The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings

The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings

The relative prosperity of Britain during the fourth century became known throughout Europe and excited the cupidity of barbaric peoples, including the Scots in Ireland, the Picts in Scotland and the Saxons in northern Germany. Even earlier, in the third century, they had aimed by sudden raids to seize cattle, capture slaves and carry off such wealth as could be found by way of jewellery and silver vessels. Of their depredations Edward Gibbon wrote: ‘a philosopher … will confess that the desire of spoil is a more rational provocation than the vanity of conquest’.

By now the huge Roman Empire was not only menaced by invasion on all sides, but was disrupted because its rulers – named Augustuses and Caesars – were constantly plotting against and quarrelling with one another. Yet a large garrison still remained in Britain, which was also guarded by a Roman fleet. Towards the end of the third century one of Diocletian’s Caesars, Constantius Chlorus (Constantine 1), overthrew a usurper, reorganized the defences of the province and drove back the Picts and Scots, two ‘savage alien tribes’ as Bede called them, although they continued to harass the country throughout the following century. Constantius 1 died at York in 306 and his son, Constantine the Great, temporarily reunited the Empire. In 343 the Emperor Constans, a son of Constantine the Great, came to Britain in person, treated with its assailants and allowed some of them to settle, employing them as mercenaries or foederati, like poachers turned gamekeepers, to ward off other barbarians.

Eighteen years later the future Emperor Julian dispatched one of his best generals with a field army to cope with the Picts and Scots. It cannot have been a successful mission, for eight years afterwards the future Emperor Valentmian 1 had to order Count Theodosius to suppress freebooters and pirates ‘intimidating Britain as never before’. In 367 the Picts, Scots and Saxons banded together, overran the wall first built by the Emperor Hadrian, which stretched from the Solway Firth to the south of the river Tyne, and scattered in plundering hordes throughout the lowlands. The soldiers who manned the wall were corrupted; Roman military deserters and escaped slaves roamed and ravaged the country, so that anarchy prevailed. Though Theodosius succeeded in restoring order and organizing the rebuilding of the defences, fifteen years later an ambitious Roman commander named Magnus Maximus, stationed in Britain and disappointed at being promoted too slowly, headed a revolt against the Emperor Theodosius (father of Count Theodosius), denuded the province of most of its troops, and, taking British volunteers along with him, attempted to carve out an empire for himself in the west, but was defeated and killed in Italy in 388.

It is not possible to date precisely the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, but during the first decade of the fifth century the whole of the Roman Empire was breaking up. In 409 the Emperor Honorius notified the cities of Britain in response to an appeal for help that they must undertake their own salvation,(1) since the Romans themselves were then being overwhelmed by Vandals, Huns and Goths thrusting across the Rhine and the Danube. A year later Rome was sacked. When in the middle of the fifth century the Britons once more appealed for assistance against the barbarians who, they said, were driving them into the sea, no answer was received.

At one time it was thought that after Britain had been abandoned by the Romans the country was rapidly devastated and its inhabitants crushed by the invasion of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, who were impelled to find new homes because of the pressure upon their means of subsistence, brought about by overpopulation, scarcity of food and flooding from the sea. But in fact for much of the fifth century the Britons managed to maintain a civilized life and to cope with such immigrants. In 429 Germanus Bishop of Auxerre, who had once served in the Roman army, arrived in south-western Britain accompanied by the Bishop of Troyes with the purpose of overthrowing the Pelagian heretics and found it a reasonably placid land. He then taught the Britons how to defeat the forces of Picts and Scots by shouting ‘Alleluia!’ three times before they closed with their foes. Some twenty years later when he was an old man Germanus again visited the island with another bishop and he still found it to be wealthy and not yet subjected by pagans. The Welsh monk Gildas, who wrote his admonitory tract entitled The Ruin of Britain in about the middle of the sixth century, was able to record that after the pillaging of the Picts and Scots the country had quietened down and ‘was becoming rich with many sources of affluence that no age remembered the possession of such afterwards’. The departure of the Romans also brought about a revival of Celtic art, as is testified by pottery, jewellery, metalwork, enamelwork and sculpture belonging to the period. The late Sir Ian Richmond wrote about two Celtic stone heads discovered in Northumbria, saying that they represented ‘with sad and awesome clarity the standards of a world which Rome had neither extinguished nor submerged’ (2)

Although, as has been noticed, Gildas, almost the only contemporary authority for this century, had deprecated the military qualities of his fellow Celts (who he believed were being punished by the barbarians because of their sinfulness), he admitted that some of them at least ‘came out of the mountains, from caves and thickets … and carried on war unceasingly’. For the first time, he added, they inflicted slaughter upon their enemies because their trust was not in man but in God. Writing some fifty years later than Gildas, the Byzantine historian Zosimus described how after the Romans left ‘the people of Britain took up arms and braving every danger freed their cities from the barbarians threatening them’, and observed that the Gaulish tribes followed the British example. Thus the Britons offered prolonged, skilful and at times successful resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invaders as they turned from sporadic raids to deliberate colonization. In some areas trading relations developed between the settlers and the romanized Celts, over whom they were eventually victorious. Indeed many of these colonists may well have been simply refugees anxious to find good land on which to settle.

Who were the Anglo-Saxons and what was their early history? Remarkably little is known about them before they invaded Britain. The literary evidence is mostly derived from a short essay written by Tacitus about Germany in which he mentions the Angles but not the Saxons. The men, he thought, were about five and a half feet tall, all with ‘fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for sudden exertion’. They had no cities, which they regarded as ‘the work of giants’, no commerce and no coinage. They lived in scattered villages and single farms, in houses built of timber or lath or plaster but never wholly of stone: the wealthy had long houses with steep roofs, while their servants lived and sometimes worked in small outhouses. All of them were inured to cold forests and swamps. The agriculture they practised was on a small scale; they were chiefly stock-raisers and their arable farming was extensive, that is to say, they tilled fresh fields every year, which explains their migration southwards and westwards. Thus they lived by keeping sheep and cattle, pigs and goats, growing barley, oats, rye and wheat, and by hunting. At feasts they drank a kind of ale made from barley. Essentially they were a fighting people who enslaved their captives. As soldiers their weapons were swords, javelins and shields, and they were intrepid sailors who treated ‘the dangers of the deep’ as ‘their intimate friends’. When not fighting, Tacitus observed, they spent their time in idleness. Their kings were chosen by birth and their generals by merit. Their loyalty to their kings or chieftains was direct and personal; when they went into battle (according to Tacitus) it was considered a disgrace if they did not show bravery equal to that of their leaders.

The Anglo-Saxons worshipped a variety of gods and goddesses of whom the commonest was Mother Earth. Although they believed in an afterlife, they were more concerned about their mundane reputation for courage and endurance. Favours were expected from their gods in return for the observance of religious rites; when they went to war they carried images of Mercury or Mars. Socially, kinship was all-important. When a crime was committed, the blood price (wergild) that had to be paid was the responsibility of the whole kindred. The entire tribe took part in deliberations, but it was deferential to monarchy as forming part of the natural order of the world. It has been said that they were ‘pagans . . . whose vision of life in peace time was limited to the bare satisfaction of physical needs by the cultivation of land, and whose primitive notions of social and domestic comfort left no room for the economic and architectural complexities of town life’.(3) Monogamy was strictly practised and adultery severely punished. The Anglo-Saxons could neither read nor write. Compared with them, the Romano-Celts were a cultured and civilized people.

As with the Celts, the Anglo-Saxons’ invasions and colonization began as trickles and ended in floods of free peasants searching for richer land to cultivate. It used to be thought that the destruction and desolation in Britain caused by ‘those wild Saxons of accursed name, hated by God and man’, as Gildas described them, must have been achieved by highly-organized united armies. In fact, however, as is shown by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (written admittedly many years after the events), the kings or chieftains of the Angles and Saxons, the Jutes and Frisians first came over in only a few ships at a time; and they occupied small districts near the coast before they gradually penetrated along river valleys and tracks (but rarely the Roman roads) into the heart of the country. Thus it was a colonizing movement carried out initially in the face of considerable opposition from the Britons.

Scattered settlements began to be made in the east and south-east of the country. Following the example set by the Romans of hiring mercenaries (foederati), one of the British tribal rulers or overlords or ‘tyrants’ invited a body of Jutes to come to Kent so as to lend their support in warding off other looters and freebooters. This particular effort failed to pay off, but the Britons, when they were not fighting one another, managed to confront the invaders of their kingdoms on equal terms. Around the beginning of the sixth century a notable victory was won over the Anglo-Saxons at Mount Badon, probably somewhere in the west, and for another forty years after the battle the Britons maintained their independence in the west and south-west as well as in enclaves in Cambridgeshire and the fens and on the Chiltern hills in Buckinghamshire. But slowly and steadily the Anglo-Saxons defeated, thrust back and absorbed the Britons, occupying Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex, Suffolk and Norfolk, Essex and Wessex, east Yorkshire, Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire – in fact much of the most fertile arable land in the country. By the seventh century the Britons were confined to three detached regions: Wales, the west and the south-west – Exeter was still in their hands at the end of the century – and also to the area west of the Pennines and north of the Yorkshire Wolds, which were wetter and better suited to pasturage. The evidence of intermarriage between Anglo-Saxon men and British women is extremely slight and sporadic, for example in Northumberland and Staffordshire. Most of the Britons who survived in English settlements must have become the slaves of their conquerors. Practically the whole stamping ground of Romano-Celtic civilization was wrested from them.

What were the consequences of the overrunning of Britain by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians? The two characteristic Roman institutions, the towns and the villa estates, disappeared. The colonists knew nothing of town life and were not converted to it. Although a few towns were sacked and burnt most of them decayed very gradually and were evacuated because of disease, famine or lack of trade. Writing in about the middle of the sixth century, Gildas said that they were no longer inhabited as before, but ‘being abandoned and overthrown, still lie desolate’. Life in the towns, it has been observed, continued, but not town life: for example, early Anglo-Saxon settlements of a sort have been discovered inside the walls of Canterbury, Winchester and York.(4) London was indestructible and revived because it was the centre of the whole communication system of the country and a trading port through which such imports as Rhineland glass and Egyptian bronze could reach Anglo-Saxon men of wealth: it was, wrote Bede, ‘a mart of many people coming by land and sea’. The villas disappeared speedily, partly because they were militarily insecure but mainly for economic reasons. They are not mentioned by Gildas and no evidence has been found to show that the Anglo-Saxons occupied former Romano-Celtic villas, though in time new villages were to be built on the sites of villa estates.

At the peak of English society stood the king. Kings who were overlords (bretwaldas), kings of wide areas and petty kings were all to be found. Was English kingship an institution which grew up when tribal chieftains and their retinues settled in the land they had conquered, or was kingship imported from their birthplaces? Kingship, we are told, was almost universal in the Heroic Age, when even the heathen high priests were subordinate to secular monarchs. The epic poem Beowuif, though written in the seventh or eighth century, embodied traditions of Anglo-Saxon kingship before the conquest of Britain. Whether Cerdic, believed to be the first King of Wessex, who claimed descent from the war god, Woden, was already a king before he arrived in Britain, and whether Hengest, the Jutish chieftain who was invited by a British ruler to settle in Kent and repel the Picts, was in fact the same as the king of that name who came from Denmark and wintered in Frisia, are mysteries never likely to be solved. What is fairly certain, however, is that kings in England were chosen from members of a kin endowed with the blood royal but not by laws of heredity or primogeniture. For example, Alfred, the famous King of Wessex, was preferred to his nephews, the sons of his elder brother.

Anglo-Saxon kings had councils of wise men (the witan) whom they consulted but whose advice they did not necessarily take. Their income was derived from royal estates and from food rents (feorm) paid by their subjects as they travelled round their kingdoms. A typical feorm might consist of barrels of ale, loads of cheese, several oxen, fish and geese, honey, butter and loaves. The royal palace would originally have been a large wooden hall where nobles and courtiers gathered and justice was done according to the customary laws of the country from which the king’s subjects came. Fines for crimes against the royal family or trespasses on royal estates were at least six times as heavy as those levied on noblemen. A royal ship, discovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, revealed that English kings lived in style, with silver bowls and spoons, magnificent swords and golden helmets. Whether, as is most likely, it was an imported institution or not, kingship soon became a recognized part of the English way of life; and although the kings were obliged to acknowledge the force of kinship in the social system, they tried to adapt it to the good of the community as a whole and did so successfully in the long run.

After the kings in the social scale came the nobility or thanes (thegns), as they were called, who were of two kinds: those directly under the king’s orders, who were periodically on duty at his court, first known as his companions (gesiths); and others who were hereditary landowners, their standing being measured by the fact that they possessed a minimum of five ‘hides’ of land, a church and a kitchen, a bell and a castle gate, and a seat in the king’s hall. From the king’s thanes were selected ealdormen – royal officials put in charge of specific districts and given responsibilities as the direct representatives of the king. The thanes as a class were men who did not work with their hands and spent much of their time hunting. But they stood ready to serve the king in war, were leaders in the local folk moots or law courts, and were in duty bound to supervise the repair of fortifications.

Next to the thanes in the social hierarchy were their companions (geneatas), generally mounted men who acted from time to time as ostlers, grooms, huntsmen and bodyguards to their masters. They paid little or no rent and were free from regular agricultural work, but were required to mow and reap at harvest time and to maintain the hedge around their master’s house. These geneatas have been called the peasant aristocracy.

Below the lord’s companions were the churls (ceorls) or husbandmen. It used to be thought that, to begin with at any rate, the churl had always been a free peasant proprietor, not the subject of any lord except the king; but at least by the time of Alfred the Great the churl was clearly only half free, since he had become a tenant, and besides having to pay rent in kind – ewes, lambs, hens, cheese, honey, barley, hay, timber, malt – he might further be required to work two days a week for his landlord and three days at harvest time, if he were ordered to do so, and also to take part in ploughing his landlord’s fields. The average landholding of a churl is uncertain: in one context it is described as a ‘hide’, which may simply have been a term for an area of cultivated soil sufficient to support a single household: in that case it could have been about thirty or forty acres or even more, varying from place to place. The churls also had to contribute to the king’s food rent and serve when called upon in the militia or fyrd and perform other public duties if required. A husbandman might originally have been a freeman who had inherited his land but because of bad harvests, illness or other misfortunes was compelled in order to ensure his survival to become a leaseholder and undertake services for his landlord, who in return would provide him with corn stored in his barns and afford him protection by able-bodied armed servants against rogues and ruffians. Alternatively, the churl could have been a slave freed by his master (a freedman or libertinus) and provided with cattle and sheep, farming tools and household utensils, which would be repossessed after the tenant’s death.

Finally came the cottagers, who paid no rent but were required to work long hours in return for a few acres of land which they could call their own, but which were insufficient to feed their families. To obtain the means of livelihood they hired out their labour to those who were better off than themselves. Besides such agricultural labourers the large landholder needed full-time shepherds, swineherds, bee-keepers, smiths and dairymaids. Most Anglo-Saxon thanes and well-to-do churls with large acreages owned slaves: they were either Britons who had been taken prisoner or voluntarily surrendered on account of hunger in the course of the invasions, or ex-criminals, or sometimes even peasants who had committed minor offences and could not afford to pay their fines. These slaves were valued at the price of eight oxen and were given rations of meat and corn enough to last them a year. A slave who worked on Sunday at his master’s orders had to be set free and his master fined. Modest fines were also exacted if women slaves were raped. Slaves could be bought, sold or exported.

The countrymen’s wives and daughters made their contribution to the work of the household by baking, cooking and looking after beer barrels and the tubs used as baths. They also sheared the sheep, milked the goats and ewes, made clothes at home and embroidered them. Women’s rights were even greater than those of Celtic women. Brides received gifts after the consummation of marriage, which they were allowed to keep provided they bore children, and wives retained a third or a half of the family wealth when their husbands died. A suitor paid a bride price to the father of the girl he wished to marry, which was returnable if the marriage did not take place. He was also required to make a further gift on the morning of his wedding as a return for his wife’s virginity. But he would get it back if she failed to produce a child. Women could not be compelled to marry a man they disliked, even if he were approved of by their kin, and divorce was easy to obtain by mutual consent. If a woman became a widow, she could decide whether she wanted to marry again or whether she preferred to remain single and enjoy her own property. Upper-class women might own land and have personal property ranging from furniture to horses. At the foot of the social ladder were women slaves, who could be ill-treated and even put to death and received less food than the men slaves.

The English lived either on farms in landed estates or in villages, preferring valleys, clearings from the forests or river banks to the hilltops and chalk uplands favoured by the Celts. The village was the heart of social and economic life throughout the early part of English history. Villages varied in size and were assessed in multiples of five ‘hides’ when it came to the question of deciding how much the king’s food rent, measured in oxen, cheese and the like, ought to be. The king might also require the building or repair of bridges by the village community. The villagers occupied wooden huts covered by thatched roofs and usually with sunken floors, one all-purpose living-room and outhouses. Fires were lit on open hearths, the smoke going up through a hole in the roof. Generally an alehouse was to be found, and a building large enough to hold the moot or village council when it met to take decisions on matters of local importance. The villages would usually be protected by a stockade, a ditch or a bank to discourage marauders, human or animal.

The countryman worked from morning until sunset ploughing, reaping with scythes, planting, digging, mowing, weeding, spreading dung and sometimes bringing forest or waste under cultivation. In a colloquy written by Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham, in about the year 1000 a ploughman is made to say:

‘I work very hard. At daybreak I drive the team out to the field. No winter weather is so bitter that I dare stay at home for fear of my lord; but when the oxen are yoked and the share and coulter fixed to the plough I must plough every day a full acre or more.’

An acre was in fact the normal day’s ploughing expected of villagers. The ploughman had also to look after the oxen he drove, feed them with hay, give them water and dispose of their dung. And since it was such demanding work to extract a livelihood from the soil if the weather was bad or a pestilence prevailed or murrain decimated their cattle, many free peasants were compelled as the years passed on to accept obligations to wealthy and powerful landlords. As Dorothy Whitelocke wrote, ‘the impression of late Anglo-Saxon society given by Domesday Book is that the lesser freemen depended more on the lord to whom they commended themselves than on their kinsmen’.(5)

Parts of England were cultivated in open fields, that is to say, large arable fields where farmers had strips on which they could grow what they liked. The fields were called ‘open’ because they were big enough to contain land cultivated by all the villagers and because they had no fences or hedges between the strips, though hurdles were in fact essential for keeping out wild or straying animals. The strips were separated from each other by furrows. The reasons for having strips were various, but the most important was that the ploughs drawn as a rule by eight oxen or six oxen and two horses needed to be turned as little as possible. In addition to the open fields for growing crops, villagers might have hay meadows, grazing land, woodland, which offered fodder for swine, and sometimes marshes and ponds. Woodland was particularly valuable because pigs were the commonest kind of meat eaten by Anglo-Saxons.

Air photography has revealed that the Celtic square or rectangular fields disappeared almost completely from the Midlands and were replaced by strips. Such strips have been discovered in many parts of England, except where pastoral farming predominated. The north and north-west, the highlands, the fenlands, Wales, the Welsh border country, East Anglia, the Weald, the New Forest and stretches of Devonshire and Cornwall never had strip fields. Although it has been said that ‘the plough was king in the eleventh century’, it must never be forgotten that sheep farming was nearly as necessary to the Anglo-Saxon peasants as the growing of corn. The shepherd, like the ploughman, lived a full life, as he had not only to take his flock backwards and forwards to the pasture land but also to guard them with dogs against wolves and thieves. It has been estimated that by the time the Normans came there were about three or four sheep to every man, woman and child in the country.(6)

Nevertheless arable farming was essential to the community, because not only did it produce grain for bread, the staple diet of the poor, but also fodder needed by farm animals. Wheat and rye were sown in the autumn and barley and oats in the spring. As the supply of manure was generally insufficient farmers must have learnt by experience that it was wise to leave part of their land fallow so as to recover fertility every year or every other year. Where mixed farming was practised the cattle, sheep and goats would graze on commons or meadow and pigs munch acorns or mast in the woodland; but meadowland was not extensive so it is likely enough that use was made of the stubble, left in the fields lying fallow, for grazing. The laws of me and Alfred show that the Anglo-Saxon rulers were much concerned about the protection of the arable fields against the incursions of wild animals such as wolves, bears and wild cats and about preserving timber needed as building material or firewood, and therefore laid down penalties for the unleashing of swine in the woods without permission and the unauthorized felling and burning of trees. Gradually questions of common interest to smallholders and tenant farmers, such as the rotation of crops, the joint ploughing necessary owing to the scarcity of draught animals, the clearing of forests, the sharing of meadows and the cultivation of woodland, must have led to the taking of decisions by the village assembly or (later) the manorial courts. But it was not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the growth of population and the need to plough up fresh land by a united effort became paramount, that they caused much of the country to be subject to what is called by historians ‘the common-field system’.

Surprisingly little industry is associated with the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. Evidence exists of soap-making, the production of leather goods, woodwork and metalwork and the manufacture of glassware, which had to be laid sideways on tables because it would not stand upright. Textiles were home-made. The wealthy could buy gold jewellery, including beautiful brooches, and silver spoons, but no jewellers’ shops have yet been discovered. Pottery was less distinguished than it had been among the Celts. Stamped pots have been found chiefly in East Anglia, the stamps being symbolic and representing the pagan gods after whom our days of the week are named – Tig (Tuesday), Woden (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday) and Frey (Friday). Frey was the fertility god; the symbol of Thor, the thunderer, was a swastika. Some potters worked for specific cemeteries; others made household goods, which were sold by barter, since initially no coins were minted.

Silver and copper coins have been found which date from the seventh and eighth centuries and were issued by individual moneyers. The penny is believed to have been named after Penda (632-54), ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. One of his successors, Offa (757-96), introduced a heavier silver penny bearing his name, which was to remain the basis of English currency until the time of King Henry III. Offa is also credited with promoting commerce through his relatively friendly relations with the Emperor Charlemagne, whose dominion covered much of western Europe. English merchants visited France and the Baltic countries to display and sell their wares. Exports included woollen cloaks, cheese, hunting dogs, pottery and metal goods as well as slaves, not quite such an extensive list as that of the earlier Celtic exports outlined by Strabo. Imports included wine, fish, pepper, jewellery and wheel-made pottery, luxury goods for the most part. But clearly the introduction of a generally accepted silver coinage was evidence of the growth of trade.

Undoubtedly the English people who replaced the Celts throughout much of the land in the late sixth century were primitive, illiterate and violent, with no coinage, little trade, no towns or stone buildings and small-scale agriculture. The nobility fought, hunted, drank and feasted. They lived in large halls built of wood and containing stone floors with a screened-off service area, the walls hung with arms, warmed by log fires, where ‘they sat long at supper and drank hard’, surrounded by their armed retainers seated on built-in wooden benches. In the evenings the hall was lit by candles, rush lights or oil lamps. If the sparks flew upwards from the central hearth and caught the thatched roof and the timber walls, these buildings were quickly set on fire. Often late-night parties in the noblemen’s halls ended in flames, drunkenness and confusion. Men wore their hair long, grew moustaches and dressed in knee-length tunics and cloaks buckled at the right shoulder and long trousers. The women wore linen undergarments and full-length tunics with tight sleeves, and the well-to-do sported girdles, brooches and necklaces of garnet or amber, crystal or amethyst. Outdoors the nobility entertained themselves by hunting wolves and other prey, indoors by singing and listening to music from harps, lyres and drums, or by playing a kind of draughts. They drank wine and mead, ate quantities of meat and river fish and were partial to herrings: they prized a wheaten loaf (though rye was the ingredient of most bread – the month of August is named after the Anglo-Saxon word for rye). Besides cereals, fruit and vegetables were plentiful and the best people ate butter. Men carried knives with which to cut their food, but seldom forks or spoons. As with the Celts, they rarely suffered from bad teeth as the only sweetening was still honey. On the other hand, arthritis was common, plagues frequent and medical treatment confined chiefly to herbal remedies and magical cures aimed at the credulous: for example, an elaborate charm comprising gibberish was incanted to prevent dysentery and amulet rings were worn to staunch bleeding. By the time of King Alfred, a devout Christian, in the ninth century his laws laid down that ‘the women who are in the habit of receiving wizards and sorcerers and magicians shall not be suffered to live’.

In contrast with the men of substance who fought, hunted and drank but did not toil, the lot of the ordinary villager consisted chiefly of work. He had either to plough, plant and reap or look after herds by day and by night. The only treats he could look forward to were drinking parties at harvest time and dead men’s wakes. In the long run his struggle to prise a sufficient living from the soil was liable to be defeated by the weather or illness or fire and sword. When his kindred could no longer help him he was obliged to turn for security, if not comfort, to the service of greater men.

Remarkably little is known about how the Anglo-Saxons divided up and organized the cultivation of the lands they had acquired when they settled in their new homes. Theirs was an aristocratic society, so it is reasonable to assume that the kings or chieftains had the pick of the best lands and that they in turn endowed their thanes with some of them. On the other hand, the rank and file as pioneer farmers sought for lighter and more easily worked soil in which to grow their crops. After all, once the Celts had been thrust back, assimilated or enslaved, plenty of good land was to be found in the east or south of the country with access to the fresh water so necessary to rural life. Anglo-Saxon settlements were particularly thick along the Thames valley. Vast tracts of wasteland and scrub could be used to pasture animals and of woodland to feed pigs. Anglo-Saxon laws insisted that landlords must not encroach on such areas to the extent of denying to their tenants the enjoyment of customary rights in them.

The village community was the basic social unit in Anglo-Saxon England, though many hamlets and single farms are also known to have existed. A village consisted of small wooden huts clustered round a church, a pond or a green, or alternatively of huts spaced out along a lane or a street. In one of the few villages that have been excavated well over a hundred such huts were discovered, but no larger building; the guess has been hazarded that if the village was controlled by a nobleman his residence or hail might have lain at some distance from the agricultural settlement. The usual position, as has been noticed, was that villagers required about thirty acres of arable land to support themselves and their families. They were expected to obey customary laws relating to their holdings, to find their taxes to the king and later to the Church, and meet their debts promptly. They paid for the tenancy of their land by producing rents in kind and also might provide specific services for their landlords; thus they were only half free, but they were not serfs. They seldom left their villages, except to attend their lord’s courts (‘hail moots’, where rights known as ‘sake and soke’ were exercised). Town dwellers were few. Big landlords often employed their own craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, blacksmiths and carpenters.

In some cases where a landlord furnished working capital and tools for leaseholders, it was laid down that if he attempted to increase their rents by demanding additional services, the tenant need not agree to them unless he were given a free dwelling. If any villages existed without landlords or with several landlords (as in a few cases that were later recorded in Domesday Book), they must have been exceptional.

During the last quarter of the sixth century the Anglo-Saxons inflicted a series of defeats on the Britons, who were driven back into the southwest and into Wales. The principal kingdoms that were then set up by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes consisted of Bernicia, Deira, and Lindsay in the north and Kent, Sussex and Wessex in the south. Five remaining British kingdoms were noted during that century by Gildas, who castigated their rulers for fighting among themselves and leading unchristian lives. Bede added to ‘the unspeakable crimes’ recorded by Gildas the failure of the Britons to ‘preach the Faith to the Saxons who dwelt among them’. How far Roman civilization and culture survived the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons is still disputed. Gildas himself knew Latin and read Virgil, and it is reasonable to suppose that in the Welsh monasteries other monks knew of Latin literature. On the whole, however, it is safer to suppose that what English society was to acquire by way of Roman law and Roman culture owed most to the conversion of the new inhabitants by the Roman Catholic Church? (the Church from Rome being Western Rite Orthodox not Roman Catholic), which was begun at the end of the sixth century and completed by the close of the seventh century, when fifteen bishoprics had been set up and the parish system introduced.(This was done by Theodore Archbishop of Canterbury who originally came from the Eastern Empire in what is now Turkey)

By then England was moving towards political unity. Three principal kingdoms covered the land: Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the Midlands and Wessex in the south: mighty kings emerged, such as Offa in Mercia, who built a dike stretching from north Wales to the Bristol Channel, which marked the frontier with the surviving Celts, and Alfred the Great, educationist and law-maker; both laid claims to be overlords or even ‘kings of the whole land of the English’. By the reign of Alfred (87199) the Anglo-Saxons were becoming literate, and the beginnings of English history were marked by the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which unfortunately confined its attention to political and religious events and throws little light on social and economic history. But Bede, whose History of the English Church and People was translated into English at this time, possibly by Alfred himself, is a little less specialized and reminds his readers at the outset that Britain was ‘rich in grain and timber; had good pasturage for cattle and draught animals, and vines cultivated in various places … well known also for its plentiful springs and rivers abounding in fish’. It was a tragedy that just as King Alfred was beginning to fashion a world of the mind and the spirit, the country should have once more been torn apart by invaders who, tempted by a land of milk and honey, loaves and fishes, started, as the Anglo-Saxons had done before them, first to loot and then in the last third of the ninth century to colonize.

In some ways the assault of the Vikings – a word that meant pirates, who came from Denmark, Norway and Sweden – can be compared to that of the Anglo-Saxons themselves, who had peopled a fruitful country five centuries earlier. Like them they were pagans, like them they were seafarers and like them they began by raiding and afterwards turned to settlement. Furthermore their malignity was exaggerated, since the impression conveyed by documentary evidence derives from the writings  of Christian monks, who found all heathens obnoxious. Indeed when Alcuin, a Yorkshireman who entered the service of Charlemagne, learned about the first Viking ravages, which destroyed the church at Lindisfarne in Bernicia, the northernmost English kingdom, he wrote a letter to the Christian people living in Kent advising them to read Gildas, the monk who had described the devastation by the Anglo-Saxons, and added ‘you will find that you are almost in the same case’. Finally, just as the term Anglo-Saxon was used to cover a variety of European peoples, so the word Viking was employed as a generic phrase embracing all Danes, Norwegians and Swedes.

However, differences can also be discerned. For example, the Norsemen were familiar with Christianity, which held sway in much of southern and western Europe; they were not merely farmers but active tradesmen too, accumulating considerable wealth in silver through commerce with the east; they were also fishermen and as boat-builders were infinitely superior to the Anglo-Saxons. Moreover the English raiders, to begin with at any rate, had been confronted with the sophisticated Roman system of defences, whereas the Vikings discovered, no doubt to their surprise, that the English had neither a fleet nor coastal fortifications. That was why the new assailants were able with impunity to sack churches and monasteries that had been built near the sea. (in a place of isolation! but not from the sea)

The exact motive force of the Viking attacks, which covered much of Europe during the ninth century, has been disputed. It is sometimes argued that the Viking expeditions were not caused by overpopulation but were launched for social and political reasons: youthful kings or war-lords with splendid sailing ships and skilled seamen at their command realized their ambition to find fame and fortune overseas. Nonetheless much of north-west Scandinavia was infertile and the climate unfriendly; if it had to support some 5oo,000 Danes and 200,000 Norwegians, then hunger for land surely played its part. Some of the Vikings raided not England but Ireland and the outlying Scottish islands, such as the Orkneys and the Shetlands. Once they consolidated their positions, they managed to live fairly harmoniously with the existing inhabitants. After all, they had much the same social system as the English, who, like themselves, came from the north of Europe, based on ties of kinship and obedience to their chieftains. Although at home the Vikings were mainly stock-breeders, in their new colonies they practised a similar kind of agriculture to that of the Anglo-Saxon farmers, with the distribution and organization of the arable fields determined by the need for co-operative ploughing, the ploughland rather than the hide becoming the basis of rural arrangements. They were tolerant of religions other than their own; and they were rapidly Christianized.

Consequently although the Scandinavians maintained their own customs and were socially dominant in the areas which they conquered and settled, they did not disturb the established population by massacre or eviction. Indeed, they opened up fresh land to cultivation: this was definitely the case in north-eastern England and also in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The fenlands and the swamps in East Anglia had not been attractive to invaders, but valuable land was available for colonization once it had been cleared. The Romans had pioneered with drainage. In some places the Vikings are known to have bought and sold estates. How precisely the land they obtained was divided is not known, but it was done, so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records, by their armies. Either the warriors were given shares according to seniority, or they acquired the overlordship of Anglo-Saxon villages which they enlarged. Certainly an element of military compulsion can be seen in the establishment of the Viking settlements throughout eastern England, which nearly a century later was to be known as the Danelaw, an area positively defined in a treaty concluded in 886 between Alfred the Great and one of the Danish kings, Guthrum: (renamed Athelstan after being defeated by Alfred at the battle of Edington and was offered Christianity by Alfred as his sponsor)  it stretched in effect from Northumberland to Buckinghamshire.

In contrast the Norwegians, who mostly reached north-western England indirectly from Ireland, were purely colonists, who settled in Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumberland, particularly in the coastal districts. Here again the local population was not displaced. In the Danelaw neither the institutions nor the methods of farming and trade of the settlers differed materially from those of the English except in two respects. The first was that a large proportion of the Danish settlers were freemen, not bound by obligations to any particular landlord. Many of them were known as ‘sokemen’, of whom no fewer than 11,000 were listed in Lincolnshire alone. The precise meaning of a soke is uncertain; literally a sokeman was a man who owed suit at a court of law: it is likely therefore that he was required to attend a lord’s court and pay him in occasional labour or money as recognition of his superior personal status, but did not need his lord’s permission to alienate his land and was himself responsible for payment of his taxes (geld). A large number of freemen were also recorded in parts of the Danelaw. Neither the sokeman nor the freeman necessarily owned many acres of land or more than one or two oxen. They did, however, represent the rank and file of the Viking armies that settled in England (particularly in the north-east and in East Anglia) and enjoyed a degree of personal liberty superior to that of the average Anglo-Saxon villager.

Secondly the Vikings proved to be litigious people. Heavier fines were levied by their codes of law for breaches of the peace than by such Anglo-Saxon codes as those of the Kings of Wessex, me and Alfred. Possibly that was because they were less, not more, law-abiding than the English. But in any case it came to be recognized that in the Danelaw a different customary law was administered in the wapentakes, a Danish word equivalent to the ‘hundreds’ into which the Anglo-Saxon shires were subdivided. The Danes introduced the first juries – juries of presentment – consisting of twelve thanes, who swore to accuse no innocent person and to protect no guilty one. When those accused were presented at the wapentake courts they were tried by ordeal, a rough-and-ready method, which meant in effect that they were likely to be judged guilty.

Broadly then it can be said that the Viking colonists proved good farmers, adventurous sailors, tradesmen who opened up commerce across the North Sea, sticklers for the letter of the law and people capable of living peaceably with their neighbours, while a large number of them were freemen who possessed their own property, with which they could do as they pleased. Many Scandinavian words were absorbed into the English language, notably the word law itself and also husband, happy, wind and sky. ‘An Englishman’, it has been said, ‘cannot thrive or be ill or die without involving the use of a Scandinavian word. (7) The Vikings had a distinctive hairstyle, with ‘bared necks’ and ‘blinded eyes’, meaning fringed hair. They were hard workers and heavy drinkers, took baths regularly and contributed to the growth of commerce and the development of market towns. They helped to transform the social and economic life of England.

In so far as the historical impact of the Vikings on English life was novel it was, however, partly brought about by reactions against them. King Alfred and his successors, who fought them and ultimately subdued them, did so both by building a navy and by establishing fortified burhs, which in time attracted markets that in the long run transmuted them into country towns. Ports too were fortified, as in Southampton and London. These burhs and ports (a port originally implied a town with a market) were protected by stonework, earthen mounds and reconstructed Roman walls. At the same time the Vikings themselves built new towns: they enlarged York and for a while occupied London. The Danish armies set up military bases known as the Five Boroughs – Lincoln, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and Stamford – all of them on rivers, behind which their colonists, having divided out the land under military supervision, were able to practise peaceful and profitable arable farming and stock-breeding.

Experts have disputed whether the Vikings had been commercially minded in the lands from which they first migrated. They had no coinage of their own and the evidence of mercantile activity is derived largely from the excavation of vanished towns. On the other hand, the treasure that they accumulated from raiding other countries and from piracy must have been partly spent on buying foreign goods, which would, after all, have been a form of trade. These contacts and their skill as sailors would have stimulated foreign trade after they settled in England. The newcomers were also proficient at woodwork and ironwork and in building ships. It is not surprising, therefore, that the area of the Five Boroughs and much of East Anglia, which were largely peopled by Vikings, were reckoned before the time of the next invasion, that of the Normans, to be the wealthiest, most populous and busiest regions in England.

By the tenth century, having fought victoriously against the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxon kings achieved a measure of political unity throughout the land. The Vikings were Christianized and the Church was powerful. It was in this century that a monastic revival took hold, so extensive that it is estimated to have absorbed a sixth of the wealth of the kingdom. The idea of ‘tithe’ – that is to say, the idea that a Christian should contribute a tenth of his income to religious purposes – dated from the seventh century. However, it was not until the reign of King Athelstan (925-39) that payments to the Church such as plough alms (a penny from each plough team), burial fees, Peter’s Pence (paid to the Papacy) and church scot – a tribute in kind due at Martinmas for the support of the clergy and based on a man’s landholding – were enforced by secular penalties. The reign of King Edgar which was also known as the Age of Dunstan, after the pious and influential prelate who became Archbishop of Canterbury, saw not only the building of monasteries but also the introduction of severe punishments for failure to pay tithe, which became reserved entirely for the upkeep of parish churches, though some of it found its way into the pockets of the landlords who built them in the first place. Obviously, tithes paid on crops (‘the great tithe’) and on farm produce of all sorts, and the various church dues demanded by law, constituted a heavy burden on the free or semi-free peasants which, when added to the exaction of geld and feorm, must (especially in bad times) have been a threat to the independence of smallholders, who relied simply on the cultivation of their own land to maintain themselves and their families.

Later in the tenth century, too, the Viking invasions were renewed and the vigour of the royal Anglo-Saxon dynasty undermined. King Ethelred (978-1016) vainly attempted to buy off the new invaders by levying a tax called Danegeld (usually but not always at the rate of 2 shillings per hide), but finally gave up the struggle and fled to Normandy. From ioió to 1035 England was ruled by a Danish king, Canute (Cnut), the ‘first Viking leader to be admitted into the civilized fraternity of Christian kings’.(8)

During Canute’s reign (he was also King of Denmark and Norway) commerce flourished. It was protected by a sizeable navy, which was paid for by the renewal of Danegeld. Merchants were active both in London (with an estimated population of over 10,000) and in York; Norwich, Winchester and Southampton were fair-sized towns. It was believed that 10 per cent of the total population lived in towns during the early eleventh century. Besides trade with the Baltic countries and France, close relations with the Papacy (Canute himself visited Rome in 1027) opened up business with Italy. Continuing commercial relations with France and Flanders at about this date are witnessed by elaborate treaty arrangements over tolls and the safety of ships’ cargoes. As in Celtic times, imports consisted chiefly of luxury goods, jewellery, silks, furs and wines, but oil, pepper and fish (from Normandy) were also purchased. Exports from England still included slaves and hunting dogs, metalwork, textiles and embroidery, but cheese and butter also appeared among them. Precise figures do not of course exist, but various scattered pieces of evidence suggest that English commerce expanded significantly in the years that preceded the kingdom’s conquest by Duke William of Normandy.

At the same time taxation was high. In 1018, the year Canute was acclaimed king, he levied a tribute of geld amounting to £72,000 plus £11,000 from the citizens of London. The collection was so unpopular that rioting took place. Not only did King Canute collect geld to pay for his navy but he also instituted an annual tax known as heregeld to meet the cost of his army. Furthermore he maintained the stringent penalties imposed by his Anglo-Saxon predecessors for failure to pay dues to the Church and gave orders that tithe from arable and sheep farmers must be punctually collected. Because of these secular and ecclesiastical taxes the lot of the peasant, whether Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian, must have become harder during his reign.

Heavy taxation continued to be levied by Canute’s Danish successors. In 1041 King Harthacnut ordered the whole of Worcestershire to be punished because two of his thanes had been murdered in Worcester Cathedral when they were collecting taxes. Fiscal grievances were supplemented by difficulties due to natural causes. In the year when Harthacnut died, 1042, ‘as he stood in his drink and fell on the ground with horrible convulsions’, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also recorded that the weather was severe and the crops suffered and ‘during the same year more cattle died than anyone remembered either by reason of disease or inclement weather’. Thus Anglo-Saxon England entered its last quarter century subjected to high taxation and economic depression. Both have been experienced since.


  1. It has been suggested that this rescript of the Emperor Honorius was addressed not to the British cities but to Bruttium in Italy, but this argument has not been generally accepted. John Matthews, Western Aristocracies and the Imperial Court AD. 364-425 (i’s), p. 320
  2. D. B. Horden (ed.), Dark Age Britain (1956), p. 15
  3. J.N.L. Myres, Roman Britain and the English Settlements (1937), p. 436
  4. John Wacher, The Towns of Roman Britain (1966), P. 422; S. S. Frere, ‘The End of Towns in Roman Britain’, in John Wacher, The Civitas Capitals of Roman Britain (1966), p. 85
  5. English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 (1955) p. 58
  6. W. G. Hoskins, Provincial England: essays in social and economic history (1963), p.6
  7. O.Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language, cit. in H.P.R. Finberg and J. Thirsk (eds), The Agrarian History of England and Wales A.D. 43-1042 (1972), p. 473
  8. F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943), p. 391