Anglo Saxon England

Stilly byht-blog*


 Min bearwe is æla ful (My basket is full of eels) 
9th century West Saxon

A corner (byht) of this blog is dedicated to the memory of the late Professor Ralph Elliott. Years ago, Ralph taught me about stillnesse [quietude] in the time of King Alfred and the trawthe [truth] inSir Gawain and the Green Knight, and how to read Beowulf in its proper form and much else again.

I was never the scholar he was (any mistakes are all mine) but thanks to his fascinating and wise lessons all those years ago, I know sections of a dusty road on ðone weg, ðe scýt ofer ða dí [to the way, that leads over the ditch]. See the BÓC-HORD page for OE readings. (There are only about 10,000 words of Old English extant—give some of them a go!)

She is not any common Earth,
Water or Wood or Air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare.[1]

And see you, after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place,
When Caesar sailed from Gaul![2]

The Angles, Jutes, Frisians and Danes were Germanic peoples from Europe’s NW coast who settled in Britain as early as 200 BC but mainly got there in the 5th to 9th centuries after Rome, having had its moment, withdrew. The Gauls (or Celts in what is France today), had apparently been communicating with British Celts since the Romans arrived in 54 BC.

Then Julius Fabricius died as even Prefects do,
And after certain centuries, Imperial Rome died too.
Then did robbers enter Britain from across the Northern main 
And our Lower River-field was won by Ogier the Dane.[3]

Standing across the ditch of time is the greatest King of England—King Alfred, of the burnt cakes (see below). One of my burnt offerings online will be to recollect and muse on some of his works and ideas of startling modernity. The Venerable Bede may get a write up, and Caedmon may sing out from his shed.

See you the windy levels spread
About the gates of Rye?
O that was where the Northmen fled,
When Alfred’s ships came by![4]

Alfred (849 – 899 AD) was the quintessential warrior-king who strove not only in battle but in scholarship, which led to his early writings spreading beyond Wessex his home. 

In a speech in 2013 entitled The First King’s English: Alfred The Language Maker, Christopher Mulvey reminds us that in a copy of The Pastoral Care sent to the Bishop at Worcester, King Alfred wrote, It seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we also should translate certain books which are most necessary for all men to know into the language that we can all understand.

Why not into Latin? By the 9th century, when the Chronicle was made, spoken Latin was almost non-existent such that King Alfred said learning had so utterly fallen away that there were very few ..who could understand their mass-books in English, or translate even a letter from Latin into English…so few of them were there that I cannot remember even a single one south of the Thames.

Alfred wanted Englishmen (and yes, Englishwomen) to read in their own language including translations from Latin. He commissioned a history of Wessex from a monk. A ‘book of events and laws’ that is known as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest known history of England in the English language.

West Saxon was Alfred’s dialect. West Saxon vocabulary and grammar were of Germanic origin while modern English is mostly Italic (of Latin origin) so it is now easier to understand Chaucer than Alfred.

Scholars like G.N. Garmonsway have pointed out that English was the only vernacular language except Irish to be used for historical purpose in North-West Europe during the Dark Ages. The Irish annals and one early Russian chronicle (of Nestor) were the only other histories to use their native tongues in all of Europe before 1200.

To make the new Ænglisc letters, monks used the Germanic runic alphabet and did a pretty terrific job. A hundred years later, says linguist David Crystal, was ‘the rise of the West Saxon dialect as the literary language’ and ‘by the year 1000 it had achieved the status of a scribal standard, used throughout the country’.

Ogier died. His sons grew English—Anglo-Saxon was their name— 
Till out of blossomed Normandy another pirate came;
For Duke William conquered England and divided with his men,
And our Lower River-field he gave to William of Warenne[5]

See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke,
On the day that Harold died![6]

The spelling system– a modified Latin alphabet with four extra characters æ or ę, edh, ƥ, and wen–was brutalised post-1066, by French, Latin, and other foreign spelling systems and a millennium of ‘sound change and meddling’.  Norman French took over from Alfred’s West Saxon English. Then three hundred years later when the kings of England spoke English again, Christopher Mulvey says it was now London English—Mercian English—that they spoke. 

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn—
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born! 

Mulvey observes that most English history books begin with William I, as the first of the English kings and he also notes that some scholars believe a Saxon child in King Alfred’s day probably found it easier to learn to read than an English child in Queen Elizabeth’s day. (See example, below).

The Anglo Saxons are forgotten now by most of us, romanticised by a few and confused with Vikings by others. From Old England—Wessex in particular—and Middle England too, come ideas we’ve forgotten, no longer care for, or perhaps take for granted. Most Australians have probably heard of Beowulf, maybe flocked to a movie about it, but no one  reads it. And that’s the most famous OE text in modern terms. OE poetry and prose has long passed from our wider cultural memory, and as a result hairline cracks [cýnan] appear in the load-bearing walls under the platform of our Western civilisation. 

R. W. Chambers might have agreed since he said historians ‘insist that English literature was dead at the time of the Conquest, yet as long as there is any Chronicle at all, they cannot get on without its telling phrases’.  


Here are some excerpts from one of my children’s books, Kings and Queens, from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II.  First published in 1932, my copy is from 1957 although I don’t think it made its way to me until the seventies.

I like the brief witty tales designed to jog a child’s memory. Like the story of King William II, whose goose was squarely cooked at a Michaelmas hunt one day in 1087. It seems that fateful day no one quite knew if an archer named Tyrrel mistook his red head for a king or a squirrel. Or the one about poor Henry III.

There was also once a popular children’s story from the 12th century about Alfred being sheltered by a West Saxon peasant woman who, unaware who he was, left him to watch cakes she had cooking on her fire. In 878, the Danes had seized a town ‘in a lightning strike’ using it as a base from which to besiege Wessex. Most locals surrendered or escaped and those West Saxons left were doing hit and run attacks, seizing what and when they could. With only his royal bodyguard, a small army and ally, the earldorman of Somerset, Alfred withdrew to Somerset’s marshes in which he had hunted as a youth. Deep in thought about his kingdom’s troubles, he let the cakes burn by mistake. Alfred was taken to task by the woman when she got back but realising who he was she then apologised. Alfred apologised profusely too,  because apparently that was the kind of bloke he was.


As a final interesting aside, the historian Mulvey remarks on the wave in the 17th c. of West Country migration to Virginia in the New World. By the 1770s, travellers from the northern colonies had apparently discovered that Virginians already had an idiom all of their own.

He adds that scholars find virtually ‘all peculiarities of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation which have been noted as typical of Virginia’ have been recorded in the counties of King Alfred’s Kingdom of Wessex. West Saxon English evolved into West Country English, and West Country English into American Southern English.





* A quiet blog corner.

[1] Puck of Pook’s Hill. Ch. 1: Weland’s sword. Puck’s Song, by Rudyard Kipling.
[2] Puck’s Song.
[3] The Land by Rudyard Kipling.
[4] Puck’s Song.
[5] The Land by Rudyard Kipling.
[6] Puck’s Song.
[7] Puck’s Song.

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