Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Making of a Nation: England

By Annette Burkitt

The pre-conquest period in England is a largely unknown and misunderstood period for the general reader. It hardly figures in educational settings below the undergraduate. It is associated with generalised themes of horned helmets, blood and gore; its kings with unpronounceable names and unknown characters. Can a writer put this right? It takes significant research and an academic approach to unlock the surprisingly large amount of surviving information to reach the treasure trove that is Anglo-Saxon history.

Mercia and Wessex became the dominant later kingdoms of the established Saxons. Their political interplay shaped the development of the nation. By the mid-10th century Wessex kings were calling themselves kings of all Britain, ‘rex totius Britanniae’. How did this come about? And what became of the British inhabitants of Dumnonia, the kingdom of the ‘Celtic’ south-west? Looking in detail at the local landscape can help to answer this puzzle of hidden history.

Our understanding of the early years of the development of England suffers from the survival of few contemporary documentary sources, but settlement and events can be recognised and surmised through the archaeological record and from some well-known writings, notably by Gildas (6th century), Bede (8th century) and Nennius (9th century). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Welsh Annals provide a framework for these and later years. A synthesis of research involving, in addition to original and secondary sources and archaeology, landscape studies, folklore, beliefs and place-names can give meat on the bones of this otherwise poorly recorded period of English history. Thankfully, later medieval writers, such as William of Malmesbury (12th century) were able to refer to or make copies of records of earlier times, which have fed the modern historian’s understanding.

By the 10th century, Wessex, the last surviving Saxon kingdom after the Viking assaults of the late 9th century, stood out as the pre-eminent Saxon kingdom, with Winchester in Hampshire as its capital. The ancestor of King Alfred, Ecgberht, set the stage in the 9th century for the rise of the Wessex dynasty. By Athelstan’s reign in the second quarter of the 10th century, Alfred’s bloodline and his vision of a united England had become a reality. Wessex stretched across the whole of the south of Britain. Mercia, in the midlands, acquiesced to its dominance, somewhat unwillingly. Northumbria fluctuated in its loyalty to Wessex, disturbed by insurrection from the Scots, Irish Norse and Cumbrians. The mid-10th century inheritors of Alfred’s vision, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig and Edgar enjoyed the fruit of the earlier battles against Wessex’s enemies by Edward, Alfred’s son and his grandson Athelstan.

Author's drawing of a coin of Athelstan

They gathered troops, held witans (parliaments), hunted and practised diplomacy at star-studded palaces throughout southern and midland England, travelling from palace to palace, requiring the presence of archbishops, bishops and ministers, as well their individual retinues. The English were known on the continent for their rich apparel, their willingness to entertain foreigners, diplomatic or learned, their ordered and well controlled civic life, their system of justice and particularly their wealth, in treasure as well as enviable relics. The Church was well connected with the most notable monasteries in Europe and encouraged by Popes and kings in its bold attempts to sustain a balance between civic and religious life, to the benefit of all. Naturally, the royal family of Wessex had close involvement with its chief protagonists, Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald.

One of the many palaces to which the Wessex kings travelled was Frome on the eastern border of Somerset, UK, from which a charter was published in December 934 AD. We know from this charter that King Athelstan attended a witan, in what would have been a palace building in Frome, for the Christmas court. He had led a campaign in Scotland in the previous summer which attempted to unite all English and British kingdoms under his rule. He is considered by many to be the first Saxon king to rule a united state of England.

Author's drawing of 1st-2nd century brooch, a
souvenir for visitors to a local Romano-British Shrine
The Frome area, now on the border between the counties of Somerset and Wiltshire, had been on the eastern frontier of Dumnonia with Wessex. The barrier forest of Selwood had assisted the British kingdom to remain independent for 200 years after the significant battle of Badon (c.517 AD), identified by some as Bath, not far from Frome, which the British won. The Saxons, newly Christianised, swept westwards in the late 7th century. The Celtic Christian British of Dumnonia were allowed to live on, as second-class citizens, as shown by Alfred’s laws. After 720 AD, when Taunton in the west of Somerset was captured and the last Dumnonian king, Geraint, was killed (probably at Langport), the Britons gradually disappear from historical view, absorbed by inter-marriage, slavery or becoming peasantry. Their language, however, remains, fossilised, in some place-names, for instance in Bath (Bathon). The hilly landscape around Frome, dotted with prehistoric and later burials, forts and temples, on the Wiltshire and Somerset border, retains traces of their long-established presence in place-names associated with pre-Christian belief systems and Christian saints. Somerset retains many town names associated with the post-Roman wave of Welsh Celtic Christian missionaries of the 5th and 6th centuries, for instance Lantocai, in Street near Glastonbury, Lan referring to the church of a Welsh saint.

Author's drawing of one of the carvings from the Saxon cross shaft sculptures, St John's, Frome

In 934 AD Frome was already a place of significance in Wessex. As a religious missionary centre with church (St John’s) and monastery, it had been established more than two centuries before by Aldhelm, a close contact of King Ine. In addition to Athelstan’s visit, King Eadred died in Frome in 955 AD, probably being nursed for his long-standing stomach ailment by monks. The palace and monastery buildings are long gone and the only trace of Saxon archaeology to be seen in Frome today is two stone cross shaft sculptures which have been incorporated into an inner wall of the restored parish church.

Author's drawing of another of the carvings from the Saxon cross shaft sculptures

The town was, with Amesbury and Cheddar, one of the favourite places of Athelstan, who relished hunting. The forest of Selwood would have been ideal for his needs. In 934 AD, 15 bishops, as well as both Archbishops, the kings Athelstan and Hywel Dda (the Good) of Wales, plus 25 ministers stayed here. By the early 11th century Frome was important enough to have its own mint and was still owned by the Saxon kings at Domesday in 1086, but by then the monastery was no longer in existence, perhaps destroyed in the early 11th century by the invasion of Sweyn Forkbeard and his son, Canute, who were active in the south-central England.

Author's drawing of St John's, Frome, as it is today

The physical layout of the land and the doings of kings and bishops can be seen, but what about women and ordinary people and their thoughts?

The bare skeleton of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, together with the hagiographies, contemporary accounts and accounts by later historians give a flavour of the early medieval period in England, especially of the delicate balancing act of Church and State. During the tenth century, a massive religious movement, a reformation, was underway. This was a successful, organised attempt to enforce the stricter forms of Roman Catholicism, led by powerful bishops, notably Dunstan and Aethelwold, a process which was brought to an end in the 16th century by Henry VIII and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. How and why the growing tenth century mindset of pilgrimage, relics, miracles, saints and their related monetary indulgences, along with the concept of Purgatory, came to be preeminent in the lives of all social strata of the tenth and later centuries are fruitful areas for the interested writer. We can follow the birth of the Benedictine reform movement in the Lives of Saint Dunstan and Aethelwold, who determinedly navigated their way, at many times thwarted by kings, through many years and many reigns. They both enjoyed long, active lives. They were often assisted by the women of the Wessex court, particularly Eadgifu, the wife of Edward, mother to kings Eadmund and Eadred and grandmother to two more kings, Eadwig and Edgar.

Public Domain image of Eadgifu in Canterbury Cathedral

Historians and writers may guess at the struggles of power between the tough-minded Church leaders and their equally hard-nosed secular rivals in the Wessex dynasty. As in any age, jealousy, espionage, murder, bigotry, bribery, greed and a contradictory wish to be seen to be altruistic and to save one’s soul must have been rampant then, as now. A deeply-held belief by the lower orders in the efficacy of relics to maintain health, win wars and quell devils, threads through the imaginative mind of the age like the serpents on stone cross-shafts. Thegns, freemen and slaves would all have been subject to the delights and terrors of the 10th century vision of Heaven and Hell.

The palaces of the Saxon kings are long gone, like the homes and habitations of the Britons before them. The early English kings hardly figure in history books. Their names are forgotten, too difficult to say, their achievements unheeded. The Church, through its two reformations, won the battle of longevity. The everyday struggle for power and dominance, the survival of the fittest, peeps through in the landscape and historical record. Look at the detail nearby and one can find clues to a nation’s progression – and demise. The cultural palimpsest of peoples of the south-west, the landscape’s hidden history, lies waiting to be unlocked, by the imaginative and informed writer, as well as the academic. There is a key to the British and English pre-conquest past with its rich potential, if you know where and how to look.


Annette Burkitt grew up and lives in Frome, Somerset, UK. She has a degree in archaeology and geography. It has been her life’s interest to understand the landscape around her and to consider the palimpsest of history and archaeology of the people living here in the past. She also paints and has illustrated her first  book, ‘Flesh and Bones of Frome Selwood and Wessex’, published in December 2017 by local history publisher, Hobnob Press, which tells the story of King Athelstan and the landscape features of eastern Dumnonia. Sequels are underway, flowing events and characters of the tenth century, set largely in Wessex.

You can find her on Twitter (@annetteburkitt), Instagram and Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. Who Knew:)...thanks for posting... I have reposted on all social media links.cheers...john


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.