700-1066AD - The Anglo Saxons

  • An Anglo Saxon warrior being interviewed by the Time Team at Athelney where King Alfred gathered his troops to fight the Danes.

How can we find out about the Anglo Saxons?

We can find out about the kings and their great victories (and defeats) because stories of these great deeds were important to people - and important things were written down. Law courts wrote down their judgments, churches kept records, and merchants and landowners kept accounts of what they bought and sold. Wealthy people wrote wills before they died, and had stone memorials made to remember them once they were dead. But most people in England weren’t important enough to write about: they were illiterate peasants who worked the land under the control of their landlords. To find out about them we have to read the clues of the fields, churches, farms, towns and villages that they left behind.

What were the Quantocks like in Anglo Saxon times?

By 700 AD, Somerset was part of the Christian Kingdom of Wessex. Most of the area was split up into very large estates belonging to the king or to the church. Gradually these were split into smaller estates called manors. Within the manors were smaller farmsteads, where the peasants farmed the land just like their ancestors had done.

The most famous King of Wessex was Alfred. He built some new towns called burhs, to defend Wessex against attacks by the Vikings. The nearest burh to the Quantocks was Watchet, which became an important town with a mint. One of Alfred’s royal palaces was at Cheddar. He used it as a hunting lodge, and later it was also used as a meeting place for the King’s council of advisors (called a witan). We know what it looked like because the remains were excavated.

  • You can see the main hall, a stone chapel, some smaller houses and a fence. It is quite small so some of king’s servants must have camped outside.

All the common land (heath and wood) of the Quantock Hills became a Royal Hunting Ground. It all belonged to the king, but he could grant permission to local people to use the wood.

In Saxon times, the Quantocks got their name: ‘Cantucuudu’. (Quantock Woods) There was more woodland than today: the trees in the wooded combes spread further up the hills than they do now now.

This is when the modern Quantocks really began to take shape. The population was growing again.  More people needed more land to grow food. So they cut down trees on the lower slopes and made new fields and lanes which you can still see. They started more farm estates (called manors) and which grew into the hamlets and villages we know today.  The peasants all had to work together to farm the land around the villages. Some manor-owners built the first Quantock churches next to their own houses.