c. 410 A.D. - 625 A.D.
Main:- Germanic Tribesman/Anglo-Saxon, Briton/Romano-Briton
Auxiliary:- Pict, Scot
Main:- Germanic Tribesman/Anglo-Saxon, Briton/Romano-Briton
Auxiliary:- Pict, Scot
The fifth to seventh centuries were some of the most turbulent of British history. This was the time when England was born, the time of Hengest, King Arthur, Beowulf, Rædwald of Sutton Hoo and the foundation of the English church.
Throughout the terms Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, English and British are generic. English, Saxon or Anglo-Saxon are used to describe peoples descended from the Germanic settlers who arrived in this country in the fifth- and sixth-centuries. The term British refers to the native population here before the Germanic invasions.
When the term Britain is used it is meant to apply to the whole of the British Isles whereas the term England is used to describe those areas settled by the Germanic peoples.
In 410 A.D. the Roman legions were recalled to Rome to defend it against barbarian attacks, and Britain was left to fend for itself. (The rulers of Britain after 410 are referred to as ‘tyrants’ because their authority had no legitimacy in Roman Eyes.) Having no armies left the British people were left open to attack from the Picts (probably by sea down the east coast, for the Picts are described in one Late Roman source as a sea-going people - just like the Saxons). With this situation we find the following:
‘449 In this year Mauricius and Valentinian obtained the Kingdom and reigned seven years. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, King of the Britons, came to Britain at a place called Ebbsfleet at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them. The king ordered them to fight against the Picts, and so they did and had victory wherever they came. They then sent to Angeln [i.e. Denmark]; ordered them to send them more aid and to be told of the worthlessness of the Britons and of the excellence of the land. They sent them more aid. These men came from three nations of Germany: from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, from the Jutes. From the Jutes came the people of Kent and the people of the Isle of Wight, that is the race which now dwells in the Isle of Wight, and the race among the West Saxons which is still called the race of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the East Saxons and South Saxons and West Saxons. From Angel, which has stood waste ever since between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians and all the Northumbrians.’
This account of the migrations from Germany, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and is how the later Anglo-Saxons saw the first arrival of their people. Since then, until quite recently, it has remained the accepted view of what happened. However, recent researches have shown it to be wrong in almost every detail It is even uncertain whether Hengest and Horsa existed, and if they did, whether they were actually the same person! - it seems most likely that the first Germanic king of Kent was Oisc, giving the Kentish royal house the name of the ‘Oiscingas’. Whilst it may be true that a British king (who may or may not have been called Vortigern) employed Germanic mercenaries to aid him in his battles against the Picts (or perhaps just another British king), it would certainly not be the first instance of Germanic settlers in this country. It is known that Germanic troops had been stationed in this country by the Romans since at least the third century - it is known that some of these troops settled in this country - and Germanic pirates were raiding Britain from at least this date too, so the ‘excellence of the land’ would have already been well known on the continent. The British ‘tyrants’ also feared a Roman invasion from Gaul to remove them, so some of the Saxons stationed in southern England may have been a guard against Roman military intervention - a far cry from the old view of the Britons missing the presence of the legions!. It is also known that the peoples who made up the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were far more varied than just the three groups mentioned. For ease of reference I will sometimes use the name ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to refer to those Germanic people who settled in Britain, even though this is not what they would have thought of themselves as at this stage. Certainly there were Jutes ( probably not from Jutland as many people think, but from the Frankish Rhineland), Saxons (from northern Germany) and Angles (from southern Denmark), and these may have formed the bulk of the migrating peoples, but there were also Frisians (from the Low Countries - the Frisian language shared in all the more important sound changes which distinguish English from German on one hand and the Scandinavian languages on the other), Geats (from Gotland and south-east Sweden), Franks (from northern France and central Germany), Wends (from the southern Baltic lands), Swedes, Norwegians, and many others. Even the totally violent nature of their arrival is now thought to be rather exaggerated. Whilst it is certainly true that the newcomers did fight against the Britons (or as the Invaders called them the wealas - an Old English word meaning slave or foreigner!) in many areas much of the settlement was peaceful with farmers and craftsmen integrating themselves into existing communities. The numbers of the invaders was certainly large, and they certainly did affect the nature of British society, even to the extent of replacing the primary language, but they did not wipe out the native population. One current school of thought is that the graves found in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries with no grave goods may in fact belong to Britons living along side ‘Anglo-Saxons’, and the lack of grave goods represents the different burial customs of the Britons. If this is so then the number of Germanic peoples may not have been as great as many people imagine, perhaps only replacing the middle and upper echelons of society. It is also thought that some of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ burials may actually be native Britons who adopted the ways of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, just as they had done several centuries earlier with the Romans. It is most likely that in fact a mixture of all these situations happened - in some places the native Britons were almost entirely replaced by the newcomers, in some places the two peoples lived side by side, and in other places the population remained almost exclusively British, although these British people gradually adopted the ways and language of the invaders.
Whatever the nature of the influx of Germanic peoples, we know that it did not happen overnight and that it was not entirely peaceful. Fifty years after the traditional arrival of Hengest and Horsa there was still fighting going on for control of the land. Some of this was between the Britons and the invaders - this was the time of Ambrosius Aurelianus (the King Arthur of legend), a Romano-British chieftain in south-west England - and some of the fighting was between different Germanic tribes each struggling for supremacy. Around the year 500 A.D. the Britons (probably under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus) won a great victory at Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) which halted the tide of Germanic invaders to such an extent that several continental sources show the Germanic expansion switched to northern Frankia (including Germanic peoples leaving England). It also seems to be at this time that many Britons left Britain for northern Gaul and turned the peninsula of Armorica into Brittany. For about half a century there was relative peace with British rule over the western half of the country and Germanic rule in the east, and it seems probable that the Britons may even have won back some parts of central England from the invaders (a fact the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles seem to gloss over!) By the middle of the fifth century the Germans started a second wave of colonisation that ended with most of lowland Britain under the control of many Germanic ‘kings’ (most of the later kingdoms were founded at this time) and the British culture relegated to the western fringes of the country in Dumnonia ( Devon and Cornwall) and Wales (the name of which is derived from the word wealas mentioned above); in the north there was the British kingdom of Strathclyde and the independent British kingdom of Elmet which stretched westwards for many miles from the marshes at the head of the Humber, and separated the Angles of the northern Midlands from those of the plain of York. This division led to the fact that the occasional king who managed to gain supremacy over the other tribes (Old English Bretwalda) became known as ‘King of all England South of the Humber’. The first of these was Ælle, king of Sussex from 477 AD, the second was Ceawlin, king of Wessex from 560 AD. It is also why the Germanic peoples living north of the Humber are recorded as the Nordanhymbroron gens, or Northumbrians, whilst the Germanic peoples living between the Humber and the Channel are referred to as Sutangli, or southern English (the earliest case of the North/South divide?) The Northumbrian Angles were divided into two main tribes - the Dere (Deirans) and Bernice (Bernicians). The southern English comprised the Lindisfaran (Kingdom of Lindsey - which may have been founded as a combined British/Germanic kingdom several decades before the traditional Germanic invasion), the Mierce (Mercians), the Eastengle (East Angles), the Eastseaxe (Essex), the West Seaxe (Wessex), the Suthseaxe (Sussex), the Middelseaxan (Middlesex), the Cantware (Men of Kent), Wihtland (people of the Isle of Wight), Hwicce (Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and western Warwickshire) and a loose confederation of small tribes known as the Middle Angles in central England.
The Germanic peoples who, in the days of the Roman Empire, had occupied territory stretching from Scandinavia to the Danube, from Gaul to beyond the Vistula, shared a common heritage. Although similar in many ways to the Celtic peoples, their culture was distinctly different. For example they spoke various dialects of a Germanic language (not the Gallic language of the Celts) and they worshipped the Northern, not the Roman or Celtic, gods. The war-oriented, Teutonic lifestyle had become traditional amongst the tribes. They shared, according to Tacitus, a veneration for the prophetic powers of women and a predilection for feasting and drinking. These traditional features of Teutonic culture were transmitted to their descendants by the Germans who settled in Britain. They were celebrated by Anglo-Saxons to such an extent that we can find the ancient themes in literary works composed as late as the tenth century A.D., long after the disappearance of a tribal society.
Various German peoples demonstrably retained features in common although they were settled over a wide geographical area and long period of time, and nourished their ‘barbarian’ culture despite the proximity of the Roman Empire. This lack of change is useful to us when studying the early Germanic Immigrants, since their illiteracy for a century and a half after settlement inevitably leaves a gap in the British historical record, a gap that can be filled, at least partially, by written accounts from outside observers (Tacitus’ Germania gives us many details of life amongst the Germanic tribes, as do other classical texts).
It appears that when the Romans left Britain many of the native population returned to their pre-Roman patterns of settlement, with tribal society again becoming the norm. It seems that some people remained in the towns and cities, but most returned to the countryside, with its hill-forts, perhaps in response to the increased raids of the Germanic peoples and the struggle for supremacy of native chieftains. Some of the chieftains styled themselves as kings in the old manner, whilst others took the Roman title of Ducis or Duke. Lower down the social scale things seem to have continued in the pre-Roman manner, although now the chieftains were advised by priests rather than druids.
The invading Germanic peoples were also tribal. At the head of each tribe was a king (who usually claimed direct descent from Woden himself), responsible for the well-being of his tribe or folc. He upheld the law, led his tribe’s warriors in battle and tried to achieve glory for his tribe. Any member of the royal family had the right to become king if he had the popular support of the tribe, or at least its warriors, and succession of father to son was rare. Some powerful kings had other kings who were subordinate to them, and, on occasion one king rose above all the other kings to become Bretwalda, the king of all the English (south of the Humber). Below the king were two classes of men, the gesið and the ceorl. Both owed direct loyalty and service to the king, but in different roles. The ceorl was a free, independent person with many rights. He was the head of a family and entitled to compensation for breach of his household peace, for misconduct with his maidservant, for the slaughter of one of his ‘loaf-eaters’ (dependants). If he himself were killed, his slayer must pay a weregild (compensation) to his kin, and half the amount to the king, but there was no intermediate lord. He was required to join with others of his class in supporting the king and his warriors by contribution to a feorm, or food rent, but he is clearly the independent master of a peasant household. He was also expect to bear arms in protection of the tribes land, but was not a full time warrior. A ceorl’s weregild was 200 shillings (1,000 silver pennies), except in Kent where he was worth 100 golden shillings (2,000 silver pennies). In every part of England (except Kent) the unit of land-division was the tenement of a normal peasant, the holding which supported a ceorl and his household - the hid (hide) or hiwisc. The size of a hide was not fixed, but was generally considered to be enough land to support one household for a year. The Kentish scheme of land-division, unique in England, has many points of contact with the agrarian system of the Rhineland. Its basis was a unit of cultivation known as the sulung, a term derived from the Old English suhl (plough) and meaning simply ploughland and was the area that a team of eight oxen could plough in a year. In acreage the sulung was far larger than the hide (probably about 240 acres), another example of the wealth of Kent at this time.
Everywhere in the Germanic world the ruler, whether king or chief, was attended by a body-guard of well-born companions. These men were the nobles, the gesið. The gesiðas were warriors, but they were also the king’s friends and advisors and lived with him in his hall. It was the personal reputation of a king which attracted retainers to his court, and it was the king’s military household around which all early fighting centred. The most admired virtue of an early king was generosity to his followers, usually in the form of gold, silver, armour and weapons, and, on occasion with land. The sanctity of the bond between lord and man, the duty of defending and avenging a lord and the disgrace of surviving him were the mainstay of much of early verse. The inclusion of foreign warriors among the king’s companions and the presence of hostages from other kingdoms in his court went far to cement the great Germanic confederations of early times. The weregild of a gesið was 1,200 shillings (6,000 silver pennies) throughout England, although in Kent the name used for this rank was eorl or eorlcund man.
In general, wealas (native Britons) living amongst the English had only half the weregild of their English counterparts. Right at the bottom of the social scale were the þeows, or slaves, usually people captured in war. Slaves were considered as livestock, but like any valuable livestock would have been treated well. The compensation paid for killing a slave was only 50 shillings (250 silver pennies). There were many slaves in Anglo-Saxon England, and there is little doubt that most ceorls were slave owners. It is unclear exactly where priests fitted into the social set-up, but they would seem to have held a rank comparable to the gesiðas.
Clothing and Appearance
Clothing amongst the Britons would have remained essentially late-Roman in character, although some of the pre-Roman styles may also have still been worn.
We have very little direct evidence of the clothing of the early ‘Anglo-Saxons’, as the surviving textiles are only fragmentary (usually in a mineralised form on metal artefacts) and there is little or no pictorial or literary evidence from this country. Fortunately we do have records of the continental Germanic peoples, both from surviving garments and late Roman pictorial and literary representations. The link between the early ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and their continental relatives can easily be shown from the high degree of similarity between burials, pottery, etc..
Continental evidence indicates that a short cloak or cape, made of skin or fur (usually sheepskin), was an important feature of Germanic men’s costume. Caesar and Tacitus mention this garment as being sometimes the only garment worn, and Iron Age finds from Danish peat bogs would seem to confirm their observations (although it is considered unlikely that the early ‘Anglo-Saxons’ would have gone naked except for a cloak). They seem to have been worn fur side inwards, skin side outwards and were secured by lacing, sewing, tying, or by securing wooden or leather toggles through loops of leather (i.e. they did not require pins or brooches). Cloth cloaks, short or knee length, were also common. These cloaks were not tailored, but consisted of a square or rectangle of cloth which was clasped at one shoulder, usually the right. Cloaks would be woven in one piece on an upright loom, and often, to begin and end the weaving, tablet woven borders would be used. Similar borders could also be woven in at the sides, thus edging the garment right round. Particularly noteworthy are the large and luxurious cloaks found in the peat bogs of Thorsbjerg, Denmark and Vehenmoor, Germany. Both were of a complex weave and dyed with precious dyes in different colours. The edges of the Thorsbjerg garment were braided on more than one hundred tablets, the Vehenmoor on about one hundred and forty six, and both had elaborate fringes. The Thorsbjerg garment was about 66’’ (1.68m) wide and 93’’ (2.36m) long, the Vehenmoor 69’’ (1.75m) by about 112’’ (2.85m). They were worn by folding the material lengthways, and pinning it on the right shoulder. It is very probable that the richest Anglo-Saxons wore voluminous cloaks of this kind; less luxurious versions would also have been common. They are versatile and practical since unpinning and unfolding them turns them into blankets.
Another type of cloak in use by the Germanic peoples was a poncho type garment with a central hole for the head. There are no representations of a man’s poncho in Anglo-Saxon art (although some women in late Anglo-Saxon England seem to have worn a poncho like garment) and no direct evidence it was worn in Anglo-Saxon England, but it is certainly a type of garment that might be known, if uncommon. Another type of outer garment possibly worn by the early Germanic settlers is the hooded robe, known to modern scholars as the ‘Gallic coat’. It seems likely that cloaks could be made from skin or textile and could vary in size from small capes to large voluminous cloaks of the Thorsbjerg/Vehenmoor type. There are many Old English words for these outer garments - both sexes could wear the hacele (a cloak which might be hooded), the mentel and the sciccels (which could be made of fur). Men wore the fur crusene and heden (which could be hooded) and the rocc (which could be made of fur or skin). The ofer-slop was worn by men, so was the loða (which could be made of shaggy fabric and used as a coverlet as well as a cloak). There is no evidence to which sex wore the rift (a cloak or curtain) and the sciccing.
We can be fairly certain the Germanic settlers wore trousers - the wearing of trousers had long distinguished the ‘barbarians’ from the Greeks and Romans (although the Romans eventually adopted the wearing of trousers too!). They were sometimes worn beneath a tunic and sometimes worn only with a cloak, and were fastened around the waist with a belt. Pictorial representations often show them to be rather loose; the slack material was gathered round the waist and it hung in folds around the legs. However, the examples known from archaeology are all much more closely fitting, more akin to the tight fitting leg coverings shown in later Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, so it seems that whether the trousers were tight or loose was largely a matter of personal choice or tribal tradition. Trousers at this time all seem to have been ankle length, with the shorter trousers only remaining as undergarments. Some high quality trousers seem to have had feet and belt loops in them, others did not. Some examples have slits at the ankles to allow for the narrowness of the trousers. Trousers were referred to as brec (short trousers) and braccas (breeches or long trousers).
Trousers were bound to the legs by leggings or garters, several of which have been found in continental excavations. Two types are known from linguistic evidence which correspond well with the archaeological finds. First a legging proper, or stocking, made of woven fabric or leather; second a strip of fabric which could be used to tie on the leggings or confining the loose folds of the trousers (as well as covering up the ankle slit), or which could be wound around the shin and foot for warmth and protection, much like ‘puttees’ and probably known as strapulas or winingas. Also known from archaeology are rectangles of cloth wound around the lower leg and tied in place with strings or ribbons. These may well be the gaiter like garment known as hosa, in which case the ribbons would be the hose-bend or wining known from linguistic sources. These may also have been made of leather since we know of the word leder-hosa. However, it is also likely that the word hosa could also be used for the stocking like garment (especially when considering their similarity to the later medieval leg coverings known as ‘hose’), in which case the hose-bend and wining could refer to the garter holding them up. A few Anglo-Saxon men may have been in the habit of carrying their knives or tools stuck into their leggings since a few small knives and tools have been found at the lower legs of skeletons in Anglo-Saxon graves.
Most men also wore a tunic, girdled at the waist and usually with long sleeves. These tunics are usually mid-thigh to knee length. On the excavated examples these sleeves are usually long enough to be folded back in to a cuff (as on some Celtic tunics) or pushed back from the wrist in folds (as in later Anglo-Saxon examples), and often have the last few inches of the sleeve seams left open at the wrist to allow the hands to pass through (there are no examples of wrist clasps from male graves, so the slits may have been closed by tying, or left open). Some of these tunics also have the last few inches of the side seam left unjoined, to allow for easier movement.
The neck openings on these early tunics were just slits or oval openings. Tunics were often decorated with tablet woven borders, but the ornate decoration of tunics like those of the late Roman type appears not to have been used. Tunics at this time appear to have been known by the names cyrtel (probably the shorter type of tunic) and pad. It also seems that some men, possibly only the rich, wore a linen undershirt (at this time most linen was probably imported from mainland Europe and/or Ireland). This would be similar to the overtunic (it is uncertain whether it would be worn outside the trousers or tucked into them), but made of undecorated linen. Words for this garment include cemes, ham, hemeþe, serc and smoc.
Belts were worn both to hold up the trousers and to girdle the tunic. Most belts were of leather and were fastened by buckles, although woven girdles could also be worn. Most belts were utilitarian items and were often used to hang items of equipment from, although some belt ornaments are known. Not all belts were fastened by buckles, many would have been ‘tie-belts’ where one end of the leather belt is tied through a loop in the other end (a belt of this type was found on the body of the ‘Tollund Man’ in Denmark. It is likely that a plain belt (perhaps only a tie-belt) was used to support the trousers (where it would not be seen) whilst a more decorative belt was used over the tunic (where it would be more visible). Items like knives and pouches probably hung from the trouser belt rather than the tunic belt. A few elaborate belts of the late Roman military type were still used, although most were plain, narrow (1.25” and less) leather belts. Belts were known by the Old English words belt or fetel. Leather pouches known as fetels (to carry fire starting materials, not money) were also sometimes worn on the belt, and could often have a fire-steel attached to the front. Continental evidence suggests that these would be worn at the back of the belt. Headgear is almost unknown in this country at this time, although there are rare examples on the continent. Probably hooded cloaks, or the versatile rectangular cloak pulled over the head, provided protection against bad weather. The words hæt and hufe may have been applied to men’s headgear, and the word hod probably signified a hood.
Women’s costume in this period is a lot easier to reconstruct than men’s, since it seems to have involved much jewellery which helps determine the whole costume’s appearance. There are consistent features of all early Anglo-Saxon women’s costume, although there are also several regional variations. These are usually referred to as the Anglian, Saxon and Kentish or Jutish styles (and certainly their distribution coincides with Bede’s description of which people settled where. The basic item of clothing was a ‘peplos’ dress. This is usually a tubular garment (although it can be just a rectangle of cloth) clasped at the shoulders by a pair of brooches, leaving the arms uncovered. This type of garment has been worn by women in countless cultures from the earliest times and was clearly a feature of Germanic costume for many centuries. Excavated examples vary in size from 54” (1.37m) to 66” (1.68m) in height and 94” (2.40m) to 106” (2.68m) in circumference. It is interesting to note that these measurements correspond closely to the measurements of the two cloaks mentioned above, so the cloaks could have been worn as open sided peplos dresses (it also gives us a clue as to the size and type of loom in use). The height of these dresses would mean that the top of the dress would have to be folded over into a cape and/or the dress would have to be heavily bloused over a girdle, both features seen in continental pictorial representations. There are numerous ways of wearing a peplos dress, involving anything from one to three brooches, although two is definitely the most common number. It seems the early Germanic settlers were fond of a symmetrical look and most of the pairs of brooches are identical, or at least very similar. The girdle is usually worn around the waist or hips, although at least one source shows the women wearing the gown pulled in just below the breasts, then hanging loose, an arrangement which may have been comfortable during early pregnancy. The folds of the gown usually conceal the belt, but a few sources show a second visible belt. This garment was usually worn ankle length, although, if worn over an underdress, it may sometimes have been worn calf length. These garments were often edged with tablet weave, at least at the top edge, and probably sometimes also at the bottom. The style of brooches worn seem to form a regional pattern: quoit brooches were worn only south of the Thames and, like the equal armed brooch, were known only in the earliest period. Radiate headed brooches, bird-shaped brooches and inlaid brooches were largely characteristic of Kent. Cruciform brooches were particularly popular in Anglian areas; annular brooches were especially favoured by the Northumbrian Angles. Saucer brooches were most popular in Saxon areas, as were disc brooches. Long brooches, in all their forms seem to have been fairly universal. (For more details on these terms see the jewellery section.) Some poorer female graves have lacked the pairs of shoulder brooches, and it is probable that in these cases the two edges were sewn together, rather than pinned with brooches. Peplos gowns were usually made of wool, although a few were made of linen. We do not know what name was given to this garment, although slop and wealca are the most likely.
In warm weather the peplos gown would have been worn on its own, but in cold weather, or on special occasions, an underdress would have been worn. The style of this seems to have varied, in some cases perhaps only being a bodice, and in others being a full length ‘gown’. The sleeves also seem to have varied in length from almost non-existent to full length. The main types seem to be: a bodice with long, tight sleeves with an aperture at the front closed by a brooch, with the peplos fastened to this by another central brooch. (There may have also been a full length version of this garment, or it may have been worn with a ‘petticoat’. [see below]) This style is most often represented in Anglian areas, where wrist clasps were used to fasten the sleeves (this is a custom which seems to be exclusive to Anglian women), although
a version without the wrist clasps may well have been worn in other areas. Another type would be a full length sleeveless, or short sleeved, underdress (perhaps pleated like later Scandinavian examples), similar to the man’s tunic and reaching to somewhere between the knee and ankle. This garment seems to be more typical of the Saxon woman, although it may have been worn under, and in addition to, the bodice mentioned above. Finally, there is some continental pictorial evidence to suggest that a long ‘petticoat’ may have been worn under the peplos. This would probably have taken the form of a cylinder of cloth worn around the waist or hips, drawn tight with a drawstring around the top edge. These undergarments would usually have been of linen or fine wool. There are several Old English words for undergarments but it is unclear which of them refer to women’s garments. The words are cemes, ham, hemeþe, scyrte, serc and smoc.
Women’s costume in Kent, where settlement seems to have been mainly by Jutes and Frisians from the Frankish areas, seems to have been different from the Germanic norm, at least amongst the upper classes. Apart from the gold brocaded fillets mentioned above (which may have been restricted to those of royal birth), it appears they may also have worn an open fronted robe, fastened with brooches at the chest and/or waist over, or in place of, the peplos gown. It seems that a pair of brooches may also have sometimes been used to pin the two sides of the robe open, revealing the garment beneath. From the lowest brooch a silver caged crystal ball, often with a perforated silver spoon, would hang, in addition to the items normally found hanging from the belt. The exact purpose of this ball and spoon is uncertain, and it is usually ascribed ritual significance. A buckled belt and abundance of jewellery are also common features of Kentish costume. The veil was also a common part of Kentish costume, and it is very likely to have covered the ears since ear-rings have been found, but worn on necklaces rather than in the ears. This style of head-dress may have come from the continent, where Christianity was influencing dress and lifestyle. This costume is more typical of Frankish than English styles, and has its ultimate source in Byzantium. The strong Frankish influence is probably caused by a combination of the Kentish Jutes Frankish origin and their closeness to the Frankish Empire. However, differences between the Kentish and Frankish costumes show that Kentish costume was not a slavish following of Frankish fashion, just that a number of Frankish, ultimately Byzantine, trends influenced Kentish women in the upper strata of society.
Shoes would generally be round-toed, flat soled and reach to the ankle or just below. Probably sandals of the Iron Age and late Roman type were still being used, although enclosed shoes of one piece construction seem to make their first appearance in this period. Shoes were stitched or laced together with leather thongs, not nailed as with some Roman examples. Shoes would be of leather or rawhide. There are many words for footwear, some of which seem to describe a particular type, but it is now unclear exactly which words represent which type of footwear. These words include scoh (‘shoe’, a low ankle-boot, shoe or slipper), swiftlere (a rawhide shoe), hemming, rifeling, the bag-like socc and a thonged sandal called a crinc (perhaps similar to the open topped Iron Age footwear). As far as we know these shoe types could be worn by either sex.
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