The Anglo-Saxon World

The Anglo-Saxon World

by Nicholas Higham, M. J. Ryan

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The Anglo-Saxon period, stretching from the fifth to the late eleventh century, begins with the Roman retreat from the Western world and ends with the Norman takeover of England. Between these epochal events, many of the contours and patterns of English life that would endure for the next millennium were shaped. In this authoritative work, N. J. Higham and M. J. Ryan reexamine Anglo-Saxon England in the light of new research in disciplines as wide ranging as historical genetics, paleobotany, archaeology, literary studies, art history, and numismatics. The result is the definitive introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world, enhanced with a rich array of photographs, maps, genealogies, and other illustrations. The Anglo-Saxon period witnessed the birth of the English people, the establishment of Christianity, and the development of the English language. With an extraordinary cast of characters (Alfred the Great, the Venerable Bede, King Cnut), a long list of artistic and cultural achievements (Beowulf, the Sutton Hoo ship-burial finds, the Bayeux Tapestry), and multiple dramatic events (the Viking invasions, the Battle of Hastings), the Anglo-Saxon era lays legitimate claim to having been one of the most important in Western history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300195378
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 07/30/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 738,737
File size: 76 MB
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About the Author

N. J. Higham is professor emeritus, School of Arts, University of Manchester. He lives in Cheshire, UK. M. J. Ryan is lecturer in early medieval history, School of Arts, University of Manchester. He lives in West Sussex, UK.

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Copyright © 2013 Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-12534-4



Britain in and out of the Roman Empire


The Venerable Bede opened his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in ad 731, with the Roman conquest of Britain. Without the benefit of archaeological scholarship, Bede knew far less than we do about Roman Britain, but he had access to many of the same literary texts and the landscape with which he was familiar was scattered with Roman-period ruins in ways that we can only imagine. Close to Bede's own monastery at Jarrow just south of the River Tyne, Hadrian's Wall loomed large, with its attendant vallum, road, forts and milecastles. He knew it well. And when he visited York he would have seen the massive fortress walls and great buildings within, some still even roofed, towering over the bishop's church. The masoned stones from which the great monastic churches were built came from Roman ruins, such as the bridge abutment at Corbridge on the Tyne, which Bishop Wilfrid quarried for stone to build Hexham.

The bishops of Rome loomed large, too, in Bede's world: here the Western Church was centred, its authority preserved and orthodoxy defended; from here had come Augustine of Canterbury, spearheading the English conversion. Late seventh- and eighth-century English clerics saw themselves as champions of this 'Roman' Christianity, suppressing heresy and re-establishing the 'Roman' Church in Britain. For Bede, therefore, Roman Christianity in the present coloured that time when Britain had been part of the Roman Empire.

Today, albeit for different reasons, the Roman period remains a natural starting point for any book focused on Anglo-Saxon England. Just what sort of Roman Britain we envisage, how we depict its ending, and what type of sub-Roman Britain then followed, conditions any discussion of – and attitudes to – the 'Anglo-Saxon' period that came after. And attitudes to Roman Britain have changed dramatically across the past century. Early twentieth-century Britain was in awe of Rome, seeing it as a civilising force in a Britain otherwise given over to barbarism. More recently the Roman Empire has been viewed less favourably, as an institutionalised military dictatorship exploiting the peoples and lands which it had conquered. As Britain's own empire disintegrated, so did attitudes to the Roman World begin to change.

Roman Britain

The main outline of Britain's provincial history is easy to summarise: the island lay on the edge of Julius Caesar's conquests in Gaul (58–51 bc). He crossed the Channel in force in the summers of 55 and 54 bc, but Britain was not permanently annexed until the next century, following invasion in ad 43 by the armies of the emperor Claudius. Conquest took several generations but gradually brought under control the resources of an island which the Roman author Tacitus, for one, considered rich. In fact, it was probably a drain on imperial resources for a century and more.

Although several British products were highly valued – such as pearls, hounds and tin – the island was economically marginal. In terms of its agricultural climate, it lay on the very edge of the Roman World. The north and west were incapable of supporting wide-scale arable farming. High rainfall, impervious soils and low temperatures meant that here even most low-lying areas were ill-suited to the sort of agrarian regimes characteristic of more southerly climes. Many standard crops of the Empire, such as olives, simply could not be grown in Britain; others, such as vines, were only established in particularly favourable localities in the south and east of the island.

Difficulties of the topography had consequences for the expansion of Roman political power. Despite periodic efforts to conquer the whole island and even threaten Ireland, successive land frontiers were established on Hadrian's Wall (122–38) and then the Antonine Wall (141–58), which excluded the more northerly, mountainous areas. In the second half of the second century the Hadrianic frontier was re-occupied and would henceforth provide a northern boundary. Scotland would not be conquered and incorporated into the Empire, albeit Roman influence there was considerable; Ireland too stayed outside. In that sense, the Roman conquest of the British Isles remained an unfinished project.

Frontier Society

In the mid-second century about 10 per cent of the entire Roman Army, some 40,000-55,000 troops, were stationed in Britain, giving a very 'military' character to the province. The troops were not distributed evenly, with hardly any stationed east of the Severn or south of the Humber. The largest concentrations were at the three great legionary fortresses of Caerleon (south Wales), Chester and York, each capable of accommodating some 5,500 soldiers though only rarely were more than a fraction present. Stretching across Wales and the north of Roman Britain lay a network of auxiliary forts, each holding 500-1,000 men. Following the withdrawal from southern Scotland, auxiliaries were concentrated along the Hadrianic frontier from the Solway to the Tyne estuary, and in its hinterland. In Wales and northern England a distinctive, 'frontier' society evolved. At its core was an economy centred on soldiers, whom the imperial government paid and supplied. Markets at the gates of most forts gradually became permanent settlements, known as vici, dominated by shops and trading booths. Outside lay parade grounds, small temples, shrines and cemeteries, many with stone memorials. The army controlled extensive grazing lands, made numerous demands on local communities, and exercised authority over the tribes of the north and west.

The military garrisons were in some respects, however, only small islands of governmental influence within the wider landscape. Rural settlements lay scattered across the better drained lowlands, valley sides and hill slopes up to around the 300 metre contour. The indigenous population lived in enclosed settlements that changed little in consequence of Roman occupation beyond the appearance of a few pots, small items of metalwork and cheap jewellery. Such settlements retained pre-Roman characteristics throughout much of the period, with roundhouses still in use, for example, and enclosures and small fields with clear debts to the Iron Age. Military garrisons in their stone forts seem somewhat isolated amidst a settlement pattern which otherwise consisted almost entirely of extended family farms and without much in the way of towns (Carlisle, Corbridge and Carmarthen were small-scale exceptions), rural shrines or villas. Local elites are barely visible archaeologically, very few coins were lost in the countryside and there was little indigenous investment in Roman culture, perhaps because the pressure of taxation and requisitioning by or on behalf of the army left little surplus in the hands of the local population.

Within this 'upland' or 'military' zone, the army was dominant, with its own cultural apparatus, epigraphic and religious traditions, expertise in masonry and metalworking, and appetite for foodstuffs, drink and leather. Comparatively high levels of literacy have been revealed by writing tablets from around ad 100 excavated at Vindolanda just south of Hadrian's Wall. The army was initially drawn primarily from Gaul, with some units from more distant parts of the Empire and on occasion from outside, although recruitment became far more local in the third century. Similarly, prominent members of the civilian community servicing the army's needs in the vici seem to have been in large part incomers, such as Barathes from Palmyra (in Syria), who buried his British wife outside the fort at South Shields. The contribution of the local community was mostly in the form of labourers, recruits to the army (early generations of whom were sent to the Continent), slaves and prostitutes.

Part of what had driven the Roman conquest of Britain was its mineral wealth, and therefore extractive industries were active from the early years, particularly in upland areas. Tin in Cornwall, gold at Dolaucothi (Wales), lead (and silver) in eastern and north-eastern Wales, the Peak District and the northern Pennines, salt at Droitwich, in Cheshire and on the coasts, coal in the East Midlands and iron in the Weald and southeast Midlands – these were all exploited, although none developed into major industries by Continental standards. Management was largely via imperial monopolies or concessions, so the profits from these activities rarely fed back into local communities, but they probably helped to offset the considerable costs to the imperial government of garrisoning the island province.

The Lowland Zone

The British lowlands developed in rather different ways to the uplands, although still much affected by the unusually heavy Roman army presence. A network of roads was constructed, centred on London which rapidly became the principal port through which trade and supplies for the army entered Britain. London (Londinium) emerged as the provincial capital in the aftermath of the Boudiccan revolt in ad 60–1. Before the Roman Conquest there were no towns in Britain, though there were some coastal trading sites and quite numerous oppida – massively ditched and embanked settlements of high status. Three colonial towns (coloniae) were quickly established by the settlement of retired soldiers at Colchester, Gloucester and Lincoln; York and London were later accorded comparable status in recognition of their size and roles as provincial capitals. As the conquest proceeded and the military zone pushed northwards and westwards, civil government was gradually transferred to newly constituted tribal territories (civitates) and the towns which developed as their centres. These were very variable in size: the provincial capital London was by far the largest, covering some 128 hectares, but most civitas centres were only about 40 hectares and northern or western examples, such as Carmarthen, as small as 6 hectares.

Most of these towns lie beneath later cities that have obscured the Roman levels. Since the late 1960s, however, excavation has achieved new understandings of the Roman towns of Britain, nowhere more so, perhaps, than at London itself. London was unusual in not being a tribal centre but bordering several civitates. It developed rapidly as a trading port around a mid-first-century fort guarding the river crossing, then, following the destruction caused by the revolt in ad 60, was rebuilt as a planned town with large-scale public buildings. By the late first century, an auxiliary fort had been constructed at Cripplegate and there were impressive concentrations of buildings. Emperor Hadrian's visit in ad 122 boosted civic construction and London had become a major city by the mid-second century, with perhaps 50,000 inhabitants. A substantial complex beneath Cannon Street station has been interpreted as the governor's palace. The largest forum north of the Alps lay at the centre of the city and several temples have been identified. This is the only site in Britain exhibiting extensive use of imported high-quality Roman building stone.

London's wealth and magnificence reflected its administrative functions and its role as the principal centre of Continental trade via extensive harbour facilities that have been excavated on both sides of the Thames around London Bridge. The city lost momentum, however, in the later second century – declining trade and/or plague have been blamed. London entered a recession from which it never fully recovered in this period, with continuing shrinkage in the number of buildings and a drop in population, although claims that it shrank to a mere 'administrative village' are exaggerated. London was walled on the landward side, probably by the imperial usurper Clodius Albinus, before his death in civil war in ad 197. London Wall is massive: at around 3 kilometres long, 6 metres high and 2.5 metres thick it was the largest stone structure in Roman Britain barring only Hadrian's Wall. It was extended along the river front in the second half of the third century, perhaps to counter seaborne raiders.

London was by far Britain's grandest urban settlement, but others which were not later built over have much better preserved archaeology, particularly Verulamium (St Albans), Silchester (Hampshire) and Wroxeter (Shropshire), where excavation over many decades has revealed much of their complex history. Street grids were fundamental to the early towns, with central provision for a forum and basilica where government and trade were centred. Although early digs focused exclusively on stone foundations, timbered or half-t imbered buildings predominated throughout, with utilitarian structures giving way to civic buildings in stone in the second century, accompanied by the construction of numerous townhouses, also increasingly in stone (or with stone foundations). Compared to other Western provinces, however, urban development was slow. Major towns are more thinly distributed, building inscriptions far fewer and bath suites, piped water and facilities for entertainment more modest. The only circus identified in Britain, albeit the largest so far discovered outside Italy, lies outside the early capital, Colchester, and was clearly part of the imperial project. Similarly, Britain's only front-ranking classical temple is there. Elsewhere the Romano-Celtic temples typical of northern Gaul were copied both in town and country, although Bath itself, where the indigenous cult of Sulis was conjoined with that of the Roman goddess Minerva, is an exception.

Towns were, however, walled unusually early in Britain, some being equipped with earthwork circuits with a stone facia even in the late first century ad. This style was unusual in Gaul, where only the grandest towns were fortified before the third century. It is unclear why this occurred in Britain and why so early. One might suppose that walls were built primarily to provide defence against raiders from outside Britain or protection against rebellion within, but this may be too simplistic. The emphasis on gateways may best be explained as a means of self-advertisement to compete for trade and status. The suggestion that walls appeared particularly early close to tribal boundaries would support such a view if we had a clearer grasp of where such divisions lay. Perhaps urban defences served multiple functions to do with the separation of urban and rural spaces, policing, defence, security and civic status, though it is difficult to see this as any different from towns in Gaul. Excepting London and the other coloniae, walls were paid for by local subscription, so they were necessarily something which local communities wanted. A 'British' impulse is suggested by the similarity between some town walls and the defences of the great pre-Roman oppida which preceded several such walls (as at Colchester). The impulse to equip new towns with walls is one of many factors which differentiate Britain from its Continental neighbours.

The urge to build defences is visible too at many minor towns. Small towns were quite numerous and differed in size (but consistently under 20 hectares). The factors encouraging their development varied widely. They provided accommodation and facilities for travellers, offered markets to local industries (as salt extraction, pottery production or mining), served the needs of the military (as Catterick), and provided local markets. Small towns are often difficult to differentiate archaeologically from large villages or villa complexes but generally have some extra dimension not found elsewhere. Many small towns, such as Bath, Gosbeck and the newly discovered Elms Farm, Heybridge (Essex), developed around a temple complex which attracted numerous visitors, so supporting the hotel and catering trades and stimulating the sale of local goods and services. The presence of stone buildings was highly variable in these settlements, with some, such as Heybridge, almost entirely timber built.

Along the roads emanating from the major towns well-ordered cemeteries developed. The rather disparate burial practices of the late pre-Roman Iron Age gave way in the first and second centuries to Roman-style cremation with commemorative grave markers. The dominant rite shifted in the late second and early third centuries to inhumation, often in new cemeteries. Coffins were common and wealthy graves might include decorated stone sarcophagi. Large-scale excavations at Bath Gate (Cirencester), Poundbury (Dorchester) and Lankhills (Winchester), and in extra-mural cemeteries at York and Leicester, have revealed how well regulated these were. The scarcity of recutting suggests that graves were well marked and managed long term. Even so, the cemeteries so far identified were never sufficiently extensive to accommodate more than a small proportion of the dead from Roman Britain. Many sectors of society, particularly in the countryside, were disposing of bodies in ways which are far less accessible to archaeology than these suburban burial grounds.

Excerpted from THE ANGLO-SAXON WORLD by NICHOLAS J. HIGHAM. Copyright © 2013 by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations|viii

Acknowledgements xiii

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Britain in and out of the Roman Empire 20

Chapter 2 The Origins of England 70

Chapter 3 From Tribal Chieftains to Christian Kings 126

Chapter 4 The Mercian Supremacies 179

Chapter 5 The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, c. 825-900 232

Chapter 6 Conquest, Reform and the Making of England 284

Chapter 7 The Age of Æthelred 335

Chapter 8 The Transformation of Anglo-Saxon England 387

Bibliography 443

Index 459

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