2.3 The Early Settlers

View from the Sinudine Hills over the Thames Valley and Oxfordshire Plains

The culture of the early Free farmers of the Germanic settlers valued family, kinship and lordship.  Oxfordshire may have been one of the earliest areas of sttlement, fitting initially into the Romano British states they find as they arrive – such as at the old Roman town of Dorchester. From there they begin to settle the places that offer the best chance of prosterity; and leave their mark in place names on the landscape.

For maps and images, download the PDF file of slides Land, Lordship and People


Hello everyone, and welcome back to the History of Anglo Saxon England podcast, Series 2. Episode 3: The early Settlers

Last time we chewed over the theories about the early migration period; this time we are going to look at early settlement in a bit more detail using a particular part of the world, and try to illustrate a tiny wee bit about how landscape and culture shapes its very early development. Hopefully that’ll give physical expression to how those theories about the early  arrivals play out in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Generally speaking, the settlement seems to spread across England east to west; although some of the earliest Saxon settlements seem to have been in the southern Midlands around Oxford, in the Upper Thames valley – and so therefore close to our area of focus, But essentially East Anglia and Kent seem to have settlers earliest and most heavily, and famously the further west you go, the more Britthonic place names survive, and the later the new English place names appear.

Our area of South Oxfordshire is bounded by the River Thames to the south, which meanders round the southern edge of the Chiltern hills in a big loop. Apart from it being, you know  home – I have chosen it as a sample region because south Oxfordshire has these two landscape, lowland and upland, which gives an interesting insight into the impact of landscape on the lives of our ancestors. I have to use modern town names to help; in the east, there is now a town called Henley of Thames, which in the 4th century is just a clearing in the woods with some wood pasture, and a river crossing. The River then loops south around some uplands, the Chiltern hills. I say upland rather than highland, because the Chiltern hills are not very high, at most 876 feet. But the scarp is steep, and the countryside behind the scarp, the dipslope as it is called, is broken and variable, and the soil is often less fertile, mainly heavy clay with flint, sometimes gravel.

If you are the kind of person who likes seeing things, there are some pages on the accompanying PDF file for this series, on the history of England.co.uk, you can go onto the Anglo Saxon series page there for a link-a-doodle. I’ve also tried to attach a link to this episode in your podcatcher  Anyway there are some of John Speed’s iconic 17th century maps and some pictures of south Oxfordshire today, maps of settlement patterns and names and that sort of thing.

South of the Thames is the modern city of Reading, and as we go west long the Thames we meet the town of Wallingford, then Benson and then Dorchester. Further west is Oxford, to the north is the town of Thame. If you don’t know the area, just try to imagine an area of lowland in the west, upland in the east, all bounded on three sides by a river. The lowland to the west is the Oxford plain.

I will take a little more time on the topography later, but for the moment the point is that the fertile plains in the Oxfordshire vale are well watered and reasonably well suited for meadow to produce hay, and arable for cereals. The uplands of the Chiltern Hills are less fertile, and more importantly have poor access to water, because the stone is porous and therefore water sinks into the stone rather than runs off into rivers. The chalk hills are capped in places with clay, so the inhabitants would rely on pools for their water – right into the early 20th century, water would need to be transported in barrels on carts in times of drought. However, the uplands are excellent for wood, pasture, and in some places arable is perfectly possible too, if less productive than in the vale – we are not talking the Pennines here, or highland Scotland. It is also very, very pretty. But presumably that was less of a factor for your British or AS farmer than it is for your modern-day commuter – although who knows? Your Anglo Saxon was no doubt just as capable of looking up from their work to view the beauty of the world as anyone.

There was prehistoric and Roman settlement in the area, mainly in the north west, around the historic town of Dorchester, on the Thames; there are interesting hill forts at Whittenham Clumps, in the Sinudine hills, and mysterious Iron age earthworks that run up into the Chilterns from modern Wallingford – Grims Ditch it’s called, and they are odd because they are obviously not defensive structures those they run up and down the hill rather than encircling the top or whatever. Maybe they are about controlling trade, maybe a boundary – but anyway. Actually there’s a deal of activity in south Oxfordshire, because the so called oldest path in Britain goes through it, the Ickneild way, which follows the bottom of the Chiltern scarp, and goes from Swindon to Luton, or Avebury to Irvinghoe Beacon depending on how much you are in hock to romanticism in your personal self expression. It takes its name from the Iceni tribe of East Anglia, because it connects with another ancient trail, in East Anglia, in Norfolk – the Peddars Way.

The Romans would build up parts of the Ickneild way to make it into a proper road rather than some poxy barbarian mud track. Just as a plot spoiler, there are famous events on that road; quite probably the great Heathen army will pass along it in 878 and bury some treasure. Also possibly in 1066 the local lord will wave Billy the Conq through on his way to London. Just saying.

Now, it seems possible that the Romans came early to the area in the invasion period; there is a structure up in the hills, on what would become a Roman road. The road cuts off that massive loop in the Thames to the south, from the crossing of the Thames at what is now Henley, and then up the hills you go, and down the other side and rejoin the Thames having saved yourself miles of travel if you’d followed the loopy line of the river. So at the top of the hills, there’s a big earthwork, with a little annex. This looks though it could have been a little early 1st century Legionary Marching Camp, When Roman presence was firmly established in the area the road was maybe made permanent[1], and a much bigger camp slapped bang on it. We are, as I write, trying hard to convince Historic England of this interpretation, so it can be scheduled. Wish us luck.

One of the bits of evidence I found out just the other day is about the nearby village of Nettlebed. Which placename is literally place where there’s a bed of nettles. Duh. But someone called Anne Cole did a bunch of work, and found out that words using the root netel, Old English for stinging nettle, are almost always found near major routes – like Roman roads, nudge, nudge, wink wink. Areas of open common land such as were at Nettlebed, became stopping places for travellers, the manure from all the horses and animals all that made the soil rich in phosphates, and if there’s something your nettle loves more than a bag of crisps with their scotch and American, it’s a lot of phosphates. Don’t you just love that? Does anyone even drink scotch and American any more by the way? Answers on a postcard. The point is. The place name Nettlebed supports the argument that the fort is Roman.

In the Roman period then the major centre was Dorchester, into the east of our area. It sits on the confluence of two rivers. The River Thame and the River Thames. Which is pathetic – how bad are we at naming rivers here? Dorchester became a walled town, surrounded on the low fertile ground by Roman Farmsteads, and a few suspected villas.  It is at this point, incidentally that upstream on the Thames towards Oxford, people call the river the Isis rather than the Thames, which has always confused me, particularly used by Rowers, and apparently first used from 1350. Don’t ask me why, but someone out there will know. It’s Oxford for crying aloud – I guarantee there’s a paper.


The Oxford vale around these parts is basically fertile with plains of greensand and clay soil below the scarp of the Chalk hills of the Chilterns. The area around Benson and Dorchester and the upper Thames valley has very early evidence of Saxon settlements. So much so that it’s been suggested that the first settlers of Wessex were not Cerdic and his bunch of adventuring warriors as the ASC claims, but instead the more gradual and peaceful settlement up here, in the Oxford plains in the late 5th and early 6th century. There is a bit of a theory based around a male burial in the Dyke Hills – Sinudine hills, Whittenham Clumps, different names for the same thing, we don’t like to make things easy. The chap they dug up has a mix of Germanic and Roman style military kit, which suggests a strong military presence around Dorchester in the early 5th century. So remember last time, when we talked about a long Roman departure, a period of transition, with petty lowland Romano British kingdoms run by local tyrants? Calling in barbarian military auxiliaries, Germanic federate troops to help them maintain their little kingdom? Well the theory is that Dorchester was the basis of such a thing. Based on this bloke.

There is a bit of other evidence that suggests late British survival. You might be interested to know, or be reminded, that the Old English term for a Briton was walh, from which comes the modern world Welsh. The word meant foreigner, which is a bit of a cheek given they were there first, and it later acquires connotations with slave. Well, nearby Wallingford town could be interpreted as ‘the ford of the Britons’ from its name. In addition the Chilterns itself is a very old word formed of a pre-British –cilta, meaning high, and a Celtic -erno bit, making Chiltern Hills mean ‘high place in the hills’. Together with basic idea of why not establish your petty kingdom in a defensible walled Roman Town, these are straws in the wind which suggest a Romano British Kingdom, around an old Roman Town, calling in Germanic federate troops to keep things going. And that these Germanic folk write home to their mates, come on over the water’s lovely, and they start to come and to settle.

Now Dorchester will be the centre of one of the very earliest Anglo Saxon Kingdoms. It looks as though Saxon burial practices were appearing as early as 450 in places like nearby Benson. You might remember Bede’s Bretwalda, who claimed some sort of lordship over all the English in Britain. The first one being Aella, the second one being a bloke called Ceawlin of a tribe called the Gewisse, who acquires his status around 570 maybe. You might just recognise the name. The meaning of Gewisse is predictably obscure, but the very famous historian John Blair suggests that maybe it translates as something like ‘sure’ or ‘reliable’ –  or maybe ‘the trustees’. I think the sense might be closer than anything to trustees in a prison, Maybe like Grouty in Porridge if you can follow a cultural reference of 70s Britain. Those in the trust of the leader sort of thing. So maybe these folks, the Gewise, acquire dominance as a kind of protection racket being operated in the fields of Oxfordshire. The Gewisse will one day become the west Saxons of Wessex, and we’ll come back to that. But the Gewisse are an interesting bunch, and help us extend this idea of a hybrid early identity, of Germanic and Romano British. Because they trace their foundation story from the famous Cerdic. The West Saxons will for ever be the Cerdingas, the people of Cerdic. And Cerdic itself is a British name. And so, QED, here we have our early mixed and confused state formation.

The area becomes recognisably Anglo Saxon, though, quite early, and yet the number of immigrants is probably really quite small, and so the  question comes up again – how did they establish their cultural dominance? Ok there’s the military thing, but if the numbers are so small – as we said last time, the idea of 250,000 immigrants across the whole piece persuading 3 million Britons to start becoming English and reading Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchet seems far fetched. The answer might lie in those very numbers though, when looked at in detail at a local level. So. There was a substantial burial ground nearby from the period at a place called Berinsfield, and the numbers suggest a total local population of about 30-40 people at any one time from the 5th to 8th centuries. So it wouldn’t take too many hairy mercenaries with sharp swords handing out the Hitchhikers Guide to convince people to give it a go, and Don’t Panic.

What were these new arrivals like, then? It is significant that Bede did not speak about Anglo Saxon territories, such as Merica; he spoke about peoples, the Mercians. It might sound like a subtle and slightly irritating distinction, but it’s important. This was a tribal society, and one based on Germanic traditions but based on people and relationships and lordship. This means that in the early days of the migration the critical unit were the warband and the kinship group.

The new arrivals retained a strong sense of the family, and being part of a wider kinship group. The basic social unit was the household, an extended household which included dependents such as servants where they existed. The household was led by a Ceorl, a word cognate with ceorlian, to marry, which suggests that the idea of being married was part of a process of acquiring the necessary status to be able to establish a household.  Each of these households were linked together by the concept of the kin, or cyn in old English; interlinked and intermarried families. The Kinship group was a powerful ally in the success of each household; your kin provided protection for the individual, gave support in the assembly. The lawcodes that emerge later show how deeply embedded the concept of kinship was within society, and it was your kin that you relied on to pursue a feud your kin you needed around you to pay a fine or pay the wergild to avoid it a feud, or to provide oath helpers which was critical in society, your reputation was all. The man or woman without a kinship group to support then was very vulnerable, very disadvantaged.

As I mentioned last time, The Anglo Saxons would come to view their past as one of heroic warrior leaders seizing territory in a butch and martial idiom. The glory of conquest.  This national concept implies and bred the supporting idea that just as territory had been won, it must then be protected against threat from outside who would in turn take it themselves. There will therefore emerge a strong connection between those who owned land – the ceorl – and public military obligations – to fight, to be taxed, to maintain fortifications. That was their responsibility as free men, and their responsibility towards their kin, their lord and their tribe. Because the warriors that accompanied warleaders were also free – they had independence and rights and self expression – agency as we might say.

The concept of freedom is very, very important in the story of the Anglo Saxons. It does not imply equality necessarily; society already had ranks. In this early period those ranks and hierarchies are not complex, the new arrivals would have been part of a very flat society just starting out. But that Berinsfield burial site did already show signs of rank. One basic and fundamentally important division was freeman and slave. The unfree might be thralls, slaves; or indeed they might be  a group called Coliberti[2], free men but who are still dependant. They might be Britons, who in Ine’s  law codes of the end of the 7th century will have a substantially lower wergild, or legal fine value which is no doubt connected with their lower status. And there is also a fundamental division emerging between noble and non-noble – eorlisc and ceorlisc. Already there is the odd princely burial – there’s one at nearby Cuddesdon from the period. The initial settlers of the 5th century were probably very much free farmers, banded together in either parties or with warleaders, but all establishing small settlements without much hierarchy – farmer republics you might call them – but with the early signs of status, elites and hierarchies.

More complexity in elites and hierarchies will emerge as society becomes more settled and richer, but from quite early, the signs of rank are present. Around 570, something rather dramatic happens in the archaeological record – the number of burials with goods and furnishings of various kinds falls dramatically. Ironically, it seems that this is a sign of increasing hierarchy rather than lessening; as an elite begins to emerge more strongly in the 7th century, they make sure only they are able to stand out in their burial ceremonies – so there is a minority of individuals interred in the most dramatically extravagant ways; elite burial magnificence that looms and towers, and while looming and towering emphasise just what cool and important people they are compared to everyone else. As is the way of things of course.  Difficult for the rich and powerful to get through the day without a bit of casual looming and towering.

Nonetheless, all free ceorls retained obligations and responsibilities, as free men, in exactly the same way as the war leaders they followed. So put out of your mind, for the moment, the medieval peasant and villein, tied to the land, the ones we are used to from post Norman times. The Anglo Saxon ceorl had no concept at this time of needing a landlord. He needed a lord – but relationship did not rely on holding land from that lord’s hand necessarily. He did not need to be a tenant to acquire a lord. So the land the ceorl held might be large or small, but it was theirs. They might owe allegiance and respect to a lord, but they were owed similar respect right back. They were legally free, and could followed whomever they jolly well chose. So nerks.

Lordship as a concept of personal loyalty though, was critical and would remain so. In episode 1.3, back in the original series, I offered you the story of Cyneheard the war leader who had trounced the king’s warband. And his offer of mercy to the king’s doomed warband if they switched loyalty. They would not, because

‘The prince offered them wealth and life, and none of them would accept it; but they all kept fighting until they all lay dead.’

Devotion and loyalty to the lord was everything.  And lordship provided a vocabulary of responsibility[3]; the social order depended on people being vouched for. By becoming a lord’s man, you became connected to a network of responsibilities that helped society maintain order and law. The lordless man, armed and accountable to no one, was a threat to order throughout medieval Europe; to be lordless was to be essentially both vulnerable, as well as a threat to the peace and security of society. If you had no lord, your kin should jolly well find you one, and look smart about it.

The relationship between the lord and his followers was not egalitarian. But the peasant, the ceorl, was themselves a lord in a small way. So although unequal, the relationship is one of inter dependence, where honour and dignity is due in both directions. Followers supported the lord and gave their loyalty, and in return the lord provided protection and gifts. The root of the word lord was hlaford, which has its root in the word for bread, half. He and the lady, are bread givers, the source of well-being, of bounty, of the essentials of life.

One of the responsibilities of the ceorl family was to offer the lord, lady and their household hospitality should they travel through his area. And travel the lord would – because they must visit their followers, offer gifts, give access to the great man’s ear, listen to the ceorl’s issues.  So the responsibility is mutual, and reciprocal. This right of hospitality will become a big thing and the basis for a financial render – the feorm. That’s a plot spoiler for next time – we’ll leave the feorm for now.

I freely admit here that I am going to throw some more words at you. Are you ready to receive incoming? The AS concept of lordship then was based on the idea of Commendation, the process of a man asking for the protection of a lord. If the lord accepted his submission they did so according to a relationship known as mannraedum, which sounds so much better than it does in modern translation where the word is manrent. Which sounds definitely dodgy, if not downright unsavoury. I don’t want to be prurient, but let’s stick with mannraedum.

So picture the scene gentle listener. The man, and it would be the man, the man offering submission bows before his new lord and offers up an oath similar to this, while grasping religious relics, once Christianity is here, held lightly but firmly between finger and thumb:

I will be loyal and true to Joe Bloggs and love all that he loves and hate all that he hates, in accordance with God’s rights and secular obligations and never, willingly  and intentionally, in word or deed, do anything that is hurtful to him, on condition that he keep me as I deserve, and carry out all that was in our agreement when I subjected myself to him, and chose his favour

This relationship is personal. It is also, just like feorum, reciprocal – in this case loyalty and service for protection. The lord is responsible for the good behaviour of his men, and they in return must preserve his peace. The people in this relationship are not equal – there are ranks and dominance inherent in the giving and accepting of submission – but dignity is owed to both sides, rights and responsibilities are reciprocal. And indeed the man offering his submission is at liberty to seek commendation from a new lord as he wishes, to withdraw that submission. And they do not need to live on the same territory – they are free to seek where they choose

OK, are we sorted on all that? I am going to use the phrase moral economy here. A phrase invented by E P Thompson, the moral economy is a concept which describes the unwritten rule of the way society and relationships work, the order of things, the rightness of thing. You might be rich and a lord but that didn’t mean you could do whatever you liked, you have to live by the code. Here then is a moral economy that recognised mutual obligations. Each action had an appropriate response. Following the rules conferred honour and dignity on both parties whatever their status. In practice – hospitality or feorum due to lords, and in return, access and influence and recognition at feasts and assemblies due to the Ceorl. Commendation – with loyal service on one side, protection on the other; action and reaction.  Call and response if it was an English country dance. Right, onward.

The importance of personal allegiance is reflected in settlement placenames, including our area of South Oxfordshire, which would have been based on small family groups around individual farms. Bede tells us that the unit of land, the hide, is ‘the land of one family’; its Germanic root hiwisc, implies married couple. [4] So, a hide farm is a common concept and presence.

So as families settle, they might group around an individual and their kinship group and followers – We see the memory of these people in settlements with the inga suffix, meaning ‘the people of’. So there is a settlement called Goring, and there is Watlington – the settlement of Waecel’s people. This is a profile that occurs all over England – so Reading, city of dreams, originally meant the place inhabited by the people of Reada. In Sussex, there’s a group of 15 places which originally had Haestingas in their name – a group of communities who all thought of themselves as Haesta’s people. There are other examples, such as a cluster of ‘Rodingas’ names in Essex. So the Haestas and Roda of this world had carved out their little regions, their little proto-kingdoms.

The suffix ‘ton’ in the afore mentioned Watlington of our area, as in T-O-N means settlement and gets added later as population begins to grow. The modern place name of Benson is another example of a place named after a leader, and seems to derive from someone called Banesa, with our first written reference being from 730, Banesinga-silla iubente rege – Latin for ‘in the royal villa of Benson’.  The ‘ton’ element again gets added later – as the name turns into Bynsingtun.

And as it happens most -ton, -ing and -ingham names are now thought to more normally indicate slightly later – 8th century settlements rather than 7th century; initial settlers in farmer republic style  are often  content to name their farm after some feature, until elites start looming and towering – and have settlements specifically under their control. The earliest settlements are thought to be the -ham type names, and we have some of those in our area too, like Brookhampton. There are very similar principles in northern and Eastern England, it’s just that the impact of the Danish makes the words different – ‘thorpe’, and ‘by’ for example. The earliest settlement names in the old Danelaw are thought to be what are called Grimston hybrid’s – names which combine Viking and English elements – so Grimmr was a Viking name, and -ton you know, settlement.

So, let us look at settlement in South Oxfordshire and what drove it, and what settlement names can tell us about how the Landscape framed and directed settlement – landscape being one of my stated subjects for this series

If the -inga and -ham sites may be earlier than others, Watlington’s situation suggests another reason for early existence, which is quite simply those areas which are most attractive for agriculture and staying alive. There are a few considerations – the presence of water is one; the fertility of the soil is another, and how easy it was to work the soil is further, which is not quite the same as fertility. So settling on the river Thames – such as Dorchester, Benson and Goring are obvious places to start.

But the bottom of the Chiltern scarp is another favoured area. Along there at the bottom of the scarp you see many names that suggest running water. Ewelme means ‘copious spring’ – and there might well have been a Roman shrine there too. The well element in Brightwell and Britwell means spring – just an ordinary two bit spring without the copious bit presumably, not sure what the citizens of Ewelme had done to deserve the copious bit. In fact as we are talking of springs, the maps I have posted in said PDF show a nice line of settlements that hug the foot of the scarp – because this is the spring line, where the rain has soaked through the chalk of the hills and finally met an impermeable layer of rock and been squeezed out from the ground in the form of a spring.

It is worth noting that there is another reason why these spring line villages may be the earliest settlements. Along the bottom of the scarp old water courses have left a strip of easy to work, fertile Greensand, in between the variously infertile clay cap chalk uplands, and the quaggy heavy clay of the Oxford vale. When you are using a light scratch plough, basically dragging a stick through the earth, that makes a big difference. So Brookhampton is one of those settlements further into the vale; the ‘broc’ element suggests a muddy stream rather than spring, and reflects the fact that Brockhampton is on low lying clay land; the gault clay on which it sits is fertile enough but jolly hard to work. In a future episode we’ll come to the agricultural revolution – an agricultural revolution – of the mouldboard heavy plough, and once that’s arrived settlement on the heavy clay soils will increase.

The vale also had significant climate advantages over the hills. The period 400 to 1000 is a relatively cool period and therefore the average temperature difference between low and upland would have been more significant – maybe 3 degrees on average. Which has an impact. And everyone loves the 3 degrees. So, it took a little more time, after 700/800, to establish permanent settlements in the hills from the settlements of the plains.

Also in the hills, water is much more difficult to access, since as mentioned the chalk is porous and so there are no running streams. Placenames demonstrate that. Names denoting running water disappear and instead you get water place names like Mongewell, Homer, kidmore, Uxmore; these are based on the word mere – or pond. Or just Turville, which means dry. In the hills as I say you depended on the much less reliable clay ponds for your water.

The Chiltern Hills were settled later for the lack of water and also that the land was less fertile, and again that is reflected in the place names. In the fertile Oxfordshire vale, then, we have many habitative type names, suggesting settlement and people. But now if we go up the hill, everything is rather different. The place names become dominated by name reflecting topography.  There are no –don names in the Chilterns I am sorry to say, don meaning a round shaped hill, as in Hambledon in Hampshire; what we have are -combes, as in Swyncombe, Huntercombe, Watcombe; a cumbe specifically means a rounded, bowl shaped valley; in common with the idea that the British presence survived longer in the Chilterns, cumbe is a Britthonic loan word; the -denu in Assenden, Harpsden, Ipsden suggests a long, narrow valley very typical of the Chilterns. Then there’s -ora words. Word with the ORA root in them may be my favourite placename root of all time. They mean – and I quote – ‘flat topped ridge with a convex shoulder used as a visual sign post’. Did you get all of that? Golly, all that from three little letters. Basically these are hills which have paths cut through the side of them, so a rigde and a should below formed by the path – look at me in the eyes and tell me you don’t love that. There are two by the aforementioned ora placenames on the Ickneild way – Lewknor and Chinnor. And One in the hills at Stonor

Obviously sometimes names were copied from the natives without understanding what they meant. My very favourite example of this comes from Nottinghamshire, Breedon on the Hill, which has Celtic, Old English and modern English name for hill – so, hill-hill on the hill. There’s picture of Breedon on the slides which will help you guess, wildly, why it acquired its name.

In the slides and maps  you’ll also see that the uplands have fielden names, in places such as Nuffield.  You might think that the field bit suggests arable farming, but actually the word normally means a rather infertile clearing, and therefore is associated with rough pastureland – Rotherfield is a good example, meaning field for cattle, Nuffield means tough grass, Binfield bent grass.

Given all this, it seems likely that the Britons may therefore have survived without much bother from new arrivals for rather longer in the more inhospitable and broken uplands. The Chiltern hills extends beyond Oxfordshire, running northwards in a sort of arc to the northwest of modern Greater London. They were very lightly settled, and in some places not at all – when we get to Domesday in hundreds of years, some of them are completely unsettled, and bring their farm workers in from outside. Anglo Saxon elite valued hunting every bit as the next man; and the wild upland areas may have been actively kept clear in places for hunting. There’s a theory that the Chilterns survived as a British enclave until quite late, late 6th century possibly early 7th.



To illustrate that, and the next stage in the story, we should refer to a document called the Tribal Hidage. Although the document only survives in much later versions, the original probably dates from the 7th or 8th centuries. In the pantheon of fascinating English historical documents, forget your Magna Cartas, pshaw to your treaty of Wedmores, and a plaque on your Bill of Rights, for number one on the list head over to the Tribal Hidage, and the record it leaves of some of the tribes who had built a recognisable identity and territory by the 8th century. Among the big boys of the Mercians and West Saxons, are the tribes known in technical parlance as the tiddlers, and among the tiddlers are the Cilternsaete, the people of the Chilterns. Maybe if things had been different, we’d have had a Chilterset just like we have a Somerset, but I suspect the resources of the Chiltern uplands were far too valuable to the people of the plains, and so the Chilterns would be split up and belong to shires that were defined by settlement in the plains. There are, incidentally, other regions where a people emerge with the suffix -sæte – the Magonsæte in Herefordshire, the Summersæte in Somerset, the Elmetsæte in Yorkshire and Grantasæte in Cambridgeshire. All of them are accorded a lesser status, and it is thought that they represent pockets of late Romano British survival.

This varied landscape has an impact on political landholding patterns. Farming in medieval and early Modern England is almost uniformly subsistence farming – where to survive, your peasant’s first priority was to produce what they needed to live, and so access to as many different types of resource was required. You needed a bit of everything to survive – land suitable for the plough for arable, pastureland to feed your livestock, livestock for meat, wool and hides for clothes and so on but also for manure to fertilise your arable land.

But don’t write off the less fertile uplands, because you needed them too; they provided woodland for all manner of things; building materials and making things like hurdles and fencing, or fuel, wood to burn for heat. They provided pasture. Now, South Oxfordshire was dominated in the 8th century by a vast royal estate centred on Benson which reached all the way up into the Chilterns and down the dipslope to Henley.  It was broken up over time, a process we will describe in a later episode, but parish structures tended to be in strips, combining hill and vale – because if you just have vale land, it would be a shame to convert prime arable land to woodland, when less fertile land would do just as well, and less fertile land was available not far away on the Chiltern hills. So your parish settlements are designed in such a way as to include vale and upland. So a 996 charter, described the Benson estate for a land grant, and, as all charters do, described its boundaries; and then the charter says for a specific piece of land:

These are the bounds of the wood that belongs to the land

The charter then goes on to describe the borders of a piece of unconnected land miles away in the Chilterns – these are the woods, up in the hills, that belong to the lowland Benson estate. This little example helps demonstrate a couple of points. That estates need all kinds of resources – you couldn’t just nip down to the supermarket and buy yourself some French Beans transported out of season all the way from Kenya. You were to a very large extent dependent on your landscape, that must be sufficient unto your day. And the charter demonstrates that the Anglo Saxon landscape was not teeming with wildwood, though fair do’s 996 is very much towards the back end of the period. And so lowland areas need to be allocated wild wood in the uplands. This flies in the idea that wild wood had reclaimed the land after the Romans left – but Rackham exploded that idea a while ago it has to be said. Finally, it assumes the existence of common rights; because folks from the Benson estate would need to be able to get to that bit of woodland, miles away, and would need rights over trackways to get there.

I could warble all day about landscape features but I imagine you’d start throwing things, so just a few words then on the other main feature of the countryside which are of course fields, can’t do without fields. It is worth saying at this point that almost every statement that talks in generalities about the English countryside is hogwash because there is so much regional variation. To illustrate the point, let me take you to beautiful Dartmoor, down in Devon in the south west of England. In Dartmoor, there are a rather remarkable set of field structures, long and thin, called reaves, which parcelled out units of land of 10 mile units in a very regimented way. Survivals of the same system have been found in several places of lowland England. These structures are prehistoric. It’s evidence of massive planning on a national scale, really early, before the days of national government and bureaucracy and so on. Most of the field structures were probably laid down before the Bronze age, and they are similar in spirit to the most regimented of all, the Regimented Rotten Romans.

Since I have mentioned the Romans, let me tell you that they had a system of centuriation fields. Centuriation fields are the equivalent of 775 square yards, laid north to south usually and marching across continental countrysides irrespective of topography. They really were a weird lot the Romans, straight roads, rectangular fields, really, they needed to lighten up.  As it happens, they did not import the field approach much into England, so you know, I tell you that just for your general information and all that – although there are some arguments that there could have been some Centuriation fields.






But mostly, the Anglo Saxons would have encountered the traditional Celtic field. These tend towards the small and square, often surrounded by quite high banks of earth and/or hedges; but generalisation alert, the topography would often define the shape. But the basic squareness is important because it reflected the plough of the earlier days of 6th and 7th centuries, which was your basic ard plough, which is essentially, a stick, so it’s sometimes called a scratch plough. The ard plough essentially scored a series of lines across the field, leaving undisturbed soil between the shallow troughs, so the farmer would plough both ways, cross ways. This has a few consequences. The ard plough doesn’t dig very deep, you are not using a big team of oxen; so you get the square fields, you don’t need to big turning areas, or the Gores and Headlands of the later field systems. But you are also rather restricted to the soil you can plough – relatively light loamy soils of the lowlands, because the scratch plough finds heavy clay soils terribly ard. I think I probably need to point out that this is a joke of sorts, I need to point it out, because otherwise I suspect you might not recognise it as such.

That, then, seems like a reasonable place to leave our very first Anglo Saxon settlers – establishing themselves on the Oxfordshire vale, adopting the small square Celtic fields, inter marrying and working with, or beating up the local Britons, we know not which; beginning to make contact with and take part in some argy-bargy with other groups. Living in small isolated farms and settlements, single families, and their households, which we’ll come to in a future. Possibly maybe perhaps reaching up into the Chiltern Hills to make use of their resources – grazing for livestock, wood for charcoal, building materials, fencing. Next time we’ll look at the life on the big Benson estate, the formation of the Anglo Saxon scirs, estates and tribal areas. It will be exciting, let me tell you.


Until then, I hope you are enjoying the  Anglo Saxon series reborn, revived in Scir two, do leave a comment on your podcatcher of choice as and if it allows you to, or come to the FB site and website to tell me what you think. And then, until next time – good luck everyone, the very best actually, and have a great week – I am sure you deserve it.

[1] Malpas, ‘Roman Roads south and East of Dorchester on Thames’

[2] Milesom, ‘Peasant perceptions of Landscape’, p60

[3] Faith, R: ‘The Moral Economy of the Countryside’, p19

[4] Morris, M: ‘The Anglo Saxons’, p50




5 thoughts on “2.3 The Early Settlers

  1. Should the Land, Lordship, and People link go somewhere? It appears to be broken and just send me to the main page. (Sorry.)

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