The Saxon period

Traditionally the Saxon period (also known as the Anglo-Saxon period) dates from the 5th to the 11th centuries AD. The Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain in 410 AD in the face of increasing barbarian attacks elsewhere in the Roman Empire, leaving Britain to fend for itself. Britain had experienced attacks in the last years of Roman occupation which became more frequent in the years afterwards. The Saxon period has been known as the Dark Ages in the past because very few written sources were known from the period after the Romans left. This has been redressed in recent years, however, with archaeological investigations producing much important evidence. Archaeologists now tend to term the period the Early Medieval period, to stress the similarities and continuity between this and the traditional medieval period.


What we term Saxon was actually a mixture of Germanic peoples, Angles, Jutes, Frisians and Saxons from the area that is now Germany,the Netherlands and Scandinavia. There was no organised invasion as in the Roman period before or the Norman Conquest afterwards, but a number of raids were followed by groups of settlers. At first the Saxons settled on the south and east coasts in East Anglia, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Kent and Sussex (East Anglia was the kingdom held by the Angles, Norfolk and Suffolk referring to the North Folk and South Folk; Middlesex was the land held by the Middle Saxons; Essex the East Saxons and Sussex the South Saxons; eventually there was also Wessex, the West Saxons, as the invaders spread).


Reconstruction of the Orchard Saxon settlement in WaltonEarly Saxon archaeology is often quite elusive. Settlements were small, made up of one or two houses, sometimes on earlier Roman sites but often deliberately sited elsewhere. Early Saxon houses were usually rectangular timber-built 'halls' with small hut-like outbuildings (known as 'Grubenhauser' or 'sunken-featured buildings', as they had a shallow storage area under the floorboards). Early Saxon settlement has been found in Walton, just south of Aylesbury. At one site, known as the Orchard, a number of Early Saxon houses dating to the fifth and sixth centuries AD were excavated, including a grubenhauser, a beam-slot constructed building and several rectangular post-built structures, almost like log cabins.


Early Saxon cemeteries are much better known and sometimes more visible as the richest people were buried under mounds. The most famous burial site is, of course, Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Sutton Hoo is a group of burial mounds overlooking the River Deben near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In the 20th century the site was excavated by archaeologists in three separate investigations. The excavations brought to light the richest burial ever discovered in Britain, an Anglo-Saxon ship containing the body and treasure of one of the earliest English Kings, probably Rædwald, King of East Anglia from AD 599 to about 625 AD. More recent excavations and surveys, completed in 1992, proved the site to be a complex collection of burials, some royal, others possibly the victims of judicial execution.


Early Saxons were pagan, which contrasts with people in the late Roman period, most of whom were Christian. It was not until the 7th century that the Saxons were converted to Christianity. Pagan burials tend to be accompanied with grave goods such as knives, spears, shields, buckets, jewellery etc. The bodies are often orientated north-south and crouched or supine (laid out on the back), whereas Christian burials are usually orientated east-west and supine. Several Early Saxon cemeteries have been found in Buckinghamshire.


Taplow Saxon barrowSaxon burial at DintonOne of these cemeteries was found in 2001 during construction of the Aston Clinton bypass. 18 inhumation burials were found widely dispersed rather than in a concentrated group. One burial was found with no grave goods, but most people had been buried with a knife, some pottery or pendants. The richest burial found, of a mature woman, had been buried with two saucer brooches, a glass and amber bead necklace, a ring and personal grooming equipment (a tooth or nail pick and an ear-cleaning scoop). This burial dated to around AD 650. Another Early Saxon pagan cemetery was found at Dinton and a princely barrow, with many similarities to the Sutton Hoo ship burial, was excavated at Taplow in 1883 (some of the finds are on display in the British Museum). Drinking horns, remains of a wooden harp, a coptic bowl, glass cups and gold thread from the funerary clothes were all found in Taplow barrow, which was the richest Saxon burial before Sutton Hoo was found.


A reconstruction of All Saint's church, Wing as it might have looked to Saxon monksEarly Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were initially pagan, worshipping ancestral Germanic gods, such as Woden. However in AD 597 Pope Gregory decided that he wanted to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, so he sent St Augustine and other missionaries to England to begin the work. In the Middle Saxon period, from the 7th century onwards, the church started to establish itself under the patronage of regional kings and nobles. Minster churches were established at strategic places to bring Christianity to the people. A minster is thought to have been established at Aylesbury and the great number of late Saxon burials under the houses and streets near the church supports this view. Minsters were also established in Buckingham and probably at Wing.


The establishment of the church also led to the organisation of parishes, though this was not to be fully instituted until after the Norman Conquest. For much of the Saxon period minsters served a wide community with a number of clergymen. Some Saxon churches would have been built of wood but a few churches in Buckinghamshire have evidence of Saxon stonework, such as Wing, Hardwick and Iver. Wing church possibly dates to the late 7th or early 8th century. Some parish and estate boundaries were recorded in the 10th century, such as Chetwode, Monks Risborough, Hillesden and Winslow.


In the 9th and 10th centuries England came under increasing pressure from Viking raiders and settlers. The Danelaw was set up as a result of a peace agreement between Alfred the Great and the Danish King Guthrum in AD 878. It was an area of northern and eastern England under Danish rule but where Danes and English were equal in law. It occupied about half of England, from the River Tees to the River Thames. Within its bounds, Danish law, customs and language prevailed, rather than West Saxon or Mercian law. Its linguistic influence is still apparent in place names. The Danelaw was not uniformly settled, Danish and other Scandinavian colonists congregated more densely in some areas than in others – in particular in Yorkshire, around Lincoln, Stamford, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and in Norfolk. In AD 914, as part of a campaign to reconquer the Danelaw, King Edward the Elder built fortifications at Buckingham, a late Saxon burh or fortified town which at that time was on the southern frontier. Other burhs built by Edward the Elder include Hertford, Bedford and Stamford. The county of Buckinghamshire may have been established at around the same time to provide the administrative territory required to support the burh at Buckingham.


Current academic thinking suggests that the pattern of villages set within an open field system and commons had its origins in the Saxon period in the 10th century or possibly even as early as the 9th century. So the medieval settlement and agricultural landscape may have already been in existence in the later centuries of the Saxon period.