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Pen is mightier than sword


Augustine and his priests rendered the Anglo-Saxon language into the Latin alphabet, and a result was the first written law code.   The pen is truly mightier than the sword, and royal authority was made more effective.   The Church showed kings how they could emulate Roman emperors, and a mutually self-supporting relationship began between the spiritual and the temporal.


Written and presented by Robert Smith, Chairman of the Manorial Society of Great Britain - www.msgb.co.uk






Written and presented by

Robert Smith


Voice over

Barney Powell

Rebecca Cooper


Music production &

Original music

Simon Roberts

(Lyric media group)


Original film footage

Ian Phillips


Picture editor

Roberto Ekholm


Asst picture editor

Guilfre Jordan


Associate Producer

Ian Phillips



Antonio Parente


Picture sources:


Stained-glass window of Æthelberht from the chapel of All Souls College, Oxford



A woodcut of Old St Paul’s Cathedral, a Norman structure, almost four centuries after St Mellitus, the first bishop in the early seventh century.   The Norman cathedral was lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_St_Paul's_Cathedral


St Paul’s Cathedral dome, London, Sir Christopher Wren’s baroque masterpiece, with Blackfriars Bridge in the foreground.   Picture taken from Waterloo Bridge by Roger: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bridges_in_London#mediaviewer/


Modern representation of early medieval priests: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medieval_Priest,_Friar,_or_Monk_(2).JPG


Late Anglo-Saxon king and his Witan (Council), sit in judgment on an unnamed miscreant - based on a Biblical scene from the Illustrated Old England Hexateuch: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witenagemot#mediaviewer/File:Witan_hexateuch.jpg


A criminal is hanged - from an 11th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript.   There are horizontal pegs in both upright posts, evidently used by the executioner to climb up to put the rope round the victim’s neck, but no indication how the victim got up there - presumably, he would not have climbed the gallows voluntarily.   Presumably, he was man-handled to the crossbar, possibly from a cart.   Execution by hanging until well into the 19th century meant strangulation, which could take upto 10 minutes.   It is not known when a platform was built and a trapdoor inserted, which was released by the hangman so that the convict could be dropped so many feet, his neck and spinal vertibrae being broken or dislocated as the rope pulled taut, making the arrival of death much quicker and, in that sense, more merciful.   Hangings were public in Britain until 1868 and photographic evidence shows that the platform and the drop were then in use.   Some convicts were decapitated in the noose which greatly alarmed the public, who tended to treat hanging days as holidays: two reasons for taking executions inside prisons.   The last traitor’s death in Britain took place in London in 1817 when the victim was partially strangled, cut down alive, castrated and his innards (intestines) drawn and burnt before his eyes while still alive.   After death, he was quartered, starting with the striking off of his head.   This so appalled even the blood-thirsty London mob - who fled the scene - that drawing and quartering were never used again.   Capital punishment was abolished in Britain in 1965, though not in Northern Ireland.   However, death sentences in that province were always commuted, and judicial death was abolished in 1999.   The guillotine was only abolished in France in 1982 and last used, unusually, in 1977 when President Giscard refused to exercise clemency, which presidents of the Republic had always done since the 1950s.   He was facing an uphill battle for re-election against the Socialist party of François Mitterrand, and Giscard was accused in the French and other Western press of playing politics in an effort to show that he was a supporter of law and order.   Interestingly to some people, Giscard presided over the team who wrote the proposed new European Constitution in the 1990s.   It did not seek to restore the death penalty, but there were clauses in it that would have enabled other European states to enter (invade?) a recalcitrant member state, whatever ‘recalcitrant’ might mean.   This document was rejected - much at the insistence of Britain.   The United States is the important Western country not to have abolished the death penalty, although many states have done so.   Lethal injection is the preferred means used there with chemicals that were, until discovered, produced by a British company.   The electric chair is still used in Florida and the gas chamber elsewhere.   The electric chair was invented and promoted by Westinghouse who saw a marketing opportunity in the 1890s, since executions were public.   A signboard was set up on the scaffold, upon which was written the manufacters’ name.   About 10 years ago, several US states, seeking to make judicial death more efficient and humane, were looking at what is called the ‘decapitation delivery system’.   This takes the form of three sharp-edged discs, like the disc used in a bacon slicer.   Three of these move down electronically in what is referred to among the congnoscenti as the ‘DDS’.   This method has not yet been proceeded with, but the inventor was a descendant of Joseph Guillotin, who invented the guillotine during the French Revolution and whose family, apparently, have a patent on such beheading machines: http://www.google.co.uk/images?client=safari&rls=en&q=Anglo-Saxon+punishments


Part of the Anglo-Saxon tower of All Saints Church, Earls Barton, near Wellingborough, Northamptonshire.   It may date from the seventh century, although that has been disputed.   It could have been built on the site of a Roman specula (castle).   The building incorprates later Saxon, Norman, and Perpendicular styles, and is well worth a visit.   Trains go from London, stopping at Wellingborough about two miles away.   The patron of the living (ie who chooses the Anglican priest as vicar) is the Crown, a right that goes back into the mists of Anglo-Saxon time.   The Lords of the Manor are the Whitworth family: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxon_architecture#mediaviewer/File:Earls_Barton_Detail.jpg


This illustration, we think, requires no further caption than that inscribed on the 1986 Plaque: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/33/Southwark_Bridge_City_Plaque.JPG


St Willibald, Patron Saint of Eichstatt, Bavaria, Germany, descended from the Wessex Royal Family, dictated the Hodoeporicon to Huneberc, a nun, a travelogue (available at http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/sbookmap.asp, sponsored by the Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York, USA, a very useful source).   Willibald will be dealt with in greater detail later in this documentary series: http://orthodoxsojourn.blogspot.co.uk/2011_07_01_archive.html


Rouen Cathedral, started in the reign of Duke William of Normandy



Roman roads in Britain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_roads_in_Britain


Moasaic of a gladiator from the Roman villa at Bignor, West Sussex, England.   There is also a museum here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bignor_Roman_Villa#mediaviewer/File:Bignor_Villa_Mosaic_Rudarius.JPG


Grid plan of Roman Chester with modern map superimposed: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp9-15


Emperor Septimus Severus (b 145, ruled 193-211) who came to Britain in 208 with a large army and reconquered the lands between Hadrian’s and the Antonine Walls, roughly the modern Scottish Lowlands.   On his way back south, he stopped at Eboracum (York) where he died.   This tondo (circular painting or carving) shows him with his second wife, Julia Domna, and Caracalla, who became Emperor after his father.   His younger brother Geta, whom Caracalla probably had murdered, has been washed out, Staatsiche Museum, Berlin, Germany: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septimus_Severus#mediaviewer/File:Severan_dynasty_-_tondo.png


The container port at Southampton at night.   There was a port here 1,400 years ago in the early Saxon period, when it was known as Hamwic, and probably under the Romans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_of_Southampton#mediaviewer/File:Southampton_docks_at_night_4_seconds.JPG


Perhaps the king’s steward who laid out a street plan for Ipswich more than a thousand years ago laid the foundations of today’s county town of Suffolk, England: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ipswich_Town_F.C.#mediaviewer/File:Ipswich_Town.svg



Reproduction of what might have been a costermonger’s stall , including

askets and wooden bowls



An imagined Anglo-Saxon cellar at Bede’s World, probably used by merchants or the rich.  Bede’s World, Church Bank. Jarrow, Tyne and Wear NE32 3DY (www.bedesworld.co.uk): http://www.panoramio.com/photo/79884105


Nothing changes: the logo of HM Revenue and Customs.   Saxon rulers would have admired these modern developments: http://www.londragazete.com/www/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/HMRC.jpg


An icon of St Constantine of Cornwall, c 520-576: http://orthodoxwiki.org/File:ScsConstantinus-of-Govan-AHart.jpg


St Constantine’s church, near Falmouth, Cornwall, where a farmers’ market is held, probably inadvertently harking back to St Gregory the Great’s advice to Augustine - to permit wholsome markets and feasting outside churches that had superseded pagan temples: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine,_Cornwall#mediaviewer/File:Saint_Constantine_Church_in_Constantine_Village_Kerrier_Cornwall.JPG


Benedict Biscop swears an oath of loyalty to his protector, Oswy, King of Northumbria, c 670: http://cashonandcompany.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/patron-saint-of-decorators.html


West Front of Peterborough Cathedral (14th century).   Known as Medehamstede in the seventh century, an abbey here was commissioned by King Oswy of Northumbria, and may have had foundations of stone.   The first abbot and ‘clerk of works’ in this building project was Seaxwulf, who is noticed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under annal 654: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Peterborough_Cathedral_Exterior_2,_Cambridgeshire,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg


Map of London showing the defensive Roman wall round the city: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Londinium


The remains of part of the London Roman Wall at Coopers Row, which can be visited.   See Museum of London at www.museumoflondon.org.uk: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Wall#mediaviewer/File:London_Wall_fragment.jpg


Eadbald succeeded his father, Aethelberht, as king of Kent in 616.   This coin is said to show Eadbald’s head: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eadbald_of_Kent#mediaviewer/File:Eadbaldobv.1.jpg


The St Augustine Gospels, made in Italy in the sixth century, were probably also used by St Laurence, Augustine’s successor as second Archbishop of Canterbury, c 604; a page showing the Apostle St Luke.   The Gospels are now kept at Corpus Christ College, Cambridge, Lib MS 286: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Augustine_Gospels#mediaviewer/File:AugsutineGospelsFolio129vStLuke.jpg


King Earpwald of Essex: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8e/Erpenwald_-_John_Speed.JPG


The Franks Casket at the British Museum, London, England.   Made of whalebone.   The carving includes the Adoration of the Magi, the Roman Emperor Titus (first century), Romulus and Remus (the legendary fraternal founders of Rome), a reference to Achilles from Homer.   Weyland the Smith,  an important Germanic legend, is commemorated.   The inscriptions are in Anglo-Saxon runes, and have been interpreted as the persistence of paganism as late as the early eight century:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/franks_casket


Disposition of Welsh tribes or principalities, 500-700: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wales_in_the_Early_Middle_Ages#mediaviewer/File:Wales.post-Roman.jpg


Re-enactment by Regius (www.regia.org) of medieval Welsh tribesmen who were little match for larger Anglo-Saxon armies: http://www.regia.org/research/warfare/welswar.htm


St Gildas, whom we met in the previous Episode, was one of the early Welsh to find pastures new in Brittany, France.   He died in 570 and the image displayed is said to have been a spring at Mobihan, Brittany, associated with him: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gildas#mediaviewer/File:St_Gildas_Fontaine_0708E.jpg


St Tanwg's Church, Llandanwg, near Harlech, Merionethshire, in the ancient principality of Gwynedd.   The present structure dates from the 13th century.   There are two gravestones that have been dated from the sixth century and a cross stone perhaps dating from the fifth century, preceding the arrival of St Augustine’s mission to the English (597) by at least a hundred years.   Picture by Gordon Reed



Fr. Deiniol of All Saints of Wales, a priest of the Eastern Orthodox Mission, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, North Wales.    Coptic Christians have enetered south Wales in recent years.   It is not clear how tolerant these churches are of one another and of other Christian denominations - not altogether different from the seventh century, we think, when St Augustine sought to establish unity: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/48566.htm


A landscape of Blaenau Ffestiniog, lying in the heart of Snowdonia.   Gwynedd was never conquered by the Anglo-Saxons; that would not occur until the 1270s when King Edward I (r 1272-1307) captured Llewellyn ap Gruffidd, the last Welsh Prince of Wales.   King Edward secured his conquest by building formidable stone castles at Carnarfon, Harlech, Conwy, and Beaumaris, Anglesey.   Thereafter, princes of Wales were the heirs to the English and now British throne, the most recent prince of Wales so inaugurated being Prince Charles by Queen Elizabeth II at Carnarfon Castle in 1969: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaenau_Ffestiniog#mediaviewer/File:A_view_of_Blaenau_Ffestiniog_town.jpg


A modern representation of the Battle of Chester, 614, at which King Aethelfrith of Northumbria, according to Bede, began by slaughtering the priests: http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/divided-land-part-2-northumbria-ad-598.html


King Aethelfrith of Bernicia, a somewhat anachronistic modern drawing showing his wearing a Scottish tartan.   While Aethelfrith had defeated the Scottish king of Dal Riata several years before his victory at Chester, there is no evidence of Scots wearing tartan before 1631, although there were tartan-like garments much earlier in the Russian steppe and other parts of Asia.   It may have emerged under Keltic influence between the eighth and sixth centuries BC: http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/divided-land-part-2-northumbria-ad-598.html


Map of the spread of Christianity by 300 in dark blue, by 600 in light blue, and by 800 in green-yellow.




Episode transcript:


Anglo-Saxon kings helped the spread of Christianity, but it was not all plain sailing, and some kings slipped into apostacy, and there were homespun Christian 'heretics.'


We recorded that King Aethelberht of Kent appointed London the episcopal see for Mellitus and built a church for its first bishop.   Bede tells us that London was the capital of the East Saxons.   Their king was Aethelberht's nephew, Saeberht, implying that Aethelberht, as Bretwalda, probably enjoyed some authority in King Saeberht's lands.   The church was dedicated to St Paul the Apostle.   It may even have been built on the site of, or have included, a former pagan temple which, as we saw earlier, Pope Gregory permitted after de-paganization.   It was replaced by a Norman cathedral that was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, on the ashes of which rose Sir Christopher Wren's sublime St Paul's.   Its inspiring dome, thanks to the Prince of Wales,  once more dominates that part of the London skyline, as you cross south to north over the river Thames at Waterloo Bridge.


The first St Paul's was built of stone.   It would have been important to King Aethelberht to make a building that stood out and to gratify the sensibilities of the priests who would occupy it, for they were reliable supporters and their religion, which he had adopted, underpinned his regime with divine authority.   The priests were also literate and must have devised with the king the first extant Anglo-Saxon Law Code.   Written law, as we know, makes for more effective government, because it becomes a permanent first reference of what is illegal and the punishments that are appropriate for infractions.   It was copied probably at the time and distributed to the new bishops of London and Rochester; perhaps to important abbeys and monasteries.   Bede copied it more than a hundred years later in his History, and there must surely have been other copies long since lost.   So the law would have been fairly widely disseminated.


Little is known of what London was like at this time.   Historians, such as Bede, and the authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were mostly concerned with Church, royal, and aristocratic matters in that order.   There is a brief mention in Bede of Frisian merchants in London in 679.   One of the greatest travellers of the eighth century was St Willibald, a monk at Bishops Waltham, Hampshire, who wrote the first travelogue by an Englishman, called the Hodoeporicon.   He also managed to fit in what we might describe as a shopping expedition, when he sailed from Southampton to the market at Rouen, in Normandy, and back in 720.   There is a letter from the Emperor Charlemagne to King Offa of Mercia about a trade treaty.   We shall treat with Willibald and Offa later on.  


Such formal roads as there may have been had been laid centuries before by the Romans, as also stone buildings.   London's fortifications seem to have been strengthened at the end of the third century AD.   Excavations of Roman villas recently have uncovered mosaics that include Christian motifs. suggesting fourth-century construction.


Anglo-Saxons hardly seem to have lived in towns, and when some of them eventually settled in them, archaeologists have determined that Roman street plans were ignored.   They built their 'ground houses' as they liked, without regard to the lie of streets, that had been built by the Romans on a grid plan.   The Romans occupied Britain south of Hadrian's Wall, repaired by Emperor Septimus Severus between 205 and 208.   Bede mentions their cities, forts, bridges, and paved roads which, when he was writing in the 730s, bore witness to Roman endeavour. Richard Hodges wrote a useful article in the monthly magazine History Today, drawing together some of the archaeological strands to suggest that Hamwic  (now Southampton) had an important Saxon cemetery, and later in the seventh century a market.   Both indicate a permanent resident population.   There might have been a defensive and trading community there from earliest Anglo-Saxon times - the fifth century.   A grave in the same period at Ipswich, Suffolk, it has been proposed, was that of a wicgerefa, or king's steward, who did devise a grid plan for the town covering some 120 acres.   A similar plan may have existed for the area of Covent Garden, central London.   This was an important wholesale vegetable and flower market until the 1970s.   Only kings could have had the wherewithal and the power to make such things happen.   Kings would have been aware of the revenues that could be exacted from merchants and people in their daily dealings for food, clothes, household utensils, personal adornment.   Sadly, the chronicles are mostly silent on such mundane matters.   But we can infer that indirect imposts on the retail, and the import-export, trade would have been a valuable supplement to the forms of royal land, or hidage services and taxes, which we shall encounter later.   Ports were markets primarily, where a docked boat's owner might have put out his cargo for sale to merchants, who carried their purchases onwards.   Although of Latin origin, port was a word well known in Old English, and inland place-names that begin or end with it - like Portland and Southport - often signify a market, many of which throve for centuries because there were no shops.   London was a port, like Southampton.   Their geography has not changed, and both places remain important ports, where the modern royal taxes of Excise, Duties, and VAT are assessed and collected, contributing tens of billions to the Exchequer today.


Archaeology and writings imply that the public areas of some cathedrals and abbeys, founded from about the seventh century, were built of stone, where trade might take place after divine service - as foreshadowed by Pope Gregory in his letter to Abbot Mellitus, quoted in Episode 10.  The living quarters of priests, nuns, and monks, and other outbuildings would have been constructed of wood.   The first written reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle I have found to foundations, hinting at the use of stone and brick, is from the Peterborough Manuscript, dated 654.   King Oswy of Northumbria, then in the ascendant among kings in England, ordered a minister to be built and dedicated to St Peter at Medeshamstede, now Peterborough:


And they began the foundations and built upon them, and then entrusted it to a monk who was called Seaxwulf.   He was a very great friend of God, and all the people loved him, and he was very nobly born in the world, and powerful.


Seaxwulf was a bishop and Peterborough's first abbot.   Of course, foundations could have been laid on wooden sleepers, but why should Bede have mentioned foundations otherwise?   It is tempting to speculate that, in the case of a royal church as important as Peterborough abbey, its main structure would have been built of stone.


In London, the Roman wall enclosed about three hundred acres.   It was eighteen feet high and between six and nine feet thick.   There were eight gates, more than 20 defensive towers, and a ditch on the outside.   In the church of All Hallows by the Tower is a Saxon arch, made from salvaged Roman bricks, and this kind of reclamation of materials must have occurred all over the country.   Roman glass would soon be being re-cycled to make the first English stained glass.


We left King Aethelberht granting the bishop's seat at London to Mellitus.   Aethelberht was the 'first of the English kings to receive baptism,' but on his death, in 616, his son and successor Eadbald abandoned Christianity. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:



At that time, Laurentius was Archbishop (of Canterbury), and because of the grief he had as a result of the King's unbelief, he had decided to abandon all this land and travel across the sea.   But St Peter the Apostle scourged him fiercely one night, because he wanted to abandon God's flock thus, and ordered him boldly to instruct the King in the true faith.   And he did so and the King turned to the truth.


This section of the Canterbury Manuscript, and many others in the Chronicle, indicate how impermanent Christianity was at first among the Anglo-Saxons.   Eadbald was succeeded by his son Eocenberht as king of Kent in 640 who, the Chronicle tells us, 'overthrew all devil worship' so, almost 50 years after St Augustine's mission, paganism still had adherents among the first Christianized English settlers.   Bede tells us of King Earpwald, of the East Angles, who was persuaded in 627,



to abandon his superstitious idolatry and accept the Faith and Sacraments of Christ with his whole province.   His father Raedwald had, in fact, long before this received Christian Baptism in Kent, but made no good purpose; for on his return home his wife and certain perverse advisers persuaded him to apostatize from the true Faith.   So his last state was worse than his first: for, like the ancient Samaritans, he tried to serve both Christ and the ancient gods, and he had in the same shrine an altar on which victims were offered to devils.   Adwulf, king of that province, who lived into our own times, testifies that this shrine was still standing in his day and that he had seen it as a boy.


Disunity among Christians at the time was hardly helpful, and Augustine was not above taking sides in what we might call the battle for 'hearts and minds' in Britain.   Dating it as 603, Bede tells the story of an attempt by Augustine to bring the British Christians in Wales into obedience to the Catholic Church in Rome.   Remember that the Britons had been Christianized towards the end of the Roman occupation of the island, which ended in about 381.   Theological developments in Rome may well have been restricted because England and its nearest neighbour France were 'war zones,' ruled by warlords, many of them pagan, as we have seen.   Roman popes had, in these years. been surviving men like Attila the Hun and other conquerors, including resurgent Eastern emperors, in Italy itself.   Remember also that, in common with most other religions with which I have any familiarity, converting pagans was perhaps not as important as enforcing conformity among Christians, or worse, those Christians who were seen as heretics.   Where there were deviant Christians, getting papal authority in Rome established appears to have been the priority. Augustine had got the agreement of the Welsh bishops to meet at a council - location now unknown - to determine their differences.   Bede picks up the story of the British bishops' reaction when, on their entrance, Augustine failed to get up from his chair to receive them:



Seeing this they became angry, accusing him of pride and taking pains to contradict all he said.   Augustine then declared, 'there are many points on which your customs conflict with ours, or rather with those of the universal Church.   Nevertheless, if you will agree with me on three points, I am ready to countenance all your other customs, although they are contrary to our own.   These points are: to keep Easter at the correct time; to complete the Sacrament of Baptism, by which we are reborn to God, according to the rites of the Holy, Roman, and Apostolic Church, and to join with us in preaching the Word of God to the English.'   But the bishops refused these things, nor would they recognize Augustine as their archbishop, saying among themselves that if he would not rise to greet them in the first instance, he would have even less regard for them once they submitted to his authority.   Whereupon Augustine, that man of God, is said to have answered with a threat that was also a prophecy: if they refused to accept peace with fellow Christians, they would be forced to accept war at the hands of enemies; and if they refused to preach to the English the way of life, they would eventually suffer at their hands the penalty of death.


Note that Augustine failed to rise when the British delegation arrived: it is always the little things that stir up the greatest anger among human beings.   Nor did Augustine select diplomatic words, and I sense Bede thinking that these Welsh prelates got their comeuppance soon after, when the pagan King Aethelfrith of Northumbria met a Christian nonconformist Welsh army in battle at Chester.   Hearing that the Welsh had brought priests with them, who, Aethelfrith assumed, were praying for his defeat, the Northumbrian leader directed his attack first against them, killing twelve hundred of them.   He then killed what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes as 'a countless number of Welsh.'   Some religious folk tend to reserve their greatest hatred for their own heretics.


We shall continue this theme in the next Episode.   Christianity was established in Britain under the Romans.   The Faith spread once St Augustine arrived, being adopted by Anglo-Saxon rulers, who were sometimes succeeded by apostates.



Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain



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