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c700 to c1087: Chronicles and law codes


Outlining the Anglo-Saxon background: the Romans evacuated Britannia at the end of the fourth century because Rome was under threat from so-called barbarians, and the six and a half centuries until the arrival of William the Conqueror have traditionally been called the Dark Ages.   But how dark were they?   In fact, the Christian church survived and thrived in Rome, so that by the beginning of the seventh century, Christianity was re-established in south-east England and spread.


Written and presented by Robert Smith, Chairman of the Manorial Society of Great Britain - www.msgb.co.uk






Written and presented by

Robert Smith


Voice over

Barney Powell

Rebecca Cooper


Music production &

Original music

Simon Roberts

(Lyric media group)


Original film footage

Ian Phillips


Picture editor

Roberto Ekholm


Asst picture editor

Guilfre Jordan


Associate Producer

Ian Phillips



Antonio Parente


Picture sources:


Map of the Roman Empire under Augustus (31 BC – AD 14, became Emperor in 27BC). Yellow: 31BC. Dark Green 31–19 BC, Light Green 19–9 BC, Pale Green 9–6 BC. Mauve: Client states



The famous helmet found at Sutton Hoo probably belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia, who died in about 625 AD. Based on a Roman parade helmet design, it has decorations like those on contemporary Swedish helmets found at Old Uppsala.   Sutton Hoo, on the River Deben, Suffolk, has been described as 'the richest treasure from British soil.'   Now on permanent display at the British Museum -



A map of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, about 790 - http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heptarchy


The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxon_Chronicle


A scriptorium monk at work.  Monks described this labour of transcribing manuscripts as being 'like prayer and fasting, a means of correcting one's unruly passions.'[58]



Julius Caesar - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_ancient_Rome


A gathering of Anglo-Saxons - http://www.spanglefish.com/rulersofthesouthsaxons/


A page from the [C] Abingdon II text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  This entry is for 871, a year of battles between Wessex and the Vikings.



Professor Michael Swanton (University of Exeter when he published his translation of the Anglo-Saxons Chronicles, 1996)inspects medieval murals discovered in Devon, England, 2008



A representation of Julius Caesar landing in Britain in 55 BC, published 1808 -



A representation of St Bede translating the Gospel according to St John, 1902 -



Statue of Alfred the Great at Wantage, Oxfordshire -



From the Chronicle of John of Worcester, sometimes called Florence of Worcester, was a Benedictine monk; his chronicle is known as 'A History of the Kings of England' and he died in about 1140 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Worcester#mediaviewer/File:Worcester.dream.jpg


Stained glass window showing the chronicler, William of Malmesbury; the glass installed in Malmesbury church in 1928 in memory of Rev Canon C D H McMillan, Vicar of Malmesbury from 1907 to 1919.   William was a Benedictine monk, living in the first half of the 12th century; he was of mixed Norman and Saxon blood - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_of_Malmesbury 



The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England. There is nothing in the tomb beneath the sleeping efigy of the king, his relics having been lost at the Dissolution of the Monastery in 1539.   Perhaps the remains were destroyed by the Henry VIII's Commissioners or they were hidden before the Commissioners arrived to close down the Abbey. - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King.athelstan.tomb.arp.jpg


A map showing the places where the various chronicles were written, and where they are now kept. - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxon_Chronicle


Modern view of Winchester city centre from St Giles's Hill



Canterbury Cathedral - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_Canterbury


A priest writing - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuscript_culture


An illustration, made in 1868, of Augustine addressing the Saxons - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxons


A monk inspecting a sheet of parchment which he is buying from a parchment-maker - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuscript_culture


Opening folio of the code - wot code? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_%C3%86thelberht ???


Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, given a late Gothic setting in this illumination from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer, of about 1474 (Bibliothèque National, Paris); the Pope summoned the Council in southern France in 1095 to pass reforming canons (Church legislation) and to preach the First Crusade, which led to the capture of Jerusalem from the Muslims (Seljuk Turks) in 1099, and Baldwin of Flanders was crowned king the following year.   The Christians held the city until 1187 when it was re-taken for Islam by Saladin (a Kurd); and was not held again by Christians until 1918 when it was conquered by the British; the British withdrew in 1948 and Jerusalem is now the capital of the state of Israel -



A representation of Notker Balbulus (the Stammerer), author of the Acts of Charlemagne; lived about 840-912 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notker_the_Stammerer


Preaching from a medieval pulpit - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homiletics


A gathering of Anglo-Saxons - http://www.spanglefish.com/rulersofthesouthsaxons/


Cathedral of Saint-Gatian in Tours (France).



Handcuffed Briton - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Handcuffed_man.jpg


Shop entrance to Foyles in Charing Cross Road, Central London



Recent excavations at Sutton Hoo have revealed a figure that had been rolled into a shallow grave - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutton_Hoo


Tony Robinson speaking at Hyde Park, London, in 2010 -



View of the nave of St Martin's, Tours, whose most famous bishop was Gregory of Tours in the sixth century -



John White Alexander, Manuscript Book mural (1896), Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC -




Episode transcript:


The Roman background was sketched last time; now we have to start to outline the Anglo-Saxon to explain, first, how we come by our historical information.


We are lucky to have what is called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to help with the earlier history of the English.   Its authors attempted to cover more than a thousand years.   It has news from other countries, even Rome and Constantinople.  

I say Chronicle, when perhaps I mean chronicles.   The translation and edition that I have used, by Professor Michael Swanton, dates from 1996, and is titled The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.  

It is usually just called the Chronicle with a capital 'C', and it covers almost 300 years of Anglo-Saxon contemporary times - that is those events written up shortly after they happened.  

There are included many centuries of events from Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55BC.   These were lifted from earlier writers.   One of these was Bede, whom we've mentioned - much of whose early information was taken from Roman authors,  but there are others.   Bede was writing in the first third of the eight century, roughly 700 to 735. 


The Chronicle was very probably the brainchild of King Alfred the Great, who reigned for a little over the last quarter of the ninth century, from 871 to 899.   Once we reach Anglo-Saxon contemporary times, the Chronicle becomes a primary source.   Some later chronicles, law codes, charters are also primary sources.   Later histories written much more recently are known as secondary sources.  


We shall also be using chroniclers who like John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury, Roger of Wendover.   I shall identify the sources as they occur.   Some of these are particularly useful because they contain information not in the Anglo-Saxon or other chronicles.  

William of Malmesbury is extraordinarily useful, and has unique information on the 10th century Saxon kings, especially Aethelstan.   It must be that he had access to sources in his day that have since been lost.   It must also be that there is much more lost than has survived.   So William of Malmesbury is both a primary and a secondary source.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was not compiled in one place, but was a series of writings, or annals of events by different scribes arranged chronologically by year.   It is fairly terse.   There are five main manuscripts, named after the religious institutions where they were compiled.   These are: Winchester, Canterbury, Peterborough, Worcester, and Abingdon.  

Professor Swanton tells us that he entitled his edition of the Chronicle in the plural because there are five editorial centres.   It appears that there were attempts at some kind of central editing, perhaps at Canterbury or at Winchester.  

The five houses seem to have made copies which were circulated among themselves and probably sent to others.   Each centre also has information special to its own area, not found in the other four versions.


There are some contemporary biographies and hagiographies, best known being the life of King Alfred by his friend and associate, Bishop Asser, a Welshman.


Perhaps dating from the early seventh century, English rulers probably disseminated their laws to religious foundations for local use, while possibly keeping a kind of central chancery of dooms, grants of lands and privileges, records of meetings of the great when England was a collection of chieftainships, or kingdoms in embryo.  

These chieftains, or kings, were shown the importance of written law and other state records by Christian priests sent from Rome, and later by English monks and priests, and we shall meet many of these characters as our story unfolds.  


What is also important is to understand that there was no written Anglo-Saxon language until the arrival of Christian missionaries in Kent, who used the Roman or Latin alphabet to render Anglo-Saxon words visually onto paper, or onto specially treated animal skins known as parchment.  

Of final importance is that priests and monks were literate, educated - the only group of people who were - and this would make them indispensable to the functioning of the early rudimentary governments.


While all of the originals of the Chronicle, the first law codes - including the earliest one known from Kent - and similar records are lost, some survived long enough to be copied out generations afterwards by monks, particularly in the 11th and 12th centuries, which is how we have the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Laws of Aethelberht of Kent in about 610, and of later rulers.  

There are some letters, mostly between priests and monks; but also between kings; records of conventions, known as councils or synods of the Church which shed light.


We shall also have resort to foreign chronicles, letters, and other documents that give us a view of Britain from abroad.   One such will be Notker the Stammerer who today, I suppose, would have to be known as Notker the Orally Challenged.   On the other side of the Channel, Frankish kings had a similar kind of history as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, known as The Royal Annals.


The moment law was written down and copies of it circulated to other Church centres - monasteries, abbeys - and even though the laity were illiterate, the law could be made known to them and interpreted for them in church.   There was no excuse, therefore, for anyone - certainly, anyone of importance - to claim as a defence, ignorance of the law.  

This is encapsulated in the Latin expression, ignorantia juris neminem excusat, which still of the greatest legal moment to this day.   Writing down law also meant that law-givers had to think about what was illegal - the implications of crime and their response to it.  

This is the philosophy of the law, what we call jurisprudence.   Not even the Anglo-Saxon law-giver was above the law, and laws seem usually to have been promulgated at national meetings of the elite at least.   Sometimes, so many people attended that these meetings were held outside.   We shall attend, as it were, some of them.   Very broadly, English law defines what is illegal, not what is legal.  


In France which, in 600, was known as the kingdom of the Franks, we shall encounter some of their rulers, bishops, noblemen because political, religious, commercial, social, cultural intercourse between the Frankish and British kingdoms was wide-ranging.  

The Frankish language was also rendered into written form under the tutelage of the Church a few decades earlier than in Anglo-Saxon Kent, where the Church obtained its first English foothold.  

But law took a different course in one very important respect in the later kingdom of France - French law-givers told the people what was legal, as they continue to tell the people.  

This may seem no more than a play on words, a rose by another name, but the difference is crucial when you think about it.   If English law is silent on an activity, carrying out that activity is legal.   If French law is silent on an activity, then the activity is illegal.  

Law that emanates from the European Union follows the French model.   This is known as corpus juris and is - hardly noticed by anyone - superseding English law.   But you may have heard of British folk being carted off to Bucharest or Warsaw, on an arrest warrant from Romania or Poland, to face charges for activities that break no laws in Britain.


History depends on the sources, and law is the fundamental pillar of our knowledge because it gives us an insight into men's thinking on matters of right and wrong, the eternal question, which Christianity - all the religions the world over - claim to answer.


At the very end of this history, I shall give a list of some of these primary sources which are available in modern English texts, as also a list of recent histories by our most eminent medievalists, and other histories I've consulted.  

I've been able to check facts in a number of very useful historical dictionaries, such as of people of the ancient or classical world, Greek mythology, of saints of the Church, popes, of other religions, especially Islam.   Islam bore heavily on Christendom for much of our period and might even have overwhelmed it.  

At the end, I shall also give the name of the author, the title of the book, by whom published, where and at what date, which you will be able to print off on your PC in case you want to do further reading.  

Many of the books are in print and can be ordered from your bookshop or on Amazon.   Others will need a good central library in your city, state, or province; and a few will require one of the national libraries.


The pictures we are looking at will also be listed at the end in the order they appeared.   Each image with be briefly described and its location given in case you want to see it in situ.


This series is also building up into a library, so if you came in on this fourth episode, and would like to watch the first three, you can go to the library and run the ones you missed.


I must also mention archaeology.   Very high training today in archaeological disciplines - the coming together of experts from different historical backgrounds - new scientific processes are enabling archaeologists to produce information that just wasn't diggable-uppable, even 30 years ago.  

As I watch the excellent Time Team archaeological programmes of Tony Robinson's on British television's Channel 4, historical understanding seems to be increasing before my eyes.   And historiography - how we view and interpret the past - is like a continuous revolution in knowledge.  

The documents are very scanty for our period and archaeology is filling some of the gaps, or modifying our earlier understanding.   I dare say that some of what I have to say will be out of date by the time I get to end.


Finally, as we've said, the contemporary chronicles, and those a century or so later are almost entirely written by the clergy.   They are, therefore, advertisements for Christianity.   In reaching for an interpretation of events more than a thousand years ago, we need, in a way, to read between the lines.  

This is not so hard because, in our daily lives, we are all used to newspapers, television, and other reports - from the United Nations to our local town government - writing about things from their perspective, or slant.   We cannot see reality directly and there is no such thing as the 'whole truth.'  

The reason that fantasies and even outright lies are believed is because they are comforting.   All any reasonable person can do is to interpret the facts with a good heart.


The next episode will reveal the Saxon scholar-king who decided that a national narrative was wanted, which is now known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain



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