TIMES REMEMBERED – Anglo-Saxon England
The countryside during Anglo-Saxon times was thickly forested, with clearings for cultivated land. Wooden houses, cattle sheds and barns, comprising the embryo English village were surrounded by a water-filled moat for protection. The land was divided into large fields and each villager had his own two acre strip divided from his neighbour by an unploughed strip of turf called a ‘balk’. One such remains running between Docklands and Shillington Road in our village. The ‘theyn’ or lord lived in the hall (barn) at one end of the village with his relations while his servants occupied smaller houses. The British slaves lived in huts and their wages consisted of food and clothes only. The whole community owed allegiance to the theyn who, in turn, swore obedience to the king. Each community was self-supporting. The Court Leete (a court of record held once a year by the steward of any hundred (a county division) or manor and View of Frankpledge (a system whereby members of a tithing (ten homesteads) were held responsible for the actions of one another ) met regularly to deal with various matters relating to the village or manor. The site of the court or hall in almost all today’s parishes retains the Anglo-Saxon title of Bury, e.g. Shillingtonbury and Holwellbury. Each community grew its own corn and malt, baked its own bread, spun wool from its own sheep and the tinker, tailor and shoemaker received as wages allotments of land.
By AD 670 most of England was Christian, at least in name; even in our part of the world which held out longer than most. So, perhaps if one had walked through Pirton soon after a death, one might still have caught a whiff of burning grain, offered to the gods “for the health of the living and the house”. Things change slowly in the country and why not pay homage to the old gods, just to be on the safe side? At the same time, not far from here in AD 673, bishops were riding down the old Roman roads of Ermine and Watling Street to Archbishop Theodore’s First Great Council of ecclesiastics at Hertford, which was to divide England into what we now call dioceses.
The Anglo-Saxons established a number of kingdoms but by the middle of the seventh century the three largest and most powerful were Northumbria, Wessex and Mercia. However it was not until a century later that King Offa of Mercia from whom Offley derived its name claimed “Kingship of the English”. He had good reason to since he was powerful enough to employ thousands of men to build a huge dyke the length of the Welsh border to keep out the troublesome Celts. On Thursday 1st August 793 AD King Offa searched for and found the bones of St Alban at Verulamiuim and the next day founded the great monastery which was the foundation of our present diocesan Abbey Church. Offa, although he was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king did not control all of England and after his death the power of Mercia waned. However, the institutions like the Witan, or King’s Council, the system of local government and the new methods of farming that the ‘English’ established made England strong for the next 500 years.
In AD 689 the first Danes arrived on our shores, first as coastal raiders and then to winter here. Soon they had settled in the east and raided far inland. Towards the end of the eighth century new raiders were tempted by Britain’s wealth. These were Vikings, pirates from the sea inlets of Norway and Denmark. Like their predecessors they raided at first but when it became clear that the English could not keep them out they came to conquer and settle. In AD869 Edmund, the last of the Anglian kings was killed in battle and a few years later the last ruler of the Midlands kingdom of Mercia fled to the Continent.
Peaceful days in Pirton were over. The names of Ivan the Boneless and his brothers Halfdan and Guthrum chilled men’s blood. In the hard winter they searched the area for food. The hard won harvest went to feed their men and all the horses were requisitioned. Only Alfred, king of Wessex, withstood the Norsemen in a series of battles which culminated in AD878 by him defeating them and later making a treaty with Guthrum dividing the country between them. Boundaries were fixed between England and Dane-law, the land where the Danes ruled.
One such boundary ran from the source of the River Lea at Limbury to Bedford and Pirton found itself a frontier village just inside Danish territory with new taxes, new laws, new rulers; an unhappy and uncertain time. Moreover, skirmishes between Danes and English continued across the boundaries. In 1835 some thirty skeletons lying less than a yard deep were unearthed in a Pirton field. They were laid in two parallel rows, some singly and some two or three in a grave. In one case the skull was placed between the legs. Unfortunately none of the remains could be moved without them disintegrating. Because the find took place on land named Danefield the relics were instantly attributed to the results of some contest between the English and the Danes but the presence in the graves of large amounts of pottery and urns containing ashes makes it more likely that the remains were those of Romans, who frequented this area, rather than Danes.
Hexton was even nearer to the frontier than Pirton and a man writing in the 18th century related that even as late as then, anyone in that village who had a high opinion of himself was called “Sir Dane”!