We have little information on the appearance of the early Germanic settlers, but we do have quite a lot about their continental counterparts who were quite similar. Tacitus who is generally considered reliable) tells us:
‘For clothing all wear a cloak, fastened with a clasp, or in its absence, a thorn: they spend whole days on a hearth round the fire with no other covering. The richest men are distinguished by the wearing of under-clothes; not loose like those of the Parthians and Sarmatians, but drawn tight, throwing each limb into relief.
They wear also the skins of wild beasts, the tribes adjoining the river-bank in a casual fashion, the further tribes with more attention, since they cannot depend on traders for clothing. The beasts for this purpose are selected, and the hides so taken are chequered with the pied skins of the creatures native to the outer ocean and its unknown waters. The women have the same dress as the men, except that very often trailing linen garments, striped with purple, are in use for women: the upper part of this costume does not widen into sleeves: their arms and shoulders are therefore bare, as is the adjoining portion of the breast.’
It seems that men’s hairstyles, at least amongst the warriors, varied from tribe to tribe. Tacitus tells us that warriors of the Chatti, a western tribe, allowed their hair and beard to grow until they killed an enemy. The Swabians tied their hair up in a knot at the side of the head, a hairstyle well attested from both Roman sculptures and archaeology. Tacitus tells us that the style was the mark of the freeman. He observed that young men who were not Swabian were also copying the style. This variety of hairstyles is also shown on many Roman sculptures showing Germanic tribesmen. Sidonius, writing in the fifth century, confirms that the Swabian style was still in use by then, and suggests it had spread to other classes as well as other tribes (it is interesting to note that even in Anglo-Saxon England closely cropped hair was the sign of a slave). Sidonius also adds to Tacitus’ observations:
‘Here in Bordeaux we see the blue-eyed Saxon afraid of the land, accustomed as he is to the sea; along the extreme edges of his pate the razor, refusing to restrain its bite, pushes back the frontier of his hair and, with the growth thus clipped to the skin, his head is reduced and his face enlarged.’
Sidonius also describes Frankish warriors:
‘... on the crown of whose red pates lies the hair that has been drawn towards the front, whilst the neck, exposed by the loss of its covering, shows bright. Their eyes are faint and pale, with a glimmer of greyish blue. Their faces are shaven all round, and instead of beards they have thin moustaches which they run through with a comb. Close fitting garments confine the tall limbs of the men, they are drawn up high so as to expose the knees, and a broad belt supports their narrow middle.’
Sidonius also writes of Frankish servants with ‘oily top knots’, perhaps similar to the Swabian knot.
Evidence of early Anglo-Saxon hairstyles being extremely rare, Sidonius’ and Tacitus’ observations are interesting. Also of interest is the similarity of Sidonius’ description of the Frankish warrior’s hairstyle with the ‘Norman’ styles shown on the Bayeux Tapestry some six centuries later!
The many combs found in Anglo-Saxon contexts (mainly settlements, not burials) suggest that care of the hair was important, and the many tweezers, shears, etc. found in burials show that personal grooming was also valued. Since most of the settlers were intending to devote themselves to agriculture and colonisation, it is probable that the more extravagant hairstyles of their kinsmen were left behind, except, perhaps, by some of the warriors. The uncropped wildness of the Chatti and the knots of the Swabians were after all, as Tacitus tells us, largely designed to frighten the enemy. Probably the Anglo-Saxons cut their hair fairly short, as the Franks did; by the sixth century long hair seems to have been a style confined to the Merovingian kings in Frankia. Our only direct evidence for the early Anglo-Saxons comes from highly stylised faces and figures on jewellery. Luxuriant moustaches are suggested on some faces, occasionally with a beard, but most are clean shaven. Hair is occasionally shoulder length, but is usually collar length or shorter (hardly the hairy barbarians many Victorian scholars would have us believe!)
Women’s hair was worn long (but not necessarily un cut and unstyled), sometimes loose but often plaited. Some representations show the hair drawn back from the face, presumably into a plait or pony-tail. It is uncertain whether a pony tail would be tied back with some kind of fastening, or whether it would be knotted as was done in Scandinavia. Some continental sculptures show quite elegant coiffures and ringlets on Germanic women, and a pair of pony-tails fastened behind each ear are also often represented.
Most textiles were of wool, usually in a 2/2 twill or tabby weave (tabby seems the most popular for Kentish costume), although some high class garments seem to have been made of a 2/1 twill or diamond twill. Chevron twill (herringbone) was known, but does not seem to have been very common. It seems that woollen tunics, cloaks and dresses were mainly in twills, whilst trousers were often, but not always, of tabby weave. Most linen was woven in tabby weave, with linen twills only being used for the highest quality garments. There was probably no major linen industry in England at this time, so most linen was probably imported. Silks are almost unknown from England at this time. Single coloured cloths were usual, although some simple checks and stripes were also used. Dyed cloth seems to have been quite common.
According to literature, the form of personal adornment most beloved by the Anglo-Saxons was the ring (beag, hring). From Beowulf we learn of arm-rings (earmbeagas) and neck-rings, objects which certainly existed, since hordes of rings (finger, arm and neck) have been discovered from earlier Scandinavian and German contexts as well as from the Viking Age, and contemporary pictorial sources show Germanic warriors wearing neck rings. Rings were worn by men and women: Beowulf wore one on his neck, the Queen of Denmark may have worn one on her neck or her head since she is described as under gyldnum beage (under a golden ring). Rings were valued for the status they conferred as well as their intrinsic worth. Traditionally a king gave rings to loyal followers and so was poetically described as a ‘giver of rings’ (beaga brytta), even as late as the tenth century. It is therefore surprising that very few rings of any sort are known from early English sources, the small handful that are known are mostly finger rings, not the arm and neck rings of literature. This may mean that the ring was not so common as literature would have us believe, or it may just be that rings were kept as heirlooms rather than burying them with the dead. Finger rings took many forms from simple twists of wire to ornate, engraved castings, sometimes set with old Roman intaglio or small garnets.
Some arm-rings or bracelets have been found in women’s graves, but they are not common. Bracelets could be of metal, beads, gold brocaded textile, glass, horn or ivory (the latter being re-used Roman examples) and, probably, leather.
Very little jewellery of any type has been found in male burials, with buckles being the main type, with a few brooches known.
Women wore far more jewellery than men, some of it functional, some of it purely decorative. The most obvious piece of functional jewellery was the brooch. Early Anglo-Saxon brooches take many forms, and were commonly bronze, sometimes gilded. Rarer brooches were made in precious metals. The ornament was achieved by casting, engraving or inlaying, with casting being the commonest. The most elaborate brooches, appearing only towards the end of the period, were individually constructed and their ornament could consist of gold cells, or cloisonnés, carefully built in elaborate shapes and filled with semi-precious stones, especially garnet.
The shape and decoration of brooches varied considerably, although most correspond to recognised types. Most Anglo-Saxon brooches can be categorised as ‘long’ or ‘circular’. Long brooches, descended from earlier bow-brooches, include the so called ‘square-headed’ (which was usually worn with the square downwards!), ‘cruciform’ (which vary from simple specimens to elaborate versions over 6” [15cm] long), ‘radiate-headed’ and the modest ‘small-long’. The square head concealed the functional parts; the cruciform and radiate heads made a decorative feature of the knobs which had originally been functional, often adding to the original number. Cruciform brooches often had a stylised horses? head at the narrower end.
The simpler disc brooches could be either plain or ornamented with simple patterns of ring and dot (the ‘multi-bossed’ type of disc brooch seen in later times was not used). More elaborate ‘composite’ disc brooches were made in several layers of precious metals, and they were often inlaid with garnet and coloured glass. The inlaid gold disc brooches are sometimes referred to as ‘keystone’ brooches, because of the shape of garnet commonly used. They were generally far less elaborate than the later cloisonné brooches.
The saucer brooch consisted of a decorated plate surrounded by an angled rim; the central pattern of these brooches often used a spiral reminiscent of British art styles. The applied brooch was of similar appearance to the saucer brooch, but made in separate parts rather than cast as a whole. The button brooch was like a miniature saucer brooch (some only ½” [12mm] across), and was often decorated with a stylised face.
The annular brooch consisted of a circle of wire or flattened metal, and the much rarer penannular brooch or an incomplete circle, with a pin spanning their diameter. Quoit brooches were an elaborately decorated type which combined the penannular and annular shape in a double ring.
Brooches which do not fit into the general categories of ‘long’ and ‘circular’ are the equal armed brooch, a type probably only worn by immigrant settlers and never manufactured in Britain, and small bird-shaped brooches which seem to be a purely Kentish fashion imported from Frankia. Apparently Anglo-Saxon women also sometimes acquired and wore old Roman brooches. The words dalc and spennels seem to have been used for brooches.
Like the brooch, decorative pins seem to have been used both functionally (to fasten garments) and for purely decorative reasons. These pins, usually of bronze or iron, often had decorative heads, sometimes in the shape of a bird. Others had Klapperschmuk, free hanging metal ornaments which would jingle when the wearer moved.
Buckles were usually ‘D’-shaped, and were usually made of metal, although bone, rock-crystal and even glass examples have been found. Bronze and iron buckles could be gilded, and some iron examples have been completely encased in silver. The buckle was usually attached to the belt by a riveted metal plate, sometimes rectangular, but usually triangular. These plates were often highly decorated. Some rich men and a few very wealthy women also had ornamented metal belt-mounts decorating their belts. A special piece of jewellery, worn only by women, was the girdle-hanger. This was worn hanging from the belt, and seems to be a symbolic ‘key’, probably worn only by the head woman of the household (and probably worn in addition to real keys). These were usually of bronze or iron.
The main form of purely decorative jewellery worn by women, apart from rings, were strings of brightly coloured beads, which often appear gaudy and clumsy to modern eyes. The most common types of beads were glass and paste often decorated with trails of contrasting colour. Amber was also used, not shaped, but in rough chunks (it was also thought to have prophylactic value). More unusual materials include: amethyst, crystal, jet, stone, clay, bone, cherry pips, bits of roman tile, chalk, in fact almost anything! They were not usually arranged according to size, shape or colour. Strings of beads were not normally worn as necklaces, rather they were suspended in festoons on the front of the body. The strings of beads were normally attached to the shoulder brooches, but a central brooch was sometimes fastened over them, keeping the festoon in position.
Beads also sometimes decorated girdles, and may also have been sewn, in small clusters, onto garments. Single beads may also have been used to fasten head-dresses. As we have already seen bead bracelets were worn, and rarely, bead anklets are known.
The number of beads worn varied greatly, from single beads to over one hundred (one woman excavated in Berkshire had 280!). Generally, women well-equipped with brooches had the most beads.
Pendants were often attached to strings of beads, and, less often, worn alone. Pendants were rarely elaborate. By far the commonest type consisted of a Roman coin, perforated for suspension. Individual examples, known from excavation, include: a Roman intaglio, the lid of an enamelled Romano-British seal-box, the escutcheons of Celtic hanging bowls, animals’ teeth and an eagles talon. Bracteates, gold pendants ultimately copied from Roman coins, but of various designs, were imported from Scandinavia and made in Kent and Anglian areas; so were scutiform (shield shaped) pendants, usually silver, and simpler ornamented disc pendants.
As with much else, once the Romans left Britain, there seems to have been a resurgence of the older styles of native art and the spiral pattern of the pre-Roman times made a comeback, although some Roman styles also remained in use. In some cases the traditional British, the Roman and the new Germanic styles were all mixed. Unfortunately, this resurgence in older styles often makes it difficult to tell whether an object dates to before or after (or even during) the Roman occupation purely on the basis of the art styles.
It is difficult to say much about early Anglo-Saxon art. Almost the only surviving source is jewellery and metalwork, apart from a few pieces of decorative bonework, and it is difficult to tell whether the styles occurring on these items are typical of all forms of art.
It appears that there was some connection between Germanic and Late Roman art, and there is much scholarly argument about who copied who, but techniques such as chip carving and certain representations of animals are common to both cultures. Whatever its origins, the style was adapted by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen of the early fifth century and used on a variety of objects. Chip carving was a technique originally used for the carving of hardwood, so it seems that many of the patterns encountered in metalwork may well have also been used to decorate woodwork. This technique gave a glittering effect to a surface, but in a Roman context it was mainly used only for geometric designs. The Germanic metalworkers soon adapted the technique to non-geometrical motifs, at first using scrolls and spirals, and later adding the ubiquitous animal style which soon spread throughout Western Europe.
The first distinct style to emerge is found chiefly in Kent and the south-east and is known as the ‘quoit-brooch style’ (because of its occurrence on a number of brooches. The chief motif is a crouching quadruped seen in profile; the body, which has a double contour, is covered with slight incisions representing fur; occasionally it has spiral hips. The mouth is often open and the lips form an outward curved line. The style is executed in a lightly carved technique on a flat surface, and the style is often seen on Late Roman provincial military gear.
A considerable proportion of Anglo-Saxon metalwork in the fifth and sixth centuries was decorated with chip-carved ornament. The commonest ornament during this period was an animal which, according to Sir Thomas Kendrick, ‘loses its zoological reality and is converted into mere pattern. Heads and legs, tails and teeth, are mixed together into an attractive pot-pourri of confusion which covers every square inch of the surface of the object.’ This is the first appearance of ‘animal interlace’, a style that would become extremely popular throughout the Northern world. This style has been labelled by the modern scholars with the imaginative name of ‘Style I’. One feature of all Anglo-Saxon art is what modern scholars describe as ‘horror vaccui’ - a fear of empty space - and certainly it seems that if the Anglo-Saxons were going to decorate an object every available surface would be covered in dense ornament.
The other favourite pattern of the Anglo-Saxons was the ring and dot ornament, probably the commonest ornament on bonework and simple metalwork, often combined with simple cross hatching.
The early Anglo-Saxons were also heavily influenced by the native Celtic styles. It is unclear whether the Anglo-Saxons copied these styles themselves, or employed British craftsmen, but many items of metalwork decorated in a Celtic fashion have been found in Anglo-Saxon contexts.
Amongst the native population Christianity continued to be the main religion, but the lack of contact with Rome led to a divergence from the Roman Church. This formation of a ‘Celtic’ Church was to have a profound effect on the later conversion of the Germanic settlers of this country. It appears that the British Christians were not much concerned with converting the Pagan invaders as long as they were free to carry on their religion unmolested.
The nature of the religion of the Germanic settlers is a more difficult subject, since it has to be pieced together from odd references from classical times and later Christian writings which obviously did not want to promote Pagan beliefs. Many modern historians look at the fact that four days of the week are named after Old Germanic deities, corresponding to four of the deities from later Scandinavian religion and shrug it off as being the same as the religion of the Pagan Vikings. Unfortunately, it is not this simple. Whilst it is true that they share many similarities, this attitude is about as valid as saying the Jewish faith and Christianity are the same thing just because they share the Old Testament. Although both the Early English and Viking religions have the same Germanic root, they were very different, and the Viking version had three more centuries of development than the English one. The early English religion had much in common with pre-Roman Celtic beliefs as well as later Scandinavian ones.
Unlike the later Scandinavian religion, the supreme deities in English faith were goddesses, not gods. The most important of these was Nerthus, the earth mother (the Harvest Queen of folk tradition). She looked after the fertility and well-being of man and beast. It is unclear whether Frija or Frea is a separate goddess, or just another aspect of Nerthus, but she is usually associated with love, lust, yearning and friendship. Other important Goddesses were Eostre, goddess of the dawn, spring and new life (and whose name is given to the spring festival of the Christian faith - Easter), and Rheda or Hreð, a wælcyrie (valkyrie) and goddess of the winter.
Of the gods of the early English we only know of three: Tir, Woden and Thunor (the Tyr, Oðin and Thor of Viking mythology). Woden seems to have been the most important of these three since most royal lines traced their descent from him, and he survived the Conversion as the lord of magic, the shaman and as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt was originally made up of the souls of dead warriors riding to Valhalla to join Woden’s host of champions, waiting for the last battle against the forces of destruction. In modern German the Wild Hunt is also known as the Wild Army; in the middle ages, Germans called it Wuotaanes her, Woden’s army. In later English folklore, it is usually taken to be the souls of the restless dead being hunted by the hounds of hell. Rationalist explanations include the terrifying violence of spring and autumn gales and the cries of flocks of migrating geese. (It is also interesting to note that the wild hunt is also sometimes associated with Cernunnos, the antlered god of the Pagan Celtic faith). Tir was the god of glory and honour, and a favourite with warriors, but little is known of his early English personification, although the rune for Tiw (p) is frequently used as a charm of protection. Thunor was also popular amongst warriors, and of all the English gods was the closest to his Scandinavian counterpart. Although his symbol of the hammer was used in England, his commonest symbol was the fylfot cross (the swastika of modern times), which seems to have also symbolised both the sun and a shield.
Another god who was probably worshipped by the early English was Frey. Although there is little direct evidence, his usual symbol - the boar - is commonly associated with warriors (another similarity to Pagan Celtic times). Frey was a fertility god, ‘ruler of rain and sunshine and thus of the produce of the earth’. The reason for the lack of evidence for Frey may be because his English personification was Ing, the son of Mannus (the father of mankind) and Nerthus (the divine mother).
However, the boar may also have been associated with the goddess Frija. If this were the case then its popularity with warriors would be explained by Tacitus’s observation of one of the Suebic tribes:
‘They worship the Mother of the Gods. As an emblem of the rite, they bear the shapes of wild boars. This boar avails more than weapons or human protection; it guarantees that the worshipper of the goddess is without fear even when surrounded by enemies.’
At Yule-tide warriors made their vows for the coming year on a sacrificial boar (we still make New Year’s resolutions), and before the turkey arrived, the boar’s head had the place of honour at Yule-tide feasts (and we still sing a carol that accompanied its processional entry into the feasting-hall).
To the early English, the world was full of lesser spirits as well as the great gods and goddesses. There were elves, ettins (Trolls), wælcyrian and a whole host of other supernatural beings (who all joined the earlier Celtic deities amongst the faerie folk).
The early English year was full of religious significance, and was divided into only two seasons: summer and winter. These were divided by moon-lives (months), six to each season; but the year was governed by the sun. The two greatest festivals were at the two Solstices, Midsummer (Liða) and Midwinter (Geola or Yule). These times were so important that each was ‘guarded’ by two moons: Ærra Liða (the month before Midsummer) and Æftera Liða (the month after Midsummer) - June and July, and Ærra Geola and Æftera Geola flanking Midwinter - December and January.
Winter began with the first full moon in October and was called Winterfylleþ. November was Blot-monaþ (Blood-month or the month of sacrifice) when the winter slaughtering of livestock took place and feasts were held in honour of the gods, to whom many of the livestock were sacrificed. We know from Bede that the Midwinter festival, the most sacred night, when the new year began, was called Modranect - Mothers’ night. He says that it was so called from the ceremonies which took place then but he does not describe them, but it may well have been associated with the birth of Ing. It is easy to understand why Bede did not go into details about what happened on Modranect. If the English were already celebrating a young Lord, Ing son of Mannus, and his Divine Mother at the same time as the feast of the Nativity, the parallels would seem too close, even blasphemous, to a theologian like Bede. February was called Sol-monaþ - mud-month, probably just a comment on the English weather at this time of year. Bede tells us that it was also popularly called the ‘month of cakes’ - mensis placentarum - ‘which in that month the English offered to their gods’. Ploughing had begun, and the cakes (Latin placentae) were probably the loaves placed in the first furrow as an offering to Nerthus for a good harvest. March was Hreð-monaþ (Hreð’s month), the last month of winter and its goddess Hreð. Sacrifices were made to Hreð in this month. April was Eostre-monaþ (Eostre’s month). Eostre’s symbols were the hare and the egg, both seen as symbols of rebirth and the spring (many early English actually believed that hares laid eggs, since a hare’s ‘scratch’ and a lapwing nest look the same and are both first seen in the spring!) - and still remembered today in the form of Easter eggs and the Easter bunny. May was Þri-milce (three milkings) because, as Bede tells us ‘in olden days in Britain, and also in Germany, from where the English came to Britain, there was such abundance that cattle were milked three times a day.’ Was this a far memory of the easy days before the deterioration of the climate at the end of the Northern Bronze Age (c. 500 - 400 BC), or just the perpetual belief that things were always better in the old days? The power unleashed at the Midsummer Solstice must have been too strong and dangerous for Bede and his successors even to mention the rituals, although later sources tell us ‘Midsummer Eve is counted or called the Witches Night and still in many places on St John’s Night they make fires on the hills’, so the rituals probably involved the lighting of bonfires (perhaps similar to the Beltain festivals of Celtic times). The Christian Church certainly felt it was a day needing special guardianship and put it under the protection of St John the Baptist, whose message was repentance of sins. August was Weod-monaþ (weed month), ‘because they grow most in that month.’ September was Halig-monaþ (holy month), the month of festivals in honour of Nerthus in her aspect as giver. This is the festival for which we have the best idea of the ritual, as Tacitus devotes a chapter of Germania to this festival, common to all the Germanic tribes:
‘They worship in common Nerthus, that is the Earth Mother, and believe she intervenes in human affairs and goes on progress through the tribes. There is a sacred grove on an island of the ocean, and in the grove is a consecrated wagon covered with a cloth. Only one priest is allowed to touch it; he understands when the goddess is present in her shrine and follows with profound reverence when she is drawn away by cows. Then there are days of rejoicing: the places she considers worthy to entertain her [i.e. the places where the cows pulling the driverless wagon choose to stop] keep holiday. They do not go to war, do not use weapons, all iron is shut away - peace and quiet is much esteemed and loved at that time - until the same priest returns the goddess to her sanctuary when she has had enough of human company. Directly the wagon, the covering cloth and, if you like to believe this, the goddess herself, are washed in a secluded lake. Slaves are the ministers; immediately the same lake swallows them. [They are drowned as soon as they have finished their tasks as lay folk may not see or touch the goddess and live] From this arises a mysterious terror and a pious ignorance about what that may be, which is only seen by those about to die.’
We also know that the sheaf was also a symbol of the goddess (the origin of the corn-dolly), and it seems that even after the conversion this ritual had not been forgotten. In September 1598 a German visitor travelling to Eton describes a country ritual he witnessed:
‘We were returning to our lodging house; by lucky chance we fell in with the country-folk, celebrating their harvest home. The last sheaf had been crowned with flowers and they had attached it to a magnificently robed image, which perhaps they meant to represent Ceres [Ceres was the Roman name for a goddess of the fruitful earth and the harvest, and a much more widely known deity than Nerthus in the 16th century] They carried her hither and thither with much noise; men and women were sitting together on the wagon, men-servants and maid-servants shouting through the streets until they come to the barn.’
About 1,000 years after the conversion, the English still had a goddess of the fruitful earth, still riding a wagon, making random progress amidst public rejoicing. Servant-ministers were in attendance, although in the September of 1598 they were on their way to a more cheerful and less final end to the ceremonies.
Even as late as the end of the 18th century, the antiquarian William Hutchinson reported meeting the Harvest Queen in Northumberland:
‘I have seen in some places an image apparelled in great finery, crowned with flowers, a sheaf of corn placed under her arm and a scythe in her hand, carried out of the village in the morning of the concluding reaping day, with music and much clamour of the reapers, into the field where it stands fixed to a pole all day, and when the reaping is done it is brought home in like manner. This they call the Harvest Queen and it represents the Roman Ceres. [To classically educated scholars from one end of Europe to the other, all the old gods appeared in their Roman forms.]’
There is no physical evidence for temples or shrines in England, but this may well be because the early English shrines were not buildings, but sacred places. We know that King Rædwald put up a Christian altar in his family shrine, and that King Edwin’s temple at Goodmanham was desecrated and burned at the orders of its own high priest, but nowhere do we have any direct evidence of these holy places being buildings. Yet the shrines and holy places of the old tradition can be seen everywhere in England. Tacitus says of the early Germans:
‘They judge that gods cannot be contained inside walls nor can the greatness of the heavenly ones be represented in the likeness of any human face: they consecrate groves and woodland glades and call by the names of ‘gods’ that mystery which they only perceive by their sense of reverence.’
So the shrines were probably sacred groves and pools rather than buildings, and this would certainly seem to be borne out by the number of natural features bearing the names of gods, and the number of sacrificial bogs known from the continent.
The priests of the early English are an even more shadowy group than the deities, and really all we know about them is that they existed, were not allowed to ride any horse but a mare and could not bear arms (although the spear, the sacred weapon of Wodan, may have been used in some rituals). After this our knowledge of them is non-existent.
Text © 1995 Ben Levick. Illustrations © 1995 Colin Levick. Photographs © 2011 Dave Green.