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The World of Saxon England

History of Britain, The World of Saxon England. Despite all the intrigues and killings at court, life in the Saxon countryside went on quietly and industriously. A village was still composed of small huts-each about six metres long-with the floors sunk beneath the ground. Heavy ploughs drawn by teams of oxen were used for turning over the soil: for harvesting, scythes were employed.

The towns were centres for defence, administration and trading. Each was protected by a fortified wall. In times of trouble, the country people took shelter there. No village was more than twenty miles from one of these sanctuaries.

The World of Saxon England
Left : Anglo-Saxon men-who were tough and often brutal-dressed comfortably. Those who wore stockings decorated them with cross-garters.
Right : Windows in Deerhurst Church, Gloucestershire, (it was bu in 1056) survive as a tribute to Saxon artistry.

When the Romans departed, they left behind a magnificent network of roads. Their main purpose had been the movement of armies over long distances. The Saxons used them as links between one market town and another. They did not, homever, keep them in good repair.

Carts with two or four wheels were used for short journeys; large wagons, with leather roofs, for longer trips. But, whenever possible, the Saxons preferred to use the rivers for transport.

The men in the days of King Harold wore trousers or stockings with cross-garters; short tunics, and cloaks that were fastened at the shoulders by brooches. The dresses of the women were of wool-or silk if the lady was wealthy. They wore beautifully crafted brooches and necklaces. The higher the social rank of the wearer, the brighter were the colours used in his or her costume.

The Romans had introduced coins to Britain. The Anglo-Saxons did not mint any money until the 7th century. At first, gold was used-later, silver coins were made. The production of coins was the king's conceern, though the Archbishops of Canterbury and the York were aloowed to manufacture their own. Many towns had small mints.

Ethelbert of Kent was responsible for ordering the law to be written down in English for the first time. Many crimes were tried by ordeals supervised by the clergy. For example, an accused man was thrown into cold water. If the floated, it was believed to be a sign from God that the was quilty. Or he was made remove a stone from a pot of boiling water. His injury was bandaged, and if it healed within three dayas, he was acquitted.

Crimes in which the culprit was caught in the act were more heavily punished than those in which his guilt was shown by an ordeal. Arson, murder, treachery to one's lord, and some thefts were punished by death (often hanging). Mutilation and banishment into slavery were fines. Whatever the offence, the person responsible had to compensate his victim. If a man stole from the church, he had to pay twelve times the walue or this theft-from the king, nine times the value.

The Anglo-Saxons were tough and sometimes brutal. Nevertheless, they were by no means barbarians. Among them were some fine artists who could turn their hands to religous paintings the design of churches and the production or beautiful ornaments. Indeed, the short reign or Harold and the longer rule of Edward the Confessor marked an important period in the history of English art.

Court Life
Life at court depended on the king. If, during the reign of Cnut, somebody sat in the wrong seat at the royal table, he was sent to the far end. The others then pelted him with greasy bones. He was not allowed to throw them back.

Visitor to the court from Wales seem to have been an unruly lot. They had to be cautioned not to strike the queen-nor to snatch things from her. Edward the Confessor's wife spent much of her time embroidering robes for her husband, and giving grammar lessons to students (for which she was paid). Her husband used to keep the royal funds in a box hidden in his bedroom.
The Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel was discovered near an island in Somerset in 1693. Created from gold and crystal, it shows a man holding two sceptres and is inscribed with the words Alfred ordered me to be made. Its date : probably AD 871-the year Alfred became King of Wessex.
Read the next article : The Norman Conguest