Volume IV | Chapter 2 | Historical Background to the SculptureNext Back to catalogue index
by H. R. Loyn

The area dealt with in this volume consists predominantly of lands vitally affected by influence coming from the Thames estuary and the south coast. Much of the debate over cultural developments in art, learning, and sculpture revolves around the impact of ideas and techniques imported from the continent through the three centres of Canterbury, London, and Winchester. Such debate is, however, far from the whole story, and can be positively distorting. For long periods political, and also cultural, pressure came from the north-west along Watling Street, especially during the period of growth of Greater Mercia in the late seventh and eighth centuries. Scandinavian influence also, both from the Danelaw and directly during the reigns of Cnut and his sons (1016–42), proved far from negligible.


The degree of survival of the Romano-British population from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England remains an open question. Plague, pestilence and war took their toll. Linguistic evidence suggests an overwhelming preponderance of migrant Germanic-speaking settlers in the south-east. Place-name forms are more ambiguous. Conspicuous geographical features, hills, such as the Chilterns and great rivers, such as the Thames, tended to retain their names. London and Kent are outstanding among names that may indicate an element of survival of the native population. Throughout the area there is nevertheless consistent dominance of Anglo-Saxon elements in places denoting settlement and in the names of small rivers and streams, all suggestive of intense colonization by Germanic-speaking cultivators of the soil (Loyn 1991, 6–15). Systematic wholesale extermination of the native population may have been rare (or possibly unnecessary) although something approaching ethnic cleansing is not impossible, with some Romano-British peoples surviving in enclaves or as slaves, effectively culturally negative. Even so, physical survivals from Rome were great, and we become increasingly aware of them as excavations disclose the shape of early Anglo-Saxon towns and townships. In Canterbury, for example, the ruins of the massive Roman theatre, which is reckoned to have housed 7000 people, must have dominated the early medieval town; and the cathedral and St Martins were not unique in remaining as identifiable buildings in 597 when the Augustinian mission arrived (Brooks 1984, 24–5). London is more complicated, but there is reason to believe that many Roman buildings were still recognizable by the late seventh century even if significant Anglo-Saxon settlement took place on the Strand to the west of historic Londinium.1 Roman road systems remained in use. At Winchester the line of the Roman wall was followed by all subsequent defences (Biddle 1976, 272–7, 451). Enough Roman masonry persisted at Verulamium so that eleventh-century abbots of St Albans could stockpile material to build their massive new Norman abbey nearby. Even if we accept that major economic and social dislocation took place in the fifth and sixth centuries, we should always remember the continuing reminder of Roman presence that was to be found in the stone and brick buildings which they left behind them, ruinous and in decay as most of them must have become.

During this period, c. 450–600, the Anglo-Saxon settlers, some of whom were initially invited in as federates, slowly formed themselves into the historic kingdoms of Sussex, Wessex, Essex, and Kent. By the end of the period Kent under king Aethelberht (d. 616) became dominant not only in the south-east but over all Germanic settlers south of the Humber. The kingdoms were artificial creations, and evidence of earlier, smaller groupings is everywhere to be found. The kingdom of Kent at some stage was divided territorially into east Kent and west Kent; and the historic divisions into lathes represent very early administrative regions which may even link with the Roman past. Hastings preserved a separate identity within Sussex deep into Anglo-Saxon times. The subdivisions of Surrey disclosed in later estate structures suggest early consolidated groupings around, for example, the men of Woking or Godalming. In Berkshire the names Reading and Sonning, and in Essex the Rodings, give traces of identifiable peoples before the kingdoms were formed. There are still deep problems awaiting solution on the origins and date of Middlesex and the fate of London. Along the Hampshire coast and in the Isle of Wight the presence of people known as Jutes is incontestable. The building-blocks of which our historical kingdoms were shaped are better known thanks to the intense study of topography in recent years.2 The implications of such study for the cultural history of the pagan period are great, and in part negative. Establishment of viable arable districts by men accustomed to working in wood rather than stone leaves little tangible trace: but pagan sites such as Tuesley or Harrow may yet yield dividends to later archaeologists.


In 597 a new phase was opened in the history of the south-east. Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) did not succeed in converting all the pagan English, but the mission of St Augustine and his immediate successors brought the south-east firmly within the Christian fold with an archbishopric at Canterbury and bishoprics at London and Rochester. Later generations completed the task of conversion. A bishopric was set up at Dorchester on Thames in 634, an indication of the importance of the settlements on the Middle Thames as the centre of the growing authority of the West Saxon kingdom, and then in 662 at Winchester. By the end of the seventh century all of England was nominally Christian, thanks to the efforts of missionaries drawn both from the continent and from the Celtic West. The last of the organized peoples to receive the new faith were, curiously enough, within our region, and it was not until the 680s that St Wilfrid from York brought Christianity to Sussex and opened the way to the conversion of the pagans in the Isle of Wight (Stenton 1971, 138).

Culturally the conversion was an event of maximum importance. Arts ancillary to the faith, literacy, book-production, painting, sculpture, the use of stone where available for church-building, received massive impetus from the adoption of Christianity, opening wide contact with Rome and the world of Mediterranean civilization on the one hand and the Celtic Christians of Ireland, Wales and the West on the other.

The political background of the process was complex. For much of the seventh century, certainly after the death of the pagan Penda of Mercia in 654, the Northumbrians were the dominant power. Ravaged by internal dissension and threatened on hostile borders they could not establish permanent overlordship of the English peoples but the so-called Northumbrian Renaissance, coinciding roughly with the life of the greatest scholar of the age, the Venerable Bede (682–735), spread cultural light throughout all regions, including the south-east. In the eighth century dominance passed into Mercian hands under Aethelbald (716–57) and then supremely under king Offa (757–96). Offa's impact on the south-east was great. Mercian control of London was confirmed and the subordination of southern kings and princelings in Wessex, Sussex, Surrey, Kent, and Essex, emphasized (Stenton 1971, 206–12; Dornier 1977). Mid-Saxon London (Lundenwic) flourished to the west of Roman Londinium, along the Strand around Aldwych, a companion urban settlement of similar name-type to Ipswich and to Hamwic (Southampton). Late in his reign, in 793, the establishment of the abbey of St Albans (in part atonement for the political murder of king Aethelberht of East Anglia), provided a permanent social and cultural focal point on Watling Street, just one day's journey north-west from London. During the period of Mercian supremacy refinement of the taxation system, the creation of a reformed silver penny as a staple coinage and involvement in large-scale enterprise, civil and military (Offa's Dyke is the outstanding example) helped to consolidate the English people south of the Humber into a more coherent community, though there was also reaction, notably in the south-east. The violence and military activity alienated the men of Kent and East Anglia. The abortive attempt to set up an archbishopric at Lichfield (c. 787–803) roused intense hostility at Canterbury. In the 820s political mastery passed from Mercia to West Saxon hands under king Egbert (802–38) with general support from our region. Scandinavian raiding became a sporadic menace from the later eighth century to the ominous campaign of the winter of 851 when the Danes first stayed over winter in the Isle of Thanet. In 865 the Danes began their full-scale effort to conquer the country, an effort which brought yet a new dimension to the development of English society.


The reign of king Alfred (871–99), Egbert's youngest grandson, proved a momentous period in Anglo-Saxon history. By a mixture of military and diplomatic skill he stabilized a political frontier with the Danes that left the Scandinavian invaders and settlers in control of most of England north and east of Watling Street and the river Lea, and his own West Saxons in command of the south and west, including western Mercia and, after 886, London. His issue of a coinage with the London monogram symbolizes the reoccupation of the city which still had many Roman buildings standing, even if in ruins (Hobley 1986, 20). Alfred's kingship was deeply Christian, and his encouragement of learning had consequent effects on buildings and sculpture. Asser records Alfred's concern with the building and rebuilding of cities and towns, the treasures (aedificia) incomparably fashioned in gold and silver, the royal halls and chambers marvellously constructed of wood and stone, and the royal stone residences, moved from their old sites and splendidly rebuilt at more appropriate places by royal command (Asser 1959, 59 (chap. 76), 77 (chap. 91); Keynes and Lapidge 1983, 91, 101). His successors, Edward the Elder, Aethelstan, Edmund, and especially Edgar (959–75), followed his tradition, defeating and absorbing the Danish communities until Edgar, crowned at Bath in 973, could truly be styled king of the English. Scandinavian influence was reinforced by Danish conquest under Cnut and his sons between 1016 and 1042. The reestablishment of the old dynasty in the person of Edward the Confessor (1042–66) did not conceal its presence and it is no surprise to find, deep in English England, fine examples of stonework in Scandinavian style, such as the Ringerike-style stones from the churchyard of St Paul's cathedral in London (Ills. 350–2) and Rochester (Ills. 147–50), or reflecting a Scandinavian mythological background, such as the splendid example from Winchester (Ill. 646). The Danish kings were converts to Christianity and the church continued to play a dominant role in social life. Alfred's Christian kingship proved a permanent example to his successors in the legal field, notably to Edgar, and then to Cnut. Ecclesiastical influence was reinforced in the second half of the tenth century by the monastic revival led and inspired by St Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury and then archbishop of Canterbury (960–88). The vigorous Benedictine activity of the last century of Anglo-Saxon England fostered an active interest in all manner of cultural life at houses such as Abingdon and St Albans as well as at the major centres of Canterbury, London, and Winchester. Meanwhile modifications were taking place in the structure of society. Secular lordship became increasingly dependent on the possession of compact estates of calculated hidage as obligation to tax. Ecclesiastical organization retained some minsters serving a wide-spread area but also developed an increasing number of recognizable compact parishes (Blair 1988). All this was matter of moment for the future of artistic patronage and use of local craftsmen and artists, preparing the ground for the formulation of the full feudal order under the Norman conquerors.


The Norman settlement of England which followed William the Conqueror's victory at Hastings in October 1066 brought innovation, but there were also strong strands of continuity with the institutions and manners of the Anglo-Saxon past. In the new Anglo-Norman world developments took place that owed as much, if not more, to Anglo-Saxon roots as to continental: indeed, even before 1066 Anglo-Saxon influence in painting and manuscript illumination was powerful within the Norman duchy (Wormald 1944, 127–45). The conqueror's dynamism is unquestioned, but in the south-east it is well to remember work already done at Westminster and Waltham to place side by side with the intense activity of the new Norman lords, lay and ecclesiastical, at Canterbury, Rochester, Winchester, or St Albans. Odo, bishop of Bayeux, half-brother of king William, became earl of Kent, an office he held until his imprisonment in 1082; and he was famous for his patronage of builders and craftsmen on both sides of the channel (Bates 1975). Men of the stamp of Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, Gundulf, bishop of Rochester, or Paul of Caen (Lanfranc's nephew and abbot of St Albans), were not slow to use their newly acquired wealth. The result was the evolution of a new style in the Romanesque mould in which coherence between architecture and sculpture became a characteristic element (Zarnecki 1966, 96). To adorn constructions rather than to construct adornments may be taken as one of the principal ideals in the art of sculpture. Lesser churches multiplied, giving great opportunity to local craftsmen, and muddying scholarly attempts to distinguish late Anglo-Saxon from Anglo-Norman; there was deep overlap up to about 1120. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the south-east where the Conquest opened the way to continuous movement from Normandy and the north French coast. The student of Anglo-Saxon achievement is hard put to it if he attempts too zealously to draw the line and cry halt at 1066.


1. Vince takes the view that present archaeological evidence suggests that London itself may have eventually become deserted with a rebirth in the late sixth or seventh century (Vince 1990, 150–1).

2. Bassett 1989 includes essays by Nicholas Brooks on Kent, Barbara Yorke on the Jutes and the origins of Wessex, John Blair on Surrey, Keith Bailey on the Middle Saxons, and David Dumville on Essex, Middle Anglia, and the expansion of Mercia in the south-east midlands. Hawkes 1986 is also very valuable for the upper Thames region, notably Dorchester-on-Thames.

Next Back to catalogue index