We know very little about the first few hundred years of the Anglo-Saxon period, largely because the Anglo-Saxons did not learn to read and write until the spread of Christianity with the mission of Augustine in 597. The earliest settlements would have been groups of three or four family farms. The houses, farm buildings and workshops would have all been of timber with sloping thatched roofs. Around the settlement there may have been a wooden wall for extra protection.
In time these settlements became villages with meeting places for the villagers. The people in charge of these villages would have been the chiefs who had led the settlers to Britain and given them land. In return the villagers worked and fought for their chief.
A burh was a fortified settlement designed to protect the inhabitants from foreign raiders. Archaeological remains of these sites suggest that they were enclosures consisting of an earthen rampart topped by a stone or wooden wall and surrounded by a ditch. Burhs are often found located on water transportation routes and in turn the profit from trade would encourage further inhabitants.
The safety offered by a burh and the fact that its inhabitants provided a stable customer base would have encouraged the growth of a market within and without the burh's defences.
It is thought that King Alfred was responsible for the earliest period of burh building in England, and that he undertook this task to protect his people from the fearsome Danish Vikings who were raiding England at this time. Hereford itself has its origins as a Saxon burh and is often thought to be the most westerly burh from the river Severn. This means that it was in effect the last Anglo-Saxon stronghold in England before the Celtic land of Wales was reached.
The Domesday Survey identifies 112 places as burhs, and most of these were equipped with their own mints.
"They sat long at supper and drank hard, with a great fire in the middle of the room. It happened that the sparks flew up and caught the top of the house, which being made of wattles (twigs) and thatch, was presently in flame." The Venerable Bede, 8th century monk and chronicler
The poorest homes of the Anglo-Saxons were much like those built by the Britons before the arrival of the Romans. They were round or rectangular huts made of wattle and daub and with thatched roofs. They were heated by a central fire, which was also used for cooking, and there was no chimney except for a smoke hole in the roof. Homes were lit by candles or pottery lamps that burnt animal fat. There were very few windows, and these were covered by shutters or cloth to keep the chill out in winter.
Often a family would share their hut with their animals with only a simple screen separating them. Some homes had compacted earth or clay floors, sometimes with straw mixed in, and some had dug-out floors covered with wooden boards. There was very little furniture and often the family would sleep on the floor. Near to the door of the house would sometimes be a shrine to a pagan deity.
Saxon buildings were made out of timber, which was in plentiful supply in Britain, and they varied from simple one-roomed buildings to elaborate halls for princes and kings. As they were made of wood they were prone to decay and at risk from fire, as the Venerable Bede has described. Due to the inevitable rotting of timber over the years very few remains of Saxon buildings are found today.
People in early Saxon settlements generally made their own household goods. Women spun wool into cloth to make clothes, and used plant dye to colour it. A robe or tunic gathered at the waist was the most common garment worn, with the women's tunics being longer than the men's.
The crops most frequently grown by the Saxons were wheat, oats, rye, barley (for cereal and beer), peas, beans and lentils. Honey was the only form of sweetener available and it was also used in the alcoholic drink mead. The Saxons enjoyed meat and pigs, cattle, goats and sheep were all kept.
In order to make meat last longer it was often preserved in salt. The Domesday Book for Herefordshire has several references to salt coming from Droitwich in Worcestershire, and there is even mention of a salt route at Acton Beauchamp that would have travelled through Ullingswick, Marden and Wellington. A reference to Leominster states "woodland 6 leagues long and 3 leagues wide which pays 22s. From these, 5s are given for buying timber in Droitwich, and 30 measures of salt are had from there" (Frank and Caroline Thorn (eds.), Domesday Book 17, Herefordshire, 1,10a, Phillimore, 1983). It is likely that the people of Herefordshire had been getting their salt in this way for generations. Salt would have also been used in making butter and cheese.
In the countryside the vast majority of people lived by farming. The Saxon farmers divided large open fields into long strips which they shared, so that everyone had an equal share of good and bad land. They would plough the fields with big, wheeled ploughs which were pulled by teams of oxen (which they also shared). As the ploughs were so large and so heavy it was difficult to turn them at the end of a row, which is why they divided their fields into long strips as it meant fewer turns.
In Herefordshire, by the time of the Domesday Book (1086) at the end of the Saxon period, approximately 90% of the population was involved in agriculture in some way, with the alternative employment being the occupations of reeve (bailiff or steward), moneyer (a person who coins money legally) and smith (a worker in metals).
Later much of the land was consolidated into large estates and the peasants would work the land for the lord in return for produce.
Dark Age society was divided into several social classes, which might vary from place to place. At the top was the king, who was essentially a war leader. He was expected to lead his men into glory with rich financial rewards. A king who did not provide land, slaves or riches for his followers was not respected and would need to watch his back.
Below the king were two levels of freemen, the upper class thegns (or thanes) and the lower class ceorls (or churls). The difference between these two classes lay solely in the amount of land that they owned. A man could only be a thegn if he owned more than five hides of land (a hide was defined as the amount of land needed to keep one family). As a result of this condition a ceorl could often be richer than a thegn but own less land. Thegns had to be ready to fight for their king, and had other duties such as fortress building or bridge construction. Ceorls also had a duty to their king. They had to work a certain number of days for him on his land and supply him with goods such as honey, malt and yarn.
Below the thegns and the ceorls were the slaves. Slavery was one of the biggest commercial enterprises of the Saxon period, and slaves were essential to the running of society. The most likely source of slaves was war. Many of the native Britons who had been conquered by the Saxons had been forced into slavery. However, people could also become slaves if they were unable to pay fines. In some cases, families with very little money would sell their children into slavery to ensure they would be looked after in times of poverty or famine.
Slavery was not necessarily a role for life. A person could be bought out of slavery by their family, or if they had been enslaved due to the inability to pay a fine they could be released once they had worked enough to pay the fine off. A person could also be granted their freedom in their master's will.
In Herefordshire the ordinary ceorl had a heavy burden of contribution towards the church as well as the standard tithe. In the parochia of Leominster we know of two payments other than the tithe. The first was a payment called scriforn, which appears to have been unique to Leominster and seems to have involved the payment of cereal to the Priory Church. The second payment was known as a soul-scot and was made when a dead person was to be buried.
The countryside was divided into shires, and each shire was divided into hundreds. These made up the basic units of administration and justice. Those in charge of looking after the king's interests, collecting taxes and administering justice were the earldormen and shire-reeves (sheriffs).
The creation of the parish system came later in the Anglo-Saxon administration. The Anglo-Saxons also had a system of dividing the county into hundreds (areas made up of 100 hides of land). This system is probably as old as, if not older than, the parish system. Each hundred would have its own meeting place within its area, usually at a large and well-known feature in the landscape such as a barrow or a huge tree. The hundred would often be named after its meeting place, such as Hazeltree or Greytree in Herefordshire. A meeting of the hundred would take place every month and it was here that administrative and judicial functions were discussed. Only the more important landowners in the county would be present at these meetings.
In the customs for Hereford in the Domesday Book there is a requirement that all those citizens who owned a horse (i.e. the more wealthy ones) were to attend a meeting of all the hundreds, which took place every three years at Wormelow Tump, destroyed in 1896 during road widening. (See Frank and Caroline Thorn (eds.), Domesday Book 17, Herefordshire, Phillimore, 1983, Phillimore, p. 179a.) Interestingly, the suffix of the name Wormelow is taken from the nearby Worm Brook and in Old English worm meant "dusky". The low suffix probably refers to a burial mound, and indeed Wormelow Tump is thought to have been the burial place of King Arthur's son Amyr.
When the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain they were pagans. They worshipped gods of nature and held rivers, trees and wells in reverence; they also used spells and charms against evil spirits. To the Anglo-Saxons religion was not a source of spiritual enhancement, but a means of ensuring success in the material world. They would pray to the gods for successful harvests or victory in war. The Saxon gods Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frigg give us the names of the days of the week Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Both Saxons and Vikings believed in an after-life and people would be buried with the goods that it was thought that they would need in this next life, such as weapons and coins.
In late Roman times most Britons were Christians. When they fled from the Saxon invaders they set up small churches in Wales and the west. Monks from these and other "Celtic" churches later tried to convert the Saxons to Christianity. Missionaries were sent out by the Pope in Rome, arriving in Kent in 597 under the leadership of Augustine. King Ethelred, the Kentish leader, agreed to meet with Augustine, but only in open land where he believed the "magic" of the priest would do less damage. The mission to convert the king was a success and St. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]