The bloody, violent, marauding Anglo-Saxons fill the slot in British history between the fall of Rome and the Norman Conquest. Today, this period is known as the Dark Ages, an anachronism that comes not from the slaughter of the time but from the fact that we know so little about it. Few scraps of books have survived down to the present day.
In many ways, the Saxons are still with us, at least in county names such as Essex (East Saxons), Middlesex (Middle Saxons), and Sussex (South Saxons). Nevertheless, most of their buildings have now disappeared. This is partly because the Saxons built primarily in wood, which has slowly decayed away.
There is one building which retains part of the Saxon carpentry, which is Greensted Church in Essex, where there are still fragments of the original oak structure:
Another small chapel stands in the town of Bradford-on-Avon, not far from the railway station:
This church is important because it is a free-standing Saxon monument, like Escomb Church in County Durham. Many of the other churches labelled “Saxon” have been augmented or altered in later times. Often, the only Saxon bit remaining is the church tower. One spectacular example is All Saint’s Church, in Earl’s Barton, Northamptonshire. Its 10th century tower is one of the finest:
England’s most famous university towns each have one church retaining a Saxon tower. Cambridge has St Bene’t's Church, near Corpus Christi College. Of similar date (early 11th century) is the tower in Cornmarket Street in the centre of Oxford.
Just round the corner from the Oxford tower, lies the Ashmolean Museum, where you can see the Alfred Jewel, one of the finest extant examples of Anglo-Saxon art. This beautiful piece of gold jewellery was dug up in a field in 1693. Bearing the legend “Aelfred mec hewt gewyrcan” (“Alfred had me made”) it is almost certain to have been manufactured on the orders of King Alfred the Great (877-891). Elsewhere in the same museum, which is free, is the Minster Lovell Jewel, of similar style and workmanship.
The very greatest remains to come down to us from the Anglo-Saxon era are the findings from Sutton Hoo. This was a Saxon burial mound (a barrow) excavated on the eve of the Second World War. Within were found the decayed frame of a boat and a number of grave goods befitting the burial of a king. What is particularly exciting about this site is the age of the artefacts. Most of the buildings above come from the late Saxon period, but the Sutton Hoo burial is believed to have taken place around the early seventh century. In other words, the age difference between Oxford’s Saxon tower and the Sutton Hoo burial is the same as the gap between the present day and the time of the Great Fire of London (1666).
Among the goods found in the burial, the most iconic is the helmet, along with an elegantly worked belt buckle, also of gold. These are on permanent display at the British Museum in London (free).
However, true believers can also visit the site of the original Sutton Hoo barrow, near the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk. It is an eerie, misty place, close to a chill estuary that trickles down to the sea. There is a visitor centre there which has some of the discoveries on display. It’s well worth a day out if you are in the area.
Returning to London, the British Museum is the global centre of Anglo-Saxon artefacts today. Visitors to the museum can view the whalebone Franks Casket (8th century AD) as well as the silver Fuller Brooch (9th century AD).
To modern eyes, Anglo-Saxon jewellery is confusing and cluttered. It often takes an expert to pick out the forms of intertwined animals like wild boar or snakes.
Surprisingly, these artworks were just as confusing for the Anglo-Saxons themselves. This is because Anglo-Saxons loved riddles. One of the most famous books to come down to us is the Exeter Book (c. 960AD), which contains almost a hundred of them. J.R.R. Tolkein was inspired by these fragments to compose the chapter Riddles in the Dark in The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins plays a game of riddles with Gollum. The unfortunate hobbit’s life stands forfeit should he lose.
Just as they loved riddles in speech, so the Anglo-Saxons loved riddles in art. This is why their jewellery and carvings are so hard for us to puzzle out today. They were designed to be a kind of crossword in metal.
Tolkein fans in the North of England should also take time to visit the Cumbrian village of Bewcastle. There, still standing in a churchyard, is an Anglo-Saxon cross bearing inscriptions in runes, as used by the dwarves in The Lord of the Rings:
Tolkein grew up in Birmingham, once part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In the Dark Ages, Mercia stretched over the English Midands, so it is fitting that the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery now has an Anglo-Saxon horde to call its own. Along with the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in nearby Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham has become the home of the Staffordshire Horde. Found near the town of Hammerwich in 2009, the horde is made up of thousands of artefacts which will change our understanding of this distant society.
The discovery of the Staffordshire Horde shows that Anglo-Saxon history is not yet a closed book. There must lie more of their treasures buried somewhere in England, a further legacy of that warlike and troubled time.