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The Anglo-Saxon Period

AD 410 - 1066

This period, often referred to as the Dark Ages, ran from the end of the Roman presence in the 5th century to the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Between the retreat of the Roman legions and the arrival of the Normans, very little historical information survives. The romanisation of the Welsh Border lands had been patchy and incomplete; the Latin language had made little progress in the area and native British was still spoken by the majority of the Welsh border people in the 5th century AD.

Under Roman rule, Britain had relied heavily on the Roman soldiers for its defence and had been relatively secure whilst their presence was maintained. When the legions left in the early 390s, there were still some troops remaining but the last of these left in 407 and did not return.

Britain was now under threat from raids by the Angles, Saxons and Picts ("painted men" from north of the Forth and Clyde rivers), but when the natives asked Rome for help the Emperor Honorius told them to look to themselves for their defence (Edict of Honorius, dated to 410). 

The Picts and the Saxons were defeated in 429, but the threat that they posed was still strong. Frontier people were brought into the Marches from Scotland to defend the area against the Irish whilst Saxon mercenaries were invited to settle in the area to create a defensive shield against more Pictish raids.

The Angles and Saxons who invaded post-Roman Britain came from the area that is now modern Germany and southern Denmark. The Anglo-Saxons did not find a prevalent Roman culture in Britain - indeed, what Romanisation had occurred had largely been destroyed or forgotten.

Traditionally, the initial Saxon conquest and occupation of the Herefordshire section of the Marches is credited to the Kings of Wessex in the late 6th century. By the middle of the 8th century Anglo-Saxon political control had been constituted throughout the whole of the Marches. On the western border of the Marches, Offa's Dyke delimited this area of control.

This dyke is the longest linear earthwork in Britain and was named after Offa, King of Mercia, who reigned between 757 and 796. The dyke stretches some 100 miles from the mouth of the River Wye to the estuary of the River Dee. There is a popular myth that the dyke was ploughed by the Devil in a single night, but it was most probably dug by Saxon mercenaries. Offa's Dyke is particularly elusive in Herefordshire. Only six miles of it remain, causing some people to say that it was never dug here and others to say that it has been severely ploughed out.

One important legacy that the Romans had left to the people of the Marches was Christianity. This new religion traditionally expressed itself in monasticism and the worship of saints.

Although Christianity had been recognised as a religion in Britain since 313, the old Celtic gods remained popular with the natives. The main upsurge in the popularity of Christianity came about from an influx of new ideas and priests from the open trade routes from western Gaul, the Mediterranean, Wales and Ireland.

Many churches were founded and set up during the 6th and 7th centuries. In Herefordshire, we have evidence of churches being dedicated to Celtic saints. At Woolhope there is a chapel with a piscina dedicated to Saint Dubricius (or Dryfig), who is reported to have been born at Madley, and at Dewchurch and Kilpeck there are dedications to Saint David, or Dewi. Many of the churches in Herefordshire that were once dedicated to Saxon saints were re-dedicated to Norman saints during the medieval period.

The Roman occupation of Britain had also reduced the importance and function of the earlier Iron Age hillforts. They were no longer expected to act as the regional centres of an area. The establishment of a religious and monastic social framework in the county brought new places into focus.

During the middle of the 8th century the stability of the county, brought about by a relative peace, appears to have created a need for centres of urbanisation in Herefordshire and the Marches. It is from this time that the first documented references to the city of Hereford appear.

Although Herefordshire was under the control of the Mercians, it was still under threat from other invaders. Vikings had continued to invade in the north of the country, which spurred on the Saxon settlers to develop fortified settlements or burghs. These were designed to restrict the advancement of the Scandinavian raiders and create safe places for people to retreat to. 

Hereford has been the centre of a diocese since the late 7th century and there are also traditions of an earlier Celtic church here, the church of St. Guthlac (HER 429) which was founded on the later castle site in the first half of the 8th century.

In the first half of the 8th century the Herefordshire kingdom of Mercia was involved in battles with the Welsh, including a battle at Hereford during the reign of King Offa. Excavations in Hereford have revealed city defences dating back to the 8th century. Hereford at this time covered an area of approximately 40 acres and lay on either side of a main street running east to west (modern day East Street and West Street).

Cuthbert, Bishop of Hereford from 736-740 (and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury) set up a cross to commemorate Milfrith, king of the Magonsaete, and three earlier bishops. This dedication suggests that Milfrith, grandson of the last Mercian king, Penda, had founded a cathedral city in Hereford prior to this date, which would make it one of the earliest cathedral cities in Western Europe.

It certainly appears that there was a settlement in Hereford from around 700, when the kingdoms of the Magonsaete and Mercia were amalgamated. It was perhaps at this time that an earthen bank and ditch was constructed to contain the city.

In the 8th and 9th centuries Hereford and its surrounding area were attacked by the Welsh, and the earthen rampart was replaced by a stone and gravel rampart. The main street of this city is thought to have followed the line of modern day King Street, across the cathedral site and along Castle Street.

A considerable time elapsed between the building of a permanent defensive work around the city and the re-building of it as a more substantial city wall. This re-building is most likely to have occurred around 913-915, when Hereford was attacked by the Vikings. This massive timber rampart enclosed an area of the city including modern Victoria Street, West and East Streets and Mill Street - about 50 acres in total.

Under Athelstan, a mint was set up at Hereford, which was the only mint west of the Severn at the time. Settlement had also begun to occur outside of the city defences, suggesting a migration of people to a place of apparent safety, stability and commerce.

Hereford was classed as a burgh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 914, and in 1030-40 a new stone cathedral was built, followed by a Norman-style castle c. 1050. In 1055 Gruffydd ap Llewellyn attacked the city, and the defences were enlarged and improved with timber revetments added. The population continued to grow and by the 12th century the town covered an area of 120 acres. The Saxon defences at this time ran along East Street to meet St Owen's Street and continued to the river. On the west, the defences ran from West Street through Eign Gate and down to the River Wye.

With the establishment of a castle at Hereford under the new Earl of Hereford, Harold Godwinson (later King Harold), the city defences were altered once more. The river crossing was pushed westwards until it was at the site it occupies now, which was outside the city defences. These new defences now enclosed an area some 90-plus acres in extent.

The need for a larger trade area pushed the city defences further out on the north side, and a market area was created which ran on an east to west axis rather than the traditional north to south one. Traditionally in Saxon towns trade was done in the area surrounding the churches and in the narrow streets, and it was not until the Norman period that large open market areas were created.

The archaeological evidence for Anglo-Saxon Herefordshire is disappointingly sparse. Much of our evidence comes from chance finds, with Hereford itself being the only major area of archaeological importance for this period. This lack of evidence supports the description of this period - in Herefordshire at least - as the "Dark Ages".

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]