410 AD to 867 AD
As the Roman Legions and all the protection that came with them, retreated to defend Italy, Britain was left to fend for itself and it eventually became a free-for-all for those seeking to invade. We had Scots (from Ireland), Picts (from Scotland), Angles (from Southern Denmark), Saxons (from Germany and Holland) and Jutes (from Northern Denmark). Romano-British natives put up a fight over the years, but inevitably, we eventually became Angle-land.
East Yorkshire: Deira (Deywr)
With the loss of Roman protection, Britons initially hired the Angles to help defend against invading Picts and other threats, and they lived in Deira for about a hundred years, building up their farms and villages, before eventually realising that the land was theirs for the taking.
Most of the old Roman buildings, villas, baths and roads had fallen to ruin and littered the countryside as the Germanic people preferred to build houses in their own styles. Only walled towns were of interest to them as garrisons of war, of which York was one.
In AD 559 the Angles declared the territory and along with Bernicia (an Angle settlement covering the north near Newcastle) they fought throughout and took Ebrauc (York), the town in the middle of the two kingdoms. The first recorded Angle King of Deira was King Aelle.
As time wore on, the relatively small tribal groups fused together under powerful leaders and larger kingdoms were created. The kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia fought for supremacy between themselves, with several kings rising and falling in the interim. Many a bloody battle takes place between these tribes, and anyone else who came along.
Aethelfrith of Bernicia tried to take Deira from Edwin, heir to the Deiran throne, but Raedwald, a powerful King of East Anglia joined forces with Edwin and defeated Aethelfrith in battle in 616. Thus Edwin was proclaimed king of both Bernicia and Deira, becoming the first king of Northumbria.
Villages were small, comprised of a few families. Each village had a large hall and several smaller buildings surrounded it for dwellings and workshops and they farmed the surrounding land. The great hall was home to the chief and his warriors, and it was built with timber and thatch. The high roof had a hole in the centre to let smoke from a central fire escape. They cooked using a cauldron over the fire. They lived in one room, for eating, sleeping, festivals and great drinking parties, of which there were many. The walls were decorated with shields and animal skulls and they had long benches and tables for everyone to eat and drink at. Sometimes animals were kept at one end of the great hall.
It was dirty, smelly and smoky, and they covered the floor with rushes, which they replaced when worn. When they did decide to bathe, most people would have had a nice dip in the River Hull or Humber, or one of the various lakes of the time, and their clothes would have been washed there too. The elite might have bathed in a barrel of water in the relative privacy of their home.
The women wore long dresses made of wool, flax or hemp course cloth, with loose capes across the shoulders pinned with a brooch and often covered their hair with scarves. Men wore cloaks and tunics with leggings or trousers held together with strips of leather or cloth. Fashions changed according to rank in society, and also the way clothes were made changed over the years.
In later years, societal rank became more distinguishable. At the bottom you had slaves; next were ceorls who owned land but had to fight for their lord if called for; next were thanes who were considered noble and owned land, who were responsible for law and order in their village. Above them were ealdormen who were basically the elite of society, who ruled over a section of land under the direction of the king.
“The lord provided his followers with land, weapons, wealth and protection and received in return a devotion that would lead his men to die for him if necessary.”
Anglo-Saxon and Viking Humberside, HCC Archaeology Unit
Remains in names
Most structures used perishable materials that were replaced over the years, which means that archaeological evidence is not as comprehensive as, say, the Roman era. Only later churches were built in stone. Although Anglo-Saxons lived lightly on the land, we know where they lived because of the place names that still remain to this day. These were concentrations of settlements of either the early immigration era or the later ‘settled’ era.
Early settlement used names ending in -ing (which means ‘people of’), and later settlements used various endings such as -ham (village), -ingham, -ton/-tun (enclosed farmstead or manor), -ley (forest clearing), -mer/-mere, -ney (island), -port, -bury, -ford (shallow river), -barrow, -hurst, -stead, -wick/-wich (farm) and -stow.
For example, Cottingham meant Village of Cotta’s people. These places may well have existed before the Angles took over, but the Angles renamed them. East Yorkshire settlements include places such as Beverley, Brantingham, Bilton, Coniston, Easington, Ellerton, Keyingham, Patrington, Sledmere, Tickton, Welton and also the ancient village of Wolfreton.
The flood plains of Hull were largely abandoned during the mid 5th century with little signs of occupation. However, the high ground of Bransholme (hill surrounded by water) was occupied with a small village and farm. There was a high ridge stretching from the village to Sutton and Wawne, and at high tide the ridge was cut off, leaving them on temporary islands.
Further west, in around 600 AD, two pagan females were buried together with their earthly belongings. This was found on the site of the present Hessle High School on Heads Lane in Hessle. Incidentally, a short distance away saw the founding of Tranby, a Viking settlement, around 250 years later.
Until the gradual conversion to Christianity from around the 8th century, most people were Pagan. Great mythological Gods with complex stories and hierarchy were interwoven into their consciousness, everyday living and their attitudes towards death. There are many, but these are the main ones;
Woden (pictured) is the chief God above all others and he’s the God of battles and war. The temple at Goodmanham was dedicated to him. (From which we get ‘Wednesday’).
Thunor is the God of Thunder, and protector against threats. Many people wore his hammer symbol on a necklace as protection. (From which we get ‘Thursday’).
Tiw is a God of war, of courage and sacrifice. (From which we get ‘Tuesday’).
Frige is a Goddess of childbirth and households, and is Woden’s wife. (From which we get ‘Friday’).
Freyja is a Goddess of love and female magic and Nerthus is an Earth Goddess.
Out of interest, Saturday, Sunday and Monday were Saturn-day, Sun-day and Moon-day, first used by Romans and adopted by Anglo-Saxons onwards.
The principle pagan temple site of the Angles of Deira was at Goodmanham, which was an elaborate high shrine to Woden, and a huge 6th century pagan cemetery was uncovered at Sancton, which turns out to be the largest pagan cemetery in England. Sancton lies between two Roman roads in the Yorkshire Wolds; one from Brough to Malton and the other veering off towards York. The site was first excavated in the 19th century and a hundred years later, a full excavation took place. Around 240 pottery urns were recorded, suggesting cremation as a main form of burial, and amongst the bone fragments in the urns, goods such as glass beads, copper objects, bone combs, miniature shears and spindlewhorls were also found.
Another Anglo-Saxon cemetery is located at Sewerby, (between the golf course and Sewerby Hall). Dated at mid 6th to mid 7th century, around 60 graves were uncovered of men, women and children, many of which with graves goods. These included jewellery of glass, amber, rock crystal and bronze; beaded necklaces and pendants, cruciform, square headed and annular brooches. They also found knives, bronze and wooden objects, silver plated bronze buckles, shields and fabric remains. These were obviously the graves of loved ones, put to rest with cherished objects, respectfully prepared for the after life;
At Walkington Wold near Beverley, it’s a different story. At this execution cemetery lies the remains of 13 criminals, 10 of which were decapitated with their heads buried elsewhere. These heads were without cheekbones which suggests they were put on spikes and displayed.
The shaping of our modern holidays began in Paganism. Christmas was one the greatest Pagan festivals as it celebrated the beginning of their new year at the winter solstice. Named ‘Modraniht’ or ‘Mother night’, Yule involved the burning of a Yule log, decorating their homes with evergreen branches, feasting and drinking.
Easter was a festival dedicated to the Goddess Eostre, which was a spring festival involving feasting, drinking, flowers and dancing.
Anglo-Saxons celebrated many festivals throughout the year, sometimes involving ritual slaughter of an animal or offering of inanimate objects such as swords, often involving fire and always involving drinking and feasting.
In AD 627, King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised by Paulinus (a missionary of Augustine, sent from the Pope), and thus became the first Northumbrian Christian king. Coifi, the chief Priest of Pagans in Northumbria, spoke at length with Paulinus and he was then convinced that the Pagan Gods he worshipped were false…
“At the command of King Edwin, he mounted the king’s stallion with no loss of time and rode to Goodmanham where the heathen establishment was. Arrived there, he thrust a spear into this temple of idols, rejoicing greatly in the knowledge that he had been told by Paulinus of the true faith of Jesus Christ, the son of God. The idols were then destroyed and the temple was turned into a Christian church.”
– Four Anglian Kings of Northumbria (Or Four Yorkshire Anglo-Saxon Crowns), Raymond E O Ella
The old Pagan site lies beneath the Chancel Arch of Goodmanham Church and a window to the right of the chancel bears the image of Coifi, the former great Pagan priest.
King Edwin was killed in battle at Hatfield, whereafter the trunk of his body was buried at Whitby and his head was buried at York. It is possible that the ‘Three Crowns’ symbol was first attributed posthumously as a heraldic symbol of King Edwin, but this was two crowns above one, gold crowns on blue background with his severed head above it, as seen in stained glass at York Minster.
King Oswald, however, who later acquired the crown had a heraldic symbol of three stacked gold crowns on a blue background, not a million miles away from the Kingston Upon Hull emblem. Although usually attributed to the Royal Charter of 1299, could it be that this symbol goes much further back than that, to around 640?
Christian kings as late as the 800’s, enforced laws stating that Paganism was not permissible to practice. There were laws banning people from things such as saluting the moon and placing piles of grain beneath the edge of a field to promote harvests, which suggests that Paganism was still being practised centuries later after the supposed conversion to Christianity. It is interesting to note that it was the later Christians who named them as ‘Pagans’ and ‘Heathens’, probably in an attempt to push them to the edge of society and to dissuade the practice. By this time, the church charged people ‘tithes’ for the privilege of being Christian and the accumulated wealth made for a powerful ecclesiastical network across the country.
Dera wudu (Deira woods) was a significant forest at Beverley, which covered most of the area at the time. John, Bishop of York founded a monastery in a clearing there, on the site of the present Minster and he established a small monastic community in the peaceful woodland. He was buried here in 721.
In 1037 John of Beverley was canonised by King Aethelstan who also created the College of Secular Canons dedicated to St John the Evangelist within the flagging community. The influx of pilgrims visiting the site led to profitable markets and inns and thus Beverley began to thrive.
The Venerable Bede, who wrote the Historia Ecclesiastica, and is considered the ‘Father of English History’ because of his comprehensive and invaluable observations of the era, was in fact ordained as a deacon and later as a full priest by John, Bishop of York. Bede is also known for popularising and spreading the use of ‘anno domini’ as a dating method, which he used in his works.
In the end…
In 793, invading Norwegian Vikings brutally slaughtered the monks and priests of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. Over the next 70 years there were violent raids on the coasts of Britain and in 865 an army of Danish Vikings invaded and raided our shores. This time, they were here to stay.
Life for the relatively peaceful Anglo-Saxons would never be the same again.