Greenwich

SAXONS AT A GLANCE

If you've read all about Blackheath and the Saxons, you can skip this bit and jump down to the section below on Greenwich and the Saxons. 

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. However, 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 Greenwich’s history becomes more recognisable and easier to trace. 

Anglo-Saxon King.png

SAXONS IN GREENWICH

There's quite a bit of evidence that the Saxons settled in Greenwich. It had, even then, everything they needed, like the River Thames, green open spaces, a strategic view over the river, and access for their ships to moor. It was also the perfect trading location.

 

Their presence in our area also gave Greenwich its first recorded mention. In the Anglo-Saxon charter of 918 (a charter was typically a grant of land or a recorded privilege), Greenwich was mentioned as Gronewic when Ælfthryth (daughter of Alfred the Great) gave Lieuesham, Grenevic and Uulwich to the Abbey of St. Peter, in Ghent, Belgium.[2]

In 964, Greenwich was recorded as Grenewic in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which meant ‘green trading settlement or harbour’.[3]

The origins of Greenwich's name confirms the Saxons were truly here, and that Greenwich was a recognised area within the Saxon kingdoms. This is supported by the artefacts found in archaeological digs that have taken place in and around Greenwich Park.

 
Saxon Burial Pits Greenwich and Blackhea

From these digs, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery (at least thirty-one barrows dating to the sixth to eighth centuries) has been found. The cemetery is located on high ground overlooking the River Thames, near Croom's Hill gate side. The barrows are one of only forty barrow cemeteries left in England, and each mound covers a single burial. The excavations in the eighteenth century found shields, swords, wool, hair, and glass beads. None of these things would have been buried with Christians, which leads to the belief that the barrows (graves) were all Pagan. 

 

'Almost all the barrows show signs of disturbance, whether by excavation or tree roots, and at least four of the barrows are cut by paths that are associated with later quarrying.'[4]

Greenwich Park would have been a perfect place for the Saxons to bury their dead, especially if they were Jutes as it was part of their custom to 'take a lofty site on a bare hillside, its brow in sight of the living below,' and barrows were a sign of boundary demarcation.[5]

It's also been suggested that a Saxon settlement may have been either on the south and/or northeast side of St Alfege church and that the twisting of a road may beneath the soil indicates an established settlement in the area of the present-day covered market.[6]

Saxon Barrows in Greenwich Park
Saxon Barrows in Greenwich Park

It's hard to imagine that Greenwich Park didn't exist back then, and the area we recognise today was used for burials and temples rather than picnics and dog walking. 

Citations

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

[2] https://esawyer.lib.cam.ac.uk/charter/1205b.html

[3] Mills, A.D. A Dictionary of British Place Names. Oxford University Press. 2011.

[4] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1021440

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

[6] English Heritage: London Borough of Greenwich Areas of High Archaeological Potential: Appraisal

General Reading

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

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

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