The History of the Anglo Saxons by Ella Jo

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles provides us with a glimpse of history. It also used language from times past, and this fascinates me. When the Roman civilization declined, Britain began to disintegrate. Roman villas were abandoned and the soldiers left their garrisons. In the year 410, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles say, ‘The Goths broke into Rome and never since has a Roman ruled in Britain…’ Then for the year 418, ‘The Romans gathered all the gold hoards there were in Britain, some they hid in the earth…and some they took with them to Gaul.’ Britain was left without governance or wealth, and when the Romans departed, the Picts, a tribe living in present day Scotland, stepped up their coastal raids.

In the year 446 ‘The British sent men over to Rome to ask for help against the Picts, but no help came because they were on an expedition against king Attila the Hun. They sent then to the Angles and the Anglian Athelings (princes) with the same request.’ Vortigern was the king who invited the Angles to Britain for protection, and they came, it is said, in three long ships. Their war leaders were two brothers named Hengest and Horsa, and when they had won all the wars they turned on Vortigern and the British, destroying ‘through fire and the swords edge’. The brothers then summoned their kinsmen and effectively invaded Britain. The Anglo Saxons consisted of three Germanic tribes: the Angles, from a region of West Germany, the Saxons from the lands south of the Angles, and the Jutes who probably came from the Jutland peninsula – now Denmark and north Germany.

Bede, the scholar monk, wrote that even 300 years after the mid fifth century invasion of the Angles, their homeland was still deserted. The mass migration had been gradual and although Britain was settled by the Anglo-Saxons during the fifth century, the country was not completely under their control until A.D. 838. By then each of the tribes had settled in different areas and established several kingdoms. The Jutes established Kent; the Saxons established Essex, Wessex, and Sussex; and the Angles established East Anglia, Middle Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria.

The last Anglo-Saxon kingdom to be created was Mercia. Separated from Northumbria by the River Humber and the Derbyshire uplands it was founded by the warlord Cryda (Cridda) around 586. It’s name meant ‘The Kingdom at the Borders’ and to the west it abutted the Welsh foothills, where the Romano-British were finally beaten by the Anglo-Saxons in this area. It was believed that the indigenous population fled into the highlands of the west, causing the Anglo Saxons to name this territory ‘Wealkynne’, the Land of the Strangers, from which Wales derives its name. However, genetic ethnotyping and DNA research has established that the majority of the ancestral Romano-British did not flee to Wales. Instead they remained and mingled with the Saxons representing over 80% of the population, wholly adopting the Anglo Saxon culture.

Gradually the early Anglo Saxon strongholds coalesced into seven kingdoms which remained until the ninth century when the barbarians invaded. The Vikings from Denmark eventually conquered all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex. This Danish invasion forced all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to unite under one ruler, making Alfred the Great the first king of England, who won back the country sometime between A.D. 880 and 890. The Vikings came from the same Germanic background as the Anglo-Saxons, so laws and customs did not change significantly. The Anglo-Saxon legal system and customs remained largely in place in England until 1066, until the invasion of the Normans who introduced feudalism.

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Few artifacts survive from the period, although there are many manuscript illustrations.

The lyre (O.E. hearpe, citere) – popular instrument. Made of wood, with gut or horsehair strings. The pegs, bridge and tail-piece could be of wood or bone. Examples discovered in English burials : Taplow, Sutton Hoo, Bergh Apton, Morning Thorpe and Abingdon and others have been found in Germany. Lyre bridges turn up in England and Scandinavia. It is thought that the lyre had six strings, but nothing is known of how it was played or tuned. Each string may have been plucked, being tuned to a different note, but this would limit the range to less than an octave. It is probable that the strings made chords and drones. The English version of the lyre had a decorative bronze plaque over a rivet going through the join of the top tenon joints.
The true harp (O.E. hearpe, gamenwudu) Made with wood, using bone or perhaps metal for pegs. The strings were probably gut or horsehair. Bronze strings were probably Irish, while the English used gut strings. Unlike modern harps, the soundbox was hollowed out from a single piece of wood and finished with a thin panel to ‘seal’ the sound box. It would not have had pedals or semi-tone levers as in modern harps. Harps were played in Scotland and Ireland before appearing in England in the late ninth or early tenth century. None survive. Illustrations show only twelve strings, giving a range of an octave and a half, about the same as an untrained human voice. This type would be passed around the hall after feasting. Scops and gleemen (singers of the day) may have had harps with twenty or so strings for better trained voices.
The Rebec, a type of violin – possibly fiðele (Fiddle) in Old English, although the fiddle may have been smaller, higher pitched with a shallower sound box.) The Rebec’s would have a sound-box was carved from a single piece of wood and it was played with a bow, probably of wood and horsehair. The Rebec had three strings, and in Anglo Saxon times it had no finger board (which appeared in Medieval times). Thus it would only play five notes, making it a drone instrument at this time. Dating from the late tenth or early eleventh century, the only one known from this period was found at Hedeby, although there are pictorial representations.
The Cithara an early form of guitar, (with linguistic similarity). A type of Lute related to an East Mediterranean instrument which had a deeper sound box. (This Lute, from the Arabic word and string instrument ‘El Ud. The Ud was probably the template for both of these later instruments). This group includes the monocord (a single string pulled taught over a sound box and a moveable bridge that was plucked to help choir boys train their voices); and the organistrum (a primitive hurdy gurdy). Psalteries or dulcimers (O.E. sealm-glig) were probably used much later, appearing just prior to the Norman Conquest. A ‘rotta’ was a type of lute also used at the time. Lutes and guitars were totally unknown in this period, although a guitar like instrument with a solid body is shown in some manuscripts.
The bone whistle (O.E. hwistle, pipe, sangpipe) Usually leg bones? They were always blown from one end like a penny whistle, not a flute, and had a variable number of finger holes, from none to six. Two and three holed examples are the most common. Like the later tabor pipe, they may have been designed to be used with one hand whilst the other hand played a second instrument.
Reed whistles were also known as were wooden whistles. The simple wooden or reed form of the transverse flute may have also been used.
The blasting horn or trumpet (O.E. blaedhorn, blaeshorn, bleme, horn, sarga). Usually made from ox or goat horn, although wooden examples are known. Used by both Viking and Saxon, for music, hunting and on the battlefield. Many were decorated with cast or incised metal mounts. Some had finger holes although a skilled player can play a tune on a horn with no finger holes.
Pan pipes (O.E. pipe, sangpipe), Found at York. Made of box-wood. Although popular – appearing in some manuscript illustrations, no other examples survive.
Bagpipes probably like Northumbrian small pipes or Irish bagpipes. Known from literary sources only. They had a reed chanter and drone pipes as well as a bag. The reed may have given a high ‘squawking’ tone. The number of drones is unknown.
The organ (O.E. organa) both portable and fixed. The smallest portative type could have been the size of an old typewriter – easy to carry. Winchester Cathedral reputedly had the largest organ in Northern Europe. There are references to organs that needed a team of sixteen on the bellows to keep it running as illustrated of the Harley psalter. These organs had sliding stops, not a keyboard. Both hydraulic and pneumatic organs were used at this time and fragments of a Water Organ have been identified from Padaborn in Northern Germany. The water was not part of the musical process, but a method of controlling the air flow to the organ pipes.
The shawm (a type of medieval oboe) appears fifth-century England so may have been arrived with the Anglo Saxons.
The drum. A hylsung drum was used, but it is uncertain how it looked or was played. It may have been similar to the Irish bodhram, or it could have been stave built like a medieval long drum. The only clue is in a Spanish illustration showing a double ended drum, on it’s side in the Arab fashion, which may not reflect the European type at this time.
Bells (O.E. belle, clucge, handbelle) are known and were probably used for music as well as for churches. A wooden hanger for swinging a church bell was excavated at Hedeby in Northern Germany. Church bells had their own towers or boothes, separate from the church. A trio of bell ringers (with only a pair of bells between them) can be seen on the Skog tapestry from Sweden. Sets of bells suspended from a bar to be struck with a wooden hammer also appear in some manuscript e illustrations. Animal bells were designed to a specific pitch perhaps to identify flocks or individuals, or possibly to tune pipes to. Made from folding a sheet of iron or bronze into a square or round beehive shape and fixing it with rivets, or by casting a similar shape in bronze. Small cast bells without a clapper were worn to ‘announce’ the person’s presence – a courtesy to other travellers that the wearer had good intentions and was not creeping around like a thief.
Other percussion instruments probably included bones (played like spoons) and finger cymbals and tong cymbals (O.E. cimbal) or simple improvised instruments. Clapping would certainly have been used for percussion. Written references mention ‘rattle-sticks’ (O.E. cladersticca), although these may be a baby’s rattle.

Musical notation was different from the modern form. Few tunes survive from the period, but those written down shortly after the Norman Conquest are likely to be from or influenced by the Anglo Saxon tradition. Some folk-songs and religious hymns may have survived. As well as songs telling of famous events and people there were probably working songs sung whilst performing everyday jobs, (eg sea shanties). Old English uses words for both ‘sea or ship-songs’ (to accompany jobs undertaken on board) and ‘war or battle-songs’, (for marching). There were also probably nursery rhymes and lullabies. Song and musical tunes were probably everywhere, from the fields to the formal work at home or church.

I tried to use sounds that answered the basic form of music for Anglo Saxon times. I thought about their society and what would matter to the people. Thus I wrote songs that I thought they would relate to, not just in their history, but what we would have in common with them today.

Stories and Songs
A thousand years ago in England the most popular form of entertainment was music and story-telling. People sung, played, and told stories whenever they gathered together. ‘Beowulf’ or the Norse Sagas were performed as dramatic stories. Few songs or stories survive as they were part of an oral tradition, rarely written down. Poetry is a useful vehicle for memorization, thus history was often recorded in the form of poetry. Recorded poems usually commemorated an event such as ‘The Battle of Maldon’, or were folklore such as ‘Widsith’ and ‘Deor’.

The story telling culture still thrives in the Near and Middle East and a performance can last for hours. The story usually has a formulaic form, like our ‘Once upon a time…’. During natural breaks in the tale, where the crowd joins the chorus, the story teller uses this time to recall the next section. Story telling can be shared by two people, telling in rotation, and giving scope for more embellishment. The Anglo Saxons may have used this method.

Professional storytellers in Saxon England were called ‘scops’. They travelled around the villages telling tales in return for food, lodging and money. Rewards could be high. Music was used to emphasize parts of a story, or as background music. Another word for a poet or storyteller was ‘hearpere’ (harper), implying the use of this instrument or its forefathers.
It is thought that many ‘heroic lays’ were sung or chanted rather than being spoken. Anglo-Saxon verse used ‘kennings’ which was like a riddle within the verse, for example, a ship is a ‘steed of the waves’, and the human body is a ‘bone-house’.

The poem ‘Widsith’ tells how the Scop was expected to perform:’When Scilling (his harp) and I, with a clear voice, raised the song before our royal lord, loud with the harp I sounded the melody.’ This shows that like a ship, or a sword, a Scop’s instrument could have a name. In ‘Beowulf’ ‘… now and then the poet raised his voice…’Then Hrothgar, leader in battle, was entertained with music – harp and voice in harmony. The strings were plucked, many a song rehearsed… when it was the turn of Hrothgar’s poet to please men at the mead bench….Thus was the lay sung, the song of the poet. The hall echoed with joy, waves of noise broke out along the benches…’

Everybody was entitled to tell a story, again from ‘Beowulf’: ‘And now and then one of Hrothgar’s theigns who brimmed with poetry, and remembered lays, a man acquainted with ancient traditions of every kind, composed a new song in correct meter. Most skillfully that man began to sing of Beowulf’s feat, to weave words together, and fluently to tell a fitting tale. He recounted all he knew of Sigemund, son of the Waels; many a strange story about his exploits, his endurance, and his journeys to earth’s ends; many an episode unknown or half known to the sons of men, songs of feud and treachery….’

Story telling was also considered to an important skill for a lord or king, ‘Beowulf’ again: ‘Songs and feasting followed, and the lord Hrothgar, who had a great fund of stories, told anecdotes about bygone tymes, and every now and then, played a pleasant melody on the harp.’ In fact it is thought that everyone was expected to play the lyre when it was passed around the feast hall.

The Vikings version of the storyteller was a Skald. They composed poetry using simple verses which relied heavily on alliteration and the use of kennings. Most Skaldic poetry was written for a particular occasion, often praising heroic virtues. The Vikings ‘Sagas’ often recounted famous or heroic lives and a moral point about behaviour, or comment on society, was almost always included.
Singing and music without story telling or poetry was also important. Professional travelling musicians, called ‘gleemen’, performed for pay. Like the scop, a skilled gleeman might be appointed as a court musician.
Source –

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Vortigern was a fifth-century British king. In 443, driven to desperate measures, he petitioned his war-like neighbours the Angles to aid him against the Picts and other groups who were harassing the British people. After defeating the Britons’ enemies these Germanic mercenaries turned against Vortigern and sent word to their kinsmen that the island of Britain was ripe for the taking.

For the year 449 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, ‘In their days, Hengest and Horsa invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons, sought Britain on the shore called Ebbsfleet – at first as protection for the Britons, but later they fought against them. The king commanded them to fight against the Picts. They did so, and had victory wherever they went. Then they sent to Angeln and called on them to send more forces, and to tell people about the worthlessness of the Britons and the merits of their land. Then they sent them more support. From the Jutes came the Kentish people and the Wightish people – that is the race that now dwells on Wight- and that race in Wessex that is still called the race of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons. From Angeln, which afterwards stood deserted between the Jutes and Saxons, came the East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians, and all the Northumbrians’.
For the year 455 it says, ‘Here Hengest and Horsa fought against Vortigern the king in the place that is called Ayelesthrep and his brother Horsa was killed. After that, Hengest and then his son Aesc took hold of the kingdom’.
The actual text is unclear as to whether Hengist and Horsa were fighting against king Vortigern or had allied with him against the Picts. Thus Vortigern may have given the Angles the wetlands north and east of the Thames which were won back from the Pictish army, or the Angles just took that area after the battle. What is for sure is that in 457 Hengest and his son Esc, fought a battle at Crayford, near the Thames, killing four-thousand Britons. Hengest then invited settlement in Britain, the migration causing the lowlands between Jutland and Saxony to become a wasteland.
Later Vortigern became incorporated into the Arthurian legends. Arthur, the Welsh national hero, battled against the Saxons who had seized the island from Vortigern. Writers in the High Middle Ages and afterwards explicitly linked the story of Vortigern to the rapidly expanding Arthurian mythos; (ie Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain) (c. 1138). John William Sutton

The Anglo-Saxon king Ethelred the Unready (c. 968-1016) ruled the English from 978 to 1016. During his reign England was repeatedly attacked by Danish armies seeking to destroy the sovereignty of the Anglo-Saxons and to plunder their land.

The Years Before Ethelred Became King
In the middle of the 900s there was an ongoing power struggle between the Vikings and the Saxons for control of Northumbria. Saxon King Eadred finally won the kingdom in 954, but died in 955. Thus Eadwig, his nephew became King of Northumbria in 956.

Eadwig rejected Eadred, the adviser to the previous king – and disinherited his own mother, Eadgifu. Eadwig left his coronation festivities early to pursue private pleasures with the ladies, but Dunstan, the abbot of Glastonbury and once respected at King Eadred’s court, dragged Eadwig back to the feast. Eadwig exiled Dunstan in revenge, and seize his treasures. In the first year of Eadred’s rule he produced a huge amount of charters – perhaps as a result of manipulation by his ambitious courtiers, but also, it seems, to strengthen his and his wife’s family’s interests.
Eadwig’s brother, Edgar, became King of the Mercians in 957, but was not powerful enough to oust Eadwig. However Edgar may have been instrumental in forcing Eadwig to divorce his wife Ælfgifu, citing the reason that they were too closely related. This divorce meant that Eadwig died in 959 without an heir, allowing his brother Edgar to succeed to the whole kingdom. Edgar then sacked Eadwig’s bishops and reinstated Dunstan to archbishop of Canterbury. Edgar probably used strong military force to maintain peace in the country as Viking activity ceased in 954, but he suffered personal criticism, as he favoured ‘unseemly foreign manners and heathen customs’. His popularity suffered for bringing foreigners and ‘harmful people’ into the country.

The year 962 saw plague and a great fire in London. Later the monastic movement was reformed and Æthelwold became the powerful bishop of Winchester, replacing secular staff with monks. King Edgar married in 964 and the Vikings returned in 966. Social unrest flared in 969 between the English and the Anglo-Danish peoples of the Danelaw. In response Edgar ravaged Thanet. Not long afterwards, in 971 Edgar’s eldest son, died – making Edmund’s younger brother Aethelred, legitimus clito – the next in line to the throne.

King Edgar seemed preoccupied with emphasizing his sovereignty and in 973 was consecrated for a second time at Bath, instead of the traditional place, Kingston-upon-Thames. Perhaps Edgar sought to evoke memories of Roman nationalism and he appeared to be ambitious for a larger realm. Later that year six other kings pledged allegiance to him at Chester. Also at this time coinage became standardized throughout the whole kingdom and borders were fixed. Edgar died in 975.

As Edgar was probably married two or three times, there was conflict over his successor on his death. A 966 charter recognized the deceased Edmund as heir. As Edmund was Edgar’s son by his second wife Ælfthryth, it seemed he was favoured over Edward, Edgar’s son from his first marriage. Some believed that the crown should have passed to Edmund’s younger brother, Aethelred – then aged about nine. Instead twelve year old Edward, from Edgar’s first marriage was placed on the throne. This threw the nobility into conflict regarding who to support – and gave an opportunity for old scores to be settled and the reinstatement of property lost under Edgar.
In 976 there was great famine. Two years later, 978 – Archbishop Dunstan called an assembly or council, known as a ‘Witan’ at Calne in Wiltshire. This meeting between members of the Anglo Saxon ruling class included advisers to the king and was held in a hall on an upper story of the building. As St Dunstan began to discuss church reforms the floor of the two-storey building collapsed, killing most of his opponents. Many of the most powerful elite were dead, but Dunstan and his supporters survived. “All the oldest counsellors of England fell at Calne from an upper floor; but the holy Archbishop Dunstan stood alone upon a beam. Some were dreadfully bruised, and some did not escape with life.”

The timing of this event makes it very suspicious as in the same year, 978, the new boy king, Edward was murdered. Edward had gone to Corfe, to visit Ethelred his half brother who lived there with his mother. It is believed that Ethelred’s theigns committed the deed, burying Edward at Wareham without royal honours. Later literature accuses Ælfthryth, Ethelred’s mother of plotted the killing, so that Ethelred could take the throne. It is said that Ethelred wept bitterly at his brother’s death, and his mother was enraged at his tears. Ethelred was made King of England in 979 at the age of twelve. Ethelred’s part in the murder was deflected by Edward’s reburial with honours and the later introduction of a feast day in his remembrance. This covered up any political chaos in the year following Edward’s death, which passed before Ethelred was crowned.
So here he is, Ethelred, born into the royal house of Wessex, which at that time ruled all of the Anglo-Saxons. He was crowned by Dunstan at Kingston on 14 April 978. Certainly the early years of Ethelred’s reign (978-84) were manipulated by his mother Ælfthryth and Æthelwold, the bishop of Winchester. Bishop Dunstan played no more part in political matters. All through the 980s, after a pause of twenty-five years, the Vikings returned yearly to ravage the country and Ethelred metered punishment on his own people if they were thought to have complied with the invaders. The system of defense worked out by Eadgar must have perished at this time and a pattern of treason and revolt emerged from Ethelred’s leading theigns. Increasing Danish aggressiveness complemented English disunity and military ineffectiveness.

A favourite named Æthelsine influenced the young king to act oppressively, advising Æthelred to claim an estate belonging to the bishopric of Rochester, which Æthelred laid siege to in 986. Unable to take it, he ravaged the lands. Bishop Dunstan paid Ethelred a hundred pounds of silver to keep the peace, disgusted at Æthelred’s avarice, and prophesying that evil would befall the nation.
Æthelred probably married his first wife, Ælfgifu at the time and Viking attacks ceased for a while after 982. But when they were renewed they took a more dangerous form, for the invaders began to settle in the country. In 988 they landed in Somerset, but were beaten off after a sharp struggle.
In 991 Ethelred instituted a policy of buying off Danish raiders. Given the inadequacy of English defenses, it was a strategically sound but psychologically demoralizing, mocking the heroic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons. A Norwegian force invaded and plundered Ipswich. The ealdorman, Brihtnoth, was defeated and slain at the battle of Maldon in Essex. Archbishop Sigeric, with other ealdormen, offered to purchase the peace, promising the invaders ten thousand pounds of silver. So large a sum could not be raised quickly, and the Northmen threatened to ravage Kent, so Sigeric obtained the shortfall from Æscwig, bishop of Dorchester, pledging an estate to him for repayment. The treaty was accepted by the king and the witan, and was concluded with the Norwegian leaders. This was the beginning of a disastrous policy. Five “national” payments were made throughout Ethelread’s reign as well as local ones, allowing some respite, but no settlement.

The king and counsel probably thought this was a one off payment. The circumstances were extremely dangerous as the whole of the south of the country lay open to the enemy. It appears that the treaty understood that the Danes would remain in the country. In fact, the treaty was quite tactical, seeking to buy an alliance against all other enemies – including the Welsh, suggesting that Æthelred may have been trying to divide his enemies. Even if these plots were to fail the treaty brought time, which, if used wisely, would have allowed preparation of future defenses.
But Ethelred’s kingdom was found defenseless again and again, and more payments were made. According to William of Malmesbury, Æthelred made another treaty that year. Richard the Fearless, the Norman duke, had allowed the Scandinavian pirates to anchor their ships in Normandy. Pope John XV mediated to prevent war.

In 992 Ethelred and the witan “decreed that all the ships that were worth anything” should be gathered together. But as the English fleet gathered and poised for battle in London, the scheme to take the Northmen’s fleet by surprise fell through and the battle was called off. A commander, Ælfric, deserted, and without a leader the English army fled. The enraged Ethelred had Ælfric’s son blinded. The Northmen sailed off, and plundered Northumbria and Lindsey.

In 994 two kings, Olaf of Norway and Swend of Denmark jointly invaded London with nearly a hundred ships; the citizens beat them off, but the invaders ravaged the south, they “took horses and rode whither they would”. Æthelred and the witan offered them money on condition that they ‘desisted from plunder’. As the Danes wintered in Southampton, a tax was levied on the people to pay the tribute. Æthelred again tried a tactic – he sent Ælfheah, bishop of Winchester, and the ealdorman Æthelweard on an embassy to Olaf which resulted in breaking the alliance between the two invading kings. Olaf came to Æthelred at Andover, and Æthelred gifted him royally; Olaf promised ‘that he never again would come in a hostile manner to England’ and kept his word. Swend sailed off to attack the Isle of Man, and the invasion ended. Two years of peace followed.

In 995 Æthelred acknowledged the faults of his youth, and made a grant to the bishop of Rochester. In the following two years he published a code on policing, designed for the Danish districts. But the Vikings returned between 997 – 999 and plundered the country with very little resistance. The king’s ships suffered serial delays and were ineffectual, “Thus in the end these expeditions both by sea and land served no other purpose but to vex the people, to waste their treasure, and to strengthen their enemies.” In the winter of 998 the Danes arrived at the Isle of Wight and forced the people of Hampshire and Sussex to send them provisions. Ethelred’s reaction was to become pious, again acknowledging his youthful errors, and blaming Æthelsine, his past favourite. However Ethelred took on another unworthy favourite. This was Leofsige, whom Ethelred had made ealdorman of the East-Saxons in 994. Kent was ravaged in 999, and Ethelred commanded that the Danes should be attacked, but “when the ships were ready they delayed from day to day, and wore out the poor men that were on board, and the more forward things should have been the backwarder they were time after time. And in the end the expedition by sea and land effected nothing except troubling the people, wasting money, and emboldening their foes.”

The Vikings suspended their raids in the summer of AD1000, so Ethelred took retribution on Viking settlements and his own people, for allowing the Vikings into the country. He led an army in person into Cumberland, which was a stronghold of the Danes, and ravaged the country, while his fleet wasted the Isle of Man. Ethelred’s invasion of the Continent may have been this year, he expected his ships to bring him the Norman duke, Richard II, with his hands tied behind his back, but instead they were utterly defeated. However, this expedition must have led to Ethelred’s marriage to the duke’s sister, Emma.

In AD 1001 the Vikings returned causing greater terror and Ethelred lost some of his high ranking support in favour of the Danes as they devastated Devon. While the Danish fleet was wasting the coasts of Devonshire it was joined by Pallig, the husband of Gunhild, Swend’s sister, who had been entertained by Ethelred and had received large gifts from him. The renewal of the war again stirred religion up in the king and he gave, in honour of Christ, and of his brother, the holy martyr Eadward, the monastery of Bradford to the nuns of Shaftesbury, where Eadward was buried, to be a place of refuge for them. The Saxons lost another battle at Pen – although Ethelred may have been concentrating on a bigger plan to invade Normandy in order to destroy the Vikings base.

Early in 1002 Ethelred and the witan decreed that peace should again be bought of the Danish fleet, and he sent Leofsige to negotiate. At this time Æthelred promoted Æfic, a new favourite, to the office of high-reeve, a position technically making Aefic the boss over the already powerful shire reeves. It was merely a title of honour, scarcely even recognized as a formal title. But this caused jealousy from Leofsige, and while on this mission to the Danes, Leofsige slew the new favourite in his own house, an act for which he was banished by the king and the witan.

At Lent Ethelred (diplomatically) married “Lady Elfgive Emma”, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. His second wife, Emma (c.985-1052), was a daughter of Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy and of Danish decent. She was formally known by her English name, Ælfgifu, and ranked higher than Ethred’s first wife. Apparently it was an unhappy marriage as, in spite of her great beauty, Ethelred was said to have been unfaithful to her. The king now attempted to rid himself of his foes by having all Danes living in England killed on St. Brice’s day. Secret letters from the king instructed every town to arrange this massacre on the 13 Nov 1002. There was peace at this time and the foreign settlers were taken by surprise. East Anglia and parts of Northumbria were spared as the Danes outnumbered the English. Afterwards in a charter of 1004, Ethelred speaks of this event as a “most just slaughter”, which he had decreed with the counsel of his witan, saying that the Danes had “sprung up in this island as tares among wheat”, indicating that both races lived side by side. The only result of the massacre was that the invasions were renewed with more system and determination.

The next year a French steward of the new queen raided Exeter with his own army! Also in 1003 Sweyn ‘Forkbeard’ a Danish prince, invaded. The leader of the English army, Alderman Elfric, pretended to be sick before a battle and yet again the Saxons did not fight. When Sweyne became aware of the retreat, he plundered his way back to his ships and returned to pillage the country the next year. The Danes broke a peace treaty with Ulfkytel, a Saxon lord at Thetford and a huge battle was fought there. Great famine followed in England in 1005 – so the Danes withdrew to Denmark,
In 1006 Ethelred’s court was in a poor state. Theign Wulfgeat, another of the king’s favourites, had all his possessions confiscated as a punishment for his oppression and for helping the king’s enemies. Also whilst the court was at Shrewsbury, Earl Ælfhelm was murdered and his two sons blinded, probably on Ethelred’s orders. These powerful men may have supported Malcolm, King of Scots, who made a raid which was put down by Uhtred, son of Earl Waltheof. The loss of Wulfgeat made way for a new favourite, Eadric, (Streona), who became ealdorman of the Mercians.
The Danes returned in 1006 yet again. The king sought advice for “defending this land, ere it was utterly undone.” More taxes were levied of Wessex and Mercia and all harvest time they were under arms. Again the council advised that they should “bribe the enemy with a tribute….though they were all loth to do it.” King Aethelred spent the winter in Shropshire, allowing the Danes to plunder as they pleased before they retired to the Isle of Wight. About midwinter Ethelred and the witan again purchased the peace and the Danes left the land in peace for about two years.

In 1008 The king and the witan created new laws and expressed renewed need for patriotic unity. For national defense a fleet was to be raised and assembled every year after Easter. A fine of 120 shillings would be levied for desertion and the king could claim the life and property of the deserter if he were at the same battle. Every Shire, whether inland or coastal was expected to contribute towards shipbuilding over all England. The fleet met at Sandwich about Easter 1009, and Æthelred himself went there. One Wulnoth, took twenty of the kings ships and used them to plunder the south coast. Brihtric, Eadric Streona’s brother, was sent to pursue Wulnoth with eighty ships. But a wind,“as no man remembered before” drove the ships aground, “whereupon Wulnoth soon came, and burned them.” King Aethelred gave up and went home and the remaining ships were rowed back to London. “Thus lightly did they suffer the labour of all the people to be in vain; nor was the terror lessened, as all England hoped.”

Immediately after this Thurcytel the Viking invaded, making peace with the people of Kent so that when he had plundered other places he could return there as a base. The Saxon war leaders were too weak to fight Thurkill, who fought against the city of London and burned Oxford; “.. they were in motion all the winter, and in spring, appeared again in Kent, and repaired their ships.” Æthelred now ordered the whole nation to be called out; he took the command of a large army, and he and his people are said to have been prepared to conquer or die. He even intercepted the enemy, but no attack was made, owing, it is said, to the bad advice of Eadric. The ravages continued unhindered, and early in 1010 Oxford was burnt. The Danes then took possession of East-Anglia, over three months they plundered Thetford and Cambridge, then Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, “…and so along the Ouse till they came to Bedford, and so forth to Temsford, always burning as they went.”

The Danes returned to their ships with their spoil, and not once did the kings army fight with them, always being in the wrong place for battle. The king summoned the privy council to discuss the defense of the country, but “whatever was advised, it stood not a month”. No one would take the responsibility of collecting an army, “but each fled as he could”. No shire would stand by another. Northampton was attacked, plundered and burned by the Danes, who then returned over the Thames into Wessex, “ burning all the way”. They did not leave until the midwinter. By the beginning of 1011 the Vikings had invaded most of the South of England. Ethelred continued to mismanage his position, sometimes fighting, or promising tributes “when they had done most mischief” and asking for peace while the Vikings were still “plundering, spoiling, and slaying our miserable people.” The Danes took hostages and kidnapped Archbishop Elfeah at Canterbury, holding him for 7 months before murdering him on one of their ships in 1012. Ethelred again offered tribute. Meanwhile the Welsh took advantage of the situation and raided Mercia.

In 1012 finally tribute was paid and Thurcytel’s “great fleet” was dispersed. Ethelred agreed to supply forty-five ships to Thurcytel, and supply his men with food and clothing. He also granted him an East Anglian estate, in return for his oath to defend the country against all invaders. In London drunken Saxon soldiers took a bishop hostage then murdered him. Afterwards peace-oaths were sworn and the army brought the king forty five ships of the enemy, “and promised him, that they would defend this land, and he should feed and clothe them.” Although the Saxons bought the invaders off in 1012, the following year Sweyne led another invasion. He sailed up the Trent and took control of the Northumbrians, then went southward with his main army, committing his ships and hostages to his son Cnute. Sweyne took Oxford and Winchester, but not London, as “many of the party sunk in the Thames, because they kept not to any bridge.”King Ethelred and Thurcytel were at London, so King Sweyne went to Bath where all the Saxons submitted to him. The English population could resist their enemies no longer and considered Sweyne their “full king”, because “they dreaded that he would undo them.”

Ethelred resisted from London for some months, then withdrew to his (Thurcytel’s) fleet which lay in the Thames. He sent his wife Emma and their sons “the ethelings, Edward and Alfred” to Normandy to the protection of Emma’s brother Richard. Ethelred stayed at the Isle of Wight for mid-winter, then joined his wife. He is said to have taken treasure from Winchester with him and may have left it on the Isle of Wight for safekeeping. King Sweyne died in February 1014 and the Danes chose Cnute, his son, for king. But the counsellors of England all called for their sovereign, King Ethelred to be returned if he would govern them better than he did before. Ethelred sent his lowest ranked son Eadward in his place, with the message that if Ethelred returned he would correct his own faults, and would forgive past uprisings against the monarchy, “provided they all unanimously, without treachery, turned to him.” A favourable answer was sent back, and Olaf (later king of Norway) brought Ethelred back to England, “Then was full friendship established, in word and in deed and in compact, on either side. And every Danish king they proclaimed an outlaw for ever from England. Then came King Ethelred home, in Lent, to his own people; and he was gladly received by them all.” A witen was held and laws were passed containing more good resolutions. Afterwards Ethelred led a large army to Lindsey, driving Cnut out, and slaughtering people as punishment for helping Ethelred’s enemies. Cnute retaliated by mutilating the hostages taken by his father. Then Ethelred demanded that a tribute be paid to Thurcytel’s fleet. Cnut’s first campaign misfired, and he retreated to Denmark, he would return to England with a new army in 1015. In the same year (1014) on Good Friday, the Vikings fought the Irish. In June, Ethelred’s son and heir, Æthelstan, died. and Emma, supported by Eadric Streona, wished to have her own son, Edward, recognized as heir. In September a great sea-flood, ‘spread wide over this land, ran so far up as it never did before, overwhelming many towns, and an innumerable multitude of people’.

However, for all of Ethelred’s promises to improve his rule, his weakness for kingship continued. In 1015 at the great council in Oxford, Alderman Edric was instructed to murder Sigferth and Morcar, elder thanes. The king took their possessions and ordered Sigferth’s widow to be secured, “but Edmund Etheling (his son) seized her, against the king’s will, and had her to wife.” Ethelred’s other son, Edward, plundered the country. When Cnut returned in September, Ethelred lay sick at Corsham in Wiltshire. His son Edmund prepared to fight alongside Alderman Edric at the battle at Assingdon and an army collected – only for Edric to steal forty ships, and with the West-Saxons, defect to Cnute. The Chronicles say Edric betrayed “all the people of England.” So Cnute had the victory, “though all England fought against him!” By 1016 King Cnute had one hundred and sixty ships. Edmund tried to fight Cnute in the winter, but his troops refused to follow him unless the king and the Londoners joined them. A little later Ethelred did come, but when he was told that there was a plot against his life, he returned to London. “It succeeded nothing better than it often did before; and, when it was told the king, that those persons would betray him who ought to assist him, then forsook he the army, and returned again to London.” Plundering continued in Northumbria.

Edmund Etheling went to London to defend his father, as after Easter King Cnute moved south. Cnute gathered an army and “with all his ships toward London”. The citizens of London chose Edmund for king and they fortified the city. They dug a deep ditch on the south side, and dragged ships to the west side of the bridge. “Afterwards they trenched the city without, so that no man could go in or out, and often fought against it: but the citizens bravely withstood them.” King Edmund fought five battles in a bid to regain control of England. Leaders of the splintered Saxon elite fought among themselves and many of his army drowned as battles continued. But in 1016, as Cnute’s ships approached, preparing to lay siege to the city, King Ethelred died. It was 23 April, 1016 and he was buried in St.Paul’s. “He ended his days on St. George’s day, having held his kingdom in much tribulation and difficulty as long as his life continued.” Edmund (Ironside) succeeded him and struggled on for a few months.

King Cnute and King Edmund became allies, King Edmund took Wessex, and Cnute took Mercia and the northern district. “and the people of London made peace with them.” However, by the end of the year Edmund too was dead, and was buried with his grandfather Edgar at Gastonbury. The kingdom was partitioned in 1016 as the English admitted defeat in battle after over three decades of Viking raids. Cnut became the ruler of England. In 1017 Cnut killed Ethelred’s sons, Eadred and Eadwig, and married Emma, Ethelred’s widow. Emma then patronized the clergy adding to the prestige of both herself and her (new) husband as a Christian king. It is thought that their marriage was truthfully affectionate. Emma acted as regent in Wessex in 1040. Two of her sons, one by each husband, and two stepsons, also by each husband, became kings of England, as did her great-nephew, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy.

Ethelred, Personally –
Ethelred’s nickname, “the Unready”, appears centuries after his death, firstly in the late 13th century. “Unrad”, meant “no or ill-advised counsel”, a pun against the literal meaning of Ethelred’s name, “noble counsel”. By the fifteenth century the pun was no longer understood and the meaning came closer to the modern “Unready”. Ethelred himself admitted in 993 that counsellors had taken advantage of his ignorance, and his life story reflects his poor judgement.
Positively, Ethelred’s reign witnessed a flowering of literature and illuminated manuscripts.

The Battle of Maldon
Probably took place on a causeway linking Northey Island to the south bank of the Blackwater estuary. Fought in August 991, the Saxons were led by the veteran ealdorman, Byrhtnoð against a professional ship-borne army of Danes probably led by Sweyn Forkbeard. The main reference source for the Battle of Maldon comes from the Old English heroic battle-poem. The beginning and end are lost, but is written from the Saxon point of view. The poem may have been intended to accompany a tapestry depicting the deeds of Byrhtnoð and twelfth-century records show that Byrhtnoð’s wife, Ælflæd, bequeathed such a tapestry to Ely.

At the beginning of the poem Byrhtnoð deploys his troops along the riverbank, while across the causeway the Viking herald calls out the Danes’ demands for tribute. In 991 the width of the river was narrow enough to shout across, with meadow banks unlike today’s salt-marshes. Waving his spear, Byrhtnoð shouted back that the only tribute they would give would be the tips of their spears in battle. The battle was then postponed due to the rising tide which made combat impossible, apart from the archers.

The Vikings are still yearning for battle when the tide ebbs, yet they can only advance along the narrow causeway on which Byrhtnoð has stationed Wulfstan, a “war-hardened warrior” and two companions. This leads to negotiations, during which the Danes are said be ‘guileful’. Byrhtnoð agrees to allow the Vikings over the causeway, because a battle there would prevent the Danish fleet-army from striking all along the east coast. And thus, the Viking “slaughter-wolves” advanced across the causeway as hungry ravens wheeled overhead and once across, the battle began.

The poem recounts the fall of Byrhtnoð, which causes the Saxons to flee. Heroes are named as the last men refuse to yield at the final stand. Even when it is obvious that the battle is lost, they fight on, over Byrhtnoð’s body. His comrade says: “mood shall be more resolved, as our main strength lessens!” The heroic tone of the poem relates a military defeat as if it were victory. The Danes probably took Byrhtnoð’s head as a trophy after the battle, but the monks of Ely recovered his body and buried it at the abbey. Byrhtnoð’s last resting place in the Bishop West’s Chapel at the east end of Ely Cathedral.

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Anglo-Saxon minstrels were called Scops. The word ‘scop’ relating to Old High German, ‘scoph’ and the verb ‘scapan’ meaning “to create, form”, descended from the Old Norse ‘skapa’ meaning to mock. Their job was to entertain with learned and self-composed works of music and poetry. Crucially they preserved an oral tradition of historical events. The 7th century poem “Widsith”, is about a fictional scop, indicating his status and role in Anglo Saxon society.

Epic poetry seemed most popular with these minstrels. Beowulf, Dream of the Rood (religious verse) and battle poetry reflected mortality and glory. The Nordic version of a scop, called a skald mostly performed patriotic poetry, praising kings, and incidental verse preserved in the sagas and ballards (eg the Poetic Edda). Sacred or heroic poetry could not be separated from the ecstatic or drunken state, and correspondingly crude jesting! The scop was also referred to as a gleeman, from the Old English word “gleoman”, who was a musician or performer. A scop would add self written material as well as performing well known songs and poems. Scops were also expected to compose verses that were appropriate for a specific occasion or celebration.

Anglo Saxon poetry forms the earliest period of English literature. Poems were recited or sung, not written down during the period. Professional scops devoted their lives to preserving, creating and performing and were usually attached to royal and noblemen’s courts. They were commissioned by kings or soldiers and often used a harp or similar instrument to accompany their performance. Scops could be travellers, visiting villages around the kingdom, although many held permanent positions in the king’s court or mead hall. They were in demand for feasting and celebrations such as for soldiers returning from war. Although performances were usually short, there were usually many lines of verse. (Beowulf is over three thousand lines long).

Subject matter dealt with history, such as battles or present day events. Ancestors were remembered and brave deeds, as well as the sea, battle-glory, and the love of home. It was regarded as a great honour to have a scop praise or mourn a person’s death. Whatever the subject, scops always performed poetry with eloquent language and earnest tone. There were moral reminders for the audience to keep true values of loyalty, family, kinship, and religion. Sacrifice was a popular theme and poetry was a powerful patriotic tool. The messages in the songs and poetry could be very serious, dealing with the hardships, pain and death suffered by heroes. Anglo-Saxon entertainment could often be deeply felt, provoking the audience to thoughtfulness and deep feelings. Thus the scops were messengers of traditional morality, using their poetry to motivate their listeners to live good and honest lives. They related the people’s history to them and bound the Anglo Saxon culture by performing their messages all over the kingdoms. Little wonder that the Anglo Saxon people believed that poetry was the closest thing to immortality. Without their poetry we would know little about them today.

I wrote this song using scraps of poetry from Beowolf. Without focussing on the intricacies of the story, I scryed into that far away world. In a smoky room, I visualized a hearth fire, and sensed the supernatural just out of the corner of my eye. I became aware of women, how they connected to the unseen and played a spiritual role in the community. As the song built itself on snatched and random words, I had the feeling that when men made war against each other, the women had something to say about it. They may not have had the strength to physically fight, and pregnancy, childbirth and rearing can placate even the bravest soul. But I think that I glimpsed women exercising strength by magic. I sensed women feeling anger at the men who invaded their external and domestic world, ignoring the sanctity of peace and respect for family life. The words came and formed as a ritual over the fire, and I wonder if I heard the private thoughts of a woman who had seen too much.
I decided to research what rights women had in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Women could hold, devise, inherit and sell land in Anglo-Saxon England. Of course these would be women from wealthy families who had curried favour with the king. But they also could hold leased land (held for the term of three lives, the original lessee and the lives of two consecutive generations of heirs). They could also control Folkland – land with vague loosely defined burdens of communal obligations.

Women could receive grants of land singly or jointly with their spouses. Whilst marriage meant that a woman continued to possess her property, the husband could use it however he wished, except permanently take it from his wife’s possession. Although true, it appears that many women exercised rights and met obligations on their own behalf. Many modern place-names were derived from Anglo Saxon women’s names, implying their land holding status. Anglo Saxon wills also show evidence of female control of land and the ability to dispose of land gave Anglo-Saxon women capacity for self-determination comparable to men. Women used land to gain political favour and to ensure that wills would be upheld. Land could also be used to protect children and heirs and a woman had the power to disinherit her children.

Family Law
Wealthy Anglo-Saxon women could choose not to marry, but early Anglo-Saxon fathers appear to have exercised considerable authority over both sons and daughters. Cnut passed a law stating: “let no one compel either woman or maiden to marry a man whom she herself dislikes.” Thus until then Anglo-Saxon women must have had little control in selecting and marrying a husband. Upon marriage the bride received a bride price called a “morning gift.” The bridal price was paid to the bride’s guardian upon marriage, suggesting that at one time, a father could barter a price for his daughter to marry. However, it is believed that the bridegroom actually paid the woman herself to guarantee her financial security within marriage.

Women could marry for political reasons; sometimes to solidify a peace-agreement between two hostile tribes. In these marriages the woman was called a ‘peace weaver’. It would be unlikely that the bride was forced into the peace weaver’s role, as an unwilling wife be would be political suicide. The intention was to conciliate, not antagonise. Saxon women also seemed to choose whether to have children, significant in an age when many women died in childbirth. There is evidence that women were valued in and of themselves, and not simply as child-bearers. No records from Anglo-Saxon society survive of wives being repudiated because they were barren.

Anglo-Saxon marriages could also be dissolved. The Laws of Aethelberht state that if a woman “wishes to depart with her children, she shall have half the goods.” However, “if the husband wishes to keep the children, the wife shall have a share of the goods equal to a child’s.” It appears from these laws that women bore the custody of the children, losing them only if the man wanted them. Laws protected a woman’s right to raise her children once the father died. The Laws of Hlothhere and Eadric provide that “if a man dies leaving a wife and child, it is right, that the child should accompany the mother.”

Women’s occupations
A woman was most likely to be married, (and do lots of housework) but there were limited occupations she could pursue. Women could live in a convent, part of a doublehouse, which in Anglo Saxon England were a monastery and nunnery side by side. They were always ruled by an abbess, Hilda being one such powerful woman. Bede said that “her prudence was so great, that not only indifferent persons, but even kings and princes, as occasion offered, asked and received her advice.” Hilda was also a great educator, five bishops came from her monastery at Whitby.

The church could provide either sex with an education in subjects such as scripture, history, and grammar. Women often used this education to teach Christianity on the continent. St. Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon who taught in Germany, corresponded with several nuns asking for books. When the double houses were rebuilt after the Viking invasions the monasteries and nunneries were different. These physical changes, as well as the increasing tendency within the church to view women as “threats to men’s salvation,” combined to deprive women of their previous influence in the church. Unmarried Anglo-Saxon women either joined the church or pursued occupations such as cloth-making and skills in weaving and embroidery was valuable. After the husband of Leofgyo fell at the Battle of Hastings, this Anglo-Saxon noblewoman was allowed to keep her estate for teaching Godric the Sheriff’s daughter to embroider. Also Denewulf, Bishop of Worcester, granted Eanswith land if she would care for and produce ecclesiastical vestments.

Political leadership
It seems that Anglo-Saxon women had private influence and liberty to intervene in public affairs. Women were seen as capable leaders who could rule jointly with their husband or after their husband’s death. A ruler had to have both leadership ability and the loyalty of the people in order to successfully rule. Women, such as Aethelflaed, proved themselves to be capable of leadership in this environment. She is known to have led armies, built fortresses, and sent expeditions against the Welsh and the Danes in Leicester. Anglo-Saxon rulers performed many functions and queens behaved the same as kings, distributing gifts, resolving disputes, granting land, and supporting the church. Records show a “grant of land at Croome, by Eanswith, consort of King Burgred, to the cathedral clergy of Worcester”, for their dairy-farm.

The legal system
The Germanic custom of wergild arrived with the Anglo Saxons. Wergild was the monetary value given to a person’s life. The value depended upon a person’s rank in society. Women had the same wergild as the men of their rank. Pregnant women had both their own wergild and half the child’s wergild which was decided by the wergeld of the father’s kindred. The laws of the Anglo-Saxon kings established when wergild was to be paid and to whom. Women were just as eligible to receive wergild payments as men. Alfred passed laws stating that anyone assaulting a woman should pay her compensation according to her rank.

Another important aspect of Anglo-Saxon law was oath giving. “A man accused of an offence was usually permitted to meet the charge by swearing an oath to his innocence and bringing in several others to give similar oaths.” Oath givers were also present in civil suits. Anglo-Saxon women could be litigants and oath givers. In a suit between Wynflaed and a man named Leofwine, Wynflaed was required to prove ownership of certain estates. She did this by calling many female witnesses, and won possession of her estates.

Anglo-Saxon women were held accountable for their own crimes and not those committed by their husbands. Wihtred, a late seventh century king, issued a law stating that ‘if a husband, without his wife’s knowledge, makes offerings to devils, he shall forfeit all his goods. Only if the wife participates are her goods forfeit.’ Likewise, if a husband steals a beast and carries it into his house, and it is seized therein, he shall forfeit his share of the household property. His wife, however, ‘can keep her share of the household property if she swears she hasn’t eaten any of the meat.’ These laws are evidence that Anglo-Saxon women were accountable only for their own actions .

Thus Anglo-Saxon women certainly had a high level of self-determination, and could possess property in their own right, and at their own disposal. Many had status and the power to determine their own destinies and it was not until the Norman invasion did English society relegate women to an honourable, yet essentially unimportant position.

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St Margaret was born about 1045. She was a daughter of Edward ‘the Exile’, her mother was Agatha, kinswoman of Gisela, wife of St. Stephen of Hungary. Importantly, she was the grand-daughter of Edmund Ironside. Tradition tells that Margaret’s father and his brother Edmund were exiled to Hungary during the reign of King Canute. Margaret’s father, Edward, returned to England in 1057 accompanied by Margaret and her mother, but he soon died. In 1066 the Normans were about to invade, and Margaret’s mother decided that they must escape and return to the Continent.

During their journey across the sea a storm drove their ship to Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them protection. Malcom’s marriage to Margaret was delayed as she explored religious life, but they married around 1068. Margaret’s position as queen allowed her authority in the Church. She introduced observance of the Lenten fast, and the Easter communion, and removed some marriage abuses. Privately pious, she prayed constantly and founded several churches. She enshrined her greatest treasure, a relic of the True Cross, at the Abbey of Dunfermline. Legend says that her bejewelled book of the Gospels was dropped into a river but miraculously recovered, it is now in the Bodleian library, Oxford. Margaret foretold the day of her death, which took place at Edinburgh in 1093. She was buried before the high altar at Dunfermline.

In 1250 Margaret was canonized by Innocent IV. At the Reformation her head passed into the possession of Mary Queen of Scots, and later was secured by the Jesuits at Douai, where it is believed to have perished during the French Revolution. The feast of St. Margaret is 10th June.

The most notable hoard is the Staffordshire hoard, discovered in 2009 by metal detectorists. It consists of almost 3,700 fragments, 2,800 of silver and 839 of gold. 1,500 of the silver fragments came from just one or two high status helmets. In weight the hoard consists of five kilos of gold and 1.5 kilos of silver. 3,700 fragments are probably from weapons – perhaps fittings from over 100 swords. Most of the artifacts date from the first half of the 7th century AD and were probably buried between 650 and the year 700 within the Kingdom of Mercia.

The gold was made to appear purer than it really was by removing silver and other impurities from it’s top few surface microns. Using a weak acid solution (almost certainly ferric chloride) the increased purity on the gold’s surface improved its appearance. The technique also produced different shades of gold. Royal gold was a higher purity, not needing treatment and this suggests that six of the gold items found in the Staffordshire hoard were made for Anglo-Saxon royalty.

The hoard was buried 674/675 AD, when the kingdom of Mercia was defeated by Northumbria, which then demanded tribute. So Wulfhere, the Mercian King, may have had it buried. From 685-688 Mercia was threatened by the Kingdom of Wessex perhaps prompting the hoard’s burial. Other unstable times were in 695 when a group of Mercian nobles murdered the Queen of Mercia probably because she had married in from rival Northumbria. Mercia’s elite struggled and treasure trove from battle may have been hidden, to retrieve in more peaceful times.

The Cuerdale hoard found in Lancashire, England was a Viking hoard, buried between AD 905–910. The largest Viking silver hoard known in western Europe, it was discovered by workmen repairing a bank of the River Ribble in 1840. Loose coins spilt into a wheelbarrow but all had to be handed to the bailiff – who allowed the men to keep one coin each.

The Cuerdale Hoard consists of over 8500 silver objects, weighing about 40kg. It consisted mostly of coins, although ingots (silver bars) and cut-up jewellery (called hacksilver) was found. It was buried in a lead container and probably parcelled up in cloth bags. Most of the coins were minted in Viking-controlled England, while the hacksilver is mainly Irish or Irish-Viking. Some pieces originated from Scotland, the Continent, Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea region and the Islamic lands of Central Asia and the Middle East. Cuerdale indicates the Vikings’ connections across the world.

Such a large hoard probably belonged to many rather than one individual and accumulated over time. Instability may have lead to its burial, or it had always been a secure place for stock-piling riches. Buried about AD 905 and 910, the presence of hacksilver suggests Viking ownership from those expelled from Dublin in 902. The River Ribble, where the hoard was found, is located directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin, and is on an overland route to York, a Viking stronghold.

The Huxley Hoard, another collection of Viking silver containing twenty one bracelets and one ingot, was discovered by metal detectorists in Cheshire in 2004. Covered by a lead sheet about a below the turf, silver was discovered along with lead fragments. Weighing nearly 1.5 kg, the hoard is thought to date to around 910. The twenty two silver objects consist of one small cast ingot and twenty one bracelets or arm rings that had been folded flat, probably to make it easy to bury them.

Sixteen of the bracelets are intricately decorated with stamped designs using a distinctive type of punch work. Bracelets of this type have been found in the Northwest of England and North Wales, as well as in Norway. The style is believed to be Norse, from the settlers in Dublin during the late 9th and early 10th centuries AD. So again this hoard may have been hidden by expelled Vikings from Ireland in 902. Or perhaps Vikings raiders buried the hoard when they sailed up the River Gowy, at the time navigable from the Mersey estuary.

The Silverdale Hoard producing more Viking silver, was discovered in 2011. Unearthed by a metal detectorist in North Lancashire, most of the pieces were contained in a lead ‘pouch’. The Hoard comprises of silver arm-rings, coins, ingots and hacksilver. There is also a fake, silver plated, coin. Again this hoard was buried circa 905. It contains coins minted in Baghdad and the Frankish Kingdom and one small coin reveals a previously unknown king of Northumbria called Harthacnut.

The Skaill Viking Hoard was found in March 1858, by a boy who chased a rabbit down a hole near St Peter’s Kirk in Sandwick. He dug at the entrance to the warren, finding pieces of silver. Local people joined him to uncover the largest Viking treasure trove in Scotland. It contained torcs, chain collars, armlets, bracelets, and a few coins. Amongst the 15lbs of silver were nine brooches, fourteen necklets, twenty-seven armlets and an assortment of ingots and silver fragments. A number of Anglo-Saxon and Arabic coins were found including two from the tenth century reign of king, Athelstan, or ‘Edelstan’. Nicks on the objects suggest that their quality had been tested, so they had probably passed through a number of hands before ending up in Orkney.

A hoard was found in a field in Harrogate, North Yorkshire in 2007 by father and son metal-detectorists. The highlight of the collection is an intricately carved silver cup, which contained six hundred and seventeen coins and various silver fragments, ingots and rings. A Viking buried the hoard in the kingdom of Northumbria around 927 in the time of the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan.
Conservation work involved cleaning, often with a porcupine spine, to protect the delicate silver, and intricate designs became visible. Small incisions (nicks) were made by the silver workers to test its purity before they worked it. Some parts of the hoard came from as far as Afghanistan as well as from Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe. Items were preserved because they were hidden in the cup. The Vale of York Viking hoard is now in the British Museum.

Wayland Smithy is an Old English Folk Story probably dating back to the Anglo Saxons. Wayland was the son of Wade, a God-Giant, who was King of the Finns. As a boy he was apprenticed to Mimi the Smith and master metalworkers, the dwarves of the Icelandic Mountains. Wayland became a master of his art but when his apprenticeship ended he went to live with his two brothers, Egil and Slagfid, in a lodge deep in the Forest of Wolfdales. Every day the three brothers went hunting. One morning, out in the wilderness, they discovered three lovely princesses who were spinning on the shores of Lake Wolfsiar. These were magical women, of royal blood, and also swan-maidens. They had left their swan-forms by the water’s edge so that when the brothers crept through the reeds and seized them, the maidens could not escape.

Wayland and his brothers married the three princesses. Egil married Olrun, Slagfid married Swanwhite, and Wayland married the beautiful Allwise. They lived together happily for eight years, but the swan-maidens found living in the mortal world difficult. Finally their desire to fly overcame them and one day, while the brothers were out hunting, they stole back their bird-forms and flew away. When Egil and Slagfid returned to find their wives gone, they were distraught. They wasted no time, but went out into the world to search for their wives. Wayland, though, did not go looking, Allwise had always returned his love for her, and he was confident that she would soon return. So he stayed in Wolfdales and while he waited for her he kept himself busy in his smithy.

At this time in Wayland’s life, his quality of metalworking improved even more. His pieces were increasingly superb, and very soon his creations were famous, sought by gods and kings alike. His jewellery became highly prized, and the rings that he forged were strung upon a willow twig in his forge. Before long Wayland was unable to satisfy the demand for his pieces. Royal interest had grown so much that kings and princes envied one another over his work. Wayland just laughed at the squabbles over his trinkets, he was oblivious that something sinister was afoot. In fact, Wayland was being watched by a king who could not control his envy whenever someone else procured a treasure that Wayland had made. This was King Niduth of Sweden, and before long he decided that Wayland’s handiwork was only fit to be appreciated by the Swedish Royal Family.

King Niduth sent his spies to find out where Wayland lived. With a band of his men, Niduth rode to Wolfdales forest and found the brother’s wood cabin. Wayland was out hunting when the king and his party arrived, so they let themselves into the lodge and looked around. On entering, the king was amazed by the shimmer and glare of the gold which hung around Wayland’s smithy. Almost blinded, and with half closed eyes king Niduth espied a splendid array of jewels and weaponry. Then he noticed a beautiful ring kept on a willow branch. The king had the rings drawn off one by one, until he could take the special one. He examined its intricate design and decided to give it to his daughter. King Niduth waited with his men for a few more hours before losing patience. He went home to his palace, but left orders to capture Wayland the Smithy. The men hid, so Wayland was unaware when he arrived home. Wayland entered his house and cooked his evening meal. The light from his fire revealed that one of his rings was missing, and Wayland immediately thought that his wife had returned and taken it. He had made the ring for her, and still missing her, he ate his meal, then slept.

When Wayland woke the next morning he had a shock. His feet and hands were bound and King Niduth’s men were walking around his house. Waking up properly Wayland saw his brother Egil, who must have returned that night; He was bound too. The kings men took the brothers to the Swedish Royal Palace where they were escorted into the great hall. Their bonds were removed, but escape was out of the question. Wayland was thrust down before King Niduth on his throne. But Niduth spoke eloquently and welcomed Wayland to his court. He informed Wayland that henceforth Wayland would serve him as goldsmith and jeweller. However, Amilias was already the royal smith. King Niduth wanted to see them fight for the position, for his entertainment. Wayland took his faithful sword, Mimung, and a sword fight quickly ensued. The king knew that Amilias could not win, only wanting to witness Wayland’s skilful swordsmanship. A fast and furious engagement took place which left the Swedish smith dead at Wayland’s feet.

The King took Wayland’s sword, Mimung, and congratulated Wayland on his victory. The king seemed friendly, but he actually took Wayland as his prisoner. Without warning the king raised Mimung, and cut the ham string muscle on the back of Wayland’s leg. Wayland cried out in pain and his brother Egil leapt forward to help him, but they were led away and separated. Wayland was taken to the island of Saevar-Staud and thrown into a deep cave, modified to be used as a smithy and Egil became a slave elsewhere in the royal household. Wayland, an immortal god, was not going to be defeated by a mere human, he began to plot his revenge. One night, as his guards slept, Wayland silently opened the prison gate and went in search of his brother, Egil. At their secret meeting Wayland asked Egil to fashion him a pair of wings which would enable him to escape. Wayland thought that with a crippled leg it would be easier to fly away than to try to run. Egil caught some birds and used their feathers to make a pair of wings.

Few people visited Wayland as he toiled away in the cave’s forge. But one day the king’s two sons appeared, clearly breaking the rules as they were forbidden to go near the prison. But the princes were fascinated by the smith’s magic and the beauty of the gold. Wayland promised them a proper look around if they stole back in secret during the night. The princes agreed, and along they came, with no guardian or protector, straight into Wayland’s smithy. Wayland had forged a new sword and made peace with himself about what he was going to do. The greed in the princes’ eyes convinced Wayland that they would not help him, but keep him in bondage just like their father. The princes began poking around Wayland’s piles of treasures. Seizing the moment, Wayland grasped the handle of his new sword, and in two short blows, he cut the princes’ heads clean off.

Wayland overcame his revulsion, and driven by revenge he worked all night on the princes’ heads, as if they were the raw material that he used to make his treasures. Using the best gold and gem-stones, he plated and decorated the princes’ skulls into two beautiful goblets, then fashioned their eyes into gems and their teeth into pearls. When he was finished he buried the headless bodies, and, when morning came, he called for an audience with the King. To King Niduth he presented the two goblets and to the Queen he presented the pearls. To the Princess Beahilda he gave the jewels. Suppressing a snigger, he watched the vain women attach the gory adornments.

There was a hue and cry for the missing princes, and the king sent out search parties to look for them. Wayland meekly returned to his forge to think his escape plan through properly, but he had a visitor. It was the Princess Beahilda, curious to see his forge and more treasures. Also she needed a repair to a gold ring that her father had gifted her. Wayland had a shock when he inspected the ring. It was the one he had made for his wife Allwise and finding it with the princess made Wayland more angry than he had ever been before. King Niduth had stolen him and stolen his work, enslaved him and disrespected him. Wayland had lost his wife and then his freedom, but he kept a level head. He spoke kindly to Princess Beahilda and offered her some wine. Beahilda lost her senses, for the wine was drugged, and Wayland did with her as he willed. Later that night Wayland fled to his brother.

Egil had made the wings, so Wayland and Egil took them and clambered up to the highest spot on an abandoned watch tower. Egil strapped the wings across Wayland’s back and along each of his arms. Wayland felt the nature of the wild birds and the wind sung in the feathers. He bade goodbye to his brother and flapped once, then twice, his feet lifting from the ground. Beneath a fingernail moon Wayland left the land below and flew into the night sky. He could have gone to the king’s palace and taunted King Niduth, telling him how he had tricked the king into drinking from his own son’s skulls. He could have jeered that the king’s own daughter was with-child by his treachery. But he did not do these things. He only thought of leaving Sweden and finding his wife.

But King Nidung heard Wayland had escaped and commanded Egil to shoot Wayland down. Egil took two arrows from his quiver, the straightest and sharpest that he could find. He aimed at Wayland, and blood flowed from his body. But it came from a sack of blood which they had attached to Wayland. Nidung was pleased, believing Wayland was dead. But the king paused for thought, then asked Egil why he had drawn two arrows from his pouch. Egil replied “to shoot thee, tyrant, with the second if the first one harmed my brother.” Wayland reached Berkshire and found shelter in an old tomb on the downs. He set up his smithy once more, and impressed Merlin the Druid who commissioned Wayland to make the sword, Excalibur for King Arthur!
About the story of Wayland Smithy
The written story appears in the ‘Volundarkitha’, an old Norse poem from the thirteenth century which relates the exploits of ‘Volundr’, the Norse form of Wayland. There are further variations of the story in Thidrek’s Saga. However, aspects of the legend are mentioned three centuries earlier in Beowulf and Deor’s Lament. The earliest representation of the story appears on the carved whalebone box called the “Franks Casket” which was made in eighth century Northumbria.

Wayland was a Teutonic god, worshiped in Scandinavia, Germany and by the English Anglo-Saxons. Wayland was the son of the god-giant, Wade, King of the Finns who was also a sailor. Wade owned a boat with glass windows which sailed underwater, where Wade met a mermaid who became Wayland’s mother. Wade was the son of the sea-goddess, Wachilt, who rose from the sea in front of the ship of King Vilkinus of Norway and returned home with him to give birth to his son, Wade, only to disappear again. ‘Wade’ appears in Northern British place-names: Wade’s Causeway on the North York Moors joins Pickering and Mulgrave Castles. It was said to be built by Wade so that his wife, Bell, could cross the Moors to milk her giant cow. It is actually a Roman road. It is also said that the Celtic-British King, Rhydderich Hael (Roderick the Generous) of Strathclyde, gave one of Wayland’s swords to the original Merlin.

The name ‘Wayland’s Smithy’ dates back to antiquity. Over a thousand years ago, ‘Welandes Smithan’ is mentioned in a Saxon boundary charter for Compton Beauchamp dated 955. German forges were known as ‘Wayland’s Houses’ in Medieval times and perhaps date earlier. Wayland Smithy, the prehistoric tomb near the White Horse was excavated in 1921 and two iron bars from the Iron Age were discovered, suggesting the tomb was used for trade. Wayland is often identified with the god-smiths Haphaestos (Greek), and the Vulcan (Roman). He is also similar to the Greek, Daedalus, who escaped from Crete using wings like Wayland. Daedalus also built the labyrinth. In Icelandic a stone maze is called a ‘Volundarhus’: a “House of Wayland” and some think the triple-chambered tomb in Oxfordshire appeared like a maze as it deteriorated, and was thus associated with Wayland.

Other Saxon charters indicate more sites in Berkshire associated with Wayland’s legend. One is ‘Beahhildae Byrigels’ or Beahilda’s Barrow, the Saxon name for a burial mound once near Cowleaze Farm, on the parish boundary between Woolstone and Compton Beauchamp. The mound has now disappeared, having produced a jet ornament, a Kimmeridge ring and a bronze pin when excavated in 1850. ‘Hwittuces Hlaew’ or Widug’s Low is a natural mound to the east of Compton Beauchamp just below Hardwell Camp. Known in the tenth century as Widug (or Wittich, or Widia) the name of Beahilda’s son by Wayland. Widug appears in the ‘Dietrich Cycle’ following Attila the Hun (d.453). He fights the hero, Dietrich (Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths c.454-526), with Wayland’s sword, Mimung, not realizing that the sword has been exchanged for a common blade before the fight. Later Widug slayed Attila’s sons and finally, Wachilt, his great grandmother, rises once more from the sea and steals Widug away to safety. And on another site, on Woolstone Down, south-east of Wayland’s Smithy, stands Idlebush Barrow, commonly called Idle Tump. In Saxon times this burial mound was known both as Hawk’s Low (Hafeces Hlaew) and Wade’s Barrow (Weardaes Beorh). (Wayland’s father). These barrows indicate that at one time, the whole landscape of the Eastern Downs featured in Wayland’s story.

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