They have been saying how they have changed, but brutal ‘punishments’ have already returned with their rule in the provinces. In April, a video went viral on the internet showing the public flogging of a woman for adultery in Obe district. As it was shared by urban Afghans, it revived ugly memories of the darker times of Taliban rule in 1996-2001, leading to an outpouring of revulsion. Men with lashes were shown taking it in turns to bear down on the woman until she began screaming, “Oh God, I repent!” An audience of men and boys watched and snapped photos, and it was this public nature of the ‘event’ which angered Taliban commanders.

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After years of being a post-holder in the Taliban’s shadow administration, the mullah still regularly hands down this sentence for ‘adultery’, which in Afghanistan can cover any sexual relationship outside marriage, sometimes even including rape. For this, men were flogged and then jailed. He had recently ordered the flogging of a woman within her home who was betrayed by her neighbours. She was sentenced to twenty lashes. Obe was one of dozens of districts to fall under Taliban control in the last month, and the experiences of its people are a good indication of what a country ruled by them might look like; a disturbing vision. Its fall revealed the problems hobbling the Afghan security forces, most notably the lack of air support and strategic foreign ground support. US troops left Bagram, the sprawling airbase north of Kabul that was the symbolic and operational heart of its in-country operations, within twenty-four hours, leaving fewer than a thousand ground troops around Kabul. The British were also on the verge of repatriating the last of their regular troops.

An Afghan soldier at Bagram on the day US troops vacated the air base. Photo: Mohammad Ismail/ Reuters.

Through their withdrawal talks with the Americans, the Taliban have also gained a form of international recognition they had long craved. Senior envoys have responded by burnishing their the image they present to the world. At peace talks in the Qutari capital, Doha, and across platforms including the a New York Times opinion column by their deputy leader, the Taliban’s representatives have been presenting an image of change. They use the language of peace and reconciliation, and have promised women their rights as granted by Islam – from the right to education to the right to work. Yet, according to multiple accounts collected by The Observer, they have revived most of the brutal and misogynist policies of the 1990s, although almost all of those documented are anonymous, due to fear of reprisals against the witnesses or their relatives. Halma Salami, a women’s rights activist based in Herat, who receives regular death threats in response to her work, testified:

The international platform for the Taliban is truly disturbing. We live under the Taliban, we deal with them and we know they have not changed.

That platform also includes Hamas, the Palestinian terror group, which held negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. Halma Salami stayed in contact with fellow activists in fellow activists in Obe, who reported being confined to their homes and barred from going to work. On 14th June, the last government forces in the district were helicoptered out of the besieged outpost. The militants were confident enough of their control that they called a meeting at the mosque in the main street to lay out their laws and plans for Obe. Schools have been closed for years by fighting, or boycotted by parents who are worried that their children will be caught in crossfire. When they reopen, girls will not be allowed to study past sixth grade (eleven to twelve in age). Interviewees reported that women would be made to wear the burkha and would no longer be allowed to go to work or leave their homes for any reason other than with a male ‘guardian’. Shopkeepers have been ordered not to serve women on their own, and the Taliban already beat any unaccompanied women they catch. Mobile phones are regularly checked by Taliban fighters in Obe, according to one resident, and if video clips are found with music, dancing or anything supporting the government, the owner will be beaten. If they find pictures of the owner in government uniform, the punishment is execution. Sentences including amputations and floggings are being handed down by judges, including the one who spoke to the Observer, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to journalists:

If you don’t give sharia punishment, crimes will rise. People come to us and say they are grateful. When the government was in power, no robbery was investigated. Now after we came to power, people can leave their doors open.

In his court, which hears three or four cases a day, often on land and water disputes, in which “testimony from two women equals that from one man.” One refugee mother conceded that the Taliban had brought an end to lawlessness but, for her, it was not enough to offset all the cruelty and restrictions:

The Taliban have already made a really big reduction in robbery. I know many people and are satisfied because of this, but I don’t want them (ruling the district). They had special people responsible for beating women, they used rope or pieces of wood to hit them. It was exactly like last time they were in power. I was in Obe then too.

Other petty restrictions, such as a ban on makeup, have also returned.

How much have the Taliban really changed?:

Women walk past a beauty parlour in Kabul. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty.
These have now been painted over, sparking further fears of a return to hardline Islamist rule under the Taliban return to power.

Just how much the so-called ‘changes’ by the Taliban have reverberated in Kandahar and Herat, let alone to more remote towns and villages, has yet to be discovered. In Kabul, from my own distant perspective, based on Simpson’s successors in situ (both American and British), the picture of the Taliban fighters seems very mixed, and much will depend on how the still largely rural, tribally-organised fighters are managed by a new generation of ‘officers’ on the streets. Deeper than all of this, however, is the question of whether the fundamental Islamist ideology has changed over the past quarter century. Of that, there is so far little evidence, and what there is suggests that they have no intention of departing from their own interpretations and definitions of Sharia law. Therefore, at the very least we can expect that they are likely to re-impose barbaric punishments on ‘criminal elements’ and to curtail the rights of women to play a full rule in society outside the home or very traditional forms of female employment. Certainly, the establishment of a more pluralist governance and constitution seems already to be a fast-shrinking possibility, so much will depend on which factions within the movement eventually assert themselves and win power. Meanwhile, women are already fearful to leave their homes and men are regularly beaten for not praying and for not fasting during Ramadam. One man still living in the Obe district commented:

Of course, you just worry about the children’s future” … There was a bleak sense of history repeating itself … “I was only educated to fifth grade, then I had to drop out.”

Despite their public commitment to ending “the killing and maiming”, are themselves accused of war crimes. They have been linked to targeted assassinations; in Obe, locals say they have used whole families as human shields. Their comprehensive capture of the district centre, after years of attacking and falling back, appears to have been made possible by an influx of fighters from other provinces, under a new commander, Rafi Shindani, probably a nomme de guerre, who arrived in the district after Eid at the end of May, bringing about sixty or seventy fighters from nearby Farah and Bagdhis provinces. When they arrived, a group of government-funded engineers working on development programmes, building bridges and providing water supplies, were warned to leave by the local Taliban. The engineers had built up a good relationship with the insurgents to ensure that their projects could go ahead.

Militiamen and Afghan security forces during a gathering in Kabul in June. Photo: Rahmat Guljat.

Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network wrote in a recent report that it was to be expected that the Taliban would launch widespread attacks while, or immediately after, US troops left, but the “scale and speed” of the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was unexpected. The insurgents had held only about a quarter of nearly four hundred district centres at the end of June, according to the thinktank’s calculations from news reports and its own investigations. Clark went on to describe the plunging morale of members of the ANSF in the field and … a new-found confidence among Taliban fighters. In some provinces, almost all areas beyond the city limits had fallen; government supporters feared the Taliban was positioning for a push on provincial capitals. Although it had previously overrun several of them, it had not been able to hold them. That track record was about to be considerably improved upon and this time, by early August, all of them had fallen. Other factors undermining government forces were corruption, desertion and ill-thought-out policy. The air support vital to holding the insurgents at bay had already dwindled before the abandonment of the Bagram air base, with the putative Afghan air force overstretched and US forces already operating from thousands of miles away.

The Final Failure – Disbandment & Demobilisation:

In December last year, the government disbanded a supportive unit of the militia-like Afghan Local Police in Obe, under what now looks increasingly like an ill-considered demobilisation programme. Several other districts that fell to Taliban control had recently lost ALP forces as well. In Obe, by June, the Taliban pressure on the city centre had morphed into a siege. A few dozen men from the intelligence, police and army were stranded on a military base with just a single glass of water per day, and dwindling food supplies. They called desperately for air support or evacuation, but the only visitors were Red Crescent officials who had come to collect bodies. The men had been reduced to stripping leaves off the trees to eat before a group of parents launched a three-day protest in Herat, demanding support for for the besieged group. Initially polite, the terrified parents and desperate parents were by day three burning tyres in the street and threatening suicide attacks. The next day, helicopters were dispatched, but for many it was too late. One commando said, bitterly:

Bodies were carried out of injured men who would have survived if they had got help sooner.

At least one of the trapped men, himself from Obe, has been quietly sounding out friends in the area and in Herat about organising a militia to try to reclaim the district. For years, western-backed efforts aimed to disarm irregular militias. But the Taliban’s advances and the accelerated departure of foreign troops have convinced Afghans whose homes are threatened, and the officials who have to protect them, that they need more people to pick up guns and fight. Militias were still forming and re-forming around the country, many encouraged, financed or even called up by the government, even as the Talaban were reaching the gates of Kabul itself. The fighter from Obe has lost brothers, his father and at least twenty more distant relatives to the Taliban, and he refuses to consider either surrender or collaboration. He concluded:

The situation is catastrophic, and the government won’t even listen to me, so now my work is just to be killed, or liberate my town.

Observer

The Observer’s editorial of 9 July concluded that by setting an unconditional US withdrawal date of 11 September shortly after taking office, Joe Biden triggered an unseemly military scramble for the exit that has been joined by all residual NATO forces, including most UK troops. It appears the vast majority had already left the previous weekend (2-4 July), without ceremony, almost by the back door. The editorial went on:

The withdrawal has set Afghanistan back on the path to terror, mayhem and disintegration. A catastrophe is in the making. These are not the predictions of mere armchair critics. Gen. Austin Miller, commander of US forces, warned that chaos beckoned:

“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised … that should concern the world,” he said. The former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is similarly pessimistic:

“Those who came here twenty years ago in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism not only failed to end it but, under their watch, extremism has flourished. That is what I call failure.”

By then, at least half of rural Afghanistan was already controlled or contested by the Taliban. The regional capitals and Kabul itself followed in quick succession as President Ashraf Ghani’s government looked on helplessly, its Nato-trained and equipped soldiers repeatedly forced into flight or surrender. Faced with such incapacity, local armed militias continued to re-form and majority non-Pashtun groups in the north were also threatening to revive their anti-Taliban struggles of the 1990s. In June, Biden had assured Ghani that the US would continue to provide financial assistance and support. Yet, once Bagram had been abandoned, they lacked suitable bases in neighbouring the countries from which their drones and aircraft could provide meaningful, timely back-up. In any case, the Pentagon claimed that its priority was containing Islamic State and al-Qaida, whose jihadists may soon freely roam ungoverned Afghan territories.

Britain’s military and diplomatic leadership was clearly, if privately, horrified by the US decision. Mindful of two decades of often thankless, bloody striving, Biden’s failure to fully consult the UK government and NATO was obviously galling. Limited gains – democratic or pluralistic governance, free expression, improved healthcare, greater educational opportunities and civil rights, especially for women, have all been imperilled. In many ways, the dire situation is a legacy of the neoconservative, reckless idealogues of the Bush-Cheney administration which took the US and its NATO allies into Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place. Like Iraq, coldly abandoned to its fate a decade ago, Afghanistan’s post-US future looks bleak.The prospect of a lasting peace with a measure of liberty and equity is fast vanishing, and the genuine western ‘friends’ of Afghanistan have only a very little time in which to win the possibility that such a peace might be forged. As an engaged observer of the ‘Afghan situation’ since 1979, I believe that Afghan people deserve no less than this, though only they can be the ultimate architects of their own ‘salvation’. An imposed model of democracy is always a fake one. In supporting the reconstruction of the country, ‘the West’ must also now listen with patience and endurance to its own ‘experts’ from the field, past and present. That is what John Simpson is continuing to urge western allies to do, together with military veterans and aid workers who have been following these objectives over the past two decades.

Sources:

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke & Oxford: Macmillan.

Guardian Weekly. London: Guardian News & Media:

Emma Graham-Harrison & Akhtar Mohammed (9 July 2021), After the Retreat, Guardian Weekly. Graham-Harrison is a Guardian & Observer Foreign Correspondent; Akhtar Mohammed Makoh is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan.

Observer Editorial (9 July 2021), Western nations are abandoning Afghanistan to war and terror.

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The End of Saxon England? Revisiting the Norman Conquest, 1035-1135: Chapter II – Castles, Abbeys, Cathedrals & Churches.

Knights, Barons & Castles:

The knights who served William ‘the Conqueror’ were armed in many respects as their English opponents, wearing mail hauberks and conical helmets, and carrying kite-shaped shields, lances, swords and maces. If battlefield tactics were dominated by the mounted knight, the strategies of war were increasingly subject to the powerful influence of the castle. William’s trained knights were ideal troops for use against the scattered English risings but they were unsuited to the prolonged task of holding regions whose loyalty was suspect. His followers also thought it necessary to impress the natives with their might. Throughout the land, they erected castles, fitting monuments to their mastery. They were simple affairs at first – earth mounds (mottes), surrounded by ditches and surmounted by fenced enclosures (baileys). Within their wooden towers (keeps) inside the baileys, the foreign landlords felt secure from the Saxon peasantry. From these strongholds, they sallied forth to fight for their king and to wage their own private battles against each other. In Suffolk, the newcomers had little trouble with the people; the freemen and the peasants of the county resigned themselves without a struggle to the exchange of a Danish conqueror for a Norman one. King William parcelled out his new dominion to tenants-in-chief who, in turn, sub-let to others in return for payments in service or ‘in kind’. Every substantial landholder built his own defensive stronghold.

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The men of Suffolk knew that it was futile to rise against the Normans; they knew how strong the new castles were – they had, after all, built them themselves under the watchful eyes of Norman overseers. In these areas of East Anglia, as elsewhere, fortified bases and strong points were vital and this need was filled by an intensive programme of castle-building. By 1100 there were at least eighty-four castles in England and there may have been as many as four hundred, whereas before the Conquest there had been only a few examples, in the Welsh marches and in Essex, of castle-building. Castles were sited to defend the chief ports and estuaries of England, to guard border areas against incursion, to control river and road communications and to overawe centres of population. As the early timber and earth castles were replaced by stone structures and the spread of castles capable of withstanding a prolonged siege both dissipated and strengthened royal power. Although the construction of a castle, as at Framlingham in Suffolk, could enable a rebellious baron to defy central authority the spread of regional rebellion was, on the whole, easier to control and isolate.

The Bigods of Framlingham and Bungay were central characters in the history of Suffolk, if not of England as a whole. In 1066, King William appointed Ralph De Guader, an East Anglian nobleman of Breton origins, as earl of Norfolk and Suffolk. But Ralph was involved in an abortive rebellion nine years later and it was then that Roger Bigod, a poor knight, was rewarded by King William for his loyalty to the crown by granting him the bulk of Guader’s confiscated estates (117 manors in Suffolk as well as other lands in the adjoining counties) and appointing him the royal steward in East Anglia. Roger was succeeded by his eldest son, William, but in 1120 disaster struck for the Bigods, King Henry I and England. Henry’s eldest son, Prince William, set sail from Harfleur with three hundred companions, the flower of English chivalry. The White Ship carrying them foundered and of all the company only a Norman butcher was left to carry the news to Winchester. William Bigod, High Steward of England, was among the company. He was succeeded by his brother, Hugh, of whom It has been said:

He appears to have surpassed his fellows in acts of desertion and treachery, and to have been never more in his element than when in rebellion.

Hurrying back from Rouen, where he had been attending the dying Henry I, it was Bigod who convinced the Archbishop of Canterbury that Henry, on his deathbed, had nominated Stephen, his nephew, as his successor rather than his daughter Matilda. He did this because he saw in Stephen a weak man who could be manipulated by the barons. As soon as his expectations were proved unfounded, Bigod raised the standard of revolt at Norwich where he was besieged by Stephen and forced to surrender. With more charity than wisdom, the king pardoned the troublesome baron, who was made Earl of Norfolk in 1135. Bigod repaid him by declaring his support for Matilda in the civil war that followed and constructed two very formidable castles at Framlingham and Bungay, which were to become thorns in the side of the later Plantagenet monarchs rather than part of their military network. For most of the twelfth century, whoever might wear the crown in London, the Bigods ruled Suffolk, even after Henry II had Orford Castle built on the nearby coast to keep a watch on their foreign liaisons.

Of course, castles were not invented by Norman dukes. The idea of a fortified residence goes back a long way, and the dividing line between a communal fort, like a hillfort, designed to protect the whole community, and a private defended house or castle, is not always at all easy to define. Brochs could be considered to be the earliest form of stone castles, and not all hillforts were quite so communal. Some were built to protect the chiefs against their revolting peasants as well as their neighbours. There does at least seem to be a clear division between the walled town of post-Roman Britain or ninth-century England and private castles. But the kind of society which devotes its efforts to create a system of defence for its whole population, with an overall plan developed by a national or regional authority even if carried out locally, is not the same as one where powerful individuals are able to surround themselves with walls and barricades, as much to terrify and subjugate the local population as to protect the inmates. The appearance of the latter is the clearest archaeological sign of the form of castle introduced by the Normans.

Warwick Castle, however, often referred to as the finest medieval castle in England, was begun, as a royal castle with the ‘mound’ constructed in 914 by Queen Aethelfled of Mercia, much more related to the town’s earlier construction as a walled town, and therefore as part of a ‘burh’ of the Saxon period. Aethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, fortified the small town of Warwick and others along the borders of Mercia against the marauding Danes. She had a ditch and a simple compacted earth wall encircling the town. After the Conquest, this was partly rebuilt in stone with three gateways through it, with a possible fourth gateway at the river crossing. The Avon was a natural obstacle to anyone advancing towards Warwick from the south and although there is a natural ford, there was probably no bridge at that time. Part of the Saxon town was located on the natural outcrop of rock where the Castle now stands. A form of fortification for settlements, probably based on surviving Roman walls and known as the burh, was developed by the English, both in the Saxon kingdoms and the Danelaw. Nevertheless, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the Norman castle as an innovation unknown in England before 1066. It was not until 1068 when William I went to quell the rebellion in the north, that he had ‘motte and bailey’ castles built to protect his rear. The drawing below shows the development of Warwick Castle at that time.

Warwick Castle, c. 1070.
The motte was man-made, built on a solid sandstone bluff that overlooks the River Avon. On top was constructed a stockade of squared logs from trees felled in the immediate vicinity which were firmly fixed together. Inside would probably have been a tall square tower that commanded the whole of the fortification and surrounding area. In front of the mound was the bailey, surrounded by a wooden palisade that extended diagonally up either side of the mound, meeting up with the tower on the top. On the riverside against the palisade, there would have been a large timber hall with a thatched roof, a simple chapel and on the other side of the hall a kitchen, bakehouse and brewhouse. On the other side of the bailey, there were timber-framed houses for the garrison of soldiers, servants and tradesmen with stabling for horses, a blacksmith’s and an armourer’s.

There are certainly European castles outside Normandy which were built as early as the tenth century, where they were developed in various parts of France, initially as a means of defending lands against external threat, but it had proven equally useful as a means of controlling the local population. One of the best-preserved is at Langeais in Anjou, built by the wicked Count Fulk the Black. The ruins of Fulk’s castle lie on the grounds of a much later chateau famous for its tapestries. A massive stone wall stands on a large mound, pierced high up by small round-headed windows. The Norman ducal residences at Fécamp and Caen had stone walls around them and could also be seen as castles of a sort, though they are usually differentiated as fortified palaces. In England, there has been hot debate as to whether any existed before 1066. Historical sources suggest that a few were built in the time of Edward the Confessor, but these are sometimes discounted on the grounds that Edward was almost a Norman himself, with a Norman mother, who had lived in exile in Normandy for a number of years. Somehow, everything that he did is counted as foreshadowing William’s projects. However, there is some archaeological evidence to suggest that at least some Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Danish thegns were protecting their homes with earthen banks and ditches.

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At Sulgrave in Northamptonshire, a late Saxon manor house preceded a Norman manor which had a defensive ringwork, but it is not clear how substantial the pre-Conquest defences were. At Goltho in Lincolnshire successive phases of the manor house, from Saxon to Norman, show an evolution of defences that began before 1066. The late Saxon buildings within the old Roman fort of Portchester in Hampshire have been interpreted as the residence of a thegn, partly because of a structure that might have been a tower. Portchester became a Norman castle, but perhaps it had already provided some of the same defensive functions earlier. The first castles in Britain provided a series of strong points that enabled the Normans to subdue a hostile population. The most common castles were earth and timber constructions, built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and stone tower-houses of the Anglo-Scottish borders and Ireland, but most of these were not built before the thirteenth century. Major stone castles were expensive, and thus the prerogative of kings and leading barons. William himself imported stone from Caen to build the White Tower in London (‘The Tower of London’), but it was only from the 1080s that towers or ‘keeps’ were increasingly built in stone. Therefore, the first ‘free-standing’ Norman garrison castles consisted of square wooden towers raised on mounds (mottes) circled with wooden fences.

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The word “Castle” comes from the French and the Latin word for ‘fortress’, but in many rural areas, many manor-houses were fortified, like Stokesay ‘Castle’ in Shropshire (right). The Anglo-Saxon word for a fortified settlement or town was ‘burh’ or ‘burgh’.
French was the main language spoken both in Norman castles and cathedrals, both of which were built to impress.

Finding a few pre-Conquest fortified houses does not alter the fact that only after 1066 was the whole country dotted with castles. Most of these were initially of the simple motte-and-bailey variety, the motte being the mound, now usually covered with grass, which had a tower on top of it, the keep. At first, most towers were built of timber and only later, in some cases, replaced with stone. Some of the mottes have been found to contain timber frameworks, foundations of the tower, suggesting that these structures were put in place first, with the earth then piled around them. The bailey was the defended courtyard or enclosure situated below and around the motte, and the whole complex was often further defended with a surrounding moat or ditch. This classic, simple type of castle was put up in its hundreds by the new lords to control their conquered lands, presumably using the forced labour of Saxon peasants. Other lords, such as at Goltho and Sulgrave, built ringworks, circular banked and ditched enclosures with a hall and other buildings inside. At Hen Domen, near Montgomery on the Welsh border (pictured below), there is a classic motte-and-bailey that has been excavated over many years. This was probably the first Montgomery Castle, built by Roger of Montgomery, one of William’s henchmen, in the years after the Conquest. In 1102 it passed to the de Boulers family. The castle controlled an important crossing over the River Severn, on a major route between England and Wales. In the thirteenth century, a new castle was built above Montgomery, but even then Hen Domen probably continued to operate as an outpost controlling the river-crossing. Most of the time anyone inside would not have been able to see out and must have felt like a prisoner.

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Aerial view of Hen Domen Castle, Powys, showing pre-Norman ridged fields surrounding the castle.

Castles had to be at least partly self-sufficient and so space had to be found for living space for the lord, his family and retainers, the garrison and craftsmen, workshops such as a smithy, a bakery, a brewhouse and food stores, including animals. All of this must have made for a crowded and unpleasant place. Such castles are unlikely to have been served by garrisons of more than a dozen men at a time, and living conditions were very primitive. Naturally, as soon as they could afford it, the wealthier Norman lords replaced timber towers with stone which often had to be brought some distance. Castle Hedingham in Essex (below) was one of the first stone keeps, built by Aubrey de Vere around 1140, using stone brought from Northamptonshire. The massive keep still stands on its mound, despite having been taken twice by siege during the reign of King John. The second-floor main hall is spanned by what is said to be the largest Norman arch in Europe. The garrison would have lived below the hall, while the family and ladies would have occupied the top floor which, except in the event of a fire, was the safest refuge. Two Norfolk castles were also built in the early Norman period, Castle Rising and Castle Acre. The former looks more like a defended hall, however, with ringed earthworks around it, and the latter began as a two-storey stone hall before 1085 but was then converted into a keep. King William built in stone from the start, beginning with the White Tower in London, followed closely by Colchester Castle, built on the foundations of a Roman temple. They were both designed as fortified palaces, like the ducal residences in Normandy.

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Castle Hedingham

Castle building changed and adapted throughout the Medieval period in response to political and military changes. Every technological development in siege warfare was countered by changes in castle design until eventually artillery rendered them obsolete. Castles would have been built anyway in Britain, even without the Norman Conquest of England, probably, as in much of Europe, as a result of the Crusades, the first of which left Normandy in 1096. The concentric Crusader castles were to provide a blueprint for many of the later Medieval castles of Britain. However, the speed with which castles were first built after 1066, and the sheer number of them, would not have happened without the imperative of military conquest. The Domesday Book records how many town-houses were laid waste or destroyed because of the castle.

The Conqueror’s Crusade – The Context for the Conquest:

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The ruins of Battle Abbey. Tradition relates that the high altar of the Abbey marked the spot where Harold planted his standards,
the Dragon of Wessex and the Fighting Man, and where he fell. The terrace and grounds of Battle Abbey School provide views of the western sector of the battlefield and of the field through which the Normans advanced to attack Harold’s position.

The year after his great victory at Hastings, William the Conqueror founded the monastery later known as Battle Abbey in thanksgiving and as an act of propitiation to the dead Harold of England. There the monks were bound to pray for the souls of both conquered and conqueror in perpetuity. William’s companions in victory and their successors were to found or rebuild many similar institutions. These monasteries or their remains are reminders of the intense awareness of other worlds amongst all sections of the community in the Middle Ages. That awareness was such that, at a time when death through disease, famine or violence was always close to hand, people believed in worlds of damnation, purgation, and bliss awaiting souls about to depart this life, and that a happier destination could be obtained through the prayers of intercession of the living for the dead.

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A section of Edward Freeman’s map.(1869). The Norman view of Senlac Ridge can be seen from Telham Hill which lies a mile (1.6K) to the southeast.

At the Battle of Senlac Hill (Hastings), William’s knights advanced under the banner of the papacy, since William had invaded England with the blessing of the Pope. In general, he worked very closely with the Church, then in the throes of the Reform movement. England was just as much conquered, in a spiritual sense, by the Reformers as it was, in a political sense, by the Norman-French. William purged the English church, deposing all but one of the Saxon bishops, the exception being Wulfstan of Worcester, who when told in Westminster Abbey to surrender his pastoral staff, laid it on the tomb of Edward the Confessor, saying he would give it up only to the man who had presented him with it. No one could move the staff until William conceded and confirmed Wulfstan in his bishopric. Wulfstan was to do much to reconcile the English to their lot by preaching that the Conquest was God’s punishment of them for their sins. By remaining Bishop of Worcester and with the help of Aethelwig, the Abbot of Evesham, Wulfstan managed to preserve much of value in the Anglo-Saxon monastic tradition. At Evesham, Aethelwig met a Norman knight called Reinfried who, in the course of the campaigns of the Conqueror in the north, had been disturbed by the ruins of St Hilda’s Abbey at Whitby, which like most of the northern abbeys had been left deserted since its sacking by the Vikings. Reinfried became a monk under Aethelwig and made friends with Aldwin of Winchcombe who, inspired by reading Bede, wanted to travel to the north. They went together and in ten years they had re-established monastic communities at Whitby, Jarrow and Monkswearmouth and also founded the great Abbey of St Mary’s at York. Aldwin later became the first prior of the monastic community set up to serve the cathedral at Durham.

But it was mainly Norman abbots who gradually took over in the monasteries. For several generations, after the Conquest, all important positions in the English Church were dominated by French-speaking Normans. Chief among these, of course, were the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Lanfranc replaced the Saxon incumbent at Canterbury, Stigand, and was then succeeded by Anselm in 1093 (see the inset below).

Romanesque Architecture – Power and Propaganda:

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Just as castles were not a Norman invention, neither was Romanesque architecture. It was a style that was widespread throughout Europe, through Hungary and as far as the Black Sea and Constantinople. As its name suggests, it was descended from Roman architecture, much of which was still standing as models for medieval builders. The windows at Langeais castle are a good example of the round-headed style of brick arches, the most characteristic Romanesque feature. Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon buildings also used these features in an early, simple form, but the name is usually associated with the great buildings of the Church, abbeys and minsters, like those that William and Matilda built at Caen and Durham. The sheer scale on which the Normans built, and the sheer number of their castles and churches, was new at the beginning of the eleventh century. Their impact on England, therefore, derives from their organisation, efficiency and the wealth they had at their disposal once they had conquered the country.

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The Abbey Church of Notre Dame, Jumiéges, Normandy, was built before the Norman Conquest of England.

Like the Vikings before them, the Normans were attracted by the wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England and this motivation played a major part in the inspiration for the Conquest. This was not a poor country: in fact, it was far wealthier and more civilized than Normandy. It was famous for its embroideries, like the Bayeux Tapestry, and for its goldwork, of which only a few fragments survive to the present day. But the Normans rather despised the English for their culture, regarding them as effete and long-haired. From written accounts, it is possible to piece together an impression of the lavishness of the metalwork, textiles, sculpture and manuscripts to be found in churches and monasteries and probably in aristocratic homes as well. Anglo-Saxons seem to have preferred to work on a small scale, producing delicate ivories and fragile gold embroidery. Their churches tended to be rather small, with complicated additions in the form of towers and twisting staircases, crypts and elaborate west fronts. Buildings were often changed by such accretions, with the older parts being incorporated in the new rather than the whole thing being knocked down and built afresh. The complicated plans which may have resulted are well shown by the excavations of the Old Minster at Winchester. The plans showed lots of added towers and chapels. Such churches would have been elaborately decorated, with painted wall plaster, stained glass, gilded statues and elaborate wall hangings. Today these can only be pieced together from remnants. The pieces of metal or ivory which we prize today as masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon art would probably have seemed insignificant to a contemporary.

Illustrated page from the Benedictional of Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester and Abbot of Abingdon in the tenth century.
This ia an especially rich manuscript, illuminated in gold as well as with paint.

In Winchester, part of the castle mound raised in 1067 lay on top of an earlier street. This street had been many times rebuilt, with stratified levels more than five feet thick showing its importance in the town’s road network. Winchester also provides us with the most dramatic example of the brutality with which ancient cathedrals and churches were pulled down and replaced. As with his castle, the Conqueror may have wanted to make a propaganda point by building an enormous, magnificent new cathedral in the ancient Royal capital of the West Saxons. The Old Minster was originally a modest building which had been extended westwards over the centuries, to a magnificent west end, built on continental models, with a throne in a raised gallery to enable the king to attend in comfort and style. The Normans had no time for this ancient, awkward building, as they saw it, so they replaced it with a cathedral of such scale that is not only the longest in England but in that respect is outclassed in Europe only by St Peter’s in Rome.

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The nave of Ely Cathedral, built circa 1100 onwards.

Not only cathedrals, but also most major churches were rebuilt after 1066, and it is only largely by chance that rare examples of simple Saxon chapels remain, to be discovered centuries later, like at Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire. All over England, a most ambitious building programme began within a few years of the Conquest. Between 1070 and 1100 about thirty major churches were started, some to be finished early in the next century. This is an extraordinary achievement, when the extent of castle-building and the demands of military campaigns in England and Normandy, as well as to the Holy Land, are taken into account. The building programme must have also involved considerable manpower, both skilled and unskilled. As well as the great cathedrals, many abbeys still survive, at least in part, despite the ferocity of the Henrican Dissolution. Durham, built 1092-1133, sits on a rocky peninsula in a bend of the River Wear, next to the castle, the fortress of the Prince-Bishops. When it was built it must have been a massively solid reminder of Norman domination over the once proudly independent Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, the centre of Christian learning and mission in Britain. It has been described as the crowning achievement of Romanesque architecture in England. However, Peterborough and Ely seem closer to the churches of Normandy, built out of Barnack limestone, more similar to Caen stone, which was also shipped to England for some buildings. As well as at Caen itself, the churches at Bayeux, Rouen and Mont St Michel can be easily compared with the series of great churches on the other side of La Manche. Although massive, they also have a simple, straightforward style, with tall, round pillars, round arches and aisles. Some striking resemblance between Normandy and England would be suggested by this architecture even if there were no historical records.

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The Fabric of Faith – Churches, Cathedrals & Abbeys:

In medieval Britain, practically every aspect of life was guided by the church. Acceptance of the structure of beliefs and practices of Christianity was, on the surface at least, almost universal. Except for the small urban communities of Jews, everyone was baptised soon after birth and became a member of the Catholic Church. Regular attendance at mass and confession was obligatory. The formalisation of marriage became an increasingly ecclesiastical affair from the twelfth century onwards, and burial in consecrated ground was granted to all except suicides and excommunicates who had died without being reconciled to the Church. Few people lived far from a church or a monastery, and the larger towns were dominated by church buildings. The routines of daily life were governed by church bells sounding the ecclesiastical offices, and the administrative systems of government and commerce followed calendar divisions marked by saints’ days. Saints were regarded as points of contact between heaven and earth, and thus as mediators between humans and God. Images from the lives of the saints decorated the walls, windows and interior furnishings of churches. Their virtues were celebrated on feast days. Relics of the saints, usually bones, were treasured as sacred and powerful objects, capable of working miracles, and the practice of pilgrimage to the shrines in which they were housed became the most obvious sign of popular religious devotion.

Throughout Britain and Ireland, sites that retained associations with the burial places of saints were visited by the faithful in search of healing and comfort or offering gratitude for miracles performed. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christianity had abounded in local saints, but the spread of the Norman Church brought something of a rationalisation. In England, popular pilgrimage sites were York, Walsingham, Beverley and Chichester. In Scotland, St Andrews and Tain, and in Wales, St Asaph and Llandaff, drew the most visitors. These popular pilgrimage sites stimulated local economic activity on a scale similar to that of modern tourist attractions. The late seventh-century division of England into bishoprics (shown on the map above), each responsible for the provision of the ministry to lay people through parish churches, was not followed in its operation across the British Isles, however. Considerable diversity of practice is noticeable in Scotland and Ireland, in contrast to Saxon England, which had always been closer to the Roman model prevailing on the Continent, particularly in the South. In Ireland, the title of ‘bishop’ was an honourary one, not necessarily denoting the tenure of a pastoral or ministerial office. Bishoprics in Anglo-Saxon England largely reflected the pre-Conquest administrative divisions of shires and survived with only minor changes after the Conquest. Each bishopric had at its centre a cathedral church that functioned as the bishop’s ‘seat’, which, even before the Conquest, might also be the governmental centre of a region, or the ‘county town’. Bishops were valued by kings as local agents of the government, partly because they were literate, but also because they were unable to found dynasties that might threaten royal authority, unlike the barons.

The parish was the basic unit of religious life. Every parish, in theory at least, had a resident priest whose responsibility it was to provide the sacraments of baptism, the eucharist, confession, marriage and extreme unction, to hold regular services and, so far as he was able, to instruct his parishioners in Christian doctrine. Since the mass was in Latin, a language of which most laypeople were ignorant, this latter function was especially important. Until the fourteenth century, however, many priests were poorly educated and unable to preach. The norm had been for them to marry and have children, but from the eleventh century this practice was regarded as an abuse by the Roman Church, so clerical celibacy became standard. The parish priest also fulfilled an important social function within the rural community, because his role gave him unrivalled access to information about relationships within the parish, he was able to act as a mediator in quarrels, as a confidant and even as a banker. As the only stone building in the community, the parish church was often a place of refuge during times of violence. Parishioners paid a tithe from their income, usually ‘in kind’ rather than money in villages, for the upkeep of the church. Payment of burial and marriage fees also became standard practice. In addition, priests offered what rudimentary education was available in the parish. At a higher level, education remained largely within the oversight of the Church. Every cathedral was supposed to maintain a school, but the quality of that education offered varied widely. Most schools provided elementary teaching in Latin grammar, but it wasn’t until the early thirteenth century that the school at Oxford began to attract teachers and students from the new university of Paris, thus becoming a university itself.

The degree of change in church architecture following the Conquest has sometimes been exaggerated. What happened to the Old Minster at Winchester was not duplicated for Saxon churches throughout England. In recent decades it has become clear that there are many more surviving Saxon structures than once thought. In 1978, 267 churches were listed, identified from structural analysis and visible architectural detail as at least partly Anglo-Saxon. Since then, many more have been added to the list. Little remains of the earliest churches, since these were built mainly of timber and have survived only as post-holes under later excavated churches, such as at Rendlesham in Suffolk (above), but these often show Scandinavian influence, which makes them difficult to date accurately. A better idea of a Saxon church is seen in Escomb in County Durham, as shown in the photo below. The simple two-celled building still sits in its round churchyard, now in the middle of a housing estate. It was at one time larger, with a western annexe and a side chapel to the north of the nave, but its classic simplicity makes it a model for the reconstruction of early Saxon churches. The proportions of the nave and the sides of the chancel arch, which are tall and narrow, are identifiable features of Saxon architecture. Parts of the church may have been transported whole from the nearby Roman fort at Binchester, together with much of the stone used. Roman sites were often used in this way by later builders. The original windows are small, narrow and round-headed, with intentionally splayed openings designed to reflect as much light as possible from the small space. Their size was probably for economy in the use of glass, or – if they were unglazed – in an attempt to cut down the draught. The broader windows were added later.

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The majority of churches defined as Saxon belong to a later period than Escomb, to the tenth or early eleventh centuries, when there was much rebuilding after the Viking destruction. However, some of these churches do seem to have complex histories and parts of the ‘late’ Saxon churches may belong to an earlier date. Apart from those already listed for Escomb, features of later churches include narrow applied strips of stone, called pilaster strips, which seem to be purely decorative features and have been explained as stone versions of familiar patterns of half-timbering. Some of these details can be traced in contemporary architecture on the Continent, though stylistic arguments about these apparent similarities are often impossible to resolve, due to the paucity of evidence on both sides of the Channel. Saxon churches often have some distinct visible features which first provoked their investigation and led to their identification as pre-Conquest. Others have proved to have equally long histories, and similar quantities of surviving Saxon fabric, but this has been difficult to recognise because the early walls were covered by plaster inside and concrete rendering outside, leaving only much later windows and doors visible. In recent decades, a new approach to investigating such churches has involved removing plaster where possible to examine the stone beneath, so that many more churches with Saxon origins continue to be discovered. In many cases, the original Saxon church has been replaced piecemeal over the centuries, so that its original shape has become fossilised in the later versions. Sometimes medieval builders built around an ancient church, reproducing its shape exactly, only larger, and pulling down the older fabric only when they had finished the new so that the congregation always had some kind of roof over their heads. Many of the smaller churches of England were probably not destroyed by the Normans so much as by the great Victorian rebuilding. Many people would have worshipped in the same church, built by their ancestors, in the period after 1066, as before.

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A chapel of Norwich Cathedral, a new foundation of the Normans that exhibits the Romanesque style in its purest form.

At the same time, however, many of the products of Anglo-Saxon culture went forever. Some treasures were taken away by the cartload to adorn family homes in Normandy. Of course, there had always been inter-cultural traffic across the Channel, but it had been two-way. Charlemagne and his successors in the Holy Roman Empire had recruited scholars from English monasteries and refugees, including most famously, St Dunstan, the Wessex royal family in the time of Cnut, and Edward the Confessor. At those levels of society, the Norman aristocratic takeover may well have benefited Britain’s contacts with the mainstream of European culture, more by accident than design, but it is more likely that, at lower levels of English society, Anglo-Saxon culture was set back for generations, if not for longer. In order to provide the splendid settings for the celebration of the liturgy and to exalt their hierarchy in the eyes of the laity, the Reformers built cathedrals and churches of a scale and ambition unknown in Britain since the fall of the Roman Empire. Their model was the gigantic Abbey Church of Cluny, the Benedictine monastery in Burgundy, the chief centre of the Reform movement which had taken firm root in Normandy. Unusually by continental practice, several of the Anglo-Saxon cathedrals had been run by monks rather than by canons. As part of their reorganisation of the English church, the Reformers changed not only many of the ‘sees’ into growing centres of population as when they moved the bishopric of Norfolk from Thetford and North Elmham to Norwich, but also made new cathedrals, like Norwich, and older cathedrals, like Winchester, monastic foundations, confident that the monks would be more rigorous proponents and interpreters of the new ideas and practices than the old ‘secular’ clergy were, in their eyes.

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 with the tree of life in the tympanum.

To carry out their ambitious building plans the Norman prelates and reformers had to turn to masons and sculptors in whose numbers genius flourished, often anonymously, to an exceptional degree at this period. With their skills, the atmosphere of holiness was more developed through the creation of beauty than grandeur. In smaller churches, the attention of the sculptors was largely devoted to the door and the porch: it was here in the Middle Ages that marriages were celebrated and funeral services were conducted and the door itself symbolised entry into higher worlds of angels and of God and his saints in glory. Sometimes, as at Kilpeck (above), the column shafts of the doors are twisted with tentacular vegetation in which men, animals and centaurs writhe, depicting the synthesis of indigenous religious symbolism rather than continental Romanesque forms. Viking dragon heads stick out from high in the west wall with a series of figures and heads carved in frieze under the eaves, recalling the Celtic cult of the severed head. One of these figures is of a woman displaying her vulva on giving birth. Examples of these figures, a survival of the cult of the Great Goddess, are not unusual, especially in Ireland.

Malmesbury, Wiltshire. The richly carved south porch of the abbey church with its bands of panels.

Sometimes, as at Malmesbury Abbey, the door surrounds were carved both with the cycle of months, depicting the round of life for the largely rustic population, and with the signs of the zodiac whose symbols showed the action of higher celestial causes upon human affairs, alternated with vegetative ornament and interlinked lozenges. Sometimes the tympanum above the door shows Christ with censing angels; sometimes a knight rides down a monster, piercing it with his lance, showing the triumph of good over evil. More often the vocabulary of the ornament is more simple, more ancient in its origins and more powerful. The surrounds of the doors are covered in series of chevron or zigzag patterns which are as old, in the British Isles at least, as the carvings at New Grange, shown below:

Often ferocious heads with beaks of teeth and tongues protruding to devour the band of stone beneath them recall teeth and tongues the demon hounds of Anglo-Saxon folklore or the Fenris wolves of Nordic mythology, such as at St Germans in Cornwall, the ancient see of the peninsula removed by the Normans to the alien jurisdiction of Exeter. To St Germans the masons took the blue Elvan stone from the quarries of Landrake to carve the beautiful door over which the green pleurococcus grows, making a bright contrast with the colour of the stone. The contrast between the old and the new religions is shown most interestingly at Avebury church, where the basic image of the Avebury stone circle is carved together with the image of a bishop piercing a serpent; a few miles away, at Winterbourne Monkton, the font has the figure of the Great Mother giving birth to the vegetation of the earth. Where the greater churches are concerned, it is the Roman influence that is most easily discerned at first. The form of early Christian churches derived from the Roman basilica, a secular type of building devised for administration and the courts; the rites of the Romans, involving sacrifices and fires as they did, required that they should be performed out of doors and the interiors of their temples, apart from holding the images of the gods, were not as important as the exteriors. Partly because of the early years of persecution of Christianity in Britain, and the need for privacy, Christian ritual was conducted indoors and this meant that as populations grew, especially in towns or where there were much-frequented shrines, there was a need to provide even greater areas of enclosed and weather-proofed space.

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The Norman Church at Iffley, Oxfordshire, was built in the continental Romanesque style. It appears almost Saxon in style and scale. Norman churches were usually much larger and more imposing than those built before the Conquest.

Some of the smaller churches were also partly or entirely rebuilt, in addition to many new ones being founded. Melbourne in Derbyshire, Christchurch Priory in Dorset, and Iffley in Oxfordshire are all good examples. Saxon doorways and window arches sometimes survive in these when all else has gone, although not always in their original position, and often alongside more elaborate Norman doorways whose sculpture is reminiscent of Norse styles. It seems obvious that this tremendous outburst of the building was kick-started by the military conquest, but not all the physical evidence suggests that the architectural similarities between the two sides of the Channel were brought about by a complete and violent conquest of one side by the other. The very fact that the last ruling member of the Royal House of Wessex, Edward the Confessor, was half-Norman, and that it was he who built the most treasured of England’s ecclesiastical jewels, Westminster Abbey, completed just in time for his funeral, is a reminder that a revolution in building in stone was already underway before the Conquest. Although much of the original Abbey was pulled down and replaced in the thirteenth century, we can still get an idea of its appearance from the Bayeux tapestry. It seems very much like some of the Abbeys of Normandy which Edward would have seen during his twenty-year exile there. The building of the Abbey may very well have been supervised by Norman architects, part of the rebuilding of church architecture which had begun in the late tenth century, after the Viking raids, and had continued unbroken under Cnut.

Reformers, Masons & Monks:

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At the time of the Norman Conquest, there grew up a deliberate policy of trying to match and even outdo the Romans in building projects: the masons and architects who travelled as widely as did their clerical and noble patrons had plenty of opportunities to see great numbers of largely intact or largely preserved Roman buildings both in England and further abroad. They adopted the round column forms of classical temple architecture and also the piers and arches of great Roman aqueducts for the interiors of the great churches, sometimes using the one form entirely, as with the columns of Gloucester and Tewksbury cathedrals, and some times alternating them as at Durham (above). The effect of bringing the outdoors inside and of combining them to non-classical rules of proportions, however, is entirely un-Roman and innovative. The effect is to bring indoors the Nordic, the Saxon and the Celtic elemental forms. At Gloucester, though no traces now remain, the gigantic columns were once painted with patterns of vegetation in vivid greens and yellows. At Durham, not only did they paint the columns in red and black, but they carved the columns with the chevron, spiral and lozenge patterns of the Great Goddess (shown below).

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Durham: The interior of the nave showing the alternation of round and shafted piers. The lozenge and chevron patterns on the round piers are both designs of great antiquity, going back as far as the pagan times of the patterns on the stone at New Grange, c. 3300 BC (pictured above).

But the masons and the sculptors of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries were not secret supporters of the old religion. Although rites and superstitions survived, the craftsmen worked too closely with the clergy, the chief enemies of paganism, for them to have had any such affiliations. What has to be understood first of all is that these masons were artists and therefore both interpreters and transcenders of their epoch. To enter the nave at Durham and to look at those columns and piers is to enter at once into the world of time and energy of their particular epoch. In the forty years, from 1093 to 1133, that was taken in the building of these great columns and the vaulting they support, Jerusalem was taken for Christianity and north-western Europe had expanded to a point unsurpassed since the Celtic migrations of the fourth century BC. This led to a revival of legends, myths and symbols from the Celtic past and was included in the Christian stones of the new abbeys and cathedrals. In many ways, this was a renaissance of Celtic and early Saxon Christianity, as it had existed before the takeover by the Roman Church in the sixth century. Finally, the two traditions were intertwining. Irish Romanesque, in its late flowering and transitional period, produced some of the best work in this style, possibly because it was free from Anglo-Norman patronage. With its subtlety of interlace ornament, its lighthearted and fantastic monsters, and the purity of its line, examples of the style can be found in the length and breadth of Ireland, often in ruined and roofless churches like Clonfert, now a cathedral, and originally the sixth-century foundation of St Brendan the Navigator.

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St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle.

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Besides the great Romanesque and Gothic abbeys of the eleventh century, we must look at some of the smaller monuments of the Reform Movement, like the tiny chapel built by Margaret of Scotland, now standing on a rampart of Edinburgh Castle (above). As we have seen, she was descended from the kings of Wessex and Hungary’s Arpád dynasty and married Malcolm Canmore, the Scots’ monarch who united Scotland with the help of Hungarian noblemen and Norman adventurers. Margaret invited the Benedictine Order to establish a monastery in Dunfermline, Fife in 1072 and established ferries at Queensferry and North Berwick to assist pilgrims journeying from south of the Firth of Forth to St. Andrews in Fife. She used a cave on the banks of the Tower Burn in Dunfermline as a place of devotion and prayer. Among other deeds, Margaret instigated the restoration of Iona Abbey. She is also known to have interceded for the release of fellow English exiles who had been forced into serfdom by the Norman conquest of England.

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Image of Saint Margaret in a window in her chapel at Edinburgh Castle.

Throughout medieval Christendom, a proportion of people found the ministry of the ‘secular church’ an inadequate answer to their spiritual needs. For these people, living within a monastic community was the solution. The early British monasteries were of two types, one unique to the ‘Celtic’ kingdoms and the other conforming to the continental pattern. Monasteries in Gaelic Ireland were inspired by the early ascetic traditions of Egypt and Palestine. They imposed a harsh code of self-denial on the monks, and their communities tended to be in locations that emphasised solitude and remoteness. Irish missionaries who founded the early monasteries in Scotland, based on the one at Iona, brought these same ideas with them. Although the Celtic influence was still strong in northern England at the beginning of the eleventh century, from the seventh century onwards monasticism in all the English kingdoms tended to be based on the Benedictine rule, written in about 550. The first purely Benedictine houses in Britain were at Hexham (below) and Ripon, founded by St Wilfred of York in the late seventh century, but Benedictine ideas were also adopted from the abbeys in France and were current in English monasteries by this time. The location of English monasteries, moreover, was determined more by association with local saints than by ideals of remoteness. Thus, monastic communities had evolved at places such as St Albans and Bury St Edmunds, around the shrines of their saints and martyrs.

By the tenth century, monasticism in England had become so lax that a major reform initiative was required. A great wave of monastic reform spread throughout Europe from the abbey at Cluny, in Burgundy. It reached England in 1077, with the founding of a Cluniac priory at Lewis in Sussex. The religious order most favoured by William and his sons was that of Cluny. The two most notable sites of the Cluniac foundation are both in Norfolk, at Thetford and Castle Acre. After the Norman Conquest, other reforming ideas spread from the Continent and passed easily into England, and huge numbers of new foundations were established in the early twelfth century, many of them for women. One new order, founded by Gilbert of Semprigham, combined monks and nuns in ‘double houses’. This new model of monasticism was a peculiarly British contribution to the reform movement and, especially among the Cistercians and the Gilbertines, led to the opening of doors to the humble and illiterate who desired the monastic life. Except for the Gilbertines, all the new orders introduced in the twelfth century; the Premonstratensions and Victorines, the Tironensians, the Carthusians, the Augustinians and the Cistercians, were all of foreign origin.

The most enduring of the new orders were the Cistercians, founded at Citeaux in Burgundy in 1098 by monks who wanted to revive the purity and simplicity of early Benedictine monasticism. Acting from the highest spiritual ideals, Bernard of Clairvaux gave them a new release of energy already tapped by the Normans in their expansion around Europe. From their first foundation at Waverley in 1128, they spread rapidly throughout Britain.

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Castle Acre, Norfolk: Romanesque arcades inside the west front of the Cluniac Abbey Church.
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The Augustinians equalled the Cistercians in the number of their houses and in their complement of members. Their canons, founded at the beginning of the twelfth century, supplemented the work of parish priests by combining extra external ministry with the cloistered life. In the reign of Henry I, Matilda, his queen, daughter of Malcolm III and Margaret of Scotland, founded the house of Holy Trinity in Aldgate and his court jester Rahere founded St Bartholemew’s Smithfield. This great Romanesque church survives next to the ancient hospital of the same name which was originally part of the foundation. Henry I also handed over to them what was to become their richest abbey, in Cirencester, where they also built the splendid parish church for the townspeople.

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Dryburgh, the Borders. A view of the crossing showing the north transept of this famous Premonstratensian house.

Between them, the new orders had a profound effect on the political and historical development, the landscape and the agriculture of the British Isles. The Premonstratensians came from Prémontré, just outside Laon, and formed communities of priests or nuns who followed a less strict rule than that of the monks and were allowed more contact with the world outside their monasteries and nunneries. They were particularly important to Scotland, founding among their great houses the Border house of Dryburgh and also reviving the holy site of St. Ninian’s white church at Whithorn. These new foundations were sometimes made at the expense of the original Celtic orders, however. Bishop Robert of St Andrews, with the agreement of David I ( reigned 1124-53), dispossessed the Celtic monks or ‘Culdees’ at St Andrew’s in order to place the most sacred relics in Scotland in the care of the Austin canons. Bishop Robert had been the prior of the Augustinian house at Scone, and he built on the promontory of St Andrews the church dedicated to St Regulus or St Rule, the Syrian monk who, according to legend, had brought the bones of St Andrew to Scotland in the fourth century.

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The main purpose of the monastery remained the contemplation and worship of God within the abbey walls. Although most monasteries probably remained poor, the wealth of a few, especially those, like Westminster, that enjoyed royal patronage, had given monasticism a bad image by the later middle ages. The Cistercian order remained wholly different in spirit from the Augustinians’ wealth and political influence, however. Because they favoured remote and uncultivated sites, the Cistercian monks were attracted to northern England, Scotland and Wales. The economy of Cistercian monasticism was based typically on sheep farming, but they also farmed coastal marshlands and woodlands. What mattered most was that it should be land that was not wanted by anyone else, and therefore not part of the system of feudal obligations imposed by the barons and under-tenants. The Cistercians exploited their far-flung estates by means of ‘granges’, model farms operated by conversi, or lay brothers, who supervised paid labourers. Most granges were established in the twelfth century, the great era of Cistercian expansion, and by the end of that century, Yorkshire alone had forty-six of them, averaging 188 hectares each (464 acres). In upland rural districts, such as in Wales, where the land might be barren, granges might be ten times the size, and parishes might be far apart and ill-equipped, so monasteries had always provided pastoral ministry. Scottish Cistercian monasteries operated a whole ‘mission field’ across southwest Scotland.

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A Benedictine Monastery.

Although the first Cistercian house in England was at Waverley in Surrey, founded in 1128, it was the founding of Rievaulx in Yorkshire in 1132 that gave the great impetus to the development of Cistercianism in the British Isles. This led shortly to the founding of Fountains Abbey, the story of which contains much in it that reveals the inner spirit of the Cistercian ideal. Thirteen monks at the rich abbey of St Mary’s York, including the prior of the abbey, were disturbed by the laxity and the luxury of their life there under their elderly and kind Abbot Geoffrey, who could not at all understand their longing for a sterner and a more frugal discipline. They found the large meals there difficult to resist and yet a constant reproof to their own weakness. Thurstan, the Archbishop of York, was sympathetic to these monks, but when he tried to intervene the abbot refused him entry to the chapter-house. Thurstan laid the abbey under interdict and he, together with the monks, shut themselves up in the abbey church, afterwards escaping to Thurstan’s palace where they were under his protection.

The ruins of the once magnificent Rievaulx Abbey.

Thurstan took them with him for Christmas 1132 and gave them a grant of Skeldale. They erected wooden huts under a great elm tree, where they lived in terrible hardship during the early days of the building of the abbey. The abundance of springs and streams in the neighbourhood gave the abbey its name of Fountains. The land was entirely uncultivated and the sufferings of the monks from cold and hunger were intense. In 1333, having elected Richard as their abbot, they wrote to Bernard asking to be received into the Cistercian order. He not only agreed but sent one of the senior monks of Clairvaux to instruct them in the Cistercian rule. The fortunes of the abbey turned for the better in 1135 when the Dean of York resigned his benefice to join them as a monk, bringing with him money, lands and books. The community quickly attracted so many new recruits that in fifteen years it was able to send out ninety monks to found six new monasteries in England and one in Norway. Though most of the buildings at Fountains Abbey are now roofless, including the abbey church, so much remains of the walls of the monastic complex that it is one of the finest sites for appreciating all the various sides of medieval monastic life. The abbeys of Rievaulx, Fountains and Byland in North Yorkshire are among the most celebrated monastic sites in England. Among the daughter houses of Rievaulx was the greatest of the Scottish border abbeys, Melrose, established at the request of David I, in the place where Aidan had first founded a monastery. The Cistercians spread also to Wales, where among the remains of their work are the abbeys of Strata Florida and Valle Crucis. The first of their foundations in Wales is the most famous, Tintern (below), founded in 1131 beside the River Wye.

The Fabric of Saxo-Norman Everyday Life:

Castles, cathedrals, abbeys and churches are, however, only half the story, and we still need to see what the landscape and archaeological evidence tells us about the fate of ordinary Anglo-Saxons, and what effect the invasion had on the fabric of everyday life. In the north of England, many villages do seem to have been entirely re-planned, or built from scratch, during the twelfth century. It might be that earlier settlements had been destroyed either by Danes or that their new Norman lords might have wanted tidy nucleated villages, with the stone church and manor house at the centre, in place of earlier displaced and sprawling farms and hamlets. Certainly, some quite drastic reorganisation took place in an attempt to impose, or re-impose, feudal discipline. However, in East Anglia, there is a discernible continuity in the archaeological record. Pottery was still being made in some quantity, with kilns in several eastern towns, such as Thetford, Norwich and Ipswich, making the hard grey sandy pottery known as Thetford ware. There were also other types of pottery, some more elegant, from different parts of England, some still hand-made. Taken together, this pottery is known as Saxo-Norman ware and dates from the mid-tenth to the mid-twelfth centuries. It spans the Conquest neatly with no discernible break in style, production or distribution. According to this important indicator, the Norman Conquest did not result in a dislocation of trade and industry.

Another important source of archaeological information is coinage. Edward the Confessor’s coins were thin silver pennies, struck at more than sixty mints, with the bust of the king on one side, together with his name and title, and the name of the mint and the moneyer on the other. The design was changed at regular intervals and people had to bring in their old coins to be exchanged for new ones. Although a complicated system, it seemed to work well. When Harold became king, he ordered a new coinage in his own name, and William did the same. Ironically, perhaps, his bust (below) looked rather similar to Harold’s (above), and the names of the moneyers stamped on the coins stayed the same.

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In fact, both the coins and the system of minting remained the same under all three kings, through all the upheavals of 1066. Coins, like pottery, are Saxo-Norman, without either a stylistic or organisational break, in the mid-eleventh century. Even as late as the reign of Henry I, the majority of moneyers still had Anglo-Saxon names. Styles of dress and ornament didn’t change much either, apart from the short haircuts favoured by Normans, who thought the Saxons effete, with their long hair. As throughout the later Saxon and early medieval periods in general, no great quantity of small metal artefacts has been found. The strap-ends and brooches of the eleventh to twelfth centuries are not sufficiently numerous for any real argument to be based upon them.

Late Saxon silver disc brooches with elaborate animal ornament, found by a grave-digger in Norfolk in the late 1970s.

The upper classes may have lived in castles, but so far as we can tell the ordinary townsfolk and peasants went on living in the same types of houses they had lived in before, assuming that it had not been burnt down by the occupying armies of the Conquest period, or by their new lords. Changes in rural housing came only much later, in the centuries after the eleventh, when more solid buildings with stone walls or stone foundations replaced more fragile timber cottages. In towns, stone houses were built in the early twelfth century, and a few of these survive, like Moyses Hall in Bury St Edmunds, now a museum. In Norwich part of a house was recently excavated from a riverside site. But these are few and far between, and their relationship to Jews is probably due to the fact that only wealthy people, such as merchants and moneylenders, could afford to build in stone or had the need for the security provided by stone walls to protect that wealth and to protect their families from pogroms. There may also in any case have been stone buildings in towns before the Conquest, other than churches. The castle at Winchester seems to have been built on the site of a previous masonry building, and a large stone hall, probably ninth-century, has recently been excavated in Northampton. The property boundaries within towns also show a marked degree of continuity, even to the present day. At York and Durham, excavation has shown that there is an uninterrupted sequence in the layout of streets, houses and plots from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. Within towns, the building of castles and ecclesiastical complexes certainly caused much dislocation and destruction, but street patterns and building plots remained much as they had been.

Anglo-Saxon houses changed little during the Conquest period.
Reconstructions at West Stow in Suffolk.

The Languages of the Conquest Period in England:

William’s coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, an act of triumph, signalled the condition of England for the next two hundred years. He was crowned in a ceremony that used both English and Latin. He himself spoke only Norman French and though he tried to learn English at the age of forty-three he was apparently too busy to keep it up. The Norman kings who followed him were equally totally ignorant of English until Henry I, who had an Anglo-Scottish wife. He was the exception in being able to speak some English. So from 1066, there were three languages in play in England and several dialects of English and Anglo-Danish. In upper-class circles, it was no doubt the fashionable thing to speak French, but the overwhelming majority of ordinary English people experienced the humiliation of linguistic separation: religion, law, science, literature were all conducted in languages other than English, to which words like felony, perjury, attorney, bailiff and nobility testify. Going by the written record alone, the supremacy of Norman French and Latin seems to have been total. Yet it was not until 1154 that the monks who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle abandoned their work, as the extract below shows. A great silence seems to descend on English writing and documentary evidence in the vernacular. As a result of the social and political upheaval caused by the Norman Conquest, the standard West Saxon system of spelling and punctuation gradually went out of use. Writers used spellings that matched the pronunciation of their spoken dialect. After several copies, therefore, the writing might contain a mixture of different dialectal forms.

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The Anglo-Saxon (Peterborough) Chronicle for 1066, written in the West Saxon standard OE.
A word-for-word translation is given below.
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*children’s mass day = Holy Innocents’ Day, 28 December. *twelfth mass eve = Twelfth Night, Eve of Epiphany, 5 January. *twelfth mass day = Epiphany, 6 January. *St Michael’s Day, 28 September.

The manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was written at Peterborough Abbey is important for both historical and linguistic reasons. Firstly, it is the only copy of the chronicle which describes events up until the middle of the twelfth century, the end of the Norman period and the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty, in 1154. Secondly, it gives us the first direct evidence for the language change taking place in the 1150s. We know that the monastery’s library was destroyed by fire in 1116, including its original copy of the chronicle. It had to be re-written using a borrowed copy. This copy is the one that has survived to this day and is called the Peterborough Chronicle. The entries for the years up to 1121 are all in the same hand, copied in ‘classical’ West Saxon OE. But there are also two ‘continuation’ volumes of the annals, one recording events from 1122 to 1131 and the other continuing from 1132 to 1154, where the chronicle ends. The language of these later volumes is not classical West Saxon but is markedly different, providing good evidence of the English usage of the Fenland area at that time. The Peterborough scribes were probably local to that area, speaking the (East) Mercian dialect. Since it was also within the Danelaw, there is some evidence of ON influence as well. As the annals were probably written from dictation, the scribes tended to spell the English as they heard it and spoke it themselves. As the monks were also trained in the writing of French by this time, some of these spelling conventions also influenced their record. These detectable differences in the later annals are what marks the boundary between the Old English of the House of Wessex and their scribes and the Middle English of the next three centuries before the advent of printing to Britain. As a result, there is plenty of evidence for the survival of different OE dialects into Middle English.

Left: Harold was the last king of England to speak English as his native language for three hundred and fifty years. Right: The Bayeux Tapestry was a masterpiece of Saxon artistry telling the story of the Conquest. The Latin words used above the pictures also provide useful linguistic evidence.

After the Conquest of England, from 1066 to 1086, Norman French replaced the West Saxon standard English as the language of the ruling classes and their servants, because nearly all of the former Saxon greater nobility were dispossessed of their lands. The chronicler Robert Mannyng, writing in the north-eastern Midlands dialect in 1338, referred to this takeover of estates by Franks, Normans, Flemmings and Picards who came over with the Conqueror. William’s policy of dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon nobility from their tenures held even more firmly in the Church. The invasion had begun as a ‘crusade’, undertaken with the blessing of the Pope who had been angered by the independence of the English church in making appointments. French-speaking bishops and abbots were appointed to the principal offices, and many French monks entered the monasteries. Latin remained the principal language of both Church and State in official documents, while French became the prestige language of courtly life and communication with and between the King’s tenants-in-chief. French was established as the smart tongue for everyday use and Latin as the professional language, but though French had cultural and social prestige, Latin remained the principal language of religion and learning. Yet the use of French in England was probably natural to only an élite of churchmen and magnates. The continuity of the English language in the mouths of the mass of ordinary folk was never in doubt.

There are two main reasons why English survived and was not absorbed into the dominant Norman tongue within a century of the initial invasion. The first and most obvious was that the pre-Conquest Old English vernacular, both written and spoken, was simply too well established, too vigorous and, thanks to its fusion with Danish, too colloquial to be obliterated. It was one thing for the written record to become Latin and French (writing was the skilled monopoly of church-educated clerks), but it would have needed many centuries of French rule to eradicate it as the popular speech of ordinary people. The English speakers had an overwhelming demographic advantage and were not going to stop speaking English to each other simply because they had been conquered by foreigners. Second, the English language survived because, almost immediately, the Normans began to intermarry with the native population. Of course, in the first generation, there were bound to be deep divisions within society. There is a document dating from around 1100 addressed by Henry I to all his faithful people, both French and English, in Herefordshire, appealing for ‘the King’s Peace’ to prevail. But a hundred years after the invasion, a chronicler wrote that:

The two nations have become so mixed that it is scarcely possible today, speaking of free men, to tell who is English and who is of Norman race.

There is plenty of early twelfth-century evidence of peaceful co-existence between Norman overlords and English subjects. There were French towns alongside the English ones at Norwich and Nottingham, as well as French quarters in London and Southampton. The historian Ordericus Vitalis provides good evidence of the decline of French in an educated society, both courtly and clerical. The son of a Norman knight and an English mother, Ordericus was born less than a decade after the Conquest near Shrewsbury and was taught Latin by a local priest. At the age of ten, he was sent to continue his education in a monastery in Normandy. There, he wrote (in Latin), like Joseph in Egypt, I heard a language which I did not know. In other words, he knew no French.

How the Land was Held:

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Hadingham was a typical village of the English Midlands where the soil was well-suited to growing corn. The arable land had been greatly extended, though, in Norman times, Hadingham was still surrounded by woodland. The plan shows that the fields were divided into acre-strips, one furlong in length and four rods in width (1 rod= 5+ yards). A furlong (‘furrow long’) was the distance a man could plough a straight furrow. The strips of the villagers were scattered about in order to ensure fair shares of fertile, fallow, and wet or weedy land. The Lord of the Manor had agreed to protect the villagers during the time of the Danish invasions if they would protect them. They were his ‘tenants’ and owed various services (‘dues’) to him by working on his land, or demesne. He held several manors bestowed on him, after the Conquest, by King William himself, to whom he was the tenant.

Much of the visible fabric of Anglo-Saxon England was still to be seen in Norman England. The Anglo-Saxon system of administration also continued in use. We know a great deal about this, partly from the documents of pre-Conquest England: law codes, charters, wills, letters and so on. We also have the Domesday Book, which although drawn up by the Norman king, twenty years after the Conquest began, records the state of the country ‘in the time of King Edward’ and ‘now’, i.e. 1066 and 1086, so that it describes both pre-and post-Conquest conditions. It is, in fact, principally an Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Danish document, building on earlier documents, as well as oral testimony, and it does not attempt to introduce anything new, but to explain exactly who owned what, by what right they held it, and what dues were owed. William wanted to know exactly what his kingdom added up to and to make sure that he was receiving all the taxes owed to him, but he was not trying to introduce new forms of taxation. Some features of Anglo-Saxon law were altered: the position of women, for example, was drastically downgraded by the Conquest. They lost the right to own property independently of fathers or husbands, something not recovered until an Act of Parliament in 1882. But a great many of the pre-Conquest laws were retained.

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From the Manorial assessments in Domesday, it’s apparent that most of the magnates did not depend on royal patronage for their continuing tenure, but by keeping the peace on their lands, chiefly by respecting the pre-Conquest rights of their tenants, and managing their manors and estates diplomatically, especially in their relations with neighbouring magnates. There is also evidence of greater stratification among the landowning classes, with many examples of sub-tenanting of manors and more flexible arrangements where the management of freemen was concerned. For example, in the case of the Goulafriére/ Golafre family in Suffolk, this may have been due to their desire (at least initially) to continue to maintain and manage lands in Normandy, under Duke Robert. Under the Conqueror’s eldest son, Guillaume de Goulafriére fought in the First Crusade which left Normandy in 1096. His estates in England passed to his son, Roger, who was Lord of Oakenhill Hall Manor in the reign of Henry II. The main branches of the family are documented as holding lands in East Anglia, especially Suffolk, and Essex, between Domesday (1086) and 1273. There are also references to the family name, or variants of it, in court records for Sussex, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Twentieth-century map of Suffolk. Most of its settlements other than Ipswich, Felixstowe and Lowestoft, have changed little since Domesday.

In Suffolk, where Copinger’s 1905 book helps us to piece together something of the history of each manor, we find that in pre-Conquest times, the village of Aspall had two small manors, one held by Brictmar in the time of Edward the Confessor, a freeman under commendation to Edric. He held thirty acres, which at Domesday was held by Robert Malet as the tenant of his mother. She was the widow of William Malet, a baronial tenant-in-chief, who accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the few Norman barons proven to be present at Hastings, taking care of Harold’s body after the battle, on William’s command. Legend has it that William Malet’s mother was English and that he was the uncle of King Harold’s wife Eadith (the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, who was the father of Eadith). Despite his obviously divided loyalties, William of Normandy rewarded his faithfulness. He was soon appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and given the great honour of Eye (Priory), with lands in Suffolk and several other shires. It was in fact the largest lordship in East Anglia. He built a motte and bailey at Eye and started a market there. He died in 1071, probably in trying to crush the rebellion of Hereward, and on his death was one of the twelve greatest landholders in England. His son Robert became a close advisor to Henry I, and at the time of The Domesday Survey, held 221 manors in Suffolk alone.

The other manor, also thirty acres, was originally held by Siric, another freeman. Robert Malet was the tenant-in-chief in 1086, but Stigand was the under-tenant. Whether or not this was the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, whose uncanonical appointment was one justification given by the Pope for his support for William, we cannot be sure. Although he died in 1072, Stigand’s significant land tenure is still recorded in Domesday in his name, and we know that he continued to hold manors in Elmham and Ashingdon in Essex, where he had been the Bishop of Norfolk, even after he was deposed by William in 1070. It seems that here at least, the Saxon freehold may well have survived the Conquest since William was not strong enough (at first) to remove Stigand. Domesday is, therefore, a very good monument to the Norman Conquest, precisely because it is a monument to Anglo-Saxon England. It reveals how the basic structure of government, land ownership and society as a whole was essentially the same after twenty years as it had been in the time of King Edward. But it also, at the same time, records the extent of destruction and devastation which occurred and reveals how many of the landlords’ names had changed from Anglo-Saxon or Danish to Norman-French or Breton. Such changes need to be treated with caution, however, as they do not always mean a change in identity: the lesser thegns, freemen and burghers may have taken to calling their children by Norman Christian names, such as Robert or Roger, but they could still have been Anglo-Saxon or Danish. And the unfree peasants still worked the fields and paid taxes, whatever names their lords had.

The Norman Conquest is a good example of a military invasion and conquest which, like the Roman Conquest a thousand years earlier, did leave physical remains in the archaeological record. But, unlike the Roman Conquest, much of the fabric of everyday life in England did survive the coming of the Normans. There was no change in religion, burial rites, house types, jewellery or pottery. The basic population remained the same, so analysis of skeletons does not show a dramatic change in type. Only in the way castles were sited and built and in the drastic rebuilding of religious monuments do we have unequivocal evidence of invasion and occupation. These are the kind of changes that would need to be demonstrated in a prehistoric context before it would be justifiable to speak in terms of a wholesale successful conquest of England, let alone of the other kingdoms and principalities of the British Isles. Whatever the changes in the artefactual remains show between Roman, post-Roman, Saxon and medieval periods, we may still be looking at the same basic population ‘stock’, which adapted over centuries to changes in climate, technology, or the demands of native or foreign ruling dynasties.

The present-day population of the British Isles is a great mixture of constant newcomers, complicating and usually strengthening that mixture. But there is also a great underlying thread of continuity with the earliest farmers, if not with the people who built the megaliths. Archaeology does provide a great deal of information, and we certainly know far more about the distant past now than we knew half a century ago, partly through the addition of genetic testing and careful linguistic analysis, besides what we are unable to glean from often scarce written records. But the answers to our varied questions are not always obvious, and we sometimes have to rid ourselves of our preconceptions in order to arrive at them. One of these is that all change results from invasions and conquests, and another is that change always equals discontinuity.

(For sources, see chapter one.)

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The End of Saxon England? Revisiting the Norman Conquest: Chapter I – The Confessor, the Conqueror & the House of Wessex, 1035-1135

The Battle of Hastings: William the Conqueror rides into battle with his knights at Hastings, as portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry. At Hastings, William’s combination of armoured knights and archers, and their better discipline, triumphed over King Harold’s axe-wielding infantry, or so the ‘story’ goes …

The Tragedy of Harold Godwinson:

The story of the Norman ‘takeover’ of England has been told very often, most vividly in one of the earliest accounts in the form of Queen Matilda’s tapestry, still kept in Bayeux, which gives it the name it is better known by. French legend maintained the tapestry was commissioned and created by Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, and her ladies-in-waiting. Indeed, in France, it is occasionally known as “La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde” (Tapestry of Queen Matilda). But it is now believed that Odo, William’s half-brother, commissioned the tapestry, and if so it was probably designed and constructed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists (Odo’s main power base being by then in Kent); the Latin text contains hints of Anglo-Saxon; other embroideries originate from England at this time, and the vegetable dyes can be found in cloth traditionally woven there. The tapestry was originally hung around the walls of a room but is now displayed around a large central case. It is not really a tapestry but an embroidery, for which Anglo-Saxon women were well-known, since it was made by English ladies. In some ways, it reflects that dual origin: in outline it is comic-strip-cartoon propaganda for William, supporting his claim to be the legitimate King of England, but it can also be read as an epic tragedy, the story of the downfall of Harold after he broke the oath William had extracted from him. It depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings (October 1066). It is thought to date to the late 11th century, within a few years of the battle.

Against this ‘backcloth’, the crisply engraved lines in Edward Freeman’s map of the Battle of Hastings of 1066 depict one of the greatest turning points in England’s history. The Norman army of Duke William lines up in a great arc below Senlac Hill, where the English warriors of King Harold Godwinson await their charge. To the victor that day the spoils would be the English crown and the chance to shape the new nation’s destiny. Freeman’s map was printed in 1869 for the third volume of his History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and Its Results, some eight centuries after the battle, but there are no contemporary plans of the encounter, even if a number of chroniclers provided a reasonable account of its course soon after it was fought. In the light of the previous half-century of Scandinavian intervention in England, the Norman invasion was neither unprecedented nor unexpected. The childless Edward the Confessor, educated in Normandy and a Francophile, perhaps wished to be succeeded by his mother’s great-nephew from when the latter visited Edward’s court in 1051. However, opposition to William’s succession was formidable, especially from the House of Wessex under Earl Harold Godwinson.

A French Invasion:

The army which invaded England was in any case not exclusively Norman and neither were the new aristocrats who replaced many of the Anglo-Danish thegns and ealdormen after 1066. It included men from many parts of France including Bretons, as well as Flemings, Italians and Sicilians. It also comprised some great baronial families of medieval England, those who really did come over with the Conqueror, but who traced their ancestry to Flanders or Aquitaine, Anjou or Brittany, rather than to Normandy. Within two generations the throne had passed first to Henry I, who married into the Wessex royal line and then to Henry II, Count of Anjou and first of the Plantagenets. When we are looking for changes after 1066, we should therefore be cautious about describing anything post-Hastings as ‘Norman’ without qualification, even in terms of the transfer from one dynasty to another. This is even true when discussing the most dramatic contributions of ‘the Normans’ to the landscape, castles and Romanesque architecture. It is in fact a measure of the strength and durability of both Anglo-Saxon and Norman society that a new monarchy and new instrument of government could be imposed by an alien nation while at the same time preserving the continuity of English life. The Norman invasion of England was essentially different from those carried out by the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes before them. It was more like the Roman invasions, especially that of Claudius in AD 43, in that they established themselves through a decisive battle, followed by sudden conquest, rather than through a period of extensive raiding and piecemeal settlement. Once he had taken London and claimed the Crown, William then had to fight hard to retain his new kingdom, but by the time of his death in 1087 the English, both Dane and Saxon, had been subdued under Norman rule. Perhaps it is because of dramatic developments that followed, that the slender nature of the victory on that October day tends to be overlooked.

At Hastings, the mounted knight emerged as the dominating tactical feature of medieval warfare, despite the fact that it took over eight hours for the Normans to overcome the English defence. Harold’s force was classicly Anglo-Danish in composition, comprising the housecarls, the professional men-at-arms, a permanent royal bodyguard founded by Cnut, an élite among the soldiers of Europe and those of the Saxon fyrds who had been able to answer the king’s summons. The housecarls were a mobile force that usually rode to the site of battle before dismounting to fight on foot. Although essentially infantry, the housecarls were well-equipped to challenge the apparent superiority of the mounted knight. Their most distinctive weapon was the long-handled, double-bladed war axe which was capable of bringing down both horse and rider with a single blow. Others would be armed with javelins and swords and all were armoured with knee-length tunics of mail, the ‘hauberk’, a conical helmet with nasal bar and a circular or kite-shaped shield. Beyond fifty yards, the Danish short bow was virtually ineffective against these defences and provided the housecarls could maintain a solid formation they were a potent deterrent to cavalry. The mounted Bretons fled when faced by the housecarls at Hastings, and only weight of numbers appears to have overcome the surviving housecarls as darkness fell. That the horsemen could compete at all with the heavy infantry was due to the introduction of the stirrup to Europe in the eighth century. But to the Normans it was never axiomatic that heavy cavalry should always fight mounted. Therefore, Hastings cannot be taken as demonstrating the innate superiority either of cavalry over infantry or the pre-conquest Norman military system over the Anglo-Danish.

So this was an incontrovertible military invasion by an efficient army under a very tough leader, who had been fighting to maintain his position in his homeland and then to strengthen it as long as he had been able to hold weapons. In the years after 1066, there was a clean sweep of the upper echelons of Anglo-Danish society: the leading Anglo-Saxons were dead or in exile and both the lay aristocracy and the upper levels of the Church saw a considerable change of personnel. The Norman Conquest gives us an excellent opportunity to see exactly what a military invasion looks like on the ground, and what physical traces it might leave. However, we should also bear in mind that the historical account might not tell the whole story and that things might not be as simple as they appear at first. The impact of the Norman Conquest on Anglo-Saxon England has been the subject of conflicting arguments. For long it was held by historians that the bestowers of an entirely new form of life and government rescued Anglo-Saxon society from exhaustion and decadence. Revisionists countered by arguing that a vibrant Anglo-Saxon heritage not only survived the conquest but eventually absorbed the invader and that the achievements of the Norman settlement were due in no small measure to strong Anglo-Saxon and Danish foundations.

Who were ‘the Normans’?

To begin with, however, we need to ask, who were the Normans? It has been traditional to describe them as simply a more sophisticated type of Viking. The ducal family claimed descent from Rollo, a Viking leader who was ceded lands in northern France by Charles the Simple in 911. Rollo and his followers were Scandinavians, like those settling at the same time in eastern England, and Normandy takes its name from them, Northmannia, land of the Northmen. Yet the Scandinavian character of the later Normans is less clear. Contemporaries described William and his followers as Frenchmen. On the Bayeux Tapestry, the battle was marked as being between ‘Angli et Franci’. Examination of the institutions and place names of Normandy tends to suggest that, though certainly not negligible in some areas, the Scandinavian element in the population was not overwhelming. Eleventh-century Normandy preserved many of the institutions of Carolingian France and was in many ways simply a segment of the old empire, like the other warring principalities which had grown up as the successors of Charlemagne, fragmented their inheritance and central authority waned. During the tenth and early eleventh centuries the politics of England, Scandinavia, Scotland and the Duchy of Normandy became increasingly intertwined. The Vikings had long regarded England and the maritime provinces of France as a common theatre of war in which campaigning fleets and armies could move from Channel Coast to Channel Coast as the need arose.

Normandy differed perhaps in being better organised and militarily far stronger than some of the fragments of the Carolingian empire, especially under Duke William. He may have owed his toughness to Viking forebears, but successive dukes married the daughters of other French rulers, the King of France, the Counts of Brittany, while William was the son of a girl from Falaise, and we know next to nothing about her nationality. There is a story that even Rollo’s grandson, Duke Richard I, had to be sent away to learn Norse, which was not his first language. In Rouen, the inhabitants spoke ‘Roman’ and not Norse in the time of Duke William. Archaeological evidence for Scandinavians in Normandy is even more elusive than it is in England. A few Viking burials are known or have been deduced from finds of jewellery or weapons. Some of the swords and axes are of English manufacture, suggesting they had been acquired on campaign in Britain. There is also an earthwork, the Hague Dyke, a prehistoric monument that may have been reused by Vikings. As with ‘Danish camps’ in England, which are seldom anything of the sort, this fortification may not tell us much about Vikings at all.

The Norman Conquest of England, 1066-80:
In the summer of 1066 England faced invasion on two fronts – by the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and by William, Duke of Normandy, both of whom claimed the throne. After Hardrada’s defeat at Stamford Bridge near York, William’s victory at Hastings and Harold’s death, William proceeded to ravage the South East. The Anglo-Danish rebellions of 1068-70 were ruthlessly suppressed, especially through his ‘Harrying of the North’.

Both England and Normandy were a prime focus of Scandinavian interest throughout the eleventh century, militarily and from the point of view of migration. Viking raids were launched from Norman ports and it was the concern of successive English kings to persuade the dukes of Normandy to prevent the use of these harbours by marauding Viking fleets. Such an agreement was concluded at Rouen in March 991 and although not entirely successful it served to foster the growing relationship between England and Normandy. In 1002 Emma, the sister of Duke Richard II, married Aethelraed II of England, and when the west saxon royal family sought refuge from the Viking invasion of 1013, the couple took their sons Edward and Alfred to Normandy, to find sanctuary there. But the estrangement from the new Scandinavian imperial family ruling England was ended in 1016 when Aethelraed’s death allowed Emma to marry his usurper, Cnut. During the reign of Duke Robert I (1027-35), relations between Cnut and Normandy deteriorated and the Duke lent his support to the exiled West Saxons and the aethelings Edward and Alfred. When Cnut died, Harthacnut inherited his kingdoms, but as he ruled in Denmark, his half-brother was nominated as Regent in England, despite opposition from both Emma and Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin seized control of Alfred while he was en route to visit Emma in Winchester, then placing him at the mercy of Harold Harefoot: the Regent’s followers blinded Alfred with a savagery which caused his death. In the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript C), … no more horrible deed was done in this land since the Danes came. Alfred’s betrayal by Godwin embittered relations between the Godwinsons and Alfred’s brother, who became Edward the Confessor.

The End of Danish Rule & the Anglo-Norman Reign of Edward the Confessor:

Emma was still exiled with her husband in 1037, when Harold Harefoot became King of England. However, when he died in 1040 and was briefly succeeded by Harthacnut, Emma and Edward returned to Britain. When Harthacnut died ‘at his drink’ in 1042, the Witan invited Edward to be king. He had been educated in Normandy and admired the Normans, famed for their religious zeal as well as for their skills in warfare. Their enthusiasm for the Church is shown by the number of cathedrals, churches and monasteries they built, and their military strength by the castles they erected. The Norman abbots and bishops were among the best educated clerics of their time. Edward had spent most of his boyhood among priests, and was more fitted to be a nonk than a king. Nevertheless, Edward became king and began a largely peaceful reign which lasted for nearly twenty-five years, despite the continual threat of a Scandinavian invasion and the internecine power struggle between the earldoms of England, which had become the power bases of the rival families of Godwin of Wessex, Siward of Northumbria and Leofric of Mercia. Godwin emerged as the most powerful earl and his authority was such that his own exile in 1051-2, and Edward’s hostility, could do little to diminish it. As king, he paid little attention to affairs of state and devoted himself to prayer and worship and the concerns of the Church.

As a counterbalance to the Godwinsons, Edward attempted to increase Norman influence, giving lands to Norman lords and appointing Norman bishops. Since he remained childless, it seems certain that by 1051 he had pledged the succession to William of Normandy during the Duke’s visit to England. The following year, however, Earl Godwin and his sons, Leofwine and Harold, launched an incursion into England which Edward was powerless to resist. As a result, royal authority was undermined, the Norman connection severed, and the House of Godwin was re-established in a an apparently unassailable position. But the other Anglo-Danish earls, jealous of the Godwin family, would not make a united front against the Normans. When Godwin died in 1053, his family’s influence was maintained and even increased by his sons Harold Godwinson, Tostig, Leofwine and Gyrth. It became increasingly clear to William that if he was to gain the throne of England, it could only be by force of arms. It was at this point that rumours about the survival of the direct line of the Wessex royal family in Hungary began to circulate on the continent, reaching Edward’s ears. William’s journey to the deployment laid out on Freeman’s map had already been a long and complicated one. His claim to be England’s king was dubious in contemporary terms. His great aunt Emma was the wife of King Aethelraed of Wessex, but he had been given a more recent claim by Edward the Confessor which Harold Godwinson had recognised while an enforced guest of William after being shipwrecked in northern France four years later. But, unknown to all three until about 1054, there was a direct claimant to the English throne, who was then in exile at the court of András I, the newly-restored King of Hungary.

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The Wessex Exiles at the Court of the Kings of Hungary:

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The Baptism of István (Stephen) by Bishop Gellért.

Before the reign of István (1000-1038), there are no traces of direct relations between the two countries. Alfred the Great, contemporary of Árpád, the conqueror of the Carpathian Basin, wrote that all he knew of this territory was that it was desert. The Hungarian word ‘puszta’ means ‘desert’, referring to the expansive grasslands of the Great Hungarian Plain which occupies most of the Carpathian Basin. Neither did Alfred write of any of the peoples living in the regions between Carinthia and Bulgaria, which he mentioned. So, the first mention of Hungary is recorded when King István received the two young sons of Eadmund Ironside at his Court, exiles from Canute’s Court following his takeover of their father’s kingdom in 1016-17.

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Archaeological finds along the banks of the Oder and Vistula reveal that, from the early eleventh century, Hungary had direct commercial relations with the Vikings. The road across Russia, and especially to Kyiv, seems to have played a prominent role in these relations. According to a passage in a chronicle written in French verse by Gaimar, who lived in Northumbria, István was acquainted with the Dane Valgarus even before he brought the sons of Eadmund Ironside to the Hungarian Royal Court.

István was the first Christian king of Hungary, anointed by the Pope and sent a crown by him. One of his first laws on founding the state was to order the building of Romanesque-style churches across the country:

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Sándor Fesk, writing in 1940, believed that the Princes lived in Hungary somewhere near the Russian border, hence the confusion of the German chronicler who claimed they were domiciled in ‘Ruzzia’. At that time there was a frontier between Russia and Hungary and the region where the Hungarian, Russian and Polish territories touched was not so well-defined as to exclude the possibility of chroniclers confusing their geographical and political data. The Princes of Wessex may have spent their early years, if not decades, of their exile in the north-east of Hungary in the County of Zemplén, near the Russian frontier (the modern-day border with sub-Carpathian Ukraine), where they first met the future wife of Andrew I, the daughter of Yaroslav, the Grand Duke of Kyiv. Andrew was born about the same year as Edward, who married a Hungarian noblewoman, Agatha, a relative of the German Emperor, and possibly the daughter of István and Gisela. She bore him three children, who were all educated in Hungary. They had two daughters, Margaret, born in 1045, and Christine, and a son, Eadgar, born in 1051.

Popular belief has it that, on their marriage, István gave Edward and Agatha a region in the County of Baranya as their home, in the hills close to the cathedral city of Pécs, which became known as ‘terra Britannorum’. This was probably considered remote enough within Hungary from the Royal Court to provide a home for Edward and Agatha to raise a family, safe enough from Canute’s successors until Edward the Confessor returned the House of Wessex to the throne in 1042. Margaret is said to have been born there, in Mecseknádásd (pictured above), but Edgar may have been born at the Royal Court in Szekesfehérvár, to which the Royal couple returned in about 1046, to aid Andrew I in gaining control of Hungary and in consolidating the Catholic Church. Medieval Hungarian chronicles state that Andrew had an illegitimate son, named George by a woman from the village of Pilismarót. His name became popular among Orthodox believers, and one historian has written that his mother may have been a Russian lady-in-waiting to Andrew’s wife, Anastasia of Kyiv. It has been claimed that George accompanied the Wessex exiles back to Britain, settling with other Magyar nobles in Scotland, and that the Clan Drummond are descended from George and his son Maurice.

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It was only in 1054 that the English courtiers began to hear of Prince Edward of Wessex’s survival in exile and to consider him as a possible heir to the throne. The Confessor’s attention was called to the prince living in exile in a far-away land. Aeldred, then Bishop of Worcester, was the leader of the Saxon partisans of Eadgar Aetheling. He went to Cologne as the Confessor’s ambassador to Henry III, Emperor of Germany, with the request that he should negotiate with the King of Hungary for the return of the Royal family of Wessex. Although the Bishop was received with pomp and splendour, he left the imperial city a year later, without accomplishing this task. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not give the reason why the powerful Emperor of Germany did not comply with the King of England’s request, but other sources suggest that this was due to the emperor being a relative to the Confessor’s then named heir, Harold Godwinson, or it may have been due to his awareness of the Confessor’s promise to William. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated that Aeldred was the first churchman from Britain to travel through Hungary to the Holy Land in 1058. However, by the time Aeldred reached the Hungarian court, Edward the Exile had already returned to England with his family and Henry III had died, thus removing the immediate obstacle to the Exile’s succession. It was only in 1057 that, after four decades of exile, Edward was recalled to England with his family by the ageing, childless Confessor who was delighted to hear of his nephew’s survival and of his family. No doubt, Harold’s betrayal of his brother Alfred and his unpopularity at court had led the Confessor’s preference for the succession of the royal Wessex exiles on their return from Hungary. The ‘Exile’ was due to become heir apparent to the English throne, but he then died mysteriously before he was able to see his uncle to receive his blessing and anointment as his successor.

The Four Claimants to the Throne & the Invasions of 1066:

According to the hereditary succession, Eadgar of Wessex was now the ‘Aetheling’, the rightful heir to the throne and therefore just as much in the way of the ambitions of William the Conqueror as his father and uncle, the exiled princes, had been in the way of Canute the Great. Added to that, Harold Godwinson may also have seen him as an obstacle to his family’s hopes. The Confessor died in January 1066, and although Edgar received the support of both the Saxon thegns and bishops for his claim, being the last prince of the dynasty of Cerdic and Alfred, the Witan chose to appoint Harold as King, partly because Eadgar was still a minor. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had already proclaimed Edgar as King, but there was to be no coronation in 1066. More immediately pressing from Harold’s point of view was the threat of another invading army that had landed in Northumbria. Led by Harald Hardrada of Norway, who believed that he had inherited the Danish dynasty’s rights to the English throne, it defeated the local English militia under Earls Edwin and Morcar and occupied York. The new English king would have been hard pressed to to find two more formidable opponents in northern Europe than Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy. Even so, the the scale of Hardrada’s intervention in September 1066 must have come as a profound shock to Harold. Recruiting further men in Shetland and Orkney to add to the fleet he had brought from Bergen, Hardrada arrived off the north-east coast of England with three hundred vessels and a force that was possibly as large as twelve thousand men.

After ravaging the coast at Cleveland and sacking Scarborough, the Norwegians, accompanied by Tostig, sailed up the Humber estuary as far as Ricall on the River Ouse, nine miles from York. The northern earls, Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia placed their army on the Ouse, between the Norsemen and York. Knowing that Harold was preoccupied with the defence of the south against a landing by William, they must have reasoned that nothing would be gained by delaying battle nor by risking a siege of York. Accordingly on 20 September 1066 they deployed across the road across the road at Fulford with their right on the River Ouse and their left protected by marshy ground near Heslington. The battle was long and bloody and the decisive moment came when Hardrada led his own left inwards to roll up the English line. Pressed into the restricted and marshy ground, the English army was cut to pieces and many of its troops drowned, depriving Harold of over a thousand fighting men sorely needed for the campaign ahead. Hardrada and Tostig did not enter York immediately, but began negotiations for the city’s surrender. Meanwhile, Harold had led the English fyrd on a forced march northwards and on the 25 September caught Hardrada by surprise, defeating and killing him at Stamford Bridge on the River Derwent. Having cleared the bridge, the English army rapidly crossed to the east bank where the Norwegian army were drawn up behind a shield wall three hundred yards away on rising ground. The English launched a determined attack and in the ensuing melée both Hardrada and Tostig were killed. Harold allowed Hardrada’s son Olaf to sail away with twenty-four ships, all that was necessary to carry the survivors of the Viking army. Harold had shown himself to be a formidable commander who could act quickly and decisively, posessing the ability to inspire his troops to heroic efforts. But he soon learnt that William had assembled an invasion fleet, slipped across the Channel and landed on the south coast near Pevensey with an army of around eight thousand men. He was therefore forced to turn south and intercept the Norman duke before he could reach London.

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William’s invasion was his response to the personal and political challenge inherent in Harold’s assumption of the English Crown, an act which not only cut across Edward the Confessor’s promise of 1051 that William should be his heir, but also a violation of the oath of fealty to William extracted from Harold at Bonneville-sur-Torques in 1064. Harold’s coup d’état against the Anglo-Norman élite left William with no choice but to take up arms. This was no knee-jerk reaction, however, but a carefullly-prepared invasion on a massive scale. It began with a three-fold diplomatic initiative designed to enlist the support of his vassals, to foster disunity among his enemies in France and Europe more widely, and to gain the support of the Papacy and popular opinion in Christendom. The success of this propaganda campaign was matched by the speed and organisation of his military and and naval preparations. The total invasion fleet may have numbered three thousand ships, which transported two thousand horses and about seven thousand fighting men. The uncertainties of the coming campaign dictated the need for a safe and large anchorage such as that at Hastings, so William moved his troops and ships to the port, ordered the construction of new defences, and proceeded to waste the the surrounding countryside. It was vital for William’s plans that Harold should attack at the earliest opportunity. Although delay would have increased Harold’s strength and attenuated William’s, the English king, possibly driven by the need to defend his ‘domaine’ against Norman marauding, decided to confront the enemy at the first opportunity. When he marched from London on 11 October, Harold might have hoped that he could surprise the Norman army as he had the Scandinavian one at Stamford. The English halted at what is now the town of Battle during the night of 13-14 October after his second march, this time of sixty miles, which had taken a tremendous toll on the infantry.

Learning of the Anglo-Danish advance, William eagerly seized his chance and marched from Hastings early in the morning, and by 8.30 a.m. the Normans had reached Telham Hill opposite Harold’s position, a mile away, on a ridge crossing a spur of the Downs running south from the forest of Andredsweald. The course and eventual outcome of the ‘Battle of Hastings’ of 14 October 1066 are well known. The housecarls resisted the Norman cavalry charges all day, but the morale of the Anglo-Saxon fyrd collapsed when Harold and his brothers were killed. The fyrd fled the field and were butchered in their hundreds during the retreat. William had won the battle, but not yet a kingdom, and his advance towards London was cautious and halting. By the end of November the Normans could count themselves masters of Kent, Sussex and parts of Hampshire, so that William was able to turn his attention to the capital. It was unlikely that William would be able to storm London with the force at his disposal and he therefore chose to march across the southern, western and northern approaches to the city, laying waste to the country as he went.

After that, resistance was sporadic and although the Witan, as the royal council, offered the throne to Eadgar Aetheling, he commanded little support and no army, and when William approached Berkhamsted, Eadgar met him with the northern earls Edwin and Morcar and the leading men of the church and the city, all of whom offered submission. Although initially proclaiming him king on hearing of Harold Godwinson’s death at Hastings, the Saxon Witenagemot had been disappointed in the teenage Eadgar, and he was never crowned. He was still a minor, and lacked William’s power of leadership. As the latter advanced on London, the Anglo-Saxon leaders acknowleged William as lawful claimant to the throne. There was no other male descendant of the House of Wessex, though the rule of the foreign conqueror seemed all but unbearable. Finally, the thegns were obliged to admit that they could not hope to be liberated by a young king, especially one who did not seem either brave or exceptionally bright. William was crowned at Edward the Confessor’s newly-inaugurated Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. William kept Eadgar in his custody and took him, along with other English leaders, to his court in Normandy in 1067, before returning with them to England. William then consolidated his control over England, taking pains to point out that he, as lawful successor to the Confessor, would guarantee the rights of his new subjects.

The Continuing Conquest, 1067-1072:

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England, or rather the loosely allied Saxon kingdoms which the Kings of Wessex had unified in resistance to Scandinavian invasions and encroachments, from Alfred the Great to Edward the Confessor, was once more divided by the Norman Conquest after 1066, losing its short-lived independence. Edward’s widow, Agatha and her family continued to live in England in the company of the Hungarian gentlemen who had escorted them there and remained in their retinue. Ealdred, the Bishop of Worcester who had arranged for Edward’s return to claim the throne, had continued to support the rights of Eadgar after the Battle of Hastings. He only abandoned his cause when Eadgar himself showed no desire to resist William usurping the throne. Accepting the hopelessness of Eadgar’s case, Ealdred was himself among those who crowned William I at Westminster Abbey, as Archbishop of York (from 1060). It is said that he died of a broken heart in 1069, due to the desperate state of the Saxon cause in the North, following yet another Danish incursion. The rest of the royal family were obliged to contemplate flight, and their thoughts turned again to Hungary. They boarded a ship, presumably bound for Hamburg, but a storm drove them into port in Scotland. They anchored in the harbour which is still called ‘Margaret’s Hope’ on the Forth, and landed there. According to the legend, there they were met by the King of Scots, Malcolm III (Canmore), who rode out to them. Apparently, he soon fell in love with the beautiful, gentle Margaret, and sought her hand in marriage.

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Malcolm greeting Margaret of Wessex at Queensferry. on her arrival in Scotland; detail of a mural by Victorian artist William Hole

After a period of hesitation, Margaret accepted the proffered hand and became his Queen Consort in 1070, and with it a major role in European and Scottish history. Her sister, Christine, eventually returned to England after Edgar’s reconciliation with William the Conqueror. She entered the convent of Romsey back in Wessex and became a nun, playing a prominent role in the education of Queen Margaret’s children, especially her daughter Maud, or Matilda, who became Henry I’s queen consort. Christine became personally acquainted with Anselm, the great Archbishop of Canterbury. However, it is the name of Margaret, of Wessex, Hungary and Scotland who, of the three grandchildren of the Saxon King, Eadmund Ironside, is the most marked by place and time. Her importance lies not only in the fact that the reforms started in the ecclesiastical and political life of Scotland during the reign of Malcolm (Canmore) were due to Margaret’s gentle influence, but also that she ennobled the still austere morals and customs of the kingdom. Indeed, according to the contemporary evidence of both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Simeon of Durham, she also civilized her adoptive country. Her importance to her paternal country England, however, has been underestimated. When Malcolm married Margaret, he agreed to support Edgar in his attempt to reclaim the English throne. Edgar had fled north to join his mother and sisters at the court of King Malcolm of Scotland, from where he had became involved in the abortive rebellion of the Earls Edwin and Morcar in 1068.

By 1068 the harsh new Norman régime had led to native uprisings in England, and soon there were further revolts in the North, among the English supporters of Eadgar the Aetheling. The Norman land grab and their tight system of feudal dues, which was later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, was resisted by some of the thegns, among them Hereward Asketilson of Bourne in Lincolnshire, and many of the commoners followed them, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. When a major rebellion broke out in Northumbria at the beginning of 1069, Edgar returned to England with other rebels who had fled to Scotland, to become the leader, or at least the figurehead, of the revolt. In late summer that year the arrival of a fleet sent by King Sweyn of Denmark triggered a fresh wave of English uprisings in various parts of the country. A Danish fleet in the Humber stirred Wessex and Mercia into action, while Eadgar and the other exiles sailed to the Humber, where they linked up with Northumbrian rebels and the Danes. Their combined forces overwhelmed the Normans at York and they took control of Northumbria. But William’s response was resolute with the Conqueror resorting to terror tactics. Late in the year 1069, he fought his way into Northumbria and occupied York, buying off the Danes and devastating the surrounding country in his well-known ‘Harrying of the North’. He spent the winter of 1069-70 laying waste all before him, until all resistance was ended. A small seaborne raid which Eadgar led into Lindsey (Lincolnshire) ended in disaster and he escaped with only a handful of followers to rejoin the main army. Early in 1070, William moved against Eadgar and other English leaders who had taken refuge with their remaining followers in a marshy region, perhaps Holderness, and put them to flight.This ‘Harrying’ had put paid to any to the serious risings in the north of England and the eastern fenlands in 1069-70. Eadgar returned to Scotland and again sought refuge with Malcolm. He remained there until 1072 when William invaded Scotland and forced King Malcolm to submit to his overlordship at Abernathy.

Resistance & Reconciliation:

William did not attempt a conquest of Scotland, but Malcolm was forced to hand over his eldest son, Duncan, as a hostage. The terms of the agreement between them probably also included the expulsion of Eadgar, who took up residence in Flanders, where the Count, Robert the Frisian, was hostile to the Normans. There was one other serious revolt, in 1075, but this was led by disgruntled Norman barons. There was no longer any threat of a popular Anglo-Danish uprising, but William had learnt that he could no longer count on the support of the native aristocracy and had therefore to rely on his northern French followers to secure the Conquest. Even before the uprisings in the north and east, he had given his half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, the earldom of Kent and the castle at Dover, from which to defend the Channel, while the Welsh marches were guarded by entrusting a vast new earldom of Hereford to his steward, William fitz Osbern, who also held Norwich in case of a Danish attack. Now, in 1071, he gave Hugh d’Avranches the new earldom of Chester, to secure the border with Gwynedd, and then to conquer it if possible. Hugh began by lacing his cousin Robert in the new castle at Rhuddlan. By 1075 another of William’s barons, Roger de Montgomery, now earl of Shrewsbury, was intent on expanding into Powys. William visited St David’s in 1081 and recognised its native ruler, Rhys ap Tewdwr as his vassal in South Wales, while informally acknowledging Robert of Rhuddlan as lord of North Wales.

In 1074 Eadgar was able to return to Scotland once more. Shortly after his arrival there he received an offer from Philip I of France, who was also at odds with William, of a castle and lands near the borders of Normandy from which he would be able to raid his enemies’ homeland. He embarked with his followers for France, but a storm wrecked their ships on the English coast. Many of Eadgar’s men were hunted down by the Normans, but he managed to escape with the remainder to Scotland by land. Following this disaster, he was persuaded by Malcolm to make peace with William and return to England as his subject, abandoning any ambition of regaining his ancestral throne. Later, Edgar was forced to pay homage to William of Normandy and so, we are told, the last male descendant of Cerdic dragged on a sluggish and contented life as the friend and pensioner of Norman patrons. When the First Crusade was preached in England in 1095, he was one of the Anglo-Norman knights to join the contingent of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and we are told that the group he led distinguished itself in service to the Byzantine emperor on the crusade of 1101-2 (see below).

The question of where the anglo-Scottish border should be fixed was still a matter of continual dispute and, when Malcolm invaded England in 1079, William’s son Robert was sent north and built his ‘New Castle’ on the Tyne to help secure the frontier. Margaret died shortly after her husband was killed in fighting in Cumberland in 1093 and Eadgar, having finally given up his claim to the English throne, died in 1126. By then, the continuing tension with the Norman rulers had finally brought to an end by the marriage of Margaret’s daughter, Matilda, to King Henry I of England, second son of William of Normandy (11 November 1100). The marriage produced the dynastic conditions necessary for the reconciliation of the Normans and the Saxons: through it, the Norman usurpers became rightful claimants to the English throne. Another consequence of Matilda’s marriage was that the crown of Alfred the Great passed through an unbroken Wessex royal line to Margaret and then on to the Plantagenet dynasty. Margaret’s granddaughter, also named Matilda, was the mother of the first Plantagenet and Angevin king, Henry II (1154-1189) so that the blood of the Anglo-Saxon kings continued to flow in the veins of the Kings of England through to the end of the Middle Ages.

The Anglo-Danish State of Edward the Confessor:

Besides the survival of a small number of Anglo-Saxon lords from the time of Edward the Confessor, we need to remember that his realm was an Anglo-Danish state in which men of both Anglo-Saxon and Danish descent regarded themselves as ‘English’. This ‘English’ nobility was by no means completely replaced as a result of the Conquest. The various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded in the eleventh and twelfth centuries continue to refer to West Saxons and Mercians, as well as East Anglians and Northumbrians, and also to Danes, but not to ‘Anglo-Saxons’, which was a later, generic nomenclature. In common speech, they were all called ‘English folk’. This is further confirmed in the pages of the Domesday Book, which speaks of Englishmen and Frenchmen, but rarely of Danes and never of ‘Anglo-Saxons’. Ever since the reign of Alfred, the numbers who could claim Danish ‘blood’ had been rising. Like Normandy (‘the French Danelaw’), England had a Scandinavian heritage founded on the settlement by peoples of Danish and Norse origins. Later, men could rightly claim that they came under West Saxon Law or Mercian Law or Dane Law, and a whole area of the country, roughly- speaking north and east of Watling Street but excluding north-western Mercia, could be called ‘Danelagh’. Indeed, the southern Danelaw was more easily absorbed into England than western Mercia because the Danes had more readily accepted Christianity than many Mercians.

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It was in the ‘Danelaw’ that the Danes had settled intensively, in the land of the Five Boroughs (Derby, Lincoln, Nottingham, Leicester and Stamford), in each of which a Danish army had made its base. As for the area further north, incorporation had been more difficult as kings faced a mixed population of Saxons, Scots, Danes and Norse-Irish. There they were therefore content to treat the Danes as equal subjects rather than as a conquered people. By the time of Edward the Elder’s reign, every shire had its own Ealdorman, though he reduced their numbers to eight south of the Trent, five in the Midlands and East Anglia, and two or three in Wessex, while in the Five Boroughs several men styled themselves ‘Eorl’ but without official functions. The Ealdormen were leaders of the shire levies in times of war and presided over the shire ‘moots’. Gradually the work of the Ealdermen expanded so that they became, in effect, provincial governors of a group of shires and so preparing the way for Cnut’s creation of the great Earldoms. In the reign of Ethelred the ‘Unready’ (or ‘ill-advised’), the Danes had arrived in force and conquered the whole country. This marked the disadvantage of the Anglo-Danish division of the country, making it attractive to Scandinavian invaders, as did its immense wealth. There was then a short dynasty of three Danish kings, Cnut the Great and his two sons, Harold I (‘Harefoot’) and ‘Harthacnut’.

Cnut the Great had adopted a policy of promoting Danes or men with Danish connections to positions of power and influence. Most of his ‘jarls’ or earls were in fact Danes, and, of the three great earls who emerged by the end of the reign, Siward of Northumbria was a Dane. It is a tribute to the strength of the Anglo-Danish monarchy developed by Cnut that the two parts of the country, English and Danish, learned to live peacefully together. In eastern England, especially in the areas of Danish settlement, there developed a new element of freedom in local society which took the form of manors consisting of a central estate to which belonged scattered and virtually independent peasants dispersed over a wide area and paying light rents. This explains the frequency with which manors are found to which berewicks and sokes were attached. The essential feature of a manor was the presence of the lord’s house. It has been suggested that Harthacanut actually prepared the way for Edward the Confessor’s succession, making him a sort of joint king and using him as his regent when necessary because he had problems in Denmark and distrusted the earls, but equally it can be argued that he never expected Edward to outlive him. Certainly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the Abingdon Chronicle C) in 1041, says:

And early in the same year came Edward, his brother on his mother’s side, from abroad: he was the son of King Aethelraede, and had long been in exile from his country, but nevertheless was sworn in as King: and then he remained in his brother’s court as long as he {Harthacnut} lived.

After Harthacnut’s death, it would have been possible for any one of the various Danish claimants, Magnus of Norway, Swein Estrithson or Harald Hardrada, to have seized the throne, though it seems that none of them was in a position to do so. The Anglo-Danish group of earls, led by Earls Godwin and Leofric, saw to it that Edward was recalled to England in the closing months of Harthacnut’s reign, where he was received by all folk as king, as was his natural right. This was usually taken to indicate a desire to return to the Alfredian line of kings, since not only was Edward, as the son of Aethelraede II, a descendant of the royal house of Cerdic, and therefore of the god Woden, but also, through his mother Emma, daughter of Richard, Duke of Normandy, descended from Rollo the Viking, his great-great-grandfather, who had founded Normandy. So Edward was also of Scandinavian descent, and that made him acceptable as king to these formidable groups of Anglo-Danish warrior-statesmen. It is perhaps not so surprising that he sought solace in the company of men among whom he had grown up or with whom he had become acquainted in Normandy. This, rather than any deep plot to ‘Normanise’ England or prepare the way for a Norman takeover under William the Bastard, explains his desire to have a number of ‘Frenchmen’ at his court. As already noted, following the return of Edward the Exile, he was, in any case, committed to the Wessex succession until he was on his deathbed.

A further indication of the Anglo-Danish nature of the English state was that Earl Godwin of Wessex had married into the Danish royal family. Of the other earls, only Leofric, Earl of Mercia, was English, the son of Ealdorman Leofwine. Apparently, intermarriage was common at all levels of society but particularly important among the upper classes. There were Danes, too, among the ranks of the king’s thegns, those who held ‘seat and special duty’ in the King’s Hall, and served as his eyes and ears in the shires. There were two ranks of king’s thegns, those of ordinary rank, the Median thegns, and those ‘who stand nearest to him’. In general, when royal writs were addressed to the bishop and sheriff (‘shire-reeve’) and ‘to all my thegns in Norfolk’, the phrase was taken to mean, literally (in the Latin), ‘the King’s ministers’ and therefore to refer to the men from whom he would choose his earls. They attended Witenagemots, meetings of the King’s council, but otherwise did not necessarily hold a specific office. Thus king’s thegns were a numerous class, and some were wealthy men, well equipped for war. Indeed, by the eleventh century, the word ‘thegn’ itself could imply nobility, to distinguish between those who were ‘thegn-born’ and those ‘ceorl-born’. The distinction is borne out by the difference in ‘wergild’, the amount to be paid for slaying a man. A thegn of ordinary rank had a wergild of 1,200 shillings (‘a twelfth-hyndman’) and a ‘ceorl’, or peasant, had one of only two hundred shillings. In the North, while a ‘ceorl’ was valued at a similar price, which equated to 266 ‘thrymas’; a king’s high reeve, a rank below that of a ‘jarl’, was valued at four thousand thrymas and a thegn at half of that.

By the 1060s, the rank of thegn had become hereditary, but a man might thrive and better himself until he held fully five hides of his own land, church and kitchen, bell house and burh gate, seat, and special duty in the king’s hall, then he was thenceforth thegn-right worthy. He might prosper even more and come to serve the king at his summons and among his household, a plain definition of a king’s thegn who might even become an earl. The references in Domesday Book to ‘huscarls’, the Danish fully trained household troops, should not be overlooked either, though such a man corresponded closely to the Old English rank of a thegn. The main difference was that some huscarls formed a highly organised guild of specialised fighting men. The king’s thegns were men with estates in several shires, equivalent in size and value to a Norman barony. For instance, Aelfstan of Boscombe in Wiltshire had lands in eight shires, forfeited after the Conquest and forming the major part of the barony of William, Count of Eu. The king regarded it as necessary to maintain the dignity of his thegns in order to safeguard the honour of the Crown. By the reign of King Edward, many of these royal servants were known by the Scandinavian title of ‘staller’ or placeholder, implying that he was a permanent member of the royal entourage.

In the Danelaw before the Conquest, and particularly in Lincolnshire, society possessed a high degree of freedom. The land was held by thegns and sokemen with free disposal of their estates. They performed service in the ‘Wapentake’, (the local court) in person. ‘Sake’ and ‘soke’ implied a whole range of judicial dues, food rents, labour services, all reserved for the holer of the ‘soke’, the overlord, who was answerable directly to the king. Sake and soke were also held together with toll and team, the right to receive payment from the sale of goods within an estate or to hold a court to settle disputes over cattle or goods. They were also entitled to carry out infangenetheof, the right to hang a thief caught red-handed with stolen goods. The possession of soke and sake was also indicative of the ownership of ‘Bookland’, held through the existence of a landbook or charter. Since they were therefore seen as overlords of lesser men, these king’s thegns were considered by the makers of the Domesday Book to be the designated predecessors of the new Norman owners, and several are listed as conferring the title on their successors. King’s thegns, holding groups of dependent manors were seen by the Normans to resemble lords holding by barony; they could be personally summoned to the ‘fyrd’ and be held responsible for the performance of military service by his knights. It could be said that a ‘fief’- honoured baron was a king’s thegn in all but name. Whether such overlordship was common is still a matter of debate, with some maintaining that there were many more than those mentioned in Domesday, but they must have existed since it was from such men that the Norman successors derived their title to land.

Another indication of overlordship was the existence of multiple manors formed of groups of estates under one lord. That the overlord was not always named is explained because the holders of sake and soke were not always named if the land was held by sub-tenants. The exact proportions of men of English and Danish origin cannot be known and there was certainly much intermarriage so that a man with an English or Danish personal name would not necessarily be only of one ethnicity. By 1066 there were landowners in every part of England with Scandinavian names, many of whom had inherited their land from men who had served Cnut. Ansgar the Staller, for example, was the grandson of Cnut’s man Tovi the Proud. Some indication of proportions can be gained from the lists of personal names used in those areas for which lists exist; these are Northamptonshire, where one-third are Danish names; North Cambridgeshire, where half are; and South Yorkshire, where two-thirds are Danish. Scandinavian names were still in use in the time of Henry II, with hundreds appearing on lists for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, and scores in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Norfolk, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Suffolk. They are noticeably rarer elsewhere, as might be expected.

The Anglo-Danish state established by Cnut was merely the Alfredian state under new management. Huscarls linked the Danish kings to the localities just as the English kings’ thegns had linked them to their wider society. Many among the older aristocracy had been destroyed in the battles of the tenth and early eleventh centuries, to be replaced by the new Anglo-Danish ruling class. During his reign, Cnut had remained, like William I after him, a conqueror, an empire-builder. His authority rested on military force, not blood-right, again like William, but Danish blood-right did not succeed in establishing itself because Cnut’s sons lacked his abilities. So the Old English dynasty was restored for a time, and under Edward, the co-existence of Cnut’s several earldoms proved no threat to the kingdom’s political unity, so that there was never any serious threat of a civil war in which Edward might be removed. But though he succeeded in forcing the powerful Godwinsons to flee the country, he was then unable to keep them out where a more forceful ruler might have done so. Cnut had had no such problems, and never allowed his earls to become the equivalent of continental dukes or counts. They kept the names of their old tribal kingdoms; Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, but Wessex was confined south of the Thames, Mercia no longer ran from the Welsh border to the North Sea, nor Northumbria to the Firth of Forth.

Hereward the Fenland Outlaw:

By Mike Young, for the Ely Society Publications Committee.

It was into this Anglo-Danish state, sometime after 1045, that the legendary Anglo-Danish ‘guerilla’ leader Hereward Asketilson was born. His name was clearly Danish, and the late Peter Rex contended that he was born into a well-to-do Danish family and that his father was a king’s thegn. It is this Danish background that accounts for his alliance with the Danes in 1070. That he might have preferred a Dane as king to the Normans, does not make Hereward a traitor. Even in eleventh-century English society, Hereward was not expected to accept William as his lord and king and was quite free to fight against him. Hereward and those like him who chose to fight the Normans did not see themselves as desiring to return to foreign rule, because to them it was William and his ‘Frenchmen’ who were the foreigners. There is a great deal of mythology surrounding and shrouding this historical figure, but all the sources agree that he was a lord of Bourne in Lincolnshire and the son of Leofric of Bourne, probably an earl, and his wife Aediva. The real clue to his background lies in his relationship to Brand, the last pre-Norman Abbot of Peterborough.

Hereward was certainly a man of some means before he was outlawed and exiled in the reign of Edward the Confessor. Having learned his trade as a soldier in Flanders, he returned to England after the Norman occupation to find his estates seized and to lead a combined Anglo-Danish attack on Peterborough Abbey. He then took refuge from William’s forces on the Isle of Ely, was deserted by his Danish allies and held out alone until reinforced by the arrival of Earl Morcar and his supporters from Northumbria. The major chronicles state that Hereward escaped through the Fens and was never seen nor heard of again, perhaps becoming, for a second time yet another English exile. Coming from a widespread Danish clan, Hereward can best be seen as a typical product of the Danish element in the English state.

The Fens in the time of Hereward. By Mike Young for the Ely Society.

The Norman/Wessex Dynasties; Feudalism & Knight Service:

The Norman reliance on feudalism as the basis upon which to raise and equip armies through ‘knight service’ was alien to English practice. William’s introduction of feudalism should be seen as as the result of his need to maintain a large force for the defence of his conquest rather than as a conscious attempt to sweep away the Anglo-Danish system of mobilisation. Whereas the the lordship of Anglo-Saxon England was a personal bond rooted firmly in the concept of the war-band, the lordship of Norman society had developed beyond that point to a feudal relationship based upon homage, fealty and and the holding of a fief, usually in the form of land. The tenant of the land was the military vassal of the lord who granted the fief. By 1087 the whole of England, with the exception of the land held by the king and the church, had been granted to lords as fiefs for which, in turn, they rendered military and knightly service to the monarch. The church did not escape the obligation to support the king and William received knight-service from the religious houses and bishoprics of at least the south of England. In turn, the knights holding fiefs from the king proceeded with a subinfeudation by granting fiefs to the knights and vassals on their own estates. The number of knights to be provided by the tenant in return was set by the granter; it has been calculated that William obtained some five thousand knights through enfeoffments. Through feudal service he was able to field an élite striking force of heavy cavalry with which to maintain his hold upon England and Normandy. Writing in the early twelfth century, William of Malmesbury assessed the impact of these changes in state and church upon the English ruling classes:

It is the habitation of strangers and the dominion of foreigners. There is today no Englishman who is either earl, bishop or abbot. The newcomers devour the riches and entrails of England, and there is no hope of the misery coming to an end.

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By the time of William’s death in 1087, England’s rulers had changed to a considerable extent. The Conquest was no mere change of leadership, however. To defend his new kingdom, William needed large numbers of loyal mounted knights and continental-style castles. He also had to reward with estates those who had assisted him. Although Norman ‘feudalism’ was partly an adaptation of existing institutions and customs, it brought huge changes in land ownership in England. By 1086, the Domesday Book revealed only four members of the Old English ruling class still in possession of their lands; over four thousand pre-Conquest thegns had been dispossessed; England was now in the hands of fewer than two thousand new barons. With papal support, William also reorganised the English Church, removing Englishmen from bishoprics and abbeys. In this he was ably assisted by his ecclesiastical adviser, the Italian-born Lanfranc of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070. The language and culture of the Normans was French, not Norse. The new régime was headed by a French-speaking élite, the focus of whose world was the European mainland, where they continued to hold land. William himself was an infrequent visitor to England after 1072, usually only when military threats arose from within or without; he was not buried in Westminster Abbey, like his predecessor, but in Caen in Normandy. As Duke of Normandy, he was a vassal king of France; Anglo-Danish and French politics were thus inextricably entwined, as they had been (we might add) for Edward the Confessor. William’s enemies, including the King of France and the Count of Anjou, exploited the restlessness among his sons to undermine him from 1078.

After William’s death in 1087, William II (Rufus) survived a rebellion of Anglo-Norman magnates against the division of the dukedom and the kingdom and a later conspiracy in 1095. He consolidated Norman control over Northern England, establishing a base at Carlisle, and exploited the death of Malcolm Canmore by ensuring the succession of the Normanising sons of Margaret of Hungary and Wessex, beginning with Duncan (1094) and Edgar (1097-1107). In Wales, Rufus encouraged further expansion into Gwynedd and Powys, and also from Hereford along the Wye and Usk valleys. When Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed by Normans in 1093, all Deheubarth was opened up and the Norman ‘marcher’ lordships of Gower, Kidwelly and Pembroke were established. He was therefore enjoying considerable success when killed while hunting in the New Forest in 1100. With his elder brother still journeying home from the first Crusade, the younger brother took the throne and the duchy and the kingdom were eventually reunited under Henry I in 1106. He had already astutely married the daughter of Malcolm Canmore and Margaret of Wessex, giving his children greater legitimacy in the eyes of his Saxon subjects, and sealing good relations with the Scottish sons of Wessex.

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By 1120, the Anglo-Norman kings of England had gained more power over their barons than any rulers on the Continent. After the Norman Conquest it seemed ‘providential’ for the country that strong and vigorous kings ruled it. The Norman kings checked the power of the feudal barons, enforced order and benefited the common people. England became more united than it had ever been under the Saxon, Danish and Anglo-Danish kings. Henry helped Normans, Saxons and Danes to live in peace, and granted a charter upholding the best of the English laws. He set up a King’s Court, Curia Regis, where disputes and crimes were dealt with by trained lawyers, and the people valued ‘the King’s peace’. Some of his plans to develop a system of justice were carried out by his grandson, Henry II. But Henry had to spend more than half his reign after 1106 in France, trying to keep the French king and the Count of Anjou at bay. His absences and financial need help to explain the advances in the machinery of Anglo-Norman government that were a feature of his reign, including the emergence of professional administrators and an exchequer. His only legitimate son, William Adelin, was drowned in the White Ship Disaster in the Channel in 1120, leaving his daughter, the Empress Matilda (wife of the German Emperor Henry V) as heir. As a consequence, the last fifteen years of Henry I’s life were taken up by the succession. To bolster Matilda’s position, Henry arranged her remarriage to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, but he did little more to establish her succession. Hence, when Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois, Count of Boulogne and holder of vast estates in the southeast of England sailed across the Channel, seized the royal treasury at Winchester and persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury to anoint him as king. Matilda’s supporters gave her the title Lady of the English and the two fought a prolonged civil war.

The Normans: William I, Willian II, Henry I and Stephen from a fourteenth-century manuscript

Britain and the Impact of the First Crusade:

The crusading knights set out with high ideals. They saw their task as a holy mission.

The military and religious movement now known as the Crusades began in 1093, with the call from Pope Urban II for a campaign to free the holy places of the Middle East from Muslim domination. Christian Europe mounted a series of military expeditions throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, establishing four small Christian states in the Holy Land. The most visible and permanent sign of British involvement in the Crusades was the presence of the priorities of the Hospitaller and Templar knights throughout Britain and Ireland. These military orders, whose headquarters lay in the Holy Land in the twelfth century, depended on their network of landed possessions in the West for income, supplies and military personnel. Most British priories, staffed by only a few knights, were primarily administrative centres from which the estates could be managed. About one-third of their revenue was sent to the East.

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Anglo-Norman and English soldiers and seamen participated in most of the main crusades to the Holy Land. Edgar the Aetheling’s fleet in the First Crusade (1098) is marked in yellow on the map. The picture below shows a crusade preparing to set sail, from a 14th-century miniature.

As the picture above shows, organising a crusade was a complex and hugely expensive enterprise and not something to be entered into lightly or motivated purely by material gain. Britain’s involvement with crusading was at first modest. A twelfth-century English chronicler wrote that of the events in Asia, only a faint murmur crossed the Channel. The First Crusade was almost certainly preached in England in 1095, although we know very little about the circumstances. Many Anglo-Norman knights undoubtedly joined the contingent of Robert, Duke of Normandy, including William de Goulafriére (or Golafre, as he was now known); in general, cross-channel family connections must have been the means by which most crusaders were recruited from Britain. The great nobles of Western Europe set off in 1096 by different routes to Constantinople. There was no single commander, but Godfrey de Bouillon was the best-known leader. With the aid of the Byzantine Emperor, they crossed the Bosphorus, overran Asia Minor and in 1099 entered Jerusalem. They set up four Catholic kingdoms with Godfrey de Bouillon governing Jerusalem, and the other three rulers paying homage to him. But the success of the Crusade was short-lived, for the Turks soon began to recover their lost lands. One group of English Crusaders, led by Eadgar Aetheling, distinguished itself in the service of the Byzantine emperor on the crusade of 1101-2.

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As a result of the crusades, a new interest in intellectual matters developed in Western Europe, for large numbers of people were influenced by the older civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire and new ‘wisdom’ from the Arabs. Philosophy, mathematics and science were studied in medieval universities as they developed. There was also an increase in trade between East and West, with the commercial city states of Venice and Genoa becoming rich as a result of the increased trade in the Mediterranean. Towns grew up, and merchants gained greater power all over Europe by buying privileges from nobles who needed money to take part in the crusades. Military methods were introduced from the East, in new styles of castle-building and the development of armour. Eventually, the introduction of siege weapons changed the nature of medieval warfare. Even before the embarkation of the first English crusaders, the influence of crusading ideas had been felt in England itself. In 1066 the Crusader concept of the ‘just war’ could be seen in the papal banner that accompanied William the Conqueror’s invading army. That is why the Conquest of England itself should, from a continental point of view, more properly seen as a Crusade.

(to be continued… )

Sources:

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

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury Press.

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

Peter Rex (2013), Hereward. Stroud: Amberley Publishing.

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

Andrew Jotischky & Seán Duffy 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.

McCrum, Cran & MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. New York & Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (c 1938), A Sketch-Map History of Britain & Europe to 1485. London: Harrap & Company.

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Afghanistan – ‘An Anatomy of Reporting’; Twenty-Five Years On: 1996-2021.

John Simpson has been travelling the world as a journalist for forty years, reporting on the many wars, disasters and international events during that time. Even the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington have not caused the world to stop turning. Some things have changed since those events, but others have stayed very much the same. In his 2007 book, he takes the optimistic view that the world is nowhere near its end.

The BBC Journalist John Simpson had won the Richard Dimbleby award in 1991 and the News and Current Affairs award in 2000 for his coverage, with the BBC News team, of the Kosovo conflict, when he was asked to meet the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, in a hotel car park in Islamabad in September 2001. Al-Qaeda’s attack on New York and Washington, planned by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, had taken place just a week or so earlier. The Americans, with British support, were getting ready to overthrow the Taliban. Simpson was walking out of his hotel, with a friend, when they noticed that official-looking limousines were pulling up and leaving some sort of government do at one of the hotels. “Good Lord, there’s Karzai,” said his friend. He clearly wasn’t headed for the government reception; he wasn’t dressed for it. His friend introduced Simpson, and Karzai burst out with his story. The Pakistan government, which still had strong links with the Taliban, was threatening to send him back to Afghanistan. That would mean a speedy execution. Karzai expected a decision any day; Simpson offered to raise a fuss on his behalf, feeling that it would certainly have been utterly disgraceful had the Pakistani government decided to send him back to Afghanistan. Karzai had been a minister in one of the unpopular mujaheddin governments and had escaped to Pakistan when the Taliban took over in 1996. But Simpson’s help was not required; the Americans and the British were looking for someone to install as president following their intervention, and the British suggested Karzai. A word from them to the Pakistani government was enough: no one mentioned extradition again.

How the Taliban began & The Road to Kabul:

In his 1998 book, Strange Places, Questionable People, John Simpson described his first meeting with Taliban soldiers in 1996. This was soon after ‘the Taliban’ – the name means ‘religious students’ – began in the refugee camps around the Pakistani border town of Quetta and swept across into Afghanistan in 1994, in rage at the then Afghan government’s failure to impose the basics of fundamental Islam. At that point, they were not particularly good fighters, but they were Pashtu-speakers who had played intelligently on the linguistic divisions inside Afghanistan and had gained the support of many groups that disliked the lordly ways of the Tajik-speaking government in Kabul. Simpson described his roadside encounter with a group of fighters:

I couldn’t tell the difference between them and any other mujahaddin group. And perhaps there wasn’t any difference: a clever mixture of bribery and good propaganda had won over dozens of local warlords to the Taliban side. They were crouched behind a makeshift wall of piled-up rocks beside the road, and we had just made the nerve-racking journey by car between the two front lines, on the the outskirts of Kabul. These men had no objection whatever to being filmed. Nor did their commander, though he was still nervous about his new masters (he had only recently changed sides) he insisted that someone else had to do the talking on camera for him.

Chapter 17, The Mountain of Light. p 501.

It was only when the film crew went south to Kandahar, the ‘Taliban capital’, that they found ‘the real thing’. They were very alarming indeed, Simpson wrote, noting also that Kandahar was well-known for its homosexuality, and that it was commonplace to find Taliban soldiers with mascara’d eyes, painted fingernails and toenails and heeled gold sandals. Of course, they also carried AK-47’s.

Some of the Taliban’s greatest gains had been achieved through deal-making rather than fighting in the field. By this means, they had gained control of half the territory of Afghanistan, from Herat in the West to the border of Pakistan, and with it almost half the population. At that point, they were besieging the capital, Kabul itself. Their main centres, Kandahar and Herat, were on the Pakistani telephone system, and Pakistani banks flourished in several of their towns and cities. But there was no denying that their main motivation was ‘radical Islam’. In their centres, there were fewer women on the streets than in Kabul, and those who did appear were covered from head to toe in the traditional burkhas. Confiscated televisions were hung up on the same streets as if they were executed criminals on gibbets. Television was evil because it presumed to capture the likeness of living creatures, something that, according to their interpretation of the Qu’ran, was considered blasphemous. Kandahar was, therefore, far from being an ideal place for a television team to work. An aggressive young mullah was appointed to the role of chaperone. On the flat roof of one building, Simpson recorded a piece to camera, including pictures of people walking in the streets below:

JS: The Taliban are probably the most extreme Islamic fundamentalistic group in the world. By comparison with this place, Iran and even Saudi Arabia seem positively liberal. We aren’t allowed to film any living creature, because that would constitute making a graven image of it. The Taliban police Kandahar very intensively, and those who don’t necessarily support the régime here are too frightened to speak to us. It’s hard to move here without being watched or stopped and questioned.

Transcript of report for The Nine O’Clock News. Kandahar, 27.4.96.

On the morning after the television crew arrived in Kandahar, Mullah Omar Akund, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, was to reveal the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, donated centuries before to Kandahar, before the eyes of an expected crowd. The cloak was only shown publicly at moments of great significance; the last time had been more than sixty years before. Now, as the Taliban prepared to open their great onslaught on Kabul, they took it out again. People gathered around the crew in large numbers, staring through their vehicle’s windows with curiosity, not having seen Europeans before. It had happened the night before as well, but that had been far more menacing. Men with terrifying scars, one with an empty eye socket pressed their faces against the glass. It was very hot inside the vehicle and the crew was getting very uneasy inside. One of them quipped, “Don’t look now, but the crowd’s turning ugly!” That morning, during the ceremony of the Prophet’s cloak, they went largely unnoticed among the distracted crowds. They were able to get some extraordinary pictures, as Mullah Omar held up an ancient piece of pale brown material. The emotion of the crowd was intense, with people weeping aloud and tearing the turbans off their heads to throw them up into the air and touch the cloak. Simpson comments that … it was like watching Peter the Hermit preaching the First Crusade. The result was rather similar, as within a few months the Taliban had taken Kabul.

During their time in Afghanistan, it proved impossible for the BBC crew to persuade any senior figure in the Taliban to record an interview with them on camera. One of them agreed to have his answers recorded, but wouldn’t show any part of himself to the camera. Some Taliban leaders, more moderate, were sympathetic to the idea but felt their position within the organisation would suffer if it were known that we had made a graven image of them. On their last day in Kandahar, they went to see the Mullah Balouch, who had a fearsome reputation as a strong supporter of the punishments ‘drawn from’ the Sharia or ‘Islamic law’, he tried to persuade the surgeons under his control to cut off the hands and feet of convicted criminals. If they refused, he would do it himself. By all accounts he rather enjoyed it. Simpson’s crew found him in his office, surrounded by petitioners, whom he waved away. With the camera running, Simpson went over to him and asked whether he was willing to be interviewed. The Mullah replied,

It is idolatry to show a person’s face only, since a graven image can be made from that. But if you show me down to the waist, no graven image can be made from it.

Strange Places, Questionable People, p. 504.

The journalist did not understand this reasoning but was happy to accede to the now ‘moderate’ Mullah’s wishes. He proved to be a frank interviewee, except on the question of his own involvement in the brutal punishments of criminals. He absolutely denied cutting off anyone’s hands or feet himself, even though what he had done was a matter of public knowledge in Kandahar. Perhaps he realised the effect, even then in pre-internet times, that it might have had on a Western audience had he admitted it. But he insisted that it wasn’t in any way strange that a minister of health should try to persuade hospital surgeons to amputate perfectly healthy limbs. Simpson let this answer pass, since ‘liberals’ were in short enough supply in the Taliban ‘ranks’.

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Mullah Omar. In 2015, The Taliban admitted that he had died a few years earlier. He was officially replaced.

As the Taliban seized control of Kabul, it brought in a brutally conservative version of Islamic rule, as it had promised from its inception. Women were barred from most work and education, and punishments including stoning and amputation were introduced. Over their next five years in power, the Taliban continued their brutal and misogynist policies. In 2001, they blew up the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas. The picture below shows a Hazira boy flying a kite near the site of the statues.

The Taliban in Power, Invasion and War; 2001-2014:

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The giant sixth-century Buddha statues, destroyed by the Taliban, in Bamiyan province. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty.

Then the 9/11 attacks prompted an ultimatum from the US for the Taliban to hand over Osama Bin Laden. Mullah Omar refused, leading to a US-led coalition invading the country. By November 2001, they had taken Kabul, and by December Hamid Kazai was installed as Afghanistan’s new President. Britain and America had earlier supported another mujaheddin leader for the job, Abdul Haq. He had lost a leg in a landmine explosion. Simpson’s friend, the cameraman Peter Jouvenal had paid out of his own pocket for Abdul Haq to be fitted with a prosthetic leg in London and had thereby launched him on a spectacular but brief political career. Mrs Thatcher, who was the UK’s prime minister at the time, heard about him and invited him to Downing Street. This attention gave Abdul Haq enormous kudos among the mujaheddin, and when he went back he found himself in the ranks of their topmost leaders. After September 11, the British and Americans together decided that Abdul Haq would make an excellent president for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. It would be necessary, they decided, to get him into the country while the Taliban were still in power, so that he could establish himself as chief among the internal opposition. Abdul Haq agreed, but then came a terrible mistake. The Americans insisted, against the advice of the British, that their own special forces would escort him back into the country, where he would be able to make contact with the resistance. Simpson commented:

Having worked alongside the men from the American special forces in various parts of the world, I have learned considerable respect for them. But here in Afghanistan the British had much more experience, and suggested different ways of doing things. But the Americans insisted on following their own course. Disregarding Abdul Haq’s protests, they took him to the wrong place, contacted the wrong people, and managed to leave him on his own with them. He was captured, and the Taliban executed him soon afterwards.

John Simpson (2007), Not Quite World’s End: A Travellers Tales, p. 362.

After that, a new leader was required. The Americans had had their doubts about Karzai, who had never been particularly close to them, but now it was hard for them to find an alternative. With better support and plans, Karzai rode across the Pakistan border on a motorbike. He also had a difficult time, since the Taliban had been tipped off by the Pakistani intelligence services, the ISI, and knew he was coming. But he survived, and eventually became president, doing as well as anyone could, given the difficult political situation in Afghanistan. His position was always precarious, of course, yet it amused Simpson to read the columnists who complained that he controlled little more of Afghanistan than Kabul, the other main cities, and the routes between them. When he asked, since the days of Dost Mohammed or even earlier, had any ruler of Afghanistan controlled any more than that? The last king hadn’t, nor had his unruly Afghan kinsmen who overthrew him. The Soviet Russians certainly hadn’t, nor the mujaheddin, nor the Taliban.

Afghanistan has never really been ‘ruled’ by anyone. Like the Amir in the late-nineteenth-century poem by the administrator of British India, Sir Alfred Lyall, all those who try to rule from Kabul have to reflect:

For there’s hardly a room in my palace but a kinsman there was killed;

And never a street in the city but with false fierce curs is filled;

With a mob of priests, and fanatics, and all my mutinous host;

They follow my steps, as the wolves do, for a prince who slips is lost.

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US troops board a helicopter during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Photo: Universal History Archive/ Getty.

By November 2001, the Coalition forces had taken Kabul and the following month Hamid Kazai was installed as the country’s new leader. In 2003, President George W Bush declared “mission accomplished” and the Pentagon stated that major combat was over. After that, media attention shifted largely to Iraq. A single suicide bombing was the first attack in Kabul since 2001. On 25 February 2007, Simpson was invited to the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge to interview Hamid Karzai on a visit to London, along with two others. They were disappointed, but by now the interview had become something of a sideshow for Simpson. Afghanistan had slipped down the news agenda and was scarcely visible. The central issue in recent British foreign policy was the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The basic reason had been strategic. Tony Blair and his closest advisors felt that, when the chips were down, Britain had to stand alongside the USA. This attitude had reaped great advantages for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and for Tony Blair himself during Bill Clinton’s presidency. In spite of the serious doubts of the Foreign Office, Downing Street bought George W. Bush’s idea that the invasion would be quick and easy, and that although no serious plans had been made for what would happen after the invasion, there would be so much rejoicing at Saddam Hussein’s downfall that everything would be all right. Writing his book later that year, Simpson commented somewhat hopefully:

In a few years the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be forgotten, and the damage they have done will start to fade. After the complete failure of the enterprise in Iraq, neither the United States nor Britain will want to intervene in another Islamic country for some time to come. By the time my son Rafe leaves school, presumably around 2018, all this will be as ancient as the last days of the Cold War are today.

Simpson, op. cit: 446.

Perhaps the journalist somewhat exaggerated the pace at which we move from one problem to the next. The aftermath of the Cold War is still very obvious in the situations in Belarus and Ukraine, specifically with regard to Russian autocracy. Of course, the threats are of a different nature, but they are still very real, nonetheless. The legacy of the Provisional IRA’s bombing campaign of the 1970s is also still prominent in the press and media, and ‘Brexit’, unforeseen by Simpson and many others in 2007, has once more worsened relations between the UK mainland and both parts of Ireland, threatening the Union itself. To add to this, we now have the worsening situation in Afghanistan, following the Biden administration’s precipitate decision to leave the country after twenty years of occupation, leaving Britain with little alternative but to withdraw as well. Some of the problems that have continually returned to ‘plague’ us over the last twenty years were apparent to Simpson when he wrote his book. For instance, he referred to the attacks on London’s transport system in July 2005, pointing out that the perpetrators spoke, for the most part, with the accents of Yorkshire and London. The same has been true of more recent attacks, particularly in London and Manchester. These ‘home-grown terrorists’ had certainly not forgotten the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2021, we can no longer make the same optimistic assumptions that we might have made, together with John Simpson, a decade and a half ago:

We develop quicker than we realise, and we forget just as quickly. There will certainly be new problems, new worries; but I think it’s reasonably safe to assume that in an open and relatively free society like Britain, British Islamists won’t be a permanently alienated, embittered element in society. I know Norman Angell gave the impression just before the First World War that conflict between the great European powers was impossible, when what he really meant to say was that it was hard to imagine; and I don’t want to find myself joining him in making the same sort of mistake. But that’s what my instinct tells me, based on the experience of forty years.

Simpson, op. cit.: 447.

His experience included witnessing a triple hanging in Afghanistan once, carried out in front of thousands of Afghans and several dozen international aid workers, who all seemed to have really good, professional reasons for being there. Simpson himself was there to cover the whole unpleasant event for television. Otherwise, he would have stayed away, he later stated. Both Dickens and Thackeray both wrote about the unhealthy interest which the London crowds took in a public hanging; to Simpson, nothing seemed to have changed in a hundred and fifty years. It was, he wrote, one of the cruellest things he had ever seen, revealing that he still held a pessimistic view of human nature. In any century or place, execution has been a barbarous business; no civilised person could possibly approve of this or any other savage way of getting rid of people. Those are the universal values of humanity; they are not relative. However, while the craft of the Journalist may be similar to that of the historian, their perspectives often differ greatly. Given the length of John Simpson’s reporting, especially on Afghanistan, it is possible to get a long view of the issues as well as the personalities involved.

It seems difficult, from Simpson’s memoirs and recordings, to make comparisons between the Taliban of 1996 or 2001 and that of 2021. But among its ‘mainstream’ leadership today, we can see for ourselves none of the hostility to being filmed that was so obvious to the correspondent twenty-five years ago. The same idiosyncrasies and contradictions are also apparent and may be exploited by skilful negotiators, especially if these are experienced Afghan leaders. More than that, naked propaganda has been replaced by a slick, twenty-first media machine among the leadership of the movement. This has shown itself to be both receptive to nuances in western diplomatic and military strategies and transmissive of reassurances to the Afghan people, even if the various audiences remain skeptical of these and far more sophisticated in their responses due to the major changes that have taken place just in the last several years of relative peace. In 2008-09, President Bush began what he called a “quiet surge” of troops to combat the Taliban, which was then expanded by Barack Obama following his inauguration. At the peak of US deployment, there were a hundred thousand troops on the ground. In 2014 the NATO powers declared their war over, ending their combat missions, shifting to training and advising Afghans. But Afghan security forces remained reliant on the allies for support, especially air cover.

The Trump ‘Deal’ and its Aftermath, 2020-21:

In late 2020 US President Donald Trump signed a bilateral withdrawal deal with the Taliban claiming that it laid the groundwork for peace talks between Afghans, but the subsequent meetings were slow to start and soon spluttered to a halt. With violence continuing to escalate against Afghan government forces, in April this year, the incoming US president Joe Biden reiterated that the remaining US troops in Afghanistan would be home by 11 September, a timetable that was soon accelerated. As western troops began to depart, a combination of western and Afghan journalists was reporting on how the Taliban became resurgent on the ground, having been utterly routed just twenty years previously. They claim to have changed their methods, but brutal ‘punishments’ have already returned with their rule in the provinces. In April, a video went viral on the internet showing the public flogging of a woman for adultery in the Obe district. As it was shared by urban Afghans, it revived ugly memories of the darker times of Taliban rule in 1996-2001, leading to an outpouring of revulsion. Men with lashes were shown taking it in turns to bear down on the woman until she began screaming, “Oh God, I repent!” An audience of men and boys watched and snapped photos, and it was this public nature of the ‘event’ which angered Taliban commanders, rather than the sentence itself.

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After years of being a post-holder in the Taliban’s shadow administration, the mullah still regularly hands down this sentence for ‘adultery’, which in Afghanistan can cover any sexual relationship outside marriage, sometimes even including rape. For this crime, men were flogged and then jailed. He had recently ordered the flogging of a woman within her home who was betrayed as an adulterer by her neighbours. She was sentenced to twenty lashes. Obe was one of the dozens of districts to fall under Taliban control in the last month, and the experiences of its people are a good indication of what a country ruled by them might look like; a disturbing vision. Its fall revealed the problems hobbling the Afghan security forces, most notably the lack of air support and strategic foreign ground support.

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An Afghan soldier at Bagram on the day US troops vacated the airbase. Photo: Mohammad Ismail/ Reuters.

US troops left Bagram, the sprawling airbase north of Kabul that was the symbolic and operational heart of its in-country operations, within twenty-four hours, leaving fewer than a thousand ground troops around Kabul. The British were also on the verge of repatriating the last of their regular troops.

How much have the Taliban really changed?

Through their withdrawal talks with the Americans, the Taliban have also gained a form of international recognition they had long craved. Senior envoys have responded by burnishing their the image they present to the world. At peace talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, and across platforms including the New York Times opinion column by their deputy leader, the Taliban’s representatives have been presenting an image of change. They use the language of peace and reconciliation, and have promised women their rights as granted by Islam – from the right to education to the right to work. Yet, according to multiple accounts collected by The Observer, they have revived most of the brutal and misogynist policies of the 1990s, although almost all of those documented are anonymous, due to fear of reprisals against the witnesses or their relatives. Halma Salami, a women’s rights activist based in Herat, who receives regular death threats in response to her work, testified:

The international platform for the Taliban is truly disturbing. We live under the Taliban, we deal with them and we know they have not changed.

That platform also includes Hamas, the Palestinian terror group, which held negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. Halma Salami stayed in contact with fellow activists in fellow activists in Obe, who reported being confined to their homes and barred from going to work. On 14th June, the last government forces in the district were helicoptered out of the besieged outpost. The militants were confident enough of their control that they called a meeting at the mosque in the main street to lay out their laws and plans for Obe. Schools have been closed for years by fighting or boycotted by parents who are worried that their children will be caught in the crossfire. When they reopen, girls will not be allowed to study past sixth grade (eleven to twelve in age). Interviewees reported that women would be made to wear the burkha and would no longer be allowed to go to work or leave their homes for any reason other than with a male ‘guardian’. Shopkeepers have been ordered not to serve women on their own, and the Taliban already beat any unaccompanied women they catch. Mobile phones are regularly checked by Taliban fighters in Obe, according to one resident, and if video clips are found with music, dancing or anything supporting the government, the owner is routinely beaten. If they find pictures of the owner in government uniform, the punishment is execution. Sentences including amputations and floggings are being handed down by judges, including the one who spoke to the Observer, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to journalists:

If you don’t give sharia punishment, crimes will rise. People come to us and say they are grateful. When the government was in power, no robbery was investigated. Now after we came to power, people can leave their doors open.

In his court, which hears three or four cases a day, often on land and water disputes, in which “testimony from two women equals that from one man.” One refugee mother conceded that the Taliban had brought an end to lawlessness but, for her, it was not enough to offset all the cruelty and restrictions:

The Taliban have already made a really big reduction in robbery. I know many people and are satisfied because of this, but I don’t want them (ruling the district). They had special people responsible for beating women, they used rope or pieces of wood to hit them. It was exactly like last time they were in power. I was in Obe then too.

Other petty restrictions, such as a ban on makeup, have also returned.

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Women walk past a beauty parlour in Kabul. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty.
These have now been painted over, sparking further fears of a return to hardline Islamist rule under the Taliban return to power.

Just how much the so-called ‘changes’ by the Taliban have reverberated in Kandahar and Herat, let alone to more remote towns and villages, has yet to be discovered. In Kabul, from my own distant perspective, based on Simpson’s successors in situ (both American and British), the picture of the Taliban fighters seems very mixed, and much will depend on how the still largely rural, tribally-organised fighters are managed by a new generation of ‘officers’ on the streets. Deeper than all of this, however, is the question of whether the fundamental Islamist ideology has changed over the past quarter-century. Of that, there is so far little evidence, and what there is suggests that they have no intention of departing from their own interpretations and definitions of Sharia law. Therefore, at the very least we can expect that they are likely to re-impose barbaric punishments on ‘criminal elements’ and to curtail the rights of women to play a full role in society outside the home or very traditional forms of female employment. Certainly, the establishment of a more pluralist governance and constitution seems already to be a fast-shrinking possibility, so much will depend on which factions within the movement eventually assert themselves and win power. Meanwhile, women are already fearful to leave their homes and men are regularly beaten for not praying and for not fasting during Ramadam. One man still living in the Obe district commented:

Of course, you just worry about the children’s future” … There was a bleak sense of history repeating itself … “I was only educated to fifth grade, then I had to drop out.”

Despite their public commitment to ending “the killing and maiming”, the Taliban are themselves accused of war crimes. They have been linked to targeted assassinations; in Obe, locals say they have used whole families as human shields. Their comprehensive capture of the district centre, after years of attacking and falling back, appears to have been made possible by an influx of fighters from other provinces, under a new commander, Rafi Shindani, probably a nomme de guerre, who arrived in the district after Eid at the end of May, bringing about sixty or seventy fighters from nearby Farah and Bagdhis provinces. When they arrived, a group of government-funded engineers working on development programmes, building bridges and providing water supplies, were warned to leave by the local Taliban. The engineers had built up a good relationship with the insurgents to ensure that their projects could go ahead.

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Militiamen and Afghan security forces during a gathering in Kabul in June. Photo: Rahmat Guljat.

Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network wrote in a recent report that it was to be expected that the Taliban would launch widespread attacks while, or immediately after, US troops left, but the “scale and speed” of the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was unexpected. The insurgents had held only about a quarter of nearly four hundred district centres at the end of June, according to the thinktank’s calculations from news reports and its own investigations. Clark went on to describe the plunging morale of members of the ANSF in the field and … newfound confidence among Taliban fighters. In some provinces, almost all areas beyond the city limits had fallen; government supporters feared the Taliban was positioning for a push on provincial capitals. Although it had previously overrun several of them, it had not been able to hold them. That track record was about to be considerably improved upon and this time, by early August, all of them had fallen. Other factors undermining government forces were corruption, desertion and ill-thought-out policy. The air support vital to holding the insurgents at bay had already dwindled before the abandonment of the Bagram airbase, with the putative Afghan air force overstretched and US forces already operating from thousands of miles away.

The Final Failure – Disbandment & Demobilisation:

In December last year, the government disbanded a supportive unit of the militia-like Afghan Local Police in Obe, under what now looks increasingly like an ill-considered demobilisation programme. Several other districts that fell to Taliban control had recently lost ALP forces as well. In Obe, by June, the Taliban pressure on the city centre had morphed into a siege. A few dozen men from the intelligence, police and army were stranded on a military base with just a single glass of water per day, and dwindling food supplies. They called desperately for air support or evacuation, but the only visitors were Red Crescent officials who had come to collect bodies. The men had been reduced to stripping leaves off the trees to eat before a group of parents launched a three-day protest in Herat, demanding support for the besieged group. Initially polite, the terrified parents and desperate parents were by day three burning tyres in the street and threatening suicide attacks. The next day, helicopters were dispatched, but for many, it was too late. One commando said, bitterly:

Bodies were carried out of injured men who would have survived if they had got help sooner.

At least one of the trapped men, himself from Obe, has been quietly sounding out friends in the area and in Herat about organising a militia to try to reclaim the district. For years, western-backed efforts aimed to disarm irregular militias. But the Taliban’s advances and the accelerated departure of foreign troops have convinced Afghans whose homes are threatened, and the officials who have to protect them, that they need more people to pick up guns and fight. Militias were still forming and re-forming around the country, many encouraged, financed or even called up by the government, even as the Talaban were reaching the gates of Kabul itself. The fighter from Obe has lost brothers, his father and at least twenty more distant relatives to the Taliban, and he refuses to consider either surrender or collaboration. He concluded:

The situation is catastrophic, and the government won’t even listen to me, so now my work is just to be killed, or liberate my town.

Observer

The Observer’s editorial of 9 July concluded that by setting an unconditional US withdrawal date of 11 September shortly after taking office, Joe Biden triggered an unseemly military scramble for the exit that has been joined by all residual NATO forces, including most UK troops. It appears the vast majority had already left the previous weekend (2-4 July), without ceremony, almost by the back door. The editorial went on:

The withdrawal has set Afghanistan back on the path to terror, mayhem and disintegration. A catastrophe is in the making. These are not the predictions of mere armchair critics. Gen. Austin Miller, commander of US forces, warned that chaos beckoned:

“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised … that should concern the world,” he said. The former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is similarly pessimistic:

“Those who came here twenty years ago in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism not only failed to end it but, under their watch, extremism has flourished. That is what I call failure.”

By then, at least half of rural Afghanistan was already controlled or contested by the Taliban. The regional capitals and Kabul itself followed in quick succession as President Ashraf Ghani’s government looked on helplessly, its Nato-trained and equipped soldiers repeatedly forced into flight or surrender. Faced with such incapacity, local armed militias continued to re-form and the majority non-Pashtun groups in the north were also threatening to revive their anti-Taliban struggles of the 1990s. In June, Biden had assured Ghani that the US would continue to provide financial assistance and support. Yet, once Bagram had been abandoned, they lacked suitable bases in neighbouring the countries from which their drones and aircraft could provide meaningful, timely back-up. In any case, the Pentagon claimed that its priority was containing Islamic State and al-Qaida, whose jihadists may soon freely roam ungoverned Afghan territories.

Britain’s military and diplomatic leadership was clearly if privately, horrified by the US decision. Mindful of two decades of often thankless, bloody striving, Biden’s failure to fully consult the UK government and NATO was obviously galling. Limited gains – democratic or pluralistic governance, free expression, improved healthcare, greater educational opportunities and civil rights, especially for women, have all been imperilled. In many ways, the dire situation is a legacy of the neoconservative, reckless ideologues of the Bush-Cheney administration which took the US and its NATO allies into Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place. Like Iraq, coldly abandoned to its fate a decade ago, Afghanistan’s post-US future looks bleak.The prospect of lasting peace with a measure of liberty and equity is fast vanishing, and the genuine western ‘friends’ of Afghanistan have only a very little time in which to win the possibility that such a peace might be forged. As an engaged observer of the ‘Afghan situation’ since 1979, I believe that Afghan people deserve no less than this, though only they can be the ultimate architects of their own ‘salvation’. An imposed model of democracy is always a fake one. In supporting the reconstruction of the country, ‘the West’ must also now listen with patience and endurance to its own ‘experts’ from the field, past and present. That is what John Simpson is continuing to urge western allies to do, together with military veterans and aid workers who have been following these objectives over the past two decades.

Sources:

John Simpson (2007), Not Quite the World’s End: A Traveller’s Tales. Basingstoke & Oxford: Macmillan.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke & Oxford: Macmillan.

Guardian Weekly. London: Guardian News & Media:

Emma Graham-Harrison & Akhtar Mohammed (9 July 2021), After the Retreat, Guardian Weekly. Graham-Harrison is a Guardian & Observer Foreign Correspondent; Akhtar Mohammed Makoh is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan.

Observer Editorial (9 July 2021), Western nations are abandoning Afghanistan to war and terror.

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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) 

Sources:

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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’:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sources:

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.

  

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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)

Sources:

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.

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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.

Sources:

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.

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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
Died
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 t