Saxon Invasion and Colonisation
Once the ‘classis Britannica’ – the Roman North Sea fleet – had been withdrawn, the door to Britain was well and truly open to the raiding and settling Saxons – the seafarers from the lands fed by rivers like the Rhine, the Ems and the Weser. They quickly settled the seaward areas of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Kent and moved on westward to places that the Romans had not penetrated. They were looters, who destroyed and burned rather than integrated and settled. But when the warriors had gone, families, the true settlers, came behind them. The impetus of invasion slowed as it flowed westward. The west country and Wales fought off the Saxons to maintain a pastoral way of life which even the mighty Romans had been unable to change.
The endless flow of the new race could not be resisted. By AD 603 the Anglo-Saxons had colonised the country and England, expanded into Britain by their conquests, was now their homeland. They were true settlers – they worked together and for each other: great craftsmen, farmers, husbandmen, loyal to their clan, implacable to their enemies.
In King Alfred, only 21 when he led his ‘rustic levies’ against the Danes at Ashdown in AD 871, the English nation found its saviour. By his introduction of a navy and the reorganisation of the army this great King threw back the Danish hosts, fortified key ‘burghs’ or towns and, at the end of his reign, routed the Viking Grand Army. Thus the ‘English-ness of England’ was preserved. Alfred died around AD 899, worn out by his efforts in serving his country. ‘More than any other man, says Arthur Bryant, he was the first maker of England.’
‘The transition from Roman Britain to Saxon England has traditionally been seen as one of the more vivid episodes in history, and Essex lies prominently in the middle of the south-eastern zone of the primary settlement’, says Warwick Rodwell, archaeologist, adding that there is no historical evidence available to lighten the darkness of the period, though recent excavations have shown that some Roman presence lingered well into the fifth century. The fact that the Romans built such large and solid forts as the one at Bradwell shows that Saxon raiding parties were already eyeing the green and pleasant land which offered chances of settlement. Certainly the immigration of Germanic tribes into Essex during the 5th and 6th centuries was not nearly as extensive as that into neighbouring coastal counties. Those forts, the impressive and impregnable walled capital of Camulodunum and minor defended places as at Chelmsford and Great Chesterford, may have continued to act as a temporary deterrent to the less sophisticated Saxons.
For these and other geographical reasons Essex cannot be said to be anything like the starting point of Saxon immigration, so it is very rare indeed that archaeological finds of the first, pagan period of Saxon settlement are found here. Few burials of early Saxons have been found. It would appear that bodies were buried rather than cremated and to date no urn containing calcined human remains has been found in Essex. Signs of early Saxon settlers have been found at widely separated sites, but there may be manv more sites as yet unidentified.
The great leap forward in the knowledge of Saxon life in Essex came over the ten years from 1968, following observation from the air of crop marks. In the Mucking area it yielded evidence of occupation by families from neolithic times, until the Saxons left the marks in the ground of their sunken huts, two cemeteries and, on the site of one hut, an almost complete pot, lying abandoned on the floor. Its form and decoration indicated that this was the start of the new Saxon period.
At Rivenhall the Roman buildings of stone were taken over by Anglo-Saxons who lived there as the Romans did, farming a small estate. When those stone buildings gradually fell into ruin somewhere around the 6th century, the Saxons replaced them with the timber buildings of which they were master craftsmen. It is possible that such an estate simply evolved in this way until mentioned at last in the Domesday Book.
The gradual merging of Saxon with Romano-British appeared to continue with very little hostility. In many a cemetery opened up by archaeologists the graves run on from Roman to early Saxon without a visible break; Great Chesterford and Kelvedon both show this steady change of occupants of their settlements. One elaborate Roman burial in the latter place reflected in its construction the Saxon custom of a chamber grave in a timber mausoleum. Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Colchester, Great Chesterford, Saffron Walden and Wicken Bonhunt show evidence of the new race of British people living and dying. At least 24 other sites show signs of Saxon settlement.
There is a most unusual story of the discovery of treasures from a Saxon grave at Broomfield. In about 1888, farmer David Christy’s land in Broomfield was being developed. Christy had ordered some of his men to go into a field behind Clobbs Row, a short street of workers’ cottages built at right angles to Broomfield Road, to dig out a load of gravel from the large pit already opened up there. The gravel was being quarried about seven feet below the surface of the field. In digging it out by hand the men came across pieces of a broken, corroded sword, a spear, a knife and other small, not easily identifiable items.
The men, uneducated in ancient history and archaeology, and with no time to stand and stare, took the gravel and left the junk’ as they found it, still half buried in the gravel. Mr Christy had no need for more gravel from that pit for another six years. Then the labourers who went down in the pit realised it was a grave which had been broken into previously. The remnants of the former digging were still there. They were collected and, under Mr Christy’s direction the rest of the grave goods were carefully excavated. They included parts of the decoration of the sword, gold studs set with precious stones. The grave was clearly defined by a black line in the gravel, indicating slow, sooty combustion. Within it a further collection of’ objects included a bronze pan containing two glass, and two turned wooden CURS with rims of gilt bronze. Two wooden buckets were set in the bottom of the grave and in one corner was a two-gallon iron cauldron. No trace of a body was found, but there was evidence in an ashy deposit that a body in a strong wooden coffin had been set alight on interment and slowly smouldered away. Comparison with similar burials in other parts of southern England shows this to have been the grave of’ an important local Saxon chief of around AD 600. The remains were finally deposited in the British Museum.
In talking of death and burial we are trying to understand, through the only surviving evidence, something of the life and times of the people of the ‘shire’ of Essex, who organised its local government for the next 1,000 years. F M Stenton, historian of Anglo-Saxon England, says: On passing from Anglian into Saxon territory, from East Anglia into Essex, the obscurity deepens. No East Saxon king was of more than local importance; and although an earls’ Saxon occupation of Essex is proved by place-names of a primitive type, no other part of south-eastern England has yielded so little archaeological evidence of its condition in the heathen age.’ For him, the chief interest of Saxon Essex lay in the genealogy of the royal house where, like other Saxon kingships, there was a determined attempt to keep a link with the ancestral line in an alliterative naming of successors to the throne. Thus the crown in Essex passed from Sledda to Seaxa, Sigefrith, Selefrith, Sigebaki, Sigeberht, Selered, Sigeric and so to Sigereci, the last of the line. These names have a further meaning for us in that they carry the root of the two names ‘Gesceg Seaxneting’, referring to a god still worshipped by the Saxons in their continental homeland down to the 8th century. It would appear that these kings took London as their capital, with Middlesex as a province of their kingdom, but even London has failed to produce evidence of its 6th century past.
The way in which these Saxon immigrants came to settle in Essex in family tribes is illustrated in many of the place-names of present towns and villages. We only have room for a few examples. There were once nine villages with the Roothing or Roding suffix from Abbess Roothing to White Roothing. This whole district was settled by a tribe which probably came in en masse to clear spaces in the forest all along the river which got its name, Roding, from these settlements of the ‘ing’ or tribe, led by Hrotha.
There is a little chapter of history in the name of the charming village of Ingatestone. Saxon settlers came across a meadow by a river which seemed a good place to put down roots. It was a location easily recognised from the huge boulder left there in prehistory as the glaciers retreated. It may have marked a junction of tracks of the salt trails, before the Romans came. The little settlement prospered, and came to need an identity as immigrants passed through. They called it, ‘The place where the folk have settled by the great stone’- in other words, the ‘ing’ at the stone, which soon became shortened to Ingatestone. Other names reflected the conditions encountered in settling. For example Rayleigh, says Dr Reaney, the place-names expert, simply means ‘Wild she-goat clearing’, illustrating as clearly as a camera what leapt out of the wood when the pioneers began their first land clearance. Gryme’s Dyke, that defensive earthwork so laboriously raised by Iron Age people on the landward side of Camulodunum, was seen by the Saxons as the work of the devil, Grim, as they called him, for they could not envisage men before them altering the landscape on such a vast scale.
Althorne is Saxon for ‘burnt thorn bush’, and one can imagine how those settlers cursed the thorns through which they forced their way before burning off the whole area to make room for their huts, animals and patches of cereals. Writtle reflects one of the happiest experiences in looking for a place to settle. Pushing past Chelmsford, with its ruinous Roman buildings, they came to the banks of the Wid and found it an ideal place for settlement. They called the river Writtoloburna, ‘the babbling, purling stream’ and named their village after it. Tolleshunt villages grew up because of the essential spring of water flowing there. Toll was the leader of the tribe, ‘hunt’ or ‘funt’ was their name for a spring. Some places got their names from their size. Coggeshall was Cocc’s nook, and Cicca had his ‘nook’ in the Chignalls where Chignall Smealev had the addition to show it was a ‘smooth clearing’.
The still powerful Roman army had remained in England and in Essex until the early years of the 5th century, with a strong element under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore attempting to discourage invaders. But as central authority from Rome waned and the army of occupation elected its own emperor their power was diminished, Saxons broke through the beleaguered defences of the south and east of England. In AD 410 Honorius, the emperor facing the sack of Rome by the Goths, sent a message to the cities of Britain telling them that henceforward they would be responsible for their own defence. There must have been a long period between the evacuation of the Roman army and the emergence of law and order as provided by the Saxons on a regional basis. It has been suggested that the earliest such organisation may have been at Mucking, where men from the well-established settlement were recruited to man boats to fend off further waves of invaders. This was to no avail: by the end of the 6th century two thirds of what was to become England was in the hands of the tribes of local kings who served overlords of much wider districts than the present county.
The future development of Essex had much to do with the growth of the church and the crusading zeal of missionaries. The early conversion of Romans and Ancient British had failed. All the Anglo-Saxon kings were pagan until St Augustine’s mission of AD 597. King Aethelbert of Kent, overlord of the whole of the south of England, was converted soon after Augustine’s appearance at his court. The King of Essex, as his vassal, was next to make Christianity the accepted religion of his people, with a bishopric set up at London. When Aethelbert died in AD 616 his son and his successor reverted to paganism, as did the sons of Saberht. Kent was soon back in the fold, but Essex had to wait until about AD 653 before the King accepted the message of Christ through Bishop, later Saint, Cedd. Even then the hold of Christianity over the hearts and minds of the Essex people was tenuous. Their king was so frightened by the dreadful plague of AD 664 that he went back to his pagan gods for reassurance. Nevertheless the Church’s hold gradually increased. An interesting legend, handed down by word of mouth for centuries shows that Christianity was flourishing.
Shortly after St Cedd came ashore, Osyth, daughter of the King of the East Saxons, who had grown up in the Christian faith, was presented as Prioress of the nunnery her father had founded for her at, or near, the village of Chich. Chich was the Saxon word for a bend – a bend in the creek which runs down to the Colne estuary. This was where the first Saxons settled. Some time before the 8th century a gang of raiding Vikings came up the creek and landed here. They were heathens who took delight in laying waste the nunnery fields. They jeered at the terrified nuns and tried to make them renounce their belief, but Osyth stepped forward, confronted the cruel chief, rejected his terms and told him to let her nuns go in peace. He was furious at being castigated by a woman and ordered one of his henchmen to behead her on the spot. Osyth died for her faith, and legend has it she bent down, picked up her head and carried it to the nunnery chapel, where she struck the door with her bloodied hand to show that she wished to be buried within. On the spot where she had been beheaded a spring of the purest water gushed forth, and the place is still known as Nun’s Wood. Osyth was later canonised, the village growing round the nunnery became first Chich St Osyth and now St Osyth is part of a five-mile stretch of coastline where thousands of people holiday in the numerous chalets and caravans which line it.
Two other religious buildings still stand to show the faith of Saxon Christians. One is St Peter’s Chapel, built to Bishop Cedd’s order in the gateway of the ruined Roman fort of Othona at Bradwell-juxta-Mare.
This is said to be the first church built on Essex soil and there is no reason to dispute this. Cedd had it built here on the spot where he landed to bring the revived mission. The historic significance of his little church was not appreciated as the centuries passed. It was used as a navigation guide for seamen, standing as it does right on the shore, then as a barn until, in 1920, its place in Essex history and religion was recognised and it was reconsecrated, to become the focus of an annual pilgrimage headed by the bishop.
The Roman fort is the only Saxon Shore type of fortification known in the county. What remains is, in essence, a flat surface 19 ft above sea level with a depression indicating the original deep ditch dug around the walls. It was robbed of its stone to build the church, then, over the centuries, was practically ploughed away until, in 1864, work was put in hand to strengthen the sea wall. It was then that the broken seaward end of part of the wall came to light. Mr Oxley Parker, the enlightened owner of the land, ordered a careful excavation which uncovered the plan of the walls except for the eastern end which had been washed away by countless inundations. Since the area enclosed by the other three walls covers some five acres it can be seen that this impressive stonebuilt fort was an awe-inspiring deterrent to Saxons looking for loot, long before they came as settlers. All evidence of the Roman fort has gone from the site, but still the battered remains of that church stand.
The poem Beowulf, the only surviving secular epic in Old English, gives a brief glimpse of the life of the Saxon warriors under their Essex king. He surrounded himself with men of proven nobility, some from neighbouring kingdoms on a kind of exchange basis. He rewarded success in battle, often with gold rings, and made them see that a good weapon, well cared for, was worth more than its weight in gold. In his timber-built hail his warriors enjoyed open house and guarded his life day and night. Kings and nobles captured in battle were killed. Lesser mortals faced the fate of lifetime slavery, sold abroad if they were of the right quality. Such kings embraced Christianity as a provider of the extra power that would bring victory in battle. But it was not always a blessing – Sigbehrt, King of Essex was murdered by his own men because, as a Christian, he would keep forgiving his enemies.
Written records from the 7th century show how the ‘ealdormen’ – still known as aldermen down to 1974 – were responsible to the king for the administration of their areas of his kingdom. The system used the ‘ten man’ method of securing law and order. Men were grouped into tens and were made responsible for each other’s behaviour. The lower class of Saxons were the tillers of the land in the service of their lord and the Britons who had not moved west were held as slaves or serfs, living entirely at the whim of the lord – a category which continued on, to be recorded in Domesday Book. As one historian of this period puts it: ‘It was in a sense a brutally commercial society; not only did ever’ man have his price, and every crime its compensation, but a man could sell himself, or his child, into slavery.’ The precepts of the early Church had an effect on the laws issued by the king; for example, the sabbath must not be broken, and a child must be baptised within 30 days of birth.
For the first 200 years of their settlement in Essex these Anglo-Saxons used only the high value gold coins of foreign mints – the solidus and the trernissis. The solidus originated in the Roman empire as a gold coin worth originally about 25 denarii. Until decimalisation in 1971, the sloping line used to separate shillings from pence, e.g. 1/4 was still called the solidus. The tremissis was a Roman gold coin of the later emperors, said by an early 18th century expert to be worth 5 shillings sterling. Around AD 625 they imitated the latter themselves, calling it the thrymsa. Late in the same century silver Coins were introduced, called ‘sceattas’ by modern numismatists, though their Saxon name has not been recorded. They represented that still continuing unit, the penny.
The sceatra issued by the Essex kings showed the standing figure of a sphinx which, it is said, they copied from one of the ancient British coins of Cunobelin.
Civilisation and sophistication slowly developed. The new faith was a great force in that development. There were twelve bishops serving the kingdoms subject to King Aethelbald of Mercia; they were active, literate and it big influence on the Saxon kings. As one historian of the period says ‘… they were genuinely heroes, albeit of a new type, to Anglo-Saxon society’. The new faith brought with it the book, the world-changing method of communication. Building in stone was revived, as well as stone carving. When Aethelbald was murdered by his own bodyguard in AD 757 civil war broke out, with his cousin Offa triumphant. He introduced a new approach to the lesser kingdoms like Essex, treating them as provinces of Mercia rather than as kingdoms in total thrall. Christianity was now powerful in Mercia, and also in Essex. For example. Offa asked the Pope in AD 788 for permission to reduce the province of Canterbury and set up an archbishop at Lichfield. The Diocese of Essex, tip to AD 830, included minsters at St Osyth, Bradwell, Wakering. Tilbury. Barking, Upminster, Bishops Stortford and Hadstock. Offa had so increased his power that by the time of his death in AD 796 he was styled ‘King of the English’.
The detailed organisation he put in place to rule this emerging unified country is glimpsed in an interesting custom dating back to his reign, first described in an ancient manuscript and repeated in Philip Morant’s History published in 1768. In the days of the Saxon Kings, long before William the Conqueror arrived, it was necessary for the King constantly to assert his authority, and so the custom of ‘Watch and Ward’ was introduced. The instructions, originally written in Anglo-Saxon, have survived for that area of Essex called the Hundred of Ongar. They can be summed tip as follows:
The King’s Bailiff for Ongar had to cut a willow bough from Abbess Roding wood on the second Sunday after Easter. It had to be 27 in long and 8 in across. He had to take it to the Lord of the Manor of Rookwood Hall, wrapped in a fine linen cloth and then lay it on a cushion in the Lord’s own apartments. Then, when the Bailiff had relieved and refreshed himself (as explicitly stated in the instructions) he was to take the Wardstaff, as it was now to be called, to Long Barns, still so named today, where all the lords, landowners and tenants who held their land by service to the King had been ordered to gather together, bringing with them all the armed retainers they would have to provide for the King’s service in time of war. All through the night this host of people subservient to the king had to ‘watch and keep ward in due silence’ as a gesture of loyalty to king and country.
Here, at Long Barns in Abbess Roding, a thick rope was drawn waist-high across the road, with a bell tied to one end, so that if an intruder tried to creep along the lane at dead of night he would hit the rope, ring the bell and thus alarm the watchers. But as the years passed and the risk of civil war receded it is likely that the all-night vigil degenerated into jolly carousing.
As soon as the sun rose, the precious wardstaff would have a notch cut in it: then it was reverently passed on to the next Hundred’ centre and the whole process was repeated. How did it all end? Has such a wardstaff survived? Morant says, ‘To conclude, this Wardstaff was to be carried through the Towns and Hundreds of Essex, as far as a place called Atte wode near the Sea, and be thrown there into the Sea. This custom hath been long neglected.’ It is not surprising therefore that not one of these ‘wardstaffs’ exists in England today.
Saxon craftsmanship in wood is shown in the relics of their work in the fabric of the church of St Andrew’s at Greensted-juxta-Ongar. Its original walls were made of the material the Saxons found most readily to hand, wood from the forest which was then the great provider of fuel, building material, wild animals and the place to feed their pigs. Vast trunks of oaks, the like of which we will not see again, were split in three clown their length. Keyed together and set in a cill of a similar beam lying directly on the soil, they made the walls. Scientific tests have set the date of the construction at around AD 850. In addition to this church and that of St Peter on the Wall at Bradwell, there are at least a dozen churches in Essex still retaining proof of their Saxon lineage.
The Saxons, successful invaders slowly working towards a unified rule over the English part of the island, were in their turn harried and hunted by the Danes whose continual raids could only be bought off to relieve the folk on the eastern seaboard. Essex was one of the counties where the ‘Danelaw’ was in operation and vast sums had to be raised to placate the rapacious Danes. The Saxon kingdoms were still evolving as can be seen in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written almost day by day as events occurred. Described by F M Stenton in Anglo-Saxon England as: a series of annals written in English, intended to give it West Saxon reader of King Alfred’s time an outline of history.’ it looks back to the invasion of Britain by the Romans, gives a sketch of events down to AD 449, then continues as an original source of contemporary events.
We read how Essex lost its autonomy in AD 825 when Egbert. King of the West Saxons (Wessex) fought and defeated Beornwulf, king of the Mercians, and then sent a detachment into Kent that not only defeated its king, Bealdred but also effected the submission of all the South Saxons (Sussex) and the East Saxons (Essex). Battles continued, power swayed to and fro as enemies switched sides and new alliances were formed. Egbert died in AD 839 and installed his son as ruler over Kent. Essex. Surrey and Sussex. The Danish raids continued far into King Alfred’s time.
The connections with the Church were not cut by these endless wars. In AD 890 the Chronicle reports: ‘In this year Abbot Beornhelm took to Rome the alms of the West Saxons and of King Alfred,’ and in AD 893 it spoke of yet another Danish raid: ‘… they captured much booty, and wished to carry it across the Thames into Essex, to meet the ships.’ They lost the next battle and Alfred recovered the booty. It was at Benfleet around AD 893, where Haesten the Dane had a great camp built, that a small English force was victorious. They burnt or destroyed the Danes’ ships and took them all to London. Haesten’s wife and two sons were brought triumphantly to Alfred but he released them because of the ‘godson’ relationships which had sprung up between Saxon and Dane under the influence of the Church. Response from the Danes was a further ravaging of the Essex countryside. At Shoebury two Danish armies were assembled prior to an assault up the Thames and along the Severn. In AD 894 Danes camped on Mersea Island then sailed and rowed round to the Thames and up to the Lea, thus circumscribing three of the borders of the present county.