Lighting Up The Dark Ages

The home of Author Annie Whitehead

Category: English Historical Fictional Authors Works (page 1 of 3)

The History of English Part II: From Conquest to Printing Press

The first part of my story of English concluded with the coming of the Normans, and a story from the 12th century sums up what happened after the Normans settled. A local priest witnessed a miracle, where after the laying on of hands, a mute man was cured and able to speak English and French. The priest was resentful. Brother William, he said, had laid hands on this man and instantly he could speak two languages, whereas he, the local priest, had to remain dumb in the presence of the bishop. This priest, it transpired, knew little Latin, and no French.

In 1154, the English monks who had written the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (established by Alfred the great) put down their pens. French was the language to speak, and Latin was used for writing and remained the principal language of religion and learning. A visitor from another planet would assume that English disappeared, to be replaced permanently by French.

However, we know this is not so.

Continue reading…

The Early History of English

Here’s a little test: Torpenhow. Know how to pronounce it? Know its derivation? If it helps at all, it’s in Cumbria, and it’s a hill… and its name means hill hill hill. That’s English for you. But why? How did our language become so, well, strange? Or should that be weird? Why do we have so many different words for the same thing, and why does our spelling not even abide by its own rules?

I think the first clue might be that, as historian Ann Williams remarked, “We have little idea about what ‘spoken’ English was like before 1100 – virtually all the surviving texts are written in the literary standard (Standard West Saxon in modern scholarship) which was never a spoken language. The abrupt change in the Peterborough Chronicle in 1121 (pictured below) marks the moment when the scribe ceased to write in Standard West Saxon, and began to write in something like the local spoken dialect.”

And in reply, historian Stephanie Evans Mooers Christelow had this to add: “There is also the fact that people speak the language of their mothers: French men who married English women had bicultural children who most likely spoke English. French soldiers stationed in English towns had to learn English, and the French who resided in English villages did as well. According to the Cambridge History of the English Language, French vocabulary and syntax did not begin to significantly affect the English language until about 1300.”

So, there are two intriguing pieces of information here: a hint at the marked differences between written and spoken language, and the fact that it’s too easy, and inaccurate, to blame all our language anomalies on the Norman Conquest. So where did they come from?

Continue reading…

The Celts – Occupations and Leisure Activities

So far in this series, I’ve looked at the origins of the Celtic People, how they lived and who they were. Now I’m looking at what they did:

While the Celt as a warrior has been the most colourful picture to come down for posterity, warfare was not a full time occupation, and the majority of Celtic people spent most of their time in rural, agricultural pursuits.

There was a great difference between the Germanic tribes and the Gauls, as the former consumed very little wheat and lived mainly on milk and the flesh of their animals.

Cattle were abundant in Gaul, which can be seen from the fact that during all Caesar’s expedition large amounts of livestock were seized.

The cattle in Britain were of the Celtic Shorthorn variety, first appearing towards the end of the Bronze age. Sheep were small, similar to the Soay breed. Wild animals presented a threat, to crops and to life, with wolves, bears and wild cats all still abundant.

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Did the Conqueror Build Upon Existing Foundations?

950 years ago today, the world changed – for those living in England, at any rate. They had a new king, and new masters, and history had a brand new reference point – 1066. But legally, administratively, and ecclesiastically, how much did William change?

William of Normandy was not opposing the old regime in England, he was claiming his right to carry on the government of a kingdom of which he said he was the rightful king. The England to which he came in 1066 was a soundly organised country in most respects. William abolished nothing, and introduced little new; his reign consisted of a successful attempt to fuse old and new, building upon the already existing structure.

The power of the nobility in Anglo-Saxon England was being strengthened from two levels of the social scale. The king gave grants of almost anything that was in his power to give: land, privileges, and judicial powers. From the inferior classes came men seeking the protection of a lord. Here was the beginning of a process which came to be known as feudalism. There were at this time only two aspects: a personal bond between two free men – a superior (the lord) and and inferior (the vassal) – and a method of land tenure, whereby the vassal held a benefice of his lord. The personal relationship entailed the vassal putting himself under the protection of this lord, and in a symbolic gesture of submission he would place his hands between those of his lord and swear an oath of fealty. Under this solemn contract the man was obliged to serve and obey his lord, and the lord was obliged to protect and maintain the man.

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Government in the Reigns of Edgar and Aethelred II

Neither Edgar (959-975) nor his son Aethelred (978-1016) came to the throne free from controversy. Both of them succeeded their elder brothers, who reigned only briefly. King Eadwig (Edwy) succeeded his uncle in 955, while his brother Edgar was declared king in Mercia and the Danelaw. With the existence of two royal courts it seems likely that civil war was not far away when Eadwig died on this day – 1st October – in 959. He had issued so many charters that a degree of irresponsibility is probable, and he had quarrelled with Abbot, later Archbishop, Dunstan and driven him into exile.

Aethelred was Edgar’s younger son, and succeeded his (step) brother Edward when he was murdered at Corfe. Throughout his reign he was never entirely able to escape from the fact that the murder had been committed for his sake.

The youth of these kings produced an environment where faction could arise. Powerful ealdormen could be found influencing politics and the monarch, even changing the face of war, as was the case at the end of Aethelred’s reign.

This then was the political situation over which Edgar and Aethelred had to govern.

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How Cnut Established Himself as Full King in England

Nearly one thousand years ago, in November 1016, Cnut became king of England. How did he establish himself, a foreigner, with full authority?

For a contemporary account of the reign of Aethelred II, it is natural to look to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In it, we find the closing years of the reign fraught with difficulties; those of fending off Danish raiders. It would be easy to agree with the Chronicler who, writing with hindsight, concludes that the slide towards Danish rule in England was inevitable. The payment of the Danegeld might at first sight seem like sheer folly, yet the policy appears in the short term to have worked.

Aethelred’s problem was that paying off one Viking force would not necessarily keep another one away from his shores. The Chronicler blames the military failure of the English on the cowardice of the military leaders. But while the squabble between Brihtric and Wulfnoth caused the loss of a hundred ships in 1009, we also know that Brihtnoth’s actions at the Battle of Maldon in 991 were those of courage and loyalty, that the army of 1009 left in 1010 without tribute, and that Aethelred was assured of the loyalty of Ulfcytel in East Anglia.

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The Celtic Community

Women
In the first of this series, Who Were the Celts*, I relied mainly on archaeological evidence. For the second, How the Celts Lived,** I relied on the Greek writers, who seem to have said little about the role of Celtic women, but are still our only real sources. Some of the information for this portion is taken from the findings of modern scholarship.

Women used to provide a dowry, but the men had to offer comparable value from their own property. Husbands had absolute power over their wives.

Among the Bretons, the women belonged to ten or twelve men at a time, particularly to brothers, fathers, or their children; however, the children born of such unions belonged to the man who had the woman while she was still a virgin. In Ireland, it was thought perfectly natural for men to have sexual relations with other men’s wives, mothers or sisters. Community of wives was the rule in Caledonia.

Boadicea Haranguing The Britons. John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.

The status of women among the Celts seems to have been quite wretched. However, in the mid-first century AD, in what is now Great Britain, the Brigantes were in fact governed by a woman, Cartismandua (Cartimandua) and, in 61 AD, Boudicca, a woman of royal blood, commanded the army of the ancient Britons. Yet no similar state of affairs can be found among other tribes or at earlier periods.

Continue reading…

Little Domesday – Norfolk

I’ve been spending a bit of time in my erstwhile home of Norfolk this summer and it only takes a glance to see how historic this county is. But what do we know of its origins?

The Little Domesday Book includes Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. It is much less of a summary and includes more detail than Domesday, although it is more untidy.

Why did it remain separate from the main Domesday Book?
One suggestion is that it was begun first, and that the rest of the survey was cut down when they saw how bulky the work was becoming. Historian Vivian Hunter Galbraith suggested it might have been a local compilation made by the commission and actually posterior to Volume I. It is, apparently, nearer to the original returns, which could mean it was never sent in and condensed and that it is therefore more accurate.

The Inquisito Eliensis
This is a subsidiary source of information, relating to lands held by the abbot of Ely in Cambs, Hertford, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Huntingdon. There is some doubt as to how it came into existence. Galbraith: “It was the return demanded by Ranulf Flambard in 1093, when Abbot Symeon died, and the possessions of the abbey were taken into the king’s hands.” JH Round argued that it was the return of the Royal Writ of 1086 instructing Lanfranc to inquire further into Ely’s losses of lands and rights.

Ely – Photo by Dave Webster

A draft of the Little Domesday Book may have been revised to produce the I.E. Certainly the correspondence between the two is great and the differences are such that could have resulted from errors in copying.

Norfolk Settlements and their distribution
The total number of separate places – 731 – may not be accurate; today there are many villages bearing the same place name, and it is not always clear whether more than one existed in the eleventh-century. Great and Little Massingham were dealt with as Massingham (today, ½ mile separates them.)

Great Massingham – the pond is an old clay pit

 

There are places about which very little information is given. Perhaps the Domesday record is incomplete, or the relevant details are included with another village, eg: Rippon Hall is included in the measurement of the neighbouring village of Hevingham, but we are not told whether its men, ploughs, woods and meadow are included in the total for these items in Hevingham. The Little Domesday is silent on Bergh Apton. Were it not an Ely manor and therefore in the I.E., we would know nothing about it.

Not all the 731 names appear on the present day map. Some remain as houses or topographical features. Bawsey was recorded as a parish – all that remains today is a church and a farm.

Bawsey Church today – taken from Bawsey Farm

Some idea of the nature of the information in the Domesday folios from Norfolk and of the form in which it is presented may be obtained from the entry for Bircham Newton (Docking):

“Bircham Newton was held by Tove, a freeman, as two carucates. Then as now 4 villeins and 3 bordars.* Then 3 serfs afterwards and now 1. Then one plough on the demesne, afterwards 2 now 3. Then and afterwards 4 ploughs belonging to the men, now 2 ½. Then as now 2 rounceys** and 10 swine. Then 220 sheep, now 540. To this manor belong 11 freemen with 1 ½ carucates and 11 ½ acres. There is 1 church with 20 acres, worth 16 pence. These freemen Eudo his predecessors had; Stigand had the soke. It was then worth 60 shillings, afterwards and now 100. The whole is half a league in length and a half in breadth, and renders 15 pence out of 20 shillings in geld.”

Bircham Newton Church is now a private dwelling

Woodland
The extent of woodland on a holding is usually indicated by the number of swine it could support – the swine fed on the acorns and the beech mast – providing a convenient measure. Thus the normal entry is ‘wood for n swine’.

The number ranges from 1 or 2 up to 100, with a few entries at over 1000. The larger entries are usually given in round figures, but the small entries are detailed, suggesting exactness.

It may not follow that the swine were actually there – they were just used as a unit of measurement.

A Deer Park is mentioned at Costessey. (Pronounced, should you ever need to know, as Cossey!)

Norfolk Deer

Meadow
The entries are uniform:- “N acres of meadow”, varying from 1-100 and even 200. Figures above 50 though, are rare. Its distribution is concentrated around the Broadlands – winter floods meaning good crops of hay along the margins of the more permanent stretches of water. There was not as much in the Fenland as might be expected, but many of the streams that drained into the Fenland were bordered by fair quantities.

Pasture
Unlike meadow, pasture is not regularly mentioned, in fact only in 11 places, and only 5 of these mention pasture for sheep. Of those it is sometimes unclear whether sheep were actually present, eg: “At Haddisloe in Clavering there was pasture capable (my italics) of supporting a total of 170 sheep.”

Marsh
It is only mentioned in connection with three places. Two lie near to the marshes of the lower Yare and Waveney rivers; the third extends into the Nar Valley which is an extension of the Fenlands. Obviously these cannot have represented all the marsh in a county which includes part of the Fenland and the Broadland.

The pasture for sheep recorded presumably refers to marshy flats on which the sheep fed. But even with these five localities the greater part of the Norfolk marshland remains unaccounted for in the Domesday text.

Fisheries
They are recorded for 1086 in connection with 61 places in Norfolk. Only the number is mentioned – no reference is made to their value, as is the case in other counties. There is usually one fishery in a vill, but 2,3 or even or 7 are recorded. There are ½ fisheries, usually when two adjacent villages shared a fishery and a half is recorded for each. There are some cases where the fractions are impossible to combine. Gayton Thorpe in Freebridge had ¼ but we hear nothing of the other ¾. For the most part the fisheries lay in the west – in and near the Fenland. Elsewhere the distribution is sporadic, and quite often they are not mentioned where one would expect – for example, none is mentioned in the Broadland.

There is no mention of sea-fisheries, although we can’t be certain that those in Hunstanton and Heacham (on the West coast) were not sea-fisheries.

The famous striped cliffs on the coast at Hunstanton

Salt Pans
Here again, salt pans (mentioned in connection with 62 villages) are only referred to in number – their values are not recorded. The number ranges from under 1 to over 40. Again, fractions are mentioned, some of which are impossible to combine. At Shernborne in Docking, ½ is mentioned, with no mention of the other ½. The distribution of the salt making industry is confined to the eastern and western marshlands. The big gap separating them is broken only by Burnham on the north coast.

Burnham Overy Staithe

Some villages away from these two regions are recorded as having salt pans but as it is geographically impossible that they were situated in these places it seems that the saltpans attributed to the villages were actually in the Fenland – leaving no doubt that the main salt making activity was centred on the Fenland and Broadland regions.

Domesday entry for Rudham, where my mother now lives – note the mention of the salt pan, and Alain of Brittany, our purported ancestor!

Mills
In 1086, 302 settlements had mills. In 13 other places mills had existed in 1066 but had apparently disappeared by 1086. Normally only the number was stated, varying from a fraction up to 9. Of two holdings in Bayfield (Holt) one had ¼, while the other had ¾. While it seems that neighbouring villages often shared a mill, often it impossible to piece the fractions together. (Snettisham is recorded as having 7 mills – Mill Lane exists today, running near a stream.)

Snettisham Mill – the stream runs behind the building

The mills were watermills, aligned along streams. But the distribution is not what might be expected. The areas with most arable land and the most dense population, are not the areas with the largest number or the largest cluster of mills.

Churches
Churches are mentioned in connection with 217 villages, apart from Norwich, Thetford and Yarmouth. These can’t have been the only ones in the county – Holt and Dunham were important enough to have markets, and yet no church is recorded for either place.

St Mary’s Old Hunstanton – ‘modern’ – from the 14thc!

There are some hundreds with only one church. The I.E. records 7 places with churches not recorded in the Domesday. Some had two churches and form double parishes today. Again there are untraceable fractions.

Priests are recorded where there is no church. At Hevingham a priest sang ‘three masses a week’ – likely then that there was a church. Normally the value was stated with the number of acres it held, thus at Appleton, Freebridge, “one church with 12 acres, and it is worth 12 pence.”

Livestock
Horses are frequently recorded, and groups of wild or unbroken mares were found in many parishes. The most common variety of horse was the rouncey. Donkeys are only occasionally mentioned. Goats are recorded for a number of holdings, but the flocks were much smaller than those of sheep, usually under 50, sometimes less than 10.

Cows must have been kept in considerable numbers for breeding oxen for the land, but strangely they are seldom mentioned.

Sheep are associated with the salt marshes. The largest number, 1300, was at West Walton in the Fenland. It’s possible that some sheep of the northwest hundreds pastured on the salt marshes of the coast. Numbers of sheep increased and decreased between 1066 and 1086 ith no real explanation.

Markets
There are only 3. ½ at Dunham, ¼ at Litcham, one at Holt. There is nothing to indicate why there should be one at the first two, and no trace of the missing fractions. It must be a shortlist which does not cover all the markets of Norfolk.

The old market place at Holt. Only the street sign – on the building on the left- offers a clue to its origins

Beehives
Occasionally recorded along with livestock, the number is usually under 10, although 27 are recorded at Methwold. The value is never stated. Beekeeping was important for mead, wax and sugar. The entries cannot represent all the hives in Norfolk. Occasionally a render of honey is stated where no hives are mentioned.

Little at all remains to be seen of Domesday Norfolk. But the traces of this historic county are still there to be found, and Little Domesday survives as a remarkably detailed record of what was there in the eleventh-century, and gave me plenty of clues for modern locations.
Further reading:
Domesday Studies – the Eastern Counties R Welldon-Finn
The Norman Conquest and its effects on the Economy 1066-1086 R Welldon-Finn
History from the Sources – The Domesday Book ed. J Morris
The Domesday Geography of Eastern England HC Darby
English Society in the early middle Ages – DM Stenton

*bordar – A person ranking below villeins and above serfs in the social hierarchy of a manor, holding just enough land to feed a family (about 5 acres) and required to provide labour on the demesne on specified days of the week.
**The term rouncey (also spelled rouncy or rounsey) was used during the Middle Ages to refer to an ordinary, all-purpose horse. They were used for riding, but could also be trained for war. It was not unknown for them to be used as pack horses.

[All photographs apart from Ely taken by, and copyright of, the author]

This article originally appeared on the EHFA blog on 15th August 2016

How The Celts Lived

Last time, I introduced the Celts and who they were.*

I explained that there were three phases of Celtic settlement in Britain, beginning in around 500-450 BC (perhaps earlier in Scotland), with settlers from France and the Low countries, continuing around 250 BC, and then a third phase, in around 100 BC, of Belgic peoples settling in southern Britain.

This time I’m taking a look at how they lived, although, given the paucity of the sources, it’s sometimes necessary to look at those still living in Europe, in order to build up an adequate picture.

Firstly, what kind of housing did they have?

According to Polybus [1] the people who settled in Cisalpine (the Roman side of the Alps) Gaul lived in scattered villages without walls. Their houses were probably wooden, which could easily be burned down and destroyed.

Gaulish houses were usually thatched and dome-like, and built of planks and willow supports. Some had an outer facing of mud, while others were covered with oak shingles, or straw mixed with earth. The Bretons built similar houses of reeds and wood. The Caledonii still had neither fortified walls, nor towns, as late as the second century of the Christian era.

A Pre-Roman Gaulish House

In wartime, the Gauls used to take refuge in the fortified camps known to Caesar as ‘Oppida’. The oppida of the Bretons were nothing more than retrenched camps defended by a ditch and a mound of earth with a stockade, within which they erected temporary huts. The Belgian people who inhabited the Ardennes Forest used to take special precautions in times of war by weaving the branches of thorny bushes into a mesh of thorns, so that invaders would find all paths blocked. In certain places, they would retreat with their families to small islands in swamps deep in the forest, having first driven stakes into the ground along potential paths. The oppida of Gaul were towns which could also offer shelter to the inhabitants of neighbouring areas but which also had a permanent population themselves.

Caesar described the walls of Gaulish fortifications: solid beams were laid out on the ground about two feet apart; they were joined by transverse struts, and the cavity thus formed was filled with earth. Large stones were used to face the front. A second layer was then added, and so on until the desired height was reached. These interwoven layers of stone and wood had major military advantages as the stone was a protection against fire, and the wood against the danger of the battering ram.

The Gauls described by Polybus were not familiar with the idea of furniture and their beds were apparently nothing more than grass.

Posidonius, [2] quoted by Athenus, [3] noted that at mealtimes the Celts used to sit on bales of hay around low circular tables of wood. They used neither spoons nor forks; they simply grabbed chunks of meat and tore them apart. Their dishes were made of silver, copper, or earthenware. Their goblets were of earthenware or silver.

A Belgic bronze tankard was found in Trawsfynydd in Wales, and has been dated to the mid-first century AD. Its base was made of turned wood. Two more tankards were found at Shapwick Heath in Somerset, and one was recovered from the River Thames, at Kew. Belgic wrought iron ‘fire dogs’, would have been used to spit-roast meat at feasts, and examples have been found at Great Chesterford, Essex and Capel Garmon, North Wales.

Fire dogs - BBC.CO.UK

Fire dogs – BBC.CO.UK

Dairy products were much used among the Gauls. (The remains of vast cheese-making installations have been found at Mont Beuvray- also known as Bibracte.) [4]

The Calednoii and the Maeatae apparently made no use at all in their diet of the abundant stocks of fish in the waters of their region.

For their daily sustenance, the Bretons used to shell the oldest ears of cereal in their barns. Some of their tribes were so lacking in industry that although they had plenty of milk, they never made cheese from it. Others lived off bark and roots, and devised a type of food which was so filling that a very small amount was enough to serve as a meal. The fore-runner of the breakfast bar, perhaps? (More about farming in a later episode.)

The standard drink of the Gauls was at one time a beer made from grain. This drink was called ‘corma’. The guests all drank out of the same goblet, which was passed round by a servant.

In the first century BC, wine brought from Italy was the drink of the rich. Some Gauls would lie down on their shields, and, in exchange for wine or money, would allow their throats to be cut, as long as the wine or the money should go to their descendants after their death.

The Celts held ceremonial dinners; the guests sat in a circle, and the man who was the most distinguished in terms of military prowess, birth, or wealth, sat in the middle of the assembled company. The master of the household sat next to him, and the others sat on either side, their position depending on their rank.

So, as they sat there, what would they have been wearing?

It would seem that many of the Celtic tribes were comparatively sophisticated in their dress. Diodorus [5] described the Gauls as having worn tunics and trousers, with striped sashes over their shoulders. Pliny [6] suggested that the Gauls were the inventors of checked cloth; they extracted a purple dye from the bilberry, scarlet from the hyacinth, and colours from various other plants.

The Aedui chief Dumnorix, Museum of Celtic Civilization, Bibracte

The Celts of the La Tène culture had highly developed weaving and dyeing techniques. The men wore close-fitting trousers and pullovers, while the women wore freely-flowing cloaks of the same material.

In Ireland, the men liked to wear woollen cloaks, pinned together at the neck by a brooch. Trousers were worn only by the poor, noblemen preferring ‘Léine’, knee-length linen tunics.

The Celts wore sandals, which left much of the upper foot exposed. These sandals were tied up with leather.

Some Celtic tribes, however, seem to have been quite unaware of the use of clothes. In the second century AD, the inhabitants of Northern Brittany went completely naked. Some Gaulish tribes also were in the habit of undressing completely before battle.

When they were clothed, though, did they wear any other adornments?

Strabo [7] said of the Celts: “to the frankness and high spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold, torcs on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists.”

These torcs were heavy rings of solid gold, richly decorated, and with a finger-sized opening at the front. Gerhard Herm points out in The Celts, that they must have been put on with great difficulty, being too small to push over the head, and yet too thick to bend open. Perhaps the most famous of the Celtic torcs were discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk between 1948 and 1968. The largest was 20cm in diameter and made of electrum. It was dated to the mid-first century BC

A more delicate (Bronze) torc

Besides jewellery, the Celts also used the tattoo as a form of personal adornment. Caesar wrote that all the Bretons used to dye their bodies with pastel, thus turning their bodies a bright blue colour, which made them look particularly horrible in battle. It is possibly from the addiction to his habit that the dark-age Picts acquired their name, ‘painted men’.

A brief note on hygiene: Personal hygiene among the Celts cannot have been overly sophisticated. They did, however, make soap from tallow or ash. This was, according to Pliny, a Gaulish invention. In order to preserve the freshness of their complexions, the Celtic women used beer foam. The cleaning of teeth, among the Celtiberians (the Celts who invaded Greece) was done with urine, stored for a long time in special tanks.

Next time: The role of Members of the Community
* Read the first in this series, Who Were the Celts?

[1] Polybus, or Polybius, was a Greek historian who was born between 210 and 205 BC, in Arcadia. He wrote a general history of his time, and died around 125 BC
[2] Posidonius, or Poseidonius, was a Syrian born historian. He was a Stoic philosopher, and emphasised the interrelation of all things in the universe.
[3] Athenus, or Athenaeus, was a Greek writer born in Egypt. He wrote in the end of the second century and the third century AD
[4] The world of the Celts – G.Dottin
[5] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian who used literary sources with little judgement of his own, but for certain periods he provides the best evidence available.
[6] Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was born in Northern Italy and wrote 37 books of natural history. The eruption of Pompeii claimed his life.
[7] Strabo was a Greek geographer, who lived from about 58 BC – AD 25. Lloyd Laing (1979) attributes this translation to S. Piggot (1970)

Further reading:
The Celts – Gerhard Herm
Pagan Celtic Britain – Anne Ross
Celtic Britain – Lloyd Laing
The World of the Celts – G Dottin

(all images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed)

This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog 29th July 2016

Military Service in Tenth-Century England

Aethelred II (Unready)

In a previous post, I looked at duties and obligations in tenth-century England and this time I’m concentrating on military service.

Land granted by the king was known as ‘bookland’ and was absolved from all service with the exception of three. According to a grant by King Edgar [1] those three things were fixed military service, the restoration of bridges, and of fortresses. A grant by Aethelred II [2] calls for national military service, the construction of fortresses and the restoration of bridges. The Thegn’s law [3] tells us that:

“He be entitled to his book right, and that he shall contribute three things in respect of his land: armed service, and the repairing of fortresses and work upon bridges. Also in respect of many estates further services arise on the king’s order, … equipping a guardship, and guarding the coast, and guarding the lord, and military watch …”

The king was prepared to grant away rights privileges but not, it seems, his right to military service. The exact nature of the service is not stipulated, but it must have been important. Archbishop Wulfstan and Aelfric the Homilist divided Anglo-Saxon society into three orders: those who fight, those who labour, and those who pray. This would mean that the aristocracy was a warrior class. The nobility was required to provide military equipment [4] and there can be no doubt that a substantial part of their service was of a military nature.

Just as the heriot (war gear) varied according to rank, so the military service requirement differed for men of varying resources. The king had at his disposal his household troops.* Mercenaries were employed, (the career of Thorkell the Tall is evidence of this) but in essence the composition of the fyrd was based on a territorial levy. The requirement was for one man from every five hides of land. Service was basically for sixty days, in a system of rotation, but only in times of war. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 920 tells us that “when this division of the English levies went home, the other came out on military service and occupied the fortress at Huntington.” [5] A landowner with more than five hides of land would be responsible for providing the requisite number of men.

A fine was payable for neglect of military service, and this ‘fyrd-wite’ was set at around forty shillings per man. Commutation, a payment in lieu of service, was lower, at around twenty shillings per obligation. A thegn liable to service could have his lands confiscated if he defaulted. [6] This did not necessarily mean that a thegn had to fight. He could send the required number of men without going himself; he would still be fulfilling his obligation.

Mention is made of two types of fyrd (army), the select fyrd and the gelect fyrd. The distinction between the select fyrd and the great fyrd might have been thus: the select fyrd consisted of soldiers who fought in battle, and the great fyrd may have been the back-up, repairing bridges and fortresses. [7]

The expensive equipment of the ealdormen, king’s thegns and the lesser thegns would have set the aristocracy apart from the ordinary fighting ceorl. The Battle of Maldon describes the ornate trappings of a nobleman in battle:

“An armed man then went to the Earl,
Wanting to strip him of his armbands, armour,
Ring-mail and ornate sword.”

Site of the Battle of Maldon – Ken Eckert *

Clearly the nobility who fought did so with expensive war gear, but to fight was not their only obligation. As landlords, they were responsible for the organisation, summoning and assembling of the fighting forces. They were also involved in the essential organisation to ensure that competent levies turned out to perform military duties on behalf of their estates.

The military crisis precipitated by the resumption of Danish raiding served to place emphasis on the fighting role of the thegn. But was the aristocracy a warrior class?

Their military equipment set them apart in wealth and status from the rank and file, and their bookland was held from the king immune from all except military service. Yet if this was a warrior aristocracy one would expect to see them holding their land as a reward for military service, and their status deriving from their military rank. This was clearly not the case; that land was not held as reward for military service is a major stumbling block for any historian trying to prove that pre-Conquest England was feudal.

Land was granted for many reasons. King Aethelred II granted Aethelwig land because he did not wish to sadden him. [8] Apart from his being a servant of the king there seems to be no other reason for the grant. A ceorl could amass all the weapons of a thegn and still remain a ceorl if he did not possess five hides of land. [9] Land remained the source of wealth and the indicator of status. Military service was an important part of a nobleman’s duties, but, as we have seen, it was only one of many. [10] One might also expect that in times of peace less emphasis would be placed on the thegn as a warrior than in times of war.

*During the time of Cnut, the household troops were referred to as housecarls. Cnut’s reign was not in the tenth-century, though, and Nicholas Hooper’s article [11] provides, for me, compelling argument to suggest that the housecarl differed little from the English thegn.

[1] Grant by King Edgar to his thegn Aelfwold 969 EHD (English historical Documents) 113 p519
[2] Grant by King Aethelred to his thegn Aethelwig 992-995 EHD 117 p525
[3] Origins of English Feudalism 61 p145 “The Rights and Ranks of People”
[4] For more on this, see Defining ‘Nobility’ in Late Anglo-Saxon England

[5] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (A) 921 (920)
[6] This point is discussed by DJV Fisher in the Anglo-Saxon Age Ch13
[7] See Warren hollister, Anglo-Saxon Institutions. There is also a possibility that the Select fyrd served locally, and that the Great fyrd was the national army
[8] EHD 117 p525
[9] See HR Loyn The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England p167
[10] See the previous article on duties and responsibilities – link at top of post

[11] The Housecarls in England in the Eleventh Century – N Hooper

Further General Reading:
The Foundation of England – HPR Finberg
The Beginnings of English Society – D Whitelock
Anglo-Saxon England – FM Stenton
From Roman Britain to Norman England – PH Sawyer

(Above illustrations – public domain unless otherwise accredited)

*https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Keneckert&action=edit&redlink=1

This article originally appeared on the EHFA Blog Site 22nd July, 2016

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