Anglo-Saxon Surrey

Anglo-Saxon Surrey

In this year the Goths stormed Rome and the Romans never afterwards reigned in Britain.’ These few terse words written by a 9th century scribe in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the folk memory of events in AD 410, which began the final demise of the Roman way of life in Britain.

In fact, the decline of Roman Britain was not as instant as the chroniclers would have us believe. Its origins lay well back in the 4th century. Throughout the second half of that century the Roman Empire became increasingly threatened along most of its frontiers. To protect these borders, troops were progressively withdrawn from Britain. The army was the dynamo of the money-based economy and, without it, the Roman system began an inevitable collapse. There may also have been a decline in population at this time caused, perhaps, by epidemics of an unknown killer disease, possibly some form of plague. The economic breakdown was a major factor in the shift of people from the towns to the countryside. Surrey lacked any substantial Roman town but this decline can be seen in London, Silchester and Chichester and must, therefore, have had an effect on the area. Thus the seeds of major change had been sown long before the first Saxons arrived to settle permanently.

However, by AD 410, whilst the Goths attacked Rome, its outlying province, Britannia, was also under serious threat from barbarian tribes on the fringes of the Empire – the Irish to the west, the Picts to the north and various Germanic tribes who came to plunder from across the North Sea. In the 4th century, the building of a number of forts along the south coast, known as Saxon shore forts, had contained these plundering pagan hordes. Now, denied support from Rome, the Britons sought protection, particularly against the Picts, by enlisting the help of Saxon mercenaries. These Saxons from the north-west coast of Germany and Frisia were attracted by offers of money or land in return for their contribution to the defence of Britannia.

Surrey archaeologist, Rob Poulton, wrote of Surrey in 1987 that ‘any aspect of the Saxon county is bedevilled by uncertainty and, in some cases, … a complete lack of useful archaeological evidence.’ In attempting to reconstruct the possible, let alone the probable, story of Saxon Surrey, the historian must juggle scant and often doubtful documentary material with a meagre body of archaeological evidence.

The first Saxon mercenaries probably arrived in southern Britain in about AD 420, a decade or so after the final withdrawal of the Roman legions and the announcement of Emperor Honorius that the Britons must look to their own defence. Honorius’s declaration has traditionally been used by historians and archaeologists to mark the end of Roman Britain. However, recent research has suggested that this apparent final rejection was not intended for Britain at all and that past scholars have simply mis-translated a name which actually referred to somewhere else in the Empire! Whatever the truth of the matter, we can be reasonably certain that the first Saxons arrived in Kent not long after and made their way inland along the river Thames.

In Surrey the evidence for these 5th century pagan settlers is confined to a scatter of burial sites to the north of the Downs, where many of them were stationed to guard the approaches to London. However, it is equally possible that these burials are the graves of the Saxon vanguard who died protecting the migration routes of their own kind along the Thames valley. Saxon cemeteries of the period have been discovered at Mitcham, Croydon and on the east end of the Hog’s Back at Guildown, overlooking the site of Guildford and an important river crossing.

For about 20 years after the arrival of the first Saxon mercenaries all went well, but then events turned for the worse as far as the Britons were concerned. Instead of fighting the Picts, the Saxon troops turned upon their masters and were soon in control of substantial tracts of land in south-eastern Britain, including, perhaps, all of the Surrey area north of the Downs. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Britons sent a delegation to Rome in AD 443 to beg for help, ‘but got none, for the Romans were engaged in a campaign against Attila, king of the Huns.’

Around AD 500 the Britons, led by a man of Roman descent, Ambrosius Aurelianus, had a great victory at the battle of Mons Bardonicus. The exact site of this battle is unknown today but may have been somewhere in Wiltshire or Dorset. For the next 50 years the Saxons seem to have been confined to the east side of the country. In Surrey there is some evidence that, whilst the Saxons occupied the north and east of the area, the Britons remained in control of south-west Surrey by agreement with the newcomers. It is notable that in that part of the county finds from the early Saxon period are almost entirely absent. This arrangement may have continued until well into the 7th century.

But what exactly did happen to the Romano-Britons in Surrey? Were they eventually forced from their lands and driven ever westward as more and more Saxon settlers arrived? Did they co-exist with their new neighbours, intermarrying and thereby over two centuries or more become absorbed? Finds of complete Roman pots from some early pagan Saxon graves at Croydon may suggest continuity. The Romano-Britons in Surrey were reputedly Christian but how much they held to the faith at this time is not known. They certainly seem to have had no influence on the early Saxon settlers in religious matters.

Experts consider that some place names, especially in south-west Surrey, might suggest the survival of Britons well beyond the 5th century. These include St Martha’s Hill near Albury, which may be derived from the Latin ‘martyrium’, meaning a place of religious significance. Also, the pattern of archaeological finds from the pagan Saxon period from the 5th to the 7th century is suggestive of an agreement between the Romano-Britons and the Saxon settlers.

Roman farming estates in Surrey, centred around the villa, produced food mainly for sale in the market place, whilst the Saxon settlers grew crops principally for themselves. They were self-sufficient in the matter of feeding and clothing themselves. Faced with the collapse of the money economy the Britons of the Surrey countryside may well have adopted the Saxon way of life and thus have become integrated with them. Thereafter any archaeological record of their existence might prove to be indistinguishable from that of the Anglo-Saxons, who have traditionally been considered to be their replacements.

Whatever the real truth of the first 130 years of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Surrey, it is clear that after about AD 550 any land agreements between Saxon and Briton seem to have broken down. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there now followed 100 years or more of intermittent warfare before the Saxons emerged as sole rulers of most of the land which eventually became the kingdom of England. This was a period of minor kingdoms and sub-kingdoms, when the Saxons and perhaps those of Romano-British origin who had integrated with them, turned to fight each other for the supremacy of this green and fertile land. It was during these unstable times that Surrey probably first emerged as a sub-kingdom, although the names of any of its rulers have not survived.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that an important battle between rival factions took place in AD 568: ‘In this year Ceawlin and Cutha fought against Ethelbert, and drove him in flight into Kent, and killed two ealdormen, Oslaf and Cnebba, at Wibbandun.’ The site of the battle of Wibbandun is thought to have been in Surrey, traditionally either at Wimbledon, or Worplesdon, to the north of Guildford, or possibly near Chobham. It was, perhaps, at this time that the eastern limits of Surrey were established. The boundary is still marked by a substantial bank 3 metres high and 16 metres across on the border of Surrey and Kent near Westerham, but it is not known if the victors at Wibbandun were responsible for its construction. Surrey was a land to be fought over and at various times during the succeeding century it appears to have been a province of Kent, Wessex or the midland kingdom of Mercia.

In 596, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Pope Gregory sent a group of monks led by Augustine to Britain to convert the pagan Saxons to Christianity. Augustine and his missionaries landed on the Isle of Thanet in Kent and by degrees, with many reverses, the conversion was successfully achieved. Christianity had reached Surrey by 666 when an abbey was founded at Chertsey by Abbot Erkenwald, who later became the Bishop of London and was instrumental in the building of the first cathedral of St Paul. The earliest surviving documentary record of Surrey’s existence dates from 673 when Frithuwald, ruler of ‘Sudergeona’, gave a great estate for the endowment of the abbey. Frithuwald had to seek the permission of Wulfhere, ruler of Mercia – a clear indication of Surrey’s status as a sub-kingdom at this time.

The name ‘Sudergeona’ means ‘southern region’, implying that Surrey must at one time have formed part of a much larger kingdom including, perhaps, Middlesex across the Thames. However, no documentary evidence survives to shed light on this suggestion and the larger unit had certainly ceased to exist by the early part of the 6th century. Surrey’s eastern boundary may once have followed the line of the rivers Medway and Darent, now in Kent. It had become established along its existing line by the end of the 6th century, possibly, as mentioned earlier, following the battle of Wibbandun. Its western boundary is thought to have taken in parts of what later became Berkshire, but had settled to its present line along much of the border by the end of 7th century. The river Thames formed a natural northern limit whilst the southern boundary may have been the last to have been properly defined. The land along the border between Surrey and Sussex may have been a mixture of open pasture, suitable for summer grazing, and rich woodland.

At some time during the 7th century London was re-established as a major port. As the centuries passed the city was to increasingly influence the development of its southern hinterland, Surrey.

A Saxon cemetery of the 7th century has recently been excavated at Leatherhead. Here were found a number of pagan burials with a sparse but fascinating series of grave goods. These included socketed iron spearheads and iron knives, but of greatest interest was the discovery in one grave of a panther cowrie shell. A second grave, that of a child, contained the remains of a bead necklace – three of the beads being made from panther cowrie, two of amethyst and two of glass. The panther cowrie is found only in the Red Sea and these examples had travelled a remarkable distance – a tribute, no doubt, to the importance these peoples placed on its properties as an amulet to ward off evil spirits. These were the graves of Anglo-Saxons who probably belonged to the transitional period between paganism and Christianity.

These people would have lived in timber-framed rectangular huts with thatched roofs. There were two types – one with an average floor area of about 60 square metres and the second version measuring only about 3.5 by 2.5 metres, but with the additional feature of a sunken floor cut a little under 1 metre into the ground. These smaller huts may have represented working huts, where occupations such as weaving took place, rather than living quarters. Finds of such buildings are scant in Surrey, though remnants have been discovered at several places including Farnham and Shepperton. These huts were loosely grouped in small hamlets, each forming a single farming community, self-sufficient in all but a few items. The hut dwellers wove their own cloth and probably made their own rough, grass-tempered pottery as well. It was a way of life which survived little changed in rural Surrey until well beyond the Norman Conquest.