The Coming of the Saxons

The Coming of the Saxons and the Conversion of Hampshire to Christianity

In the second half of the third century southern England was again troubled by invaders from across the sea. The English historian, Bede, whose History of the English Church and People was completed in A.D. 731 calls these invaders Angles, Saxons and Jutes Though Bede was a northerner, writing at Jarrow, he took great care to make his account of what happened in the south as accurate as possible and specifically says that he consulted his friend, Daniel, Bishop of Winchester from 705 until 744, about the early history of the diocese.

The new invaders were of Germanic origin, and can be conveniently referred to here as Saxons, for though the Angles gave their name to the country as a whole, certain Saxon groups established themselves in parts of England henceforth called after them, amongst them the West-Saxons of Wessex, which includes Hampshire, though much of the present county, parts of the New Forest and the Isle of Wight were settled by Jutes. Because of these invasions the Romans called the south-east coast of England the Saxon Shore. They were forced to increase its garrisons and its fortifications, and special sea patrols reported the movement of pirate vessels. Yet the invaders continued their raids, and when invasions by barbarians in other parts of the Roman Empire forced the Romans to withdraw their troops from England a period of confusion and uncertainty followed. The most reliable accounts of what happened in England when the Romans left are to be found in Bede and in the great Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but neither Bede nor those who wrote down the traditions of their forefathers in the Chronicle were contemporary with the events they describe and the writers of the Chronicle were perhaps anxious to please the kings whose Saxon ancestors had carried out the conquest of England. According to the Chronicle, the conquest of Hampshire began in A.D. 495, when a Saxon warrior chief, Cerdic, and his son, Cynric (probably really his grandson) landed from a small fleet of ships at Cerdicesora, a place which was probably somewhere on the New Forest side of Southampton Water. Cerdic was the ancestor of the royal house of Wessex, whose activities form an important part of the Chronicle. By A.D. 530 he and his followers had conquered the Isle of Wight which he is said to have given to his ‘kinsmen’, Stuf and Whitgar in 534, the year in which he died.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Jutes were prominent in the settlement of both the mainland and of the Island. At Chessel Down in the Island, excavations carried out between 1816 and 1855 recovered more than 130 Jutish graves, amongst them that of a warrior chieftain whose body had been prepared for burial with a veil or band, decorated with gold thread, covering his forehead; an iron girdle; silver gilt brooches; near his hand a dark wine-coloured crystal ball, probably contained in a silver gilt spoon. An earlier landing, at Portsmouth, was also probably Jutish. The Chronicle records that in 501, Port and his sons, Bieda and Macgla, came there with two ships and killed a British nobleman. The Jutes, too, conquered the valley of the River Meon; at Droxford, a large Jutish cemetery has produced grave goods of various kinds, swords, spearheads, shields and bosses. In eastern Hampshire the invaders were clearly able to make good use of the Meon River, following its valley inland, as Saxon bands followed the valley of the Test and of the Itchen. The invaders’ movements towards the west may have been halted in about A.D. 552 by a British stand at what is now Old Sarum, but there appears to have been little organised opposition to the bands of invading Saxon raiders. The conquest of Hampshire was piecemeal and those Britons who tried to resist were either killed, captured as slaves, or driven farther westwards to the eventual isolation of Wales and of Cornwall. Romano-British civilisation -could offer little that was acceptable to the rough and illiterate warrior bands, and though there were skilled craftsmen amongst them, in general the Saxon invaders either destroyed or avoided the villas and towns of Roman Hampshire and Calleva was deserted.

When the initial period of conquest came to an end, the Saxons settled in new villages which had grown up along the river valleys, and a trading settlement began to develop at the mouth of the Itchen. The revival of town life did not occur, however, until the later Saxon period, and the main peacetime occupation of early Hampshire Anglo-Saxons was farming, the growing of barley for food and drink, and the slow clearance of forest land, though the area of the New Forest remained virtually uninhabited. The usual distinctions of society divided men into those of noble birth and those who worked on the land as freemen, ceoris, or as serfs.

What happened to Venta Belgarum is not yet known, but the city is ringed with pagan Saxon cemeteries and burials at Worthy Park, Micheldever, Winnall and on St. Giles Hill. Saxons buried on St. Giles Hill with their iron spearheads, knives, swords and shields, must have been a real threat to the Roman city below, but the evidence from excavation at Worthy Park does not suggest that the Winchester area was of much importance to the early Saxons, and indeed it has been called a cultural backwood. The splendid banging bowl found in a burial in a Romano-British earthwork at Oliver’s Battery shows the high standard of art which could be reached, but it is very unusual.

It was the conversion of Wessex which reintroduced civilisation to Hampshire, though Christianity made slow progress. Jewellery found in Winnall II is very beautiful, but the evidence of the 45 ‘Christian’ graves found there show a community still hesitating to bury its dead near the living, still burying with grave goods, perhaps in propitiation of the old gods. A superb necklace of gold, garnets, silver, glass, ivory and bronze found in a burial in Lower Brook Street in 1971 may have belonged to a Winchester Christian and can certainly be regarded as a portent for the future and that high standard of Christian art which was going to be Anglo-Saxon Hampshire’s great contribution to the western world.

In this society the most important personage was the warrior king, whose wandering existence was a result of his chief duty, the leading of his people to war. This the pagan kings of the West Saxons did with much success and when they and their people were converted to Christianity the resulting alliance between Church and State helped to secure Wessex’s supremacy over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The conversion of Hampshire to Christianity was begun in A.D. 634 by St. Birinus, to whose mission there is a brief reference in Bede, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in a number of ‘lives’ of the Saint composed hundreds of years after his task was accomplished. Bede, an Englishman, whose chief complaint about the conquered Britons was their refusal to try to convert the pagan Saxons, described Birinus as converting the Geweissae (or West Saxons), who were completely heathen, and this may well mean that Christianity had disappeared from Hampshire after the withdrawal of the Romans. Birinus, according to one authority, was a Roman priest who was commissioned by Pope Honorius I to preach Christianity in those parts of England which had not received the Gospel. He may have landed at Portchester, was certainly kindly received by the King of the West Saxons, Cynegils, and in A.D. 635 baptized him, a very important event indeed, but one not followed by the conversion of all the royal family. Cynegil’s second son, his successor, Cenwealh, was not yet a baptized Christian when he began to build the great church called the Old Minster in Winchester in 642. Three years later he was temporarily driven out of his kingdom by Penda of Mercia and was baptized only in 646 when in exile at the court of his Christian host, King Anna of the East Angles. According to the Chronicle, the conversion of the Isle of Wight followed that of the mainland, but it was the work of a missionary priest, Eoppa, undertaken at the request of the exiled Bishop Wilfrid of Northumbria. In the same year the Island was ‘harried’ by Penda’s Christian son, Wulfhere, who gave it to his godson, the king of the South Saxons.

In the early years of the Christian Church in Hampshire Birinus as bishop ruled a diocese which had its centre at Dorchester-on-Thames. Cenwealh divided this large diocese when he fell out with Bishop Agilbert and appointed Wini as bishop of the West Saxons, and Winchester began to be not just a royal city but the centre of the diocese. The bishop’s chair ceased to be in Dorchester and Bishop Haeddi, in c. 676, brought Birinus’s body to Winchester, the first of many such relics of English saints revered in the Old Minster. The close connection of the bishops with the royal family of Wessex undoubtedly made easier the work of conversion in Hampshire, yet it was a long time before every Hampshire village had its own church. The Gospel was probably preached from free-standing preaching crosses, of which fragments of only a few remain, and the Christian community was served by groups of priests working from fairly large churches known as ‘Mynsters’. There was a Minster at Wic (near Southampton), a Minster. at Twynham (Christchurch), a Minster at Wimborne on the edge of the New Forest, and a minster for nuns as well as the Cathedral Minster in Winchester, where Edward the Elder carried out the wish of his father, Alfred, by adding yet a third royal foundation, the New Minster, St. Frimbald’s Abbey, consecrated in 903. Though it was a great part of Alfred’s life work to re-establish Christian learning after the ravages of the Danes, a further revival and re-establishment was necessary by the middle of the 10th century. Bishop Ethelwdld (963-984), a monk himself, replaced the secular priests of the Old and New Minsters by monks of the reformed Cluniac Benedictine order, and virtually refounded and re-endowed the two Hampshire Benedictine nunneries of Romsey and St. Mary’s, Winchester. Many of the early bishops were monks, but parish priests were not always celibate. Generous royal gifts of relics, money and landed endowments either directly to the various monastic houses, or the diocesan bishops, soon helped to turn the Anglo-Saxon Church in Hampshire into one of the wealthiest and largest dioceses in England; at first, the diocese was very large indeed, but by the reign of Edward the Eider, the creation of other sees reduced the area subject to the  Bishops of Winchester and the diocese consisted, more or less, of the  present counties of Surrey and Hampshire.