Anglo Saxon Civilization

Anglo Saxon Civilization

In the foregoing chapters there has been given a brief account of the conquest of the main part of the later England by the Anglo-Saxon invaders; and now we will look at and speak of the Anglo-Saxon antiquities which are to be seen in our museums, though this selection will be limited. There is a vast mass of material in the country which continues to grow every year with some spectacular finds, this throws a flood of light on the manners and customs of these early ancestors of ours; but here there can be no more than a call to your attention to the few of the more interesting objects which have survived.

Why do we have hardly any traces of Anglo-Saxon dwellings left to us, although, as will be seen later, there are scores of examples of church buildings dating in some cases from the earliest years after the conversion of the newcomers to Christianity, is that the houses were generally made of wood and have therefore disappeared. The invaders did not like the brick or stone-built mansions of Roman times which they found on their arrival in Britain; they seem to have thought them less cheerful than their own stout wooden homes which were ornamented with rich carving and bright paint, not unlike those to be seen in Scandinavia at the present day. It was not that the newcomers were savages, as is generally supposed, unable to do more than gape at the splendour they had wrecked; it seems rather that, in general, they were quite able to make use of such things as were needful to them, and only consigned to limbo those that were not.

Being a hardy people, inured to the cold, they probably regarded the central-heating arrangements they found in all the Roman villas as unhealthy; but it was not long before they adopted the use of glass in their windows. They appreciated the baths in some cases, for Bede speaks of the hot natural springs at Bath and elsewhere, and says that they are “proper for all ages and sexes, and are arranged accordingly.” The Roman temples were already in ruins, for Britain was a Christian country at the time of the invasion; but the churches which had taken their place were admired and were sometimes converted into shrines for their own gods, as we find in the case of St. Pancras` Church at Canterbury, and later were to some extent copied by their own builders after they had adopted Christianity as their religion.

Some of the Roman forts, such as Richborough Castle, were taken over and garrisoned; but in other cases they preferred to use earthworks, as their fathers had done, and could not bother to erect walls of stone, especially as most of their men were farmers or soldiers pure and simple, and were not trained, like the Roman legionaries, to turn their hand to other work such as wall-building.

They appreciated the fine Roman roads, however, and we shall presently read of Edwin of Northumbria repairing them, and cleaning up the drinking-fountains. When they invaded Britain they used to grind their corn in small querns; but soon they adopted the Roman water-worked mills, and probably as early as 833 A.D., they were using windmills.

In regard to sculpture and ornamental stonework they had little to learn from the Roman-British, and their memorial crosses, of which will be looked at later, display better workmanship, on the whole, that that found on the monuments of the late Empire in Britain.

Their jewellery, personal ornaments, plates, metal-work, glass vessels, and so forth were first-rate, and there was no need to copy Roman designs. Their clothing was almost as fine as, and often more gorgeous than, that of the Roman-Britons whom they conquered; and their weapons were quite as good.

Thus, we need not think of our English fathers as being too primitive to appreciate the civilization they found in Britain: the actual fact is that they had their own civilization, which, in most respects, was adequate to their needs and was much preferred by them; but where a Roman device or custom was better then their own they were not to slow to adopt it. Who shall say that a bejewelled Anglo-Saxon nobleman, sumptuously clothed, and seated at table in his richly carved and painted wooden hall, with silver plate and glass goblets before him, had anything very important to his comfort to learn from Rome? The civilization of Roman Britain did not fall into ruins because a horde of capering savages, too ignorant to make use of it, trampled it underfoot, but because the newcomers had their own ideas and their own culture which took its place.

Go to the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk, the boat burial and burial mounds, West Stowe, Suffolk, recreated A/S village, Bede`s world, Jarrow, Newcastle Upon Tyne, recreation of Bede`s world and a village, his monastery /church is over the park, literally. There is much more the Staffordshire hoard and the Prittlewell find in Essex, here with these places you can see exquisite jewellery and all manner of rich articles found in Anglo-Saxon graves and how they lived, which goes from before Christianity was adopted and also after is adoption.

In the British Museum there is a group of objects found in grave at Broomfield, Essex, and amongst these are a fine sword, a shield, a bronze pan, two wooden buckets with iron mounts, an iron cup on a four-footed stem, an iron cauldron, two vases of blue glass, some splendid jewellery, and many other things, all of excellent workmanship, and showing a state of civilization amongst the invaders little inferior to that of the Roman-British.

There, too, you will see the contents of a tomb found at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, amongst which are beautiful glass goblets, a superb drinking horn mounted in bronze-gilt, a large bronze bowl upon a stand, a splendid gold buckle set with garnets, a pair of bronze clasps, two spears, a sword in a wooden scabbard, fragments of two shields, an iron knife, a wooden bucket framed with iron, a tub, some elaborate glass cups, four drinking horns, one with silver-gilt mounts, thirty draughtsmen, and several other articles.

Here, also, are many beautiful objects from a cemetery on Chessel Down in the Isle of Wight; and it is interesting to notice that the pottery found in these graves is obviously Roman-British, indicating that the potteries continued to be worked by some section of the British population which had survived the invasion. Multitudes of objects from other sites which have been excavated are exhibited, including hundreds of rich brooches, pins, buckles, and other personal ornaments; and then to the objects from a big cemetery at Kempston in Bedfordshire, which includes a group of toilet articles, jewellery, and over a hundred glass and amber beads from the grave of a woman.

In the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford there are large collections of objects from Faversham and Chatham Lines in Kent, Icklingham in Suffolk, Brighthampton and Wheatley in Oxfordshire, Long Wittenham in Berkshire, and other places where important excavations have been conducted; and these again show what very excellent work the early Anglo-Saxon craftsmen could do. The discoveries throughout the country are endless, which continue to expand, some have been spectacular.

In the following chapters it will be shown what a great deal of material there is in the country by which there can be built up the story of the Anglo-Saxon/English age; and illustrate the high state of civilization revealed by this story. In spite of wars and tumults, a remarkable and gradually increasing refinements of mind is to be observed in these early ancestors of ours, contrasting them very favourably with their contemporaries on the Continent. There is a curious sweetness and gentleness in the characters of men of whom is going to be revealed, such as Oswald of Northumbria, Alfred the Great of Wessex, and others; and we cannot fail to think of them as gentlemen in the best sense of the word.

But it begins with a question. Is this refinement of mind, this sweetness of character which marks also the later phases of Britain so much less ugly than that of other countries, a purely Anglo-Saxon trait brought over from Denmark and Schleswig; or did the invaders, arriving eager for fierce conquest, fall quickly under the spell of our island and of the conditions they found therein? Did their undoubted intermarriage with the British foster in their character those qualities which now differentiate them so markedly from their Teutonic kin across the sea?

Is it the influence of Britain, rather than that of any other strain in our blood, that has made our race the most orderly, the most magnanimous, and perhaps the most kindly in the world? Is there some quality in the land itself, some unchanging spirit of gentleness brooding over our countryside, which tames all men who come hither, whether they be Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, or Normans, and moulds them into one undying type? What is the nature of this miracle wrought by Britain time after time upon the minds of those various peoples who have come home-hunting to her shores, so that to call a man British is to denote his character?

Such queries must occur at the outset to the mind of those who study the early history of our race, and somewhere in that study the answer must surely lie hid. That to say that though the Anglo-Saxons arrived in this country as a highly civilised people, they seem very quickly to have raised themselves in their new home to a condition of far higher refinement and mental attainment then any which we can trace in their original habitations across the North Sea. Something happened to them when they had settled in Britain – something mare than their formal conversion to Christianity of which is to written here; and that is why we must give high honour to the term “British” whether it was the actual introduction of British blood into Anglo-Saxon veins, whether it was the influence of the British point of view, or whether it was the very spirit of Britain itself – the climate, the gentle countryside, the whole indefinable temper and character of the land and its people, which wrought the change, no man can now tell; but certain it is that the Anglo-Saxons, the English as we now say, became a people different from their Germanic kin, gentler, more magnanimous, more kindly, more idealistic, yet of greater common-sense, more nearly approximating in certain ways to the Celt than to the Teuton, having the sterling qualities of the hardy north galvanized, as it were, and made articulate by that influence which, whatever may have been its means of approach, is to be termed in its essence British.