Before we start, an episode is about the people who kept a written record of the Anglo Saxon age, and what later generations thought about the Anglo Saxons.
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Check out the resources giving a brief description of the main sources, and a link to go and have a read. Also to find out about the Staffordshire Hoard, visit the Birmingham museum website
Our objective in this first, real episode is to set the scene in two ways; first of all to look at the textual sources we have available to us for the period leading to the Viking invasions of the 9th century; secondly, to talk a bit about the historiography of the period, how it has been perceived over the ages. So, if you are all sitting, ironing, cycling, commuting, running comfortably, I shall begin.
I’d like to start with a mild piece of light ranting. The Dark Ages. I love the phrase the Dark Ages. It’s a phrase first hinted at by a 14th century historian called Petrarch, and finally coined in the early 17th by a chap called Caesar Baronius. But it is a phrase wholly despised and deplored by generations of fun sucking historians, and indeed podcasters actually, who tell us all that it is most unfair on the inhabitants of those times – though I seriously, seriously doubt they care – and more importantly of course, that it is misleading. And instead I am instructed to refer to the period on which I am about to embark as the Early Middle Ages.
As if Middle Ages wasn’t an odd enough term. And look, these ages, well…they are, Dark. I mean it is really, really hard to know what’s going on. Plus, in England at least, with the withdrawal of the Roman Empire it is a time of immense change and dislocation. It’s not surprising that medical insurance was not available, because it was a time often accompanied by endemic and constant violence. But the main thing is that from the 5th to the 9th centuries, the amount of textual material we have is, frankly, a disgrace; not just chronicles and contemporary history, but really any written record. So in the words of Paul, we see through a glass, darkly.
Rant over, that takes me to describe what evidence we do have, and something of the fascinating historiography of the period. Before that, a quick note about nomenclature, so we don’t get too confused, though it’s reasonably traditional. Essentially, for the 4th to 6th century, I will talk about the existing Celtic peoples who inhabited the majority of Britain, speaking Brythonic languages, as British or the Britons.
Let us start with Glidas, a British Monk who ended up dying in Brittany. It used to be thought that he came from Scotland, but actually he was probably writing from South West England or Wales.
Gildas probably wrote his main work around 543, though there are arguments even about that and estimates that run from 490 to 520. His main surviving work is called ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’. It’s not REALLY a history, or a work intended to inform later generations – it’s more of a bitter rant, a sermon, a lecture, briefly describing the history of Britain from the time of the Romans’ departure, and then criticising the British kings and clergy for their failings and sins, which has led to the dreadful punishment that is the Adventus Saxonum, the coming of the Saxons. He only uses history as a stick to beat his people with, to demonstrate the link between their sins and the disaster. It is from Gildas that we learn of names that are semi or possibly wholly legendary, and which are constantly challenged now. Gildas seems to get many things mixed up; the lack, or confusion of dates makes folk tear their hair out, and the fact is that his purpose is not really to give a detailed and accurate history or chronology. Instead it is to give those responsible for this disaster, as he sees it, a right old tongue lashing. But Gildas himself is evidence of the continuing survival in his time of the Roman tradition of learning; he had clearly had a Roman style education, and refers to others as having been similarly educated. There’s no doubt also that Gildas, writing close to 150 years after the last legion had left, still felt himself to be part of the Roman world; it’s a very British version, Gildas views everything from a British viewpoint, but it is in the Roman tradition none the less. And Gildas was not a fan of the Saxons, not a fan at all.
Gildas tells a story that sings now with drama and passion, which spoke to my love of history and king Arthur and Rosemary Sutcliffe and all that when I was a nobbut knee height to a grasshopper, part of the very fabric of history as far as I was concerned – though Gildas makes no reference to Arthur. Gildas’s story goes that Roman Britain was beset by Barbarians – the Picts from northern Scotland, the Scotti from Ireland. After a few expeditions to restore the borders, the last legions leave, and the remaining British, fighting to survive, appeal desperately to the last effective Roman general in the West, Aetius, with these extraordinarily evocative and dramatic lines:
‘The Barbarians push us back to the sea, the sea pushes us back to the barbarians; between these two kind of deaths we are either drowned or slaughtered’
It was a bad time. According to Gildas:
“there were enemy assaults and massacres more cruel. The pitiable citizens were torn apart by their foe like lambs by the butcher; their life became like that of beasts of the field”
So in desperation, the British turned to barbarians to defeat the barbarians that attacked them – the Saxons. But the Saxons turned against the British. As far as Gildas was concerned, the Saxons made the Picts look like Mother Theresa, likening them to wolves, dogs, lions and other savage beasts:
‘Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land’
BUT at last the British found their own leader, a man called Ambrosious Aurelianus, who defeated the Saxons in a massive battle at a place called Mons Badonicus.
This is a story which has proved very resilient, and was picked up in large part by the second of our major sources for the period, Bede.
Bede was a historian and theologian, and without doubt the best source for the period up to his death in 735. But bear in mind that as far as the migration is concerned, even Bede is a very remote commentator, writing 2-3 hundred years after the events. He was a monk, based in the Northumbrian kingdom in the monastery of Jarrow. He was a theologian of European reputation, with over 30 written works to his name, but the one we all focus on is the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English peoples’, and do note the title; there’s plenty of secular stuff in Bede, but his focus is Christianity and its triumph. Also, he’s very much the Northumbrian; and this means he has a bias – his focus is not the kings south of the River Humber, i.e. most of the Midlands, Southern and eastern England – it’s Northumbria. It tends to mean that he’s rather dismissive of the other main AS kingdom with which Northumbria often struggled for supremacy – Mercia, the AS kingdom to the south, comprising most of the midlands.
Bede feels almost like a modern historian in his critical and analytical approach, but his purpose is not the same as a modern historian. His aim was to record the rise and fate of heresy, to build models of the good Christian ruler and cleric, to demonstrate the working of God’s judgement. There’s a line which gives a flavour of his attitude. Bede has been talking about how the late Romano British nations descended into gross moral turpitude – quote:
‘giving themselves up to drunkenness, hatred, quarrels, and violence, they threw off the easy yoke of Christ’
And invited in the Saxons to fight their battle for them. Bede then notes:
This decision, as its results were to show, seems to have been ordained by God as a punishment on their wickedness’
So hopefully that makes the point. For Dark Age and medieval peoples, God was an active participant in the world; and when things go wrong, it’s probably God’s punishment for the failure of the people to follow the straight and narrow. It also illustrates another point, while we are talking about Bede’s biases; he had absolutely no time at all for the Welsh; not because of their Rugby talents in this case, but because he considered their church to be following the wrong brand of Christianity at the time.
Bede is thoroughly medieval in other ways, devoting much space to miracles, fantastic events, and it’s an ecclesiastical history remember – much time is devoted to the goings on of the church and conversion. And of course, the information he had available to him was limited, diffuse and no doubt conflicting. As it happens the monastery at Jarrow had the benefit of a large corpus of original material gathered together by a predecessor there, but none the less the gaps are obvious and wide. One of Bede’s greatest achievements was to make sense of all the fragmentary sources he had available to him into a coherent whole.
It is Bede that gives us the seminal passage that describes the origin of the Germanic invaders, which despite all the picking away at it has remained remarkably resilient – the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Which we’ll come to in a future episode.
Which brings me to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. This was probably commissioned by King Alfred the Great in the 9th century, and therefore strictly I guess I shouldn’t be covering it this early – but it purports to describe the history of the West Saxons from the earliest days. It is the most delightful document. Delightful, I accept, not being the language of historical study, but delightful it is. If you are going to buy any original documents, you need to buy a good edition of the ASC. In its pages you can read at first hand the history of the West Saxons and Anglo Saxons, you can read what they thought their history should have been in the early days; and you can see what the monks that wrote it considered to be really important. It is wonderfully idiosyncratic. If you met the ASC in a pub on a Saturday night, half the time you’d wonder if he had the power of speech at all, other times you’d be begging the guy to shut up. So for example, at random:
534 Cerdic passed away, and Cynric his son reigned for 26 years; they gave to their two kinsmen, Stuf and Whitgar the Isle of Wight.
535 no entry
536 no entry
537 no entry
538 makes a bit of a come back – The sun darkened on February 16th from Dawn until 9 in the morning. Seriously is that all that happened that year of note?
Now of course, I am being a bit unfair, since this is an early record, some 3-400 years after the actual events, but it’s very well worth noting that in the world of the ASC religious and natural events held a level of importance that often outshone the activities of the remote and distant great men.
The Chronicle is in fact plural; from one original, the chronicle was distributed to various monasteries around the kingdom, whence they begin to diverge, in the sense that they add locally relevant content. In a few episodes time I will be no doubt waxing lyrical about the qualities of Alfred, but just for the moment to note that while the world around him burned from the Viking invaders, Alfred took the time to build a vision of what the Anglo Saxon world could be, to give it a shared history and sense of purpose, to build the unity of the Anglo Saxon peoples. So strong was that purpose, that the chronicle kept going for close to 100 years after the Norman Conquest.
The ASC is an amazing document, which gives the core of our chronology and information right through the AS age. BUT in these early years it is deeply suspect; many commentators argue that what we have here is back formation; the re-invention from a later age of what Anglo Saxons thought they’d like their history to be, to justify the social hierarchy and kingly authority of their present. And remember, its genesis is in recording the success of the West Saxons, the house of Wessex – so a bit like Bede and his Northumbrian bias, at times other kingdoms can look like bit part players, or in the earlier years at least. None the less it’s an essential and unique source of information.
There are other sources and bits and bobs; Tacitus in the 1st Century made some commentary on the Germanic tribes; Procopius, the 6th century Byzantine author of the secret history in the reign of Justinian also inserted a chapter from conversations he’d clearly had from a barbarian about Britain. There are some references in some later poems, Beowulf for example. And then there is Nennius. Nennius was a Welsh monk who wrote in the late 8th century, although actually the authorship is in doubt. It’s a rather difficult source, full of speculative events which make it difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. For the most part it’s the genesis of the legends of King Arthur – the fight of the red and white dragon, the tyrant Vortigern, the legend of Emrys, who could be Merlin or Arthur or both. It’s also full of anti-English feeling, which is fine, an honourable Welsh tradition continued to this day of course. But until we get to Alfred, that’s basically your lot as concerns chroniclers. From the 8th century the AS’s begin to write stuff down, and you begin to get those workhorses of history, charters, and with Alfred you even get a biography, and almost unheard of treasure. But for the 5th to the 9th century that’s pretty much all we have.
Now then, in general, I think the AS get a pretty poor deal in our history. There’s a poem called William I by Eleanor Farjohn which I have remembered since being taught it at the age of 8, when I was still small and cute, and which for me pretty much sums it up.
William the First was the first of our kings
Not counting Ethelreds, Egberts and things
He had himself crowned anointed and blessed
In 1060- I needn’t tell you the rest
There’s the outrage, the outrage ladies and gentlemen that in 1272 a king comes to the throne called Edward. And we call him Edward I. The First. What? Come on – we’ve had loads of them before. I mean really, what is it about the Anglo Saxons that has made them so ignored?
It may have something to do with the dark age thing; certainly interest in the Anglo Saxon period has fluctuated through the centuries. In the immediate aftermath of the conquest, of course, there was all manner of interest; pretty much in the same way as you get a survey done, and look through the titles deeds of a new house you are buying – making sure you understand how the place works, what sort of liabilities there are lying around before you decide to rebuild and gut the thing. And although I read all manner of stuff about how there’s no national identity in England in the Middle Ages, it’s quite clear from Chroniclers like William of Malmesbury that they felt the pain of the passing and subjugation of their old world. But it didn’t take long for the Normans to change the outlook and structure of the new kingdom, and interest to a degree faded. Though the new monarchy, for many centuries, continued to stress continuity with ASE, to bolster their legitimacy – the cult of Edward the Confessor, penultimate king of ASE, continued well into the 15th century amongst English kings.
However, interest faded. And in fact more than faded, began to be something of an embarrassment, a feeling that the AS’s had been the baddies rather than the goodies. This came from Geoffrey of Monmouth. His History of Britain, completed in the 1130’s, was immensely influential, building a narrative based on British sources from Wales, and Cornwall and Brittany that the British people had been founded by Trojans led by a chap called Brutus, fleeing the destruction of their city by the Greeks, ending with their last great king, Arthur, who held back the tide of the hairy unwashed and slightly smelly Saxon barbarians until at last he disappeared into legend along with a bar of soap. This was wildly, wildy popular – and not just as a good read. Although it is a good read, gentle listeners – while you are nipping down to the local bookshop to pick up your copy of the ASC, and take in a cup of Tea and a Bun while there’s no-one there to stop you, pick up Monmouth’s book too. It’s a page turner.
More surprisingly, though, Monmouth’s book was taken as proper, honest-to-goodness, no poo history, and the English, as the English do, kind of appropriated somebody else’s stuff for themselves, and identified national pride with Brutus and Arthur. You only have to look at folk like Edward I and Edward III and their enthusiastic association of the ideas of chivalry with Arthur and his knights of the Round Table – who as you know would dance whenever they were able, quite in-de-fat-i-gable. So the poor old Anglo Saxons had become just the cannon fodder as it were, rather than ancestors to be feted and studied.
Things didn’t really change until the time of Henry VIII, the reformation and the establishment of the Anglican Church, and the Renaissance. Suddenly folk were all over the AS age like a rash. The Anglicans were looking for evidence of an earlier, purer church, and even thought they’d found evidence there of some of the key tenets of Protestantism, such as the rejection of transubstantiation. The Catholics duly responded in kind, and conversely Bede was stood up as evidence of the purity of Catholicism in England.
Meanwhile, the Brutus and Trojan view of British History came under scrutiny from humanists, and with the spirit of critical enquiry, the lack of evidence to support Monmouth’s history began to emerge. One example was a chap called George Buchanan, who wrote a history of Scotland in the 16th century, with the stated aim to ‘purge it of sum Inglis lyis and Scottis vanite’; his point was that better, more rigorous critical enquiry was required, and cast many doubts over Monmouth’s history.
But Brutus and the Trojans still had its supporters, which brings us to an amusing fellow of Pembroke College at Cambridge University, and I am sorry, I am here deep in digression. Richard Harvey was a small, aggressive and combative astrologer, theologian and historian, living between about 1560 and dying in 1630. Richard wasn’t the kind of guy to mince his words in academic debate, and indeed rather confirms a view of mine that if you are looking for life red in tooth and claw, don’t join the army, become an academic. Richard’s style won him a most vicious adversary called Thomas Nash, who dubbed him ‘Pygmy Dicke’, which I’m sure sounded better then than it does now, and ‘a blind vicar…with decayed eyes, starke blind’. One of the things that had upset poor Nashy was Harvey’s rejection of Aristotelian logic, and illustrating his point by hanging an effigy of Aristotle upside down on the gates of Cambridge with assess ears on his head. This is not a mistake I’d ever make down the local on a Friday night – take my advice – conversations about sex, Religion and politics are one thing, but just stay away from Aristotle.
All of this is completely irrelevant, and a hideous digression. There is a point; Richard Harvey continued to fight for the Brutus and Trojan view of English history, and gave it out to the poor old Anglo Saxons, who he said should, quote, ‘lie in dead forgetfulness’.
But Pygmy Dick was fighting a losing battle, and by the 18th century Monmouth and his history of Britain had become what they really are – an inspiration for poets, storytellers, and fantasy novelists, not history. Because now another group had decided to mine the Anglo Saxons years again to back up their beliefs. It was the turn of the parliamentarians in the English Civil War, looking to justify their belief that they had the right to limit the powers of the crown – a belief shared by George Buchanan, incidentally, in that Scottish history I mentioned written well before the Civil War. The focus now was on the origins of institutions of government, customs and laws. And through this process, the Anglo Saxons and indeed the wider early Germanic culture now acquired for themselves a powerful and long lasting reputation. Scholars came to the view that the Common Law, Parliament, trial by jury, key tenets of English freedoms had all originated with the AS’s. On the continent, scholars were also holding up Germanic culture as lovers of freedom and democracy, and the accepted rubric became that the AS’s superior political traditions had been crushed by the Norman tyranny and repression.
Through the 18th and 19th century, that opinion grew and strengthened. The American Colonies and after the betrayal and outrage of 1776, the United States of America joined the battle on the AS side. Thomas Jefferson described the laws and governance in the 8th century as quote, ‘the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man’; Thomas Paine exhorted Americans to resist British rule so as to avoid them, quote, ‘suffering like the wretched Britons under the oppression of the Conqueror’.
As the 19th century progressed, the AS’s reached the high point of their popularity, not just with scholars but with the Great British Public too, inextricably linked with national pride and confidence as the Empire flourished. And much as I am a card bearing, flag waving ‘we love the AS’s’ fan club, not always in a good way, as the racial element became progressively emphasised – now it was as much about racial superiority as it was about the supposed superiority of their institutions. The AS settlement had become a kind of ethnic cleansing, sweeping away the inferior British stock. The Vikings and Normans were represented as coming from the same strong Nordic stock – the English it was claimed, were a pure Germanic people. King Alfred became a popular hero, as he should be, incidentally, described by the former Prime Minister Rosebury as ‘the embodiment of our civilisation’. Whoa.
The late 19th century and 20th century saw some reason and balance come into the debate. Some of the main pillars of the AS superiority argument crumbled as it was pretty conclusively proved that the origins of Parliament lay mainly in the post conquest era, and the origins of Common Law conclusively so. Two world wars saw the end of any credible belief in racial superiority. And interest revived in Celtic and sub-Roman history, to bring a bit of balance back to life.
But it was about balance, not about a return to the Dark Ages for the Anglo Saxons. The historian Frank Stenton, for example, produced his classic work in 1943. Equally, the popular view of the Free and honest AS’s versus the repressive tyrannical Normans stuck around for a long time – I can remember the ‘60s I think, where Robin Hood was positioned as a Saxon fighting Norman oppressors. The Sutton Hoo burial in the second WW years sparked enormous interest, as did much more recently the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard. There were queues to get into the Birmingham Museum to see it, ladies and gentleman. You can see it too, just go to the website at birminghammuseums.org.uk
But mainly, Anglo Saxon history has become one of the most dynamic and evolving areas of English history. Now OK, that’s something of a claim…but in English history the early years in particular present unique challenges, as I have mentioned, because of the paucity and difficulty of the textual material. And so modern approaches and techniques in archaeology, archaeogenetics, dating methods, Place name analysis, linguistics, numisnatism – these have a disproportionate influence and impact on our understanding of the late roman and English settlement periods in particular. As their rigor has improved, and new science has become available, the old preconceptions have been challenged, disproved, re-proved again. It’s a right old bun fight out there.
Which brings me to the last topic in today’s podcast, the battle-lines in the period we are going to look at first, the arrival of the English, the English settlements.
It’s reasonably simple really. Until comparatively recently, the story that came down to us from Bede, the ASC and Gildas was the accepted history. In outline, this was that when the Romans left in 409, the British were assailed on all sides by the Scotti from Ireland and Picts from Scotland. In desperation they begged for help from Rome, but there was none forthcoming. So in 449 they followed that fine old Roman tradition and invited the Barbarians in to fight for them – and warbands from the Germanic tribes, led by two blokes, Hengest and Horsa arrived on the shores of Kent, clutching their contracts. Hengest, Horsa and the lads fought for the British and for a while they carried all before them. But when the job was done, before you could say ‘termination clause’ Hengest and Horsa turned on the British. They could see a loser when they saw one. Meanwhile they wrote home, and in their wake came hordes more of them. The British, in the words of the ASC ‘fled the English as one flees fire’. Over the next few decades, the invaders overran England, established a series of kingdoms, and pushed the British into the west – into Wales, and Devon and Cornwall; or overseas to Brittany.
This story was compelling for a number of reasons. This was what the textual materials told us – the sources were difficult, but not impossible. Language and place name evidence seems to strongly support the theory; and Gildas’s text strongly implies a complete catastrophe. Other sources of evidence like Archaeology were difficult, but often supportive. And secondly, because we wanted to believe it. All that stuff about Germanic racial superiority rested on the idea of a mass migration that pushed out the British to be replaced by a new race.
Since the 1970’s and 80’s, and much stronger opposing line has come to the fore. This says that the evidence for a mass migration is just not there, and pretty much unbelievable. Within that line there are many sub arguments – that yes, smaller numbers came, but they came with fire and sword, and replaced the existing culture with a new one. Another says no, it’s a much more peaceful process – the word is acculturalisation. The new guys adopted some of the practices of the existing Romano British inhabitants, and lived side by side until AS culture began to take over. Another strand of argument is about the timescales – the mass migration theory suggests a relative short timescale, a cataclysmic event. Others argue that this was a much longer process, which went on for generations.
One of the problems is with the enormous complexity of the evidence – textual, archaeology, dating methods, numismatism, language, genetics. Just thinking about it, I can feel my brain dribbling out of my ear. But the essential questions we have to consider over the next few episodes, and keep firmly in our minds are these;
- Were the AS settlements a mass migration, or did a significant number of the existing population survive?
- How quickly did the process happen? In a generation or over a much longer period?
- What was the process by which Romano British culture and language came to be replaced by an Anglo Saxon one?
Next time, we are going to start with the context – Late Roman Britain, and the Romano British culture that succeeded it.