The Battle of Hastings 1066

One of the most famous battles in British history is the Battle of Hastings. IBy Myrabella (Own work) [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commonst could be said that it was this battle that formed what we now know as Britain. It is the point which many trace the British monarchy back to so it certainly did have a lasting impact.

When did the Battle of Hastings take place?

The battle of Hastings took place on the 14th of October 1066. This date has been calculated from the old records. The following excerpt talks about the dating: Finding Fulford – the Search for the First Battle Of 1066. Dates in the past were worked out differently to the way we work them out now. if you look back to the way Romans dated things then this is shown quite clearly. If we calculate the date of the 14th of October as the gregorian calendar then we can end up with a date of the 1st of October. The excerpt looks at a date around the same time and has a much smaller difference. However, the date is worked out we can say that the battle took place on a Saturday in October 1066.

Where did the Battle of Hastings take place?

This might seem obvious at first. Clearly, it happened at Hastings. This isn’t quite accurate though. The battle has actually been placed closer to a village called Battle. This is an English village that grew up around and Abbey that was built to commemorate the Battle of Hastings after William the Conqueror had taken charge of the country. The actual battle took place on a hill known as Senlac hill. There is some dispute over the name which can be followed on Wikipedia: Senlac hill on Wikipedia. Whatever the origins of the name that is the most common name for the hill currently.

In the larger landscape, this was in an area to the south of London and near the South Eastern coast of England in East Sussex. It is a relatively short distance from the channel coast which is no surprise considering where the invasion came from.

What happened at the Battle of Hastings?

Apart from the obvious, that there was a battle, knowing how the battle progressed is also important.

The Norman forces were confronted by the Anglo-Saxon army (by now they could be termed English so I shall use that from now on) as they advanced inland. The English army had marched south from a battle at Stamford bridge where they had faced and defeated a Scandinavian army under the leadership of Harald Hardrada. This Scandinavian army was mainly Norwegian as that is where Harald was king.

The English took positions atop Senlac hill and formed the famous shield wall. Shield walls were a common tactic in this era and had been for a long time. This tactic involved the warriors overlapping their shields to form a wall, hence the name. The Norman force consisted of several parts but was famous for its cavalry. The cavalry at this time would throw their spears, or stab downwards as they attacked their enemies. The Bayeux tapestry, which depicts the battle, shows a few of these Norman warriors charging with a couched lance. A couched lance was one which was tucked under the arm and the force of the attack would be delivered through the impact.

Traditionally the Normans attacked throughout the day. They would charge the shield wall with their cavalry but retreat before they hit the wall. Archers would then fire at the dense formation in an effort to break it up. The cavalry would then charge again and retreat if they stood no chance of breaking through. This carried on for the whole day. Near the end of the day, the Normans managed to draw out some of the English with this feigned retreat tactic and killed them. King Harold of the English was also struck in the eye and died. These factors broke the English formation and the Normans were able to run down and kill the English warriors who were on foot. The battle ended with a decisive victory to the Normans.

Why did the Battle of Hastings happen?

What caused the battle of Hastings? Why did the Normans invade? One of the important factors to consider here is the expansionist nature of the Normans. Since arriving in northern France, and being granted a duchy, they had pushed further and expanded their territory. Groups of Normans had also broken off and invaded Italy as well as fighting as mercenaries. Invading England was the next logical step in this expansion from the Northern coast of France. This doesn’t get o the heart of the matter though. The Invasions in 1066, both the Norweigeien one and the Norman one, were due to arguments of the succession of the English crown. Harald Hardrada claimed the crown on the basis of an old agreement that went back to the time of the Danelaw. William the Conqueror claimed that he had been promised the crown by Edward, the previous king of England. Harold’s claim was that he was the most powerful and richest Englishmen and was elected to the position by his peers.

After the death of Edward, there was always going to be a crisis and it was a matter of time before the three main contenders to the throne claimed it and fought over it. The events of 1066 were going to shape the history of England and the British Isles no matter who won the crown.

What happened after the Battle of Hastings?

William the conqueror spent some time chasing down the fleeing English to make sure that he would not have to fight a second battle to secure the victory he had just had. After he had done this he moved north to try and take London. To do this he needed to cross the Thames. At this timeLonfdon was only on the North bank of the Thames. He was unable to cross the Thames close to London so marching west along its course to find a place where he could cross easily. Eventually, he reached Wallingford, a town in what is now south Oxfordshire. It is here that he crossed the Thames and marched west to take London and have himself crowned as the new king of England. In thanks for the help the people of Wallingford had given him, he built a castle and began work on a new bridge. Wallingford had been a Burh under Alfred. Burhs were fortified towns which had protected the northern borders of Wessex during the time of Alfred but that is a topic for another post. Today Wallingford is still based largely on the Saxon and Norman town plan.

William’s taking fo the English crown lead to a succession of rulers and the replacing of the old Saxon lords with new Norman lords. This wasn’t a complete replacement but enough were replaced to change the aristocracy forever.

If you liked this post then please look at some of the related posts on the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans on this site. If you liked it then others may too so please share on social media.

Anglo-Saxon spears

By Pasicles (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsThe most common weapon at the turn of the first millennium was the spear (Underwood 2006:23) and indeed throughout Saxon history. The spear has been used throughout history in various forms such as javelins, commonly termed Angon in the post-Roman times, pikes, frequently used form the 16th century onwards and the lance, used by cavalry. The lance was synonymous with the spear throughout some historic periods such as the Byzantine Empire. With such a broad range of specialist types, we must look closer into the forms used by the Anglo-Saxon warrior.

Spears were common partly due to their simple construction. A spear would comprise of a head and a shaft and occasionally a ferrule. The head of the spear could be made from any abundant material (fire hardening of spear tips has been suggested during the pre-historic period). In the Anglo-Saxon period, however, spearheads were commonly made from iron. As with sword blades, we do come across pattern welded blades in the archaeological record (Halpin 2008:137) but this is much rarer. The spear shaft could be made from a variety of woods. Although, evidence for spear shafts is rare the use of readily available wood of varying types could be supported by the variety of woods used for arrow shafts (Halpin 2008:45).

Whilst we know iron was used for the creation of spearheads we also know of some methods of construction. A spearhead would be made from a billet of iron. This would first be hammered out into the rough shape needed. The socket of the spearhead (the area where it attaches to the shaft) would be flattened and folded round to form the socket. This would then be hammered and ground into shape. There are a couple of types of blade which suggest forge welding. The first of these are blades with extra wings on the sides of the centre of the blade. The second group are corrugated blades which are thought to have superseded the types with a central column vein reinforcement. These two types suggest the bladed edges of the spearhead were added to a central spike of metal that formed a tang on some types.

The dimensions of spears may at first seem hard to gauge, however, graves that include ferrules allow us to estimate lengths between the ferrule and the head. There is also evidence from bog deposits in Nydam, Denmark. These two sets of data suggest lengths of 1.6-2.8m and 2.3-3m respectively (Underwood 2006:44). It would also be interesting to note length of spear compared to head type so that further differences between throwing spears and those used in close combat may be detected. Such information is unfortunately not available at this time.

When discussing weaponry we inevitably need to discuss form and type so as to extrapolate use. As with swords, spearheads have also been the subject of typologies. Whilst those available concentrate on Pagan or Viking spearheads they are nonetheless useful (Swanton1973, 1974; Peterson 1919; Solberg 1985a). The initial form gives us three broad categories which are:

  1. Those with an elongated shaft
  2. Those with a more regular leaf or triangular blade
  3. Those with larger sword style blades.

I shall deal with each type in turn.

The first of these groups is those with an elongated shaft. These blades most probably represent throwing spears. The heads have parallels to evidence from Angons and Pilum (Leeds and harden 1936:59). The elongated shaft was supposed to bend when entering a shield, therefore, making both the spear and the shield it struck unusable. The spear being made unusable was an important factor as is noted in the sagas as it would prevent the weapon being reused against the original attacker. This group of spearheads is the one most prone to identification difficulties. The types for these spears are Type K (Halpin 2008:148) Solberg type XII (Halpin 2008: 149) and Swanton type A (Swanton 1973).

These difficulties, as can be seen by looking at the typologies, are important as the line between small spearheads and large arrowheads is difficult to draw due to some of the similarities in style. Notably, Halpin’s Dublin arrowhead typology number 5 (Halpin 2008:76 Fig 21). There is nothing to say the same heads could not have been used for both large arrows and small throwing spears especially if a quick casting method were used. It is doubtful that casting would be used for socketed blades although not impossible.

The second of these groups covers the majority of early and middle Saxon spearheads. Swanton’s typologies (Swanton 1973, 1974) show several types from triangular blades, types E1 and E2 (Swanton 1974) to leaf shaped blades type C and D (Swanton 1973). The leaf shaped blades are supposedly derived from earlier pre-migration pattern spearheads in use before the Saxons arrive in the British Isles (Swanton 1973, 1974). Swanton also points us towards several other groups of spearheads, e.g. Types H and I (Swanton 1973, 1974), which have different properties such as blades which flare outwards, type H (Swanton 1974:19) and type I’s corrugated blades also mentioned above (Swanton 1974:21). There are corresponding types within both of our other typologies. The Swanton type H is the same as the Peterson type F (Halpin 2008:148) and Solberg type I (Halpin 2008:149). This group of spearheads would lend themselves to thrusting as their pointed blades are at such an angle as to make slashing not as effective. It is interesting to note that Peterson’s types B, C and D blades, as well as Solberg’s type IX.1B and VI.3B blades, have shoulders to stop them entering flesh too far whilst Swanton identifies none of these types. From this, e can draw two conclusions. Either this is a peculiarly Viking type or only came into use much later than the 7th century (the date which Swanton’s typologies finish). These wings, if used to stop the spear entering flesh too far, may suggest a role in hunting as it would be a more important factor in that pursuit. This would possibly be supported by the relatively small number with this feature in Solberg’s typology. Another possibility is that they aided in the use of the spear as a defensive weapon which could be used to push opponents blades out of the way when thrust forwards.

The third group of blades are those which are elongated and in some ways resemble the blade of a sword. Some of these blades, Swanton type G2; reach lengths of around 500mm or more (Swanton 1973:101). These blades are characterised by parallel edges and would suggest a slashing blade. It is interesting to note that neither Peterson’s nor Solberg’s typologies contain such blades. Some are similar such as Solberg type VII.2B and Peterson type E; however, these similarities are fairly loose. It may, therefore, be possible to suggest that such blades were in use from the 7th century until before the 9th century in England although it is entirely possible that this is a purely Anglo-Saxon type. As already noted this type suggests a slashing rather than stabbing motion. This would, in turn, suggest a lack of armour for the typical opponent as the ability of such an attack to cause harm would be significantly reduced against mailed opponents.

Whilst we have talked of the spearheads and their shafts there are other attachments which can be considered. These included the reinforcing of the socket and also the ferrule. Ferrules are an interesting addition to a spear and are useful to use for several reasons. The first of these is they us to the length of spears although this was clearly not an intended effect. A ferrule tells us that the butt of the spear needs protecting. This would suggest two things. First, that the weapon is not a throwing weapon as they were designed to break on impact thus making the practical use of a ferrule pointless. They also suggest that the spear would be resting on the ground or used for walking. This means a spear is then important militarily, enough so that reinforcing it for a longer life was worthwhile.

Ferrules are generally a simple socket, conical in nature capping the end of a spear. Being hardened metal they could be used to prod prisoners forward or to disable a warrior without having to turn the spear point downwards or kill the victim. As such Ferrules must be taken into account when assessing the potential trauma marks that they may leave in the archaeological record.

The reinforcing of the spearhead is important as it helps to keep a heavy head attached. The head could either be riveted or have a ring pushed down over the socket to hold it in place. A combination of these two could also be used. It was noted that the heads of throwing spears may be loosened as a form of disabling the weapon so that they enemy could not reuse it.

So far we have covered. The use of the spear, its form, and its construction. We now need to look to its commonality of use and also the evidence of its use as a status symbol. As we have already seen above the spear was the most common weapon used by the Anglo-Saxon warrior. It has a high frequency in graves with it appearing in 86.1% of weapons burials (Härke 1989:54). This quantity is not recorded for other Germanic tribes where it falls behind the Seax as 45%-56% of graves furnished with a spear (Härke 1989:54). This shows us that the spear was particularly important within Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed it is the only other weapon listed as a demand for the Heriot (Loyn 1988:226) and is demanded at double the rate of swords.

In historical sources it can be seen that it is the spear that is the symbol of a freeman. As such being buried with your spear, which may have been granted to you as a sign of freedom, would show your status. Those lacking spears in this context may be either graves containing weapons showing them to be higher status or those who were not free. Whilst Härke notes we should be cautious of inferring use from burial custom we may be able to use the evidence of the Heriot to show the frequency of its use, Other literary sources can also corroborate such a postulation (Halpin 2008:16).

As a cheaper option than the sword yet with nearly equal ability to cause harm whether thrown, used for thrusting or for slashing the spear may thus be seen to be a common weapon. The evidence of the Heriot and that from graves supports this conclusion and as such wounds from this weapon may be found with some frequency within the archaeological record.

What can we infer from the burial rites of the 5th -8th centuries in Europe?

By Sutton_Hoo_Burial_Mound.jpg: Geoff Dallimore derivative work: SilkTork (Sutton_Hoo_Burial_Mound.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia CommonsThis is an essay that I wrote on the burial practices within Europe during the early medieval period. It is only a starting point on the subject but we do need to start somewhere!

What can we infer from the burial rites of the 5th -8th centuries in Europe?

In this essay, I will first discuss the burials which were interred in flat cemeteries or in barrows. This I will start with the typical burial which covers most of the burials in this period, I will then go on to talk about multiple burials and those in this category which have a more interesting nature. I am going to centre the essay around Anglo-Saxon burial and burials in the British Isles. I believe that these burials show parts of different societies from across Europe through the means of trade and migration. For example, the burial at Sutton Hoo showed coins from Merovingian kingdoms and even grave goods from as far away as Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire.

To set a background for the essay we need to be reminded that the 4th and 5th centuries saw the fall of Rome (395-476 AD) and the migration of different peoples across Europe such as the Huns, Goths, Vandals, and Alans. With the fall of Rome, there was no state-backed religion throughout Europe which meant the invading tribes were able to continue their Pagan practices. These tribes were slowly Christianised with the majority being Christianised by the fall of Rome; however, the Celts weren’t Christianised till the 5th and 6th centuries and the Anglo-Saxons weren’t Christianised until the 7th century. North Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe were not Christianised until between the 9th and 10th centuries so there would have been outside pagan influence to much of western and northern areas throughout the essays time frame. I believe that the British Isles will give a good view of the changes as it is well situated to receive Christian views from the Merovingian Kingdoms to the south and internal Pagan beliefs of two varieties while in the later stages, after Christianisation, there were still influences from Pagan traditions in Scandinavia.

The spread of Christianity is something which needs to be kept in mind when looking at all aspects of the burial rites of Europe as there are set Christian ways of burial which may conflict with Pagan ideals. A good example of this is the resurrection of the use of barrows, and indeed reuse of barrows, when Christianity was starting to gain a foothold in Saxon kingdoms in England[1]. This can also be seen in the typical single burial in a cemetery, although this has been disputed by several archaeologists and other, more secular, theories put forward.

To start talking about single burials[2] we first need to look at where these early burials took place. Burials were inhumed at cemeteries near villages and often at sites that had been used previously. By previous use, I mean areas which were used in prehistoric times many of which had been abandoned during the Bronze Age. Such sites can be found at Bishopstone in Sussex, Holborough in Kent and Winterslow in Wiltshire. There are other sites which are also used and indeed barrows from prehistory saw reuse by the Anglo-Saxons in around the 7th century. These burials were usually on their back (supine) in an extended position with the grave head at any position but usually, the majority of burials in one cemetery will face the same direction. Typical grave goods would be a few items possibly symbolic of the position that the deceased held in the community the higher in the community the more lavish the grave goods. I shall, however, discuss this more in depth later on.

In eastern Britain, in the 5th century AD, new burial practices were taking place. Before this time, during the 4th and 5th centuries, the normal burial practice was the use of cremation. As with inhumation, the grave would be furnished with goods such as combs, tweezers, other cosmetic items and occasionally clothing and brooches. However, by the 6th century inhumation was more popular and eventually replaced cremation as the sole burial rite. This change from cremation to inhumation also took place within the Merovingian kingdoms. There are also other major changes throughout this period which are the use of barrows, change in the direction of the body and the amount of grave goods used. Most of these explanations can be explained both religiously or with a secular opinion.

I will start with the use of barrows in England. Barrows were originally used during the late Bronze ages but during the 7th century they received a period of revival. The barrows were either new ones or reused prehistoric ones; these are called primary and secondary barrows respectively. These have been explained as a defiant action by Pagans in face of Christian conversion (see footnote 1). This however can be contradicted as many barrows contained burials without grave goods which can be seen as Christian. Grave-goods or rather their presence or absence, however, has provided a lot of discussion because there are two ways to view the change. It is when after Christianisation grave goods start appearing less and less and eventually disappear. This has been explained as a direct effect of the Christianisation by several archaeologists and historians. However in my research I came across a piece in which a historian (J. Kerr) talks about Pictish burials and the way in which they used very little if any grave goods which shows a tradition of no grave goods. The link with Christianity although plausible cannot be proved or disproved as there are no written records that state Grave goods should not be used. Other historians, notably Wilson in his book Anglo-Saxon Paganism, have come to the conclusion that it was economic factors that were the cause for less grave goods and he even goes so far as to suggest that it may have become less fashionable. The economic argument would mean there is a greater need for portable wealth within the community this correlates with increasing trade. Ironically this evidence for trade is shown in the burial at Sutton Hoo by way of its grave goods. These grave goods included Merovingian coins and also other objects from Byzantium. The claim that it was a fashion can be seen by the burials in the higher echelons of Merovingian Frankish society. In a piece by B. Effros it is argued that in the late 7th and early 8th centuries grave goods and epitaphs are replaced by a service for the deceased. This is especially true in the upper parts of Merovingian Society. Also stated is that

“Burial goods were instead employed in funerary ritual to express symbolically the recognition which kin of the deceased, whether by blood, social or religious ties, sought from their fellow members of society.” (Effros 1997, Fall,

This combination leads me to conclude that grave goods were actually linked to religion but this was because Christianity had become not only the religion but also a fashion and tool. The use of Grave goods less and less while linked to increasing Christian belief would also seem to me to be using Christianity as a type of excuse for not putting in grave goods.

As mentioned in the above quote “recognition of kin” or more precisely linking people to their ancestors was taken more seriously by the Anglo-Saxons. This links to barrows as there is the possible explanation that they are trying to preserve links with ancestors who had been buried there; also the same could be said for flat cemeteries which have been placed on the same site as a previous bronze age cemetery. This however as I have already said has been disputed as in Wilson’s book on Paganism he points out the time gap between use during bronze age and early Anglo-Saxon burials means there is not actually continuation.

The direction of graves is, however, harder to dispute as being the influence of Christianity. The head facing in an easterly direction is one which is a Christian fashion and indeed the accepted method of burial. However, it is found that in Pagan cemeteries the graves can face in any direction although most graves are usually facing the same direction. A common direction for Pagan graves is north-south which means any Christian burials in the same cemetery would be fairly easily distinguished due to the different facing.

Single burials are not the only type of burial during this time. Most cemeteries included some multiple graves. Some of these are similar to those found in even modern cemeteries where one member of the family is buried lying next to the other members of the family. This links with the Anglo-Saxons who believe strongly in the links of ancestors. Other burials can be linked to this like the burial of a partner on top of an already buried person. There are however some more sinister connotations to some of these burials. It has been suggested that these burials are through a practice of ritualistic sacrifice of a human who is thrown into a grave on top of a dead person for whatever reason, possibly as in Ancient Egypt an idea of needing a slave in the afterlife would be a decent explanation. It is also mentioned that a practice called suttee could have been used in some areas. This is an idea which was put forward by Wilson after looking at the work of Talbot who had studied a tribal group called the Wends who had lived on the continent during the 8th century. I quote:

“[a race with] such a high regard for the bonds of matrimony that when the husband is dead the wife refuses to live” (Talbot 1954:123)*

Wilson points out that the Wends cremated their dead and in burials of females on top of males by Anglo-Saxons usually the female was not placed in reverently. This leads me to the conclusion that the Suttee idea was probably not practiced by the Anglo-Saxons. Other reasons why bodies may have been buried on top of others is that with unmarked graves as most Saxon ones were a burial could be superimposed by accident. This also has evidence at a grave in Camerton, Somerset where the bones of the lower burial were carefully put back. However in opposition to this a burial at a later date to go with a previous inhumation would have to have some sort of marker and there is very little evidence for grave markers in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Another feature of multiple burials is the grave goods as there is always a difference between the two burials which is often that the upper burial is devoid of goods.

Grave goods are a common feature throughout and as I have mentioned before there are several reasons for them being slowly dropped from burial rites of the Anglo-Saxons. Grave goods help to display a picture of the status of individuals who are wealthier receiving more grave goods such as the royal burial at Sutton Hoo down to slaves who not being allowed possessions in life took nothing to their graves unless they had wealthy or generous masters. Grave goods usually were stereotypical for men and women with men being buried with a spear and shield and buckles, while women were buried with hair pins brooches and jewelry. Pagan burials also often included offerings such as a joint of meat and sometimes there were other grave goods. Horses are a good example of a rare “grave good” one grave at Sutton Hoo and notably, Childeric, one of the first Merovingian kings, were buried with their horses. It was proposed by an anonymous historian that this may have been linked to a horse cult which was followed by the Alans who were a nomadic tribe in the east of Europe.

To conclude burial rites changing between the 5th and 8th centuries show how the fall of the Roman Empire meant Christianity could spread much further and establish itself as the dominant religion throughout Europe. This is supported by the archaeological evidence such as lack of grave goods and eventual burials in churchyards in the 8th century. Pagan rituals were slow to vanish and many were also kept for several centuries, again grave goods, till finally being replaced by the Christian way of burial.



*for full references to those books please see the bibliography in Davis Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Paganism.


BAHN, P. 2001 The Penguin Archaeological guide.

London: Penguin.

DARVILL, T. 2003. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Archaeology.

Oxford: Oxford University Press

GANNON, A. 2003. The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon coinage.

Oxford: Oxford University Press

GRANT, J. GORIN, S. FLEMING, N. 2002. The Archaeology Coursebook: an introduction to study skills, topics and methods.

London: Routledge.

GREENE, K. 1996. Archaeology and Introduction.

London: B.T. Batsford Ltd. Third edition.

LUCY, S. 2000. The Anglo-Saxon way of death

Stroud: Sutton Publishing

RENFREW, C. & BAHN, P. 2004. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice.

London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. Fourth Edition.

WILSON, D. 1992. Anglo-Saxon Paganism.

London: Routledge

Ed. WOOD, I. 1998. Franks and the Alamanni in the MerovingianPeriod: An Ethnographic Perspective.

Woodbridge: The Boydell Press

(Whole volume used)

Electronic sources

EFFROS, B. 1997, Fall, Camargo foundation.


(3 March 2005)

KERR, J. (date unknown) Tanwayour

(3 March 2005)

[1]This has been explained as an act of defiance by the Pagans (Carver 1986:45)*

[2]These are inhumations cremations will be discussed later.

Anglo-Saxon houses and settlements

Anglo-Saxon houses and settlements

Anglo-Saxon villageAnglo-Saxon people needed somewhere to live so what did their homes look like?

Anglo-Saxon houses were rectangular rather than the round like the houses of the British people. These houses were made from wood and were built with a series of posts although occasionally they would lay beams out and build on top of them. When building on posts, pad stones were sometimes used to make a stable platform. These houses would be topped with thatched rooves and have wooden walls.

anglo saxon house planWhile the basic construction of a wooden house with a thatched roof is common throughout most societies the shape of the house is often different. Anglo-Saxon houses had a pretty structured plan. (see left) If you drew two squares with a small rectangle between them you would have the basic plan for an Anglo-Saxon house. The door, or doors, would be in the centre portion of those shapes effectively dividing it into two. This basic plan was used on a variety of scales. Larger buildings would have aisles down the sides to make the building wider while still having the posts close enough the centre to support the larger roof.

Aisled halls can be seen at sites such as Yeavering which was a major Anglo-Saxon royal site that spanned both pagan and Christian Saxon time periods. Aisled halls look similar to the plan of modern churches. We still call the side portions of these churches aisles as well. This isn’t surprising as we have churches that date back to the Anglo-Saxon period and some that still have evidence of original Saxon doorway arches.

While we only have evidence of postholes from archaeology we are able to reconstruct what these houses looked like. West stow is a place where Anglo-Saxon houses have been rebuilt and you can visit the village that has been created. There is also an Anglo-Saxon house being built At the Weald and Downland open air museum. The Weald and Downland open air museum has multiple houses from different time periods so you can see how the Anglo-Saxon house developed through time. Medieval houses after the Norman conquest were still similar. It took several hundred years for the design to be significantly modified into one that could not be recognised.

reconstructed grubenhaus JarrowIn early Saxon settlements, there were also small sunken huts. These have variously been termed sunken feature buildings and
Grubenhause over the years. As the second name suggests there is evidence for this type of construction on the continent as well as in England. These small buildings were dug into the ground with a thatched roof held up by posts set into the sides. These buildings were thought to be simple residences but further digging has recovered artefacts that suggest these were more likely to be workshops and storage places.

Saxon settlements were small by modern standards although the trading towns such as Hamwic, near modern-day Portsmouth on the south coast of England, were larger. These groups of houses would slowly be replaced over time as the wood the posts were made from rotted. This can leave large areas of postholes with no discernible pattern without scrutiny by archaeologists. Later Saxon towns had plots of land called burgage plots. There are some nice examples of this layout. Excavation sites such as St. Mary’s school in Wantage, Oxfordshire show a small farmstead just outside the area of these plots. The dating of these sites allows us to see the growth of towns during the later Anglo-Saxon period.

Anglo-Saxon Burh mapA later Anglo-Saxon document that is of interest when looking at this subject is the Burghal Hidage. This document lists defensive towns called burhs which were used to defend against raids by Vikings and Danes from Danelaw. Today we still have evidence of such defences. Wallingford in Oxfordshire is a good example of this as the town inside the bank still closely resembles the pattern of settlement that was originally there (obviously there are many modern additions of buildings and side streets added to this area). Within these towns, there would still be areas for growing crops and the houses would follow a similar construction to those in the more modest villages in the countryside.

As we can see there are quite a few aspects to consider when talking about Anglo-Saxon houses. The evidence that we have from archaeological excavations gives us plenty of house plans to look at. Perhaps one day all of these settlements will be placed together on a map to give us an idea of how the Anglo-Saxon’s were distributed across England.

(All images apart from the plan of the Anglo-Saxon house are courtesy of creative commons)

Are National borders a thing of the past?

Are we confusing the past movement of people with ourAnglo-Saxon kingdoms 878 modern concept of borders?

Recently I have been researching the movement of the Anglo-Saxons into the British Isles. Aside from the usual debate of invasion vs. migration, which I have partially covered on the Anglo-Saxon page and also in an article, I started to think about the concept of borders. Borders are a concept that is ubiquitous in modern society. Humans, as a race, have a great love of dividing things up and putting things into neat little brackets. Historians and archaeologists have done this for years with typologies and eras. In the news almost constantly (here in the U.K anyway) we see the subject of border control come up again and again. guardian article on border checks BBC article on borders

While borders in the modern world have developed as kingdoms and nation states have solidified in the ancient world and even more recently in areas such as Africa during the 19th century this was not so. Borders were looser and often porous. Hadrians wall is one of the few good examples we have of a border with controls While the edge of the Roman empire is often clearly defined, such as the Rhine frontier, Were these borders always as secure as we imagine them. Even in the modern world, as the above Schengen agreement link shows the borders in Europe aren’t hard and fast. We have the lines on maps but they don’t exist on the ground and can be crossed without much hassle.

When we look at the tribes that inhabited Europe they would have territories but very few clear boundaries. The edges of the territories they controlled moved frequently. Raiding was commonplace and as such we can conclude that while certain villages and farms were linked as part of a group the actual land itself wasn’t exactly owned as we view it now. This concept of owning land that is not being used is a little odd. Indeed, political philosophers on the left have often railed against land ownership even in our modern times.

Are we making a fatal mistake in the fundamentals? Are we being anachronistic when we talk of invasions by groups of people? Undoubtedly there were invasions such as those by the Huns or Bulgars are the smaller movements of tribes really invasions? Are they actually taking the land from anyone?

This may seem like a far left standpoint but is it? Are we again making a mistake by creating a border in our thoughts? Those thoughts need not be classed in such a way. We could describe the concept of tribal lands with blank areas as a left wing ideal if we wanted but the events we describe took place many decades and centuries before the concepts of right and left wing entered our consciousness.

How do we resolve this?

We should look at the facts.

If we take raiding parties as a starting point. The idea was often to steal livestock. There may be other moveable wealth stolen or slaves taken but, on the whole, it was frequently just a bit of cattle rustling. At times, the raids would get more vicious and villages and towns would be targetted. their people slaughtered. These accounts are often couched in terms of the people that were killed. It was a Roman settlement so they were Romans etc. While we often see ‘the lands of X’ we could suggest this just included the lands that were in use. We could, therefore, make a delineation between the two concepts. When the Saxons arrived on the coast of Britain they didn’t instantly spark wars with the tribes that we would consider as controlling the land. There was no clear they have invaded as they have passed this invisible line. If there were we would see plenty of battles in the archaeological record. We don’t. What we do see is the settlement of areas by small groups. There isn’t a concerted effort to carve out large kingdoms. Farmsteads crop up all over the place. Can we say that the areas that were settled in such a sparsely populated country were taken from anyone? Towns had been abandoned and were resettled by groups in an ad hoc fashion, some were left such as Silchester. It is only later that we see tribes coalesce into larger groups and kings emerge.

Even many years later, in the later medieval periods, we don’t have such nationalist terms such as countries. We have territories owned by knights, dukes, counts, barons and Kings. We have principalities and demesnes. Which ‘country’ you belonged to was often down to a certain level of ethnicity but even then we can see such a close link between French aristocracy and English aristocracy that that is still not a clear dividing line. King Richard the paragon of English virtue didn’t even speak English. He is famous for never really being in England. Yet he is hailed as an English king. So does ethnicity even play a large role?

What about fealty? Much of the intrigue in medieval courts was due to fealty. Who could command the most knights was the order of the day. It wasn’t the kings that directly controlled the land it was the landholders such as knights or barons that were the de facto owners. It was who they swore fealty to which set them up as on one side or the other. You could easily switch sides back and forth if a large army pressured you into kneeling to a new liege lord. With the parcels of land being divided up in such a manner, we could suggest that we still hadn’t left our tribal systems behind. we just grouped those tribes into larger groups. This would still mean it was a very similar state of affairs to the classical roman period. It isn’t until the rise of absolutism that we really see countries as controlling the lands that they nominally occupy.

Anglo-Saxon villageAll of this discussion centres around the forming of groups at the higher end of the hierarchy. What about those at the bottom end. Do the people in an Anglo-Saxon farmstead in Mercia in 850AD really see themselves as Mercians? Did they truly see Beorhtwulf as their monarch? Did they even think of themselves as Anglo-Saxons? It is almost certain they didn’t see themselves as English as that concept seems to have only really solidified in Wessex under Alfred. Perhaps they did or perhaps they are like an apathetic voter today. We see in some articles (Varsity article on voter apathy) figures as high as 59% of people who couldn’t name the prime minister. With communication and information at our fingertips in the modern age, we still have a large amount of apathy. We could suggest that a similar figure may be applicable to the Anglo-Saxon period. Why such a leap? Well, as mentioned above we have a considerably larger body of information to draw upon. There are more people so news can spread faster by word of mouth. Even then we have a channel dedicated to airing the goings on in parliament. With such widespread information, it is hard to fathom why people don’t know such a basic question. That is until we look at why. Perhaps it is because people just don’t care. The same article linked above suggests a large portion of the country are apathetic. What if the same was to be said for the average Anglo-Saxon? When you have a farmstead that is away from the main areas of raiding you would have little need to concern yourself with more than feeding your family. You may go to a nearby market to trade but who was wandering around with their werod smashing the place up wouldn’t matter to you. It wasn’t that information that was important. The weather, the failure of another family’s crops, a new ploughing technique. They are the things that are most important.

By now you may be wondering where this is going. First, I say we put our ideas of modern culture on the past and try to fit them in. I say this may be wrong. I then go ahead and seemingly do the same thing. The difference is what I am using to compare to the past. We can look at general trends of the average person’s views. These won’t change much over time. They still boil down to the essentials. To bring in enough that you can live comfortably and well fed in your own home. The particulars may be different but the concepts are the same. While we have a preoccupation with borders it isn’t an essential part of life. We could redraw most of the world’s borders five feet to one side or the other and it would have little noticeable effect. The difference is therefore that our modern notion of borders comes from our modern concepts of nation-states. If a society doesn’t have the concept of a nation then they wouldn’t have a concept of national borders.

This topic has so many facets and some aspects we will never truly know. I will be revisiting some of the questions that I have posed here. If you have any more or indeed if you have a different take please let me know.


(All images courtesy of creative commons)

Did the Anglo-Saxons invade Britain or was it a more peaceful take over?

Did the Anglo-Saxons invade Britain?

This is a question that has been debated for a long time. There is a lot of research on this subject and it depends on the time period and the school of thought that the author was using to what their answer is. There is good evidence used on both sides of the debate and there is no clear answer. Or is there?

I had always believed that the concept of a Saxon invasion was outdated and something that came from the tale of Hengist and Horsa. An origin story like any other which showed more about the people who wrote it than an account of the actual events. While at University I was taught about the spread of the Anglo-Saxons and swiftly fell into the no invasion camp. Recently I have been reading around the subject and wondered if there was indeed merit to both ideas. Could we perhaps suggest that both ideas had merit and there was an amount of invasion and an amount of peaceful settlement?

Campbell in his overview book The Anglo-Saxons seems to err on the side of an invasion at first reading. This book was published in the 90’s so when I was at university it was not especially old for an overview text. He cites some good evidence from the writings that are left from the period. I was left thinking that the agendas in the writing may well lead to an argument for invasion no matter which side the writer fell on (Briton or Saxon).

The Norman invasion is a well-documented occurrence, so is the creation of Danelaw. Both of these saw large swathes of the British countryside turned over to one ruler in a relatively short space of time. The Anglo-Saxons did not form a single unified kingdom. There were many and varied kingdoms that were much more tribal in nature. Early Anglo-Saxon archaeology shows a technology level similar to that of the Romano-British populations from the Iron age. There is Also the Issue of the disparate groups that are still identified. There are the Angles, The Jutes and the Saxons. Doubtless there would have been smaller tribal groups in these larger groupings.

Campbell also mentions some sources from the later Roman empire that talk of British groups fighting Saxon invaders. Indeed, the whole of the western Roman empire was fighting a variety of groups of Germanic origin until its eventual collapse in the 5th century. if the British were organised in such fashion surely we would see a lot more evidence for an invasion. perhaps even some records similar to those of the Viking invasions in later years.

If we look at the evidence of place names we can see that there are many that are Saxon in origin and many that are British at least in part. While we could compare this to the Scandinavian influence in the Danelaw areas of Britain does it not seem odd that an invasion would leave so much intact. Indeed, the names of some places are developed from the Saxon word for foreigner. If it were the case that these societies didn’t integrate then surely such names would be redundant as the indigenous population would have pushed to keep a native name.

I have looked through some of the genetic studies and they also suggest that there was an intermingling of the cultures.

I do wonder whether the views of an invasion come from a concept of a homogenous Anglo-Saxon culture that arrived rather than the disparate tribal groups with loose similarities. Could we, therefore, compare the migration of the angles, Saxons and Jutes to the migrations of people within the Bronze age? Essentially tribal groups that were moving to another place. Also aligned with this is the thought of Britannia as a province and a single entity rather than separate tribal groups especially as there are separate British kingdoms throughout the Saxon documentation.

It is an interesting concept to ponder and there will be follow-up posts about these subjects. In the mean time please do comment, answer the short questionnaire and sign up to the website for further updates.

updates to the Anglo-Saxon and World War 1 areas


I have updated the information in the Anglo-Saxon and the World War 1 areas of the website. The Anglo-Saxons now have a bit of background and the World War 1 page now has a subsection about the nations involved in the war. The World War 1 nations section will have subsections for each of the nations involved to tell you who they were and when they fought in the war as well as other interesting facts. Keep checking back for updates as more will be coming soon!