For all of Bath’s, and indeed the UK’s, rich history, the Dark Ages is a period often skipped over when looking back through the history books…
Jules was recently given the opportunity to write a guest column for The Bath Magazine, placing this dark period at the centre of his thoughts in an article that explores the Saxon origins of Christmas.
Highlighting that ‘There is clearly more to Bath’s past than the Romans, Normans and Georgians’… The article examines Saxon history, discusses how England & Bath were shaped by the presence of a violent new culture, and looks at how the Saxons are responsible for many of the festive traditions we still enjoy to this day… Great job Jules!
“After a glorious summer spent exploring the English countryside, December is the perfect time of year to research, reflect and put pen to paper… Inbetween eating mince pies of course!” – Jules.
The full text reads:
‘Whilst Bath is rightly known for its Roman Baths, the Norman Abbey and its fabulous Georgian architecture, the city’s rich cultural and historical legacy consists of much more than just these well-celebrated epochs. Bath has seen waves of new settlers arrive for nearly five millennia and when the Romans arrived in 43 C.E., the site of today’s city was guarded by a ring of hillforts belonging to the Dubonni tribe.
As the owner of ‘Around & About Bath’ tours and a former history teacher, I’ve recently become fascinated by Bath’s history in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. A period that began with the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 C.E. and ended with the Norman Conquest in 1066.
This period of Britain’s history is often called the ‘Dark Ages’ because we have relatively few records written during this time and it was characterised by warfare and violence. It was also a period of drama and flux during which England, Scotland and Wales, as we know them today, were formed. Although the Romans abandoned ‘Aqua Sulis’ and the rest of ‘Britannia’ to their fate in 410 C.E, recalling the legions to deal with rampaging barbarian hordes on the continent, Bath continued to play a prominent role in England’s history in this new, darker age.
One of the most famous events of this period was the battle of Badon Mount. This battle was supposedly fought between the legendary King Arthur and the invading Saxon ‘savages’ that had invaded Britain in the late 400s and had been remorselessly pushing westwards. We are not entirely sure of where this battle took place, but based on historical references, many believe Solsbury Hill just above Batheaston, is the most likely site. It is here that the Christian Britons repulsed the encroaching heathen Anglo-Saxons, killing hundreds in an almighty battle that lasted three full days and resulted in the Saxons being driven back east for at least a generation.
It is, however, the Saxons rather than the Britons that have seized my imagination. Despite Arthur’s great victory, within a couple of generations, the Bath region was firmly under the control of the West Saxons and the Britons had retreated west and south to become the people we know today as the Welsh and the Cornish. It seems that the Saxons were fascinated with the crumbling Roman ruins they inherited at Bath and one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon poems, ‘The Ruin’, written in the 8th or 9th centuries – around 500 years after the Romans left – appears to refer to the derelict city…
Wondrous the stone of these ancient walls, shattered by fate.
The districts of the city have crumbled.
The work of giants of old lies decayed…
…Stone courtyards ran streams of ample water, heating the great baths,
conveniently flowing into the great stone vats…
By the time this poem had been recorded in the 900s, Bath’s importance as a Saxon town was well established. The founding of a convent in Bath in 675 C.E. attests both to the fact that the heathen Saxons had been successfully converted to Christianity and also that Bath’s stature was growing once again. It is from this time that ‘Bath’ starts being referred to by the name we recognise it today… ‘Hat Bathu’ or ‘Hot Baths’ was the name it was given by our Saxon forebears. The convent was soon joined by a monastery and thus Bath’s role as a centre of religious importance was restored; both the ancient Britons and Romans had linked Bath’s springs to their respective religions. Finally, in the 880s, King Alfred the Great made Bath one of his new ‘boroughs’. This development of fortified, self-governing towns that would act as a network of defences and provide men and supplies would ensure that it was the Anglo-Saxons that ended up the dominant force in England, not the Vikings. Bath’s prosperity was thus guaranteed by Saxon patronage of the city in religion, politics and defence.
There is clearly more to Bath’s past than the Romans, Normans and Georgians. Whilst Bath Abbey ensures we can clearly see the Norman’s influence on Christianity and many people are aware that many of our ‘modern’ Christmas traditions such as sending cards, giving presents and decorating a tree are Victorian traditions, what relevance have the Saxons on this festive time of year?
The answer is quite a lot! It is fascinating to discover that Saxon paganism merged with early Christianity to form many of the Christmas traditions we still practice today.
The term ‘Yule’ referred to the Sun or ‘light’ and was the name for the Saxon festival marking Mid-winter Solstice. At that time the ‘Julian’ calendar was in use, which marked mid-winter’s day on the 25th December and the pagan Saxons would spend the twelve days before Yule lighting candles and keeping fires burning to mark the occasion. It is no coincidence that the celebration of Christmas emerged alongside the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity and shared this date.
Other Saxon traditions also continued. Burning a ‘Yuletide log’ was a common Saxon tradition which consisted of burning an ash or oak log, lit from the remains of the previous year’s log on December 25th. The ashes were then spread across the fields and the burnt remains kept in the house to ward off fire and lightning until relit to light the next Yule log the following year.
Holly and Ivy were also central to the Saxons’ celebration of Yule. Both were revered as they did not die or wither as other plants seemed to during winter, but kept their greenness and vitality. They symbolised continuity and fertility, with holly representing the masculine, and ivy the feminine. Whilst these meanings have been largely lost on us today, we continue to use holly and ivy in our modern Christmas decorations.
The fact that our Saxon past seems so removed from us today is primarily due to two reasons. First, the period of the Saxon kingdoms was a precarious and unstable one. Fewer records were made and of those, many were probably destroyed during that time. Secondly, after 1066 the Normans did a spectacularly good job of annihilating much of Britain’s Saxon culture and history in an attempt to establish the dominance of their own. It is no coincidence that the Normans destroyed much of the Saxons physical heritage (such as Churches), literally building their own versions on top of their remains.
As we enjoy this festive season and reflect on times gone by, is it worth sparing a moment’s thought for Bath’s Saxon ancestors? Who, over a thousand years ago, would have huddled in dimly lit, wooden-framed houses, sitting close to a smoky fire, wrapped tightly in thick sheepskins celebrating the end of the year and the coming birth of a new one with customs we take for granted today? Perhaps it is worth a moment’s thought. ‘ – Jules Mittra