Friday, 20 July 2012

Late Anglo-Saxon period: Ethelred to Harold

As we move closer to the late Anglo-Saxon period, ie about 300 years after Alfred the Great's death, we get to know the decline of the Saxon rule in England in the way they were less ready to fight the Vikings than before.  One particular king, Ethelred, seemed to have been gone down particularly bad in history, by being called "The Unready", although historians are divided whether that is an accurate translation of the Saxon title Ethelred was given.  Some historians think he should be more accurately called "The Ill-advised", given the circumstances surrounding his rule.

We went to another Saxon encampment (Tiger just can't get enough of reenactments) where they were recreating the year 1012AD.  We attended the court of Ethelred where we witnessed how crime and punishment were administered in three different cases: (1) a theft, (2) bearing a child out of wedlock, and (3) a neighbourly dispute.


We had a lot of time to look around the encampment, to talk and listen to the reenactors about their roles, their displays, and the period in which they are 'living' in.

Minting Saxon coins out of pewter.
There was a children's vike where they were "trained" to fight against the adults, after a few simple rules and instructions.  Naturally, the battle was over in a few minutes with all the adult warriors being unceremoniously defeated.

After a short rest, the adult warriors showed their true prowess by having a weaponry and combat display, which Tiger watched with much enthusiasm.

The finale was a huge battle between the Saxons and the Vikings, although you would not be able to tell who was who from the photographs, since their armour and helmets were so similar.

The turbulent late Saxon period finally came to an end with King Harold losing the kingdom to William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings, the reenactment of which we attended at the actual site last October.  We have studied this event so many times before that it needs no further work, apart from the very glaring error we found in SOTW2 that really bothered us, which we feel we must point out here: we have never heard of King Harold being called "Harold the Unfortunate" by anyone in England, and there definitely isn't an inscription of this kind on his tombstone, see evidence below:

King Harold's tombstone at Waltham Abbey
A stone plaque at Battle that marks the spot where King Harold fell.
I think many English still regard King Harold as a tragic hero rather than simply an unfortunate king who happened to lose a decisive battle.  The circumstances surrounding the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings are much more complex than how SOTW2 has depicted them.  The way SOTW2 has oversimplified (and errorneously reported) events that we happen to be very familiar with makes us question the credibility of the book.  It is nonetheless useful for Tiger to acquire a healthy sense of skepticism to information presented by "popular textbooks" and "experts".

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Middle Anglo-Saxon period: Alfred the Great

The Viking and mid-to-late Saxon periods in British History overlapped much.  It has been an interesting experience to revisit this period again, now that Tiger is able to identify much discrepancies in the "facts" presented by the various information sources that we are consulting in our study.  For example, we have been spotting and discussing quite a few not-so-accurate parts in the SOTW2 version of British History, which has been very useful for Tiger to understand an authentic study of history requires comparison of different interpretations, inquiry, research, critical assessment, and continual questioning of what we think we knew.  I am very pleased that we are able to enter into such discussions, which is only possible due to the wide exposure to different information sources as well as Tiger's strong interest in history.

The turbulent middle period of the Anglo-Saxons (around 800 AD) was plagued by frequent Viking invasions as well as internal tribal conflicts.  We started with books and articles in history magazines:

We attended a lecture held at an university about warfare, medicine and development of the modern English language from the Saxon language which intermingled with the Old Norse language and finally developed into Old English.

The greatest English king of all, and the only one to be called "The Great", was Alfred of Wessex.  We learnt about him from various folklores about King Alfred's Cakes (a type of fungus), and from various documentaries, most notably an old documentary from Michael Wood.  We also found a more recent and generic but detailed introduction to the Saxon period by David Starkey to be very useful:

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Early Anglo-Saxon period: Sutton Hoo

The discovery of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial marked the earliest archaeological evidence of early Anglo-Saxon time in Britain.  Most people in Britain would have heard of or seen the famous Sutton Hoo helmet in the British Museum:

We read up on the helmet, and listened to the accompanying podcast.  What we learned was so fascinating that we decided to visit the actual burial site.

At Sutton Hoo, we went on two site tours: the first was a children's tour,which was shorter than the full adult tour and which also left out the grisly bits of Anglo Saxon brutality and focused more on child-friendly activities.

A few of the River Deben.
Burial Mound 2.
One of the children's activities on the tour was having the children estimate the size of the buried ship by counting the number of paces they needed to take from one place to another.

We learned a whole load more from the adult tour led by a working archaeologist, as it went into details about Anglo Saxon life, especially their burial methods, as derived from archaeological evidence gathered from the site.  For example, we saw many recovered burial locations, making Sutton Hoo essentially an enormous burial ground:

One of the unusual and significant burial sites is shown below, of two burial holes laid side-by-side, of a young warrior and his horse (both suspected to have died together in battle):

The archaeologists left the "body" of an Anglo Saxon man in the position he was found in, and explained to us (through pointing out the body position, wounds to the body) how that man had probably been an outcast or criminal condemned to death and thrown into a shallow pit after a particularly gruesome execution:

The following clip gives a good summary of the site and is a snippet of the site tour that we went on:

A Saxon encampment was on site to demonstrate day-to-day life, tools, weapons, and warfare:

Tiger took part in a children's warrior training session where the children were taught important warrior techniques such as how to hold their swords and shields, how to charge at their enemy, and how to maintain a shield wall.

When they were ready, all the warriors put their skills to go use by raiding the....

tea shop!  My young Saxon raider came back with a fairy cake.  Not bad for a first-time raider!

We then spent a good few hours in the exhibition hall, which I thought was superb.  Among the exhibits of gold coins, treasures, Saxon costumes, Saxon life and customs, the most amazing one was a recreation of the Raedwald's burial chamber:

Some examples from the amazing exhibition:

The discovery of Raedwald's burial goods changed people's view of the Anglo-Saxons being a barbaric tribe.

The intricacies of their jewellery and ornaments showed superior craftsmanship and much influence from Scandinavia, perhaps through trading with the Scandianvians in what we believe to be a more peaceful time as compared to the numerous conflicts with the Vikings 200 years later. The beauty and complexity of the Saxon treasures we saw at Sutton Hoo made us want to learn more about their art and culture, so we watched the following to get a better idea:

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