Ancestral Lands: Part Two, Saxons and Danes
Saxlingham wasn’t named for the Saxons, but for a minor lord by name of Seaxe. And despite the claims of the village sign, Seaxe probably lived one, even two centuries earlier (650-750 CE), in the Middle Saxon period. But the Anglo-Saxons have yet to arrive.
Early Saxon (411-650 CE)
There is no written record for the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers.
But, but, but . . . Gildas?
“Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern, the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them, like wolves into the sheep-fold, the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations …”
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, Gildas (c.500-570 CE)
Written circa 560, and quoted/misquoted by every historian since. Compounded in school text books and on TV documentaries, anyone would think it a fact. But it’s not. It’s a factoid.
But it is contemporary, right?
Not really, no. It was written 100 years later than the earliest archaeological evidence of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of this country. Moreover, Gildas who was later to become a monk, was born in the north-west of Britain—the border lands, much harassed by the tribes from ‘beyond’ the Empire. In childhood, as the son of a British king, he would have heard terrifying stories at his father’s court—and he certainly used them in this work. But those stories focused on the north-western lands, and that’s not where the Anglo-Saxons arrived. In his own words:
“They first landed on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky king, and there fixed their sharp talons, apparently to fight in favour of the island, but alas! more truly against it …”
However, there are certain aspects of his account that are worth looking at, that might help solve an outstanding puzzle.
The Empty Land
Gone are the days when the historical narrative told of the Germanic tribes arriving to an all-but unpopulated land, the Romans having fled back to Rome—or at least across the waves. While that scenario might carry some truth—as far as the administrators and sword-wielding army were concerned—what of the Brits?
Yet, if the Brits remained in any number, why did they swallow their language in preference for the Germanic tongue? There are very few (Celtic) Brittonic words in the English language. The usual argument is that the Brits aped the incoming Anglo-Saxons (who didn’t arrive in any great number). Yet that falls flat when held against the later situation with the Normans. The English spat upon their French (except for words for law and cuisine).
To repeat: the historical narrative used to include a land left empty of people—that alone, so it was thought, could explain the language puzzle. Moreover, devoid of people, the land grew heavy with weeds and an overgrowth of woods. And it’s true, pollen studies do show an increase in tree pollen. But it’s taken as indicative of agriculture on a less intensive scale. And that is logical. The army was gone. The grain wasn’t needed to fill their bellies, nor yet for export to the Empire Nor to pay taxes. The British farmers no longer needed to slog at ploughing those marginal lands. You can almost hear their concerted sigh and shouts of ‘Yippee!’ as abandoned fields turned to scrub, and scrub to woodland.
But then, what of the recent DNA studies? The folk in East Anglia have up to 40% Anglo-Saxon genes. That’s a heavy input from a supposedly few incoming Germanics. So, again, what of the Brits? What happened to them? They were not slaughtered, one and all. There would be some archaeological evidence of that. Instead, the east of Britain at this period looks incredibly peaceful and quiet.
Gildas may have the answer. Despite his tangled chronology (evidence of its ‘hearsay’ nature), Gildas tells us of a plague.
“… a pestilential disease morally affected the foolish people, which, without the sword, cut off so large a number of persons, that the living were not able to bury them …”
In Gildas’ chronology, this ‘pestilential disease’ swept the country after the final withdrawal of Roman troops, after the last, and worst, incursion of the Picts and Scots, but before Gurthrigan invited the fierce Saxons to help defend against the northern invaders. If we take this withdrawal of troops to be those taken by Magnus Maximus, Spanish-born military commander of Britain, who set himself up as head of a breakaway Western empire, then that plague dates, at earliest, to 383 CE.
This is too late to be the Antonine Plague (165-180 CE), or the Plague of Cyprian (250-270 CE) both of which are thought to have been smallpox. And too early to be the Plague of Justinian (541-542) which finds mention in the Irish and Welsh Annals—Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd is said to have died of the ‘Yellow Plague of Rhos’ in 547. This, probably a form of bubonic plague (‘Black Death’), killed an estimated 13% of the world population. But Gilda would not have mistaken its date: it hit Britain in the decade before he wrote De Excidio.
In 1918 a plague—or pestilential disease—killed 50-100 million people. It wasn’t smallpox, nor the bubonic; it was Spanish influenza.
Around 400 CE Britain experienced a deterioration of weather. The climate cooled—by as much as 2.5° F (1.5° C). It was wetter, too—as much as a 10% increase in rainfall. We have no problem, today, imaging the effects of that. With the intensive Roman agricultural practises, including extensive deforestation, I can easily see the yellow-stained rivers running large. Soil erosion. Widespread flooding. Soil leached of nutrients and fertility. The growing season reduced by at least a month. Farm animals weakened, susceptible to disease. Ditto the human stock. And everything far worse in the north where Gildas one day would be born. The Picts, themselves driven by hunger, would have descended upon the more prosperous south in ravenous hordes (just as Gildas describes). But even in the land-rich south there was famine. For nothing destroys a crop more effectively than rain at the wrong time, and weather so cold the soil never warms up.
An influenza pandemic occurs when a new strain of the virus jumps from animal host to human. Coughs and sneezes then carries it far; i.e. the virus is air-borne. And in Britain, at least, we’re all aware how quickly that virus can spread during wet winter months, everyone jam-packed together on buses and tubes, in shops and in offices. Lucky for the Roman Empire that cross-Channel traffic scarcely existed right now. Thus, the outbreak—be it flu or similar—was contained by Britain’s wave-washed shores. But, with a cough and a sneeze wide swathes of Britain were laid bare—though not entirely empty—inviting settlement by the restless, land-hungry Germanic peoples. It’s even possible, it was their forerunners—traders?—who carried the bug here.
Rivers Yare and Tas—an Early Saxon Gateway to Norfolk
It’s amazing how many early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are found in the corner of land twixt the rivers Yare and Tas. There are two a stone’s throw from Venta Icenorum. Another lies just off the map at Ashwellthorpe, beside another Roman settlement.
There’s no surprise in this: it’s a long-known fact that the earliest Anglo-Saxon cemeteries nestle beside Roman remains. It’s this that gave rise, in the past, to the theory of Saxons being invited as mercenaries. Yet if we think more on it, trade seems more likely reason to settle.
With the Empire now ailing, trade failing, those Germanic tribes who’d formerly traded with Rome via the Rhine, had to look elsewhere for their wares (grain, salt, pottery, slaves, linen, leather . . . ). It doesn’t take much thought to go straight to source. Maybe some were already trading at Gariannonum (Burgh Castle), one of the two forts that guarded the Great Estuary—to the Brits, Garensis, the noisy one: loud with the calling of birds!
Once into that estuary there was a choice of three rivers: the Bure, the Yare and the Waveney. Each would deliver them deep into Norfolk. But only the Yare would take them, via the Tas, to Venta Icenorum, the Roman capital of the region.
Having arrived, these traders would have found a much-depleted population. They’d have found empty lands; lands growing weeds and saplings that soon would flourish as woodlands. On returning home the call would go out . . . and the settlers would come.
A tentative scenario. But one that fits the facts and untangles the arguments of today’s historians.
It used to be thought that urn-contained cremations formed the earliest burials; that inhumations only occurred once the Anglo-Saxons took up Christian ways. More recent studies tell a different story: of both inhumation and cremations in the same cemetery, and of the same early date. Now it’s believed those who lived close to the cemetery interred their deceased. While those who lived at a distance, and must carry the corpse, took the wise option of local cremation, resorting then to urn-contained burial of ashes.
At Saxlingham, finds of the Early Saxon period turn up in the same places as the earlier Roman finds—at the Romano-British villa, in the form of a brooch and a sleeve clasp, diagnostic of the earliest settlers; south of Broad Slough where pottery sherds are found (including sherds of burial urn found near one of the ring-ditches); Early Saxon metal-work found in the fields south of the church ruins at Saxlingham Thorpe.
That many of these finds, including typically decorated Saxon brooches, share the same patch of soil as the Roman remains suggests continuity. But is that a continuity of living space (fields and hamlet)? Or a continuity of people? It’s around this immigration/non-immigration nub that the arguments rage.
East Anglian Kings
We don’t know why the first Anglo-Saxon settlers left their homeland, risking all in a small boat on a big sea, with hope all would be well on the other side—except it’s a fact that migration is usually provoked by a strong disgruntlement with the current status quo: political, cultural, economic, religious. So, while we might think it unlikely that in those early decades of settlement, they gave much thought to the founding of dynasties and claiming kingship, that may not be so. Certainly, as others from their region continued to arrive—throughout the fifth century and into the sixth—the first arrivals would have been strong in their position to claim lordship—i.e. they knew the land, they could direct, and advise. All it took was for one wily patriarch to claim kingship over the others.
“Descended from the gods”—particularly Woden. “I’ll give you justice, protection, and a share of my acclaim, if you join my gang.” It was a contact between the two parties: the king and his supporter. In return for the king’s protection and applied justice, his supporter provided arms in times of unrest, assisted in the building of the king’s hall(s) (burh), and hosted the king’s court on its annual circuit of the land. This early contract continued to form the basis of the king’s relationship with his subjects for the next millennium and more. The building of the king’s halls would later be extended to include the defensive works of borough and castle. Items added would include the building and repair of roads and bridges.
The hosting of the king’s court translated to tribute paid in the form of ‘a night’s farm’. The Anglo-Saxons were an Indo-European people; the paying of tribute had been bred into them before they ever left the Yamnaya’s North Pontic homeland. And though by the Middle Saxon period coin was in use, tribute was always paid in kind. So many sheep, so many cows, so many chickens and pigs; huge measures of grain—wheat and barley for bread and for brewing, oats for the horses—and legumes, mostly for fodder; then there’d be cheeses, and honey, and flax either as thread or (more likely) as linen-cloths.
The King List above shows the successful claims of one such dynasty: the Wuffingas, of Sutton Hoo fame. But we know there were many more. How? Because of the –ingham’s, as in Saxlingham.
This is usually translated as the homestead (-ham) of the folk (-ing) of . . . But that word ‘homestead’ is misleading. There’s a tendency to equate it with Middle English ‘hamlet’, i.e. a small village, particularly one without church (Middle English not Middle Saxon; i.e. the English language 1150-1470). Yet, as Tom Williamson says in his Origins of Norfolk, the early ‘hams’ “tended to be areas rather than individual settlements:” the core zone of the estate. And those estates—all those –inghams—belonged to the many competing dynasties.
In the Henstead Hundred, alone, there were three estate centres: Saxlingham, the estate of the dynastic Seaxe; Whitlingham, the estate centre of Wihtric; and Framingham, the estate centre of Frama. There was also Surlingham, the southern estate of Herela, but it seems that Herela’s dynasty was early in its capitulation. West of the Tas, there was Ketteringham, the estate of Cytra; Wrenningham, the estate of Wrenna; and Kenningham, the estate of Kena. We might think of them now as minor players. But that’s only because 1: we don’t know the extent of those estates; and 2: it was the Wuffinga dynasty that ultimately succeeded in the local contest for supremacy, leaving nothing of these others but placenames.
By the time the scribes took notice of the lands of the East Angles—i.e. the Venerable Bede (672-735)—the poets had rehearsed the Wuffinga’s genealogy sufficiently to provide Rædwald Tyttling (599-624), the eighth generation or so from first settlers, with a respectable ancestry. But it’s debateable whether Wehha Wilhelming—’the first to rule over the East Angles’ (no date given) really did as said, or whether his rule extended no further than the Deben valley in Suffolk.
Middle Saxon (650-850 CE)
The Middle Saxon period was a time of consolidation. Seaxe’s dynasty had lost out to the Wuffingas. Seaxe’s line had at some time been defeated, his supporters either dead or sworn a new contract with the victor, Seaxe’s personal estate used to augment his successor’s lands. How many times repeated before the contract entered was with the current king of the Wuffingas’ line?
Meanwhile, Christianity had arrived. Rædwald is said to be the first king of the East Angles to be baptised, though he wasn’t exactly fervent in his worship. The way Bede tells it, it sounds like he accepted baptism only to keep the Kentish king quiet while visiting there. For on his return to southern Suffolk he reverted to his former gods, building a temple to contain altars to both the Germanic and Roman faiths. The Northumbrian king, Edwin, is said to have persuaded Rædwald’s son Eorpwald “to abandon his idolatrous superstitions”. But then Eorpwald was killed and the East Angles plunged back into heathenism—until, three years later, Eorpwald’s brother Sigeberht (d.641), a devote Christian converted while in exile in Gaul, took the throne and made it his mission to bring his people to the faith. In this he was supported by Bishop Felix who, for his seat, received the city of Dommoc (thought to be Dunwich). Which brings us to the next stage in medieval ‘land ownership’.
King Sigeberht had accumulated the personal estates of every one of those minor lordlings whose combined defeats had formed, as it were, rungs on the ladder of his dynasty’s ascent. He had land-wealth, and with the land, the tributes and services. Until now the Wuffingas had used certain portions of this land to honour and/or reward favourites in their court. But these gifts had been personal; the land, tributes and services returned to the king’s hand upon the favourite’s demise. The kings also had set aside certain portions of their holdings for the sustenance of the growing body of what we might call the king’s ministers: those who’d later be tagged as earls, or ealdormen and shire-reeves, positions which were not hereditary. The minister enjoyed the land and its benefits only for as long as he held the office.
Now a different kind of gift was conceived. One which would stay ever in the keep of the person so awarded. The Church was the first recipient. Though in the wider world this was by no means a novel notion, King Sigeberht’s gift of that chunk of land around (we think) Dunwich was probably the first instance of it in East Anglia. As with the previous practice of short-term allocations, in addition to the land, the king also gave the ‘night’s farm’ and whatever the contracted services—but NOT the three promises of arms provision, defensive works, and road-and-bridge building and repair. These would always apply. And to ensure everyone knew where they stood: where to pay tribute, where to seek justice, what exactly was included, the terms were set down in a charter.
This is the nature and origin of Bookland. It’s also the origin of the very confusing picture of landownership and tenure as set down in the East Anglia portion of Domesday Book, Little Domesday. But more anon.
Kings had now become recognisably kings—though there still was potential for mythologizing. Moreover, not only the scribes had taken notice of the East Angles, but also the powerful Mercian kings. From 760 through to the breaking years of the Viking era, Offa and his dynasty held dominion over the East Angles. But, back to Saxlingham.
Saxlingham in the Middle Saxon period
As first seen in the Romano-British period, the twin sites destined to become Saxlingham Nethergate and Saxlingham Thorpe, continued to provide homes for our Anglo-Saxon ancestors.
I’s too early yet to call these ‘sites’ villages. A scatter of elongated rectangular-houses, each with a ‘garth’ where over-wintering livestock might be corralled, and chickens, geese or ducks kept; a portion set aside as a vegetable-herb garden. A new house might be built every 10-15 years, rotating around the given plot. It’s not until the Late Saxon period that something approaching a recognisable village appears.
Meanwhile the people continued to lose or to bury an interesting selection of metal-ware and pottery. Buckles, brooches, pottery sherds are found embedded across the gentle swell of the hill south of Broad Slough, as well as around where the later church of Saxlingham Thorpe was to be. On this latter site, particularly notable are sherds of Ipswich-ware. Perhaps gifts from the ruling Wuffinga dynasty?
Before moving on to the Late Saxon period, I’d like to acknowledge the work of Mary Muir, to whom I’m indebted, not only for much of the archaeological information here, but without which I wouldn’t have known where to start on the research for the next part of this account.
Mary Muir (d.2011)
Mary Muir, local school teacher, historian and fieldwalker, wrote a book on the history of Saxlingham Thorpe and Saxlingham Nethergate—A Good Place To Call Home. It was that book which gave me the historical structure of the village, along with the names of Broad Slough and Botenhaugh, Eastgate Green and Westgate.
Late Saxon Period (850-1066)
As we’ve just seen, by the time the Vikings arrived, Saxlingham had already developed into two distinct and discrete settlements. Saxlingham Nethergate, and Saxlingham Thorpe. By 1066 both settlements were centred around a church (though Domesday mentions only the one). St Mary the Virgin, the church at the northern site of Nethergate; the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary the church at the southern site known as Thorpe—though after the Reformation (1530s) it would be renamed as St Mary Magdalen.
Saxlingham Nethergate bears a mixed name. The ‘nether-‘element is Old English, meaning ‘lower’. And as can be seen from the Late Saxon map, it does sit ‘lower’—hugging the boggy borders of Broad Slough—than its neighbouring, southern, settlement of Thorpe. But then ‘-gate’, a street or a way, is decidedly Viking (Dane) in origin. So, ‘Saxlingham [along] the lower street’.
Thorpe, however, is pure Dane, denoting a secondary farm. Yet, as we’ve seen, Saxlingham Thorpe wasn’t a late, secondary, development but evolved, through the Early and Middle Saxon periods, from what had probably been the smallholding of a retired Roman soldier. Therefore, I’m inclined to think the settlement acquired its present name during the reign of King Cnut (1016-1035) when maybe a ‘farm’ was newly assarted from the wood-pastures that remained on the interfluvial clay-lands. This may have provided the land for the later attested Thorpe manor. The scenario fits the archaeological evidence as given by Mary Muir. According to Muir, the Nethergate settlement shows the typical Saxon ‘scatter’ of buildings, while “the field north of church ruins has clusters either side of a dip in a field, suggesting a house-lined lane. This is more suggestive of Danish settlement pattern, i.e. Viking,” she says.
Meanwhile, outside of Saxlingham, Henstead Hundred, East Anglia, in the wider political world . . .
The Saxon Thegn
The word is Old English, þegn, ðegn. Pronunciation-wise, the -g- acts as a long -i-, same as in design, and paradigm. Although it came to denote a king’s retainer of noble status, its original meaning was simply ‘a servant or attendant; one who serves’.
Old English law is full of terms that define the different kinds of thegn. But basically, there were only two kinds: those who served the king, i.e. the king’s thegns; and those who served the king’s thegns, the lesser or median thegns.
There were certain requirements for a king’s thegn. Common-sensical, really. The king didn’t want just any old jumped-up thegn attending upon him. He wanted men he could trust. Who had status. Who shared with him a certain level of etiquette, and shared customs. He didn’t want to be embarrassed by an ill-mannered buffoon. That would reflect badly on him, and diminish his own lofty status. No, a king’s thegn must have property, at the very least 5 hides of land.
Traditionally, a hide was the extent of land required to support one man and his extended family, servants and other dependants. Obviously, the more fertile the land, and the more varied the environment, the less land was required. It was later assessed as the amount a land a team of 8 oxen could plough in one annual season.
How did a potential king’s thegn man acquire his (minimum of) 5 hides of land? One imagines the core might be formed by ‘family land’, staked out and worked by his ancestors since the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers. But, Germanic tribes being Indo-Europeans, they practised partible inheritance. To retain that first-claimed estate—maybe 12 hides—required for the family to have been rather unlucky: less than an average of two surviving sons in each generation. Possible. Just not very likely.
An alternative was to receive grants of Bookland off the king. This implies at some time in the past at least one of the ancestors has so served the king, to such honourable degree, that the king rewarded him with a gift previously given only to the Church. In a culture that once had traced descent from the gods, this would more than qualify the thegn as being of the right status and ‘worthy’.
Then again, the land could be leased—usually from the Church, usually for 3 generations. This Loan-land was then returned to source (assuming the deeds still existed, and the relevant people remembered; there’s ample evidence that they often forgot). Land might also be leased from other, more wealthy, thegns. Not forgetting in all this that the service, tribute and justice terms of the initial contract were also transferrable.
A fourth option was to buy the land. From whom? Perhaps from a thegn who’s on his uppers, who hasn’t the moveable assets to pay his portion of the Danegeld—i.e. money raised in the form of a tax to pay off the marauding, threatening, terrifying Vikings! Even King Æthelræd the Unræd sold and loaned lands to fund his defence of the realm.
Of course, there was always the option of marrying a wealthy heiress. With partible inheritance, if there were no sons, then it was divided between the daughters. Who then brought it to their wedding bed (so to speak).
Having acquired the requisite five or more hides, the thegn then needed to worm his way into the king’s notice, so he might gain a special duty in the king’s hall, this also being a requisite. And still he’d be denied the coveted status if, on his five or more hides, he had no hall (burh), no kitchen, no burh-gate, no church, and no bell-house (I’d guess these last two items were usually combined).
As already noted. both Saxlingham Nethergate, and Saxlingham Thorpe had churches by the Late Saxon period. A king’s thegn for each settlement; or maybe one thegn for them both? But there would not have been more.
Thegnly status was hereditable—providing partible inheritance didn’t eat into the hides.
As to the median thegn, providing he met the minimum requirement of land, all he need do was find a king’s thegn or a high status churchman to serve.
The Viking Incursions
Blow-by-blow accounts of the Great Army (micel here) populate the internet like fungi in autumn. Here, I want only to look at its impact on the Henstead Hundred and the two Saxlingham villages.
As said, both Saxlingham settlements are tagged with Scandinavian names (-gate, and Thorpe). But it doesn’t automatically follow that these were acquired in the ninth century, at the time of the Great Army.
True, following the peace treaty between Alfred, the English king of Wessex, and Guthrum, the Danish king of East Anglia (879-890), Norfolk did become part of Danelaw, thence to be governed by the laws and customs of Scandinavia, and no doubt settled by a handful of Danish ‘elites’.
And though the English of Wessex and Mercia claimed to have recovered these Danelaw lands—King Alfred’s son and daughter, Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia, fought hard to win back the relinquished lands—and battle was done across Cambridgeshire and Essex, and in 906, the East Anglian king, Guthrum II, made peace with Edward—but he did not surrender Norfolk and Suffolk. They remained, as late as 958, in the lordship of Gorm the Old, king of Northern Jutland, Denmark and Seeland, grandfather of Sweyn Forkbeard.
But while this ‘governing elite’ of Danish origin resulted in a fashion in East Anglia for Danish name—as was later to happen under the Normans—it was the later inclusion of all of England in the Scandinavian milieu that resulted in undeniable language change. Too often it’s forgotten that England, by then a nominally united entity, was the founding part of King Cnut’s Scandinavian Empire (1016-1035). The Scandinavian influence continued throughout the reigns of his sons until, in 1042, the English son of Æthelræd II the Unræd, Edward the Confessor, took the throne.
How did this Scandinavian backdrop affect Norfolk—apart from in the choice of personal names? One way was to provide a barrier beyond which certain influences from the south and the shires did not pass. This is seen most obviously in the spread of the Common Open Fields system. Originating in Wessex in late C8th, the system rapidly spread into the Midlands. Yet it was a long time reaching Norfolk and, even then, it left most of the county untouched. It also helped shield the social structure of Eastern Danelaw—some say it was fossilised—from the changes taking place elsewhere in England, in the South and the Midlands.
With the renewal of Viking attacks in late tenth century came increasingly outrageous demands for protection money. The civil Hundredal and clerical parish systems of administration, already in use since King Alfred’s day, now became the basis for raising these extortionate sums known ever after as Danegeld, even when used for purposes other than paying off Danes. And since all free men were subject Danegeld it wasn’t long before the less wealthy were literally beggared by it. Witness the frighteningly high number of slaves, mostly belonging to the religious houses, in the Domesday record of the southern shires—paupers kept alive in this way. Others—those with land sufficient to form some basis for bargaining—sold out to the wealthier landowners—the thegns, churchmen and their like. In return, they became dependent upon that lord’s estate: villans allocated a virgate (a quarter hide, 30 acres, or the amount of land tillable by a team of 2 oxen in one season); cottars/bordars with no more than a house and garden, and perhaps a further acre or so of land. Both classes were expected to labour on the manorial lands, though the terms were more burdensome for the cottar/bordar. Both were subject to the manorial court and ‘fined’ for every change in their life (birth, death, marriage etc). The slave, bordar and villan are found in Norfolk, too. But beside them are free men and sokemen in staggering numbers. Why did they survive here, yet not in the South and Midlands?
Well, for a start, whatever religious houses there’d been in East Anglia, the micel here had destroyed. That, alone, helped keep the free man’s lands securely within the free man’s family. No religious houses, no donations of lands. True, the situation was only temporary: the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, founded 300 years earlier, was re-established in early C10th with the inclusion of the martyred king’s remains; the abbey of St Benet at Hulme, founded ca. 800 CE, was re-established at the end of the C10th, and local churches received endowments. Yet the religious landscape of Norfolk and Suffolk remained sparse until the Norman Conquest.
Then there’s a question of what happened to all that gold and silver taken from the many monasteries across North West Europe by the previous Vikings. Perhaps some of it stayed in the pockets of the ‘Viking elites’ who settled, though in no notable number, in Norfolk and Suffolk. Though it cannot be proven, through polite marriage, or by stepping in where someone had died—or by less civilised means—those ‘few’ Viking elites probably acquired a substantial portion of East Anglian lands. They did not have the same problem in finding the funds to pay off the next batch of get-rich-quick adventurers.
To prove the point, compare the entries (below) for Saxlingham, taken from Little Domesday, against one taken at random from Great Domesday Book.
Some definitions . . .
Danegeld, Hundred and Vill
Danegeld originated at the time of the first Viking incursions; a tax applied not only to raise the gigantic sums demanded by the Viking aggressors but also to fund the required standing army and fleet. It was applied again by Æthelræd the Unræd when the Vikings renewed their desire for English gold. Thereafter it remained in place, rescinded briefly by Edward the Confessor. It was calculated on the Hundred.
The Hundred as a notional land division is more ancient than Danegeld. It probably arrived in Britain with the Anglo-Saxons. There is a suggestion of its use in Germania, the study of the Germanic tribes written by Tacitus, son-in-law of Agricola, the Roman general responsible for much of the conquest of Britain. It seems to have denoted 100 (120) families, or at least male heads of—thus 100 (120) fighting men. 100 (120), because the Germanic tribes used a duodecimal counting system (the hide=120 acres, remember).
That the duodecimal Hundred was used as a basis for raising tribute can be seen in the Tribal Hidage, a list of 35 ‘English’ tribes with tribute owed to Mercia, compiled between 7th and 9th centuries. The East Angles were assessed at 30000 hides (30,000 families, or 250 Hundreds). It has been remarked that this figure does seem excessive for this period of history. The total only comes to 823,500 hides, and apart from West Saxons with a whopping 100,000 hides, most are 300, 600, 1200 hides. Scribal and/or transcribers error has been suggested.
When, in 917, Wessex claimed sovereignty over the capitulated Danelaw counties, the pre-existing Hundreds formed the basis for the geld, bringing East Anglia in line with the rest of England.
The Vill is best seen as commensurate with the parish, the ecclesiastical division of a diocese. It might contain several manors, and two or more of those manors each have a church. But even when the Church divided the parish, so each church was accounted separately, each part of the Vill still bore the original name. It just had the church dedications added. Example: Shotesham All Saints; Shotesham St Mary; Shotesham St Botolph; Shotesham St Martin. But in Domesday, the vill remains as Shotesham.
The Church was a great administrator; it had been collecting taxes from its parishioners since 855. And since it was Church-trained ministers who attended the royal coffers, who better to assess the division of geld across the vills comprising the Hundreds. For every £1 charged to the Hundred, the component vills paid a set portion of it. The burden of this was then shared within the vill (one assumes equally) between the free men. It was a mark of the free man that he paid the geld.
Free Men, Soke Men and Commendation
These are terms we’re about to encounter. They’re also terms that have confounded historians ever since historians took to studying Domesday Book. I shall do my best to give definitions.
Though thegns, too, were free men, the term was usually applied to smallholders who lacked the requisite lands or breeding to be a thegn. He usually held ‘family land’, inherited, and maybe acquired as long ago as the first Anglo-Saxon settlements.
A sokeman was a free man, too, but one who owed service to his soke-holder. Tom Williamson in The Origins of Norfolk, suggests this class of free men date back to the days of the ruling Wuffingas.
Soke was the right to hold a court, to pass judgement and, most importantly, collect the fines. We find in Domesday Book, ‘the soke is with the king and earl’, or ‘the soke is in the Hundred’, or ‘the soke is in the king’s manor of [place]’. Or the commended lord might ‘have the soke’.
A lord who held soke over others was in prime position to ruin a family who’d come the wrong side of him. However, in English quarters, from 950, it became law for every free man to commend himself to a lord—usually a thegn or a churchman—who then would stand as surety for him. Cnut reissued that law when he became king in 1016, ensuring the free men of Danelaw adhered to it too.
But what does it mean, to commend oneself? As with the deal between early kings and their supporters, it was a contract. The thegn, free man, or sokeman, (publicly) swore to support the lord (or king in the case of the king’s thegn), to bring no disgrace upon him but always to hold him in honour. This could be applied in practical ways: he was placing himself at his lord’s call in time of battle, he was pledging his muscle-power for the building of defensive walls, roads and bridges. It also meant he’d keep out of trouble: he’d not commit murder, nor thievery. In return, the lord pledged his protection. In the Hundred court he acted as advocate, and as character witness; he also provided the champion if the matter should escalate to trial by combat. In buying livestock, again he acted as witness. And if he was called to the fyrd, it was the commended lord’s duty to provide the necessary arms and armour (though this would depend on status; some men served by tending his lord’s horses, equipment, and by cooking, cleaning and mending).
In such a way, a man’s commended lord provided protection against the potential abuses of his soke-holder. And so that oft-repeated phrase in Little Domesday: ‘held in commendation only’; often coupled with ‘the soke was in the Hundred’.
Although commendation is best seen as a patron-client contract, a commended lord might grant a parcel of land to his man as leasehold or freehold. Thus he might turn a profit on an otherwise personal arrangement. The Norman successors of these English lords had problems curling their heads around this arrangement. As too have several compilers of online Domesday Databases. Post Hastings, a man held land off his lord. Pre-Hastings, the lord’s man held his own land.
Anyone who has read the Book—by which I mean a modern (printed) translation, not the original nor an online database version—will be familiar with the format. For example, opening my Penguin version at random (p.303, Devonshire)
Otelin holds Culm Pyne from Baldwin. Godwine held it TRE and it paid geld for a hide and 1 ferding. There is land for 4 ploughs. In demesne are 2 ploughs, and 2 slaves; and 4 villans and 4 bordars with 1 plough. There is a mill rendering 30d and 4 acres of meadow, and 6 acres of woodland, [and] pasture 2 furlongs long and 1 furlong broad. Formerly 10s; now it is worth 20s.
Some terms explained:
- A hide is purely notional. In Danelaw counties the term used was carucate, which equated to a ploughland. Terms differ, but each is reckoned at approximately 120 acres—depending on quality and fertility of land.
- The ferding in the entry above is a quarter hide, also called a virgate: 30 acres.
- An eighth of a hide, 15 acres, was termed a bovate, or an ox-gang, and equated to the amount of land tillable by one ox in one ploughing season
- A plough refers to the plough-team of 8 oxen, but was also involved in assessing tax (geld) liability in a way the historians have yet to agree on.
In contrast, there follows the entries for Saxlingham, in Henstead Hundred, from Little Domesday (covering Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk)—you’re forgiven if your eyes keep skipping, there’s rather a lot of them. And you’ll note, they defy the neat treatment shown above.
The Lands of the king of which Godric has custody:
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] 1 sokeman of Eadric’s in commendation TRE with 30 acres of land; 1 acre of meadow. There has always been half a plough.
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] 1 free man of Harold’s held in commendation TRE with 30 acres of land. There have always been 3 bordars. Then 1 plough in demesne, now half, and 1 sokeman [with] 1 acre of land. This land Godric the steward has kept in the king’s hand, but the land does not pay rent to him.
The mention of demesne sent me hunting back through the entries for the main manor. I found it, not surprisingly, at the king’s manor of Newton-with-Trowse, held by a woman under Stigand for 1 carucate of land. Trowse sits besides Whitlingham, and probably replaced it as the estate centre when Norwich took off as a trading centre (the Yare here is easily fordable).
BTW Harold, here, is he of the hawk-and-arrow-in-the-eye. King William considered him a usurper, and refused him the title of King.
The lands of Robert Malet:
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] Eadric, the predecessor of Robert Malet held 2 sokemen and a half with 66 acres of land; now Walter holds [them]. Then 9 bordars, now 13. Always 3½ ploughs amongst them all and 3 acres of meadow, and the eighth part of a mill. And under them 1 sokeman with 6 acres of land, always half a plough. Then it was worth 30s, now it renders 50s.
Robert Malet’s predecessor was Eadric of Laxfield, a powerful Suffolk landowner who held an almost army of men in commendation across Norfolk and Suffolk. He must have been greatly respected.
The lands of Roger Bigod:
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] there is 1 free men of Ulf’s by commendation TRE [with] 24 acres of land and 1 acres of meadow. There has always been half a plough. Then as now it was worth 3s. This same holds it [Ranulf fitzWalter held it off Bigod].
At the time of the Domesday Survey Roger Bigod was sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk. His fief included a staggering number of ‘free men’, many of whom had previously been sworn to the rebellious, now exiled, earl, Ralf de Gaél.
The lands of St Benet of Hulme:
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] Eadric, a free man of Stigand’s, held 1½ carucates under him TRE with soke and sake. After the king came to England that same Eadric mortgaged it for 1 mark of gold and for £7 to St Benet in order that he might, however, redeem himself from capture by Waleran. Now John, the nephew of the aforementioned Waleran, holds it of St Benet as a fief. Then 11 bordars; now 9½. Always 1 slave. Then 2 ploughs in demesne; afterwards none; now 1. Then 2 ploughs belonging to the men; now 1. Now 1 horse in demesne. And TRE 9 sokemen; now 5 at 30 acres. And 4 acres of meadow. Then 2 ploughs; now half [a plough]. And a mill. Then it was worth 40s; afterwards and now 30[s]. It is 2 leagues in length and half in breadth. And [it renders] 16d of the geld but more hold there.
In the same [vill] 10 acres of land belong to St B[enet’s] demesne and it was leased to Eadric according to the testimony of the Hundred.
For ‘vill’ read parish. They equate to the same.
The Eadric here mentioned was probably Eadric the steersman who commanded the fleet sent by the abbot of St Benet of Hulme to fight against Normans. He fled into exile after Hastings and the Saxon defeat.
The mention of ‘sake and soke’ marks this a Bookland, granted (probably by King Cnut) to St Benet’s abbey and thence leased to Eadric. Perhaps his commended lord, Stigand—former bishop of Norfolk & Suffolk, was Archbishop of Canterbury until excommunicated in 1070 for holding the see at Winchester as well as Canterbury—arranged the loan for him.
Waleran was a sheriff in Norfolk prior to Roger Bigod.
The lands of Walter Giffard:
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] there are 2 free men of St B[enet’s] in commendation at 50 acres of land. And 2 acres of meadow and 2 bordars. Always 1 plough. Then worth 5s; now it renders 10[s]
The lands of Drogo de La Beuvrière:
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] Æthelweard, 1 free man of King E[dward’s], held 2 carucates. Then 12 bordars; afterwards 12; now 9. Then and afterwards 2 ploughs in demesne; now none. Always 1 plough belonging to the men. And 1½ acres of meadow. And 5 sokemen at 17 acres of land. Always 1 plough. Then it was worth 20s; afterwards and now likewise.
In the same [vill] Wulfnoth, 1 free man in the commendation of Stigand held at 30 acres of land. Always 5 bordars. Then 1 plough in demesne; now none. Then and afterwards 1 plough belonging to the men; now 1½. And 3 acres of meadow. And 5 sokemen at 17 acres of land. Then 1 plough; afterwards likewise; now half. And 1 free [man] at 6 acres of land. Then it was worth 20s; afterward and now 20s.
A ‘free man of King Edward’s’ usually denotes a king’s thegn, though maybe not of any great status at court.
The lands of Robert fitzCorbucion:
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] Gunfrid holds what Leofweald, 1 free man in the commendation of Harold, held at 30 acres of land. Always 5 bordars. Then 2 slaves. Then and afterwards 1 plough in demesne and 1 plough belonging to the men. And 2 free men at 3 acres of land. And 2 acres of meadow. Then it was worth 16s; now 20s.
When it is remarked of the number of free men in Norfolk and Suffolk, note should be taken of their land-holdings. 2 free men at 3 acres of land. What, 1½ acres each, upon which they were to feed and clothe their family? Either these men made a living through some craft—carpentry, building, smithing—else they held additional acres elsewhere.
The lands of John, nephew of Waleran
In Saxlingham [Nethergate or Thorpe] Styrcar, a housecarl of King E[dward’s] held 30 acres of land. Always half a bordar. Then 2 slaves; now 1. And 1 mill. 1½ acres of meadow. Then 1 plough; now none […] Then and afterwards it was worth 20s; now 13[s]. 1 church, 10 acres, and it is worth 16d.
A housecarl is the Danish equivalent of a king’s thegn.
It is assumed that all mills mentioned in Domesday Book were watermills. Most probably were. Yet the more ancient ox-powered mill still was in use. Knowing the terrain around Saxlingham, to have had a mill AND a church seems unlikely if the mill was water-powered.
Half a bordar; one also finds half a sokeman and half a free man. Then again, a free man might be given as half in the commendation of one lord, and half in another. How come?
The half bordar might be accounted on another estate held by the same lord. Ditto the half sokeman. As to double, and sometimes treble, commendation, a free man inheriting land in one parish or Hundred might be sworn to one lord, but when on acquiring land in another parish and/or Hundred he might find his first lord hasn’t much sway in this new location, and so he prefers to swear to another.
The Two Churches of Saxlingham; the Two King’s Thegns
Domesday mentions only the one church, yet both churches are credited with being Late Saxon foundations.
Thegn One is easy to discover:
Styrcar, a housecarl of King E[dward’s] held 30 acres of land…1 mill…it was worth 20s; 1 church…worth 16d
But he held only a virgate, a villan’s allotment, even if it was worth 20s (that’s a £1); doubtless that mill pushed up the value.
Styrcar held lands elsewhere: 7 hides at Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordsire; 3½ hides at Bensted and 1 hide at Tolleshunt Magna in Essex; 1 carucate (hide) at Somerton, Suffolk; and 11 hides at Tooting Bec in Surrey.
The two Essex estates, and the one in Suffolk, passed to the Norman tenant-in-chief, Robert fitzCorbucion, so there’s little doubt these three belonged to the one man.
Since the Somerton entry gives him as holding ‘under the glorious King Edward’, this provides a strong link to the 30 acres at Saxlingham where he is given as King Edward’s housecarl.
Which leaves his main holding at Tooting Bec—a bare 6 miles from Westminster, a convenient location for the king’s housecarl. And the one in Bedfordshire.
All told, it adds to a landed estate of almost 24 hides. But why the tiny villan-sized holding in Saxlingham? Intriguing.
Thegn Two. If he’s a king’s thegn he’s unlikely to be in commendation to a lesser lord (unlikely, though not impossible). There is only one candidate.
Æthelweard, 1 free man of King E[dward’s], held 2 carucates.
Æthelweard is a common name, so it’s less easy to trace where else he had land. The name was common along the south coast (Devon, Dorset, Hampshire) but there seems no pattern, and no connection with Norfolk.
Alweard, a later form of Æthelweard, is given as holding off Roger Bigod in North Erpingham Hundred in 1086. But if that’s the same man then why wasn’t he still holding at Saxlingham in 1086?
His successor is given as Drogo de La Beuvrière whose main holding was the Honour of Holderness in East Riding of Yorkshire. Elsewhere his grant included an odd collection of seemingly unconnected estates. However, he does hold land previously held by an unnamed free man in Erpingham, in the same Hundred as the later named Alweard. A connection? Maybe.
Other than that, this Æthelweard seems not to be cited as the commended lord of any freemen, at least not in Norfolk and Suffolk. An absentee landlord? His name is English, but perhaps he was from the northern counties where Drogo de La Beuvrière was successor to several estates held TRE by an equally named English free men, one Æthelstan. Maybe . . .?
As to the ‘lesser’ men who made up the parish of the two Saxlinghams at 1066, see the pie chart.
Three Late Saxon Wills
When I first read the wills of Wulfgyth of East Carleton, her son Ketel, and his uncle Edwin, a house-thegn of King Edward, I didn’t yet realise how deep a trench I was to dig. So, while I had intended to include them here, I’ve decided it more appropriate to devote an entire post to them.
However, there is one item in the lady Wulfgyth’s will that relate directly to Saxlingham—her bequest to two of her daughters, Bote and Gode.
“… and I grant to my two daughters, Gode and Bote, Saxlingham and Somerleyton …”
Mary Muir identifies Bote’s portion as the Botenhaugh Way she found marked on an old tithe map.
‘Haugh’ from Old English, haga, a place fenced in, an enclosure, a dwelling or messuage within a town; Old Norse, hagi, a hedged field, a pasture.
‘Botenhaugh’ . . . Bote’s Place.
It’s amazing to think that so many years on—seven centuries or so—Bote’s bequeathed portion was still being recorded. But why hers and not her sister’s? I think the answer is that she didn’t marry. She remained ‘that woman who held that land’, the old maid or crone. Yet she isn’t recorded in Domesday Book, while other free women are. Again, why not? Perhaps by then she was dead.
Wulfgyth’s will was composed between 1042 and 1053; the date is usually given as 1046. It would be another 40 years before Domesday Survey recorded those revealing, intriguing and often confusing ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ statistics to the enduring delight of medievalists. And a lot can happen in 40 years.
I’m taking a guess that Bote’s allotted portion comprised 30 acres—I’ll explain why when we come to look at the wills. I’m also guessing it’s the 30 acres that Wulfnoth held, a free man in commendation to Stigand. It had 5 bordars, and 5 sokemen with 17 acres plus an addition free man with another 6 acres. That’s arable; it’s not counting meadow-land. It was worth 20s—no mean patch of land. And in 1086, it was held by the Flemish lord, Drogo de La Beuvrière. But the reasons for my guesses I’ll explain next time.
Next episode, Three Late Saxon Wills, coming soon.