Selection (edited) from D. Whitelock, The Beginnings of English Society (London 1954)

Chapter 1: THE HEATHEN ENGLISH (pp. 11-28)

ENGLISHMEN in Anglo-Saxon times were aware of the Germanic origin of their race, and most educated men after the first half of the eighth century could probably have added that their forefathers came of three of the bravest nations of Germany, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, and first landed in the romanized province of Britain in the year 449. They would have derived this knowledge, directly or indirectly, from the writings of the great historian, Bede, whose most famous work, his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation,which he finished in 731, contains a chapter on the origin of his race much used by later writers. It matters little for our present purpose that when chroniclers liked to calculate the number of years that had elapsed since "the Coming of the English" their choice of 449 as the date of this event went beyond the original statement of Bede; or that the conflicting evidence of our early sources of information makes it impossible to assign a precise year to the beginning of the English settlement in Britain. Neither need we worry overmuch whether Bede's attempted reconciliation of this tradition of threefold origin with the political divisions of his own day can be accepted as accurate in every detail. Slightly older Northumbrian writers do not observe Bede's racial distinctions, but call their own people Saxons, though the Northumbrians are Angles according to Bede. Even Bede himself does not keep during the rest of his work to the division laid down in this one chapter. Although there is enough supporting evidence to show that Bede's division had some basis of fact, it is difficult to avoid the impression that by his day these differences of origin were no longer felt to be important. St Boniface was not excluding Saxons and Jutes when in 738 he addressed a letter to "all God-fearing Catholics sprung from the race and stock of the Angles," but meant all the inhabitants of England, and King Alfred, a Saxon, uses the term "Angle-race" in just this sense, and consistently calls his native language English, not Saxon. (In this book, the term English is used to refer to all the Teutonic races in Britain, no matter what their origin, and to their common language.)

What is interesting is that the invaders remained so conscious of their Germanic origin. Bede's older contemporary, St Aldhelm, uses "our stock" and "the Germanic race" as parallel expressions, and St Boniface was probably as yet unfamiliar with Bede's historical work when he wrote home from Germany in 738 asking for support for a projected mission to the continental Saxons: "Have pity on them, because even they themselves are wont to say: "We are of one blood and one bone."" In fact, this strong sense of kinship with the Germanic tribes on the Continent led the Anglo-Saxons to attempt their conversion even before the last strongholds of heathenism in England had fallen. From the remains of their secular poetry we can see that they took an interest in the early history and traditions of all the Germanic peoples, as in their own.

Bede brings the Saxons from the country held in his own day by the "Old Saxons," that is, the region of the lower Elbe, the Angles from Angeln, on the neck of the Cimbric peninsula, the Jutes, by implication, from the land north of this, now called Jutland. King Alfred (871 -99) was familiar with this tradition, for he says "in those lands dwelt the English before they came hither" after he has mentioned Jutland, Sillendeand many islands as lying to starboard when the traveller Ohthere sailed down the Cattegat from Norway to Schleswig. It has sometimes been questioned whether Bede was correct in placing the homeland of the Jutes where he does, for the archaeology and institutions of Kent, where the Jutes settled, have affinities, not with Jutland, but with the Frankish territory by the Rhine. Agreement has not been reached regarding the implications of this fact. However, it remains unchallenged that the majority of the invaders of Britain came from North Germany and the Jutish peninsula. The Jutes spoke a language closely related to that of the Saxons and Angles but also akin to Frisian; even if they did come from the Rhineland, they would still come from a Germanic district, though from one more exposed to influences from the Roman empire.


It is not necessary to suppose that even in their remoter homes the invaders were entirely unfamiliar with Roman culture. Articles of Roman make found their way to the Baltic shores by trade, and also as loot, for already in the late third century Saxon pirates had become such a menace to the Channel and North Sea coasts that the Romans built a series of forts from the Wash to the Isle of Wight, which were known as the forts of the Saxon Shore. Saxon raiders appear to have penetrated far inland in 429, but the "Coming of the Saxons," often referred to in later Anglo-Saxon writers, differed from such raids in that it was the beginning of a settlement, at first, if we may accept an early tradition, by peaceful agreement as allies, though a subsequent revolt led to the conquest of the eastern part of the island. Reinforced by a continual stream of immigrants, the invaders pressed further and further west, until eventually they held almost the whole of what is now England, the east of Scotland at least as far north as the Forth, and the Solway Plain.

The newcomers came to a land that differed much from the England of to-day. It was heavily forested, with great stretches of continuous woodland, such as the forests of Selwood, Wychwood, Savernake, Wyre, Arden, Sherwood, Epping, Kinver, Morfe, the Chilterns, and the Weald, all far more extensive than their modern remnants. The Weald stretched from Hampshire to Kent, 120 miles long and 30 broad, according to a late ninth-century writer. The amount of available arable land was reduced also by the presence of large areas of marshland, not only in the eastern counties; Romney Marsh was undrained, and there was a great expanse of fenland in Somerset from the Mendips almost to Taunton. The areas under cultivation were on the whole small, surrounded by woodland and waste; but there was an exception to this: contrary to modem conditions, the chalk and oolite plateaux, such as Salisbury Plain, the Berkshire Downs, and the North Downs, were cultivated as arable. The river valleys in these areas were deserted until the English cleared and cultivated the heavy soils of the lowland valleys. The view that this was because they used a heavy plough previously known only in the areas of Roman Britain where Belgic tribes had settled is no longer generally held.

The land was crossed by a network of Roman roads, connecting the cities and military stations with one another, and with the defences like the great Wall and the forts of the Saxon Shore. Yet it was no flourishing Roman civilization that the invaders found. Long before the Romans withdrew their forces in 410 urban life in Britain had begun to decay. According to Collingwood, it had always been from the economic point of view a luxury, with a political and cultural function. The population in the cities had shrunk and the buildings were falling into disrepair. Few of the villas, which in many areas formed the basis of Romano-British rural economy, had survived the barbarian raids of 368, and subsequent raids had wrought further destruction. The centralized Roman administration had broken down, and petty rulers of native race had established control over areas of varying extent, though, from time to time, one of them may have exercised some sort of overlordship over his fellows. It was one of these, known already to Bede as Vortigern, who invited Saxon allies to settle in the east of the land.

It is not, therefore, greatly to be wondered at that in general the earliest English settlements were not closely related to the Roman road system planned to meet the needs of a centralized administration which was no longer in existence. Left unrepaired, many of these roads would rapidly become unusable over long stretches, though the more important of them were brought back into use as the necessity for intercourse between the settlements increased. Nor did the invaders take naturally to town life. Some Roman cities, Silchester, Caister-next-Norwich, Viroconium, Verulam, for example, were never re-occupied, others not immediately. Cambridge was derelict in Bede's day. Even in places where continuous occupation seems likely, important centres like London, York, and Lincoln, the English settlement grew up beside, and not in, the Romano-British town. After all, a population unaccustomed to city life, not possessing a system of economy that enforced centralization of population, would hardly choose to inhabit decaying stone buildings which they did not know how to repair. They themselves were accustomed to build only in timber, or lath and plaster, and it seems clear that they did not retain the services of Britons skilled in masonry, if indeed any such existed by the time of the invasion. After the conversion of the English to Christianity, the early church builders always found it necessary to import masons from abroad. These sometimes re-used Roman masonry for their work; but at the time of the settlement, the invaders could have had little use for buildings whose amenities they did not know how to enjoy.

Nevertheless, even in their partly derelict condition, the monuments of Roman civilization were impressive enough to people unaccustomed to stone buildings, paved roads, and massive ramparts. Small wonder that they called these things "the work of giants" in their poetry, as, for example, in a gnomic poem prefixed to one manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Cities are visible from afar, the cunning work of giants, the wondrous fortifications in stone which are on this earth.

In later days, there was a tendency to build monasteries in disused Roman forts, as at Reculver, Othona, Dover, and probably at Coldingham. The Irishman Fursey was given a deserted Roman fortress, probably Burgh Castle, Suffolk, in which to found a monastery. This practice may be accounted for on practical considerations — the protection afforded by the existing walls, the supply of masonry ready to hand — yet one wonders whether any feeling was involved that the continual prayers of men and women devoted to God would put to flight supernatural powers that might inhabit these places.

Educated men like Bede looked with admiration on the remains of the Roman period. He mentions the cities, temples, bridges, and paved roads surviving to his own day. The anonymous writer of the earliest life of St Cuthbert, in telling), how the saint saw by second sight the defeat of the Northumbrian forces at Nechtansmerein 685, says it was while he and others "were looking at the wall of the city (Carlisle) and the fountain in it formerly built by the Romans in a wonderful fashion, as Waga, the reeve of the city, who was conducting them, explained."

To the Christian Anglo-Saxon poets, these tangible signs of the decay of a civilization more magnificent than their own provided an opportunity for moralizing on the theme of the transience of earthly splendour:

Thus the Creator of men laid waste this habitation, until, deprived of the revelry of the citizens, the old works of the giants stood desolate.

We cannot guess which of the deserted cities gave rise to this poem, but there is another, with a reference to hot springs, which is believed to refer to Bath. The poet's imagination peopled it in the past with men "glad at heart and bright with gold, adorned resplendently, proud and flushed with wine; they shone in their wargear; they gazed on treasure, on silver, on cunning gems on riches, on possessions, on precious stones, on this bright citadel of a spacious kingdom." All this was changed by "the mighty fate."

It is possible that the stone remains of the Roman period did more than inspire the first settlers with superstitious awe and the Christian moralists with a fruitful theme. It has been suggested that Roman sculptured remains in the north of England formed the inspiration of a school of Christian sculptors, who produced figure sculpture of outstanding merit in the late seventh and eighth centuries, a time when no other part of Europe was producing sculpture in the round.


The monuments of Roman Britain remained to impress the invaders. What happened to the native population? Few scholars would now maintain that they were completely massacred or driven out, even from the earliest areas of settlement. More and more, archaeologists are recognizing Romano-British influence on objects found in Saxon cemeteries. In the later settlements, in the West we find Welsh inhabitants far above the condition of serfdom. A British strain in the personal names of the Anglo-Saxons, especially visible in Northumbria, is witness to a small amount of intermarriage. Yet it would be grossly inaccurate to visualize the invaders as a mere military aristocracy over a large subject population of native origin. The Anglo-Saxon word for a Briton came to be used as a common noun denoting a slave, a fact which tells its own tale of the normal status of the Britons who remained in the parts conquered by the invaders. The influence of the natives on the language of the newcomers was almost negligible; they passed on to them many river-, forest-, and hill-names, and the names of Roman cities, but the invaders gave new names to their own settlements, and, except on the western fringes of the country, no place-name supplies a certain instance of a British habitation name or personal name. A bare handful of words of British origin became part of the English language. All this is incompatible with any view that the invaders were comparatively few in number and were absorbed into the pre-existing population. So also is the desertion of the upland villages on the downlands in favour of the valley sites that the English cleared and worked with their own heavy plough.

There is, in fact, little indication that the invaders' civilization was affected to any appreciable extent by the outlook and institutions of the pre-English inhabitants. The Anglo-Saxons regarded themselves as Germans, and continued to repeat the songs and legends which they had brought over with them — including versified catalogues of the kings and tribes of Germany and the North. The main outlines of English society — apart from those elements introduced later by the adoption of Christianity — are already distinguishable in the account of the German peoples on the Continent, written by Tacitus in the first century of the Christian era, and can often be paralleled in later accounts of other races of Germanic origin, especially in the rich literature of the Scandinavians. Though neither of these sources can be used unreservedly as evidence for conditions in England, their statements may sometimes allow us to interpret more clearly something that is only hinted at in our own, in some respects, more scanty, records.


The Christian religion was established in Britain before the English came, but there is no evidence that any of the invaders deserted in its favour the rites of their forefathers which they brought with them. Thanks to Tacitus, we know something of what these were. He describes a sanctuary of a goddess called Nerthus, which was shared by a group of tribes to be located in North Germany, the Cimbric peninsula and islands, among whom the Angles are specifically mentioned, while the Saxons and Jutes are possibly referred to under other names. He says:

There is on an island in the ocean an inviolate grove, and in it a consecrated car, covered by a robe; only one priest is allowed to touch it. He perceives when the goddess is present in the sanctuary, and accompanies her with great reverence as she is drawn by heifers. Then are days of rejoicing, and festive are the places which she honours with her coming and her stay. Men go not to battle, nor do they carry arms; all iron is locked away; then only are peace and quiet known, then only are they loved, until the same priest returns the goddess to her temple, when she is weary of intercourse with mortals. Thereupon the car and the robes, and, if you wish to credit it, the divinity herself, are washed in a secluded lake. Slaves perform this, who are immediately swallowed up by the same lake. Hence arises a mysterious terror and a pious ignorance, what this may be which is seen only by those about to die.

There is no direct evidence that the English continued to worship Nerthus in Britain. Her cult survived in Scandinavia, where, however, she suffered a change of sex, for her name corresponds exactly with that of the Scandinavian god Njörthr the father of Freyr and his sister Freyja, all three being fertility gods. But evidence for the heathen religion in England is hard to come by, for our records owe their preservation to Christian writers who had no great interest in heathen religion. There are, however, hints of fertility cults, and we learn most where the writer is probably no longer aware of the original implications of the material he has happened to preserve. For example, the twenty-second letter of the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet bore the name Ing, and a poem about this alphabet contains the cryptic verse:

Ing was first seen by men among the East Danes, until he afterwards departed east over the waves; the waggon followed. Thus the Heardings named the hero.

It seems a far cry from here to the great god Freyr of Scandinavian mythology, who, in the words of the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson, "rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and over the produce of the earth as well; and it is good to call on him for fruitfulness and peace." Yet Freyr only means "lord," and the god is also called Ingunar-Freyr and Yngvi Freyr. The branch of the Germans to which the North German tribes belonged derived its name, Ingvaeones, from him. The waggon in the English poem probably refers to some cult progress like the one Tacitus describes.

An obscure reference like this to a forgotten fertility god would be insufficient to prove the continuance of fertility cults after the invaders left their continental homes and ancient sanctuaries, unless it were supported by other evidence. Some measure of support is given by the existence of a charm for ensuring the fertility of one's land, for it has been only imperfectly christianized, and includes an invocation to Erce, mother of earth. Erce is presumably the name of a goddess, and Bede tells us the names of two other goddesses, Eostre, from whom he derives the name of a spring festival which gave its name to the Christian Easter, and Hretha, of whom nothing further is known. Bede tells us also that the first night of the heathen New Year was called "the night of the mothers," but what ceremonies are implied by this name we do not know. It is hardly accidental that the boar emblem, sacred to Freyr in Scandinavian mythology, was regarded by the Anglo-Saxons as having protective powers, even though they may no longer have connected its magical efficacy with the ancient gods of peace and plenty. The emblem was placed on helmets, and one of these is described thus in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf:

as the weapon-smith made it in former days, adorned it wondrously, encompassed it with boar-figures, so that afterwards no sword or battle-blade could pierce it.

It is also to be noted that the kings of Wessex included in their genealogies a certain Scyld who is mentioned in Beowulf and has there some attributes often associated with fertility divinities, e.g. an arrival from and departure into the unknown. The corresponding name is borne in Scandinavian sources by the husband of a fertility goddess, and both English and Scandinavian traditions assign him a son whose name seems to mean "barley." It looks, therefore, as if in this figure we have another trace of an old, forgotten, fertility cult.

We are not dependent on scattered references in literature to prove the worship in England of Woden, Thunor, and Tiw, gods already known to the Germans in Tacitus's time, whom Latin writers normally equate with Mercury, Jove, and Mars respectively. These three gods have left their mark on place-names in England. Woden is a frequent first element in these names, as in Woodnesborough and Wormshill, Kent, Wednesbury and Wednesfield, Staffordshire, Wensley, Derbyshire, and the lost Wodneslawe, Bedfordshire, Wodnesbiorg, Wiltshire, Wodnesfeld, Essex, and so on. Thunor occurs in Thunderfield, Surrey, Thurstable, Essex, Thundridge, Hertfordshire, and six times — in Essex, Sussex, Surrey, and Hampshire — before a second element leah, which means a wood, or a clearing in a wood. The god Tiw was worshipped in Tysoe, Warwickshire, Tuesley, Surrey, and in the lost Tislea, Hampshire, and Tyesmere,Worcestershire.

English sources do not tell us what qualities were attributed to these gods, except once, in the case of Woden; for a charm called the Nine Herbs Charm, which says:

The snake came creeping, it tore a man to pieces; then took Woden nine glorious twigs, and struck the adder that it flew into nine parts,

for all its obscurity, agrees well with one aspect of this divinity in Scandinavian sources, as the god of knowledge, of intellectual attainment, who wards off evil from mankind by his wisdom. In England, the building of prehistoric monuments was attributed to him; his name is given to the Wansdyke, and one of his by-names to earthworks in different parts of the country called Grim's ditches. In contrast to Woden, Thunor "the Thunderer" does not figure in English literary sources, but it is to be noted that among the heathen customs that the Church as late as the eighth century was eager to suppress was the observance of the fifth day of the week in honour of Jove (i.e. Thunor).

When the English accepted Christianity, they came to regard their former gods as devils. The Christian poet who drew the contrast:

Woden wrought idols; the Almighty, that is the powerful God, the true King himself, the Saviour of souls, wrought glory, the spacious heavens,

does not suggest that the old gods had never existed. An extant charm claims to be effective against "the shot of the gods, the shot of the elves, the shot of witches." Gradually, however, they were forgotten, so that when, at the end of the tenth century, the homilist Abbot Elfric repeats the normal equation of classical and Germanic deities, he uses the Scandinavian forms of the names of the latter. Presumably the fresh influx of heathen settlers in the Viking age had made these forms more familiar to an English audience than those used in their own, long distant, heathen past.

Words denoting a heathen sanctuary of some kind occur in place-names in all areas of early settlement. Of special interest are Peper Harrow and the lost Cusanweoh, Surrey, and Patchway, Sussex, for in all three the second element (hearg, weoh) means a sanctuary, while the first is a personal name in the genitive case, so that private ownership is suggested, reminiscent of the position of the Icelandic gothi, who combined the functions of chieftain and priest. On the other hand, the old name for Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex, which means sanctuary "of the Gumenings," and the lost Besingahearh  'sanctuary of the Besings," Surrey, seem rather to refer to the holy place of a family or group. Some of these places are on hill-tops, whereas the number of place-names with heathen associations that contain a word meaning "wood" or "woodland clearing" shows that heathen sanctuaries were often in the woods, and reminds us that Tacitus speaks of sacred groves among the Germans, and that later continental and Scandinavian evidence bears out his statements.

Some of the places which were the meeting-places of the hundreds in later times have names containing heathen elements, a circumstance which implies that people continued after their conversion to Christianity to meet at the places where they had been accustomed to carry on their heathen rites. In so doing, they would be acting in accordance with instructions sent by Pope Gregory to the missionaries in 601, advocating the conversion of pagan temples into Christian churches, "in order that the people may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed." There is, however, little evidence that the missionaries went so far as to use a heathen building for a Christian church, though Canterbury tradition believed that St Pancras's church had once been King Ethelbert's idol-fane; we read rather of total destruction, as at the great temple at Goodmanham near York, after King Edwin's council had decided in favour of the Christian faith in 627, or all over Essex in 665, when Christianity had been re-established after a relapse into paganism in time of plague. This relapse may have brought it home to the men on the spot that the continued existence of heathen fanes had dangers greater than Gregory had realized. King Aldwulf of East Anglia, a contemporary of Bede, remembered having seen in his boyhood the temple in which his predecessor King Raedwald — not fully comprehending the demands of the new faith — had set up an altar to Christ beside those to his old gods. Bede's account makes it clear that this was never converted into a Christian church.

From this passage and other places we learn that heathen sanctuaries might include temples and images of the gods. Great sacrifices were held at certain seasons; a feast was held in the second month of the year at which cakes were offered to the gods, while the feast after the autumn slaughtering of the surplus cattle caused November to be known as 'sacrifice month." These sacrifices were accompanied by ceremonial feastings.

A few scattered details of heathen customs can be garnered. A priest had to observe certain taboos, not being allowed to carry weapons or to ride on anything but a mare; he was believed to be able to bind the hands of his enemies by chanting spells from a high mound. The letters of the Germanic alphabet, runes, were held to have magic powers if used in the correct arrangement; they could, for example, release a prisoner from his fetters. Veneration was paid to trees, wells, and stones, and there was a firm trust in "incantations, amulets, and other mysteries of devilish art." The Church preached for generations against these and other superstitions — against the burning of grain "for the health of the living and the house" after a death, against women who placed their daughters on a roof or in an oven to heal fever. People came to rely on Christian prayers, holy water, and the relics of saints to protect them from the evil powers with which they felt themselves surrounded, and which could be fitted into the Christian scheme of things as the monstrous offspring of Cain, from whom sprang "ogres and elves and ghouls, and giants who fought against God for a long time." Place-names afford ample evidence of the prevalent belief in such creatures, for various words for demon and goblin are common in them. The hermit St Guthlac had to fight long and earnestly against the fenland demons whom his coming had displaced. Beowulf, the greatest poem in Anglo-Saxon literature, is devoted to the freeing of human habitations from the ravages of supernatural creatures that inhabit the fens and from a dragon residing in a prehistoric burial-mound. The audience for whom the poem was composed would not have felt these themes either fantastic or trivial. The charms which kept away these evil influences were christianized, so that it is rare to find, among those that survive, an uneradicated heathen reference like the ones mentioned above.

From the fragmentary evidence for Anglo-Saxon heathenism, it is not possible to form a clear idea of the pre-Christian views of an after-life, or of the connexion between religion and ethics. Their practice of burying goods with the dead would imply some belief in a future life in which these will be of use, but if we can take at its face-value the speech Bede puts into the mouth of a pagan Northumbrian nobleman, comparing human life to the flight of a sparrow through the king's hall, "coming in from the darkness and returning to it," this belief was very indefinite, or else it failed to convince the upper classes. No one at the council is reported to have disputed the nobleman's statement. There is certainly no evidence to justify the putting back into this period of the Scandinavian conceptions in the Viking Age of a Val-halla and "a twilight of the gods."

The language used on the same occasion by Coifi, the Northumbrian high-priest, suggests that what was expected of the gods was material benefit in this life in return for the due observance of their rites, for he complains to the king:

Not one of your men has applied himself to the worship . . . of our gods more zealously than I, and nevertheless there are many who receive fuller benefits and greater dignities from you than I . . . But if the gods were any good, they would rather wish to help me, who have taken care to serve them the more assiduously.

But it must be remembered that Bede was not in a position to paint a fair picture of the heathen point of view, and it is perhaps best to leave it an open question how far the heathen English connected divine favour with obedience to an ethical code. We may be sure, however, that the breaking of oaths sworn on sacred things was considered to bring down the wrath of the gods, and we are told by Tacitus that the assemblies of the Germans were placed under divine protection, which would make a breach of their peace an act of sacrilege. One of the least Christian features of extant heroic poetry, a feature perhaps inherited from heathen times, is that men seem more concerned with the reputation they will leave behind them than with divine rewards in this world or the next. This view is expressed concisely in Beowulf:

Each of us must experience an end to life in this world; let him who can achieve glory before he die; that will be best for the lifeless warrior afterwards.

The poet's final comment on this hero — and the concluding words of the poem — is that of all men he was "the most eager for glory." The poet who wrote this was a Christian, and his hero wins his glory by virtues not incompatible with a Christian code. Yet it emphasizes the difference between this remark and a strict churchman's point of view to note that the tenth-century homilist Aelfric uses an equivalent term to explain what is meant by the deadly sin of pride.

It is often held that Anglo-Saxon poetry is permeated by a strong belief in the power of fate, inherited from heathen times, and some have even seen a conflict between a faith in an omnipotent Christian God and a trust in a blind, inexorable fate. To me, this view seems exaggerated. The word used for fate can mean simply "event," "what happens," and though there are passages where some degree of personification is present, such as "the creation of the fates changes the world under the heavens" or "woven by the decrees of fate," I doubt if these are more than figures of speech by the time the poems were composed. If they are inherited from the heathen past, they may indicate that men then believed in a goddess who wove their destiny, but the poet who says "to him the Lord granted the webs of victory" is unconscious of a heathen implication in his phrase. It would be natural enough that, even while yet heathen, the Anglo-Saxons should feel that man's destiny is outside his own control, but stronger evidence would be necessary before we could assume a belief in the fate-weaving Norns at the foot of the world-tree Yggdrasil, as described in the much later, poetic, mythology of the Scandinavians.