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.

‘… 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, 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.

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