Category Archives: Anglo Saxons

The birth of Christianity in Kent.

It’s amazing how some things twist and some things turn and you have to question would something have happened eventually or was it only because of that single moment that it happened at all. That’s the statement and question I find myself asking when I look at the re-birth of Christianity within mainland England and has led me to explore the how’s and when’s of its happening.

We have to dig back towards the end of the 6th Century when Kent was a kingdom of its own and ruled by King Æthelberht. Æthelberht ruled Kent from roughly about 590 to his death on 24th February 616. He must have been quite important within modern England at the time as he is referred to as ‘bretwalda’ or British ruler in the entry in 827 of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

Æthelberht

Æthelberht

He is said within the Anglo Saxon Chronicle to be the first of the English kings to receive baptism.

This year died Ethelbert, king of Kent, the first of English that received baptism’

The Kentish people had strong ties with the Frankish people over the English Channel in modern day France. `Æthelberht looked to strengthen these ties with a marriage alliance. He had chosen Bertha of Paris, daughter to Charibert I of Paris and great granddaughter to the great Clovis I, king of the Franks. Bertha was already a Christian at the time of marriage and as part of the agreement she was to be allowed to carry on her faith in her new home.

This agreement then led to Bertha being allowed to restore a former Romano-British church at Canterbury, dedicating it to Saint Martin of Tours and it became Bertha’s private chapel and she brought with her Luidhard her own Chaplin and bishop.

This must have peaked Æthelberht’s interest in his wife’s religion as in 596/97 he welcomed what would become known as the Gregorian mission sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the people of Anglo Saxon England to their faith. The future St Augustine led the mission and baptised Æthelberht, himself becoming Bishop of Canterbury. Were Gregory’s hopes of conversion filled with the establishment of Bertha’s private chapel? St Martins Church in Canterbury is the oldest known English speaking church in the world today.

The king donated land to Augustine who founded the monastery to St Peter and St Paul which later became St Augustine’s Abbey. Pope Gregory had truly believed that Christianity had landed and taken a foot hold on the south east corner of the island and wrote in a letter to the patriarch of Alexandria that there had 10,000 conversions.

Augustine asks Gregory for assistance on how to set up the church and how it should act. In Bede’s The Ecclessiastical History of the English People written one hundred years later, Bede goes into great details of the questions asked and answered. Questions were asked about marriage within the family, about who could marry who, what should happen if someone steals from the church and how to deal with bishops from France and Britain amongst some.

Bertha of Kent

Bertha of Kent

Bede also confirms that Gregory in 601 sends more ministers to add him in the larger establishment of the church.

‘Moreover, the same Pope Gregory, hearing from Bishop Augustine, that he had a great harvest, and but few labourers, sent to him, together with his aforesaid messengers, several fellow labourers and ministers of the word of whom the first and principal were Mellitus, Justus , Paulinus and Rufinianus’

In 604, Roman bishops were established in London and Rochester and a school for Anglo Saxon priests and missionaries. Augustine consecrated his successor at Canterbury, Laurence and properly died later that year himself and in 606 Pope Gregory also died.

Æthelberht also established the first set of written Germanic-language law code and is thought to be the oldest example of written English albeit in a 12th century manuscript Textus Roffensis. It is believed that some of the laws were previous oral traditions from within Kent but could it have been the churches influences that made Æthelberht write these down.

Æthelberht died on 24th February 616 and was buried in the Church of St Peter and St Paul but was later exhumed so the shrine could be placed in the high alter of the Norman Church. Æthelberht, Bertha and Augustine were all created as Saints showing their importance at the time of setting up and establishing the early Christian church in Kent.

Æthelberht successor as king was his son Eadbald. Eadbald had been baptised but went back to his pagan beliefs. His father Æthelberht remarried after the death of his mother Bertha, although his new wife’s name is not recorded. Eadbald went against church laws and married his step mother who it is believed was a pagan herself.

St Augustine

St Augustine

Bede records that the church suffered a setback with this. Sæberht, the king of Essex had also converted to Christianity with the influence of Æthelberht but upon his death his sons expelled Mellitus, Bishop of London. Eadbald was punished for his faithlessness by frequent fits of insanity and was possessed by an evil spirit (could this have been epilepsy?), although Eadbald did reconvert back to Christianity.

‘Then abjuring the worship of idols, and renouncing the unlawful marriage, he embraced the faith of Christ and being baptized, promoted the affairs of the church to the utmost of his power.’

Eadbald then founded a church to St Mary in 624 which later became part of St Augustine’s Abbey. He also re-married Ymme who was Frankish and the connections between Kent and Frankia grew stronger again. Trade would have been important to Kent and this could of assisted with Eadbald’s re-found faith.

Christianity was now truly established and here to stay within the southern part of England. Kent had been the forerunner and base for the Bishops to push out on their conversion of other parts of England. My thoughts are that the marriage of Æthelberht and Bertha ignited the spark and the close trade links that would develop between both their kingdoms would allow Christian missions to be welcomed easier into Kent just in later years Viking warlords would convert themselves to aid in peace agreement’s and their land grabs a few hundred years later.

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Judith of Flanders, two Kings and a Count in twenty years.

Judith and her 3rd husband Baldwin

Judith and her 3rd husband Baldwin

Judith of Flanders, (c 843 AD to c 870 AD) was the eldest daughter of the Frankish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald and his wife Ermentrude of Orleans.  Through her marriages too two different Kings of Wessex (Aethelwulf and Aethelbald) she was Queen twice.  Her first two marriages were both childless.  Her third marriage to Baldwin, Count of Flanders made her the first Countess of Flanders.  One of her sons by Baldwin married Aelfthyth daughter of Aethelbald’s brother Alfred the Great.  She was also an ancestor of Matilda of Flanders the Queen consort to William the Conqueror and thus the later monarchs of England.  This places her quite highly as things stand in the history of both Wessex and England.

In 855 AD King Aethelwulf of Wessex, made a pilgrimage to Rome and on his way back in 856 AD he stayed at the court of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles the Bald.  In July of that year he became engaged to Charles’s daughter, Judith.  On 1st October 856 AD they wed at Verberie in northern France.  The marriage formed a diplomatic alliance between Wessex and the Holy Roman Empire.  Both kingdoms had been suffering from numerous Viking raids and an alliance between the two would make them stronger to repel the attacks.

The marriage itself gave Aethelwulf trouble at home, provoking a rebellion led by his eldest surviving son Aethelbald.  A compromise was reached between Aethelwulf and Aethelbald in where they split the kingdom between father and son.

Judith had no children with Aethelwulf, who died 13th January 858 AD.  He was succeeded by his son Aethelbald who married Judith.  Judith would have been only roughly 15 at the time.  It is believed that Aethelbald would of married Judith to enhance his own status and claim to the throne.  The marriage was condemned by Asser in the Life of Alfred the Great

One King Aethelwulf was dead.  Aethelbald his son, against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity and also contrary to the practice of all pagans, took over his father’s marriage bed and married Judith, daughter of Charles, king of the Franks, incurring great disgrace from all who heard of it.

Judith was still childless when Aethelbald died in 860 AD after a reign of only two and half years.

Following Aethelbald’s death Judith sold all her properties in Wessex and returned to France.  She was then sent by her father to the Monastery of Senlis.  Charles would have presumed due to her childless state that he would be able to rearrange another marriage of political alliance if he could prove she had kept her virtue.  However in 861 AD, around Christmas Judith eloped with Baldwin, the later Count of Flanders and it is believed the two were married at this time in the Monastery of Senlis.  This time Judith was not depicted as the victim bride but part of the plot, and with the consent of her brother Louis the Stammerer.  Maybe third time lucky she got to marry for love!

Judith’s problems did not stop there though.  Her father unsurprisingly was unhappy and ordered his Bishops to excommunicate the couple.  They couple fled to Judith’s cousin Lothair II of Lotharingia for protection before going to Pope Nicholas I to plead their case.  The Pope intervened for the couple and asked Judith’s father to accept the marriage and welcome the young couple to his court.  The couple returned to France and were officially married in Auxerre in 863 AD.

Baldwin was given the land south of Scheldt and the County of Flanders.  His main task was to ward off and deflect any Viking raids.  You would have to wonder with King Charles not liking Baldwin, whether there was an alternative motive behind making sure Baldwin took part in many battles.  This plan if it was in Charles thoughts didn’t work though.  Baldwin did well and quelled the Viking threat, increased his army and also his land holdings.  He became a very faithful supporter of Charles.

Judith and Charles had three children

  • Charles (born after 863 AD and died young.
  • Baldwin II (c 864 AD – 918 AD) succeeded his father as Count of Flanders and married Aelfthyth daughter of Alfred the Great
  • Raoul/Rodulf (c 869 AD – 896 AD) became the Count of Cambrai around 888 AD and was killed by Herbert I of Vermandois in 896 AD

Judith died in about 870 AD just a few years before her father became Holy Roman Emperor.

Father of the Great, Aethelwulf, King of Wessex.

Aethelwulf 1

Aethelwulf, meaning noble wolf was King of Wessex from 839 AD until his death in 858 AD.  He was the father of one of the greatest if not the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred the Great.  He was the only known child of King Egbert of Wessex.  He conquered the Kingdom of Kent on behalf of his father in 825, and was later made King of Kent as a sub-king to his father.  He succeeded his father as King of Wessex, on Egbert’s death I 839.  By this point the Kingdom stretched from Kent in the east to Devon in the west.  At the same time as Aethelwulf became King of Wessex his son Aethelstan became King of Wessex.

Historians have conflicting assessments of Aethelwulf.  Some state that Aethelwulf was intensely religious with little political sense.  He was an unambitious man who suffered greatly because of the inconvenience of rank.   Some historians state that he has been under-appreciated and lay the foundations for Alfred’s reign.  He managed to find new and adapt traditional answers and coped with the Scandinavian threat better than others in the same period.  It is also mentioned that he was the first to open channels of communications through the Frankish realms in Europe towards the Alps and Rome.

The most common source from the time the Anglo Saxon Chronicle refers to Aethelwulf’s presence at some important battles of the time.  In 840 AD he thought at Carhampton against 35 ship companies of Danes whose raids had increased greatly.  His most notable victory came in 851 AD in ‘Acleah’.  This could be possibly either Ockley in Surrey or Oakley in Berkshire.  Here Aethelwulf and his son thought against ‘the greatest slaughter of heathen host ever made.”  Around 853 AD Aethelwulf and his brother in law Burged, King of Mercia defeated Cyngen ap Cadell of Wales, and made the Welsh subject to him.  According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle Aethelwulf fought more battles through the adjoining years mainly against different pirating bands and Danes.

This was an era when different European nations were being constantly raided and invaded by many different groups.  In the south this was by the Saracans, in the east the Maygars, in the west the Moors and in the north the Vikings.  Before Aethelwulf’s death raiders had wintered on the Isle of Sheppey and pillaged East Anglia which would then set precedence for his sons to be constantly harassed by different raiding parties.

As king Aethelwulf split the kingdom into two.  He gave the eastern part to his eldest son Aethelstan, this including the counties Kent, Sussex, Essex and Surrey.   Aethelwulf then kept the more ancient western half for himself, which included Hampshire, Wiltshire, Devon and Dorset.

Aethelwulf coin

Aethelwulf and his first wife Osburh had five sons and a daughter.  After Aethelstan came Aethelbald, Aethelbert, Aethelred and Alfred.  Each of his sons with the exception of Aethelstan succeeded to the throne.  Alfred the youngest has been praised as one of the greatest kings to ever reign in Britain.  Aethelwulf’s daughter Aethelswith was married as a child to King Burgred of Mercia.

Religion was always a great and important part in Aethelwulf’s life and this did rub off on his son Alfred.  As early as the first year of his reign he began planning a pilgrimage to Rome.  With the increase of raids he felt the need to appeal to the Christian god.  In 853 AD he sent his son Alfred to Rome.  Alfred was only four years old.  In 855 AD about a year after the death of his wife Osburga, Aethelwulf followed Alfred to Rome where he was generous with his wealth.  He disturbed gold to the church of St Peter.

On the return journey from Rome he married Judith of Flanders in 856 AD.  Judith was a Frankish princess and a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne.  She was about twelve at the time and her father was Charles the Bald, King of the West Franks.

Upon his return to England in 856 AD Aethelwulf was met with a rebellion.  His elder son Aethelbald (Aethelstan had since died) had devised a conspiracy with the Ealdorman of Somerset and the Bishop of Sherborne to oppose Aethelwulf ‘s resumption of kingship upon his return.  Although Aethelwulf had enough support to banish Aethelbald and his fellow conspirators he instead yealded the western half of Wessex to Aethelbald while keeping the central and eastern parts for his own rule.

Also on returning to England Aethelwulf managed to change the laws regarding the future Kings Queens.  Previously the Queen was not called Queen but known only as ‘wife of the King’.  They were not allow the Queen to sit next to the King.  The restriction was lifted for Queen Judith and it is believed that the concessions were made because she was already a high-ranking European princess.

Aethelwulf died 134th January 858 AD and was buried at Steyning and later re-interred in the Old Minster at Winchester.  His bones now rest in one of several ‘mortuary chests’ at Winchester Cathedral.

Hastings or Haestingas?

hastings

Hastings must be one of the most known places in England.  Known as the place that William the Conqueror in 1066 defeated Harold and the Normans took control of England.  The history though of Hastings doesn’t start there.  The Haestingas were one of the tribes that settled in the south eastern tip of England sometime before the end of the 8th Century.  Not much is known about the tribe but let’s look at what is.

The foundation legend of South Saxons is given in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.  The Chronicle states that in the year 477 AD, Aella arrived at a place called Cymenshore in three ships with his three sons.   Cymenshore traditionally is thought to be located around the Selsey area in the south west of Sussex.  However archaeological evidence based on the number of Anglo Saxon cemeteries indicate that around the 5th Century the South Saxons mainly settled the lower Ouse and Cuckmere rivers in East Sussex.

To the east of Pevensey, beyond the Saxon Shore Fort of Anderitum on the other side of the estuary were a group of people that settled and were called the Haestingas.  They gave their name to the town Hastings.  They were believed to a separate group of people than the South Saxons, although there is no archaeological evidence to support the occupation of the area between the 5th and 8th Century AD.  Medieval sources suggest with place name evidence that there were people living there by the late 8th Century AD.

Some of the Anglo Saxon charters from the Kingdom of Sussex do such that there may have been two separate dynasties and people.  The charters of King Northelm who ruled in Sussex in the late 7th Century and early 8th Century AD mention a second King by the name of Watt (or Wattus).  It is suggested that Watt could have been the ruler of the Haestingas.  This is because around the Hastings area there are place names with Watt or What as part of them, but there are no places like this in West Sussex.

Simon of Durham who was a 11th Century monk, records the defeat of the gens Hestingorum (the people of Hastings) by Offa of Mercia in 771.  Mercian overlordship was ended when they were defeated in 825 AD, by Egbert of Wessex at the Battle of Ellandum.  Egbert annexed the territories of Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.  This suggests that by this time the Haestingas had fused together with the South Saxons of Sussex.  Although in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it states that the Haestingas were harried by the Danes in 1011.  This would mean that they would of maybe kept an unique identity within Sussex, then Wessex and in England as a whole.

The 19th Century AD writer Grant Allen, suggest that the Hastings area was separated to that of Sussex and Kent, only later to join Sussex.  He stated that it was isolated separated from the rest of Sussex and England by the marshland of the Pevensey Levels lying to the west and the forest of Weald in the North.  It was separated from Kent by the Romney Marsh in the east.  He stated that the Kingdom of the Haestingas went on to join Sussex and to become one of traditional ‘rape’ sub-regions of the county.

The actual origin of the Haestingas people is also up for debate.  It is suggested that they may be of Frankish origin and that Watt was a sub-king to the South Saxons.  It may be that the name also gave name to Watten in north east France supporting this claim.  However some say that they may have been of Jutish origin from Kent.  Kent was one of the first places to be converted to Christianity at the beginning of the 7th Century AD, and the simple Christian burial was introduced.  As there is little archaeological evidence of the Saxon Haestingas it could have been they were already converted to Christianity before they moved to the area around Hastings.

Whether they were Saxon or Jutes, it is clear that the people of Haesta (ingas being the Old English for people of) gave the name to Hastings and with that a significant name at a major turning point in England’s history that will be remembered for ever.

Stamford Bridge, was this William’s break?

The battle of Stamford Bridge took place at the village of Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire on 25th September 1066.  It took place just nineteen days before the battle of Hastings in which William of Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson and took the crown of England.  You have to wonder what the outcome of that battle had of been if Harold was not fighting his name sake Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway at Stamford Bridge.  The battle is taken in history as the end of the Viking era in Britain, even though small campaigns took place in the decades to come.

Edward the Confessor had died earlier in the year which triggered a contest for the vacant crown in England.  These claimants included the King of Norway Harald Hardrada who assembled a fleet of 300 ships containing roughly 15,000 troops.  He arrived off the English coast in September 1066 and was joined by further forces recruited in Flanders and Scotland by Tostig Godwinson (broter of Harold).  Tostig had been ousted by Harold as Earl of Northumbria and had been raiding in England throughout the early part of 1066.

Harald’s army sailed up the river Ouse towards York where they defeated a northern English army led by Edwin, Earl of Mercia and his brother Morcar, Earl of Northumbria at the battle of Fulford on the 20th September.  Following the victory York surrendered to the Norwegian army.

During this time King Harold, who had already been crowned on the day of Edward’s funeral was in southern England waiting for the invasion of William, Duke of Normandy.  As soon as he heard of the invasion he headed north with his houscarls and as many of his thegns as he could gather.  He made the journey from London to York (185 miles) in just four days taking the Norwegians by surprise.

Anglo-Norman 13th manuscript showing a scene of the Battle of Stamford Bridge

Anglo-Norman 13th manuscript showing a scene of the Battle of Stamford Bridge

There was no village at Stamford Bridge in 1066 and not even in 1086 according to the Doomsday Book.  The Viking army was split into two with some on the west side of the River Derwent and the bulk of the army on the east side.  It was also a warm day for September and with the surprise a lot of the Viking army had left their armour on the ships.  Harold’s army first attacked the Vikings on the west side of the river and quickly overturned either slaying them or sending them backwards.  The English advance was then halted at the bottle neck of the bridge at the crossing.  Later folk tales said of a giant of a Viking armed with axe, who stood on the bridge and would not let any of the English army passed.  It is said that he defeated slayed 40 enemies before he was finally defeated by someone attacking him from underneath the bridge through the gaps.

This delay though is said to have allowed the bulk of the Norwegian army to create the shieldwall with their shields overlapping in defence.  Harold’s army then rushed across the bridge creating their own sheildwall before charging at the Norwegians.  The battle raged for hours and moved further away from the bridge.  The Vikings defence was faltering and then Harald was shot with an arrow in the wind pipe and Tostig was also slain.  The English army then pushed and the shieldwall broke.  The lack of armour for the Vikings was a great disadvantage and before long they totally disintegrated and were almost annihilated.

In the later battle they Norwegians were reinforced with troops that initially were left to defend the ships.  They apparently briefly checked the English advance but were soon also overwhelmed.  The Norwegians then retreated and fled chased by the English, with some of the Vikings drowning as they tried to cross the rivers.  So many died in such a small area that it was said the field was still whitened with bleached bones fifty years later.

King Harold then accepted a truce from the remaining Norwegians including Harald’s son Olaf and Paul Thorfinsson, Earl of Orkney.  The Norwegians then retreated to the Orkneys but only twenty four of the three hundred ships were needed so was the slaughter of the battle.

Three days after the battle William, Duke of Normandy landed on the south coast of England.  King Harold had to once again rush his now battle weary army on a forced march this time south.  On October 14th William defeated Harold at the battle of Hastings and so many Anglo-Saxon thegns and nobles died during the two battles that it was difficult for the Anglo-Saxons to counter a major resistance of the Normans.

But what if?

If Harald Hardrada had not attacked when he did how would the Norman invasion faired against a fresh Anglo-Saxon army?  Would Harald if he had invaded after William have then defeated Harold if he had won at Hastings?  So many questions over such a short period of time and such an important period in the growth and future of England and all of Western Europe.

Stamford Bridge battlefield memorial near Whiterose Drive

Stamford Bridge battlefield memorial near Whiterose Drive

Aella, King of Deira.

When you think of England and you think of all the different accents and dialects there are within the few hundred miles that separate the English channel and Hadrian’s Wall, it may be more easier to picture how fragmented the land once was.  England wasn’t always England.   The joining of the last fragmentation brought Northumbria in with Wessex, East Anglia and Mercia uniting them all as England. 

Northumbria it’s self was not always as one and was a make up of smaller kingdoms. 

One of these was Deira.  According to Simeon of Durham (died after 1129) it lay on the east coast of what would become England between the Humber and the Tyne.  Although the land north of the Tees was wasteland and useless.  It’s capital would of been Ebrauc which is now modern day York. 

The first known King of Deira was Aella who died in 588.   According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he became king the same year as Ceawlin of Wessex (560) on the death of Ida of Bernicia, and ruled 30 years. However, the Chronicle records in the year 588 that Aella died, and was succeeded by Aethelric. Possibly this is the reason Florence of Worcester offered the date Aella came to the throne as 559, which would closer align the dates of his death and reign. 

Not much is actually known of Aella but his geneology is disputed by two different sources.

According to the manuscripts of Matthew Parker a 16th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, Aella was the son of Yffe, the son of Uxfrea, the son of Wilgisl, the son of Westerfalca, the son of Sæfugl, the son of Sæbald, the son of Segegeat, the son of Swebdæg, the son of Sigegar, the son of Wædæg, the son of Woden

Although in the Historia Brittonum it is stated that Aella was the son of Iffi, grandson of Giulgis, great grandson of Sguerthing and great-great grandson of Soemil who “first separated Deira from Bernicia”. 

Another mention of Aella, appears in the Gautreks Saga where he was visited by a peasant hero. 

One of Aella’s sons was Edwin of Northumbria who went on to become King of both Bernicia and Deira which joined together to become Northumbria.  Edwin was later venerated as a Saint.  Aella’s daughter was Acha who married Aethelfrith of Bernicia.

He was succeeded by Aethelric (d.c604) although there is some ambiguity regarding this.  The Anglo Saxon Chronicle states that Aethelric succeeded Aella in 588.  Bebe states that Deira was invaded by Aethelfrith in about 604.  The exact details are unclear and it is stated that Edwin is exciled which would lead to believe that Deira was conquered by Aethelfrith and Aethelric’s fate is unknown.  Aethelfrith then ruled both Deira and Bernicia together until his death in battle when then Edwin and the Deria line was restored.