Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries

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Yeavering Anglo-Saxon royal centre

Yeavering is on a fertile plain in Northumberland, at the western end of a valley known as Glendale, where the Cheviots foothills give way to the Tweed Valley. The most prominent topographical feature is the twin-peaked hill, called Yeavering Bell, with an Iron Age hill fort on the summit.

Starting in the late 1950s a series of archaeological digs by Brian Hope-Taylor revealed a series of large timber buildings at Yeavering, which he interpreted as an Anglo-Saxon palace.

The reality of what has been discovered by excavation and more recent cropmark photography is complex.



The site is made up of a number of different features:

  1. An enclosure at the eastern end constructed from a double-palisade. Most likely a cattle corral, it could have also been used as a meeting place. A prehistoric buril mound was incorporated into enclosure walls and a wooden post inserted into this – a weoh or stapol. The enclosure might originally have been built during the Roman era.
  2. A series of rectangular buildings to the west of this enclosure. Four of these were exceptionally large. Hope-Taylor termed them Great Halls and compared them to the royal halls in Beowulf, places of feasting and drinking.
    Next to one of the buildings was a pit full of animal bones. This building had no evidence of domestic occupation and is usually referred to as a pagan temple.
    Not all these buildings existed at the same time, although there is insufficient dating evidence to establish a detailed chronology.
  3. Concentric foundation trenches to the west of the 'Great Halls' forming a wedge shape. This was most likely a tiered auditorium or cuneus capable of seating about three hundred people. This could have been used for secular or religious speeches. This part of the site is unique in Britain.
  4. Further to the west were other rectangular buildings, smaller than the 'Great Halls'.
  5. At the east and west were inhumation burials, some incorporated into pre-existing prehistoric burial monuments.

In essence, Yeavering is a unique site. It would indeed seem to be some sort of royal centre. But the absence of parallels means that any interpretation is speculative.

Edwin and Ethelburga

Hope-Taylor associated the last phase of the site's occupation with King Edwin, king of Northumbria from 616–633. However Yeavering would only have provided seasonal accommodation as the king and his household would have travelled extensively throughout the kingdom each year.

King Edwin is mentioned in Bede's history of England because, although a pagan himself, he married a Christian princess, Ethelburga (also known as Aedilburh, Aethelburga or Tata). She invited Paulinus, a missionary from Rome, to baptise the king's subjects. Quite conceivably Paulinus preached in the wedge-shaped auditorium – indeed, this may even have been built specifically for this purpose. Edwin himself only finally agreed to be baptised at Easter 627. Bede's account suggests that Yeavering was then known as Ad Gefrin.

All the buildings were deliberately burnt down in 633 or 634, immediately after Edwin was killed in battle by Penda, king of the Mercians. Subsequently Yeavering was rebuilt, but not in such a grand manner. Instead the later Anglo-Saxon kings built a new royal centre at Maelmin, further east on Milfield Plain. This site is visible on aerial photographs – which reveal a 'Great Hall' – but so far has not been excavated.

After Edwin's death in 633, Ethelburga returned to Kent with Paulinus where she founded the nunnery of Lyming, which she led until her death in 647. Interestingly, a series of ongoing excavations are revealing considerable detail about this religious settlement at Lyming.

Yeavering: 'truth' or speculation?

By the standards of the mid-twentieth century Hope-Taylor was a competent archaeologist. However he was excavating a site which was unique and, understandably, he had no awareness of the specialist information which archaeologists excavating Anglo-Saxon sites developed in subsequent decades.

Hope-Taylor, as was typical for his contemporaries, offered ever-more detailed interpretations of the excavation. Most of these have been reiterated so often that they have become 'truths'. But considerable caution is needed. For starters, while Yeavering was undoubtedly some kind of royal centre, calling it a 'palace' is more than a little anachronistic. Further, we simply do not know enough about the archaeology of Anglo-Saxon royal centres to know if Yeavering was typical or atypical.


Did the three wooden posts at the southern end support images of pagan deities or Christian icons?


The building thought of as a 'pagan temple' has a pit full of animal bones just outside. Inside there is an absence of domestic occupation. But equally absent are either votive offerings or pagan altars. Yes there are several post holes which could have held pagan weohs (see weohs and stapols). But they could also have held Christian icons or crosses, and the animal bones could have been from Christian feasts…


Is the iron 'staff' evidence or a priest or a standard-bearer?


Much has been made of the grave-goods of one of the interments at Yeavering. These included an iron 'staff', suggesting parallels to the iron staffs carried by the volur, the peripatetic prophesising women of Germanic culture. But the burial at Yeavering was male, and other grave goods suggest a warrior. Was this 'staff' actually part of a battle-standard, making the bearer a standard-bearer rather than a pagan priest?

A few other Anglo-Saxon burials elsewhere in Britain have also been accompanied by iron 'staffs' – although they are more likely to be described in the excavation reports as 'roasting spits' than ritual equipment. More work is needed on these unusual finds before the interpretation of the Yeavering man as a priest can be confirmed or countered.

Undoubtedly life at Yeavering during the reign of king Edwin would have involved many of the adaptations made by both paganism and Christianity during the seventh century. Sadly neither Bede's historical account nor the archaeological evidence recovered by Hope-Taylor allow us to be certain of exactly what was happening.

As and when more sites akin to Yeavering are excavated and analysed then we may be able to be more confident of the correct way of interpreting the evidence from Yeavering. But, for the time being, any expressions of certainty about the interpretation of this wonderful site should be treated with caution.


More information on Yeavering online at:

Wikipedia

PastPerfect


 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2014

 


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