The archaeology of the Post Roman and Early Medieval period in Worcestershire, is typically divided into the following chronological periods;
The early 5th century to the late 7th century, which incorporates the post Roman period and development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Hwicce. Dalwood (2007, 113) notes that it is in this period that a contrast can be made in Worcestershire between an area where ‘Anglo-Saxon’ evidence is found (broadly south-east Worcestershire) and an area which can be labelled ‘British’, where the archaeological evidence is negative (broadly west and north Worcestershire). Archaeological and documentary evidence of the period is minimal.
The late 7th century to the mid-11th century, which incorporates the rise in dominance of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms Mercia and Wessex and subsequently England. Documentary evidence of the period is more plentiful but archaeological evidence is not much more extensive than for the 5th to 7th centuries (Dalwood, 2007, 113).
The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Saxon’ has habitually been used to define the population and culture of the geographical area that is now England, in-between the collapse of Roman military, economic and administrative rule, and the Norman conquest. First coined in Continental Europe in the late 8th century, the term gained popularity in the mid-19th century, to describe the waves of northern European migrants – including the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – who settled in ‘England’ from the 5th and 6th centuries.
This blanket term has been challenged in more recent years with historical interpretations of the period largely favouring the term Early Medieval to describe the broader groups of people, who were settled or who came to settle in ‘England’, their individual, group and/or inter-connected identities and much of the physical evidence they left behind. However, the term Anglo-Saxon remains in use to describe the distinctive material culture, which emerged from the mid-5th to 7th centuries, and which appears to have been introduced as a result of the migration and settlement of Northern Europeans during this period. The terms Viking and Anglo-Scandinavian are also commonly used to describe material culture of, and influenced by, Scandinavian design and/or manufacture, following the influx of raiders and migrants from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, from the 8th century AD. More recently the term Anglo-British has been coined in acknowledgement of the ‘missing’ Britons in 19th and early 20th century Anglo-Saxon studies.
Much of our understanding of the Early Medieval comes from historical accounts largely concerned with those individuals and groups with power and wealth. The potential for the archaeological record to broaden our understanding of the period is vast, although it should be noted that the archaeological record can also, at times, be more reflective of those with wealth and status. The benefit of inter-disciplinary research is well understood and although the Worcestershire Research Framework for the Early Medieval is principally concerned with archaeological research questions and objectives it is noted that a multifaceted approach to research and understanding is desirable in order to better connect and contextualize concepts across the different disciplines.
The transition from Roman Britain to Early Medieval England remains a key issue in British archaeology. Worcestershire is one of the best documented counties in England, in this period, with a significant compendium of Charters – written legal documentation including diplomas, wills and writs -, Chronicles – a collection of annals, dating from the 9th century – and narrative sources – from the churches of Worcester and Evesham, and the succession of churchmen who were great landowners, secular and religious leaders. These sources offer incidental details about secular, as well as political and religious life, landownership and land use. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People’s, written within the first third of the 8th century is also a key source from the period. This rich and voluminous documentation is reflected in the work of historians such as Hooke, Dyer, Sims-Williams, Tinti, Holt and Baker (Worcester), Cox (Evesham and the Vale) and Maddicott (Droitwich).
The historical record recognises the emergence of ‘kingdoms’, ‘provinces’ or ‘estates’ from the later 6th century, including the kingdom of the Hwicce, established in AD577 following the defeat of the native Britons by the West Saxons. The precise boundary of the kingdom of the Hwicce is uncertain although it is generally considered to be consistent with the later boundary of the Diocese of Worcester, founded in AD679–680. During the 7th century the kingdom of the Hwicce is documented as having been absorbed within the expanding kingdom of Mercia.
Following a period of dominance, the kingdom of Mercia steadily declined from the early 9th century, gradually becoming surpassed by the emerging dominant kingdom of Wessex. Viking incursions from the late 8th century led to a period of conflict and Scandinavian dominance over large parts of the east and south of the country, including the eastern part of Mercia. Ceolwulf II reigned over western Mercia, by consent of the Danes, until his death in AD879, after which he was succeeded by Æthelred II, under the overlordship of Alfred the Great of Wessex, who had defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Eddington (AD878) and who had secured his kingdom from future attacks, through a series of initiatives, including military and legal reforms and the development of the Burghal system. Alfred adopted the title Anglorum Saxonum rex or ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ as the ruler of all Anglo-Saxons not subject to Danelaw.
Alfred’s son, and successor, Edward the Elder, and daughter Æthelflæd, who had succeeded as ‘Lady of the Mercians’, following her husband’s death, further consolidated Wessex dominance in southern England by conquering the Danelaw south of the Humber.
Edward’s son Æthelstan advanced further, building strategic alliances and conquering the Viking stronghold of York in AD927 and Scotland in AD934. Building on the political and legal reforms of his grandfather Alfred the Great, and with overlordship of northern Britain, as well as Wales, Æthelstan re-imagined the political landscape into a largely single unified kingdom, becoming known as rex Anglorum ‘King of the English’ and even in some documents ‘King of all Britons’.
Following Æthelstan’s death Wessex dominance progressively collapsed in large parts of the country. Viking incursions eventually overwhelmed King Æthelred II, known as the unready, and in AD1013 King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England. Æthelred II fled to Normandy, returning briefly to rule after Sweyn’s death in AD1014. Following his death Æthelred II was briefly succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside, but he died after a few months and was replaced by Sweyn’s son Cnut, making England, once again, part of a Scandinavian empire.
The Wessex dynasty was revived with the accession of Edward the Confessor in AD1042. With no heir upon his death in AD1066, a succession struggle between several claimants ensued. Harold Godwinson was crowned but his reign was short-lived. After successfully repelling an invasion, led by rival claimant, and Cnut’s heir, Harald Hardrada, Harold was defeated and killed at the Battle of Hastings by Duke William of Normandy, William’s decisive victory once again restructuring the course of Britain’s history and culture.
Archaeology, including new and emerging scientific methods and techniques, has the potential to confirm or challenge literary and documentary sources and greatly broaden our understanding of the Early Medieval period. However, despite documentary and place name evidence revealing a period of intense activity in a closely settled and developed landscape, as noted by Hooke, in Watt [ed.] (2011), archaeological evidence of Post Roman and Early Medieval activity in Worcestershire remains frustratingly scant with many key sites discovered by chance rather than systematic analysis and/or survey. Issues include, difficulty detecting Post Roman and Early Medieval archaeology other than through intrusive fieldwork and lack of recognition of Post Roman and Early Medieval deposits, as a consequence of the low use of pottery in the period (Dalwood, 2007, 114).
The 2011 West Midlands Regional Research Framework represented the results of a resource audit, which identified the nature and extent of the archaeological resource across the region, followed by a series of seminars, period based discussion and cross-sector collaboration, which interrogated and interpreted the resource to produce period based Research Assessments, Agendas and Strategies.
In ‘The post-Roman and Early Medieval periods: a potential archaeological agenda’ Hooke describes the period as probably one of the periods least visible archaeologically and undoubtedly a period in which changes occurred that underpinned much subsequent development. Themes examined included Ethnicity, Burial, Territory and Belief and Settlements and Settlement Hierarchy.
Dalwood, in Jackson and Dalwood et al (2007) Archaeology and Aggregates in Worcestershire: A Resource Assessment and Resource Agenda, also presents a useful overview of Early Medieval/Anglo Saxon archaeology and potential avenues for research. Much of this overview remains relevant in 2022 and as such has been drawn upon during development of the online Early Medieval Research Framework for Worcestershire.
It should be noted that metal detecting, if undertaken responsibly, also has a useful role in archaeological investigation of the period, with the recovery of Early Medieval metalwork, recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, supporting better understanding of the period as well as improved identification of sites and enhanced public interest in the period.
The Early Medieval Research Framework for Worcestershire is divided into four key themes; Settlement and Landscape, Industry and Trade, Death and Burial and Religion, Christianity and the Church. Click on the section cards to view each theme.
We welcome all comments on any aspects of the research framework, sign in above and then click on the plus signs to make comment. Thank you.
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