Did a genocide almost happen in England? (And other gems from Anglo-Saxon History)

Haters will say that Anglo-Saxons are dull because they were simply bearded men, with nothing but pillaging and unaesthetic mud huts to their name. Haters would therefore be wrong. Here are some of the most interesting things I’ve learnt from my reading of The Anglo-Saxon Age by John Blair, The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell and Anglo-Saxon England by David Brown.

  1. The mains gods in Anglo-Saxon society were Tiw, Woden and Thor. Tiw was the god of war, swordplay and the sky, whilst Woden was the chief of all the Anglo-Saxon gods and Thor was the god of sky and thunder. (Marvel, anyone?) These gods were honoured especially in place names- Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, as well as a few places like Tuesley in Surrey, Wednesbury in Staffs and Thursley in Surrey.
  2. The word Welshman has a root in slavery, becomes it comes from “wealh” which means slave. So the place “Walton” could either mean the place of the Welsh/Britons, or the place of slaves.
  3. Kings never stayed in power for too long. It is crucial to remember that at that time there were many simultaneously ruling kings in England, because England as a unified place did not exist and was more like a mixture of different smaller kingdoms. Anyway, even kings of smaller areas were not in power for very long. and this was because soldiers were attracted to kings by gifts: but gifts depended on the wealth of the kings which in turn relies upon power and conquest. If a battle is lost, then all the soldiers could switch sides so that they could receive gifts from another king. So power and authority was very fluid in the seventh century.
  4. In the eighth and ninth century, wealthy landowners would build monasteries on their estates to enjoy the tax advantages. Essentially, taxes would have to be paid to a church in order to maintain them, but if you already had a monastery on your land then these could be evaded. This evasion was so prolific that a famous monk, Bede, complained about these “fronts” in his book.
  5. King Alfred devoted the last ten years of life to reviving literacy and learning in his society. He was the only English king, even before Henry VIII, who wrote books. That is impressive. Good old Alfred even learnt Latin, and being the kindly man he was, translated texts into English for his subjects’ benefit alone. He also organised the first compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is basically the main source we have for nearly all events in that era, from early Anglo-Saxon life to the Norman Conquest.
  6. One could see how strong royal power was by their coinage. There were decrees issued by Aethelstan between 924 and 939 which ordered that throughout the land there should be a single type of coin, with the same sort of weight and consistency. This is key because it illustrates the consistency of their rule -if they were overthrown then something new would have been introduced- in a time where the turn-over of kings was high!
  7. In 1002, Æthelred and his council ordered a massacre of all Danes living in England. These Danes were living happily in the Danelaw, but of course their presence was unwanted by an English ruler because of the threat of a revolution they posed. However, the law ordering a genocide could not have been enforced, as it is thought that up to a 1/3 of all people in the time were Danish. It does however suggest that there were anti-Danish sentiments at the time, and it is clear that this suggestion of a massacre, whatever came of it irrelevant, did prompt King Swein to invade England (and promptly rule it) a year later.
  8. Churches in the eleventh century are vastly different to today. Back then, they were owned by the lords who built them, whose purpose was determined by a tenurial rather than pastoral manner. The church’s main function was not exactly religion, but to serve “the needs of the lord, his household, and tenants” (Blair).
  9. Anglo-Saxons did not learn to read and write until after the spread of Christianity, when Augustine came to England in AD 597.
  10. Most people were buried with their spear and shield. Swords were found for one in ten graves, and many had no weapons at all. Weapons were found however, were appropriate to their class, and were therefore symbols of wealth, not constant warfare.
  11. Anglo-Saxon houses had hollows in them for storage. 
  12. In the seventh century there was a mass conversion to christianity- first observed with royal families. Christian kings were buried in churches: the first one was Aethelbert of Kent in 616 in St Martin’s Chapel at St Peter. Lesser folk, however, were buried outside churches.
  13. People buried coins when they feared they would lose them. Therefore when lots of coins were buried at a particular time (because nothing like safes existed back then), it signalled that a raid was going on. However sometimes these people died during such attacks, and therefore their coins remain buried, as they are found today.
  14. -by is the danish word for village, i.e Grimsby is Grimr’s village. Hybrid names like Grmis-ton is Grimr’s village, with a Danish personal name (Grmis) and an English word (-ton, for village).
  15. Edward the Elder tried to stop the black market! He wanted all exchanges to be carried out in a port in the witness of a reeve (royal official) so that the sale of stolen property could be hindered, stolen property being mainly cattle.