The Settlement of the English

The events of English history become clearer for us towards the end of the sixth century. Previous to that date we can dimly discern many little kingdoms, so small that a man could easily cross them in an afternoon. The history of these small realms is lost to us. But in 597 St. Augustine brought to England not merely Christianity, but education. From that date onwards the events of English history became a great interest to Bede. Thus it comes about that the darkness which hangs dense over the great deeds of the conquest begins to lift about the year 600, so that we may dare to construct a rough map of the boundaries of the kingdoms which existed at the time of St. Augustine’s landing. The result makes it clear that all through the sixth century there must have been a tendency to amalgamation among the small kingdoms. This process was the commencement of that movement towards union which gradually brought England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales under one king.

Archaeology and the objects which it has disinterred from the soil, tell us something concerning the life of the subjects of these early realms. The objects are found in the pagan cemeteries which dot the country. The pagan English did not bury their dead as we do in the enclosed ground of churchyards hard by dwellings of the living, but somewhat apart upon some open ground. Owing to the personal adornment, technical skill and wealth of the early settlers.

The burials have a general resemblance. Below is quoted a passage from an account of the excavation of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at North Luffenham in Rutlandshire. The cemetery was discovered because at 3 or 4 feet/0.9 – 0.1.2m below the surface of the ground there existed at this point a bad of fine sand, which was valued by builders and others, and was excavated in large quantities. From time to light. In 1901 the owner of the ground gave orders for some of the soil covering the sand to be removed. A local antiquary, who had himself seen articles of archaeological interest lying in the sandpit, heard of this operation and began to keep a sharp look-out. He writes :-

“After a succession of fruitless visits to the scene of operations, I had the good fortune to arrive one morning just as a grave was reached, and was present during its excavation. There can be little doubt that this was the grave of a person of some distinction. The skeleton was almost entirely gone, such portions of bone as remained being so decomposed as to be incapable of being handled. As has been frequently observed before, the enamel crowns of the teeth showed in this case their superior capability of withstanding the ravages of time. The body had been buried at full length with the head pointing nearly due west. Along the left side of the body had lain the warrior’s spear, the pointed ferrule of which was found near the feet, and the socketed head about the level with the skull. Between the spear and the body, or possibly overlying the latter, was an iron sword of typical Anglo-Saxon shape, and over the hilt of the sword lay the iron umbo (boss) of a shield. Near the left arm was a large variegated glass bead, while a small pair of brass tweezers was found near the right shoulder. Slightly beyond the head, and to the south-west of it. I unearthed a bronze mounted situla or bucket, the wooden staves and bottom being singularly perfect when removed, though, owing to warping and shrinkage in the course of drying, it now presents a more dilapidated appearance. The sword has a total length of 36.5 inches/92.7cm, the blades being 2.5 inches/6.3cm in width. There is a thin tapering tang  at the hilt, 6 inches/15.2cm in length, the material which formed the handle having disappeared. There are remains of wood adhering to the iron of the blade, showing the scabbard to have been made of this material, and from the appearance of the iron tang it is possible that the handle was also of wood.”

It was the discovery of this sword that proved to the antiquary that the bones were those of a man of some distinction. Swords were carried by people of importance. The natural weapon of the Anglo-Saxons was the spear, which all ranks carried.

Anglo-Saxon men probably wore a tunic and trousers. Over the former, which sometimes had sleeves and sometimes was sleeveless, they occasionally  wore a cloak. Over the trousers below the knees they were garters in criss-cross fashion. The material of their garments was wool or linen. The women probably wore a long dress with sleeves; it had a hood that could cover the head if necessary. From their girdles wealthy women hung little bronze work-boxes containing thread, pins and needles; beside the work-box hung keys, and perhaps a little knife.

The remains found in graves prove the invading English to have been far removed from utter barbarism. The work of goldsmiths, jewellers and blacksmiths often reached a very high standard of design and workmanship, as a visit to our museums will show. Our forefathers of pagan times were no mere pirates or bloodthirsty destroyers of Roman civilisation. While fighting a long backwoods warfare with the Welsh, they still had interest in the fanciful setting of a jewel or in the delicate leading of golden threads upon a brooch or garment.

If we cease to dig into the soil and examine merely its surface, either as we tramp across it, or as it is shown to us upon a map, we can still learn something of the habits of the first English settlers. A map showing the sites of the cemeteries, in which pagan Englishmen buried their dead during the years 450 to 650 A.D., proves that the villages in which they settled were usually close to rivers, and at the same time that the settlers usually made their way inland, not by marching along Roman roads, but by sailing in their shallow-draft boats up the slow-moving rivers, such as the Thames, Ouse and Nen, till they reached their upper waters or tributaries. Such a mode of transport was by far the easiest for immigrants bringing with them their wives, children, slaves, cattle and household goods. They evidently hated towns. At first they left the Romans walled cities desolate. They preferred to plant their villages on ground untouched by previous settlement. In selecting sites for their new homes they seem to have chosen as dry a subsoil as possible, with a good water supply at hand. They also liked to have near them a vast stretch of clayey soil, overgrown with forest, which could supply timber for fuel and building purposes and pasture for their swine.

A map of an English countryside as it exists today can also tell us something. Even when a Roman road ran through the territory chosen for settlement the Anglo-Saxon invaders avoided settling on it, and chose sites two or three miles/3.2 or 4.8km distant. A man travelling along Ermine Street, and most other Roman roads, cannot fail to observe that the centres of population, marked today by church spires and towers, lie away from the roads and not on them. It is different, however, in east Kent, where Jutish settlements lay, in many cases, along the Roman roads.

To settlers in a new country protection is of more than usual importance. It would be natural, therefore, to suppose that the English villages were settlements of people related in blood. This view finds confirmation in a theory ardently put forward by Kemble, an English historian of the nineteenth century. He pointed out that names of many English villages end with the syllable “ing,” or with “ing” combined with the suffix “ham” or “ton,” as in Tooting, Woking, Billington, Effingham, Woldingham. The endings “ton” and “ham” both imply a village surrounding by a hedge or fence. Now Bede gives us to understand that the syllable “ing” implies descent from a common ancestor. He writes of “Oisc, after whom Kentish kings are called Oiscings,” and of “Uffa, after whom East Anglian kings are called Uffings.” Possibly it may therefore be concluded that Billington is the “ton” or village inhabited by kinsfolk descended from a man called by some such name as Billa. We may make similar suppositions about such place names as Lullington, Aldingham, Mundungham, and others. According to this theory, therefore, in some way or other bodies of kinsfolk, coming from some village on the continent, hled together during the days of the invasion, and settled together in a new home, to which they gave their family name. But Kemble’s theory is a theory still.

Of course there must have been cases where great war leaders received wide lands, and peopled them with their war companions, and with humbler settlers who had lost their kinsfolk. In such a case the place names ending in “ing” may be derived from the name of this leader. Thus Aethel-woldington is probably the “ton” of Aethelwold and his followers, and Eadrichestone may be the “ton” of Eadric and his men.

The settlements frequently consisted of cluster of houses. Each house stood separate within its own yard or close, and formed with the other houses a kind of village street. The buildings were of wood and clay, mud, turf and basket-work, and were thatched with straw or rushes or turf. Of course, none of them survive, but with help of references found in Anglo-Saxon records we may endeavour to form some conception of an early English house.

Its probably consisted of a long wooden hall entered by a door at the gable end. Within, near the door, lived some farm stock, such as cows, calves, pigs and hens. Beyond these was an open space, wherein lived the owner of the house, his family and servants. This space had a fireplace in its centre, and possibly another door led from it to the open air. On the side of the fire furthest from the animals’ quarters there probably was a bench, from which the master in his hours of ease could see the whole length of the hall, and the space between this and the further gable end was formed into a room or rooms, in which the master and his family slept. Servants slept on wooden benches in the hall.

On the walls of such dwellings hung spears, bows, swords, shields, bundles of wood and flax. The rafters were soot-blackened. In corners and crannies were bits of twine, salt boxes, odd nails, samples of seed, scraps of iron, shears, hayforks, spades, pots and pans, sickles, hoes, lanterns, candles, old spindle whorls, baskets, horns to blow on, horns to drink from, horns containing cart-grease, lamps, bellows, branding irons, riddles, leather bottles, saws, axes, crowbars, brooms, a tubful of salt pork, bags of coarse meal, cheeses, dried fish, bags of beans, flitches of bacon, and so on. Settles, chairs and couches stood along the walls. A weaving loom and distaffs found a place somewhere. Near the fire were the fire-tongs.

Population varied much from township to township. A township of early Anglo-Saxon times that had twenty-five families in it was a large one. The boundaries of the land belonging to each settlement were carefully marked out, and probably the beating of them every year ensured that all had knowledge of them.

Within the boundaries lay all the property of the township, its houses in their closes, its cornfields, its hay meadows, its common pastures, and the waste ground which supplied bedding for cattle, thatch for roofs, firewood, acorns and beech-nuts for swine, and timber for building purposes.

When a body of kinsmen first settled down in their new home it became necessary to assign a fair share of rights to each family. Such a fair share they termed a “hide.” This word designates an Anglo-Saxon measure which is translated in some documents into “terra unius familioe,” land adequate to the support of a family. It is found that a hide tends to work out at 120 acres/48.5ha of arable land, but it should be remembered that it takes more land to support a family adequately in some districts than others, for land varies in quality. To each hide was attached a certain number of rights over hay meadows, pasture and waste. In course of time family lands were often divided among heirs, and men had to support families on half a hide or a quarter of a hide (virgate) or even on an eighth of a hide (bovate). Such men as these must have eked out a living from other sources, as for instance, by labour on the lands of those who had gathered together estates of more than a hide. Men whose estates grew in size must also have had slaves to help in tilling, ditching, thatching and so forth.

The arable land of a village was usually divided into three great fields, hence the name “three-field system,” which is used to denote the old method of cultivation. (Some villages had only two great fields. It must be remembered that we have next to no information about the two-field or three-field system which dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period. Most of our knowledge of these systems is found in documents of later medieval and modern times. But the systems certainly existed in Anglo-Saxon days, and the above account of the three-field system, based as it is on late documents, may be taken as substantially true of those earlier times.) Each field might extend over hundreds of acres/ha, and was divided into many strips. Each strip consisted of about 1 acre/0.4ha of land; it was about 220 yards/201m long and 22 yards/20.1m wide. The strips were separated from neighbouring strips by balks, thin lines of unploughed soil. Round the outside edge of the great fields ran fences to exclude animals. From the absence of interior fencing the fields were said to be “open,” and the title “open-field system” is often used in place of “three-field system.” Each family had strips of arable land scattered in different parts of each of the three large field. (Soil, of course, varies in quality, so possibly at the first settlement, when arable ground was being allotted to each family, an effort was made to assign to each a fair proportion of good and bad ground in each big field. Furthermore, it would be advantageous to each family to possess strips near the village. To secure fairness, therefore, each family probably received strips of varying distances from their homes, some near, some far off.) A simple rotation of crops followed. Thus, if the arable fields be named A, B and C, then in one year A might grow wheat and B oats; C would lie fallow, or, in other words, would grow no crop, thus recovering its energies for next year’s burden. While it lay fallow cattle were allowed to pasture over it during the summer, and so manure it. Next year B would grow wheat and C oats, and A would lie fallow; in the third year C would grow wheat, A oats, and B would lie fallow. Thus in each year one-third of the arable land of each township grew no crop except grass.

When the harvest had been gathered the fences round the great fields were thrown down, or gaps were made in them at intervals, and the cattle were allowed to pasture on the stubble. There was usually a good deal of this, for crops were not mowed so close to the soil as now. The inhabitants of the township looked forward to the throwing open of the crop-bearing fields, for they liked their cattle to pasture as near the township as possible. While crops were growing the cattle fed on the distant waste and on the fallow field, thus manuring the latter for next year’s crop. The throwing open of the other two fields meant that the cowherd and shepherd had less to driving to do, and their charges were safer against attack by thieves from other townships, and against wolves from the forest.

Close to the township were the meadows, or hay grounds, parts of which were assigned in rotation to each householder. During the period when the grass was growing these meadows were fenced. When the hay crop had been led, cattle were allowed to pasture on the ground. The practice of sowing hay was, of course, unknown. The natural growth of the grass alone was available, and the perpetual cropping of this tended to lower the vitality of the soil. The lack of modern winter foods, such as turnips, mangel wurzel, and the want of plentiful hay crops, made the winter season a time of great suffering to all cattle and sheep, and so weakened their growing powers that their weight was less than half of that of average animals today.

Beyond the arable fields lay the waste land of the township. Some of it supplied pasture for sheep and oxen under the care of herdsmen. Some was covered by woods, along the glades of which the swineherd had his grunting beasts in search of acorns and beech-nuts. Here it was that timber for fuel and building purposes was found, and rushes and bracken for thatch and bed-litter.

This agrarian arrangement implies the existence of many servants of the township. Nowadays, in hilly districts, we still have shepherds, for sheep still feed on open hills and need supervision. The oxherd is disappearing’ swineherds and goose girls are never seen. But officials like these and many others were attached to every township. There were wood-wards to guard against unauthorised felling of timber and gathering of brushwood, haywards to ensure the setting up of fences round the arable fields and to take them down, constables to impound cattle that fed without warrant on the public pasture, dykegreaves in places where the shores needed protection by dykes against the inroads of the sea, and ditchers who dug drains. Some of these men, no doubt, were drawn from the ranks of those landed possessions were small. Certain of the offices were probably combined in one person, and most of them probably ran in families from one generation to another through hundred of years. For the pay of all some arrangements had to be made. To the shepherd fell bodies of dead lambs and sheep, and the milk from a certain number of ewes; to the cowherd a calf or two to add to his own stock; the other officers were paid in a similar manner. In the absence on public business their lands at home were ploughed, sown and reaped for them by their fellow townsmen.

The early methods of farming changed very slowly. Indeed, the “three-field system” has not completely disappeared even now. Its main features are, therefore, perfectly well known. With the aid of this later knowledge, and of a document called “The Reeve,” which was probably written in the early eleventh century, it is possible to form some picture of an Anglo-Saxon farmer’s year. It began after the harvest. At some time before the frosts and snows of winter the villagers began their ploughing. (The ploughs of a village were probably common property. When ploughing time came the draft oxen were probably pooled. Each villager would contribute to the pool a number of oxen based on the amount of arable he held. Out of the pool the plough teams would be made up. thus a villager whose turn for the use of the plough had come, and who only had two or four draft oxen of his own, could go to the oxherd and get the full number of eighth that were necessary to pull the plough.) At daybreak they emerged from their cottages in the chill of the morning, taking boys to help them in their work. They gathered teams of eight oxen from the village oxherd who had charge of them at night, and rove them to the arable field that was to be ploughed. In the windy open they guided their ploughs up and down the strips all day long, while the boys moved beside the four pairs of oxen, urging them on not with a whip but with a goad, and shouting themselves hoarse in cold winter. Then came the sowing. The sowers placed their sacks of wheat in the centre of a strip where it could most easily be reached. They put their supply of seed into a basket which was slung from their shoulders by a thong of leather, and as they moved forward they sowed, taking a handful of seed with their right hand at every putting down of their left foot, and casting it forth as they put down their right. Thus at very two paces they sowed one handful and kept their sowing even. Before the snow came the wheat or rye sprouted up an inch/2.5cm or so, and  its roots took a firm grip of the soil. Thus it was ready to take advantage of the first warm days of spring.

In the days of hard frost and snow, when the field work was impossible, axes could be heard ringing through the village as the inhabitants split up the tree trunks which they had gathered for winter fuel. The cattle which were now under cover or in folds had to be fed with hay, and their shippons to be cleaned. Even in snowy weather the sheep and their shepherd probably remained in the open. Some time before this the fattened cattle had been killed and salted down in tubs for winter food. All through the village men were busy threshing and winnowing corn in their barns. If the winter were long and cold beasts suffered severely from bad housing, and supplies of hay ran short.

In February, however, winter began to break up, and in mild weather the farmer set to work to plough his strips in the other arable field in preparation for the spring sowing of oats or barley. The lambs and calves had to be watched at birth, and shepherds and cowherds were bust in the fields and at cattle pens on the waste and fallow. There were ditches to be dug and cleared to carry off the spring rains, and new fences to be set up round the arable, and old ones to be repaired, that cattle might be kept off the sprouting crops. In the early summer sheep had to be washed and sheared, trees had to be felled and drawn to the village on carts. There they were piled to await building needs or the winter work of splitting firewood. The setting up of wooden buildings and the repair of old ones were summer work.

Then came the hay harvest, and, a little later, the corn harvest. Fences were then pulled down, and cattle were let into the stubble.

besides these chief duties the thousand and one other things, that farmers know of, had to be done, such as thatching, weeding, clearing away stones from the arable, making wooden bridges across streams to carry cattle from one pasture to another, getting to the fruit crop. There were fish to catch in the stream, and rabbits to be snared in the warren. The women and girls were bust at milking, cheese-making and butter-making. Implements, such as ploughs, mattocks, hoes, carts, hay-forks, saws, sickles, scythes, flails, rakes, needed constant attention of the smith and carpenter. Women and girls, when free from other duties, found plenty of employment in cooking, basket-making, spinning and weaving, and in scouring churns, cheese vats, troughs and other utensils of house and dairy.

All inhabitants of such a village, setting aside slaves, were free men. The flocks and herds were their private property. They paid rent for their land to none. In such a village there was no landed nobleman maintained by labour, and food supplied by peasantry.

But no description of English conditions could be regarded as approaching completeness if all references to another and rarer type of village, such as the Aethelwoldington and Eadrichstone mentioned above, were omitted. Among the conquering English hosts were war leaders, whose prowess demanded that they should be rewarded by tracts of land. Land is useless without settlers. To make their possessions valuable, therefore, the nobility endeavoured to stock them with human beings, to whom they granted sometimes cattle as well as houses and lands, sometimes merely houses and lands. The occupier paid for his equipment with services or with labour. In townships such as these the “three-field system” was adopted, and the noble had his arable strips intermingled with those of his tenants, and his rights of meadows and waste in proportion. No doubt much of his work was done on strips and waste by slaves brought from Germany or captured among the Britons. But if his estates were large, and the wants of his gesiths great in the matter of food, he would need much assistance in the way of labour rents from the smaller men among his tenants.