Conversion Period - Cliffe History

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Conversion Period

c. AD597 - AD735.
Ethnic Backgrounds
Main:- Anglo-Saxon, British
Auxiliary:- Pict, Roman or Celtic missionary, Frisian Trader


The late sixth and early seventh centuries AD saw the amalgamation of many of the small kingdoms of the migration period into several larger ones, each an expansion of one of the earlier kingdoms. This was a period of almost constant warfare, as each kingdom strove to increase their influence and their lands; it was also a time when several of these kingdoms, particularly Northumbria, were wracked by civil wars. This period also saw one of the most important changes in English history - the conversion from Paganism to Christianity. At the start of this period Kent was the most powerful of the English kingdoms, partly because its king, Æthelberht, was married to a Frankish princess named Bertha. This marriage into such a powerful dynasty would have given Æthelberht much status in the eyes of his fellow English kings, to the extent that he was considered as Bretwalda. He probably held this title from around AD584, when he would have taken it from Ceawlin, king of Wessex. However, in the sixth century the king of a small people who married into a great family became its dependant, none of the Frankish kings contemporary with Æthelberht would have regarded him as an equal The fact that Bertha, like all the Merovingian Franks, was a devout Christian was to play an important part in the subsequent conversion of the English people.
When Æthelberht died in AD616, Rædwald of East Anglia became Bretwalda, until his death in c. AD625. He was followed in quick succession by three Northumbrian kings, Edwin (617 - 632), Oswald (633 - 641) and Oswiu (641 - 670). It was during the time of Edwin that the British Kingdom of Elmet finally fell to the Nothumbrians. The Northumbrians also managed to claim much of the British kingdom of Strathclyde, and the central hills of southern Scotland may well have been a debatable land. The Britons were certainly the masters of lower Clydesdale, and it is possible that towards the south they still possessed Kyle and the other districts which now form Ayrshire. On the other hand, it is improbable that Galloway or any part of the Solway coast was in their hands. Certainly by early in the eighth century , Whithorn, the most famous church in Galloway, had become the seat of an English bishopric, and one of the greatest of the Northumbrian crosses had been erected at Ruthwell near Dumfries. In the west, Wales and Dumnonia still retained their British independence.


The structure of society during this period was essentially the same as that of the earlier period, except that by now kings and nobles were sometimes more powerful, and the advent of Christianity introduced a new class - the priests and monks. In areas where Christianity was strong these men were considered high ranking people worthy of respect. In Pagan areas they were treated just like any other freeman, although some may have considered them to be sorcerers.

Clothing and Appearance

At this time in England there would have been two schools of thought on clothing. In those areas where Christianity was not widespread people would have continued to wear clothes of the type worn in the migration period. However, in Christian areas during the seventh century there was a change in costume, a development the Anglo-Saxons seem to have shared with all the Germanic and Germanised peoples of Europe, with the exception of the Scandinavians and Visigoths. It reflects the discontinuation of links with the North and the increasing influence of the Frankish Empire and, through the Empire, the Mediterranean world, especially Byzantium. The Church’s criticism of Northumbrian dress for being ‘too Pagan’ in the eighth century suggests that these changes were not entirely spontaneous, but strongly encouraged by the Roman Church.
Although during this period the spread of Christianity resulted in less burials with grave goods, it seems the converts were reluctant totally abandon the customs of their ancestors, and they left us sufficient grave-goods to deduce that fashion was changing. The relatively small number of furnished burials form a homogeneous group, showing that regional variations in costume had, to a large extent, disappeared (except in Northumbria). During this period we also find the first insular representations of people, and thus have our first pictures of clothing. The spread of Christian learning also starts to provide literary evidence, but this can sometimes be more confusing than helpful. For example, Aldhelm, writing in the late seventh century, criticised the elaborate dress of nuns (and perhaps also monks) at Barking in Essex. His Latin description:

‘subucula bissina, tunica coccinea sive iacintina, capitum et manicae sericis clavatae; galliculae rubricatis pellibus ambiuuntur; antiae frontis et temporum cincinni calamistro crispantur; pulla capitis velamina candidis et coloratis mafortibus cedunt, quae vittarium nexibus assutae talotenus prolixius dependunt’

has been translated by many modern scholars, and it seems that each one manages to give the passage a different meaning. The following three examples clearly demonstrate this problem:

‘This sort of glamorisation for either sex consists in fine linen shirts, in scarlet or blue tunics, in necklines and sleeves embroidered with silk; their shoes are trimmed with red dyed leather; the hair of their forelocks and the curls at their temples are crimped with a curling iron; dark grey veils for the head give way to bright and coloured head-dresses, which are sewn with interlacings of ribbons and hang down as far as the ankles.’ (Michael Lapidge)

‘In both sexes this kind of costume consists of an undergarment of the finest cloth, a red or blue tunic, a head-dress and sleeves with silk borders; their shoes are adorned with red dyed skins; the locks on their temples and foreheads are curled by the curlers. In the place of dark head coverings they wear white and coloured veils which hang down richly to the feet and are held in place by ribbons sewn on to them.’
(Sir David Wilson)

... a linen shirt; a scarlet or violet tunic, hooded, and sleeves striped in purple with silks; the garments are encircled with dark red furs ... dark grey veils for the head yield to white and coloured wimples which hang down from the grips of filets as far as the ankles.’
(Gale Owen-Crocker)

When dealing with modern translations we are always at the mercy of the translator it seems.

Men’s clothing

The evidence available suggests that men’s costume underwent fewer changes than women’s in this period, although there were some innovations. There is much evidence to suggest that by the eighth-century the dress of the Anglo-Saxons ‘south of the Humber’ was very similar to that worn in the Frankish Empire. It is also known that there was a strong cross-channel trade in clothing, particularly cloaks. Although we have no complete descriptions of clothing from England, there are several from Charlemagne’s Frankia in the eighth-century. Einhard described Charlemagne’s habitual costume:

“He wore the national dress of the Franks. Next to his skin he had a linen shirt and linen drawers; and then long hose and a tunic edged with silk. He wore shoes on his feet and bands of cloth wound round his legs. In winter he protected his chest and shoulders with a jerkin [thorax] made of otter skins or ermine. He wrapped himself in a blue cloak and always had a sword strapped to his side.”

The Monk of St Gall gives a similar, but more detailed description:

“The dress and equipment of the Old Franks was as follows. Their boots were gilded on the outside and decorated with leather laces more than four feet long. The wrappings round their legs were scarlet. Underneath these they wore linen garments on their legs and thighs of the same colour, but with elaborate embroidery. Long leather thongs were cross-gartered over these wrappings and linen garments, in and out, in front and behind. Next came a white linen shirt, round which was buckled a sword-belt. ... The last item of their clothing was a cloak, either white or blue, in the shape of a double square. This was so arranged that, when it was placed over the shoulders, it reached to the feet in front and behind, but hardly came down to the knees at the side.”

Whilst both these descriptions are of the dress of wealthy men, the clothing of poorer people would have been similar, if less ornate. It is also a very good description of contemporary Anglo-Saxon dress, although there is no evidence of the ‘cross-gartering’ of the second description ever having been worn in England.

As in the earliest times a cloak or cape continued to be an important part of men’s clothing. Anglo-Saxon cloaks of this period were usually rectangular, like that in the description of Frankish dress, although hooded cloaks are occasionally represented. Throughout Europe cloaks were becoming less voluminous, with most representations of cloaks from England shown reaching from just below the waist to mid calf. Despite this general shortening, some people, one of the more notable being Charlemagne himself, still preferred the older style large cloaks. He disliked the striped Gaulish cloaks which were being imported into his realm by Frisian merchants, because they were short. In his own words:

“What is the use of these little napkins? ... I can’t cover myself with them in bed. When I am on horseback I can’t protect myself from the winds and the rain. When I go off to empty my bowels, I catch cold because my backside is frozen.”

And, in a letter to King Offa of Mercia about the trade of English cloaks for Frankish building stone:

“But as you have intimated your wishes considering the length of the stones, so our people make a demand about the size if the cloaks, that you may order them to be such as used to come to us in former times.”

From the eighth-century onwards illustrations show the cloak was almost invariably fastened at the right shoulder with a disc brooch, and the brooches which survive from southern England are consistently disc-shaped, although in the seventh century other types may have been used.
We do not know the name of every variety of cloak current at this time, but the words mentel and sciccels were in common use, and the word hacele was sometimes used to describe a hooded cloak.

It is possible that in Anglian areas, where there were still quite strong links with Scandinavia, that a sort of short, belted jacket may have been worn by some of the wealthier men. This garment is shown on the decorative plates from the Sutton Hoo helmet, and from several sources in Scandinavia, particularly Sweden. It has also been suggested that this garment may have had some connection with the cult of Wotan, or may represent some form of armour.
The trousers worn in this period were always of the tight fitting type seen in earlier centuries. A few illustrations from northern Britain show figures wearing only close fitting knee-breeches, without a covering tunic, but it is unclear whether this fashion was Irish, Pictish or Northumbrian. However, the fashion of wearing trousers without a tunic seems to have been a particularly Scandinavian one. The word brec was used to mean either a loin-cloth or short trousers, whilst the words bræcce and braccas were used for trousers of the longer sort.

The ‘puttee’ style of leggings seen in earlier centuries continued to be used, although the horizontal garters and cross-gartering seen on the continent is not evidenced from this country. The ‘puttee’ style leg bindings were known as winningas.

Art of this period shows that the tunic of this period was worn belted or girdled at the waist with a full skirt reaching to just above the knee. In many illustrations the skirt, and sometimes the forearms, of the tunic are shown in a different colour and texture to the body. This may represent the sleeves and skirt being made of a different material, or, more likely, a shorter tunic was worn over the longer one. This may be like the fur lined waistcoat [thorax] worn by Charlemagne, and was probably the garment known by the name breost-rocc. Some of the tunics have plain, close-fitting sleeves, other sleeves have a corrugated or pleated appearance, much as is seen in most later Anglo-Saxon manuscript illustrations. This corrugated appearance was achieved by having over-long, tight fitting sleeves, which when pushed back wrinkle up on the forearm. Most of the tunics of this period have a round or ‘v’ necked openings for the head. The lower hem of the skirt was probably cut wide and straight, giving the inverted ‘U’ shape to the hem of the skirt seen on many of the figures of this period.

The tunic was often decorated with a contrasting band or stripe at the wrist or hem. This contrasting band was sometimes a piece of decorative braid, sometimes just a contrasting piece of textile. The eighth century chronicler Paulus Diaconus, when writing of the garments of the Langobards, compares them to the garments of the Anglo-Saxons:

“Indeed their clothes were roomy and especially linen as the Anglo-Saxons were accustomed to have, embellished with rather wide borders woven in various colours.”

The Anglo-Saxon word cyrtel was almost certainly applied to the tunic, with the newer Latin loan tunece coming into use as a synonym. This garment was almost certainly derived from the tunica talaris or tunica dalmatica of the Byzantine world.

Longer tunics and gowns in the Christian tradition of the late Roman Empire appear to have been worn by people of note in the Frankish kingdoms for special occasions, and are usually referred to by the Latin term longa tunica. This garment generally reached to the mid-calf or ankle. This style of tunic was thought of as ‘old-fashioned’, and is often shown being worn by biblical characters to emphasise the fact that the events in the illustration took place a long time in the past. Although seen in England in later centuries, this style of tunic was probably not worn by Anglo-Saxons in the seventh to ninth centuries.

There is much linguistic evidence for a linen undershirt, worn under the tunic, but unfortunately, there is no clear evidence from the art of the period. In Old English it could be called cemes, ham or scyrte.

Although belts were undoubtedly worn to hold up trousers and at the waist of the tunic, the evidence for them is small. Small items such as knives and other small tools were worn at the belt, pouches are almost never seen. This is probably because the pouch was worn attached to the trouser belt, so would be hidden by the tunic. Although buckled belts were still used many belts were leather or textile ‘tie belts’. The words gyrdel, belt and fetel were all used for belts.

There is no surviving headgear from this period, and in the few representations it is unclear whether the head covering is meant to represent a pointed cap or a conical helmet. A few hooded cloaks are known, however. Occasionally men are shown wearing some sort of fillet, but this fashion is mostly restricted to Angels!

There is evidence to suggest that loin-cloths were worn beneath the other clothing. They generally took the form of short, unbelted skirts or linen shorts. The words gyrdels, brec (this word is the ancestor of the modern word ‘breeches’, and seems principally to have signified short trousers covering the loins or extending down the thigh), underwrædel and wæd-brec all appear to have been used to denote a loincloth.

Women’s clothing

The change in women’s clothing at this time was far more drastic than that of men. The ‘peplos‘ dress of earlier times, with its pair of shoulder brooches with its festoon of beads started to disappear in the seventh century and by the eighth century had completely vanished. A similar change had taken place when the Franks had been converted to Christianity a century earlier. This change seems to have been taken for granted by most writers, and the only reference to it comes from the biography of St Radegund, daughter of the King of Thuringia. We hear that she kept her ‘barbaric costume’ even after she had become Queen of the Franks, testifying that the fashion change had already taken place in sixth century Frankia. The evidence for this new style of clothing is very limited, but seems to be a modified version of Byzantine dress, which may have been transmitted via Frankia, but which may also have owed something to the religious works of art of Mediterranean origin which were coming to England under the influence of Christianity.

As we have seen above, Aldhelm, in his work De Virgnitate, written in the late seventh- or early eighth century, criticises the overly elaborate clothing worn by women in holy orders (is was written as a reprimand for the nuns of Barking), and in the process gives our only surviving written description of such clothing, a general translation of which is:

“... linen undershirts, a red or blue tunic, a hood and sleeves with (purple) silk stripes or borders; the garments [it is unclear at this point whether the word Aldhelm uses to describe the garment means ‘shoes’ or ‘small cloak’] are encircled in dark red furs; the hair on their temples and forelocks are crimped with a curling iron; dark grey veils for the head yield to white and coloured head-dresses which hang down from the grip of fillets as far as the ankles.”

The main part of a Christian woman’s costume at this time was an ankle length tunic or overdress, like a longer version of the man’s tunic, but seems generally to have been worn unbelted. This dress would generally have been of wool, although linen versions may have been worn by some wealthier women. These tunics usually had a round neck opening. The sleeves of this tunic were usually fairly wide and reached either to just above the elbow, or to the mid-forearm, although some appear to have had tight fitting wrist length sleeves similar to those worn by men. Wealthy noblewomen might have broad boarders of embroidery or braid at the cuffs and hem if these dresses, and in some cases another broad band running from the neck to the hem at centre front. In the case of extremely wealthy women the entire tunic may have been of patterned cloth or covered in embroidery. This tunic was cut very wide, and was probably based on the tunica colobium or tunica dalmatica of late Roman and Byzantine fashion. In England this garment was referred to as a cyrtel, although the Latin loan word tunica was borrowed into English as tunece.

Beneath the overdress the woman wore a plainer linen undertunic or underdress. This dress was also like an ankle length version of the male tunic, with a round neck and sleeves that were tighter on the forearm, and reached to the wrist. These tunics were usually less baggy than the overdress, and would have generally been worn belted. They were generally of undyed linen, although a broad decorative band of contrasting colour textile, braid or embroidery was often used at the wrist. On rare occasions it seems that this dress may have been worn with a hooded cloak rather than the overdress described above. This garment was probably based on the late Roman/Byzantine tunica talaris. In Old English the name for this garment appears to have been ham.

Although a few buckled belts are known (particularly in Kent) from the seventh century, women’s belts were almost always simple braid ‘tie-belts,’ occasionally ornamented with strap ends (these would generally only have been used if the overdress was not being worn). Although some of these strap ends are decorated, their main function was probably not ornamental, but to stop the ends of the braid from fraying. The habit of wearing personal objects suspended from the belt seems to have declined, although long chatelaine chains and small metal containers (once thought to be thread-boxes, but now believed to be reliquaries) were still sometimes worn hanging at the waist, and also perhaps shears, spindles, keys and combs. Remains of leather and textile in seventh century graves suggests that pouches, made of one or both materials, were carried. This may have been a substitute for the habit of suspending personal items from the belt. There is almost no evidence for women’s belts from the eighth century onwards, and what little there is suggests that the habit of wearing items hanging from the belt finally disappeared at around this time, and those items which a woman needed appear to have generally been carried in a bag with a shoulder-strap rather than in a pouch or on the belt. The word gyrdels seems to have been used for the woman’s belt.

A few women appear to have worn cloaks similar to those worn by men. However, this is rare and most women seem to have worn semicircular, or perhaps triangular, capes or shawls which could rest on the shoulders, and be pulled up to cover the head when necessary. Some seem even to have included a hood, which could be pointed at the back. Occasionally these are shown fastened at the neck or chest with a disc-brooch. They may also have been pinned to the overdress at the neck or with a pair of pins at the shoulders, or worn unfastened. Sometimes the ends were brought around the chest and thrown back over the shoulders. This garment was derived from the Byzantine palla, and in England was probably called a hacele.

It is likely that headgear for women was becoming more common by the seventh century. It seems that Christian morality (based on St Paul’s edicts) was influential in this respect. By the eighth century it seems that headcoverings were worn by all women. It seems that a close fitting cap was worn by most women (perhaps similar to the slightly later caps from York and Dublin), which sometimes left the hair at the forehead and temples visible. For wealthier women this may have had a padded or rolled edge, which may have been striped or embroidered. (This type of headcovering is well known from Byzantine sources.) Although this was sometimes worn on its own, it would usually be covered by the hood/cloak and or a veil. Judging by Aldhelm’s comments this veil could be extremely colourful and voluminous. The veil would generally be pinned to the cap, although it could also be fastened with fillets or ribbons, or pinned to the shoulders of the overdress or cape, perhaps using a set of the linked dress-pins known from this period. The few surviving fragments of veils suggest they were usually of fine linen or wool, sometimes so fine as to be almost a gauze. The cap was probably known as a hod or healsted, whilst the veil was known as a scyfel, wimpel or orel. The fillet or ribbon was called a þwæle, nostle or snod.

Many wealthy female graves of the seventh and early eighth century have contained ornate necklaces, with many pendants, and often a central cross. Many of these involve the use of much gold and garnet or amethyst, although slightly less ornate versions use gold and silver wire rings around glass beads. These were almost certainly a symbol of rank, and were derived from the superhumeral, the broad, jewelled collar worn by women of the Byzantine court.

There is no evidence of women wearing underwear or leg coverings in this period.

Literary evidence suggests that Northumbrian costume and hair-styles in the eighth century differed from the fashions adopted elsewhere in England. In a letter written to King Æthelred of Northumbria in 793 Alcuin made the following comment:

“Consider the dress, the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people. Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the Pagans.”

The context from which this quotation is taken makes it clear that the ‘Pagans’ were in fact the Vikings, who had raided Lindisfarne earlier that same year. It seems that the extravagant fashions of dress and hair resembled the Pagan Germanic fashions of the Vikings, rather than the ‘Christian’ fashions of the Anglo-Saxons and Franks. It seems unlikely that the Northumbrians were actually copying the Vikings, rather that they had retained much of the older Germanic fashions rather than the newer continental ones. These similarities to ‘Pagan’ fashions had also been noted in 787 by the papal legate on a visit to the kingdom.

It is quite likely that the nominally Anglian population of Northumbria included many people of Celtic stock, and that they dressed like Britons rather than like the Anglo-Saxons of other kingdoms. (There was much similarity between early British costume and that of the Pagan Germans.) In a tenth century translation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Latin word pallium [cloak] is translated with the word bratt, a word of Celtic, not Germanic, origin. Remote from cross channel trade and the influence of the Frankish Empire, the Northumbrians were affected little by the costume changes which followed the conversion of other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This left them wearing a distinctly northern costume, more closely resembling the dress of their Viking enemies than their friendlier kinsmen in Wessex or their neighbours in the Carolingian Empire.


There does not seem to be any distinction made between men and women’s shoes at this time. Archaeological finds demonstrate that leather shoes were made by the turnshoe method, by which the sole and upper were joined together inside out, and then turned right side out. The typical shoe was ankle high, usually fastened by a triangular flap and toggle, but low ‘slippers’ are also known. Some shoes had a band of decorative stitching running from the ankle to the toe. Rawhide shoes also probably continued to be used.


With the advent of Christian fashions there is little to be said of womens’ appearance beyond their clothing - the elaborate hairstyles and jewellery of earlier times were no longer in evidence.

The Anglo-Saxon converts seem to have obeyed St. Paul’s dictum that men should have short hair. Men often wore longish beards, with or without moustaches, although many were clean-shaven or wore only a moustache or a sort of ‘goatee’ beard.


Most textiles were of wool, usually in a 2/2 twill, tabby weave or diamond twill, although some high class garments seem to have been made of a 2/1 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 and diamond twills only being used for the highest quality garments. Linen became a more widespread fabric as a linen-producing industry seems to have developed in the seventh century. Silks started to be imported into England at this time, but mainly in the form of thread rather than cloth. Most silk was reserved for ecclesiastical use, either for decorative embroidery or to be woven into clerical vestments. Single coloured cloths were used almost exclusively, although some garments were decorated with bands of embroidery. Dyed cloth seems to have been quite commonly used.


By the seventh century most of the earlier types of jewellery were no longer being made. Long brooches were completely replaced by circular brooches. Annular brooches remained popular, and were similar to the earlier examples. Seventh century disc brooches are often far more ornate than the earlier examples. They are often of gold, decorated with garnets set in cells (cloisons) of complicated shapes, often on concentric circles around a central boss. Panels of filigree decoration, and sometimes four subsidiary bosses, usually complete the ornamentation. Later seventh century examples often have the cloisons arranged in cruciform pattern, perhaps reflecting the increasing influence of Christianity. These cloisonné (or polychrome) brooches are most commonly found in south-eastern England, although they are also found in other areas. Seventh century brooches were generally worn singly, rather than in pairs, as in earlier times.

Small brooches, similar to a modern safety pin are also known, and seem to have been a seventh century innovation.

Decorative pins continued to be worn by wealthy women, both on the body and at the head. These pins are often found in pairs, sometimes linked with a chain. These pins are sometimes set with a garnet in their head.
Excavators of some seventh-century cemeteries have noted that buckles were particularly small , suggesting that belts were narrower than before, and became far less popular for women. In seventh-century Kent some particularly distinctive belts were worn. An innovation of the period was a buckle with an integral decorative plate which was unlike the usual triangular type (which also continued in use in the seventh century). The new style was rectangular and perforated, often with a cruciform pattern . A coloured girdle would show through the holes in the metal, in an effect not unlike that of the  polychrome brooches . A few gold buckles and belt plates are known with garnet cloisonné decoration, but these are generally associated with sword-belts from extremely rich burials such as Sutton Hoo and Taplow.
The festoons of beads suspended from the shoulder brooches had, like the brooches themselves, largely disappeared by the seventh-century. Often only a single bead, or a small group of three or four beads only, are found at the neck. Amber became less popular, whilst amethyst increased in use, as did beads of gold and silver.
The most striking feature of seventh-century necklaces, and one which was certainly a Frankish fashion and copied from Byzantine styles, was the use of
pendant bullae. Bullae of amethyst or garnet carbuncles, as well as other stones and all metal pendants have been found. The pendants can occur singly, or in simple arrangements, but in their most elaborate form are grouped into necklaces made of gold and silver wire.
Wire rings were sometimes worn in association with beads. The beads were either threaded onto the rings, or worn inside the rings, presumably hung across them on a string. The arrangement could vary in number from a single bead strung on one ring to an elaborate festoon of them. These ornaments possibly imitated the bullae worn by more prosperous women, although a woman who owned bullae could also wear the rings.
These necklaces were often worn with a central cross or cruciform pendant. The presence of the Christian symbol may have been a reason why the necklaces were tolerated when other grave goods were not. Women also continued to hang animals’ teeth, coins and bracteates on their necklaces.
Finger rings became less common in the seventh century, and arm-rings and bracelets are almost unknown.


At the end of the sixth-century the so called ‘Style I’ interlace was replaced by another style (imaginatively referred to as ‘Style II’ or ‘ribbon style’ ). The abstract forms of style I were replaced by an apparently simpler ornament based on the interlacing and interplay of the ribbon like bodies of animals and snakes. The aim was still to cover the ornamented surface with complicated animal and tendril ornament, but there was still no tendency towards realism, and symmetry was used or ignored at will.

Some of the native Celtic styles were also still employed in the seventh-century, particularly in the form of enamelled escutcheons for bowls.

From the beginning of the seventh-century, in addition to the art of the metalworker, we have new sources of artwork - manuscripts and sculpture. The Anglo-Saxon illuminators had three sources for their art. From Mediterranean illumination was borrowed the idea of naturalistic representation of the human figure, and certain other formulae of illumination, such as the use of arcading to contain the canon tables. From Ireland came elaborate illuminated capitals. From the native Anglo-Saxon art came the use of elaborate ribbon interlace and animal ornament, together with the idea of covering whole pages with ornament to produce the so-called ‘carpet pages.’

The origin of the Anglo-Saxon sculptural tradition is obscure, but it probably came to England with Christianity from the Mediterranean, primarily as an architectural embellishment. Towards the end of the seventh century an Anglo-Saxon sculptural innovation is seen for the first time - free standing stone crosses. In addition to naturalistic sculptures of figures such as the apostles, Christ and the Virgin, a new form of decoration appears - the ‘inhabited vine scroll’. This style was ultimately derived from Mediterranean originals, but was executed in a distinctive English style. When looking at the surviving sculpture from this time it should be remembered that originally it would have been painted in colours every bit as bright and garish as the surviving illuminated manuscripts.


At the end of the sixth century the English were still a Pagan people, worshipping the same gods as their Germanic ancestors. The only Christians were some of the remaining Britons, mostly monks, who followed the teachings of St. Columba and the Celtic Church, not the Roman Church followed by most of the rest of Europe.

If tradition is to be believed, when Gregory became Pope in 590 AD the idea of the conversion of the English had been on his mind for two decades. However, it was not until six years into his papacy that he was able to put his ideas into practice. The man who Gregory chose as leader of the mission to Britain was Augustine, the prior of his own monastery of St. Andrew on the Coelian Hill at Rome. At some point in southern Gaul the mission halted, the monks panicked at the thought of meeting a barbarous and heathen race whose language they did not know, and sent Augustine back to Rome to beg release. Instead, Gregory addressed a letter of encouragement to the monks, in which he stated that he had appointed Augustine to be their abbot, and proceeded to make the papal sanction behind the mission evident to all with whom it might come in contact. Henceforward the mission was assured of respect throughout Gaul, and early in 597 AD Augustine landed in Thanet with about forty companions.

However, even at this point, Æthelberht would have already been familiar with Christianity, as a Frankish bishop named Liudhard had accompanied queen Bertha to Britain, and Christian observances must have been followed within the king's household for at least nine years before Augustine's landing. Neither queen nor bishop seems to have made any attempt to explain their religious practices, and in AD597 Christianity was still a strange and sinister religion to the king himself. It is said that Æthelberht was so suspicious of ‘Christian sorcery’ that he would only meet Augustine and his companions under the open sky where magic would be less effective! The interview, which took place in Thanet, convinced him of their honesty, and although he refused to abandon his Pagan faith, he gave the monks a dwelling-place in Canterbury, supplied them with food, and allowed them to preach their religion. The first stage of their mission was completed a few years later when Æthelberht himself accepted Christianity. From him they received an appropriate seat and an endowment of land. The number of converts increased, and Augustine could start restoring old churches and building new ones. In the autumn of AD597, soon after his consecration as bishop in Gaul, Augustine sent two members of his mission, Laurentis the priest and Peter the monk, to Rome with an account of what had been achieved and a request for further instruction. Accounts from the time report that Augustine had baptised more than ten thousand converts by the Christmas day after his consecration. Despite this success it was not until the summer of 601 that Gregory replied. Also in the summer of 601 Laurentis and Peter returned to Britain as leaders of a second mission. By this time the ultimate conversion of Kent, the most civilised, and probably the most populous, of all the English kingdoms, seemed to be assured. In AD604 a second Kentish see was established in a church built by Æthelberht at Rochester, with Justus (a member of the recent mission) as bishop. The same year also marked the first, somewhat precarious, advance into territory beyond the sphere of Æthelberht’s direct rule with the founding of a church in honour of St. Paul in London, chief city of the East Saxons, where Mellitus (another member of the mission of 601) became bishop. This was achieved mainly because Æthelberht was overlord of the southern English and Saberht, king of the East Saxons, was his nephew. It was also around this time that the first English monastery, that of St. Peter and St. Paul at Canterbury, was founded. Despite all this success, one serious stumbling block that faced Augustine was the distrust of the Roman Church by the native British clergy who had little to do with each other. However, for nearly half a century after Augustine’s death, on the 26th May in an unknown year between AD604 and 609, the succession of St. Gregory’s disciples was maintained at Canterbury. Although there had been a fair degree of success in Kent, there was little sign of any expansion of the English church at first; Rædwald, king of the East Angles, was induced by Æthelberht to accept baptism, but none of his people followed him, and the ceremony led to nothing but the introduction of a Christian altar into one of his Pagan temples! The Kentish church itself almost failed after the death of its protector Æthelberht in AD616. Twenty years after Augustine’s landing the Kentish court was not yet wholly Christian. The new king, Eadbald, son of Æthelberht and Bertha, had never received baptism, and openly turned to heathen ways. In Essex little had been achieved beyond the conversion of King Saberht. On his death his three sons, still Pagans, drove Mellitus from their kingdom because he refused to give them the eucharistic bread which he used to give to their father! Mellitus, and Justus of Rochester, fled to Gaul, and according to tradition Laurentis of Canterbury would have followed them if it was not for a visitation from St. Peter. The story went that Eadbald was brought to accept Christianity by the archbishop’s account of his experience. Whatever the reason, the king was converted before long; Justus returned to Rochester and the church in Kent was once more secure under royal protection. There was no longer any danger of a reversion to Paganism in Kent. King Eadbald, who reigned until AD640, became a respectable Christian ruler. He ultimately married the daughter of a Frankish king, and was remembered as a benefactor of churches. Eorcenberht, his son, was the first English king to order the destruction of Pagan idols throughout his kingdom. In Essex the Pagan reaction was stronger. Mellitus never returned to London, and nearly forty years passed before another bishop could be consecrated for the East Saxons. However, when Laurentis died in 619, Mellitus succeeded him, and when he died in AD624, Justus was translated from Rochester to Canterbury. Three years later he was succeeded by Honorius, one of the last surviving members of Augustine’s original mission, who remained until AD652.

The Roman Church’s one other success in this time was the temporary conversion of Northumbria and Lindsey. In AD625, while Justus was archbishop, Edwin, king of the Northumbrians, married Æthelberg, daughter of Æthelberht of Kent. Edwin promised that his wife’s religion would be respected and that he would consider changing his own beliefs. Accordingly Paulinus, who had come to England with the mission of AD601, was consecrated bishop at Canterbury and sent north with Æthelberg, but it was many months before Edwin was brought to the point of baptism. After agreeing to be baptised it is said that Edwin summoned a council of ‘friends, princes and counsellors’, so that if they agreed they might all be baptised together. Paulinus then set out the elements of the Christian faith and it is said that Coifi, chief of the king’s Pagan priests, declared that for the first time he had learned the truth, and asked the king that temples and altars which had been honoured in the past should be burned immediately. Then, to defy the law that a priest must never bear arms or ride except on a mare, Coifi borrowed weapons and a stallion from the king, rode to Goodmanham, twelve miles from York, and in the presence of a crowd threw his spear into the building and called upon his companions to burn it. On the eve of Easter, AD627, Edwin was baptised at York in a wooden church dedicated to St. Peter, which he had built for the occasion. A rapid, but superficial, extension of Christianity followed in the North. Paulinus received a seat for his bishopric in York, where Edwin began to build a church for him which was still unfinished when the northern mission was interrupted in AD632 . Edwin fell at Hatfield on 12 October AD 632, Northumbria was devastated by Cadwallon and his Mercian allies, and Paulinus fled to Kent, where he received the vacant bishopric of Rochester. With his flight the church he had founded came to an end. The permanent establishment of Christianity in that region was the achievement of Celtic monks.

The fall of Christianity in Northumbria was balanced by its introduction into East Anglia. The initiative in this kingdom was taken by Sigeberht the king, who had lived in Gaul as an exile and had been baptised there. For help in the task of establishing a church he looked to Canterbury, and it was from Archbishop Honorius that he obtained a bishop - a Burgundian named Felix who had been consecrated in Gaul and had placed himself at the archbishop’s disposal for missionary work in England. Sigeberht gave Felix a seat in Dunwich for his bishopric, and the future of the East Anglian Church was secured when he founded a school. The church was further expanded by the arrival of an Irish monk named Fursa, who settled in a deserted fortress and founded a monastery.

While Felix was working in East Anglia another independent missionary was beginning the conversion of the West Saxons. Birinus, a bishop of Germanic stock, undertook his mission on the advice of Pope Honorius I, and came to Britain intending to preach in the midlands. Finding the West Saxons among whom he landed intensely heathen he remained with them and baptised their king Cynegils in AD635. King Oswald of Northumbria, who was about to marry a daughter of Cynegils, acted as his godfather, and the two kings jointly gave the city of Dorchester on Thames to Birinus as a seat for his bishopric. However, the baptism of Cynegils did not mean the conversion of the whole royal house of Wessex. His eldest son and grandson soon followed him, but Cenwalh, his second son and successor, was still a heathen in AD645 when Penda and the Mercians expelled him from Wessex. His ultimate conversion was due to the influence of his host, Anna, king of the East Angles. If an important member of the royal house delayed so long before accepting Christianity it is unlikely that Birinus secured any widespread conversion of the West Saxon people.

At the same time as the missions of Felix and Birinus Christianity was restored in the north by men who were indifferent, if not hostile, to the Roman Church. The overthrow of Cadwallon at the end of AD633 was followed by the re-establishment of the Northumbrian kingdom under Oswald, son of Æthelfrith of Bernicia. While Edwin was king, Oswald had lived in exile, and had received Christianity from the monks of Iona. As soon as he was secure in power Oswald sent to Iona for a bishop, and before the end of AD634 a company of monks under a leader named Aidan had reached Northumbria. They settled on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, and for nearly thirty years their monastery remained the seat of the only bishopric in Northumbria.

On many points of ecclesiastical order the Irish Church of Aidan differed from the prevailing custom of the Roman Church. It was distinguished by peculiarities of liturgy and ritual, and by an elaborate system of penitential discipline and much greater austerity than the Roman Church. In organisation it was monastic rather than territorial; the bishop’s function was ministerial, and authority rested with the abbot of the chief monastery in each tribe. The Irish method of consecrating bishops differed from continental practice, and its validity was questioned by ecclesiastics trained in other schools. The exact nature of the Irish tonsure is unknown, but it was clearly different from the Roman style, but above all, in the method of determining the date of Easter, the Irish Church was governed by principles which differed fundamentally from those accepted at Rome or in the English churches founded under Roman influence. During the reign of Oswiu, Oswald’s successor, a dispute over the computation of the Easter date divided the whole Northumbrian church, and the court took a personal interest in the outcome. King Oswiu favoured the custom followed at Iona when he had lived there as a youth in exile. His wife, who was a daughter of King Edwin, had been educated in Kent after her father’s death, and adhered to the system accepted by her teachers. In spite of these troubles, this period was marked by a notable expansion of Christianity south of the Humber through priests sent out by the Northumbrian Church. In 6AD53 Peada, on of King Penda of Mercia, then ruling the Middle Angles under his father, was baptised by Aidan’s successor, Finan, on his marriage to Ahlflæd, Oswiu’s daughter. Penda, secure in his own Paganism, allowed his son to introduce four priests into the territory under his rule, and they began the conversion of central England. Soon after Penda’s death in the autumn of AD664 Duima, the one Irishman of the four, was consecrated to a see which comprised Mercia, Middle Anglia and Lindsey, although it was many years before the bishops of this great diocese had a permanent seat. Duima, and his immediate successors, regarded Lindisfarne as the church to which they owed obedience, not Canterbury or Rome. The Northumbrian mission had hardly begun its work in central England when one of its members left it for a separate enterprise. Shortly after the middle of the century Sigeberht, king of Essex, was persuaded by Oswiu to receive baptism, and the restoration of Christianity among the East Saxons became possible. Oswiu recalled Cedd, one of the members of the Middle Anglian mission, to Northumbria, and then sent him and another priest to Essex. Cedd was of English birth, but was schooled in the Celtic Church. He had no fixed seat although one remarkable memorial of his work in Essex still survives - the church which he built in the Roman fort of Ythancæstir (Bradwell-on-Sea).

The history of the southern Church at this time is extremely obscure. Following the death of Honorius in AD652 a West Saxon named Deusdedit was appointed to Canterbury, but the most remarkable of the southern churchmen was the second bishop of the West Saxons - Agilbert. Agilbert was a Frank who had studied in southern Ireland under teachers following the Roman tradition, and had received Episcopal consecration in Gaul in preparation for work as a missionary in England! Towards the middle of the century he arrived in Wessex and attached himself to king Cenwalh, from whom he received the Episcopal seat originally given to Birinus at Dorchester on Thames, but in time the king ‘grew weary of his outlandish speech’, and ‘subintroduced’ into Wessex another bishop, named Wine, who was of English birth, but consecrated in Gaul. In or soon after AD660  the king set Wine as bishop of Winchester, whereupon Agilbert abandoned his see at Dorchester. Following his departure from Wessex he played an important part in settling the division in the Northumbrian Church. The strength of the Roman party in the north had grown during the middle part of the century. It was joined by Oswiu’s son Alhfrith, sub-king of Deira, under the influence of his friend Cenwalh of Wessex, who may have been arbitrary in his dealings with bishops, but was a firm supporter of Roman usages. Among the Northumbrian clergy a new generation was rising, without personal knowledge of the times before the arrival of Aidan, and conscious from early life of the dignity and ancient traditions of the Roman church. To these men the conservatism of Lindisfarne meant a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the clear teaching of scripture and history. The future of the Northumbrian church was to be in their hands, but they could do little to change its practices until this division had been settled by the king. He was slow to act. It was not until the autumn of AD663 that the questions in debate were at last referred to a synod. The assembly met at an important monastery of which an important kinswoman of King Oswiu, named Hild, was abbess. The men who answered the king’s summons represented every phase of the history of the Northumbrian church. They included James the Deacon (a survivor from the days of Paulinus), Cedd, bishop of the East Saxons, bishop Colman speaking for the Celtic party and bishop Agilbert representing the Roman party. The basic argument used by the Roman Church was that it was folly to resist the unique authority of St. Peter, inherited by his church, and obeyed by all Christians except a part of the inhabitants of the last two islands of the Ocean. The king’s decision, that ‘when given the choice between St. Columba and St. Peter he would obey St. Peter, to whom the keys of Heaven had been granted,’ is often regarded as the statement of a new conviction. After the decision, bishop Colman retired to Iona, and he was succeeded at Lindisfarne by Tuda, an adherent of the Roman party. Tuda died before the end of AD664, and the Large Northumbrian diocese was divided and for a while Lindisfarne ceased to be a bishop’s seat. A large district in western Deira was assigned as a diocese to Wilfred, whose church at Ripon became its Cathedral. The rest of Northumbria was placed under Ceadda, brother of Cedd, and his seat was fixed in York.

Although the Synod of Whitby concentrated on which strain of the Christian faith should be followed, it must be remembered that at this time England was still not wholly Christian. Apart from Sussex, where a heathen folk was incuriously watching a little community of Irish monks at Bosham, every English kingdom now contained the seat of a bishopric. In East Anglia, Northumbria and Wessex Christianity had been established at court and preached in the country for at least a generation, and the continuity in the church of Kent had never been broken since Augustine’s time. There is no doubt that at the time of the Synod of Whitby Christianity was the dominant religion throughout England, but it is equally certain that the older beliefs of the English people, though driven underground, were still alive.

The five years following the Synod of Whitby form the most critical period in the history of the Anglo-Saxon Church. Its ultimate unity had been made possible by King Oswiu’s decision, but the mere continuance of organised Christianity in England was uncertain. At the very time of the Synod, England, like much of western Europe, was being swept by a pestilence which removed many leaders from the clergy, depopulated whole monasteries, and produced a widespread reversion to Paganism. The East Saxons, whose bishop Cedd died in the plague, relapsed in a general panic. Individual bishops like Jaruman of Mercia laboured outside their own dioceses to prevent reversion to Paganism, and although few monasteries escaped the plague, most of them survived it. But the whole organisation of the Church in England was rapidly disintegrating in these years; it was becoming difficult to maintain an ordered succession of bishops, and the see of Canterbury itself was vacant.

The tradition of Augustine prevented Canterbury from becoming a mere local diocese, and in 667 King Oswiu of Northumbria and King Egbert of Kent selected Wighard, a priest of Deusdedit’s familia, for the post of archbishop. His first duty was to consecrate new bishops to the vacant sees, and to prevent any future questions as to his authority he travelled to Rome for consecration. However, when he reached Rome he died of plague with nearly all his companions. At that time the Papacy was passing through a time of grave depression; Pope Vitalian had been made to feel his subjection to the Eastern Emperor, and policy as well as the necessities of the English church indicated that the Pope himself should provide an archbishop for the English. Although several candidates were put forward, the eventual choice was an unlikely one. Theodore of Tarsus was sixty six years of age and had acquired his learning in the east, in an age when bitter theological controversies were separating the eastern from the western churches. Before he could go to England he needed to be schooled in Catholic doctrine so as not to introduce any Greek ‘perversities’ into the teaching of his church. He completed his training and left for England in 668, eventually arriving exactly one year after his departure from Rome. When he arrived in England there were only three bishops remaining in England. He quickly appointed three more bishops, and on 26 September 672 called an assembly. The canons proposed by Theodore secured the individual bishop against the invasion of his diocese by other bishops, empowered him to check the migration of his clergy, and ruled that his precedence should be determined by the date of his consecration. Monks were forbidden to leave their monasteries without the abbot’s permission, and bishops were forbidden to trouble monasteries. The method of determining Easter was defined, and it was agreed that a synod should be held each year on 1 August at a place called Clofeshoh (which has not yet been identified). The problems raised by the institution of Christian marriage among a half-converted people were covered by a canon forbidding incest, the abandonment of wives for any cause except adultery, and the remarriage of those who had so offended. There was general agreement on all these canons, but a proposal for the increase in the number of bishops was postponed for future discussion.

Over the next eight years Theodore took every opportunity to increase the number of Bishops in England. This opportunism is most clearly seen in the way he dealt with the Northumbrian situation, which led directly to the first appeal by an English ecclesiastic to the Pope. Wilfred, bishop of Deira ruled the Northumbrian church between 669 and 677. He was spiritual advisor to the queen, and his fall from power was a direct result of this relationship. He encouraged her to become a nun, thus incurring the ill will of King Ecgfrith who married a second wife who became a bitter enemy to Wilfred. The exact course of events is unclear, but Wilfred was ultimately deprived of his bishopric and his property and expelled from Northumbria. Theodore accepted the king’s decision, and proceeded to divide Wilfrid’s see into three new bishoprics.

In 677 Wilfred left England to state his case before the Pope. He was driven on to the Frisian coast by a storm, and spent the winter of 677 preaching to the Pagans of that region, and thus beginning the English missionary enterprise in the Germanic homelands. He spent most of 678 with Dagobert II, king of the Austrasian Franks, and Pectarit, king of the Lombards. On reaching Rome, he found Pope Agatho acquainted with the matter in dispute by letters from Theodore, and in October 679 a council of fifty-three bishops met at the Lateran for its settlement. Its decision was a compromise - that Wilfred should be restored to his see, that the bishops who had replaced him should be removed, and that with the advice of a local council he should choose others in their place, whom Archbishop Theodore should consecrate. In addition to a copy of the council’s decision he received a separate privilege from the Pope, confirming him in the possession of his monasteries at Hexham and Ripon. Wilfred’s case formed only part of the English business at the council - there was also a dispute between Theodore and the other bishops of England over Theodore’s policy of increasing the number of English bishoprics above twelve. The council appears to have agreed with the bishops and agreed that twelve were sufficient.

When Wilfred returned to England in 680 he brought his case before a Northumbrian council, producing his papal documents, but the council took no notice and ordered his arrest. After around nine months of imprisonment he left Northumbria, and travelled south and found refuge with Æthelwalh, the Christian king of the Pagan South Saxons. Within the next five years Wilfred and a band of his followers had converted the South Saxons, and Wilfred received an estate at Selsey which became the seat of the South Saxon bishopric. Towards the end of this time Æthelwalh was killed by the West Saxon exile Cædwalla. Wilfred then attached himself to Cædwalla, and on his conquest of the Isle of Wight in 686 received one quarter of the whole island from him. Its inhabitants were still Pagan, but before Wilfred could undertake their conversion it became possible for him to return to Northumbria. He entrusted his lands and responsibilities on the island to his nephew, Beornwine. In less than a generation the last of the Pagan English tribes had accepted Christianity.

Theodore had not intervened between Wilfred and his enemies in 680 (the papal judgement in Wilfred’s favour could not be carried out against the king’s will when that king was the only protector of the northern church.) Instead, Theodore had used Wilfred’s expulsion as a chance to further divide the Northumbrian sees, introducing two new bishoprics. On the other hand, Theodore cannot have been content with a settlement which involved the rejection of papal mandates and he sought a way to bring Wilfred honourably back into the North. The death of king Ecgfrith in 685 removed the bitterest of Wilfred’s enemies, and in 686 Theodore and Wilfred were reconciled at London in the presence of a company of bishops. The bishops that Theodore had appointed remained in place, but Wilfred’s original seat at Ripon was at that time vacant, so Wilfred took up that bishopric. When Theodore died in 690 the English church was at peace.

Theodore’s death was followed by a long vacancy in his see and it was not until 692 that it was filled by Berhtwald, abbot of Reculver. He introduced another new bishopric in Wessex and was able to gain many legal concessions for the Church, and was recognised as the ultimate arbiter for the whole English church. However, Berhtwald’s episcopate was not totally without its troubles. During the vacancy in the see of Canterbury Wilfred raised again his claim to the whole Northumbrian diocese. King Aldfrith was insistent that he should observe Theodore’s settlement of the Northumbrian church, and expelled him from Northumbria in 691. For the next eleven years Wilfred lived under the protection of Æthelred, king of Mercia, administering the whole Mercian diocese for a time, but eventually confining himself to the Middle Anglian provinces. Although he had a position of power and dignity within Mercia, he had not abandoned the hope of returning to Northumbria as bishop of York, and in 699 or 700 he brought his suit by proxy before Pope Sergius I. The Pope referred the matter to an English synod which was held in 702. It seems that Wilfred’s claim was resented by most of the English bishops, and their decision was to deprive him of all his property except Ripon, laying aside the office of a bishop.

Inevitably, he appealed once more to Rome and, excommunicated by his Northumbrian rivals, he and a small band of followers set out for Rome, followed by messengers from Archbishop Berhtwald carrying letters of accusation against him. After much wrangling, Wilfred, now more than seventy years old, was restored to his churches of Ripon and Hexham in 704. After four years of peace he died in 709 in his middle Anglian monastery of Oundle.
Early in 731 the death of Archbishop Berhtwald removed the last ecclesiastic of high rank who could remember the time of confusion before the coming of Theodore. He was succeeded by Tatwine, a Mercian abbot, who died in the summer of 734. In 735 Egbert, bishop of York, received an archbishop’s pallium from Pope Gregory III. The elevation of the see of York into an archbishopric destroyed the constitutional unity of the English church.

Text © 1998, Ben Levick.
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