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


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A brief overview of the settlement and conversion of Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon Twilight is mostly concerned with religion in England before the late ninth century. The most reliable information would seemingly be writers who lived at that time. However all such writers were, almost by definition, Christian clergy. The most notable of them was the Northumbrian monk, Bede, who lived from 672 or 673 to 735. Heattempted to give the impression that soon after St Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in AD 596 to convert the Anglo-Saxons then Britain quickly went from being a pagan to a Christian country. In truth, neither is true. It was not entirely pagan before 596 – especially in Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. And it was not entirely Christian until long after.

True, when the last of the pagan kings, Penda of Mercia, died in 655 and was succeeded by his son Peada then, nominally at least, all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had converted, and bishops appointed to lead the conversion process in the newly-formed dioceses. But the process of conversion was very much 'top down' and, while religious practices may have fallen in line with the Church, the clergy seemed to have little influence of the underlying beliefs of the laity until around the tenth century.

Pre-conversion customs are known to have continued in Wessex during the 640s and perhaps later. In Kent – the region where the Augustinian mission had its base in Canterbury – people were keeping up 'the old ways' as late as the 660s.

It was a long time ago. It was a long time.

Anglo-Saxon England seems in some respects a long time ago. But it was the era when nearly all English villages and towns were first created, when most of the roads between them came into use, when the English language evolved, when the principal laws of this country were first written down, and – above all – when Christianity first became the dominant faith. So in all these respects – and many more – it has shaped England as we now know it.

sutton hoo buckleruthwell cross

Sutton Hoo buckle (620–30)
and Rothwell Cross c.750.
Only about 125 years apart yet so very different.

However all these innovation did not happen in a short period. The phrase 'Anglo-Saxon England' spans a vast period – from the fifth to eleventh centuries. In other words from when the Roman administration left around 410 until the Norman conqust in 1066. If we shift that forwards a thousand years we would be talking about the time from the 1420s until 2066. Clearly life in 2010 was not the same as in 1910, still less as in 1510 or earlier. While we may think that the pace of change was slower in more traditional societies, in practice each century in the medieval and early modern eras was quite distinctive.

To scholars specialising in the Anglo-Saxon era then each century between 410 and 1066 is almost as distinct as, say, the centuries between 1410 and the present day. To be sure there is less evidence of exactly what the differences were, and frustratingly little evidence of precisely when even some of the more major changes came about. But we must resist the temptation to think of Anglo-Saxon England as something which was more or less the same over much of the time.

Anglo-Saxon Twilight is concerned primarily with the period from the fifth century until the middle of the ninth century, when Scandinavian settlers took over the more north-easterly parts and less directly influenced the remainder of the country. In practice so little has survived from the fifth century that our understanding of this century is mostly quite speculative. In contrast, many more artefacts and documents survive from the Anglo-Scandinavian period in the ninth to eleventh centuries. So sometimes we need to cautiously 'project' backwards from this later evidence to understand what was going on perhaps a century or more earlier.

Celtic or Germanic?

And just as Anglo-Scandinavian practices evolved from earlier Anglo-Saxon activities, so too what the earliest Anglo-Saxons were doing was a continuation of Romano-British practices. And, while seemingly mostly 'Celtic', there would have been at least some areas where German-speaking feoderati had settled.

Feoderati were essentially mercenary soldiers who signed up to serve in the Roman army for several decades. Initially they were paid in food or money but later they were billeted with local landowners, effectively becoming settlers who grew their own food when not off fighting. In due course the larger landowners ended up with what, to all intents and purposes, were private armies. They became none-too-benign warlords.

The extent to which feoderati from Germany during the Roman era 'pioneered' the later phase of Anglo-Saxon settlement is a matter of hot debate. Certainly in the fifth century something fairly drastically Germanic happened, as Old English is – with the exception of less than a dozen words loan words from Celtic – an entirely Germanic dialect. Had there been something of an equal mix of Anglo-Saxons and native British then Old English would have been a creole of German and Celtic. However Twilight is not the place to debate either the historical, archaeological or linguistic evidence for the hows and whys of Anglo-Saxon settlement – the articles are almost entirely about the beliefs and worldviews shared by the people of the time.

Put simply

From the fifth to the eleventh centuries the people living in Britain underwent a series of quite rapid transformations. Roman and Celtic life-styles – already transforming each other – assimilated with major Germanic cultural influences in the fifth and sixth centuries. The early phases of these transformations quickly became a distinct culture – Anglo-Saxon – but over the subsequent centuries continued to absorb northern European, Mediterranean and, later, Scandinavian people and ideas.

Some of these cultural exchanges were as a result of trade and extensive travels by political and religious envoys. And within the term 'trade' we must bear in mind that one of the most profitable forms of trade was slavery. As is clear from the African diaspora in the New World, a wide variety of cultural hybrids arise from when there are significant populations of slaves. The extent of slavery in early medieval Europe and the Middle East is impossible to quantify but was substantial. The dispersion of culture which came about as a result could not have been insignificant.

Nevertheless seemingly the biggest influence on cultural change was migration. This in turn brought substantial changes to land settlement, both in terms of ownership and also the shift from dispersed settlements to nucleated villages. The ownership of land created both emergent kingdoms, which progressively merged over the centuries and, at a more local level, the roles of thegns and manorial lordships. Many centuries later their successors would be nicknamed 'squires'.

As if all this was not enough, two other major changes overlaid these transformations. Firstly, the conversion to a culturally 'exotic' religion based on the entirely different worldviews of the eastern Mediterranean (although substantially 'reworked' during the conversion of northern Europe). And, secondly, the related development of literacy.

And we refer to this immensely complex process of rapid transformations as 'Anglo-Saxon England', as if little changed!

Significant dates in British history during the sixth to eighth centuries

597arrival of St Augustine
 ,, death of St Columba
c.625death of King Raedwald of East Angles
634accession of King Oswald of Northumbria
635Bishop Aiden from Iona founded Lindisfarne
642Oswald killed by Penda
655Penda killed by Oswiu
664Synod of Whitby
 ,, Iona monks leave Lindisfarne
669Abbot Theodore arrives at Canterbury
674Benedict Biscop founded Wearmouth
675Adomnán appointed abbot of Iona
678Bishop Wilfrid expelled from York
687death of Bishop Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
688accession of King Ine of Wessex
704–5death of Adomnán
706death of Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne
709death of Bishop Wilfrid
717Nechtan expelled Ionian monks who refused to accept the Roman date of Easter
731Bede completed his Ecclesiastical History
735death of Bede
747Council of Clofesho
757accession of King Offa
768Britons of Wales adopt Roman date of Easter
795Lindisfarne attacked by Vikings
796death of Offa



copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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