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.

References

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

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.

Dont forget to head over to my new website which is a murder mystery set in Anglo-Saxon times with priest detective Father Eadred

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.

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

NOTE: Under Lynden Church is no longer my main website. Please go to my Father Eadred site, which contains factual posts and research behind my new novel, Murder at Elmstow Minster. Thank you.

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.

Dont forget to head over to my new website which is a murder mystery set in Anglo-Saxon times with priest detective Father Eadred

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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.