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Scenes and Signs of Saxon England


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According to the oldest traditions of the English people, men of their race first landed in Britain in the year 449, when two chiefs named Hengest and Horsa reached the coast of Kent at Ebbsfleet, now called Pegwell Bay, in Thanet. The invasion which they began gradually passed into a migration of whole peoples from the north-western coast of Germany, and within the next hundred years the chief kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England had been founded. We know little of the wars through which the English obtained possession of Britain. It was long before they committed their traditions to writing, and many of the events which they recorded occurred at places whose names would otherwise have been forgotten, and cannot now be identified. Here and there a familiar name stands out in the record. At Aylesford, in Kent, Horsa, Hengest's brother, was killed in battle with the British king Vortigern in 455. In Sussex, the Roman fort of Anderida, the medieval Pevensey Castle, is known to have been stormed by the first invaders, who killed the entire British garrison. In regard to Wessex, the traditions are less incomplete.

The landing-place of the first West Saxon invader, Cerdic by name, is now unknown. But the two battles by which the Saxons won the modern Wiltshire were fought respectively at Old Sarum in 552 and Barbury Hill, south of Swindon, in 556, and the battle which brought them to the Severn valley was fought at Dyrham, in Gloucestershire, in 577. To the north of Thames they had already won, in 575, a battle which gave then, all the country along the foot of the Chilterns as far as the Hertfordshire Lea, and in particular the "towns"of Eynsham and Bensington near the Thames, Aylesbury in the plain to which it has given its name, and Limbury on the hills above Luton. Thenceforward, their expansion was turned towards the south-west, and before the end of the seventh century they had advanced sufficiently far into Devon to found a monastery at Exeter. But it was long remembered that their original territory had been the district between the upper Thames and Southampton Water, and the forest of Selwood, now reduced to a stretch of woodland east of Frome in Somerset, formed the boundary between the eastern and western halves of the West Saxon kingdom, which came to be known as Wessex.

The early history of the other kingdoms is more obscure. The name Middlesex points to an independent settlement of Saxons between the West Saxons on the Thames and the East Saxons beyond the Lea. Surrey may well have been the southern province of the original Middle Saxon kingdom. But there is no history of its origin, and before the end of the sixth century Middlesex formed part of the East Saxon kingdom and London was its chief town. Surrey remained under its own rulers until the seventh century was nearly over, and thereafter fell under the lordship of whatever king was strongest at the moment in the south. East Anglia was for long a far more important kingdom than its recorded history would suggest. It was said to contain 30,000 families paying tribute to the king, and its ancient place-names show that its settlement was early. But its history for many years is little more than the record of the defeats of its kings, and it plays little part in the events of the dark age in English history.

Smaller at first in area, but destined to influence the whole of English history, was the kingdom of the Mercians. Like all the rulers of this early time, its kings were continually moving about over their dominions, but the centre of the Mercian kingdom lay in the valleys of the upper Trent and the Tame. The chief palace of the king was at Tamworth, and its bishop sat at Lich-field. The Mercian kings of the seventh and eighth centuries went far towards welding all the English kingdoms south of the Humber into one state, and Offa, the greatest of them, styled himself king of all England. To the west and south-west of Mercia a smaller kingdom arose with its centre at Worcester. Its people were known as the Hwicce, and their name is still preserved in that of Wychwood Forest, in Oxfordshire, which formed part of their boundary against the West Saxons. Still farther west there are traces of another early kingdom, formed at the expense of the Welsh, corresponding to the ancient diocese of Hereford. But the disunion of England in this age can easily be exaggerated, for all the kings between the Channel and the Humber were usually subject to the overlordship of the most powerful king in the land, paid him tribute, attended his court, and followed him to war.

The early history of Northumbria is simpler. In all the country between Forth and Humber there were only two kingdoms, that of Deira, between Humber and Tees, and that of Bernicia, from the Tees northwards to the farthest limit of Anglian settlement. The centre of the Deiran kingdom was York. There was no single, natural, centre in the remote uplands which formed the Bernician kingdom. Bamburgh was an early royal residence, but was essentially a fortress like Edinburgh, to which Edwin, king of all Northumbria from 616 to 633, seems to have left his name. Throughout Anglo-Saxon history Northumbria was but loosely connected with the south. The marshes which surround the head of the Humber estuary were a formidable barrier. Until far into the seventh century a British kingdom, the kingdom of Elmet, in what is now the West Riding of York, separated the men of Deira from the Mercians to the south of them. The place-names Sherburn-in-Elmet and Barwick-in-Elmet still preserve its memory, and Leeds, in its heart, bears a British name. The strength of the Northumbrian kingdom lay in the south-east, in Holderness and along the Yorkshire Wolds, where settlers could find the type of country which attracted them.

There are, naturally, few traces of heathen Anglo-Saxon occupation visible on the ground to-day. Our knowledge of the earliest English culture is derived from the objects discovered in burial places of the heathen time. Anglo-Saxon burial grounds are scattered widely over the south, east and midlands, they are fairly numerous in south-east Yorkshire, but none have yet been discovered north of the Tees. For the history of English art, the objects found in the very numerous cemeteries of east Kent are particularly important. They include much wheel-made pottery, much glass, and ornaments which show very remarkable skill both in design and execution. It is interesting to note that the first English inhabitants of the Isle of Wight, men of Jutish race like the men of Kent, possessed the same highly developed culture, well shown in the objects found on Chesil Down, the largest cemetery yet discovered in the island. Elsewhere in England standards were lower. Pottery is usually hand-made and crudely, though often effectively, decorated. Few objects of ornament show the elaboration which distinguishes the articles found in Kentish burial places. It is impossible to name any considerable number of the sites where heathen Anglo-Saxon burials have been found. They are perhaps most thickly congregated in the Newmarket district, along the upper Thames, as at Frilford in Berkshire, Brighthampton in Oxfordshire, and Fairford In Gloucestershire, in the midlands between the upper Nene, the Avon and the Soar, and upon the Wolds in the East Riding of York. Two isolated burials stand out through the singular richness of their grave furniture, one at Broomfield in Essex, and the other at Taplow in Buckinghamshire.

Anglo-Saxon history only becomes continuous with the landing of Augustine, the Roman monk despatched by Pope Gregory the Great for the conversion of the English in 597. Like Hengest and Horsa in the previous century, he seems to have landed at Ebbsfleet in Thanet. The fact that the king of Kent gave him a place for a church in Canterbury, his chief town, gave to this ancient city an importance which could not have been foreseen. It was the pope's wish that the archbishop of the southern English should sit at London, already the chief town in England, but the East Saxons, to whom London belonged, easily converted, as easily relapsed, and the successors of Augustine remained at Canterbury. Gradually in the seventh century an organized Church arose in England. In one respect its organization departed from the Continental model. In France and Italy the bishop was essentially the bishop of the city within-which his throne was placed. In England there were few cities of the Continental type, and most of the earliest Anglo-Saxon bishops sat in remote places.

It is naturally in the ecclesiastical sphere that the most striking remains of Anglo-Saxon antiquity are to be found.' In the north, at a very early time, there arose a school of sculptors whose work, still visible in many ornate crosses, forms a notable episode in the history of European art. The greatest illustrations of their power are the crosses still standing at Bewcastle in the north of Cumberland and at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire. Many other crosses of less supreme but remarkable craftsmanship exist to-day in Anglian territory. Many others are only known from disconnected fragments. It is more difficult to form an opinion as to Anglo-Saxon achievement in the more constructive art of architecture. It was only rarely that a church built in the generations which followed the conversion satisfied men of a later age. Few churches built before 1066 have survived without very material alteration.

The remains of Anglo-Saxon church architecture fall into two main periods, the first extending from the conversion to the ninth century, the second, from the tenth century to the Norman Conquest. The intervening century, when the Danes were ravaging the land, was no time for church building. From the first period there has survived a small church at Escomb in Durham, almost without later modification. Much ancient work is preserved in the churches of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, interesting otherwise from their association with Bede, the greatest of early English scholars.

The shell of a church of this period exists at St. Peter-on-the-Wall in Essex, and fragments of several early churches remain at Canterbury. But the most remarkable survival from the time before the Danish wars is the great church at Brixworth, on the road from Northampton to Market Harborough. It is built of tiles collected from some Roman building which once existed in its neighbourhood, and much uncouthness in detail shows that the material was hard to handle. But the scale of the church shows that these early builders were not afraid of a large design, and its plan quite conclusively proves them to [have been familiar with Continental models.

Architectural remains of the second period are naturally more numerous. Innumerably churches, reconstructed at a later time, preserve some fragment of their tenth or eleventh century predecessors, but complete examples from this period are few. The finest is the small building at Bradford-on-Avon, which after hundreds of years of neglect was restored to religious uses in the last century. But a juster impression of the capacity of the later Anglo-Saxon builder can be gained from a study of the great towers characteristic of this age. The tower of S. Benet's, Cambridge, and those of Eirls Barton and Barnack, in Northamptonshire, show that the difference between the Old English and the Norman architect was one of style rather than of skill. It was, indeed, not for a generation after the Norman Conquest that the ancient native fashion of building finally gave way before the Continental models introduced by the conquering race. Three church towers of the late eleventh century stand by the street which enters Lincoln from the south. And in Lincolnshire, at Branston, and Broughton near Brigg, it is possible to trace the new ideas from the older civilizations of Europe influencing, but not as yet changing, the methods of an earlier time.

Less evident, but no less important, are the signs of Saxon influence still to be discovered in the ground-plans of the ancient towns of the midland and south. All the county towns south of Humber had arisen long before the end of the tenth century, and it is possible to recover something of their original shape and street plan. The line of the medieval walls of Worcester can still be traced along the line of modern streets, and there is no reason to doubt that this wall represented the defences raised by Ethelred, Ealdorman of the Mercians, and his wife Ethelflaed, King Alfred's daughter. But it is in the smaller towns of Wessex that the original plan can most frequently be recovered. Naturally, the nature of a site often determined the plan of the Saxon town which arose on it. Malmesbury, for instance, stands on a low peninsula, Shaftesbury on a commanding hill. In cases like these the lines of the borough were drawn by Nature, but on sites of less definite character a deliberate plan could be chosen. Wallingford, on the middle Thames, is a perfect example of an Anglo-Saxon borough. It consisted of a large rectangular enclosure, surrounded by an earthen bank above an external ditch, both singularly well preserved to the present day. Four main roads entered the borough, each of them through the centre of one of the embankment faces, and met in the middle of the borough at the market-place, the cause of the town's existence. A second borough of identical plan is Wareham in Dorset, surrounded by a still deeper ditch and higher bank. The same plan can be discerned at Cricklade, though there it has been much distorted by modern building. It is highly probable that this simple design was copied from the remains of earlier Roman walled towns, such as Leicester, where a rectangular enclosure and four roads leading to a central market had been laid out long before the Saxons landed. But neither Wallingford, Wareham nor Cricklade were Roman towns, and they remain to-day among the best illustrations of the simple and effective Old English methods of town-planning.

The borough played a very great part in the common life of Anglo-Saxon times. It was at once a market centre in time of peace and a place of defence in time of war. But in the course of Anglo-Saxon history the names of royal villages occur with hardly less frequency than those of boroughs. Many important events in that history are associated with one or other of the numerous "king's towns" scattered over the land. Kingston in Surrey is perhaps the most famous of them. Five kings in the tenth century, including Athelstan and Ethelred the Unready, were crowned there. The "king's town" of Reading, at the junction of Thames and Kennet, became a trading centre, and a rival to the ancient borough of Wallingford. It was generally at a place of this kind that the Old English kings held their councils. Edward the Martyr held such assemblies at Kirt-lington in Oxfordshire and Calne in Wiltshire. Ethelred the Unready issued laws at King's Enham in Hampshire, Wantage in Berkshire, and Woodstock in Oxfordshire. He made an important treaty with a Danish army at Andover.

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Pictures for Scenes and Signs of Saxon England

OLD SARUM AND AYLESFORD, WHERE MEMORIES OF THE SAXONS REMAIN
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THE SAXON KINGS' STONE
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PRE-CONQUEST TOWER OF DEERHURST IN GLOUCESTER
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SAXON TOWER OF ST. BENET'S, CAMBRIDGE
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BOSHAM CHURCH, WHERE HAROLD HEARD MASS
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A SAXON 'FIND' AT BRADFORD-ON-AVON
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UNIQUE HELM TOWER OF SOMPTING
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BISHOP'S CHAIR AT HEXHAM
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CHAPEL THAT HAS SEEN 1,200 YEARS ON THE ESSEX FLATS
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