I have completed a number of posts to be released over the Christmas and New Year period. This was largely because I had planned this post and it took a truly epic amount of research and led me down a myriad of fascinating rabbit holes. You will not be surprised to year that I am easily distracted by tangantal fascinations. I decided to capitalise on this by writing a series of posts.
The period between the Roman withdrawal from Britannia and the Norman conquest of England has largely been considered The Dark Ages. This term has a number of connotations, indicating that life was barbaric and short, with no cultural development. Whilst we now know this is, mostly, not the case we can still refer to this period a Dark Age due to how little we know about the period we now broadly refer to as Saxon.
Side Note: This has always fascinated me, we know more about the time before and the time after. Normally this would be due to lack of written evidence but we do have remaining texts from the Saxon period. King Alfred, one of the great kings of West Saxony(Wessex), commissioned the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. We also have a famous history written by a Welshman in the mid ninth century. Nenius (probably not his real name), wrote the Historia Brittonium in which he provides the first written “evidence” of King Arthur.
After the Roman withdrawal from Britain and the subsequent collapse of the empire relatively shortly afterwards, most of Europe was one big power vacuum. Whilst many of the cultures were now heavily latinised and upgraded with all the newest kit and tactics, the old cultural divisions very quickly asserted themselves and the political borders drawn across Europe very closely resembled the pre-empire cultural borders.
Side Note: its amazing how no matter who you are, the old enemy will always be the enemy.
Britain was slightly different. They hadn’t been occupied by Rome for as long as the rest of Europe and as a result the Latin influences on their cultures faded away more readily than integrated. With the arrival of the Saxons and the Jutes the native Bretons were pushed back to Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. To this day three three areas have more in common with each other culturally than with England.
Eventually the Saxons took control of England …. sort of. Cornwall, Wales and Scotland remained as separate kingdoms and England was broken up into between three and six Saxon kingdoms. It would be centuries before we find the first Bretwalda emerge. These early kingdoms were still Germanic Pagan. We know a lot about their language primarily from later sources like Beowulf.
Side Note: Saxon or Old English is almost entirely unintelligible to a modern English speaker, Everything from sentence structure to pronunciation differ greatly however it is very definitely the direct ancestor of our current language. The sounds feel familiar and almost pleasing. The names of the kingdoms, West Seaxe, Hwicce and Mercia drip with regal pride.
So given when have a sophisticated culture who wrote stuff down, practised large scale agriculture, built great halls and buildings, manufactured weapons, armours and tools, you are probably asking why we still know so little about Saxon life.
There are two key causes for our lack of archaeological evidence to support any hypothesis about Saxon life. The first is the simple biological fact that dead stuff decays, whilst weapons and armour and other rare items indicating extreme wealth may survive, these were not possessed by the lower classes of Saxon society. So a lot of the hard evidence we have only applies to the top 0.01% of a society.
The second reason for the lack of evidence is Christianity. Once England became christianised the people who were educated enough to write the histories tended to be the clergy, and they decided that the factual history of Britain wasn’t nearly as important as doing glory to God. Beliefs in the spirit world which are believed to be a strong central point in Saxon life were written out of the new Christian histories, the Old Gods became demons set forth from hell. Everything suddenly slotted into the biblical narrative including some hilarious re-arrangements of facts to account for the great flood.
Side Note: This may seem a bit disingenuous and whilst I will openly admit I have no great love for the incredibly destructive influence the spread of Christianity had on the historical record, I should stress that the function of recording a history at the time and all the way until the seventeenth century had very little to do with the accurate recording of fact and more about recounting moral laden fables and making a point.
All of this provides us some idea of the political landscape however nothing of how these people, our ancestors, lived. Stories like Beowulf were considered to be high fantasy with no bearing in real life. Then something incredible happened. At a place called Sutton Hoo in Suffolk a great ship burial was found with a staggering volume of grave goods. I have a separate post lined up for Sutton Hoo. This dated back to pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England and told us a lot about how these pagan ancestors regarded their dead. Shortly after this a Saxon settlement (possibly a palace, I am unconvinced) was discovered in the archaeological record only a few miles away dating to roughly the same time. This offered an incredibly contrast in how the same culture practised in life and death.
Things to Come
I hope you enjoy this series of posts, if this is a period of history that interests you I would strongly recommend you look into the works of Professor Guy Halsall. He’s a historian and archaeologist who specialises in this period of European history and has a gift for communicating the nuances of the period. Whilst I’ve read a large number of works and books throughout this series Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur was used as a starting point in every post.