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Saxon Herefordshire

The end of the Romans and the beginning of the Saxons

During the Roman period Herefordshire had never evolved into an major area of culture, trade or society, but it is clear that here, as elsewhere in the country, the Romans had left their mark with market towns such as Kenchester and a fairly extensive road system. The traditional date for the end of Roman Britain is AD 410  when an edict from the Emperor Honorius instructed the people of the province to defend themselves and their homes against the invading Picts and Scots. Due to trouble elsewhere in the Empire it is highly likely that Roman soldiers and citizens that had made Britain their home had been moving back to mainland Europe for some time.

Large-scale Anglo-Saxon invasion and settlement did not occur in Britain until the middle of the 5th century and Herefordshire, being on the western edge of the Roman world, did not feel the effects until the end of the 6th century, when Anglo-Saxons arrived on the fertile plains of central Herefordshire.

After the departure of the Romans there seems to have been a downturn in trade and industry throughout Herefordshire, and indeed the rest of Britain. After 325 no coins were minted in Britain and money was imported from the Continent. After the Romans left the importation of coins stopped and the supply was not replaced by any British source, even though before the Romans arrived many of the Celtic tribes had regularly produced their own coinage. Raymond Perry has suggested that this may be due to the fact that after the Romans departed there was no longer any central or regional government to issue any coinage (see Raymond Perry, Anglo-Saxon Herefordshire, p. 7).

As a result of the collapse of the monetary system trade and industry would have suffered; without the coins to pay for items trade had to return to its old ways of bartering for goods with other items. This would have led to a decline in trade at all levels, as without coinage the people of Britain could no longer trade with their neighbours on the Continent. As a result many industrial sites would have become disused and many of the urban centres which relied so heavily on trade for their existence would have been abandoned. The people of post-Roman Britain would have most likely returned to their self-sufficient farming techniques of pre-Roman times. This would have caused a migration of people from urban centres back into the rural areas.

It is also thought that climatic change may have had an effect on Britain in the early 6th century, when the global temperature dropped sharply. This theory is supported by evidence from dendro-climatology. Tree-ring growth for the AD 530s and 540s shows a period of extremely cold weather (and hence poor growth) starting in 536. This would have caused crop failure, and even starvation. This circumstance may have meant a drop in population in Herefordshire in the 5th and 6th centuries, and would have increased the practice of subsistence farming as the people would have struggled to feed themselves, let alone have enough left over for trading.(see Raymond Perry, above, p. 12).

It is likely that the first Anglo-Saxons in Herefordshire found a somewhat less densely populated county than the Romans had over 500 years before them. The smaller population, and the results of the warfare, diseases and economic collapse, may have meant that the Anglo-Saxons' task of invasion was made much easier.

The migration of Germanic tribes to Britain began in the 5th century (the date usually given for this is 449), and the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Herefordshire represents the furthest push west of the invasion. It is hard to be certain of exact dates for Anglo-Saxon settlement as it would appear that the written word was not used by the Anglo-Saxons until the return of Christianity to Britain in 597.

It is likely that the new settlers in Herefordshire found some sort of hierarchical structure still in existence from when Britain was under Roman rule. At the top of the social scale would have been the British princes, and to support their leadership there was a warrior class. Underpinning the higher classes was a worker or servant population, who most likely would have had to supply food and other goods as a type of tax.

When the Anglo-Saxons arrived it is likely that the lower orders of society retained their social position as workers and providers, as they posed no threat to the new administration. The warriors and leaders would have retained their status only in areas where the invasion was peaceful. If the Britons had opposed the Anglo-Saxons' arrival then they no doubt would have been stripped of the privileges of their social position in order to avoid any further attempts at undermining Anglo-Saxon society.

In Herefordshire, the arrival of the earliest Anglo-Saxons did not at first lead to the wholesale colonisation of the county and two British districts, Archenfield and Ewias in the south-west, remained primarily British in population, character and law for a further 400 years. Archenfield had been incorporated into Herefordshire by 1086 and is surveyed in the Domesday Survey of that year, although it is listed as still having its own customs. Ewias was incorporated after Archenfield, later in the 11th century.

One of the customs described for Archenfield in the Domesday Survey is particularly gruesome:

"... If a Welshman has killed a Welshman, the relatives of the slain man gather and despoil the killer and his relatives and burn their houses until the body of the dead man is buried the next day about midday. The King has the third part of this plunder, but they have all the rest free." (Frank and Caroline Thorn (eds.), Domesday Book 17, Herefordshire, [A] 179b,4, Phillimore, 1983)

Because of the fact that Archenfield and Ewias remained predominantly British after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, it has been suggested that the River Wye formed the boundary in Herefordshire between the British and the Anglo-Saxons as both of the British areas are to the west and south of the river. As a result of the Anglo-Saxons' arrival in Herefordshire the population of Archenfield and Ewias may have risen as the British fled or were pushed out of their homes, so that the Anglo-Saxons in effect began to occupy semi-empty territory. In the areas where British people remained they continued to exist alongside the Anglo-Saxons as a self-contained group initially divided by culture and language, but eventually assimilated into Anglo-Saxon society.

Later Anglo-Saxon Herefordshire

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 917 records that "a great raiding ship came over here from the south from Brittany, and with them two jarls, Ohtor and Hroald, and then went around west until they got into the mouth of the Severn and raided in Wales everywhere along the banks where it suited them, and took Cameleac, bishop in Archenfield, and led him to the ship with them ... then after that the whole raiding-army went up and wanted to go on a raid against Archenfield; then they were met by [the men] from Hereford and from Gloucester and from the nearest strongholds, and fought gainst them and put them to flight, and killed the jarl Hroald and the other jarl Ohtor's brother, and a great part of the raiding army, and drove them into an enclosure and besieged them there until they gave them hostages, that they would leave the king's domain." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Worcester Manuscript, AD 917, p. 99)

This shows that although Herefordshire was on the west of Britain and furthest away from most of the raiding parties, it still had its share of conflict. It also shows that by this time Hereford had grown into a fairly substantial settlement that was capable of calling up men to fight for its cause, and demonstrates the importance of taking hostages as a way of negotiating peace.

The name Hereford means "army-ford", and it is likely that the town grew up around an important crossing of the River Wye. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Hereford was the social, commercial, political and religious centre of the region, and it is likely that it had had this status since the foundation of a diocese here in the 7th century.

The presence of two religious institutions, the Cathedral and St Guthlac's Priory, within the same area would have encouraged the growth of a secular community, which in turned would have enticed traders and craftsmen who would have seen the opportunity to market their goods. At Hereford trade was probably most dependent on agriculture, and sheep, honey and salmon are all mentioned in the Domesday Book. There is also mention of brewing in the section on the Customs of Hereford, stating "Any man's wife who brewed ale inside or outside the City gave 10d as a customary due" (Frank and Caroline Thorn (eds.), Domesday Book 17, Herefordshire, [C] 179a,7, Phillimore, 1983).

The earliest defensive feature of the burh of Hereford was located on the western side of the city and consisted of a gravel rampart. The rampart may have been fronted by a structure and been topped by a fence or palisade, but the lack of preservation makes it hard to determine. This early structure was later replaced by a clay and turf rampart, thought to have been built in the late 9th and 10th centuries.

These rampart walls encompassing the city would have separated the urban centre from its rural surroundings, and in time the urban centre would have become the desirable place to live with houses within the city defences costing more than those outside. This would have been in part due to the increased security from raiding parties that the walls provided.

From the very beginning Hereford has been a frontier city and even today the Welsh border is less than 20 miles away to the west. It is very likely that this border was a lot closer in Anglo-Saxon times, and may have even been denoted by the River Wye. There has always been a volatile relationship between England and Wales, with the border territory being the location for frequent raids from both sides.

A contemporary document known as the Ordinance Concerning the Dunsaete has survived from Anglo-Saxon times: it records an agreed procedure for dealing with disputes between the English and the Welsh which appears to support the theory that at one time the River Wye was the border. The document seems to be of 10th century date and expressly refers to the border as a river, although it does not specify the Wye. The Ordinance deals with the problem of what should happen if property goes missing. The main item it deals with is stolen cattle (cattle being a valuable item of property). If the owner of the stolen cattle should follow the tracks and find that they lead to the river it is then the responsibility of the owner of the land on the other side to pick up the trail and search for the cattle. If he cannot find them after searching for nine days then he is liable to pay compensation to the cattle's owner.

The Ordinance also mentions the value put on a man as being one pound. Presumably this referred to slaves and the theft of slaves. The Domesday Survey records 18% of the population of Herefordshire as being slaves, but we do not know if the same rules of search applied as for cattle. The Ordinance also deals with the traversing of the border by Welsh and English, and records that the English shall only cross into the Welsh side and vice versa in the presence of an appointed man who then had the responsibility of making sure that the foreigner was safely escorted back to the crossing point.

Wales remained independent throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, and internally it was divided into five competing kingdoms. Each of these kingdoms was ruled by a Prince, and often they would lead raiding parties into England. One such period of resistance against the English and King Athelstan was led by Idwal Foel of Gwynedd. The upshot of this rebellion was that in 927 all five of the Welsh Princes who ruled within Wales met Athelstan at Hereford, acknowledged his overlordship as mechteyrn ("Great King") and agreed to pay him a huge yearly tribute of 20 pounds of gold, 300 pounds of silver, 25,000 oxen and as many hawks and hounds as the king wished. This event is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (See Michael Wood, In Search of the Dark Ages, p. 135.)

Under King Athelstan the power of the Anglo-Saxons was at its height, and it was during his reign that further improvements were made to the city's defences. The timber defences that had been erected at the end of the 9th century were enhanced by the addition of stonework to the face of the wall (see Shoesmith, p. 80). A small stone wall was also added to the rear of the rampart, with a roadway about 2m wide and surfaced with pebbles behind this.

This level of fortification suggests a stable and profitable government in the area that was able to afford the material and manpower for these improvements. In the Anglo-Saxon period, as today, much of the revenue in Herefordshire came from land ownership and agriculture, with the great majority of the population living and working on the land.

Hereford was now a fortified burh of considerable size with houses inside and outside the city walls. There was a religious community as well as an economy built on trade and industry.

Towards the end of the 10th century Herefordshire was absorbed within the English State, however the unification of England did not immediately herald an era of stability and peace. Danish raids were a frequent occurrence and Æthelred II (The Unready) was repeatedly having to soften the blow of the raids by paying money to the Danes. This money was known as Danegeld and much of it was raised through taxes, which would have been unpopular with those that paid it.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]

 


Last Updated: 05/03/2013 10:24:11