Michael Costin


Anglo-Saxon Great Estates; How did they work?

Report of a talk given by Dr Michael Costen on 8th March 2011



Michael Costen has been working on the early period of Saxon settlement and the way in which the Saxons brought change to the landscape.

The work of Peter Fowler and Susan Osthuizen on agricultural techniques and common fields respectively had made important contributions to our understanding of the late Saxon landscape of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries but Michael was here interested in the earlier period of Saxon occupation.

Archaeology suggested that pre-Anglo-Saxon Somerset had been dominated by a few important power centres such as South Cadbury, Cadbury Congresbury, Cannington Hillfort, and Glastonbury Tor. The elite maintained contact with the Eastern Roman Empire, with the rulers of Tintagel in Cornwall in all likelihood playing a dominant role in the power structure of the South West.

Limited finds of Roman coins during the late 5th to early 6th centuries suggest a return to a more primitive form of economy and Michael suggested that trading in slaves became an important factor at this time.

But there is good evidence that this situation of warrior chieftains based on hillforts did not continue. During the 6th century Old Welsh society changed. References to kings were disappearing. Society became less hierarchical and a peasant society depending on agriculture evolved.

The situation in neighbouring Anglo-Saxon Wiltshire at this time seems to suggest that a relatively peacable and not very militarised society was something of a norm.

But during the 7th century Anglo-Saxon society became more militarised and the growth of an aristocracy was favoured. Probably this occurred as a result of an influx of cultural ideas and treasure from Gaul. The outcome was a society poor in cash and dependent largely on the king giving land and treasure to his supporters in return for their service in his war-band. The arrangement was a perilous one and kings were frequently deposed. Later Chronicles from the time of King Alfred suggest tidy lines of kingly descent but the reality was probably far more messy.

For Somerset this all became a reality when the West Saxons burst into the southwest in the mid-seventh century. The battle of Penselwood (near Wincanton) in 658 is the event traditionally quoted as marking this change.

Dorset came under Saxon control about the same time and the newly enlarged Wessex was reorganized in order to provide the rulers with the wealth they needed to maintain their warrior society. The West Saxons were semi-Christian, having only recently undergone conversion. Old Welsh (i.e. British) Society probably had a Christian tradition of longer standing. It was Christianity that formed the basis of the new organisational structure of the West Saxon lands. A number of “Monasteria” were set up. These were quite large institutions with an Abbot supported by a large number of clerics. An important feature was that they were the focal point of quite substantial agricultural estates and seem not to have beenbased on earlier Roman villa estates. It also seems clear that in order to run efficiently they were heavily dependent on slave labour. This is perhaps a surprising conclusion but there is plenty of evidence for it, not least in some of the legal codes of the period, including that of King Ine in the early eighth century. In this slavery is the first item discussed and it appears that there were different categories of slaves, depending on whether they were born to it or had become enslaved for one of a number of reasons in their own lifetime. It was evidently highly regulated and not at all a casual affair.

There is very little physical evidence from this period - Michael cited the Anglo Saxon sword from Queen Camel. Most of the evidence comes from interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a few other documents of the time, and, most crucially, archaeological landscape studies. In a succession of maps Michael then described a number of likely early Anglo Saxon estates in Somerset and Dorset. He cited work by Dr J Davey examining the field patterns around South Cadbury and showing ditches originally cut in Roman times which had been crossed by later field boundaries. Nearby Sherborne had been an Old Welsh monastic settlement and was replaced by an Anglo Saxon Monasterium. The boundary can still be traced and Michael proposed that the Inland was farmed by slaves while there were small Anglo Saxon settlements to the west of Sherborne. Similar studies around Somerton, Curry Rivel and Chewton showed early rich arable land seeming to have a traceable curved “inland” boundary breaking through earlier field patterns.
In South Petherton a clear circular boundary could be detected. This was probably a Monasterium taken over by the King.

In summary the early Anglo Saxon period in western Wessex appears to have consisted of a series of great estates, some controlled by the King, some by the Church. The Wessex kings inherited an area where the social structure and landscape were well developed. By giving land to their supporters they created a landscape of conquest in which the churls on the small estates lost out. That these supplanted churls nonetheless had wealth was confirmed by early laws requiring Wergild as a compensation for murder of a churl to the value of 50 shillings - a huge sum of money in those days.

Michael’s recently published book is the recommended work for anybody aiming to examine more closely the arguments put forward in this talk:

Anglo-Saxon Somerset by Michael Costen. Oxbow Books 2011

Peter Johnson