We travel back to the period after the Romans left Britain, and Dr David Starkey shines a light on the Dark Ages.
“Anglo-Saxon England is an extraordinarily sophisticated society”
Dr David Starkey
When metal detectorist Terry Herbert uncovered the 7th-century gold, silver and garnet-encrusted booty we know as the Staffordshire Hoard, a dazzling new light shone out from the so-called Dark Ages. That shadowy era of Britain’s history, sandwiched between the withdrawal of Rome’s legions in 410 and the shock of the Norman Conquest in 1066, suddenly intrigues afresh. Historian and TV presenter Dr David Starkey, who helped to launch the fundraising campaign to save the Hoard for the nation, calls the finds “gangland bling” and “outrageous displays of male peacockery”!
“It’s stuff that would have been worn by young men of noble or their families, the crack troops who defended a king or great lord, who were rewarded by him and, if it came to battle, would die for him,” he says. Sword pommels, helmet parts and other military adornments conjure the violent spectre of kings. Yet the exquisite nature of the finely wrought ‘bling’ also suggests an appreciation of great beauty.
“We tend to talk dismissively of the Dark Ages but what the Hoard brings out is a spectacular calibre of craftsmanship,” Dr Starkey says. “Anglo-Saxon England is a rich society, and an extraordinarily sophisticated society in terms of government, administration and taxation. And, of course, it’s the time that the idea of England itself was invented. romantic story, but he is an invention of the 12th century. Lovely as he would be, I’m sorry, it just ain’t true.”
The barbarians pushed mercilessly west and north, and by the end of the 6th century the future political territories of Britain were already taking shape: the Britons held lands to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, in Cumbria, and west of the Severn and Wye valleys. The Anglo-Saxons had vanquished the east and south. With a few tweaks it could almost be a map of England’s modern frontiers. For the next 450 years Anglo-Saxon domination forged deep and lasting legacies.
The invaders were pagan: we still speak the names of their gods in the days of our week – Tuesday (Tiw), Wednesday (Woden) and Thursday (Thor). But in the end they were converted to Christianity, one way or another. In ad 597 St Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, arrived in Canterbury to carry out his evangelizing mission in southern England – the origins of St Augustine’s Abbey date from this time.
Elsewhere, away from Saxon control, surviving sparks of Christianity gained a new, Celtic lease of life along the western seaboard. This vibrant Age of Saints gave us Patrick, patron of Ireland, and David, patron of Wales. In the 6th century the Irish missionary St Columba founded a monastery on Iona, west of Scotland, and in the 7th century King Oswald of Northumbria invited Ionian monks to convert his people.Aidan established his monastery on Lindisfarne, where later the elaborately decorated Lindisfarne Gospels dedicated to St Cuthbert were written – now a breathtaking treasure that can be found in the British Library. Roman and Celtic Church each followed their own practices, but largely settled their differences at the Synod of Whitby 664. Henceforth the English kingdoms could be united under one primate.
Some of the best surviving Anglo-Saxon architecture is religious and it was in the monastery at Jarrow that the historian and scholar Bede lived and worked. In writing his masterpiece, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731), he invented the idea of the English as a single entity, Dr Starkey says. But we’re leaping ahead of the story; first, what about all that gangland bling and tribal rivalry? Early Saxon England was a complicated picture of territories ruled by kings, sub-kings and over-kings – bretwaldas. The late 10th-century epic poem, Beowulf, which is also housed in the British Library, tells us of the legendary heroism of war leaders; and the scintillating martial artefacts of the 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo, probably the tomb of King Raedwald of East Anglia, boast of glorious riches to the winners.
In the ebb and flow of power, first East Anglia was dominant, then other large kingdoms asserted themselves: Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the Midlands where the Staffordshire Hoard lay hidden, and Wessex in the southwest. Out of this maelstrom would emerge a unified Aengla Land.
Names of key players resonate loudly. Walkers along Offa’s Dyke, the mighty defensive earthwork that borders England and Wales for over 100 miles, celebrate with every step the great 8th-century King of Mercia. A ruler unafraid of blood on his hands, Offa could also show diplomacy: he traded and corresponded with the Emperor Charlemagne on equal terms. Best remembered, of course, is King Alfred of Wessex, fully deserving of his epithet, ‘the Great’.
When ferocious Viking raids threatened to overrun England in the 9th century, it was Alfred who led efforts to repel them. The tale of his flight to Athelney in Somerset in 878, where he distractedly burnt some cakes, may be apocryphal, but by the end of the year he had scored a tremendous victory over the invaders at Edington. By the terms of peace he contained the Vikings’ territorial ambitions within the ‘Danelaw’, behind a frontier running from London to Chester – he made sure he won back London.
So much of what the Anglo-Saxons – they long considered themselves the rightful natives of England – did for us, came together under Alfred. Saxon communities had focused largely on village and farm, and he promoted a system of fortified settlements or burhs, many of which developed into thriving towns: witness the grid pattern of streets in his Wessex capital, Winchester, or Oxford or Chichester.
Alfred improved the navy and organised an effective army. He set about the codification of the English legal system and combined a consensual style of politics with a surprisingly ordered administration. He revived literacy and education, and probably ordered the compilation of the historical record called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in the vernacular that the Saxons had brought with them. “England is very unusual,” Dr Starkey points out. “Most countries of the ex-Roman Empire use Latin for administration. Anglo-Saxon England uses Anglo-Saxon.”
Alfred styled himself ‘King of the Angles and Saxons’, though in truth, it would be his grandson, Aethelstan (924-39), who is generally reckoned the first King of England. The Saxons made inroads but never conquered Wales or Scotland, and they left Celtic Ireland untouched.
All in all, Aengla Land ended up in pretty good shape for the times, with a growing trade economy, single standard of coinage and, yes, highly organised tax system. Not everyone was pleased. Sir Bernard de Hoghton, of Hoghton Tower in Lancashire, traces his ancestry to Lady Godiva and tells the famous tale of how she rode naked through the streets of Coventry in the 11th century. “Why? To humiliate her husband, Earl Leofric, who she felt was over taxing her Mercian subjects.” It’s said her ‘streak’ sufficiently impressed her husband that he relaxed his demands.
Then suddenly, in April 1066, a comet – now called Halley’s Comet – blazed across England’s sky. It was widely interpreted as a portent of disaster. True enough, in October of that year, Harold, last of England’s Anglo-Saxon kings, was killed at the Battle of Hastings. Overnight a new Norman ruling class and culture arrived, threatening all that had gone before.
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