SAXON 'PALACES’

Thursday, January 22, 2009



The existence of a developing form of leadership and kingship at least by the seventh century has led to a search for a settlement type befitting persons of such status. A problem arises in the choice of factors that should be used for the identification of such ‘palaces’. Initial, perhaps premature, excitement following the identification of a type of large timber building from aerial photographs (Rahtz 1976:65–8; Sawyer 1983b) has been tempered by the discovery, from excavation, that the form and size of these buildings are present on many, otherwise ordinary, rural settlements; in one unusual instance excavation showed that the features were medieval rabbit warrens (Clark, Hampton and Hughes 1983). Many writers have taken building size as an indication of high social status. The range of sizes of buildings at some settlements, for instance Cowdery’s Down (Figure 3.7), is above the norm, and the largest have been described as ‘palaces’ (Figure 8.4). Size alone need not make a building the residence of a king and Millett and James suggest that the absence of seed and bone at Cowdery’s Down is not so much due to poor preservation but because crop and meat processing may not have taken place there because of the status of its various occupants (1983: 249–50).


The problem is exemplified by two sites, at Northampton and Yeavering. To the east of a series of minster churches in Northampton, dating from the middle- Saxon period onwards, was a rectangular stone hall. It had an internal floor area of 315 m2 and dates to the eighth century. The building is interpreted as the centre of secular power on the royal estate in the same way that the minster was the seat of ecclesiastical authority (Williams, Shaw and Denham 1985). Below the stone building was a large timber hall of the seventh century with a floor area of 252 m2, consisting of a rectangular centre with square annexes at either end, which appears to be a highly sophisticated, possibly bayed, structure, which was set with extreme precision. In contexts associated with the eighth-century minster and ‘palace’ were a bronze shrine fitting, a bronze stylus, glass vessels and a decorated pin; all are relatively unusual items. Yet no such items were associated with the timber predecessor. We are left with the problem of whether the timber structure and the stone building that replaced it were used by persons of a similar status for the same functions. The erection of the stone palace and the church may be a reflection of a change or an extension in the status of the site, from an unexceptional rural settlement to a ‘palace’. If size is relevant it must be noted that the timber building was certainly large, being 35 m2 larger than the biggest building at Cowdery’s Down. It may be that the principal change that had occurred was conversion to Christianity following which a secular lord would wish to be associated with ecclesiastical power (Williams 1984a, 1984b).


The problems of interpretation surrounding Yeavering are of an altogether different nature (Hope-Taylor 1977). The settlement is identified with Bede’s Gefrin that was graced with royal visits and one by Paulinus who preached and baptised there in AD 627. The site was abandoned in the early eighth century in favour of Maelmin, according to Bede, which has been identified from aerial photographs a few kilometres to the north at Millfield. Hope-Taylor’s interpretation promotes Yeavering as a British folk-centre with religious foci and a ‘cattle corral’ that became the palace of the Anglo-Saxon kings of seventhcentury Bernicia. It was an administrative centre with great halls for king and court. The post-Roman development consisted of wooden buildings and a great enclosure. There was a square enclosure of wooden buildings on the site of a prehistoric stone circle, around which were inhumation burials. This was followed by the construction of major halls, a temple and a timber auditorium or grandstand. At the settlements height the grandstand was enlarged, the great enclosure rebuilt, and a great hall (A4) was erected. Under its threshold was a grave accompanied by an object identified by the excavator as a surveyor’s groma, but possibly a ceremonial standard. When Paulinus visited in the 620s the temple was altered and reconsecrated while in the western part of the settlement there was the final phase of a cemetery. The settlement itself was deliberately burnt in the seventh century and a re-occupation followed. This phase was characterised by numerous posts, the foci for graves, and which may have carried ‘totemic and zoomorphic emblems of the tribe’. After the abandonment of the western cemetery a church was built with a churchyard with orderly rows of graves. The grandstand was replaced and new halls built. This settlement was also destroyed by fire, but the significance of the site is indicated by four new buildings before a final decline and abandonment.


It is impossible to do justice, in summary, to the magnificent timber structures that were excavated, especially the grandstand, halls and pagan temple, and the details should be sought in the excavators report. However, a paradox arises again when we contrast the magnificence of contemporary ‘royal’ burials and the apparent material poverty of Yeavering. Yet this is a characteristic of most settlements of the period. Hope-Taylor emphasises that the potential magnificence of the buildings can only be measured by pestholes, as the timber and plaster may have been ideal media for decoration by carving and painting. Over and above an acceptance of the identification of Yeavering as Bede’s Gefrin, the principal factors used to emphasise the settlement’s status are the size and nature of the buildings, the great hall having a floor area of 336 m2. We must be wary, at present, of being overawed by the range of archaeology at Yeavering when there are so few excavated settlements to compare it with in northern England. Bede also mentions Rendlesham (Suffolk) as a royal palace and its close proximity to Sutton Hoo (6 km) has raised expectations. Similarities in metalwork from the two sites suggest this may be warranted. Recent field walking has demonstrated the existence of a large scatter of Ipswich ware indicating that the settlement was very large and, unlike early Anglo-Saxon rural settlements, demonstrates continuity into the middle-Saxon period as at other royal sites (Newman 1992).


The development of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and leadership might have been symbolised by palatial central places. Contenders for this position have been argued on their individual merits, in the case of Northampton and Rendlesham by site continuity and context, and in the case of Yeavering by historical evidence and the scale and type of the structures. High-status settlements may be expected at major centres, particularly those that achieved ecclesiastical and commercial prominence in the seventh and eighth centuries, such as Winchester, Canterbury and London (above). Both Yeavering and Foxley (Hinchliffe 1986) have buildings that are interpreted as churches. We should, perhaps, be wary of imposing such status on other settlements too readily (Hawkes 1979; Arnold 1982c); to do so makes great assumptions about early Anglo-Saxon society and especially how authority was held, dispensed and symbolised in the material world. Within the pagan world power was demonstrated and symbolised in visible, moveable wealth. This is exemplified by the rich seventh-century burials constructed in direct opposition to Christianity. The construction of magnificent buildings as appropriate housing for such individuals may only have arisen following the establishment of Christianity; the power and authority of the Church were demonstrated in buildings and secular lords may have felt it necessary to match such splendour. Indeed the development of a more institutionalised form of kingship in the later seventh century may owe as much to the influence of the Church as to the evolution of secular institutions.

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