Category Archives: ANCIENT BRITAIN:

Anglo-Saxon and Normans

Anglo-Saxon Sword

How different were the Anglo-Saxons and Norman societies on the eve of the conquest? Each having the same ancestral heritage.  Each were Scandinavian immigrants who had chosen to settle in a new land and take over from its ruling aristocracy. English and Norman social structures were very similar.  Both societies, believed land was the defining currency. The Lord owned the land, and he parcelled it out amongst his followers in return for service. They in turn settled upon the land as minor lords in their own right, surrounded by a retinue of warriors to whom they would grant gifts as rewards for good service and as tokens of their own good work they would receive the greatest gift; land.

Success in war generated more land which could be passed around. If a lord wasn’t successful in battle or not generous enough, it wouldn’t be long before his followers would desert him and seek out a ‘better’ lord. The warrior fought for his lord; they were both serviced by non-fighting tenant farmers who owed their livelihoods to the lord; and below them came the unfree slaves.

The basic building block of the system was the Hearth. On his land, the Lord owned a hearth-hall, which he housed his retinue of warriors. His tenants would bring their produce to this hall, feeding and maintaining the retinue. In return, the Lord provided all on his land with security. It was when he was unable to provide that security that the lord got worried: lack of security defined a ‘bad’ lordship.

10th Century Anglo-Saxon England had been complicated by a highly chequered history. Which had seen pre-Norman Britain become the most organised state in Western Europe. The king controlled land divided into shires, on which taxation was assessed and levied. These taxes were collected in coin from the burhs and fresh coin was minted 3 times a year in 60 royal mints arranged throughout the country. It was a very Roman system.

According to Anglo-Saxons, the Normans be second or third generation immigrants of Northern France, and according to their history, the land of Normandy was granted to their founder, Rollo in 911. His successors ruled the frontier on behalf of the Frankish king. So it was the Norman system was coloured by Frankish practice, each had their own way of who owned and looked after the land, and supplied warriors for battle.

On one hand the Norman Duke had the power to call out men who would down tools and join him in battle, he usually relied on his military, which was a complex set of family ties and loyalties he had established with the great magnates who occupied his land. By the time of William the Conqueror, this relationship had hardened which saw Norman nobles; his faithful men join him in battle.

Though Norman dukes controlled the coinage in their own domain, no coins had been minted since the time of William’s grandfather. The duke still called upon his nobles to provide an army when he wanted to go to war, and they obliged in the expectation of a share in the spoils of conquest.

In the crucial months leading up to the Battle of Hastings, Harold was faced with limitations when he called for warriors to defend Britain from the likes of these Norman warriors.

With both Britain’s Anglo-Saxons and France’s Normans both using similar hearth systems, when Britain lost the Battle of Hastings to William’s Norman knights, both systems could be integrated quite smoothly.

William introduced the Domesday Book, which illustrated that little had changed just name of the landlord. Villages remained much the same as they had for hundreds of years: woodland measured in the number of pigs it could support and mills and minor industries.  Some villages were transformed with the addition of a Norman castle.

Normans introduced a major change into English law. Prior to the Conquest, cases were tried in front of juries selected from the hundred on the basis of Trial by Ordeal, or Trial by Oath Taking.

Oath Taking, a Saxon process whereby a man would rely on the oaths of his lord and peers to vouch for his innocence and good name – the higher the status of your oath-helper, the better your chances of success.

These were complemented by the Norman practice of Trial by Battle, in which the judgement of God was determined not by the speed it took you to heal from the Ordeal, but by the success of your champion in battle.


The Humble English Parish Church


One of the few sights left that evoke our love of England has to be the decaying parish church, a record of centuries of history and social change within the area.

The humble parish church is an integral part of English social life and culture, covering a period in history of 1400 years.

Churches were often located on pre-Christian sites of spiritual significance, taking advantage of people’s existing devotion to a particular place.  Churches are nearly always oriented so that the main altar is at the east end of the church, facing Jerusalem, and the rising sun.  Even if the altar end of the church is not literally in the east, it is still referred to as the East End.

Historians speculated that parish boundaries were originally those of Saxon manors.  Prior to the Norman invasion, early churches built with towers, was a defensive measure against the threat of invasion.

The chancel of the church was the domain of the priest, and the nave belonged to the parishioners. Each was responsible for the upkeep of their domain.  This may go towards explaining the unusual architecture of some early parish churches, where the chancel is built of carefully squared stone, and the nave of a cheaper flint.

The distinction between chancel and nave led to the development of rood screens to mark the division between the domain of the priest and his parishioners.  These screens were usually made of wood, and became very elaborate in their design.  Sadly many were destroyed under the Reformation and the later Puritan influence.

One point to remember is that there was no seating in churches at that time.  People attending a service stood in the nave.

The floor plan of the southern Anglo Saxon Churches was based on the traditional Roman basilica, with an eastern apse, no transepts, western entrances and aisles.

In the north the Celtic influence led to churches that were narrow, tall, and rectangular, with doors on the side.

The Norman’s rebuilt many of the earlier Saxon churches, in the process destroying much of the regional differences in favour of a more unified Norman look.

Early Norman churches were without aisles, with a central tower, and built to a cruciform plan, shaped like a cross with a small t.

Medieval parish churches were usually plastered inside and out.  Vivid pictures were painted on the interior plaster to illustrate Biblical scenes for the illiterate population.

Before the Great Plague of 1348-50 the growing population necessitated more space inside parish churches, and it was at this time, many churches added aisles.

The most notable parish churches of the late medieval period are the so-called wool churches, common to East Anglia.  These are churches endowed by the newly rich class of local merchants thriving on England’s wool trade.

The Tudor era saw one important change, under the influence of Elizabeth the first; sermons became much longer, leading to the installation of pews in the nave.  The preacher needed a pulpit and lectern which was added to the nave.  Most of the pulpits seen in parish churches date from the Tudor period.

The Tudor period saw the end of the great church building era.  Far fewer churches were built from that time to the present day, the most prominent being the classical motif of the Stuart and Georgian period, and the Gothic revival of the mid-Victorian time.

Most new parish churches were built in the ever growing cities.  Most notably in London, where the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed most of the Medieval Churches and gave a young architect – Christopher Wren an opportunity to design a new classical style of church.

Many of the old parish churches that once served prosperous villages have fallen into disuse and been abandoned as populations have shifted.

The ruins of St Alphage: A Medieval church is uncovered on London Wall — Memoirs Of A Metro Girl

Standing on London Wall surrounded by the brutalist concrete of the Barbican estate and 21st century office blocks is a rare piece of Medieval London. Largely hidden in recent decades, the redesign of the highwalk and a new pavement-level garden means Londoners can now see the ruins of St Alphage church. The original St Alphage […]

via The ruins of St Alphage: A Medieval church is uncovered on London Wall — Memoirs Of A Metro Girl

Anglo-Saxon King: Alfred the Great

King Alfred the Great
King Alfred the Great

Alfred was born in Wantage, Berkshire in AD849, into an England which was unstable and a violent society, a country consisting of kingdoms, a land threatened by invaders.  He was the youngest son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex, and his wife Osburh, daughter of Oslac, the royal cupbearer of South Hampshire.

In 853 the young Prince Alfred rode a thousand miles, taking his first steps into public affairs and diplomacy at the papal court in Rome.  He would present himself to Pope Leo IV on behalf of his father; King Ethelwulf of Wessex.  He was anointed royally by the Pope.

In 871, King Ethelred, the West Saxon King and elder brother of Alfred dies in battle.  On the 23rd April, Alfred becomes King of Wessex, a land beset with Viking invaders.

Alfred builds an English fleet of ships, to take on these Viking invaders on land and sea.  The English learnt quickly, for in 875 they claim their first sea victory, capturing one of the Viking ships.

In 878, Alfred is pushed west into the Somerset marshes by Danish forces.  From Athelney Fort and surrounding areas he creates a force to come out fighting, beating the Danes.

In 878 the “Treaty of Wedmore” is born, dividing England in two, with Alfred overlord of both halves.  Anglo-Saxons in the south and west, with Danes in the north and east.

As the Danes invade Kent in 885, Alfred drives Danish forces out of London in 886, and recognised by its people, as King of all England.

During the 890’s Alfred compiled the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which were written in the language of the Anglo-Saxons.  It described England’s political, social and economic events through time, and was continually updated until the 12th century.

Alfred the Great, King of England, died in 899 and was succeeded by Edmund the Elder.

Anglo-Saxon Legend: Beowulf


We know not who wrote the epic 3,182 line Anglo-Saxon poem; Beowulf, written in Old English.

The Beowulf story is set within a warrior society, a blood-curdling tale of gore and brutality, about a hero governed by duty, honour and bravery.  It tells the story of Beowulf, a young warrior and his victories.

Grendel, the semi-human monster, repeatedly attacks the Great Hall of Herat, by dragging away his prey, one victim after another.

Beowulf is summoned to the court of the Danish King; Hrothgar.  Whose castle has been under siege these past twelve years.  His knights are being constantly slaughtered night after night, by the monster; Grendel.

Beowulf and Grendel come face to face in battle.  Beowulf, rips Grendel’s arm from its socket, and Grendel hobbles back to his lair where he bleeds to death.

Grendel’s mother seeks revenge the following night, from the likes of Beowulf.  A great under water fight takes place between Beowulf and the monstrous matriarch, with Beowulf emerging as the victor.

Beowulf returns home to Sweden a hero of his people.  He rules for many years, and his people believe he is a wise ruler.  According to legend, a dragon guarded the city’s treasure, and all was quiet for some 300 years, then things changed the dragon is disturbed and he goes on the rampage; burning Beowulf’s hall to cinders.

Beowulf summons up all his courage, and makes a pledge to his people, that he and his follower’s will kill the dragon.  Beowulf’s follower’s gazed upon their leader and the dragon, and fear seeped through their bodies, as they fled in fear.

Wiglaf a young kinsman stands by Beowulf, prepared to fight side by side in battle.  As Beowulf prepares to vanquish the dragon, his sword shatters and the creature inflicts a deadly poison venom upon him.  Wiglaf and Beowulf kill the beast as the venom seeps through Beowulf’s body, as life is slowly taken from him.

Wiglaf proved himself in battle, and loyal to his King, earning the trust of Beowulf, who passes his throne to him… a worthy successor and King.

The poem concludes with a gloomy prediction which talks about catastrophes which will strike down Beowulf’s people, now their hero had died.

Beowulf’s people lament, that he had been a gracious and fair minded King, with kindness of heart.

The Viking Age


The image we have of Vikings is one of wild-haired barbaric savages, who raided lands across Europe and beyond, all based on their chronicles.

They used two different styles of ships.  The “Drakkar” longship was intended for war and exploration designed for speed and agility, with oars and a sail.  It had a long narrow hull with a shallow draft for ease of landings and shallow waters.  Whilst on the otherhand their “Knarr” longships were designed as a merchant cargo vessel, with a broad hull and deep draft.  She would rely more on her sail to drive her, for she carried a relatively small number of oars.

The Vikings had a language all of their own, made up from sound values integrated with Latin, and used their “Runor” alphabet to read and write.

The Vikings left Rune stones inscribed with memories of the dead, or battles won.  These can be found across Europe, mainly in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and gives us an insight into their timeline.

If one looks at a Rune stone, the centre is made up of images similar to those of early cave-man drawings, whilst the outer edge is a creation of their own alphabet.

In Denmark there are Viking Rune stones, dating between 960-985, placed there by King Gorm the Old, the last pagan King of Denmark in memory to his Queen; Thyre.

Harold Bluetooth his son placed a stone, for the conquest of Denmark and Norway, and the conversion of Danes to Christianity.

An inscription on the larger of the stones read:  “King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gomr, his father, and in memory of Thyre his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.”

There are known Viking burial sites across much of Europe, especially in their homelands of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.  A Viking warrior is usually buried with his weapons, and these artefacts give us an insight to their lifestyle.

In England the Viking age began with the spilling of blood and destruction as they destroyed the Abbey on the island of Lindisfarne in 793AD, which sent shock waves across Europe to their presence.

Historical accounts of Viking raids and colonization of Europe, is written in the chronicles of; Nestor, Novgorod, and Ibn Fadlanand Ibn Rusta.

For three hundred years, Viking raiders were the scourge of the waters, plundering, killing and taking captives to sell into a life of slavery.  Shoreline settlements lived in fear of these barbaric warriors.  For it was in 991Ad “The Battle of Maldon,” took place on the shores of the Blackwater River in Essex, between the Viking raiders and its inhabitants.

The Norwegians are known to have spread to the north and western areas, covering Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland.  Whilst the Danes settled in the northern and Eastern parts of England and Normandy.

Other Vikings ventured the northerly coasts of the North Atlantic Ocean, travelling south to North Africa, and east into present day Russia.  They raided, pillaged, traded and some even settled in these new lands, and some were known to have become mercenaries.

Those Vikings under Leif Ericson, heir to Erik the Red, settled in Newfoundland and Labrador Canada.

The Normans were descendants from the Danish and Norwegian Vikings, and were known to raid English shores as early as 790 until the full Norman Conquest of England in 1066.  If we look back into our history, we will see that King Harold II was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, and he did in fact have Danish ancestors.

Some Scandinavian Vikings are known to have served as mercenaries, at a time when the Swedish visited the Byzantium Empire in the early part of the 800’s.

By the latter part of the 10th century, the imperial guard consisted of Scandinavians, better known as the Varangian Guard.  Varangian, is believed to have stemmed from Old Norse, but in Slavic and Greek refers to Scandinavians.

Harold Hadrada a well respected and influential member of the Varangian Guard, rose to become King of Norway (1047-1066).

By the latter part of the 11th century, the Catholic Church had increased its power and influence amongst the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway and Denmark).  Then in 1103 the first Archbishopric was founded.

A major profit for Vikings had been the taking of captives and selling them as slaves.  Christianity had abolished this practice throughout parts of northern Europe, but it continued well into the 11th century, when it was outlawed and replaced by the act of “Serfdom.”

Raids continued for much of the 11th century and early part of the 12th century, until a new target could be found for their fighting warriors.

In 1107 Sigurd I of Norway took his army of Norwegian crusaders to the “Kingdom of Jerusalem,” for the Baltic Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries.

In the 12th century a Scottish warrior named Somerled, of the Donald clan and of Viking descent, drove the Vikings out of Scotland.

Norman England: The Domesday Book

The Domesday Book
The Domesday Book

The Norman invasion of 1066, was led by Duke William of Normandy, who became William I (William the Conqueror), King of England.  He who was a descendant of those pagan Vikings, who attacked coastal communities from Scandinavia, who settled in the Seine Valley in 911.

When King Edward the Confessor died, Harold seized the English throne, and Edward’s promise that William should succeed him, was ignored.  This precipitated a Norman attack, as William claimed his right to the English throne.

England of the 11th century was not only an old country, but one stepped in wealth, one of which was English wool being exported to Europe…

So the Domesday Book was born, for he needed to know how much his new kingdom was worth.  Who owned every piece of land, those who lived and worked it, how much livestock, and set it down as a record.

They recorded the name of the estate, whose name it was in, how much livestock, ploughs, slaves, freemen, sokemen, wood, meadow, pasture and mills.  How much each freeman and sokeman had, and its considered value, thereof.

For it was a record of estates and manors, and how much tax could be levied across the country as a whole… an estate liability.

After the Norman Conquest, William initiated a change of estates and manor ownership, which would be recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.  Some 180 large estates and manors formerly owned by Anglo-Saxons, changed hands to that of Norman Barons.

6,000 farmers, who owned their land, now had to lease it from their new Norman masters.

The Domesday Book described a conquered country to a King, who never uttered a word of the English language, but wanted a detailed record of its ownership, and estimated value for tax purposes.  It paints a picture of early medieval England, with its Feudal System, Local Government and Taxation.

The Doomesday Book was a new start for the country, whose roots were firmly rooted in the past.

Of the sixteen Anglo-Saxon Bishoprics, only one survived, the others were moved to large centres under Norman leadership, and all six Anglo-Saxon Sees were changed to Norman.

By the year 1200, most of the Anglo-Saxon Cathedrals were destroyed and replaced by Norman-Styled Architecture of which many still exist to this day.

William took over a country, down to the last blade of grass, and developed a system, run by his Norman officials, from central to local officials.  For he needed England’s wealth in taxes to pay for his army.

So a demand for tax would be sent to a shire, by representatives of the court, which would carry the royal seal, often backed by military forces to ensure payment.

When Edward the Confessor died, and Duke William of Normandy his chosen successor finally claimed the English throne.  Who would have believed he would milk the country dry by means of taxation, to pay for his own army…