Articles

The Anglo-Saxon Invasions of Britain

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

The Saxon Shore:
In late Roman Britain a series of coastal forts was established from roughly the Solent to the Wash. These were intended to give protection to the coast against Saxon invaders. These forts were built along what was called ‘The Saxon Shore’ and were built between 270 and 285 BCE. These forts were under the control of ‘The Count of the Saxon Shore.’
The Saxon Shore was a military command of the late Roman Empire, consisting of a series of fortifications on both sides of the English Channel. Several Saxon Shore forts survive in the east and southeast England. Originally there were about 10 or 11 Saxon Shore Forts. Whatever their original purpose was, in the late 4th century the forts were used against invading Saxon warriors. Angles, Saxons and other Germanic tribes were at this time continually raiding along this shore.

The Saxons had probably started to attack the coasts of the Roman Empire early in the 3rd century. In the 5th century Sidonius Apollinaris described their raids on the coast of Aquitaine. “They outdo” he says “all others in brutality.” Sidonius was writing about 470 CE and the Saxons he described would most likely have been the Saxons based in Britain at that time. According to Bede, the coming of the Saxons (and other germanic tribes) took place between 445 CE and 455 CE. Bede maintains that the main invaders consisted of the three most formidable tribes of Germany, namely the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. Other germanic tribes, taking a lesser role, were the Frisians, Rugians, Danes, Huns, Old Saxons and Franks. The first mention of the Saxons, in connection with the history of Britain, was in the time of Carausius (286 CE) when Germanic tribes beyond the North Sea were attacking the Roman provinces. During the reign of Valentinian (CE 364) the Saxons are again attacking Britain and their raids increased as the Roman’s strength declined.

Gildas: His view of the Saxons
The historian, Gildas (c. 504 CE-570 CE) who lived around the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period (c. 450 CE), says that after the Romans left Britain (c. 410 CE) the country was deprived of all her armed bands and they ‘groaned’ (complained) at the attacks of the Scots from the northwest and the Picts from the north.
The Romans left Britain, never to return, and informed the Britons (Welsh) that they should now defend their own country. There was a substantial interval (c. 410 – c. 450 CE) between the evacuation of the Roman army and the first major Anglo-Saxon conquests (Campbell). According to Gildas these first major conquests of the Saxons followed a bad decision by the British Leader Vortigern, who sealed his country’s doom by inviting the Saxons to come to Britain in order that they might repel the invading Picts and Scots. Gildas says that quite soon the Saxons turned more against the Britons than the Picts and Scots, and a large number of Saxons came to Britain to join the initial invasions.
Gildas, who lived much closer in place and time than any other historian writing about the period, described at some length the terrible invasions of the Anglo-Saxons as follows:
These heathen conquerors devastated age surrounding cities and countryside…and established a stranglehold over nearly aa the doomed island. Priests were slain at the alter and survivors captured in he hills were butchered wholesale.

Bede (c. 730 CE) quoted Gildas and did not disagree with his descriptions of the methods of warfare practised by the early Anglo-Saxons, even though they were his ancestors of a few generations back. As a Christian one would have thought he should have condemned these methods of war, but he does not do so. Glides describes he nature of the Anglo-Saxons as a race hateful both to God and man and that they’re to be dreaded more than death itself. Some writers today maintain that Gildas exaggerates in his descriptions of the Saxons, but his view is supported by Bede and Sidonius (see above). The view is that invaders cannot carve out a nation for themselves by playing happy families with the natives. Myers says ‘Modern historians, it seems to me, have no grounds whatever for accusing Gildas of melodramatic exaggerations, for in the chaos which he describes these things were actually taking place.

Annals and Chronicles
The Annales Cambriae is a complex of chronicles compiled from various sources dating to the late 10th century and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is a collection of annals dating to the 9th century. It is a mistake to dismiss these, as some do, without some study. According to Gildas the Britons at times exhausted themselves in civil wars. This is shown to be the case in the Welsh Annals where a number of Battles consist of Britons fighting Britons. These documents also show that the defeat of the Britons took a very long time, with battles continuing throughout much of the Anglo-Saxon period, including no doubt many unrecorded minor fights.

Mons Badonicus
According to Gildas there was a period of roughly 50 years during which the Saxons came to Britain and advanced, mainly westwards, across the country. This advance was brought to a halt by the British victories under Ambrosias Aurelianus, culminating in the defeat of the Saxons at Mons Badonicus (Badon Hill). The battle seems to have taken place between 493 CE and 516 CE. The defeat at Badon Hill seems to have resulted in loss of gained land for the Saxons and there is evidence that large numbers of Saxons left Britain after that time.For example, in about 550 CE Procopius of Caesarea (in his De Belle Gothic IV 19)states that Angles and Frisians are crossing in great numbers from Britain to the continent. This seems to confirm the effect of the battle described by Gildas.

The Invaders
The invaders, as detailed above, were Germanic tribes closely related by blood as well as language and culture, eventually were to join together to become the English who created, over most of the fertile land of Britain, the country of England. One of the reasons why these Germanic tribes invaded Britain may have been the flooding of their homelands. During the 5th century large parts of the North Sea littoral were affected by rising sea-levels (Campbell).Another reason might be the attraction of good agricultural land which was a valuable asset. One would need to fight to obtain it and fight to retain it.In Britain the two communities, Germanic and Romano-British, remained rigidly distinct and no attempt whatever was made to weld them into one (Myres). The Anglo-Saxons stuck to their own burial practices and the Britons made no attempt to convert them to Christianity. The paucity of Germanic artefacts inside Roman-British towns suggests the lack of social intercourse between the Britons and the Saxons.

Language and Place-Names
Evidence against early integration between the Anglo-Saxons and the Romano-Britons is in the Old English language and Anglo-Saxon Place-Names.
The large number of Place-Names in England of Danish origin shows that there was integration between the Anglo-Saxons and the invading Danes.
The paucity of Place-Names in England of Welsh origin shows that there was little integration between the Anglo-Saxons and the Romano-Britons.
There is little doubt that, if it had been the case that there were many Place-Names of Welsh origin in Old English, those who assume that there was integration would have put this forward as evidence to support that assumption.

It is from the mother that a child first learns its native language. It is during their upbringing that children absorb their basic vocabulary.The paucity of Welsh words in Old English/English indicates that the Anglo-Saxon children did not have Welsh mothers.

Further notes on the Invaders.
Stenton points out that the Germanic people who descended on Britain in the late 5th century were not seeking their fortune in an unexplored land. Men who had taken part in the earlier raids upon the Saxon Shore must have gained a detailed knowledge of its harbours and of the waterways which led to the interior (Stenton). It would have been particularly important for the early invaders to get to know the rivers leading them inland and this no doubt explains why some Welsh river-names persisted down through the Anglo-Saxon period into modern English.
There must have been a number of leaders who, like Hengest, came with a few ships and a limited number of warriors and who had been informed by earlier invaders regarding the rivers and harbours. They would have held small areas of land until reinforcements came. They prepared the way for the prolonged series of national migrations. As Stenton says, ‘an invasion by a small number of chiefs, each accompanied by his personal followers, might perhaps have conquered the midlands and the south, but would not have produced the social order that is afterwards found there. This social order was no doubt achieved by the very large number of ordinary Germanic people, farmers, tradesmen and their families who followed in the wake of the invading warriors.
These invaders secured increasing areas of land where, and when, undisturbed by the continuing battles to the West, they could farm and cultivate the land. In this way there was a continuity of cultivation of the land, but not a continuity but a change in the ownership of that land. The Germanic invaders eventually joined together to become the English and their country became England-the land of the English.

References
Gildas, The Ruin and Conquest of Britain (540′s)
Bede, A history of the English Church and people
Campbell J. The Anglo-Saxons (London, Penguin, 1991
Myres J.N.L. Anglo-Saxon Pottery & the settlement of England (Oxford, OUP, 1969)
Stenton F.M. Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, OUP, 1987)

(Above compiled by Peter C. Horn)

Offa’s Dyke

Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

The following is an excellent description of the Dyke,taken from The Bedside Rambler by Christopher Somerville:

Offa’s Dyke is a symbol of division and mistrust, an ancient barrier between Welsh and English that runs the entire length of the border between the two countries. A low bank of earth and stones, five or six feet high, is all you are likely to see of the Dyke on the ground. Seen from the air the Dyke can be made out winding round bluffs,clinging to the edges of escarpments and diverging to cross rivers at suitable points – almost always with a clear view into the country lying to the west.
There was good reason for this westward aspect. The Dyke was built in about AD 790 on the orders of Offa, King of Mercia, to mark the boundary between his then relatively peaceful kingdom and his long-term Welsh adversaries. It provided not only a tangible, undeniable frontier and statement of separateness of the two countries and their cultures, but also an excellent grandstand from which Offa’s people could observe and report back to their king what the unruly neighbours were up to.
An extraordinary amount of organisation must have been needed in planning the Dyke, surveying it and gathering the labourers to build it to the original height of 12 feet or more. Twelve hundred years later it still stands along the border to perpetuate the name of King Offa and the memory of his domination of southern England.

……………………………………………
The following From an article in Currant Archaeology 316. Report by Madeline Leonard in Withowinde Magazine 181, Spring 2017

The first recorded mention of Offa’s Dyke was by Asser in his 9th century Life of King Alfred.

The Dyke represented an imposed rather than a negotiated border, militarily enforced and entirely serving Mercian interests…
The homogeneity of the Dyke’s construction is its defining feature. Constructed in short segments along its entire length, the bank commands extensive views for continuous surveillance over the area to the west, including settlement and defensive sites, and viewed from the west, presents a dominant image.

Its function as a perm able boundary over which the British had no control was evident from certain crossing points to which travellers were funnelled. In his Description Cambriae (1194) Gerald of Wales wrote that Offa ‘shut the Welsh off from the English by his long dyke on the frontier’ which kept them out of the fertile lands of the Mercian side, and perhaps gave the Mercians a sense of security.

Further Note:
At one time Offa’s Dyke was believed to be a negotiated boundary with gaps to permit trade between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh. But more recent archaeological research shows it as being a fortified barrier with a military purpose. The ditch and bank always have their face on the Welsh side showing that this is an offensive earthwork built to prevent the incursions of the Welsh.

Above compiled by Peter C Horn

The Black Poplar Tree in Anglo-Saxon England

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

By Peter C Horn

The distinguished botanist, the late Edgar Milne-Redhead, from the mid 1970′s, did much to draw attention to the Black Poplar, Populus nigra subsp. betulifolia, as a splended, but largely overlooked, English native tree.  In a letter to the writer, in 1993, he mentioned that he was overwhelmed by correrpondence received, over 500 letters, regarding the distribution of this tree in England.

Richard Mabey says it is our grandest native tree and that it has a thick fissured trunk covered with massive bosses and burrs, growing to over 100 feet if uncut.(Mabey P. 134). Oliver Rackham, the leading expert on British trees, says, no other tree can compare with its rugged grandeur. Its massive, straight, but leaning trunk often reaches 100 feet tall and 6 feet thick” (Rackham, 1986, P.207). It would originally have grown on the unstable flood plains of rivers (Rackham, 1976/2004, P. 22).Kemble Martin says, of Betulifolia, perhaps native by streamsides (1982). As a very impressive, native tree it must have been known to the Anglo-Saxons, who were particularly noted for their use of the wood of various trees for all manner of purposes.

Other Species of Poplar in England

The Aspen, Populus tremula, is native to Britain. The White poplar, Populus alba, is said to be an early introduction, but according to Rackham, may be native. The  Grey Poplar, Populus canescens, appears to be a hybrid between the Aspen and the White Poplar.  The Middle English name Poplar comes from the Old French poplier (from Latin populus of uncertain meaning). The Middle English Abele, applied to the White Poplar and sometimes to the Grey Poplar, is from the French and Latin abel, meaning white.

Application of Names

At Nowton in Sufflok in 1310, John Petrys was fined 2s for felling a poplar and Will Gunnild felled an Abel worth 2s6d (Rackham 1976/2004 P188).    This seems to show that, at that time, the term poplar was not applied to the White Poplar.  Rackham says Poplar is richly recorded in medieval documents. The word popel or popular is systematically distinguished from Aspen (aspe) and white poplar (abel) and must denote black poplar. (Rackham, 1986 P.207). Rackham, examining Anglo-Saxon Charters, says One mention of popul at Michelmarsh, Hants, may refer to Black Poplar, which would otherwise be unaccountably absent from the Anglo-Saxon evidence (1986. P.210). The infrequent appearance of Black Poplar in Anglo-Saxon records may be because it is not a woodland tree, but a tree of fens and flood plains.

Early Glosses and Runic Poem

Having established above that when the Anglo-Saxons used the term popul or populus they probably meant the black popular, the problem arises as to why, in the following glosses, populus is equated with birce (the birch tree):

Epinal-Erfurt 792                                    populus: birciae

Corpus 1609                                              populus: birce

Wright, Voc 1 33 2 80 13                       byrc: populus

Anecdota Oxon, 56 364 365                  byric: populus betula

The last gloss leaves no doubt that it is the native birch tree, Betula pendula that is being equated with the black poplar.

In the Anglo-Saxon Runic Poem, under the tree called Beorc, the description of the tree does not seem to relate to the birch tree. The poem reads as follows:

Beorc by∂ bleda leas, bere∂ efne swa ∂eah                              Birch is fruitless. Eeven though

Tanas butan tudder, bi∂ on telgum wlitig                               It bears twigs without offspring

Heah on helme hrysted fægere                                                    It is in its branches beautiful

Geloden leafum, lyfte getenge                                                     High on crown and fairly adorned

(Dickins 1915)                                                                                  Laden with leaves towards the sky

(Writer’s translation)

Dickens points out that the description of the tree in the poem is more suggestive of a species of poplar than a birch tree. The poem seems to describe a tree larger and taller than a birch and it describes a tree that does not regenerate from seed, which again does not apply to the birch tree. Dickens, influenced by the early glosses listed above, concludes that the tree in the poem is the Grey Poplar, Populus canescens, which is taller than the birch and also, according to Dickens, does not readily regenerate from seed. However, as mentioned above, the Grey Poplar is accepted as being a hybrid and is unlikely to have been known to the Angl0-Saxons.  The Anglo-Saxons, according to Rackham as mentioned above, probably applied the name popul/populus to the Black Poplar, and the latter, according to Marren, has no seed dormancy and in consequence hardly ever produces a tree (Marren, 1999). Therefore the Black Poplar would be a better candidate for the tree described in the Runic poem.

The question remains as to why, if the tree described in the Runic poem is a Black Poplar, the name Beorc (Birch) was applied to the tree and why, likewise, was the name populus equated to the name beorc in a number of glosses. This calls for some explanation. The Anglo-Saxons would have been very familiar with their limited range of native trees, but there does not seem to be an Old English name for the black poplar, or, at least, no such name has come down to us. The name populus or popel is Latin, or a corruption of a Latin name. Instead, they seem to be using the Old English name beorc to include both birch tree and black poplar. What, if anything have the two species of tree in common to warrent the extended use of the name beorc?  

At first the two species look very different, but a clue lies in the botanical name of the black poplar, i.e. Populus nigra subsp betulifolia. The term betulifolia means Birch leaf and refers, in this instance, to the diamond-shaped, lightly serrated leaves of the black poplar, which are very similar to the leaves of the Birch tree.  And, as Cockayne says, similarity of leaves seems to have been the chief guide to Saxon nomenclature (Vol 2, Glossary p 379). It was not until much later that botanists emerged with their detailed studies of plant morphology. Another example of the Saxon scribe being confused by the similarity of leaves is given by Cockayne, which involves Ceaster æsc that is Helleborus niger also known as Black Hellebore, which has leaves like those of the ash tree (Cockayne, Vol. 2 p 368). Thus it seems not unlikely that the Black Popular could have been regarded by the Anglo-Saxons as a larger variety of the Birch tree.

References

Mabey R. Flora Britannica, 1996

Rackham O. The History of the Countryside, 1986

Keble Martin W. The New Concise British Flora, 1982

Rackham O. Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, 1976/1990

Dickens B. (Ed) Runic & Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples, 1915

Marren P. Britain’s Rare Flowers, 1999

Cockayne Oswald, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, 1864/2001

 

             

 

 

THE ALCOHOLIC DRINKS OF THE ANGLO-SAXONS

Friday, March 18th, 2011

The four alcoholic drinks of the Anglo-Saxons were beor, ealu, medu and win. Today we have similar names for some alcoholic drinks, i.e. beer, ale, mead and wine, and it is commonly, and quite naturally, assumed that our modern drinks must be similar to those bearing similar names in Old English.

(more…)

Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Paganism

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

There was an interesting article in Wiþowinde 147 from Eadmund (Malcolm) Dunstall bewailing the fact that incorrect information is often repeated and that on the periphery of Anglo Saxon studies there is one particular area where this ersatz information is particularly rife, and that is the area of Englisc Paganism.  (more…)

Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds: Princely Burials in the 6th & 7th Centuries by Stephen Pollington

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Published: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2008.  ISBN: 978 189828151 1, 263 pages, paperback,  £14.95.

Our ancient burial mounds, of which the Sutton Hoo set are the most well-known, are a mysterious and intriguing feature of our landscape, whether they occur singly or in groups.  Stephen Pollington has produced an excellent and detailed reference book about them.   (more…)

The Sound of the Sutton Hoo Harp

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

It was not that long ago (1970′s) when writers were expressing doubts about what musical instrument was meant by hearpe in the Old English literature. The question was ‘Why have only two been found?’ (Grose & McKenna, Old English Literature, 1973). A few years later the question required no answer, because by then there was evidence of at least 15 hearpes, from various sites in England and Germany, all similar to the Sutton Hoo hearpe. (more…)