LIFE IN ANGLO SAXON TIMES
By Tim Lambert
Anglo Saxon Society
Everyday life in Anglo Saxon England was hard and rough even for the rich. Society was divided into three classes. At the top were the thanes, the Anglo Saxon upper class. They enjoyed hunting and feasting and they were expected to give their followers gifts like weapons. Below them were the churls. Some churls were reasonably well off. Others were very poor. However at least they were free. Below them were a class of slaves called thralls. Their lives were very hard.
Some churls owned their own land but many 'rented' land from a thane. They 'paid rent' by working on the thane's land for part of the week and by giving him part of their crops.
In early Anglo Saxon Times England was a very different place from what it is today. It was covered by forest. Wolves prowled in them and they were a danger to domestic animals. The human population was very small. There were perhaps one million people in England at that time. Almost all of them lived in tiny villages - many had less than 100 inhabitants. Each village was mainly self sufficient. The people needed only a few things from outside like salt and iron. They grew their own food and made their own clothes.
By the 11th century things had changed somewhat. The great majority of people still lived in the countryside but a significant minority (about 10%) lived in towns. Many new towns had been created and trade was flourishing. England had grown into a stable, civilised state with an efficient system of local government. In the monasteries learning and the arts flourished.
The Anglo Saxons also gave us most English place names. Saxon place name endings include: ham, a village or estate, tun (usually changed to ton), a farm or estate, hurst, a wooded hill and bury, which is derived from the Saxon word burh, meaning fortress or fortified settlement. The Anglo Saxons called groups of Roman buildings a caester. In time that world evolved into the place name ending chester, caster or cester.
A Saxon church in Chichester
Kinship (family ties) were very important in Anglo Saxon society. If you were killed your relatives would avenge you. If one of your relatives was killed you were expected to avenge them. However the law did provide an alternative. If you killed or injured somebody you could pay them or their family compensation. The money paid was called wergild and it varied according to a persons rank. The wergild for killing a thane was much more than that for killing a churl. Thralls or slaves had no wergild. If the wergild was not paid the relatives were entitled to seek revenge.
At first Anglo Saxon society was relatively free. There were some slaves but the basis of society was the free peasant. However in time Anglo Saxon churls began to lose their freedom. They became increasingly dependent on their Lords and under their control.
Anglo Saxon Farmers
The vast majority of Anglo Saxons made their living from farming. Up to 8 oxen pulled ploughs and fields were divided into 2 or sometimes 3 huge strips. One strip was ploughed and sown with crops while the other was left fallow.
The Anglo Saxons grew crops of wheat, barley and rye. They also grew peas, cabbages, parsnips, carrots and celery. They also ate fruit such as apples, blackberries, raspberries and sloes. They raised herds of goats, cattle and pigs and flocks of sheep.
However farming in Anglo Saxon Times was very primitive. Farmers could not grow enough food to keep many of their animals through the winter so as winter approached most of them had to be slaughtered and the meat salted. The Saxons were subsistence farmers. (Farmers grew enough to feed themselves and their families and very little else). At times during the Saxon Era there were terrible famines in England when poor people starved to death.
The history of farming
Some Anglo Saxons were craftsmen. They were blacksmiths, bronze smiths and potters. At first Anglo Saxon potters made vessels by hand but in the 7th century the potters wheel was introduced). Other craftsmen made things like combs from bone and antler or horn. There were also many leather workers and Anglo Saxon craftsmen also made elaborate jewellery for the rich.
Anglo Saxon Homes
The Anglo Saxons lived in wooden huts with thatched roofs. Usually there was only one room shared by everybody. (Poor people shared their huts with animals divided from them by a screen. During the winter the animals body heat helped keep the hut warm). Thanes and their followers slept on beds but the poorest people slept on the floor.
There were no panes of glass in windows, even in a Thane's hall and there were no chimneys. Floors were of earth or sometimes there were dug out and had wooden floorboards placed over them. There were no carpets.
Rich people used candles but they were too expensive for the poor. Instead poor Anglo Saxons used rush lights (rushes dipped in animal fat).
Anglo Saxon toilets were just pits dug in the ground surrounded by walls of wattle (strips of wood woven together). The seat was a piece of wood with a hole in it.
The history of English homes
Anglo Saxon Food
Anglo Saxon women ground grain, baked bread and brewed beer. Another Saxon drink was mead, made from fermented honey. (Honey was very important to the Saxons as there was no sugar for sweetening food. Bees were kept in every village). Upper class Anglo Saxons sometimes drank wine. The women cooked in iron cauldrons over open fires or in pottery vessels. They also made butter and cheese. Saxons ate from wooden bowls. There were no forks only knives and wooden spoons. Cups were made from cow horn.
The Anglo Saxons were fond of meat and fish. However meat was a luxury and only the rich could eat it frequently. The ordinary people usually ate a dreary diet of bread, cheese and eggs. They ate not just chickens eggs but eggs from ducks, geese and wild birds.
The history of food
The history of drinks
Anglo Saxon Clothes
Anglo Saxon men wore a shirt and tunic. They wore trouser like garments called breeches. Sometimes they extended to the ankle but sometimes they were shorts. Men might wear wool leggings held in place by leather garters. They wore cloaks held in place by brooches. Anglo Saxon women wore a long linen garment with a long tunic over it. They also wore mantles. Both men and women used combs made of bone or antler.
The history of clothes
Anglo Saxon Weapons
In battle thanes wore chain mail. Ordinary Anglo Saxons just wore an iron helmet and held a round wooden shield. They fought with spears, swords and battleaxes. The usual Anglo Saxon tactic was to form a 'shield wall' by standing side by side holding their shields in a line. The shield wall was a very effective tactic. The Anglo Saxons only lost the battle of Hastings because some of them broke formation.
Rich Anglo Saxons
Rich people's houses were rough, crowded and uncomfortable. Even a Thane's hall was really just a large wooden hut although it was usually hung with rich tapestries. Thanes also like to show off any gold they owned. Any furniture must have been simple and heavy such as wooden chests.
However at least the rich Anglo Saxons ate well. In the evenings they feasted and drank. During the day the main pastime of the rich was hunting. Rich Anglo Saxons kept falcons. In the evenings apart from feasting they enjoyed storytelling, riddles and games like chess. After feasts minstrels or gleemen entertained the lord and his men by playing the harp and singing.
Anglo Saxon Towns
At first the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were farming people and they had no need for towns. However in time trade slowly increased and some towns appeared. By the mid-7th century the Saxons were minting silver coins. In Anglo Saxon times a new town of London emerged outside the walls of the old Roman town. Some towns were created deliberately. King Ine founded Southampton at the end of the 7th Century. Other towns grew up at Hereford, Ipswich, Norwich and Bristol. In the late 9th century and early 10th century Saxon kings created fortified settlements called burhs. These were more than just forts. They were also flourishing little market towns. Examples include Winchester, the capital of England. In the towns craftsmen worked with iron, leather, bone and wood. Little wooden ships sailed to and from the Saxon ports. The main export from Saxon England was wool. Slaves were also exported.
Hamtun Street in Southampton recalls the Saxon name of the settlement
Nevertheless all these towns were very small by modern standards. In 1086 the population of London was only 16,000-18,000 and a large town like Lincoln only had 5,000 inhabitants. A medium sized town like Colchester had about 2,500 inhabitants. Many towns were smaller.
The old Roman towns fell into decay and Roman roads became overgrown. Travel was slow and dangerous in Anglo Saxon times and most people only travelled if it was unavoidable. If possible people travelled by water along the coast or along rivers.
The history of English towns
A history of Saxon England
Life in the Middle Ages
Life in the 16th Century
Life in Roman Britain
Last revised 2012