Dark Ages - Between Romans & Normans

Click to a larger version of Dinas Emrys, Gwynedd (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Dinas Emrys, Gwynedd (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Around AD 446, over 30 years after the Romans had abandoned Britain, ‘the groan of the Britons’ was sent to Aetius the Roman commander in Gaul. Their plea for help against the increasing numbers of raiders and migrants from across the North Sea went unheeded. Vortigern, a British ‘tyrant’ or ‘King of the Britons’ in Kent, tried to use the Roman strategy of employing mercenaries to see off other ‘barbarians’. These Germanic mercenaries, led by the legendary Hengest and Horsa from Jutland, made an alliance with Picts invading from the north. The Picts withdrew leaving the ‘Saxons’ to betray the Britons and overrun SE England. According to the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, attributed to a Welshman called ‘Nennius’, Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn) was exiled to Snowdonia where he tried to build a citadel on the rock rising above an arc of the river Glaslyn. The work of his masons and carpenters collapsed every night and his seers could not solve the problem. They suggested sacrificing a ‘fatherless’ boy named Ambrosias (Emrys). The boy Merlin (for it was he!), explained that the building work was being prevented by two dragons fighting in an underground lake, and that mastery of the white dragon by the red foretold the victory of the Welsh over the Saxons. Merlin deals with the ‘serpents’ but Vortigern is not destined to occupy the hill, that honour goes to Merlin and his descendants who are of ‘more noble’ Romano-British stock.
Click to a larger version of West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, Suffolk (St Edmundsbury Borough Council): photo © Mick Sharp

West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, Suffolk (St Edmundsbury Borough Council): photo © Mick Sharp

This experimental village is on the site of Stow or Stowa occupied from around 420-650 by families from Germany or Holland. In the fertile, sheltered valley of the Lark they settled, and lived, farmed, hunted and fished here with their servants and slaves. The hall, houses, workshops and outbuildings are mainly of oak posts and planks with thatched roofs. All over what was to become eastern and southern England these Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Huns, Frisians and Franks were settling land and displacing the Britons by force of arms and weight of numbers or absorbing them by intermarriage and subjugation. Battles were fought, land was lost and gained but the Anglicization of Britain advanced. Around 477 the kingdom of West Sussex was founded after Saxon warriors landed on the south coast and killed many Britons, the survivors fleeing north into the Weald. Not all Britons retreated to the British kingdoms of Strathclyde, Rheged or Cumbria, or to what were to become Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, but the population of ‘England’ was Anglicized and Romano-British Christianity lost ground to Germanic paganism. Their supreme war-god and creator Odin, or Woden, kindly provided our name for Wednesday; his wife Freya (Frigga) and their son Thor taking care of Thursday and Friday.
Click to a larger version of Cadbury Castle, Somerset: photo © Mick Sharp

Cadbury Castle, Somerset: photo © Mick Sharp

Out of the swirling smoke and shadows of post-Roman Britain shines the name and idea of Arthur, a flawed but dazzling hero described as anything from an historical ‘dux bellorum’ (leader of troops) for the British kings through to an idealised chivalric knight and superhuman being - an amalgam of several individuals, myths and storytelling traditions. There was a British revival in the years around 500 and later sources record Arthur’s victory over pagan Saxons at the battle of Mount Badon sometime between 490 and 516. Welsh sources report his death at the hands of the Saxons during the battle of Camlann in 539 or 542. The locations of these battles are in dispute as are Arthur’s pedigree and sphere of influence: the south-west, Wales, the north; everywhere. One very strong contender for his legendary court of Camelot is at South Cadbury. Successively a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement, Iron Age hillfort and Romano-British temple site, the hilltop was strongly refortified in the 5th century, the excavated remains suggesting the Dark Age hall, stronghold and rallying point of a British leader.
Click to a larger version of Castle Dore, Cornwall: photo © Jean Wiliamson

Castle Dore, Cornwall: photo © Jean Wiliamson

The full cycle of Arthurian tales ranges far and wide across Britain, and abroad, for its romantic locations. There is a very strong strand in the south-west which sees Tintagel as the place where Arthur was conceived and born, Castle Killibury or Castle-an-Dinas as the site of his court, Slaughterbridge where he met his death, Dozmary Pool where Sir Bedivere threw Arthur’s sword and Lyonesse the sunken lands beyond Land’s End to which the remnants of Arthur’s army escaped. Glastonbury in Somerset is the Isle of Avalon to which Arthur and his queen, Guinevire, were taken after their separate deaths, In Arthurian legend the Iron Age hillfort of Castle Dore was the site of the Dark Age hall of King Mark of Cornwall, famously and tragically betrayed by his wife Iseult and his ‘nephew’ Tristan. Some sources equate him with Marcus Cunomorus, an historical tyrant who ruled in Cornwall and Brittany. Close to Castle Dore is the Tristan Stone, a rough monolith carved on the north side with a ‘Tau’ (an early form of Christian cross in the shape of a ‘T’), and inscribed in Latin on the south: Trystan here lies, of Cunomorus the son. Dating from around 550, its combination of cross and Latin inscription remind us that Christianity and literacy were being kept alive in the ‘Celtic’ west.
Click to a larger version of Aberdaron Church, Gwynedd (Church in Wales): photo © Jean Williamson

Aberdaron Church, Gwynedd (Church in Wales): photo © Jean Williamson

A series of Early Christian inscribed stones from the 5th and 6th centuries indicate that Christianity, literacy and remnants of Roman administration were being maintained in the west and north of Britain, while the pagan Saxons gradually came to control a mixed population in the greater part of ‘England’. Memorial stones bearing simple crosses or Chi-Rho symbols (a cross made out of the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek), bear Latin inscriptions recording magistrates, citizens, priests and doctors amongst others. The 6th-century Capel Anelog stones are from a religious community situated near the tip of the Lleyn peninsula and connected with the Celtic monastery on Bardsey Island. The inscriptions translate as: ‘Veracius the priest lies here’ and ‘Senacus the priest lies here with the multitude of the brethren’. This phrase or the misreading of its Roman capital letters as numerals may have led to the tradition of 20,000 saints being buried on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey).
Click to a larger version of Cilgerran Churchyard, Pembrokeshire (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Cilgerran Churchyard, Pembrokeshire (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

This 6th or early 7th century inscribed stone in St Llawdog’s churchyard tells us, in Latin and ogham, that ‘Trenenussus (Trenegussus) the son of Macutrenus (Macutreni) lies here. Ogham is an Irish alphabet of 21 letters denoted by short strokes along a central line or stone edge. The Romans called the Irish Scotti: pirates or plunderers. They raided western Britain for booty, cattle and slaves, and settled in Anglesey and south-west Wales in particular as ogham inscriptions, personal and place-names attest. St Patrick, a Briton, was first taken to Ireland as a slave but he escaped and returned as a missionary. Roving Irish priests and monks then helped to keep the flame of ‘Celtic Christianity’ alight and spreading. At the time of the Roman exodus, people in Britain spoke ‘Brittonic’ (Brythonic or P-Celtic) as well as Latin to which it was similar. By around 700 the people in ‘Wales’ were speaking something recognisable as ‘Welsh’: the personal name Maglocunos had become Maelgwyn. The Germanic invaders were known by their name for a knife, saex or sax, which survives today in the modern Welsh and Scottish terms Saes and Sassenach. Wales and Welsh come from the Germanic term Wealhas meaning foreigners or, more kindly and specifically, Romanized people. Cymru, Cymry and Cymraig; Wales, the Welsh and the Welsh language derive from the Brittonic word Combrogi for ‘fellow-countryman. Cumbria, part of the old Brythonic kingdom of Rheged, also comes from this root.
Click to a larger version of Dunadd Fort, Mid Argyll (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Dunadd Fort, Mid Argyll (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

In Wales the Scotti certainly left their marks - and some Iron Age hut circles are still known erroneously as Cytiau'r Gwyddelod, cottages of the Goidels (Irish) - but in northern Britain they eventually put their name to a whole country. Gaelic-speaking Scots, from Dal Riata in Antrim, established a power base on the rock of Dunadd in the Kilmartin valley and set about expanding their fledgling kingdom of Dalriada into Pictland to the north and east. This 6th-century push into pagan Pictish territory was aided by the diplomacy and muscular Christian missionary work of St Columba, a former ‘druid-prince’ from Northern Ireland, who had used his connection with King Conall of Dunadd to establish a monastery on the island of Iona off the Argyll coast. Columba travelled to Inverness to the fort of the Pictish king Brude (Bridei) where he successfully engaged in magic contents with the king’s druid Broichan. En route he saved one of his monks from a ‘man-killing monster’ in the River Ness and impressed his hosts by sailing (tacking) up Loch Ness against the wind and Broichan’s incantations. The carved footprint and stone basin on the citadel at Dunadd were used during inauguration rituals of the Dalriadan kings. The boar and ogham carvings may date from 736 when Dunadd was besieged by the Pictish king Fergus. A unified kingdom of Scots and Picts was first achieved around 844 under Kenneth mac Alpin the ruler of Dalriada. After a seven-year war, Kenneth invited Pictish nobles to a peace banquet and had them murdered; a similar act of treachery was played by the Saxons on the Kentish Britons.
Click to a larger version of Aberlemno Pictish Cross-slab, Angus (Historic Scotland): © Mick Sharp

Aberlemno Pictish Cross-slab, Angus (Historic Scotland): © Mick Sharp

Roman and Saxon writers have left confusing accounts of the indigenous tribes of northern Britain; the large confederations of the Caledonii and the Maeatae, and the later, more general term Picts, being the most familiar names. The Picts did not write about themselves, their origins are obscure and the Roman nickname Picti simply means ‘the painted (or tattooed) people’. They are best known from the range of enigmatic pagan symbol stones produced during the 5th-7th centuries and their later Christian cross-slabs. These emblematic devices - memorials, markers, genealogy records, history-stones and teaching aids - feature a wide range of abstract designs and an array of animals; real, imaginary, hybrid and distorted. A rich iconography of ideas and attributes, a system of communication as subtle and complex as the Victorian-era symbolic language of flowers. Bull, eagle, fish, boar, ‘elephant’, serpent, deer, wolf; comb and mirror, ‘tuning-fork’, triple- and double-disc, crescent, Z-rod and V-rod; anvil and blacksmith’s hammer, axe, sword, spear, cloak and baggy trousers. The cross-slabs bear pagan and Christian symbols, bible stories and hunting and battle scenes. This, on the rear of a cross at Aberlemno, may be an 8th-century representation of the Battle of Nechtansmere (685) with bareheaded Picts achieving a victory over the helmeted Angles of Northumbria. It may be read as a narrative, ending bottom right with a fallen warrior a ‘prey for ravens’. Squeezed between Anglians from the south and Vikings from the north, Pictland dwindled and was lost to the Scots from the west, but their ‘unwritten history’ lives on in symbols.
Click to a larger version of St Pancras’ Church, Canterbury, Kent (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

St Pancras’ Church, Canterbury, Kent (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

The Anglo-Saxon historian Bede was critical of the surviving British Church for not freeing the English nation from ‘the bondage of Satan’, and explained how this task was begun by an initiative from Pope Gregory the Great. Before becoming Pope, the former Roman prefect and monk had seen pagan, fair-skinned Anglian slave boys from Northumbria in the market in Rome, and mused aloud what a shame it was that such ‘angels’ did not know God. Around this time one of the principal exports from Kent was slaves. By 596 Gregory was in a position to send St Augustine with a party of monks to Kent whose pagan king Ethelbert had recently married Bertha, a Christian Frankish princess. Landing at Pegwell Bay, the monks were met by the king on an island and in the open air as he feared their magical powers would be stronger inside a building. Augustine was granted leave to repair a Roman Christian church and to win converts by persuasion. Ethelbert later became a Christian and St Augustine founded a monastery based on the Rule of St Benedict. It’s first six abbots were Italian and it had four separate churches and chapels built in a line west to east. St Pancras at the east end is made of reused Roman bricks and columns and was believed by the abbey’s 14th century monks to have once been Ethelbert’s pagan temple. Gregory I had counselled that pagan idols must be destroyed but temples could be cleansed with holy water and furnished with Christian altars and relics.
Click to a larger version of Athelney Hill Monument, Somerset: photo © Jean Williamson

Athelney Hill Monument, Somerset: photo © Jean Williamson

Through Rome’s influence in the south and missionary work from Iona in the north Christianity slowly took root amongst the Anglo-Saxons. Increasing doctrinal differences were eventually settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664 when Oswy, king of Northumbria, elected to follow Roman religious practices rather than those of the Church of St Columba. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fought amongst themselves, against their British and Irish neighbours in Wales, the south-west and the north, and against new generations of raiders and settlers from Scandinavia and northern Europe. Much the same was happening to the west of Offa’s Dyke as the Welsh kingdoms struggled for supremacy, their princes making alliances where they could and not afraid to kill kith and kin. The first major raid by Norsemen was on the island monastery of Lindisfarne in 793. In 795, and again in 806, these ‘ravening wolves’ killed monks and looted the monastery on Iona. By 824 they were attacking Ireland and had settling in northern Scotland and the Hebrides by 837. A great army of Norse from Norway, Sweden and Denmark landed in East Anglia in 865, killed King Edmund and wintered at Repton (Derbyshire), in 873. In 878 King Alfred of Wessex was forced to flee Wiltshire and lead a guerilla campaign from his base at Athelney in the Somerset marshes. By 880 he was able to eject the invaders from Wessex. These ‘Viking’ incursions went on for some 200 years; fortunes were handed over to them in protection money, large numbers settled in Northumbria, Yorkshire, East Mercia and East Anglia and their own ‘Danelaw’ was established in these areas. In 1002 King Athelred II instigated a country-wide massacred of the Danish community, but by 1013 Svein Forkbeard of Denmark ruled all England. The Saxons fought back, Athelred became king again but died and in 1016 his son, Edmund Ironside, was defeated by Svein’s son, Cnut, at the battle of Ashingdon after Edric Streona of Mercia changed sides. Cnut converted to Christianity and ruled jointly with Edmund who died within the year. Cnut became sole ruler and married Edmund’s stepmother, Emma, a princess of Normandy.
Click to a larger version of Brough of Birsay, off Orkney Mainland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Brough of Birsay, off Orkney Mainland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Viking kingdoms were established around Dublin, on the Isle of Man, in the Hebrides, in Shetland and in Orkney. Efforts have been made recently to point out that, as well as all the raping and killing and pillaging, the burning of monks in their monasteries and round towers, the ransoming and murder of an archbishop using ox-bones and an axe, and the martyring of Christian kings by hacking off their ribs and arranging their lungs on their backs in the so-called blood eagle rite, they were also cultured and very skilled at arts and crafts. It’s true they produced some beautiful objects and many simply wanted to settle and farm peacefully, after the initial murder and theft, but pussycats they were not. In an age of robbery, violence, cruelty and treachery they seemed well suited to thrive. One of the sites on the ‘Follow the Vikings’ cultural route set up by the Council of Europe is the 8th-12th century Norse settlement on the tidal island off Birsay: a well-ordered village with paved streets, stone houses, a slipway, hall-houses and a 12th century church. This small building overlooking the north-west coast of Orkney Mainland is a bath-house or sauna provided with hearths, seats and drains. For a while the Brough became a focus for pilgrims doing honour to the Norse Christian martyr St Magnus, put to death on the island of Egilsay by his cousin Hakon in 1116/17.
Click to a larger version of Maen Achwyfan Cross, Flintshire (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Maen Achwyfan Cross, Flintshire (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

This early 11th century wayside cross stands near the meeting of ancient tracks. Decorated on all four faces of its shaft and solid disc head, it is an interesting example of a Scandinavian-influenced, ‘Northumbrian’ cross with Celtic elements. The spear-man trampling a serpent may be a warrior from Anglo-Scandinavian mythology, but in Christian contexts a vanquished serpent can denote the defeat of paganism. So, in North Wales a cross was erected exhibiting some of the main influences in the making of Early Medieval Britain: pagan, Christian, Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic. When Cnut the Dane became ruler of England he married the widow Emma, second wife of the Saxon King Athelstan II who had had two sons by his previous wife. Emma had two sons, Alfred and Edward, by Athelstan and one, Harthacnut, by Cnut who also had two sons, Svein and Harald ‘Harefoot’ by his ‘common law wife’ Algifu of Northampton. This explosive mix of brothers, half-brothers, step-brothers, cousins, wives and concubines left the English crown open to claims from both Scandinavia and Normandy. Emma was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy, her son Edward was brought up in exile in Normandy and when he eventually became king of England, Norman and Breton influence at court grew. His first cousin once removed, Duke William of Normandy, came to believe that he had been promised the English throne, but on his deathbed Edward ‘the Confessor’ was said to have bequeathed it to his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson who took the crown. While William made preparations for an invasion across the Channel, the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, along with Harold Godwinson’s renegade brother Tostig, invaded north-east England with allies from Scotland, Ireland and Iceland. After a forced march north to near York, Harold defeated and scattered Hardrada’s army, but had to turn and march south immediately to meet William at Hastings. Harold was killed, his exhausted forces finally overcome by the fresh, more disciplined and better equipped Normans. These ‘men from the north’, who had seized and settled Frankish land, moved into England, murdered and dispossessed the English royalty, took captives and slaves, and suppressed the culture, laws and language of the defeated nation as most conquerers try to do. They too were cultured, and great builders of castles, churches, cathedrals and monasteries.

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