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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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