Early Societies: Britain and the Ancient World

The Anglo-Saxons

The Anglo-Saxons came from a region of dense forests and small clearings, fearsomely cold in winter and wholly different to the Mediteranean climate which had formed the Roman outlook on life. In the great epic Beowulf we have a sense of their beleaguered psychology: life is short, like a bird flying in through the window of a house at night. It passes briefly through the light, then out again into the dark. The Saxon gods, Woden, Thor and Freya, dwell in a great hall called Valhalla, to which the spirits of dead warriors fly, but it is doomed to be destroyed by a race of giants who will bring about the end of the world.

How did ordinary Britons - as opposed to their leaders - experience the Saxon 'invasion' ? Imagine you are a slave working on a villa estate in what is now Hampshire. If you are un- married you probably live in a sort of 'bunk-house' close to the owner's mansion. You know that if you disobey your owner or attempt to run away, you will be flogged or even crucified (and where will you run away to ?). At some stage you may be allowed to marry and live in a hut out on the estate ; more probably you will be required to live in 'married quarters' near the villa, where your wife may be an indoor servant. If you have children, they will be slaves like you.

One day, word reaches you that the villa owner has been killed by Saxon pirates, and there are no soldiers left in Britain to stop the same thing happening again. You still need to go on growing food for yourself and the other slaves to eat, but you move out of the bunk-house and set up home in part of the now-deserted villa, taking what you want from the rest of the building. Then rumour spreads that a new man - a barbarian from across the sea - is coming to take over the land. He doesn't speak Latin and he doesn't want slaves ; all he wants is a share of your produce. Most of his time he spends fighting up-country and he lives with his chief in a great wooden hall of the kind described in Beowulf. However, if any disputes arise between you and the other former slaves who are now your neighbours the matter will be settled according to his law. Before long you will be adopting his customs, his language and his religion. Your villa has become a village, and its surrounding lands a manor. We have moved from the world of Julius Caesar to that of Robin Hood.

Seen in this way, the end of Roman rule in Britain looks less like a disaster and more like liberation. There may have been occasions when whole shiploads of Saxons accompanied by their women and children arrived and the previous inhabitants of an area ran away. But for the most part, those who had worked on the land under the Romans must have gone on working on it, passing on their skills and experience from generation to generation. What they did not need were the goods and services that the towns had existed to provide, and within half a century of the army leaving the towns of Roman Britain were quickly falling into ruin, although here and there a few inhabitants stayed on (at Cirencester they moved into the amphitheatre and turned it into a fortress).

As long as fighting continued, bands of Saxon warriors probably kept together. But once the descendants of the last villa-owners had given up the struggle and themselves adopted the invaders' life-style, the warriors would settle down. Then every village would have had its own lord, a nobleman (thegn) owing allegiance to a king who was probably descended from the chieftain his great-grandfather had followed to Britain. One such king was buried under the great mound at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. His body lay in a full size ship, complete with his helmet, sword and shield, as well as other precious possessions and regalia. These treasures, now in the British Museum, provide us with our best clue to what an important Anglo-Saxon looked like.

Illustration: The Lakenheath Horse Burial

The Lakenheath Horse Burial

Featured in a BBC Meet the Ancestors programme this high status burial of a Saxon warlord dates from the time when the Romano-British elite in East Anglia was rapidly being supplanted by its own mercenaries.

With his gilded horse harness and long slashing sword, the man seemed to step straight out of the pages of Beowulf.

'Beowulf put on his coat of mail, not fearing for his life... With its links all turned by hand and adorned with skill, it knew how to guard his body, the bone-chamber... so that his foe's grasp could not harm him, could not squeeze out his mortal life... Not least amongst his mighty gear was Hrunting, one of the finest swords ever handed down; its iron blade was engraved with lethal leaf-like patterning, tempered with battle-blood. No man had failed who'd held it in his hands...'

Eventually, through the mission of St Augustine (597 AD), the Saxon kingdoms became Christian and in doing so re-joined the 'civilised' (Roman) world. Being part of the populus Christianus brought many practical benefits to Saxon rulers. It meant that they ruled with the authority of God and that disobeying their commands was an offence against God (Sutton Hoo becomes an execution site). It also meant that laws could be written down and administered with the help of a literate elite - the clergy - who gained great power as the arbiters of justice (as in modern Iran and elsewhere). Moreover, if kings went into battle (as was frequently the case) they could count on the blessing of the Church and feel that they deserved to win. Should they be killed, there were holy men whose prayers could intercede for them when they faced judgement for their sins. In the face of such advantages Woden's Valhalla had little to offer.