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] in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and how to read Beowulf in its proper form, 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 was never the scholar Ralph was (all mistakes are all mine) but thanks to his fascinating and wise lessons years ago, I know some 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 some key OE readings. (There are only about 10,000 words of Old English extant—give some of them a go!)

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]

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.

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 online ‘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.

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 way beyond Wessex his home. 

In his 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 use Latin? By the 9th century when the AS Chronicle was made, spoken Latin was apparently 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 (yes and all Englishwomen) to read in their own language, including translations from Latin. He commissioned a history of Wessex from a monk. It was a ‘book of events and laws’ that 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.

Scholars such as G.N. Garmonsway have pointed out that English was the only vernacular except Irish to be used for historical purposes 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. 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’.

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]

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’.  

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 it 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]

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! 

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 Aussies 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. 

For example, Mulvey also observes that most English history books begin with William I, as the first of  England’s kings and also notes that some 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. 


Here are excerpts from one of my children’s books, Kings and Queens.  First published in 1932, my copy is from 1957 although it didn’t make it its way to me until the seventies. 

I like the brief witty tales from William the Conqueror to QE II that are designed to jog a child’s memory. Such as 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.

As mentioned earlier, there was also once a popular children’s story from the 12th century about Alfred when he was sheltered by a West Saxon peasant who, unaware who KA was, left him to watch the cakes she had 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 had surrendered or escaped. 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 young man. Deep in thought about his kingdom’s troubles, he let the cakes burn by mistake. Alfred was taken to task by the peasant woman when she got back but on realising who he was she  apologised. Whereupon Alfred apologised profusely too. Because apparently that was the kind of bloke he was.

As a final modern aside, the historian Christopher 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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