Anglo-Saxon Sacred Landscapes – Part 1 – Purifying the Temples

This is the first of two articles on Anglo-Saxon sacred landscapes and what they meant to *pagans and Christians in this fascinating period of English history. It involves a different way of seeing the land – not solely as a source of food and wealth but as spirit-filled and consecrated; a visible part of multiple stories of belief that became a battleground in the conversion to Christianity. Hence Anglo-Saxon sacred landscapes – purifying the temples.

‘… the every day life of the people took place in a theatre which was also occupied by spirits, benign, malevolent and ancestral’ (Semple, 2010: p 43).

‘In the vernacular culture of early Christian England, landscape mattered more than architecture’ (Blair, 2006, p182).

Conversion Period

If I were an Anglo-Saxon, sometime in the 6th to 8th centuries AD, I would expect to have many encounters with spiritual beings and otherworld creatures, benign and malevolent, during my lifetime. Various deities, ghosts, witches, giants, dwarves, elves, animal spirits, the spirits of trees, forests and rivers, shapeshifters, monsters, dragons and many more could be part of my world. Most likely these were drawn from Scandinavian, Romano-British, Celtic and prehistoric beliefs. As the conversion from paganism to Christianity progressed, then the Holy Trinity, saints and demons joined the panoply. A spirit for one person might be considered a demon by another, depending on their beliefs.

West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, Wiltshire.
West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, Wiltshire. Built around 3650 BC. A Neolithic chambered tomb; part of the sacred landscape (photo by author)

As an Anglo-Saxon villager, I might feel more at home with my kin’s pagan ancestry and what it said about these beings, or with some of the views of the Christian outlook, which had a mottled presence that pre-existed Saint Augustine’s mission in 597 AD but got its real head of steam from that mission. Or I might call upon whichever deity I or my kin thought would help most with a particular problem, whether they came from the Christian or non-Christian camps. For this was the so-called ‘conversion period’, when beliefs and their labels were far more fluid than in more settled times.

A major transitional period, whether of religious outlook, culture or socio-economic organisation can be disconcerting for many of those caught up in the changes, as old certainties are challenged and the new beliefs on the block muscle in. These periods can also be bloody. Yet for the observer, they can be fascinating, as ideas clash and transform in unexpected ways, and the ultimate shape of the future is unknown and up for grabs. More settled periods did not lack change but it’s an issue of scope, degree and impact. The conversion to Christianity was the biggest change to occur during the Anglo-Saxon period but it was a lengthy, messy, close-run transition, where the outcome was not assured.

It was a time when there was ‘no single orthodox pagan community, and no single orthodox Christian authority’ (Carver, 2010: p 17) to dictate what I should believe in. It was also a bloodless transition, which is remarkable for a massive change in beliefs.

Mirroring this competition for souls was a battle for the sacred sites of different beliefs that peppered the landscape of what was to become England. It was vital for the Christian mission to capture and neutralise these places, whether natural or man-made, as they could serve as tangible spiritual strongholds that could strengthen the hold of the old ways, reminding and rallying the people of what they stood to lose. Moreover, these were places where demons and the dark brood of the devil had taken up residence, and they needed to be cleansed and purified of these malignant beings. This was real spiritual warfare. The ritual landscape had to be transformed – not only physically and in terms of meaning but in the spirit realm.

Iron Age hillfort, built by the Iceni, around 2300 years old. Wandlebury, Cambridge.
Iron Age hillfort, built by the Iceni, around 2300 years old. Wandlebury, Cambridge. Part of the sacred landscape inherited by the Anglo-Saxons (photo by author)

I should add here a remark on who were the Anglo-Saxons? There is debate on this but I side with the weight of archaeology (see Pryor, 2005) and modern genetics studies (see Wellcome Trust, 2015: p 8). These suggest that there was no mass immigration by Anglo-Saxons but a smaller influx of mostly elite individuals, their families and followers. Evidence suggests that the indigenous Celtic peoples were not pushed aside to the Atlantic fringes. They coexisted with the immigrants and the transition to an Anglo-Saxon identity was more cultural than genetic. Thus a reasonable element of the population would already have had some tradition or knowledge of Christianity from Roman times.

Pope Gregory’s Strategy

At the direction of Pope Gregory the Great, Augustine and a small group of monks arrived in the Kingdom of Kent in 597 AD on a mission to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. From the outset, it was a top-down strategy, aiming to convert kings and through them the population. This was sensible, as without the support of kings, not much could happen. Augustine was met by the pagan King Aethelbert and his Christian wife, Bertha. Despite some suspicion, Aethelbert allowed the mission to evangelize his people and was materially supportive of their work, ultimately himself converting.

The success of the mission throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was by no means assured and, at times, looked as though it might fail. It took many generations for the Church to finally bed down its supremacy, although even then pagan vestiges remained in vernacular belief. The famous instruction given by Pope Gregory to Saint Augustine’s mission via Bishop Mellitus on how to handle the pagan ‘temples’ had a profound and long-lasting impact that even today colours the ‘sacredness’ of parts of the English landscape.

Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, built by St Cedd.
Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, built by St Cedd on the wall of a Roman fort and using Roman stone and bricks, around 660 AD (photo by author)

‘Tell Augustine that he should by no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within the temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God…. Thus, if they (the people) are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones (Letter, Pope Gregory I to Bishop Mellitus).

‘Temples’

What was the impact of the Pope’s strategy on the sacred landscape? We should remember at the outset that it sought to replace the worship or evocation of pagan deities by the worship of the true God. There was to be no communing between the two. This was a completely different scenario from past practice, where incoming peoples, such as the Romans, were happy to recognise the deities of indigenous folk, so long as these deities became part of the Roman panoply and did not serve to rally unrest against the overlords. Accordingly, I could happily continue to worship my traditional gods. Not so with Christianity.

‘You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons (1 Corinthians 10:21).

This radical departure required another approach to encourage converts. The intended outcome of the Pope’s strategy was the retention of the shell of many of the ‘temples’ but a change in their purpose or meaning. We might see this as an approach to out-maneuver pagan beliefs by some accommodation of the believers; avoiding a frontal attack and destruction of their temples but no let-up on the demonic forces that lived within them. It was a focus on changing what the mission considered to be essential by accommodating window-dressing – you can keep your temples but not your gods. This strategy certainly assisted the bloodless nature of the conversion.

But what were the pagan temples? There were certainly many man-made edifices where pagan deities were worshiped; most notably and obviously, those remaining from the period of Roman occupation. The many Roman urban sites and villas that would have remained in Britain into the Anglo-Saxon period would have had buildings or spaces devoted to Roman and Romano-British deities and these would have continued in use, sometimes converted to the worship of Anglo-Saxon deities. Also, we should anticipate that there were Roman sites used to practice the Christian faith from the period of late Roman occupation, when Christianity was the official religion of the Empire.

There is a strong possibility that the Roman mission looked upon existing Roman sites in a different way from other temples. These were spaces that Pope Gregory and the mission would have understood – well built of stone and brick by a people they knew – fellow Romans.

There is a very plausible line of thinking that the re-dedication of Roman sites and reuse of Roman materials from derelict sites to build churches was more than purely functional but also ideological. This was a way of rebuilding Roman power and influence, especially that of the Roman Church (Semple, 2010: p 36).

The landscape would also have contained many timber constructions – buildings and shrines – built by pagans or by some of the existing British population who were already, in some way, Christian. However, what of other places where folk met deities, spirits and other-world creatures?

Other Natural and Man-made Sacred Sites

We know from archaeology, documented history, place-name analysis and comparative anthropology that features of the natural landscape and prehistoric man-made sites were also sacred to pagan Anglo-Saxons.

‘The natural world was fundamental to pre-Christian and post-Conversion popular beliefs’ (Semple, 2010: p 21).

Scene from the East Anglian Fens
The forbidding fens. Home to demons (photo by author)

The land and the seasons that governed much of its use were of critical importance to survival at a time when most people were engaged in agriculture and lived in small-scale communities close to the natural world – but this intimacy was also spiritual.

Unlike a person’s ephemeral blip on earth’s radar, the landscape and its ancient shrines and monuments stretched back into the mists of the past and had a magic that could be tapped into. The landscape was the timeless home of all manner of beings and spirits, as well as humans. It was where one placed the ancestors. It was far from inanimate – it was itself sacred – or it could be dangerous.

Natural places, especially those that served as boundaries or features that were separated from, or contrasted with, more habitable areas, could be sacred in themselves and home to deities and spirits. They could be portals to other worlds and to their creatures. Features such as mountains and hilltops, caves, pits, groves, distinct trees, rivers, pools, springs, fords and fens.

It wasn’t just that spirits lived in the land but there were spirits of the land. Prehistoric sites were also part of the pagan sacred landscape – henges, hillfort sites, ancient burial mounds and megaliths. While we today might seek to differentiate between natural and humanly-modified features, there is no reason to assume that pagan Anglo-Saxons made the same distinction. They all provided features that were liminal, distinct or in some other way, contrasted with the broader landscape.

There was no strict demarcation between observable, practical life and the spiritual. Thus, a community’s identity and its relationship with the landscape it inhabited was not only defined by a working use of its resources but also by a spiritual connection, including communal use of its sacred sites.

Conversion and the Landscape

John Blair, drawing from anthropological perceptions of sacred landscapes, comments that ‘societies converted to new and more centralised religions have often shown a strong tendency to assimilate these inherited sites to the new belief-systems, however different their ideas of cosmology or sacred space may in theory be’ (Blair, 2006, pp 182, 183). I presume that a major reason for this is a desire and a capacity to take over the sites that are the visible strongholds of earlier beliefs and the ideas they beam out to the populace, in order to ensure that their deities are silenced and the conversion is as total as possible.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire. Largest artificial mound in Europe. Completed around 2400 BC.
Silbury Hill, Wiltshire. Largest artificial mound in Europe. Completed around 2400 BC, it would have been a mysterious part of the landscape to the Anglo-Saxons (photo by author)

How did the Church deal with these natural and prehistoric features of the environment that were the homes of pagan forces? An initial problem was to be able to recognise them. How did a Christian monk know if a spirit lived in a particular spring or megalith or tree? There may well have been tangible evidence, such as wooden buildings or shrines; however, drawing on the example of the Indigenous peoples of Australia, it is often impossible for an outsider looking cold at the natural landscape to know which features have meaning in the Dreamtime stories. There is little, if anything, in the appearance of a feature to suggest that it was used for ritual purposes, unless the observer is also a participant or has gained sufficient understanding of indigenous ritual practice.

So, also with pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs. It was an oral tradition, existing in the mind and in stories and songs. Missionaries had a better chance of locating the physical sites and features that had pagan significance if they had at least a superficial appreciation of the local stories and mythology that related to these sites. The context, as well as the site, mattered. Location of the sites required the monks to talk to the community. Over time, they would gain knowledge about where unwelcome deities lived and were worshiped but we can assume that recalcitrant locals protected some sites by not identifying them, even against the wishes of their kings and lords if these had converted.

Unlike more recognisable ‘temples’, the Church would have had to employ different ways of Christianising sites that were perceived to be natural landscape features or parts of the ancient past that were in themselves sacred. How does a missionary or priest Christianise a spring or a hilltop or a megalith? It would have been reckless to deposit valuable relics in such places.

These sites were considered to be forbidding places, where demons and dark forces lurked. The alternatives were to Christianise them through winning spiritual battles to make them holy or to place them off-limits as spiritually dangerous.

One course of action was to construct new Christian buildings at pagan sites, such as within or adjacent to Roman ruins. While there were a number of determinants for the location of new monasteries and churches, it seems that one was to appropriate existing sites of pagan significance. For example, by the mid to late Saxon period some churches were constructed inside or next to hillforts, henges and stone circles (Semple, 2010: p 33).

‘Early monastic sites in England, Ireland and Scotland were often located on liminal places accessed by crossing water’ (Lund, 2010: p 59). We can see this as deriving from several causes, including the desire for seclusion at isolated sites (Foot, 2006: p 47), as well as gaining possession of formerly pagan sites. Another approach was to alter the association of a natural feature, by cleansing it of its former pagan inhabitants. Thus springs connected with pagan spirits were Christianised by appropriate rituals that created an association with a saint, preferably one that had a connection with the area.

Some pagan sites came to be associated with hell and damnation, such as pits and hollows (Semple, 2010, pp 30, 31). Fens were also considered to be places where spiritual evil could be encountered. These places were shunned apart from by secular heroes, such as Beowulf swimming down to the underwater lair of Grendel’s mother or by Christian spiritual heroes and heroines. Guthlac chose to take up hermit residency and Etheldreda founded a religious community, both in the East Anglian fens. Cuthbert lived for a while in the Inner Farne Island off the Northumbrian coast. All of these entered spiritual combat with demons. Winning spiritual battles at such sites transformed them from dark, forbidding corners at the limits of the safe world into holy places (Gittos, 2015, pp 31, 32).

The Church condemned veneration of natural places, such as wells, trees and stones in its pronouncements, through penitentials and homilies. The Anglo-Saxon state also made a significant contribution in support of the Church with laws that prohibited such practices (Morris, 1989: pp 57-9 in Semple, 2010, p21).

Impact of Landscape Conversion

As discussed earlier, the natural environment was central to pre-Christian beliefs and rituals. There were limits to what the Christian mission could do to Christianise or demonise such features and sites. The attribution by generations of believers of the spiritual qualities innate within, and the ritual significance of, features of the landscape was likely to be firmly rooted.

All Saints' Anglo-Saxon Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire
All Saints’ Church, Brixworth, Northampton, dating from 750-850 AD with reconstruction 960-970.

There are many and varied examples of the fusion between pre-Christian and Christian belief, tradition and symbolism in Anglo-Saxon culture and religion. For example, the famous Franks Casket, which contains a mixture of Germanic, Roman and Judaeo-Christian imagery (Webster, 2017: pp 43, 44) and the belief in the semi-divine nature of royalty, which saw martyred kings elevated to sainthood. There was a long period when elements from various beliefs co-existed and, indeed, intermarried to give a distinctly Germanic Christianity. It is entirely realistic to assume that this also materialised in attitudes towards sacred sites. Ironically, Pope Gregory’s strategy helped perpetuate earlier beliefs, in that it led to an acknowledgement of the spiritual nature of the sacred space itself.

A palimpsest is a useful metaphor here – literally, a writing tablet that is reused over and over after earlier scripts have been rubbed away but often carrying discernible traces of these earlier efforts. The conversion, including in the landscape, was clearly not written on a fresh parchment but on one containing earlier pre-Christian scripts. Some parts of these were quite easily erased; others were written with virtually indelible ink and had to be accommodated.

Conclusion

It is natural that the conversion of a whole people across numerous Anglo-Saxon kingdoms would be fraught with difficulties and set-backs and take time. I consider that four significant features of the conversion led to the stubborn retention of pagan meaning at various pre-Christian sites. These were often intermarried with Christian thought, especially at the vernacular level.

  • Firstly, the Church did not present as a single, coherent, forceful voice during much of the conversion period. The churches of each kingdom had a level of independence, including how they responded to the task of conversion. It isn’t hard to understand how local priests and monks, away from the prying eyes of their bishops and abbots, could easily have condoned, and possibly accepted, some aspects of traditional belief and practices, at least to make their lives easier.
  • Secondly, it is a feature of the ‘top-down’ form of conversion undertaken by the Roman mission that it struggled to replace all of the deep-seated traditional beliefs that people at a local level felt to be so important to their daily lives. This included the pagan meaning of sacred sites.
  • Thirdly, unlike earlier changes in belief, Christianity, at least in theory, sought the replacement of multiple deities and spirits with one God; not an addition to but an ousting of indigenous belief. Formal conversion and the establishment of associated institutions is one thing but changing people’s beliefs, in an all-or-nothing scenario, is quite another.
  • Fourthly, Pope Gregory’s instructions to Augustine, which acknowledged the people’s deep emotional and spiritual attachment to certain places in the landscape, can be seen as having the unintended consequence of maintaining a bond to some pre-Christian traditional beliefs associated with those sacred spaces. One can understand that while Christian officeholders believed that replacing the content of such sites converted them, the pagan mind could see this differently, as the site itself retained some magic.

We see in England today much evidence of the sacredness of particular sites over the longue duree with many cathedrals, churches and monastic centres built on or adjacent to sites of importance to pre-Christian beliefs. Perpetuation of these sacred spaces is one of the wonderful legacies from the Anglo-Saxon period.

Part 2 of this series will address the issue of the dead and the sacred landscape.

* I use the word ‘pagan’ loosely and apologetically to describe in short-hand all the variety of non-Christian beliefs encountered by the Christian mission. The term was coined by the Church to differentiate itself from these existing views of supernatural powers and beings.

Blair, J., The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.

Carver, M., Agency, Intellect and the Archaeological Agenda, in Carver, M. et al, (eds) Signals of Belief in Early England, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2010.

Foot, S., Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England c. 600-900, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

Gittos, H., Liturgy, Architecture and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015.

Lund, J., ‘At the Water’s Edge’, in Signals of Belief in Early England, Carver,M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., (eds.). Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2010.

Morris, R., Churches in the Landscape, J. Dent and Sons, London, 1989, in Semple,S., 2010.

Pryor, F., Britain AD, Harper Perennial, London, 2005.

Sanmark, A., ‘Living On: Ancestors and the Soul’, in Signals of Belief in Early England, Carver,M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., (eds.). Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2010.

Semple,S., ‘In the Open Air’, in Signals of Belief in Early England, Carver,M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., (eds.) Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2010.

Webster, L., ‘Anglo-Saxon Art: Tradition and Transformation’, in Transformation in Anglo-Saxon Culture, Insley, C. and Owen-Crocker, G. R. (eds.), Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2017.

Wellcome Trust, People of the British Isles, Newsletter Issue 6, March 2015.

Anglo-Saxon Sacred Landscapes – Part 2 – Landscapes of the Dead

The Dead

What happens to us when we die? This is one of the most fundamental questions that organised religions seek to answer. In this second post on Anglo-Saxon sacred landscapes, I’d like to talk about how the pagan* dead were believed to inhabit the land and what changes the Church sought to make in its efforts to convert the Anglo-Saxons.

Conversion was a long, hard task over at least 200 years through the seventh and eighth centuries with no certainty of success. For this period, at least, we need to put aside the notion of a neat separation ‘on-the-ground’ between pagans and Christians – many people believed in elements of both and their religious practice was accordingly varied.

Earlier, the traditional approach of the Romans had been an accommodation with indigenous beliefs, as long as they did not foster anti-Roman sentiment. They were often blended with Roman deities and took their place in the panoply of gods and spirits. Local spirits abounded. This benign compromise familiar to the Romano-British would have been alive and well when Augustine arrived in 597 with a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Belief in only one God was alien to most people and changing this mindset was a major challenge for the Church. In my first post, the physical battlegrounds for the Church were ‘temples’; in this post, they are burial sites and other places associated with the dead.

Saxon grave slab, St Peter's church, Marefair, Northampton, 10-11th cent.
Saxon grave slab, St Peter’s church, Marefair, Northampton, 10-11th cent.

A core precept of Christian belief was that once you had breathed your last your soul departed and had no more to do with the living. The righteous were united with God and the others were not. The clear exception was those considered to be saints, who could still be contacted by the living, through prayer, and perform miracles. Thus, saints’ remains held spiritual power. While the relationship between the living and the dead was further muddied, it was generally considered to be a dangerous and idolatrous matter to worship or seek to wake the dead to gain their support. This would leave the living open to demonic attacks. However, pagan believers considered that ancestors still hung around and could and should be called upon by the living for support. The living and the dead had an ongoing, benevolent, almost domestic, relationship. Yet, the evil dead could also menace the living.

Notwithstanding the spiritual nature of the dead, the treatment of their remains was also important for emotional, social and political reasons by Christian and pagan alike. It’s often been said that care of the dead has far more to do with the needs of the living. How an individual’s remains were housed or disposed of was inspired by a number of factors, not solely relating to beliefs in the afterlife. Burial sites and other places associated with the dead were places that the living were keen to appropriate for their own spiritual and material purposes.

In pagan belief, the landscape, including the dead contained within it, was never passive. Its features – whether natural or man-made – were part of innumerable stories of individuals, kindreds, communities and spirits. The Church had an uphill task to curtail the belief and practice of ancestor cults, and this involved new teaching, new burial customs and ceremonies, and dealing with the powerful sites (man-made and natural) where the dead could be accessed by the living. However, before covering these issues, we need to look briefly at an important threshold question – who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Who Were the Anglo-Saxons and Why is it Important?

A fascinating and pivotal debate has been underway over recent decades that impacts on how we consider social and cultural change, including beliefs and customs, leading into the Anglo-Saxon period. The traditional view, deriving in large part from Christian writers of the period, is that the Anglo-Saxons originated from northern Europe and invaded/settled in significant numbers in what was to become England. In so doing, they pushed the native Romano-British/Celts – many of whom had some kind of Christian tradition or familiarity – to the northern and western fringes of the island; if necessary, violently. The Anglo-Saxons brought with them their culture and pagan beliefs, which gained ascendancy.

Considered the oldest church door in England, St Botolph's church, Hadstock, Essex.
Considered the oldest working church door in England, St Botolph’s Anglo-Saxon church, Hadstock, Essex.

This view has come under increasing challenge from intensive examination of the archaeological record, documentary and linguistic evidence and modern genetic studies. This alternative perspective suggests, in broad terms, that there is little evidence of widespread aggression, clearance and takeover by a separate collection of Germanic peoples (see Pryor, 2005 and Wellcome Trust, 2015: p8). In its place, is a sense of greater continuity of the population – that the Romano-British and Anglo-Saxons were broadly the same people. What drove change was not ethnicity but outlook with North Sea contacts gradually gaining ascendancy over links with the Mediterranean. This does not argue against some influx of Germanic peoples but its extent and location are matters of continuing discussion. A recent survey of, and contribution to, the debate on the cultural, social and political transformation of the fifth to seventh centuries is contained in The Emergence of the English, by Susan Oosthuizen (Oosthuizen, 2019). I tend to side with arguments favouring cultural/social adaptation, rather than large-scale ethnic change, acknowledging that the debate has a fair way to run and there are many nuances.

How is this important to our topic? First and foremost, there is a stronger emphasis on continuity. The traditional accommodation of different deities and spirits with significant local variation would have continued into the Anglo-Saxon period. This approach absorbed incoming beliefs, including some aspects of Christianity. It struggled with the notion of only one God and, at least, sought to hang onto the familiarity of ancestor spirits. It means that when we consider Augustine’s mission to convert the English, we should not see it as facing an army of hostile, hard-bitten pagans but a population that had a sizeable tradition and practice of elements of Christianity from the late Roman period. This included an established British Christian Church; but how effective it was in spreading and deepening the faith is a matter of contention beyond the range of this piece. However, we certainly should not swallow the criticisms of the British Church made by the Augustine mission uncritically.   

The Spirit Realm and the Pagan Dead

In Part 1 of this series, I posited that if I were an Anglo-Saxon, I would expect to have many encounters with spiritual beings and otherworld creatures, benign and malevolent, during my lifetime. Some were demonstrably Christian but many were not. While the gradual and uncertain conversion to Christianity increased my involvement with the Holy Trinity and saints, it certainly did not remove giants, shapeshifters, elves, the spirits of trees, rivers and ancestors etc. from my world. These would survive throughout the period, especially at the local level, beyond (and beneath) the sight and influence of the Church hierarchy.

‘… the every day life of the people took place in a theatre which was also occupied by spirits, benign, malevolent and ancestral’ (Semple, 2010: p 43).

The Church had an uphill battle to convince people that unlike previous belief systems, God could not simply be added to the existing panoply but he replaced them. Accordingly, as the influence of the Church grew, it sought to more strictly demarcate itself from what went before. Part of this approach was to demonise the spirit beings of earlier beliefs. Thus, a demon for one person would still be considered a spirit or god by another.

Where were the dead in the minds and practices of those who held to pre-Christian beliefs? While it has been difficult to uncover much Anglo-Saxon evidence to help us with this question, many scholars believe that Norse pagan beliefs offer insights.

‘In general, pre-Christian Norse religion consisted of three strands: the cult of the gods, the animistic strand, and magic… The ancestor cult fits into the second strand, as animism can be defined as belief in the existence of spirits’ (Sanmark, 2004: pp 147-50. Quoted in Sanmark, 2010: p 160).

‘The spirits are however seen as more important than the gods, since they play more significant roles in people’s daily life. The spirits of the ancestors play a central part, and are contacted through ‘medicine men/shamans’ (Hultkrantz, 1968. Quoted in Sanmark, 2010: p 160)… The relationship between the ancestral spirits and the living is often very close and ‘characterised by a combination of love, respect and fear’ (B. Graslund, 1994: p 17. Quoted in Sanmark, 2010: p 160).

Shaft of Saxon grave cross, Stapleford, Cambridgeshire, 970-1066.
Shaft of Saxon grave cross, St Andrew’s church, Stapleford, Cambridgeshire, 970-1066.

The ancestral spirits are seen as potent and at times also malicious, and demanding of support from the living. They must therefore be treated with reverence.

The ancestors had not left the building. Indeed, ancestor cults persisted longer than belief in pagan gods. This might echo the durability of close, personal relationships. Ancestor cults reflected a belief in the continuing life of the soul after bodily death but not separated from the living, and ancestors remained as integral and powerful members of kin groups. They could be woken up and contacted to help assist the living, be demanding or could create considerable trouble. The relationship between the living and the dead of a kin group was two-way. It was not simply a case of the living remembering and commemorating the dead but calling on them for help with life’s many difficult issues. The ancestors had power; they had personalities and they had expectations of the living. They were part of the extended family. A scholarly interpretation of one of the characteristics of the pagan view of the human soul (there were multiple souls) is that it could be inherited and ‘belonged’ to a family, as if a dead ancestor (Hedeager, 2004: p 235; Ellis, 1943: p 127ff; Price, 2002: p 59; quoted in Sanmark, A., 2010, p 161).

Pagan Dead and the Landscape

Despite the fact that they are often supposed to dwell in some remote otherworld, ancestors continued to appear among the living, as well as in or close to their graves (B. Graslund, 1994: p 17 with references; Brendalsmo et al. 1992: pp 101-111) (all in Sanmark, 2010: p 160). Thus, the physical location of ancestors in the landscape was of great importance to their living relatives. For the overwhelming majority of people, the dead were buried in traditional village or community cemeteries. However, natural features, where ancestors could be awoken, honoured and where communication could take place, were also powerful.

Emerging royal and aristocratic elites took possession of the most powerful spiritual sites for the deposition of their ancestral dead, especially those sites that tapped into the magic of the past. Accordingly, as the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms developed by the seventh century around hereditary systems of kingship, use of existing prehistoric monuments as sites for cemeteries or individual use became increasingly enlisted by ruling groups. This strengthened their hold on their territory and on contested areas of the landscape (Semple 2010). Particular natural features of the landscape, such as mountains and hills, were also associated with ancestors. Sanmark argues that pre-Christians believed in an ‘ensouled’ landscape, and that in Roman beliefs, supernatural powers, named numen or genius loci,were believed to be present in particular places (Sanmark, 2010: p 172).

Anglo-Saxon Grave, Hildersham, Cambridgeshire
Grave of 32 Anglo-Saxon skeletons, Holy Trinity church, Hildersham, Cambridgeshire.

These sites then served multiple religious, social and political purposes – as cemeteries and places for ceremonies and assemblies. I imagine that contemporaries would not have seen a distinction, as the living sought the help of ancestors to address everyday problems – the spiritual and temporal were not separate spheres. It is known that kings in Celtic and Germanic societies had religious functions, acting as the link between a tribe or people, its territory and its supernatural protectors, including ancestors. The spatial dimension of this relationship saw the burial places of kings becoming sites where supernatural things could happen.

The Early British Church, the Dead and the Landscape

As indicated at the beginning of this post, there was a long-standing Christian presence in Britain from before St Augustine’s arrival in 597 at the head of the Roman mission. Although the evidence is thin on the ground, there was probably a domestic Christian presence in Roman Britain from the third century and this would have expanded under the influence of Emperor Constantine from the second decade of the fourth century. There was a British Church, famously criticised for its laxity and sinfulness, alongside that of secular leaders, by the British monk, Gildas, in the early decades of the sixth century. There have been finds depicting Christian motifs from the later Roman period. For example, a mosaic decorated with Christian iconography from a villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset, dating from around 350. The Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent contains a house-church decorated with Christian wall-paintings, dated around the 380s. The Water Newton Treasure from Cambridgeshire contains fourth century silver objects depicting Christian motifs.

There is little evidence remaining of Christian burial sites through this late Roman and post-Roman period. However, it is most likely that Christian and non-Christian were buried together in local community cemeteries and were only differentiated by the nature of the burial ceremony. There were Christian martyrs, such as the first British martyr, Saint Alban, traditionally considered to have been a soldier in the Roman army. He was probably martyred in the mid-250s and his remains were sufficiently well cared for that they were later enshrined in St Alban’s Cathedral.

The Roman Church, the Dead and the Landscape

It was a complex mixture of interacting pagan and Christian elements that Saint Augustine confronted upon his arrival in Kent in 597. His mission was strategic – to convert as many pagan souls as he could, generally starting with kings, as this would bring the Church protection, resources and influence, and accelerate the process. Whether it did so is a matter of debate, as conversion was a long process with many failures. A problem with top-down conversion is that it tends to be skin-deep for those who convert through loyalty to their earthly lord and with little deeper understanding. Deep-seated beliefs are not likely to change and confusion can reign. It appears that the Celtic form of Christianity, which pre-existed and continued following Augustine’s arrival, was very different in its approach, being more grass-roots, spiritual and interactive with ordinary people (see Mayhew-Smith, 2019).

All Saints' Anglo-Saxon Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire, 750-850 AD
All Saints’ Church, Brixworth, Northampton, dating from 750-850 AD with reconstruction 960-970.

How did the evangelising Roman Church respond to the pre-Christian approach to the dead in the landscape, especially their continuing and confronting ‘active’ presence? Local practice and variable Church responses often generated inconsistent responses – indeed consistency should not be expected from the Church in this period, until it was sufficiently strong and united to promulgate and implement a more defined position. There was certainly no intention of destroying existing cemeteries: this would have been entirely counter-productive and against the intent of Pope Gregory’s approach of converting the meaning, rather than destroying the physical structures, of pagan beliefs.

One can imagine that teaching about the nature of death and the soul would have been central elements in the Church’s response. The continuing role of ancestors was condemned and there were efforts to prohibit the use of cult sites. The degree of success of these measures was probably initially small and took generations to gain traction.

Burials associated with barrows, other prehistoric monuments and with other pagan characteristics took generations to abate. The famous Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk, East Anglia, is thought to be that of King Raedwald of the East Angles, who died around 627. The burial contains pagan and Christian elements, reflecting the king’s observance, in some way, of Christian and non-Christian beliefs. Burial in proximity with prehistoric barrows, situated away from churches and with rich grave goods, including Christian artefacts, continued and indeed revived for a period after 660 for both male and female burials (Blair, 2006: p 230). It is feasible to see in this the syncretism of the Conversion Period and a rebellious response, especially from the conservative secular elite, who wanted to hold onto elements of their traditional beliefs in the face of new Christian ideas and practices.

The Church depicted pagan ancestor sites as forbidding parts of the landscape. Thus, burial mounds came to symbolise ‘death, terror, sorrow and imprisonment’. This has been interpreted as an attempt to discourage barrow burial, use of ancestral locations for funerary rites and, ultimately, people’s links with their pagan ancestors and heathen past (Semple, 2002, pp 228-242, 246-47, in Sanmark, 2010, p168).

One can imagine that many of the ancestors did not take kindly to their great-grandchildren being told to change their beliefs so radically. It was a bit like their heirs refusing to come and see them again and the palpable comfort and familiarity of the ancestral cult and blood ties would be broken. It would be hard for a newly-converted Anglo-Saxon to think they were treating their powerful and beloved ancestors so poorly.

Underground, dark places (caves, pits, fissures) were associated by early Christians with that other place and other creatures connected with the evil dead – hell and demons. Semple raises the possibility that although this association might be a long-lasting pre-Christian belief, the connection could have emerged or been reinforced within and after the Conversion period (Semple, 2010: p 30).

While caves were associated with hell, in his book, The Naked Hermit, Nick Mayhew-Smith presents the possibility that the church crypt could have shown the Christian victory over death. Early crypts, often containing saints’ relics, could have been considered a ‘cave-like ritual space’ within early Anglo-Saxon churches (e.g. Hexham, Ripon, Repton). These could have been designed to show new converts how the new faith went into the grave, not as a forbidding experience but as places of devotion, prayer, healing and hope to reinforce key articles of faith about the immortality of the soul and resurrection (Mayhew-Smith, 2019: pp 176-181).

‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’ (Revelation 21:4, Holy Bible, King James Version).

Burials Associated with Churches and in Consecrated Ground

A successful approach to curtailing ancestor cults would only be feasible if the Church provided an alternative – Christian burial. This is, of course, a fundamental requirement of a religion that needed to gather souls and to differentiate itself. Initially, Christian lay people were buried in traditional community cemeteries, alongside non-Christians. Fairly early in the conversion period, around 650 AD, lay burial in a church or churchyard was exceptional, rather than in traditional village burial grounds. It was available and increasingly desired before 850 AD but not imposed (Blair, 2006, pp 228-29). John Blair, in his The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Blair, 2006), suggests that in this period, ‘belief was signified more by the funeral ceremony than by location’ (Blair, 2006, p 228). He goes on to summarise the development of burial near and around churches, rather than in open-ground cemeteries:

‘This (burial near churches) came more slowly, as the practice first of ecclesiastics, then of kings and minster-founding nobles, spread through a widening circle of thegns, servants, and tenants. In a trend inexorable across western Christendom, it would eventually embrace the whole family of the faithful … (Blair, 2006: p245).

The face of an angel, St Mary's church, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk, late Anglo-Saxon.
The face of an angel. Late Anglo-Saxon wall painting, St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk

However, church cemeteries may not necessarily have been formally consecrated. The earliest European reference to burial in consecrated ground is around 930 AD (Gittos, 2015, p 45), in the late Anglo-Saxon period. Helen Gittos, in her Liturgy, Architecture, and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England, goes on to comment that the cemetery, which almost always gained its status from the church within it, may have not needed further blessing, except perhaps a procession around its boundary (Gittos, 2015, p 51). So, lack of specific cemetery consecration earlier than this may be more apparent than real. However, specific cemetery consecration as sacred ground did develop later in the Anglo-Saxon period. Gittos suggests that the drivers for this may have included the desire of bishops to maintain control over the changing ecclesiastical landscape by creating a rite for consecration, as new churches with cemeteries were springing up locally with little episcopal control, bearing in mind that there was a monetary charge for burial (Gittos, 2015, pp 52-53). Her other reason is that consecration clearly demarcated cemeteries for Christians from those for executed criminals (Gittos, 2015, p 53) (see section below on the Outcast Dead).

The gradual transition from burying Christians in local burial grounds was a way, I imagine, of gradually assimilating the site without disturbing the strong desire of kin to be buried together. There does not seem to be a concern to stamp the Christian footprint on existing cemeteries by constructing churches near them. As Blair points out there is a lack of evidence for Anglo-Saxon churches overlying pagan period cemeteries of any kind (Blair, 2006: p 237).

We can imagine that in the Conversion Period, kin ties were initially stronger than belief, at a time when the differences between Christians and non-Christians were, in any case, not clear-cut. It was only much later, once minsters and churches more heavily populated the landscape and the Church had more clearly established its approach to burial and had strengthened its influence that the faithful came to be buried together in proximity to church buildings. Church regulation had taken over from control by family groups.

‘By the earlier tenth century … Evidently, it was becoming unacceptable for Christians to be buried in their back yards, on hills, or in ancient barrows and earthworks. This marks the final break with the pre-Christian tradition of lay-controlled cemeteries, chosen more for their ancestral or status associations than because the Church had blessed them. Archaeology thus agrees with the legal and liturgical evidence in suggesting an environment that was less informal, more tightly controlled, and more conditioned by ecclesiastical as against traditional secular values’ (Blair, 2006: p 465).

As conversion progressed, the forces at work appear to be a desire and later a requirement to bring Christians together in their own cemeteries, away from non-Christian ancestors and also to separate them from those who have turned from the faith by their sins (see section below on the Outcast Dead).

The Special Dead

From the early conversion period, members of the Church hierarchy and Christian royalty were interred within monastic boundaries, minsters, churches and their churchyards – another example of the mutual relationship between Church and royalty. The Church had little hope of converting the people without the support of kings – and the Church brought to kingship a range of benefits. This included cloaking royalty with a special burial – a dynastic burial place within a minster/church and an appropriate ceremony. This not only gave a Christian patina to the pagan relationship of king as religious leader but also helped to bring royal remains within the sacred Christian landscape. In return, royalty protected and supported the work of the Church.

St Edmund, king and martyr, St Mary's Church, Lakenheath, Suffolk
Captivating image of St Edmund, king and martyr, St Mary’s, Lakenheath, Suffolk

I have covered the special place of saints in Anglo-Saxon society and landscape in an earlier post on Becoming an Anglo-Saxon Saint. However, let me repeat a quote about St Cuthbert that highlights the importance of having saints’ physical remains as a means of sanctifying the landscape:

‘the very physical presence of Cuthbert, in all areas of the kingdom of Northumbria…is a fascinating example of the way in which the corporeal presence of a saint helps sanctify a geographical region and affirms and strengthens its boundaries’ …and the ‘unifying factor in their (the community’s) lives was the shrine and land of Saint Cuthbert’ (Luginbill, 2014, p 34, quoting Marner, 2000).’

Imagine a land salted with the remains and relics of saints, whose presence could perform miracles and who had a hotline to Heaven.

The Outcast Dead

Some individuals came to be excluded from Christian burial. These included execution victims, witches and offenders who refused to atone for serious sins. The weight of evidence seems to suggest that when people were buried in local, community cemeteries in the pre- or early Conversion Period, the Church was relatively unconcerned about excluding these bodies spatially, although their burial ceremonies (if any) may have been markedly different from those of the acceptable dead. Two processes seem to have progressed, hand-in-hand, to cause these individuals to be interred separately. Firstly, the development of distinct kingdoms, which developed their view on wrongdoing and its punishment and enforced their laws vigorously, including through establishing the mechanisms for capital punishment. Secondly, the Church became increasingly interested in regulating where the dead were interred, including spatial separation of sinners from the saved. Jointly, over time, these dynamics led to Christians being buried together in proximity to churches, and outcasts suffering spiritual and physical separation.

Sutton Hoo 'Sand Body'
‘Sand Body’ of an execution victim, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Caused by the fleshy parts of the body staining the sand.

Tom Lambert, in his Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England (2017), addresses the issue of denial of Christian burial to types of wrongdoer. He argues that even when there was no secular punishment, the driver of this denial was unrepented sin:

‘Just as burial in proximity to those of prodigious virtue – saints – was held to confer spiritual advantage, burial alongside the prodigiously sinful seems to have been understood as spiritually dangerous’ (Lambert, 2017: p 221).

From the 8th century onward, sites of prehistoric monuments that had earlier been associated with aristocratic and elite ancestral burials again show their special atmospherics but now as sites for outcast burials, where some were used as execution sites and with associated cemeteries. Two thirds of excavated execution sites are associated with prehistoric or Anglo-Saxon barrows (Reynolds, 1999, pp 105-10; Semple, 2002, pp 318-23).

‘By 1000 (sites of elite seventh century burials) seem to have been re-defined uncompromisingly as profane wastelands, fit only for the corpses of the condemned and lost … (Blair, 2006: p 465-6).

Executed criminals also tended to be buried separately where their execution had taken place and often on hundred boundaries (Gittos, 2015, p 53), that is, at the recognised boundaries of local administrative units (termed a ‘hundred’). The suggestion is that such places were selected for this use because they were seen as, ‘evil and haunted and outside of normal society’ with their inhabitants denied access to Paradise on Judgement Day (Reynolds, 1997; 1999, pp 105-10; Semple, 2002, p 244).

One of the most well-known examples are the execution sites at Sutton Hoo, used during the Christian period. The bones of the execution victims did not survive in the acidic soil but the fleshy parts of the bodies left stains and hardened shapes in the soil. Martin Carver, who led the last excavation of Sutton Hoo, commented on the execution site:

‘After the Christian conversion of the ruling dynasty had finally taken root, there would be reasons for leaving the place of execution where it was. Victims of the gallows in this case had not only sinned against the authority of the ruler but against the Christian god, and a pagan cemetery was a proper place to dispose of them’ (Carver, 1998, p143).

There were other individuals considered to be spiritually dangerous – such as witches and their ilk. Their burials are termed, ‘deviant burials’; a term not directed so much at the victims’ socially deviant behaviour but because the burial has some distinctive out-of-the-ordinary features, such as decapitation, face-down burial, weighing the body down with a stone. This implies a belief, at some level of the community, that the sinful dead could still affect the living, perhaps through demonic intervention.

The outcast dead came to be buried away from the Christian community and some with other forms of differentiated burial, both as a punishment for their sins and as a protection for the living.

Conclusion

To the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, the landscape was alive with the spirits of their ancestors with whom they had ongoing relationships. The living made offerings to the dead and called on them for help in every-day matters; and the dead had expectations of the living. It was a very domestic, caring affair but could also be demanding and troublesome. The ancestors could be most easily accessed at their grave sites and other special places; some were natural parts of the landscape and others were prehistoric sites, where the magic of the past could be engaged. Together with other sacred places, these cultic sites were the heart of pre-Christian belief in the landscape.

Over the several hundred years of the Conversion Period, as the number of converts and the influence and unity of the Church grew, and the memory of pre-Christian ancestors faded, the Church sought to more strictly demarcate itself from pre-Christian practice and to influence then regulate burial practice. However, there was often, at a local level, an informal push-back and consent that many deep-rooted traditional practices would continue, especially ancestor cults. A villager could call themselves a Christian if their king was and if they attended the relevant church services but still give offerings to the spirits of the ancestors for these had been relied upon to support their village for as long as people could remember. Most folk saw no contradiction.

Gradually and with many reversals, the conversion of the landscape of the dead proceeded. The Church had to curtail ancestor cults that connected the people to a spiritually dangerous and idolatrous view of physical death and the eternity of the soul. Communicating with the dead was condemned and prohibited as necromancy. At first, Christians were buried in traditional plots and cemeteries, alongside non-Christians, as this did not rupture the important ties of kinship, and the difference between Christian and non-Christian was not clear-cut anyway. As minsters and churches were built, places associated with pagan dead came to be demonised as spiritually dangerous; a process reinforced by locating execution sites near earlier elite burials.

Over time, ecclesiastical buildings and associated cemeteries provided an increasingly available and desired sacred alternative to community cemeteries. They provided the certainty and comfort – probably more so – than the ancestors had done. A change from a blood family to a family of the faithful. While believers were included in the sacred geography, those who had turned their backs and sinned against God and king were punished by exclusion, which also protected the faithful.

* I use the word ‘pagan’ loosely and apologetically to describe in short-hand all the variety of non-Christian beliefs encountered by the Christian mission. The term was coined by the Church to differentiate itself from these existing views of supernatural powers and beings.

All photos by author.

References

Blair, J., The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.

Brendalsmo, J, and and Rothe, G., Haugbrot eller de levendes forhold til de dode – en komparativ analyse, Meta No. 1-2: 84-119, 1992.

Carver, M., Reflections on the Meaning of Anglo-Saxon Barrows, in S. Lucy and A. Reynolds (eds.), Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales, pp 132-143, Society for Medieval Archaeological Monograph 17, London, SMA, 2002.

Carver, M, Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., (eds.), Signals of Belief in Early England, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2010.

Carver, M., Sutton Hoo: A Seventh Century Princely Burial Ground and its Context, British Museum Press, London, 2005.

Carver, M., Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? British Museum Press, London, 1998.

Edwards, D. L. Christian England: Volume 1: Its Story to the Reformation, Collins Fount Paperbacks, London, 1982.

Ellis, H.R., The Road to Hel. A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1943.

Gittos, H. Liturgy, Architecture and Sacred Places in Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015.

Graslund, B., Prehistoric Soul Beliefs in Northern Europe, Proceedings of the prehistoric Society 60, 15-26, 1994.

Hedeager, L. Dyr og andre mennesker – mennesker og andre dyr, Ordning mot kaos, Studier av nordisk forkristen kosmologi, pp 219-52, Lund: Norsk Academisk Press, 2004, quoted in Sanmark, 2010.

Hultkrantz, A., Naturfolkens religion. In Ake Hultkrantz (ed.) Primitiv religion och magi. Naturfolkens trosliv I regional belysning, Second Edition, 1-18, Stockholm: Laromedelsforlaget, 1968.

Lambert, T., Law & Order in Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017.

Luginbill, S., The Bones of St. Cuthbert: Defining a Saint’s Cult in Medieval Northumbria, 2014, History Honors Theses. Paper 6, Trinity University.
Marner, D., St. Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2000, p12.

Mayhew-Smith, N., The Naked Hermit, A Journey to the Heart of Celtic Britain, spck, London, 2019.

Oosthuizen, S., The Emergence of the English, Arc Humanities Press, Leeds, 2019.

Price, N., The Viking Way, AUN 31, Uppsala, University Press, 2002.

Pryor, F. Britain AD, Harper Perennial, London, 2005.

Reynolds, A. Sutton Hoo and the Archaeology of Execution, Saxon, 27, 1997, pp 1-3.

Reynolds, A. Later Anglo-Saxon England: Life and Landscape, Tempus, Stroud, 1999.

Sanmark, A., Living On: Ancestors and the Soul, in Signals of Belief in Early England, Carver, M, Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., (eds.) Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2010.

Sanmark, A., Power and Conversion. A Comparative Study of Christianization in Scandinavia, Opia 34, Uppsala, Uppsala University Press, 2004.

Semple, S. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes to the Past: A Landscape Perspective, Unpublished DPhil Thesis, Oxford University, Oxford, 2002.

Semple, S. In the Open Air, in Signals of Belief in Early England, Carver, M, Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., (eds.) Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2010.

Wellcome Trust, People of the British Isles, Newsletter Issue 6, March 2015.

Williams, H. M. W., Death and Burial in Early Medieval Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

Who Became Anglo-Saxon Saints, Why and What Was Their Role?

Selection Criteria

(Acknowledgement. I am grateful to Dr Francis Young for kindly taking the time to read an earlier version of this article and making helpful suggestions to correct several factual errors. I take full responsibility, of course, for any remaining errors or omissions and interpretations about Anglo-Saxon saints. Lindsay Jacob, June 2019).

If I wanted to join the panoply of Anglo-Saxon saints, I’d have to perform well against some of the following selection criteria. I’d have to have been a particularly holy or pious member of the Church or of royalty or had played a significant role in establishing Christianity in one of the kingdoms. It would help if I had been, or had become during my former life, celibate and ascetic (‘dying to the flesh’). If I were a martyred king, dying defending faith and country against the pagans*, my chances were very high. I might also get through if I were royalty who had been murdered by another Christian, even if I had no particular uplifting qualities. If I performed miracles in life and death, this was a sign of my sanctity, and especially if my body did not corrupt after death. It would certainly help if I had widespread appeal because of the way I had led my life.

St Edmund, king and martyr, St Mary's Church, Lakenheath, Suffolk
Captivating image of St Edmund, king and martyr, St Mary’s, Lakenheath, Suffolk (photo by author)

However, as with all things, it’s not just what you know but who you know. If I had backing from a strong Church community or a powerful royal house, my chances were far greater, because they would push my case and ultimately benefit from my sanctity to further their interests.

Some of this might sound a bit cynical – it’s not meant to be. Most saints were special, courageous, humble human beings, who were touched by the divine, but not always did the best man or woman get the job. Some had few personal attributes to justify their status and many noble souls doubtless missed out. The gatekeeper to sainthood was the Church but the formal selection criteria used later to select saints had yet to be bedded down, so many simply became saints by popular acclaim.

So, why write about Anglo-Saxon saints? Well, apart from being an Anglo-Saxon nerd, because it raises some interesting issues about the role of saints in the creation of England. Did they inspire the defenders and ultimately capture the heads and hearts of the invaders? It also raises issues about Anglo-Saxon beliefs and the workings of the Church and state – a combination of the sacred and the downright practical – a perennial issue. I’ve picked two saints as examples – Cuthbert (icon of the Northumbrian Church) and Edmund (martyred last Anglo-Saxon King of the East Angles).

Two Great Anglo-Saxon Saints

Cuthbert

Saint Cuthbert was the great Northumbrian saint. Much has been written about his life and cult, including by Saint Bede. In a nutshell, he was happier living an ascetic, eremitic life, but had to deal with the chores of monastic responsibilities and late in life, to his dismay, was chosen as Bishop of Lindisfarne. He died a couple of years later. He lived for a time as a hermit on the Inner Farne Island, off the wild Northumbrian coast.

Cuthbert was probably from an aristocratic family, had close links with Northumbrian royalty and also tender connections with the natural world, such as the story about otters drying and warming his feet after one of his prayer vigils in deep, cold water. He performed his fair share of miracles and prophesying. During his life he was genuinely and widely admired and loved for his humility, generosity and spirituality.

Sculpture in Durham of the journey of St Cuthbert's body, carried by monks
Sculpture in Durham of the journey of St Cuthbert’s body, carried by monks (photo by author).

There is so much about Cuthbert that is appealing, not only to those who have chosen the cloistered life but to many others. Despite the formulas employed by the Anglo-Saxon Church in writing down the lives of saints – hagiographies – which often create cardboard cut-out figures, designed to exemplify sanctioned images of a good religious life, a real man does emerge. He crosses boundaries – trained in the Celtic tradition but chose to follow the Roman, rather than Celtic, approach following the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD. The tension between Cuthbert’s desire for solitary prayer and contemplation and the demands of monastic and ecclesiastical office, speak to us of a spiritual man who understood and undertook his duty, however irksome.

This was also an instructive message for the Church to promulgate. Sarah Luginbill quotes Dominic Marner, as highlighting that the three roles of Cuthbert in primary Anglo-Saxon sources – as prior, hermit and bishop – aided the perpetuation and spread of Cuthbert’s cult, as more people could identify with one or more of the saint’s personifications (Luginbill, 2014: p 6). When he knew his end was near, Cuthbert returns alone to a place he loves – the Inner Farne – to die.

Cuthbert’s death in 687 certainly didn’t signal the end of his impact or story – indeed, quite the opposite. Death simply signalled another phase in his life – a heavenly one – with which the faithful on earth wanted to connect. This is when his physical remains take on significance. The pre-eminent reason for this is that when his grave was opened in 698 – 11 years after his death – his body was found to be incorrupt and flexible. This was a sure sign of his sanctity, his link with Heaven, so at odds was it with the fate of ordinary humans. It demonstrated that God had acknowledged Cuthbert’s sanctity and had graced his physical remains. These could now continue to perform miracles, as Cuthbert had in life.

When the Vikings raided Lindisfarne in 793, the monks leave with his body, and it continues its peripatetic existence, having a number of temporary homes, a semi-permanent existence for just over a century at Chester-le-Street, until finally settling in Durham in 995.

There are multiple reasons why Cuthbert was moved around over a 200 year period: escape from the Vikings, escape from other potential aggressors and to strengthen the hold of Cuthbert’s community on contested land holdings, estates and the people’s affections. Once Cuthbert settled in Durham, the episcopal see was officially moved to the city (Luginbill, 2014: p 14). It is tempting to see the journey of Cuthbert’s remains as a saintly version of the practice of medieval kings of progressing around their realm to solidify their position – in this case, assisted by the Saint’s earthly community.

In death, Cuthbert’s influence grew, based on his incorrupt body, continuing miracles, and as Northumbrian royalty, aristocracy, Church hierarchy and ordinary people built his cult for spiritual and practical reasons. His influence also spread beyond Northumbria. He was venerated by the great Kings of Wessex – Alfred and Athelstan, and by the Danish King of England, Cnut. Alfred considered that Cuthbert had strengthened him in the difficult period before and during the critical Battle of Edington, when he defeated the Danes and saved Wessex.

Edmund

Saint Edmund, pious last of the royal line of the East Angles, differs from Cuthbert in two important respects – he was a king and he was martyred for his faith. Edmund was killed in 869 after being defeated by the Danes. Tradition has it that once captured he was shot with arrows and beheaded. Fact and myth merge, as generally with saints in this period. His head was found by calling out to his men and defended by a great wolf – an allusion to Edmund’s family name – the Wuffingas – ‘kin of the wolf’. Miracles abound around his body and where it had lay. When his body is translated to Bury St Edmunds (argued by Francis Young to be in 889. Young, 2018: pp 75, 76), it is found to be incorrupt and complete with the head and body reunited.

The face of an angel, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk
The face of an angel. Late Anglo-Saxon wall painting, St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk (photo by author)

As with Cuthbert, Edmund’s cult grew and drew kings, including Cnut and Edward the Confessor, and similarly, acquired lands, endowments and treasures from great patrons. Even William the Conqueror honoured Edmund and was more devoted to him than to any other English saint (Young, 2018: p 95). Edmund became the first patron saint of England until replaced by Saint George under Edward III.

(More on Edmund later).

Who Became Anglo-Saxon Saints and Why?

Who were most likely to become saints in Anglo-Saxon England and its predecessor kingdoms? It seems that three broad groups of people joined this exulted community: particularly holy members of the Church or royalty, members of the Church and royal figures who were martyred, and royalty who were murdered by other Christians.

It is easier to understand the elevation of holy, pious or martyred members of the Church but why were members of Anglo-Saxon royal families sanctified? The answer seems to lie in two main causes: the special, semi-divine status of royalty in Germanic culture; and the emerging symbiotic relationship between Church and royalty.

In the pagan Anglo-Saxon period and in Celtic societies, when groups were becoming more hierarchical and territorial, kings developed as the link between a tribe, its land and its gods. It is a relationship recognised in many early societies. Thus, Mark Taylor draws a link between the story of King Edmund’s martyrdom and the older Celtic beliefs of divine kingship, of kings as the sacred connection between the people and their gods, and between the people and their shared ancestry (Taylor, 2013).

The Church began its concerted mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons following Saint Augustine’s arrival in 597AD, initiated by Pope Gregory the Great. Pope Gregory’s shrewd strategy articulated to Augustine was effectively to acknowledge some of the places and practices venerated by the pagans but to Christianise them, in order that the people would feel continuity and be more easily reconciled with the new faith. The sacred character of kingship in pagan culture was accordingly embraced and given a Christian gloss.

Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex
Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, built by St Cedd (photo by author)

Little wonder that the evangelising Church focused on converting kings – they were the practical and spiritual lever to gain protection, land, privileges and souls. This also ultimately led to Christ being seen as a kind of Germanic hero, a warrior-king, a unifying force.

There was no higher calling for a king than to defend their kingdom and their faith, so when they were martyred, they were sanctified. From this perspective, a pious, martyred, incorrupt, miracle-working king, such as Edmund, ticks all the boxes, and is able to perform his sacred duty, even though dead. Edmund was truly a great East Anglian!

Some of the results of the marriage between pagan and Christian beliefs and practices can look quite strange through modern eyes. For example, some Christianised kings, who still acknowledged pagan gods in the misty origins of their dynastic genealogies, also recognised Noah as an ancestor. The result might look a bit odd but it was a workable compromise.

There were also many members of royal and aristocratic families, who chose, at some stage in their existence, the cloistered life. Often they took leading roles, as did Etheldreda, daughter of a king of the East Angles, who became wife to two other kings in succession, but still led a pious, celibate life. She founded the monastery at Ely. There was a sort of ‘aristocratic-monastic complex’. Paul Binski, drawing on the French historian, Andre Vauchez, makes a distinction between the aristocratic sainthood of north-western Europe and the urban sanctity of the Mediterranean. ‘England remained a country of “holy sufferers”, men and women who were high-born and whose styles of life and death entailed the trauma of inner (spiritual) or outer (fleshy) martyrdom’ (Binski, 2005).

If kingship merged Germanic and Christian traits, so did the cult of saints. The pagan Anglo-Saxons believed in an array of familiar gods, spirits and ancestors. The big difference with Christianity was that it demanded, at least in theory, belief in a single God. This was unlike earlier belief systems, which could more-or-less happily bolt on new deities to their existing regimes. In practice, there was a transition period when folk added the Holy Trinity to the existing panoply and chose what to believe, even if some of this was below the counter. However, this was not sanctioned by the Church hierarchy.

Consistent with Pope Gregory’s approach, saints came to develop as a Christian proxy for the erstwhile community of pagan gods. The development of a cult of saints, who could intercede between humanity in need and God, had a familiar ring. Christianised folk might have lost the panoply of pre-Christian gods but they could call on a growing community of semi-divine figures, who had inspiring qualities, human personalities, engaging quirks, particular areas of interest, and could be most easily accessed at particular, holy places and times of the year.

Also, while some saints venerated in Anglo-Saxon England and its predecessor kingdoms were not of domestic origin (or, indeed, had ever set foot on the island), the growing corpus of home-grown Anglo-Saxon saints provided a familiar, local link to Heaven. They helped tie the Anglo-Saxon Church into the broader Western Christian family, while also playing a role in generating an English Church with its own character.

There is not the space here to discuss, except in the briefest terms, the role of the Celtic Church. Their saints also proliferated, especially in those parts of Britain least affected by Anglo-Saxon culture and the Rome-initiated Church. However, the humility, piety, energy and missionary zeal associated with Celtic monasticism meant their representatives played a significant role in the spread of Christianity across Britain, including in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. For example, Saint Cuthbert was trained in the Celtic traditions and the Irish Saint Fursey was instrumental in the spread of Christianity in the Kingdom of the East Angles.

The developing Church found a landscape full of sacred places, natural and man-made, that had been instilled with pagan meaning over countless generations. These ‘temples’ faced reinterpretation following Pope Gregory’s approach and, over time, saints were employed in the conversion of the pagan landscape. For example, a spring associated with a pagan spirit could be purified and renamed as a particular saint’s spring etc.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire. Largest artificial mound in Europe. Completed around 2400 BC.
Silbury Hill, Wiltshire. Largest artificial mound in Europe. Completed around 2400 BC, it would have been a mysterious part of the landscape to the Anglo-Saxons (photo by author)

It is harder to understand why other members of royalty were sanctified because they were murdered by fellow Christians for secular motives. As Rollason points out, some who were sanctified, like Edward the Martyr, had no qualifying personal virtues (quite the opposite) but was made a saint because of the manner of his death, while visiting his half-brother (Rollason, 1982: p. 2). Rollason goes on to provide some cogent pragmatic, political motives for sainthood for murdered royalty: royal families gaining prestige from having a saint in their family tree; the Church strengthening the influence of supportive dynasties; sainthood implicating and undermining the killers and helping harness opposition; the cults of royal saints discouraging royal murders and promoting the sacred nature of kingship (Rollason, 1982: pp.16-22).

In the years following their elevation, many saints were used by Church or state – because of the affection in which they were held by the people – to further political, dynastic, financial and personal ends. Getting your hands on the relics of a celebrity saint brought in the crowds – and the money, and the royal patronage, and devotion during periods of warfare against pagans, as did having a saint in your family tree assist your status.

As sanctification increased the influence of the deceased on the living (as they became a hotline to God), so it gave Church and state the incentive to modify and reinterpret the personality and achievements of a saint. So, under the powerful medieval prince-bishops of Durham, Saint Cuthbert became a forceful personality, not a gentle hermit, who loved nature.

The Role of Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Remains

So, what of the physical remains of saints – what role did these perform? In pre-Reformation England, physical connections with the divine were crucial, including with the bodies of the esteemed dead and objects associated with them – relics. Post-Reformation, this association continued in the Catholic Church. The bodies of those who became saints were elevated above those of ordinary humans. This was a literal matter, as well as metaphorical – with their bodies being translated to above-ground tombs and shrines to facilitate veneration by pilgrims. If the body did not succumb to the near ubiquitous process of decomposition but was discovered to be incorrupt, this was a wonderful sign that the individual had been recognised by God and had received his special blessing.

The saint was a link with Heaven and their body became a powerful, tangible connection with the divinity. To touch a saint’s remains or objects associated with them brought the living into contact with the heavenly kingdom, when special requests could be made and miracles performed. Kings and, by association, their families, were already treated as semi-divine and capable of healing the sick, so the remains of a martyred king were powerful.

All Saints' Anglo-Saxon Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire
All Saints’ Church, Brixworth, Northampton, dating from 750-850AD with reconstruction 960-970 (photo by author)

In the scale of importance, it was the saint’s body that drew people. So, their post mortem travels and where the saint ultimately settled, were of great interest to the living. The location of saints’ physical remains, and other places associated with them, gave the landscape a sacred Christian quality, where contact with the saint was facilitated, often replacing formerly pagan sacred sites. Their anniversaries also gave the annual cycle special times to pray with the saint to gain divine assistance. England today continues to have this wonderful, mystical quality, although it takes some effort at times – physical and mental – to discover and to touch it.

Luginbill quotes Marner in saying, ‘the very physical presence of Cuthbert, in all areas of the kingdom of Northumbria…is a fascinating example of the way in which the corporeal presence of a saint helps sanctify a geographical region and affirms and strengthens its boundaries’ …and the ‘unifying factor in their lives was the shrine and land of Saint Cuthbert’ (Luginbill, 2014, p. 34, quoting Marner, 2000).

Sometimes, the saint had a say in where they settled – either through an injunction when they were alive or through miraculous means, such as Saint Cuthbert indicating his choice through making it impossible to move his coffin further, until members of his community heard two women talk of a lost cow on a hill – Dun Holm. Taking this to be Cuthbert’s choice, the community found they could move his coffin once more to the hill, and there he settled.

Site of the grave of St Augustine, Canterbury
Site of the grave of St Augustine, !st Archbishop of Canterbury (photo by author)

However, saints were such a valuable rarity that the laws of supply and demand led to some undignified practices. There are stories of the theft of saints’ bodies and other relics by rival houses in order to secure the benefits of having a saint on hand. One way to deal with this scarcity was the circulation of a saint’s individual bones, as a kind of ‘sacred currency’ (Luginbill talks of a ‘relic tour’ in relation to Cuthbert’s incorrupt body, Luginbill, 2014, p. 13). It’s not hard to see how impersonal bones could lose their provenance and multiply in the marketplace for relics. No-one was keeping a master leger on the use of the bones of a disarticulated skeleton. This is how certain saints could end up having four arms or enough toes for four feet.

Conclusion

Church, State and Saints

This is a complex relationship and only a few broad observations can be made here. We know that the Anglo-Saxon Church and royal state were generally mutually supportive, especially when both were attacked by outsiders. The semi-divine status of kings and the role of the Church as links with the divine, made them natural allies. Saints were drawn from both these spheres and, given the extent of personal connections between royalty and the Church, the creation and practical role of saints derived from the needs of both Church and state, and the genuine feelings and affection of the people, who needed the help of this body of sacred, mystical figures.

The commodification of saints’ remains during this period is illustrative of how a special body and personality could be transformed, not only in the sacred domain but also by secular forces.

Role of Anglo-Saxon Saints in the Creation of England

So, did the community of Anglo-Saxon saints rise up to help create England in the teeth of pagan Viking or Norman onslaught, like a resurrected Arthur? Hardly, but they did play a role. If Alfred was inspired by Saint Cuthbert at the pivotal Battle of Edington, when the king halted and reversed the pagan advances, then his example helped gain an iconic victory. Cuthbert also inspired Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, whose victories and inspired kingship, led him within a few runs of being the first king of the English and overlord of the Christian and pagan peoples of the island.

If kings were motivated by saints in defence of their Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, what impact did they have on the common person? We can imagine it was significant, as they followed the example of their kings and the people were, in any case, deeply spiritual. The community of saints, resting in iconic locations across the kingdom, helped give the land a sacred Christian quality. The tomb of Jesus may not have been in the land of the Angles and Saxons and many sites of pagan significance had been recast but the island was now home to the spiritually powerful remains of holy saints – many of whom were home-grown – with their links to Heaven. If their bodies and the places where they rested were sacred, then they were worth defending. Saints would be called upon to pray to God for help in defending the land. This did not guarantee victory, of course – Alfred’s kingdom survived and grew but Edmund’s East Anglia fell to the Danes and became part of the Danelaw. However, Edmund later became the first patron saint of England and his banner carried into battle. But there is still a twist.

If saints motivated England’s defenders, what did they do for the invaders? Cnut became King of England in 1016 after the Dane invaded and defeated the English. Although undeniably aggressive in war, he settled into a generally benign and intelligent rule. He venerated many Anglo-Saxon saints, including Cuthbert, Edmund and Etheldreda, walking barefoot to visit Cuthbert’s shrine, and bestowed generous gifts.

It is easy to see a conqueror’s use of native laws, beliefs, customs and power relations as a way of controlling the inhabitants. This is a tried and true technique. To be certain, this would have played a part in Cnut embracing Christianity and honouring a number of saints. Cnut became a Christian, as did many of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, for political as well as religious motives. However, as Young comments; ‘Yet because he was appropriated equally by Danes and Anglo-Saxons alike, Edmund was destined to become a unifying rather than a divisive figure. By the time Edward the Confessor visited his shrine in the mid-eleventh century … Edmund was already the nation’s pre-eminent royal saint’ (Young, 2018, p. 69). As we noted earlier, Young also points to William the Conqueror’s honouring of Edmund (Young, 2018, p: 95).

The Risk of Cynicism

To dismiss the role of saints as purely self-serving social control is as glib and superficial as dismissing all politicians as selfish nest-featherers. Faith and spirituality were vital, meaningful and inspirational to the Anglo-Saxons on a day-by-day basis. The greatest saints were genuinely respected and admired. They were miracle-workers and a link with Heaven. Because they were special, they were used by some in the ruling institutions to serve their needs, at the time of the saints’ elevation and in the decades and centuries to follow. Faith and practical considerations often combined, as they do still.

If we, in the 21st century, look at these great men and women, and the role they performed, solely through the prism of our cynical condescension, we will gain some insights but will miss the minds and hearts of the Anglo-Saxons.

* I use the word ‘pagan’ loosely and apologetically to describe in short-hand all the variety of non-Christian beliefs encountered by the Christian mission. The term was coined by the Church to differentiate itself from these existing views of supernatural powers and beings.

Binski, P., The Cult of Edward the Confessor, History Today, London, Volume 55, Issue 11, November 2005.

Fletcher, R., Who’s Who in Roman and Anglo-Saxon England, Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 1989.

Luginbill, S., The Bones of St. Cuthbert: Defining a Saint’s Cult in Medieval Northumbria, 2014, History Honors Theses. Paper 6, Trinity University.

Marner, D., St. Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2000, p12.

Rollason, D.W., The Cults of Murdered Royal Saints in Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon England, 11, pp1-22, doi:10.1017/S0263675100002544.

Taylor, M., Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom, Fordaro, 2013.

Wood, M., In Search of the Dark Ages, BBC, London, 1982.

Young, F., Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King, I.B. Tauris, London, 2018.

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