Anglo-Saxon Sacred Landscape – Part 3 – The Quick and the Dead

In this final post on the Anglo-Saxon sacred landscape, I’d like to talk about how the dead inhabited the land. Communities’ treatment of their dead, inspired by beliefs in the afterlife and their desire to leave a permanent reminder, had a significant impact on how the landscape was perceived. This not only involved proper care of the remains of loved ones and the esteemed and mighty, but where social outcasts – the executed and others who were spiritually dangerous – ended up. At the end of this post, I’ve also added my personal views of why history, its study and its writing, is important and how it’s helped me in some of life’s fascinating endeavours.

It took a long time for Christianity to take hold in the hearts of the Anglo-Saxons. The Church’s mission from the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD was to convert the Anglo-Saxons, not simply to coexist with indigenous beliefs, as the Romans had done with the Celtic gods and spirits they had encountered in Britain – but to replace them. This was not intended to be a blending of one pantheon with another. It was a massive task and started with conversion of kings, as little could succeed without their help. However, the danger with top-down conversion is how deep does it go? Whatever may be said about the failure of the Celtic Church to convert the Anglo-Saxons before St Augustine, they understood the importance of humility and engaging the people. Augustine was rebuked by Pope Gregory for the sin of pride, whereas Celtic-trained missionaries from Lindisfarne had refused to use horses for their lengthy preaching tours, as these might separate them from the people. The Celtic-trained St Chad, on becoming a bishop, had to be pushed onto a horse (Edwards, 1982, pp 53-54).

Site of St Augustine's Grave, St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury (photo bu author)
Site of St Augustine’s Grave, St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (photo by author)

So, what actually transpired on the ground certainly did not fulfil the entirety of the Church’s mission statement and there was a widespread informal consent that traditional practices could continue. A bloke could call himself a Christian if his king was and he attended the relevant church services but still give offerings to the spirits his ancestors had relied upon to support their village for as long as people could remember. The Church had yet to solidify its own orthodoxy and consistency, and conversion proceeding at different rates and depths in different places for much of the Anglo-Saxon period – and Anglo-Saxon Christianity developed with a distinct Germanic flavour.

Pagan Dead

If you could please indulge me and let me use the term ‘pagan’ to cover a broad span of non-Christian beliefs and practices. Pagan beliefs are a complex and word-consuming topic, as are Christian beliefs and also the hotchpotch when they combine. So, it’s good that this post is only about beliefs as far as they impact on the sacred landscape. Historians and archaeologists generally think that there were two main strands to pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs of the afterlife – the realms of the dead and the cult of ancestors. The dead had not necessarily left the building and could hang around, be contacted or woken to help assist the living (especially their kin), be demanding or could create considerable trouble. They had to be treated carefully and respectfully (Sanmark, 2010, p 160). A scholarly interpretation of one of the characteristics of the pagan view of the 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, p127ff; Price, 2002, p 59; in Sanmark, A., 2010, p 161). Burial sites were the most direct and important places where the dead and living could communicate and where the dead could be honoured. Often pagan burial sites were associated with existing prehistoric sites, such as barrows, as these had special connections with the past. The origins of these sites were unknown; they were mysterious and magical.

If ancient sites proved to be the best real estate to reinforce their power then the emerging royal and aristocratic elites made sure they got hold of them. As the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms developed by the seventh century around hereditary systems of kingship, use of ancient monuments as sites for cemeteries or individual use became increasingly enlisted by aristocratic groups to strengthen their hold on their territory and contested areas of the landscape (Semple 2010). Cemeteries and individual burials were situated to draw on the power of the past as ‘political and spiritual markers’ (Carver 2002, 2005) and were also used by the living for ceremonies and assemblies (Williams, 2006; Carver, 2005). We see features of the sacred landscape that meet religious needs and also those of the emerging secular kingdoms – a powerful combination.

Approach of the Church

As indicated in my earlier posts, the transition from a pagan Anglo-Saxon society to one that was increasingly Christian, powered by the evangelical Augustine mission as well as Celtic missionary luminaries, included a spiritual battle to win the sites that were the strongholds of pagan belief. In terms of the dead, this included not only giving newly-converted pagans a Christian burial but also dealing with the ancestral dead who still exerted influence on their living relatives. Doubtless, many of the ancestors did not take kindly to their great-grandchildren changing 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 like this.

The belief in the continuing ‘active’ presence of the dead in the landscape was a significant concern to the Church, which contested the ancestor cult, leading to various prohibitions and depictions of such pagan sites as forbidding parts of the landscape. Thus, in the 8th century, burial mounds symbolised ‘death, terror, sorrow and imprisonment’. This has been interpreted as an attempt by the Church 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). While the Church sought to replace pagan burial with Christian burial, the instruction of Pope Gregory to St Augustine to redeploy pagan sites to Christian ends saw churches built within or beside some hillforts, henges and stone circles to purify and Christianise them (Semple, 2010, p 33).

The development of Christian burial for lay people in consecrated ground is an interesting one. 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; by 850 AD, it was starting to become the norm. It was available and increasingly desired before 850 AD but not imposed (Blair, 2006, pp 228-29). John Blair, in his wonderful book, 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).

Neither is there evidence for early consecration of cemeteries. 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 excellent recent book, 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).

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. These ranged from cloaking royalty with the divine, special burial and an association with Rome. For example, in East Anglia, kings gifted the remains of Roman forts and small towns to Church luminaries as sites where monasteries could be founded: Dommoc gifted by King Sigeberht of East Anglia to St Felix; Cnobheresburg by the same king to St Fursa, both in the 630s; and Bradwell-on-Sea by King Sigeberht of Essex to St Cedd (Blair, 2006, p 188).

Anglo-Saxon Luminaries Buried in Sacred Soil, Ely Cathedral (photo by author)
Esteemed Anglo-Saxon Dead, Buried in Sacred Soil, Ely Cathedral (photo by author)

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, p34, 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.

I’d like to add here some reference to Anglo-Saxon discoveries in my truly wonderful home village – Linton in Cambridgeshire. On the outskirts of the village in the late 1800s, a large and early Anglo-Saxon cemetery was unearthed with over 100 burials. It contained grave goods and some of the finds are exhibited in Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, alongside other Anglo-Saxon finds from Cambridgeshire (photo in an earlier post). They are well worth a look. Much more recently, some Saxon decapitation burials have been found in Linton.

The Outcast Dead

Some individuals were excluded from decent burial. Execution victims, witches and others who were increasingly interpreted to have sinned against Church and state. The weight of evidence seems to suggest that when people were buried in local, community graves in the pre- or early conversion period, these individuals were not generally excluded, although their burial ceremonies (if any) may have been markedly different from those of the acceptable dead. It was the development of separate kingdoms, which enforced their laws vigorously, including through establishing the mechanisms for capital punishment, which initially physically separated the executed from the community. It seems the Church was relatively unconcerned about where they were buried at the outset of the conversion period but this changed.

From the 8th century, sites of prehistoric monuments again show their special atmospherics and some were used as execution sites and 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). Executed criminals tended to be buried apart from the Christian community, close to 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). So, some prehistoric sites were purified by the Church and others received opposing recognition, used for royally-sanctioned capital punishment.

One of the most well-known examples are the execution sites at Sutton Hoo in Norfolk, East Anglia, used during the Christian period. Sutton Hoo has to be the most celebrated Anglo-Saxon site in England; site of the ship burial most likely of Raedwald, King of the East Angles, who died around 624 AD. 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. These were laminated during the excavation so that the macabre figures of the dead were revealed as ‘sand bodies’. 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).

Sand Body at Sutton Hoo, Norfolk
Sand Body at Sutton Hoo, Norfolk (photo bu author)

There were other individuals considered to be spiritually dangerous – such as witches and their ilk. Together with the executed, 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. These efforts, and separation from the community, were taken to stop these folk from haunting the living.

Why History is Useful

This is as good a place as any to comment simply why I think history, its study and its writing, is entertaining and useful. I have always loved history since a child and it continues to enthral me. I have spent most of my adult working life thinking about practical issues and writing about them, as an analyst and report and speech-writer, and what I have learnt from my love of history has always paid dividends in my work and private life. Here are the main reasons:

  1. The past is interesting, informative, challenging and entertaining in its own right. Many of us have our favourite times, people, events, places and themes where our thoughts escape to. If we can go to those places in person, it allows the imagination to weave its magic – but it’s even better if we go with some prior understanding in our heads.
  2. How people discover and interpret the past is fascinating. It’s about improving the depth, scope and reliability of the factual database, and also improving our questioning and interpretation of this evidence. It’s about methodologies and theories and coming at a problem simultaneously from different angles. What tools are best for the job at hand? What interpretations best fit the facts? What interpretations give the best insights into what and why things happened and the outcomes? It’s interesting and valuable detective work, and those skills are transferable to other facets of our lives. It’s important not to select and bend facts to support our cherished theories but to be as objective as possible. Objectivity is so hard but subjectivity is so easy. Damn!
  3. A study of history shows us the broader sweep of issues that affect humanity and how people responded to what confronted them. It shows me that it’s hard enough to agree on the facts, let alone how to interpret them and even harder then to agree on what to do about them. But all of this provides us with invaluable lessons that we ignore at our peril. To those who think history is worthless, I reply that what does a potential employer seek in a job application but our skills and experience – and what is our experience if not what we have gained from our personal history. How much more can be gained from the experience of humanity over the centuries?
  4. Lastly, I love well-written history. Something that weaves together the many strands into a piece that simplifies the complexity without losing essentials – and explains, illuminates, entertains and brings the richness of the past to life. What’s there not to enjoy?

The next post will be on another Anglo-Saxon topic.

Dont forget to read my new Anglo-Saxon murder mystery series with priest sleuth Father Eadred.


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

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

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

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.

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, quoted in Sanmark, 2010.

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.

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

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.

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.

Williams, H. M. W., Death and Burial in Early Medieval Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006. Facebook Twitter Google+ LinkedIn Anglo-Saxon history Christian history

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