Age of Heroes - 3: Establishing Hierarchy, Elbowing the Opposition. Angles, Jutes and Saxons Vie for Overlordship
Neighbours once, and again at one anothers' throats
King Raedwald of the East Angles is thought to have been buried at Sutton Hoo with the treasures found in his ship burial near the River Deben in Suffolk, probably where his ancestors first came ashore. The burial was found by archaeologists on land owned by a Mrs Pretty just before hostilities began in 1939
The Romans slowly began to withdraw in the 4th Century AD...
The last legions had finally left by AD 410 for Rome, to defend the heartland of the empire against Barbarian invaders from the east - Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns and Lombards - who sought territory against default on their 'sold', or wages by Rome.
Some of the Germanic tribes friendly to Rome had been recruited as foederati, federated groups answerable to their own chieftains but ultimately to the emperor. Others, opportunists, freebooters sought to raid in the south-eastern corners of 'Britannia Major' and the Romans had built shore forts to counter these on the Saxon Shore' before they left in the first decade of the 5rh Century. Amongst the so-called 'Saxons' were others from nearer or further away than the Saxons. Some of these were Frisians, Vandals and Suevi.
However, the main bodies of Germanic groups came from the lower Saxon shore between the Rhine and the Weser - Seaxans - and a majority came from further north in Slesvig (pron. 'Slesway', between the Elbe and the Jutland peninsula now known as Schleswig in North Germany, around where the Kiel Canal cuts through the base of the peninsula). These were the Aengle.
Another, smaller number preceded these migrations from Jutland itself.
Broadly, the Aengle (Angles) settled in the east, across the midlands and in the north. The northerly Angles pushed into Gallo-Celtic Pictish territory and westward into the Gallo-Celtic homelands we know as Cumbria - from Cwmry (pronounced Coomra), Wales. This was the beginnings of Beornica = Bernicia and Deira, later to become Northanhymbra - Northumbria, the land north of the Humber (strictly speaking north of a line between the Humber and the Mersey). Others fanned out from the Wirral peninsula down near to the mouth of the River Severn. This was the land originally named Middil Aengia, later Myrca or Mierca = Mercia. These two Anglian kingdoms were to become serious rivals and were still wary of one another when they became subject to Wessex rule under 'ealdormen' at the time of Eadward 'the Elder'.
The East Angles were confined by Mercia to the north and west, by The Wash and the North Sea to the east and the East Saxons to the south-west. These were the north folc and suth folc (North folk and South folk) who gave their name eventually to Norfolk and Suffolk.
The Saxons pushed up the Thames corridor and along the southern Saxon shoreline, establishing themselves in East Seaxe (Essex), Middil Seaxe (Middlesex), Suth Seaxe (Sussex) and West Seaxe (Wessex).
The Jutes under their war leader Hengist after the death in battle against the southern Celts of his brother Horsa established themselves in Centland = Kent, taking the name of the Celtic tribe in the area, the Cantii, their capital being Cantuareburh or -byrig. They also settled a little further west in Suthrige or Southern kingdom, a Jutish wedge between the Middle Saxons north of the river Thames and the South Saxons along the sea-shore. Finally they settled the large island off the south coast they named Wiht, in modern terms Wight, cut off from their cousins in Kent by the South and West Saxons.
There were the inevitable clashed between these Germanic tribes - as there were amongst the Gallo-Celts further west - as they 'stretched their wings', bringing the Northumbrian Angles in conflict with the Mercian Angles at the time of Oswald and Penda in the 7th Century. The East Angles took a 'turn at the wheel' in Raedwald's time (7th Century). The title of 'Bretwalda' or 'high King' was taken by a succession of Germanic and Gallo-Celtic kings in turn, the strongest wresting the title from one another by virtue of their might within their region, growing beyond their boundaries and flexing their muscles in a show of domination. It was not like a friendly game of cricket between small towns. Wessex became the strongest contenders in the south and west, absorbing the weaker kingdoms of the Middle Saxons, Kent and eventually East Saxons. By the time Aelfred became king Wessex was already the major player in the island, a target for outsiders and rich beyond imagination in its agricultural products, wool and trade with Frankia and elsewhere. After the demise of the Danelaw at the time of Eadward 'the Elder' and Eadred Wessex was the most powerful kingdom, its kings acknowledged as 'Bretwalda'. The last king of the 'Cerdicinga' bloodline Eadward before he died in January, AD1066 received tribute from his neighbours to north and west.
The chronology of settlement according to Bede began in earnest in the 5th Century when the southern chieftains (Vortigern, according to legend, the name given them by the Jutes) sent for help from across the North Sea. As we know the Jutish brothers, war-band leaders Hengist and Horsa answered the call. The story goes that the reward for their fighting skills was left unpaid and they were embroiled in a rebellion against the Kentish Gallic chieftains. It was at this time that they brought in greater numbers from their homeland. The Celtic tribes stubbornly tried to hold onto their lands, the westward movement of the newcomers being held for decades between sporadic advances. After two hundred years of fighting and gradual integration the 'Aengle' and 'Seaxan' element began to overshadow their Gallic-Celtic neighbours in the lower-lying areas with their own institutions and laws, each of the groups of incomers set up their own kingdoms.
Aelle came at first with three ships to the south shore in AD477, landing on Selsey Bill and spreading into the area now known as East and West Sussex. The kingdom of the Suth Seaxans was on the anvil by the end of the 5th Century, hammered into shape. Cerdic, the founder of the West Saxon royal house came with five ships near the end of the 5th Century and brought more before he finally defeated a force of around five thousand Celts in AD508. The kings of Wessex extended their control over much of the southern shore, taking Salisbury halfway through the 6th Century, and on to the area now known as Gloucestershire. a quarter of a century later. The East Saxon kingdom is a 'closed book', little being known of its origins save some information on a later king Saeberht, who it is said established the first church at Thorney (oddly enough in mid Middil Seaxe or Middlesex), later rebuilt by Eadward 'the Confessor' as a minster or abbey church (West Mynster or West-minster Abbey). Digging at Mucking in Essex revealed a Saxon graveyard, showing that settlement was well under way by the mid-5th Century. Poor soil may have restricted the growth of the kingdom, making it dependent on its richer eastern and northern neighbours for food production.
The first of the Anglian kingdoms spanned modern-day Norfolk and Suffolk, achieving its zenith as the Kingdom of the East Angles unde Raedwald ('Bretwalda' AD 616-620). Like that of its western neighbour, East Anglia's origins are cloaked in mystery.
Further north along the east coast Northumbria was shaped by the fusion of two distinct kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, the latter having its main stronghold at Baebbanburh (Bamburgh). Eoferwic (York) was the hub of Deira. Also within Deira was the Celtic kingdom of Elmete, its epicentre being at modern-day Sherburn. The Northumbrian king Eadwin seized the title of 'Bretwalda' from the East Anglians after Raedwald's death.
Northumbria's might was in turn temporarily eclipsed by Penda's Mercia in the 7th Century. Myrca or Mierca was the Anglian word for 'Boundary Folk' and stretched from the border with Wales across country west to east to the North Sea, and down to Middil Seaxe in the later years leading up to Aelfred's kingship. Mercia achieved prominence under Offa, bringing the kingdom ro the attention of Charlemagne (Charles the Great) in the late 8th Century. Charlemagne saw him as an equal. Mercia's wealth enabled Offa to have his western boundary marked by a deep ditch with high ramparts on the eastern (Anglian) side to deter Welsh incursions.
After the reign of Offa the Anglian and Saxon kingdoms came under relentless pressure from Scandinavian raiders (West Norse = Norwegians) and subsequent colonisation (by the Danes). By the 9th Century the target was Wessex. Puppet kings were put in place in the kingdoms taken by the Danes.
Chronology of Germanic migrations into Britain:
AD55-400 Germanic foederati involved in conquest and consolidation by Romans in Britannia Major;
AD98 Tacitus names the mainland forefathers of the Angles and Saxons in his book 'Germani';
AD300-c450 Decline and fall of Western Roman possessions;
AD410 Emperor Honorius turns down plea for military aid against Barbarian raiders. Britannia Major is effectively on her own;
AD449 Council of Gallic-Celtic chieftains ('Vortigern') asks for help from Germanic warbands in subjugating rival Britons;
AD450-c500 Germanic uprisings and establishment of early Anglian-Saxon kingdoms. More came from mainland;
AD500-c600 Consolidation of early Anglian-Saxon kingdoms;
AD655 Battle of 'Winwaed'. End of pagan kingdoms. Northumbria becomes supreme Anglian kingdom;
AD650-750 Establishment of stable Anglian-Saxon states in lowland Britain;
AD757-797 Reign of Offa, Mercian supremacy;
AD793 First recorded Viking raid on England - Lindisfarne monks take remains of St Cuthberht to mainland Northumbria to look for sanctuary;
AD800-900 Scandinavian attacks (Danes) de-stabilise and destroy Anglian and Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex
*Aelfred's struggle with the Danes, Aethelstan and later takeover of the kingdom by the Danes after Aethelred are covered elsewhere on this Hub sub-domain.
Kingdoms come, kingdoms go...
A free society?
It is generally held that the Normans ushered in the feudal divisions of society. Not so, there were already several levels at which men - both free and beholden (serfs) - stood amongst their peers, although not as restricted as under Norman rule.
From the lowest thrall - slave - upward to the king, a man rarely left his beginnings behind. Not until after the time of Wat Tyler in the 'Peasants' Revolt' could a man escape his lot, and even then only by dint of superhuman effort. It was easier to become a free man if you lived in the town or city.
In the latter days of the Wessex hierarchy society was more or less rigid, save outlawry. The men who took the middle ground were the thegns. There were many below them, less above, but they were by no means masters of their own 'wyrd', their fate. A king's thegn might have the eye on the king on him, but good will only carried on with good service. It was not the worst thing to have your king's eye, as long as you were doing well. Those who took their rank from their father were only a little freer, but still had to watch their backs! There were those who felt it their due to be ennobled, rewarded for good works and a man going through the motions was liable to be pulled up sharply. The ambitious might find themselves socially enriched, but they had to be from that kind of background in the first place. Very rarely was a lowly ceorl likely to find himself catapulted to the lofty heights, if ever. As I said, the ambitious could find themselves being socially enriched with good deeds on the battlefield. Initially the thegn was a servant who held land from the king as well as upholding law and order under the scir gerefa* or shire reeve. He would be charged with organising and leading the local fyrd. Ranking above ordinary freemen, freed men and ceorls he was effectively a minor noble - like the later squire - but could not pass on his land or rank to his descendants. His role changed with the development of the kingdom, the meaning of the term thegn changing throughout the era. With time the rank superseded the gesith, meaning companion and denoting a member of the king's company. As the kingdoms grew loyal 'gesiths' were rewarded with land and became hereditary nobles. It was their task to raise the fyrd from amongst the free men, remembering who had 'done their bit'. Kings' thegns took over some of their duties. Some were noted statesmen who collected tribute from the Welsh and led Welsh levies in wartime. One such was Wulfric, killed in AD897. Another, Ordeh, was slain with many fellow thegns in a victory over the Norsemen at Exteter in AD894.
At the lower levels of the thegn's class were men given landholdings in the shires, the land being legally still the king's or belonging to the Church as 'bookland'. Later a thegn could hand his estates down to an elder son by 'book right', leading to the level of hereditary minor nobility, (also like the later squire whose rank only harked back to the time a young man held still his knight's horse whilst the man mounted).
The new class of 'shire thegn' made up a large section of the select fyrd, or levy of well-trained men who formed the backbone of any defence force. By the time of the Conquest thegns were an officer class, eqiuivalent to Norman knights. Nevertheless the thegn was overshadowed after the time of Knut 'the Great' by a new rank of minor nobility, the huscarl or household (earls' or kings'), warrior. There were many similarities between the two, as were earls and the ealdormen they eventually replaced. So, from the early Angles, Jutes and Saxons society took the following form:
..........................AD500-650.................... AD650-850................... AD850-1066
Commoner........... ceorl................................ ceorl.............................. ceorl
Ennobled............. gesith......................... gesith/thegn................. thegn/huscarl*
Governor .........shire reeve..................... shire reeve.................... shire reeve
Noble/governor ealdorman..................... ealdorman.................. ealdorman/earl*
*Title taken from Danish origins: formerly 'huskarl', 'jarl'
From olden times the Germanic fighting units were made up of two identifiably different types. There were the part-timers who were called on to defend the motherland, and there were the paid warriors.
The former were trained to an acceptable level to form the mass that stood behind the professionals - as with the modern army, (Territorial Army, Regular Army and Corps of Marines in the UK and Commonwealth; National Guard, Army and Marine Corps in the USA). The fyrdmen took their weapons from the Hundred (in the north and east from the 9th Century this was the vapnatak -literally: weapontake or weapon store) such as slings, bows, spears, the 'artillery' of the early middle ages. Shields were allocated on a 'needs' basis.
Ealdormen and thegns had their own sources of weaponry, paid for from their own incomes. Swords and fighting axes were bought or passed down through generations amongst the 'gesith' and 'thegn' class, as were their shields - although shields had a notably shorter life for obvious reasons.
A warrior elite grew from early migration times, the ealdorman's or king's hearth troops. Thegns stood amongst both these groups and made up the backbone of the 'here' (pronounced 'herre') or army with their more intense weapons training and skills.
At the time of the Germanic influx into Britain a new warrior class had emerged, the 'hearthweru'. The king or warband leader had around him his loyal followers and companions who guarded him. They were the means by which his rule or leadership was imposed on his underlings, chosen from among the broad mass of his armed men, these fellows were full-time fighting men like the later huscarls. The bodyguards or hearth warriors dwelt within the king's compound. In the early-middle Anglian and Saxon era these household men made up the greater part of the 'here' kept by any king or lord with ambition to rise beyond his horizons. In one part of the BEOWULF saga there is an account of the 'Fight at Finnsburgh'. One of the armies consists of at most sixty warriors.
Contingents brought across the North Sea by early Aengle and Seaxan chieftains are said to have been borne by small numbers of ships - between three and five. The retinues could hardly have numbered more than a few hundred and were the personal warbands of men like Cerdic who were to become the self-styled kings, the founders of dynasties.
These elite forces were not limited to the service of kings. The 'aetheling' Guthlac of Mercia raised an independent retinue in the 7th Century and lay waste to lands and strongholds of his foes over nine years. He made no effort to hide the fact that he was acting on his own behalf. Penda's army that left Mercia on campaign against Oswy of Northumbria in AD655 is said to have numbered six thousand. The yardstick used at the time would have brought that down, the personal bodyguards of Penda's Welsh allies and Mercian nobles totalling something more like a few hundred would have been a truer head-count.
In AD685 the outcast noble Caedwalla overthrew King Centwin of the West Saxons. As Caedwalla can not have called on very great numbers of men we have to assume both armies were tiny even compared to Aelfred's numbers two hundred years later. The earliest collection of 'English' laws is the code of King Ine of the West Saxons from about AD694, these define a 'here' as any band of armed men over thirty-five in number. Early Anglian and Saxon attacking forces would therefore have been fairly small warbands, largely the retainers of war-mongering lords. some warriors making up the numbers would have been (well-equipped for the time) motivated ceorls. Most were by definition gesithas, or fellows of the king, the direct forbears of the thegns.
Next: 4: Banners & Standards
England's story was written in the stars, those stars used by northern Continental navigators to bring their ships to these shores
One of the Osprey 'Warrior' series of illustrated paperbacks for researchers and fans of early military history. Gerry Embleton's colour illustrations balance well with Mark Harrison's narrative. Black & white photographs, diagrams, drawings and maps to guide the reader through this fascinating era of British/English history. I've had a copy for some time now, very useful for my purposes (in historical fiction).
Population Distribution and Ethnographics
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster