Anglo-Saxon houses and settlements
Anglo-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.
While 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.
In 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.
A 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)