Anglo Saxon England Education

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; trawthe [truth] in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and how to read Beowulf in the original Anglo Saxon, and much else again.

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]

I am not the scholar that Ralph was (mistakes are all mine) but thanks to his fascinating and wise classes years ago, I recall a few sections of a dusty road on ðone weg, ðe scýt ofer ða dí [to the way, that leads over the ditch]. 

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]

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 will be to recollect and muse on some of Alfred’s works and ideas of startling modernity. The Venerable Bede may also get a write up and Caedmon could sing out from his shed.

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] 

In a 2013 speech entitled The First King’s English: Alfred The Language Maker, historian Christopher Mulvey reminds us that in the 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.

So why not use 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 all Englishmen (and yes, all Englishwomen) to read in their own language, including translations from Latin. He commissioned a history of Wessex from a monk that was a ‘book of events and laws’ which developed over time and is now known as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest known history of England in the English language.

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

See my BÓC-HORD list for links to a few Anglo Saxon (Old English) texts readings. (There are only ~10,000 words extant—give some of them a go!)

Scholars such as G.N. Garmonsway have pointed out that English was the only vernacular (except Irish) to be used for historical purposes in NW Europe during the (so-called) 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. R. W. Chambers finds that 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’.  

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’.

The spelling system–a modified Latin alphabet with four extra characters æ or ę, edh, ƥ, and wen–was then brutalised post-1066, by French, Latin, and other foreign spelling systems and a millennium of ‘sound change and meddling’.  

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]

Norman French took over from Alfred’s West Saxon English. Three hundred years later, once the kings of England spoke English again, historian Christopher Mulvey says what they spoke was now London English—Mercian English—that they spoke. 

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 Anglo Saxons are now forgotten by most, romanticised by a few and confused with Vikings by yet 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.

There is a children’s story told since the 12th c. about King Alfred. It concerns how he was sheltered by a West Saxon peasant who (unaware who he was) asked him to watch cakes she was cooking on her fire. In the year 878, the Danes had seized a town ‘in a lightning strike’ as a base from which to besiege Wessex. Most locals surrendered or escaped. With his royal bodyguard, a small army and his ally, the local earldorman, Alfred withdrew to the Somerset marshes in which he had hunted as a young man.

Deep in thought about the kingdom’s fate, Alfred let the cakes burn. He was taken to task by the peasant woman when she got back. On realising who he was, she apologised but then Alfred apologised profusely too. Because that was the kind of good bloke he was.

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 finds most English history books begin [incorrectly] with William I, as the first of  England’s kings. Interestingly, he also says that many scholars believe a Saxon child in King Alfred’s day would have found it easier to learn to read than an English child in Queen Elizabeth’s day.

For fun, here are a few excerpts from the children’s book, Kings and Queens.  First published in 1932, my copy is dated 1957 although it didn’t get passed down to us kids until many years later.

I like all its witty poems on William the Conqueror to QE II that are designed to jog a child’s memory.

One tale is about King William II, whose goose was squarely cooked at a Michaelmas hunt one day in 1087. It seems no one that fateful day knew if an archer named Tyrrel mistook a red head for a king or a squirrel.

Or the one about poor Henry III.

Finally, Mulvey notes the 17th c. wave of West Country (i.e. from Wessex etc.) migration to Virginia in the New World. Apparently by the 1770s, travellers from northern colonies knew that Virginians already had their own idiom.

Mulvey says that virtually ‘all peculiarities of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation which have been noted as typical of Virginia’ had been recorded in the counties of King Alfred’s Kingdom of Wessex. And thus, West Saxon English gradually 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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