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Ben Thornes

The Saxon settlement and takeover of Dorset

Tuesday 15th July 2014

The first indication, from around the middle of the fifth century or even a little earlier, of a Germanic presence in Dorset is provided by the recovery, as surface finds, of a woman’s equal-arm brooch from a probable villa site, and another of cruciform type, probably from a female burial, from two separate locations below the hill-fort of Hod Hill in the central part of the county. An Anglo-Saxon spearhead, datable between the mid-fifth and the mid-sixth century, has been recorded from within the defences of the hill-fort. These artefacts, it may be argued, together hint at the arrival at Hod Hill of Germanic mercenaries in the employ of the now independent post-Roman British, together with their families. It may also be noted that recent excavations by the National Trust have exposed fifth/sixth-century British occupation within the defences of Badbury Rings. Gildas, writing probably in the mid-sixth century, tells us that the Britons made use of defended hill-tops at this time. Another fifth-century Germanic woman’s brooch has been found at Puddletown, north-east of Dorchester, on the Roman road from Badbury.

Those brooches are of a much earlier date than that of the arrival of Anglo-Saxons in the eastern part of the county, in the first half of the sixth century. The sites to be associated with these newcomers are located to the west and south-west of Bokerley Dyke, as far as the linear earthwork known as Combs Ditch (Winterborne Whitechurch) and the Stour valley. The identity and significance of these immigrants in this area is underlined by the exceptional place-name, Seaxpenn, ‘the hill of the Saxons’, now Pen Hill, which occurs in a Fontmell Magna charter of 932, and which appears to have defined their territorial limit at the north-west – for the coining of that name would have been irrelevant at a later date. This distribution of sixth-century Anglo-Saxon sites carries implications for the interpretation of the post-Roman history of Bokerley Dyke itself, with the inference that the Dyke apparently no longer served as a British defence against the Anglo-Saxons from the early sixth century onwards. Bokerley Dyke, however, remained relevant, as is indicated by its role as the liminal location for seventh-century burials of the Anglo-Saxon elite and a later Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery, with the burials inserted haphazardly into the earthwork, and as the county limit. This suggests that this major territorial boundary, which, in an earlier form, had defined notable differences in land use and demarcation since, perhaps, the Middle Bronze Age, continued, in the sixth century AD, to divide the former Roman civitas Durotrigum, centred upon Dorchester, from the civitas Belgarum, focused upon Winchester. It appears, therefore, that this early Anglo-Saxon presence in eastern Dorset was absorbed into, or had a special relationship with, post-Roman British authority in the county. It is possible that this new Saxon territory may have come about peacefully, through some accommodation with the local British elite (who are likely to have been Christians and who may still have regarded themselves as ‘Romans’) – perhaps, for instance, as a result of a marriage agreement with the Britons – rather than through military conquest. Other signs of the Anglo-Saxons in Dorset in the sixth century are limited to a pendant from Weymouth and a burial ground at Hardown Hill, Whitechurch Canonicorum, both places by the coast.

It is also the case that south-western Wiltshire, to the south of the River Wylye and west of Teffont, an Old English name meaning ‘the *funta (spring) on the boundary’, where there was a probable Roman shrine, appears to have been a part of the civitas Durotrigum until the first half of the seventh century. For Anglo-Saxon burials, both male (with weapons) and female – for example at Alvediston, Maiden Bradley, West Knoyle, Swallowcliffe (where the female Saxon burial was deep and driven through the primary Bronze Age grave, perhaps to emphasise the dominance of the newcomers) and Mere – of that date and also later in that century, in that area are of distinctive character and some of them are richly furnished. Taken together, they appear to indicate the takeover, here at least perhaps a military one, of new territory by an Anglo-Saxon elite – though even in this area there are hints in the burial rites employed of the deliberate inclusion of some native customs. These distinctive graves are in notable contrast to those to the east of Teffont, where Anglo-Saxon burials date to the sixth century, having spread westwards across south Wiltshire from an early, fifth-century, nucleus around Old Sarum, near Salisbury. In other words, the Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern part of the civitas Durotrigum came about in a piecemeal fashion and over a considerable period of time.

The appearance of Anglo-Saxons in that area from the earlier seventh century is mirrored by evidence, in the form of both burial sites and casual finds, for the arrival of others around Dorchester itself at around the same time. It seems clear, therefore, that it was only in the first half of the seventh century that the Anglo-Saxons finally achieved mastery of the whole county. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides no information about the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Dorset, though it does refer to a battle at Peonnan, possibly at Penselwood, where the counties of Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset meet together, in 658, when, it is said, the Anglo-Saxons forced the Britons to flee as far as the River Parrett. The Parrett quite probably marked the limit between the Britons of Somerset and those of Devon and therefore that battle appears to have brought about the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the northern group of the Durotriges, whose probable civitas capital was at Ilchester (Lindinis).

There is other archaeological evidence for the post-Roman Britons in Dorset. Notably, this is to be seen in the excavated settlement site inside Poundbury hill-fort near Dorchester. There both the post-built and the terraced structures are of distinctive types and markedly different from those of the Anglo-Saxons. A number of burial-grounds, datable between the fifth and the seventh centuries, of the Christian Britons are also known, for instance at Tolpuddle, and at Ulwell in Purbeck. In contrast to the furnished graves (ie, those with grave-goods) of the Anglo-Saxons, their burials were unaccompanied and set out in regular west to east rows. The name Lanprobi recalls a church of the Britons at Sherborne. Uninscribed stone grave-markers, of distinctive forms, and five stones inscribed with the names of prominent members of the British Christian community – on the most recent assessment, datable between the fifth and the eighth, or possibly the ninth, centuries – once set into the fabric of Lady St Mary, Wareham, complement other evidence for a flourishing Church in Dorset before the English gained control and a significant British element in its clergy thereafter.

The captioned figure was first published to illustrate a note by the writer in Britannia 35 (2004).

The above is a brief summary of a fully referenced paper to be included in a volume, now in preparation, with the provisional title:

From Roman Civitas to Saxon Shire: Topographical Papers on the Formation of Wessex

This book will contain the greater part of the author’s published and unpublished writing on the historic landscape of Wessex, with particular emphasis on the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon settlement in the region.

Dr Bruce Eagles, Visiting Research Fellow, School of Applied Sciences, Bournemouth University

June 2013

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