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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
Heathen England
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


We can now picture to ourselves the general aspect of the country after the English colonies had established themselves as far west as the Somersetshire marshes, the Severn, and the Dee. The whole land was occupied by little groups of Teutonic settlers, each isolated by the mark within their own township; each tilling the ground with their own hands and those of their Welsh serfs. The townships were rudely gathered together into petty chieftainships; and these chieftainships tended gradually to aggregate into larger kingdoms, which finally merged in the three great historical divisions of Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex; divisions that survive to our own time as the North, the Midlands, and the South. Meanwhile, most of the Roman towns were slowly depopulated and fell into disrepair, so that a "waste chester" becomes a common object in Anglo-Saxon history. Towns belong to a higher civilisation, and had little place in agricultural England. The roads were neglected for want of commerce; and trade only survived in London and along the coast of Kent, where the discovery of Frankish coins proves the existence of intercourse with the Teutonic kingdom of Neustria, which had grown up on the ruins of northern Gaul. Everywhere in Britain the Roman civilisation fell into abeyance: in improved agriculture alone did any notable relic of its existence remain. The century and a half between the conquest and the arrival of Augustine is a dreary period of unmixed barbarism and perpetual anarchy.

From time to time the older settled colonies kept sending out fresh swarms of young emigrants towards the yet unconquered west, much as the Americans and Canadians have done in our own days. Armed with their long swords and battle-axes, the new colonists went forth in family bands, under petty chieftains, to war against the Welsh; and when they had conquered themselves a district, they settled on it as lords of the soil, enslaved the survivors of their enemies, and made their leader into a king. Meanwhile, the older colonies kept up their fighting spirit by constant wars amongst themselves. Thus we read of contests between the men of Kent and the West Saxons, or between conflicting nobles in Wessex itself. Fighting, in fact, was the one business of the English freeman, and it was but slowly that he settled down into a quiet agriculturist. The influence of Christianity alone seems to have wrought the change. Before the conversion of England, all the glimpses which we get of the English freeman represent him only as a rude and turbulent warrior, with the very spirit of his kinsmen, the later wickings of the north.

An enormous amount of the country still remained overgrown with wild forest. The whole weald of Kent and Sussex, the great tract of Selwood in Wessex, the larger part of Warwickshire, the entire Peakland, the central dividing ridge between the two seas from Yorkshire to the Forth, and other wide regions elsewhere, were covered with primæval woodlands. Arden, Charnwood, Wychwood, Sherwood, and the rest, are but the relics of vast forests which once stretched over half England. The bear still lurked in the remotest thickets; packs of wolves still issued forth at night to ravage the herdsman's folds; wild boars wallowed in the fens or munched acorns under the oakwoods; deer ranged over all the heathy tracts throughout the whole island; and the wild white cattle, now confined to Chillingham Park, roamed in many spots from north to south. Hence hunting was the chief pastime of the princes and ealdormen when they were not engaged in war with one another or with the Welsh. Game, boar-flesh, and venison formed an important portion of diet throughout the whole early English period, up to the Norman conquest, and long after.

The king was the recognised head of each community, though his position was hardly more than that of leader of the nobles in war. He received an original lot in the conquered land, and remained a private possessor of estates, tilled by his Welsh slaves. He was king of the people, not of the country, and is always so described in the early monuments. Each king seems to have had a chief priest in his kingdom.

There was no distinct capital for the petty kingdoms, though a principal royal residence appears to have been usual. But the kings possessed many separate hams or estates in their domain, in each of which food and other material for their use were collected by their serfs. They moved about with their suite from one of these to another, consuming all that had been prepared for them in each, and then passing on to the next. The king himself made the journey in the waggon drawn by oxen, which formed his rude prerogative. Such primitive royal progresses were absolutely necessary in so disjointed a state of society, if the king was to govern at all. Only by moving about and seeing with his own eyes could he gain any information in a country where organisation was feeble and writing practically unknown: only by consuming what was grown for him on the spot where it was grown could he and his suite obtain provisions in the rude state of Anglo-Saxon communications. But such government as existed was mainly that of the local ealdormen and the village gentry.

Marriages were practically conducted by purchase, the wife being bought by the husband from her father's family. A relic of this custom perhaps still survives in the modern ceremony, when the father gives the bride in marriage to the bridegroom. Polygamy was not unknown; and it was usual for men to marry their father's widows. The wives, being part of the father's property, naturally became part of the son's heritage. Fathers probably possessed the right of selling their children into slavery; and we know that English slaves were sold at Rome, being conveyed thither by Frisian merchants.

The artizan class, such as it was, must have been attached to the houses of the chieftains, probably in a servile position. Pottery was manufactured of excellent but simple patterns. Metal work was, of course, thoroughly understood, and the Anglo-Saxon swords and knives discovered in barrows are of good construction. Every chief had also his minstrel, who sang the short and jerky Anglo-Saxon songs to the accompaniment of a harp. The dead were burnt and their ashes placed in tumuli in the north: the southern tribes buried their warriors in full military dress, and from their tombs much of the little knowledge which we possess as to their habits is derived. Thence have been taken their swords, a yard long, with ornamental hilt and double-cutting edge, often covered by runic inscriptions; their small girdle knives; their long spears; and their round, leather-faced, wooden shields. The jewellery is of gold, enriched with coloured enamel, pearl, or sliced garnet. Buckles, rings, bracelets, hairpins, necklaces, scissors, and toilet requisites were also buried with the dead. Glass drinking-cups which occur amongst the tombs, were probably imported from the continent to Kent or London; and some small trade certainly existed with the Roman world, as we learn from Bæda.

In faith the English remained true to their old Teutonic myths. Their intercourse with the Christian Welsh was not of a kind to make them embrace the religion which must have seemed to them that of slaves and enemies. Bæda tells us that the English worshipped idols, and sacrificed oxen to their gods. Many traces of their mythology are still left in our midst.

First in importance among their deities came Woden, the Odin of our Scandinavian kinsmen, whose name we still preserve in Wednesday (dies Mercurii). To him every royal family of the English traced its descent. Mr. Kemble has pointed out many high places in England which keep his name to the present day. Wanborough, in Surrey, at the heaven-water-parting of the Hog's Back, was originally Wodnesbeorh, or the hill of Woden. Wanborough, in Wiltshire, which divides the valleys of the Kennet and the Isis, has the same origin; as has also Woodnesborough in Kent. Wonston, in Hants, was probably Woden's stone; Wambrook, Wampool, and Wansford, his brook, his pool, and his ford. All these names are redolent of that nature-worship which was so marked a portion of the Anglo-Saxon religion. Godshill, in the Isle of Wight, now crowned by a Christian church, was also probably the site of early Woden worship. The boundaries of estates, as mentioned in charters, give instances of trees, stones, and posts, used as landmarks, and dedicated to Woden, thus conferring upon them a religious sanction, like that of Hermes amongst the Greeks. Anglo-Saxon worship generally gathered around natural features; and sacred oaks, ashes, wells, hills, and rivers are among the commonest memorials of our heathen ancestors. Many of them were reconsecrated after the introduction of Christianity to saints of the church, and so have retained their character for sanctity almost to our own time.

Thunor, the same word as our modern English thunder, was practically, though not philologically, the Anglo-Saxon representative of Zeus. We are more familiar with his name in its clipped Norse form of Thor. Thursday is Thunor's day (Thunres dæg: dies Jovis) and the thunderbolt, really a polished stone axe of the aboriginal neolithic savages, was supposed to be his weapon. Thundersfield, in Surrey; Thundersley, in Essex; and Thursley, in Surrey, still preserve the memory of his sacred sites. Thurleigh, in Bedford; Thurlow, in Essex; Thursley, in Cumberland; Thursfield, in Staffordshire; and Thursford, in Norfolk, are more probably due to later Danish influence, and commemorate namesakes of the Norse Thor rather than the English Thunor.

Tiw, the philological equivalent of Zeus, answered rather in character to Ares, and had for his day Tuesday (dies Martis). Tiw's mere and Tiw's thorn occur in charters, and a few places still retain his name. Frea gives his title to Friday (dies Veneris), and Sætere to Saturday (dies Saturni). But the Anglo-Saxon worship really paid more attention to certain deified heroes,—Bældæg, Geat, and Sceaf; and to certain personified abstractions,—Wig (war), Death, and Sige (victory), than to these minor gods. And, as often happens in Polytheistic religions, there is reason to believe that the popular creed had much less reference to the gods at all than to many inferior spirits of a naturalistic sort. For the early English farmer, the world around was full of spiritual beings, half divine, half devilish. Fiends and monsters peopled the fens, and tales of their doings terrified his childhood. Spirits of flood and fell swamped his boat or misled him at night. Water nicors haunted the streams; fairies danced on the green rings of the pasture; dwarfs lived in the barrows of Celtic or neolithic chieftains, and wrought strange weapons underground. The mark, the forest, the hills, were all full for the early Englishman of mysterious and often hostile beings. At length the Weirds or Fates swept him away. Beneath the earth itself, Hel, mistress of the cold and joyless world of shades, at last received him; unless, indeed, by dying a warrior's death, he was admitted to the happy realms of Wælheal. As a whole, the Anglo-Saxon heathendom was a religion of terrorism. Evil spirits surrounded men on every side, dwelt in all solitary places, and stalked over the land by night. Ghosts dwelt in the forest; elves haunted the rude stone circles of elder days. The woodland, still really tenanted by deer, wolves, and wild boars, was also filled by popular imagination with demons and imps. Charms, spells, and incantations formed the most real and living part of the national faith; and many of these survived into Christian times as witchcraft. Some of them, and of the early myths, even continue to be repeated in the folk-lore of the present day. Such are the legends of the Wild Huntsman and of Wayland Smith. Indeed, heathendom had a strong hold over the common English mind long after the public adoption of Christianity; and heathen sacrifices continued to be offered in secret as late as the thirteenth century. Our poetry and our ordinary language is tinged with heathen ideas even in modern times.

Still more interesting, however, are those relics of yet earlier social states, which we find amongst the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The production of fire by rubbing together two sticks is a common practice amongst all savages; and it has acquired a sacred significance which causes it to live on into more civilised stages. Once a year the needfire was so lighted, and all the hearths of the village were rekindled from the blaze thus obtained. Cattle were "passed through the fire" to preserve them from the attacks of fiends; and perhaps even children were sometimes treated in the same manner. The ceremony, originally adopted, perhaps, by the English from their Celtic serfs, still lingers in remote parts of the country, as the lighting of fires on St. John's Eve. Tattooing the face was practised by the noble classes. It seems probable that the early English sacrificed human victims, as the Germans certainly did to Wuotan (the High Dutch Woden); and we know that the practice of suttee existed, and that widows slew themselves on the death of their husbands, in order to accompany them to the other world. Even more curious are the vestiges of Totemism, or primitive animal worship, common to all branches of the Aryan race, as well as to the North American Indians, the Australian black fellows, and many other savages. Totemism consists in the belief that each family is literally descended from a particular plant or animal, whose name it bears; and members of the family generally refuse to pluck the plant or kill the animal after which they are named. Of these beliefs we find apparently several traces in Anglo-Saxon life. The genealogies of the kings include such names as those of the horse, the mare, the ash, and the whale. In the very early Anglo-Saxon poem of Beowulf, two of the characters bear the names of Wulf and Eofer (boar). The wolf and the raven were sacred animals, and have left their memory in many places, as well as in such personal titles as Æthelwulf, the noble wolf. The boar was also greatly reverenced; its head was used as an amulet, or as a crest for helmets, and oaths were taken upon it till late in the middle ages. Our own boar's head at Christmas is a relic of the old belief. The sanctity of the horse and the ash has been already mentioned. Now many of the Anglo-Saxon clans bore names implying their descent from such plants or animals. Thus a charter mentions the Æscings, or sons of the ash, in Surrey; another refers to the Earnings, or sons of the eagle (earn); a third to the Heartings, or sons of the hart; a fourth to the Wylfings, or sons of the wolf; and a fifth to the Thornings, or sons of the thorn. The oak has left traces of his descendants at Oakington, in Cambridge: the birch, at Birchington, in Kent; the boar (Eofer) at Evringham, in Yorkshire; the hawk, at Hawkinge, in Kent; the horse, at Horsington, in Lincolnshire; the raven, at Raveningham, in Norfolk; the sun, at Sunning, in Berks; and the serpent (Wyrm), at Wormingford, Worminghall, and Wormington, in Essex, Bucks, and Gloucester, respectively. Every one of these objects is a common and well-known totem amongst savage tribes; and the inference that at some earlier period the Anglo-Saxons had been Totemists is almost irresistible.

Moreover, it is an ascertained fact that the custom of exogamy (marriage by capture outside the tribe), and of counting kindred on the female side alone, accompanies the low stage of culture with which Totemism is usually associated. We know also that this method of reckoning relationship obtained amongst certain Aryan tribes, such as the Picts. Traces of the ceremonial form of marriage by capture survived in England to a late date in the middle ages; and therefore the custom of exogamy, upon which the ceremony is based, must probably have existed amongst the English themselves at some earlier period. Even in the first historical age, a conquered king generally gave his daughter in marriage to his conqueror, as a mark of submission, which is a relic of the same custom. Now, if members of the various tribes—Jutes, English, and Saxons,—used at one time habitually to intermarry with one another, and to give their children the clan-name of the father, it would follow that persons bearing the same clan-name would appear in all the tribes. Such we find to be actually the case. The Hemings, for instance, are met with in six counties—York, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Suffolk, Northampton, and Somerset; the Mannings occur in English Norfolk and in Saxon Dorset; the Billings, and many other clans, have left their names over the whole land, from north to south and from east to west alike. It has often been assumed that these facts prove the intimate intermixture of the invading tribes; but the supposition of the former existence of exogamy, and consequent appearance of similar clan-names in all the tribes, seems far more probable than such an extreme mingling of different tribesmen over the whole conquered territory.[1] Part of the early English ceremony of marriage consisted in the bridegroom touching the head of the bride with a shoe, a relic, doubtless, of the original mode of capture, when the captor placed his foot on the neck of his prisoner or slave. After marriage, the wife's hair was cut short, which is a universal mark of slavery.

Thus we may divide the early English religion into four elements. First, the remnants of a very primitive savage faith, represented by the sanctity of animals and plants, by Totemism, by the needfire, and by the use of amulets, charms, and spells. Second, the relics of the old common Aryan nature-worship, found in the reverence paid to Thunor, or Thunder, who is a form of Zeus, and in the sacredness of hills, rivers, wells, fords, and the open air. Third, a system of Teutonic hero or ancestor-worship, typified by Woden, Bældæg, and the other great names of the genealogies, and having its origin in the belief in ghosts. Fourth, a deification of certain abstract ideas, such as War, Fate, Victory, and Death. But the average heathen Anglo-Saxon religion was merely a vast mass of superstition, a dark and gloomy terrorism, begotten of the vague dread of misfortune which barbarians naturally feel in a half-peopled land, where war and massacre are the highest business of every man's lifetime, and a violent death the ordinary way in which he meets his end.
[1] owe this ingenious explanation to a note in Mr. Andrew Lang's essays prefixed to Mr. Holland's translation of Aristotle's Politics. He has there also suggested the analysis of the clan names for traces of Totemism, whose results I have given above in part.


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