Blackheath

SAXONS AT A GLANCE

The Anglo-Saxon period lasted from the early fifth century AD to 1066 – between the Romans and the Normans.

 

During their four hundred years of rule, the Romans gave the Britons many things, including structure and defences. They'd built the great Hadrian's Wall – to keep the troublesome Pict tribes of Scotland out of the civilised and prosperous part of Britain.

 

When the Romans left, it was because Rome was under constant siege from barbarian attacks and struggling to defend itself. This meant Briton no longer had its protective army, which opened up an opportunity for incomers from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. 

Saxon Boats

Many of the kings in Brittania (the Roman name for Britain) were troubled by the Pict invasions and legend has it that Vortigern, King of Kent, hired two Jute mercenary brothers called Hengist and Horsa, who had been banished from their own countries. The story says that these two brothers landed in Kent, and Vortigern used their warlike desire to defend his lands against the marauding Pict tribes. 

Although we generally talk about Anglo-Saxons, there are three different groups under this umbrella. The Angles, Jutes and Saxons were initially different tribes from continental Europe.

 

  • The Angles came from an area in modern-day Germany called Angeln on the Jutland Peninsula. They would go on to settle several parts of England, for example, East Anglia. 

 

  • The Jutes came from the northern part of the Jutland Peninsula and settled in Kent. 

 

  • The Saxons came from Holstein, just south of the Jutland Peninsula, the areas along the coast of modern-day Germany and the Netherlands as well as further inland. They settled in the south of England, creating the kingdoms Wessex, Sussex, Essex, and Middlesex.

 

Hengist and Horsa were victorious and Vortigern gave them Thanet as part of their payment. The brothers sent a message home and more Jutes crossed the seas to fight and settle in Kent. 

 

'Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold, the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations.' [1]

 

There were many battles between the Britons and Anglo-Saxons, with victories and defeats on both sides but eventually, the Anglo-Saxons conquered and settled. By AD 600, England was divided into seven major kingdoms.

 

England, as we know it, didn't exist for hundreds of years after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. Kingdoms and kings evolved in the conquered areas of Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Kent, Wessex, and Mercia. The new kingdoms were extremely independent; they may have shared similar languages and pagan religions, but they were loyal to their own kings.

The Severn Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

From the early Anglo-Saxon invasion and settlement, Blackheath and its surrounding areas had royal ties. With power struggles and battles, Kent had an extensive line of leaders and kings. Little is known of them between Vortigern and Hengest until the reign of Æthelberht (560-616) who issued the first code of Anglo-Saxon laws. Æthelberht was also the first Anglo-Saxon king to turn his back on paganism to become a Christian. 

 

(To see a full list of all the kings of Kent, you can click here.)

The next few hundred years were like a real game of thrones, with lots of unexplained deaths within the families of the rulers, and gruesome murders between rivals. A power-pull between Mercia and Wessex took hold, and Kent suffered the effects of kingly squabbles. Mercia initially won the battles, but it was Wessex that won the war. In 825, it was victorious over Mercia’s power hold in Kent, and Kent became subsumed into Wessexian rule. 

Why is all this important to understand? Well, Alfred the Great came to rule, and:

 

  • He was the great-grandson of Ealhmund, King of Kent. 

  • He inherited Greenwich from his father, Æthelwulf.

  • He was king of the West Saxons from c. 871 to 886

  • He was king of the Anglo-Saxons from c. 886 to 899.

  • Alfred gave lands to his daughter Ælfthryth (Elstrudis) on her marriage to Baldwin II, Count of Flanders. These lands are known as Lieuesham, Grenevic and Uulwich – and so Blackheath’s history becomes more recognisable and easier to trace. 

Anglo-Saxon King.png

SAXONS IN BLACKHEATH

The name Blackheath is from the Old English spoken words of 'blæc' and 'hǣth' which means they were here.

Kent (Cantwarena) was predominately Jute, making it highly likely that Jutes are part of Blackheath's ancestry too. 

 

Our local history during these times can be found when researching the kingdom of Kent, for this is where Blackheath, still unnamed at this time, sat. It's a difficult history to trace because Blackheath has been on the borders of Kent for most of its historical life and is often overlooked in much of the literature. Much focus has also been on the archaeological digs and findings in Greenwich Park, which are written about here.

Jutes landing in Kent

The Park didn't exist back then either, and the area we recognise today became formally considered part of Blackheath.[2]  According to sources from the early 1900s, there are numerous traces of the Saxons and Danes in both Blackheath and Greenwich [3], although numerous might be an overstatement.

 

We know little of the Saxon occupation of Blackheath, or indeed, Greenwich. Even contemporary historians acknowledge that although the Anglo-Saxons were here for centuries, there is sparse evidence from archaeological digs around London.[4]

There is mention of a Saxon tumulus (burial mound) near the Blackheath entrance of the park.[5] There are also tumulus/barrows in Greenwich Park, which, as mentioned, was part of the heath. More information on these can be found here. 

 

Our research shows that the Saxons were in Blackheath during the 5th century and stayed long enough to bury their dead. The heath would be the perfect location for Jute burials, as it was part of their custom to 'take a lofty site on a bare hillside, its brow in sight of the living below.' With this in mind and the lack of day-to-day artefacts, perhaps Blackheath was just their burial site. Burial grounds were also used for boundary demarcation [6], which is another interesting theory given where burrows are positioned – predominantly in and around the park area.

 

 

Citations

[1] Gildas, and Winterbottom, Michael. The Ruin of Britain, and Other Works. Revised ed. London, 2002. Print. APS (Ser.); 7.

[2] Greenwich Park: Its History and Associations. By A. D. Webster, Superintendent of Greenwich Park. Greenwich: Henry Richardson, Steam Printing Works, 1902.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Raffield, Ben, The Danelaw: a Viking kingdom in England. History Extra 2021

[5] Greenwich Park: Its History and Associations. By A. D. Webster, Superintendent of Greenwich Park. Greenwich: Henry Richardson, Steam Printing Works, 1902.

[6] Jenkins, Simon: A Short History of London (Podcast): History Hit