Posted by: kljolly | August 16, 2013

pre-Anglo-Saxon landscape

Much of the historical residue marked on my Ordnance survey maps with pseudo-Old English script is actually made up of Neolithic and Roman remains:  stone circles, mounds, roads, and forts.  Presumably these were in better shape in Aldred’s day than now, so visible and usable.  How would tenth century Christians have viewed these relics of ancient peoples?

In the draft chapter on Aldred and Bishop Ælfsige’s Wessex journey, I had them camp amidst Neolithic burial mounds (see the Oakley thread).  Some scholars think Anglo-Saxons would be fearful of such sites, often reused as gallows and burial ground of criminals, while others argue for less superstition (Sarah Semple, “A Fear of the Past: The Place of the Prehistoric Burial mound in the Ideology of Middle and Later Anglo-Saxon England,” World Archaeology 30.1 [1998], 109-26).  I opted for a fearful and superstitious local boy combined with a certain pragmatism on the part of the two churchmen.

The question came to mind again when I stopped at Castlerigg near Keswick on my way to Dacre.  This is one of many stone circles not as famous as Stonehenge.

Castlerigg stone circle, near Keswick

Castlerigg stone circle, near Keswick

As I walked across the grassy hill, I wondered:  Would the entourage accompanying Cuthbert’s body have avoided such a site, or been attracted to it for its commanding vista of the surrounding area?  Perhaps they might even do as their predecessors had done and sacralize it with Christian ritual, knowing their Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History records a papal letter to Abbot Mellitus advising the missionaries to clean out pagan sites and temples to reuse as Christian sites of worship, thus attracting people to something familiar. Could this stone circle be christened and made a temporary sanctuary through the strategic placement of some crosses?

Castlerigg stones

Castlerigg stones

The second site that raised questions about Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the ancient past was the Roman fort Verteris at Brough in the Eden Valley.  Although the ruins of a later castle now stand on the site, the Roman ditches are still visible reminders of the heavily fortified site.

Verteris Roman fort at Brough (later castle)

Verteris Roman fort at Brough (later castle)

What would it have looked like in the ninth and tenth centuries?  Perhaps the stone foundations were still extant.  Certainly any traveler would have recognized it as a strategic military site with a commanding view and deep ditches to protect it.  Below on Brough farm is this lovely haven, perhaps a more peaceful place for weary travelers to rest (I opted for the delicious ice cream at the farm shop, the price for parking there).

Brough farm

Brough farm

Next up:  Aldred’s cat (a visit to the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibit and Bede’s World).


  1. Rather unrelated to religious practice and belief, but when I was last at Castlerigg, I saw a couple sharing a bottle of champagne in the pouring rain while sitting on one of the stones. Part romantic, part bizarre, part ‘I wonder what the pagan gods must be thinking right now’.

  2. While I was there a family wandered around, the kids using the camera. I excluded them from my shots as not being 10th century enough, but I wonder what the place looked like full of people?

  3. I love Castlerigg – it’s one of my favourite places in Britain and will feature in my third book ‘Swallows and Black Streams’, which probably won’t be out for ages because I won’t have it finished til about this time next year.

    I imagine the community would have been terrified (or at least some of the community) of such a grand and imposing stone circle. Perhaps the Bishop led them into it, to christianise it, with some of them needing to be cajoled and pressured?

  4. Thanks, Richard. My sense is the same, that there would be fear as well as an attempt to co-opt the site to overcome those fears and replace them with faith in something else more powerful. I wonder too if some disaffected souls might use such sites for dark arts or criminal activity that the church would want to clean up by taking over the site. On the other hand, one possible way of dealing with it is to make it more fearful by using it as an execution and burial site for criminals (as they did with some barrows in early Anglo-Saxon England). I don’t think Castlerigg shows evidence of that.
    I look forward to seeing news of Swallows and Black Streams!

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