Home in Anglo-Saxon England

Cynewulf of Wintencaestre


As a Scop, or Anglo-Saxon bard, I would be familiar with not only my own area, but those of other kingdoms as well.

I was born and raised by my ceorle[1] parents in their enclosed farmstead, known as a tun, a wic, or a wordig[2]. This is a fenced enclosure containing the house of my family, and outbuildings necessary to maintain the tun. It is necessary to maintain the integrity of the fences and hedges surrounding out tun both as a deterrent to Danish raiders, and to prevent damage caused by the wandering stock of other farmers.

The principal building in our tun is the long house, which is a long wooden building with a pitched thatched roof with overhanging eaves. The walls are made of wattle and daub over a woven framework, and heavy wooden upright poles terminating in forks to support the roof beams. A round hole in the centre of the roof allows the smoke from the hearth in the centre of the hall to escape. In inclement weather this hole is closed to stop the ingress of rain, and smoke escapes the hall through cracks in the daub and through the thatch of the roof (Quennel 1959: 140-41). The fire is the centre of life in the hall. Wooden benches run the length of the hall along the walls.

Although my family has other buildings for stock, a wooden screen can divide the hall so that some stock can shelter at one end of the hall in very cold weather. These also help to heat the hall. Our hall has a few windows, none of which are glassed.

Around the hall are a number of smaller outbuildings, in which live the small number of bound labourers (villains, bordars and cottars) who work for myself and my parents (Hunter Blair 1997: 249). These buildings are of much the same construction as the hall, but on a smaller scale. The eaves of the weaving and dying house reach to the ground, as this building is sunk into the ground in the old style (Quennel 1959: 141).

On one edge of the tun is a bere-oern for storing grain. Also within our tun is a vegetable garden, in which we and our labourers grow turnips, parsnips, peas, cabbages and herbs (Hunter Blair 1997: 259).

Outside the walls and ditch surrounding the tun are our small orchard, with cherry, apple, pear and plum trees, and also blackberries and one large but rare mulberry tree. We also have a small vineyard maintained within a thorn hedge. However most of our hide[3] is used to farm grain crops and keep sheep and cattle. Within our hide we farm wheat (hwoete), rye (ryge), barley and oats (ate) (Hunter Blair 1997: 259). We use oxen to plough the land, and use a plain plough with no wheel. Our hide is around 40 acres, and is very productive.

Although there is a vertical water mill[4] nearby, most flour for bread is ground by hand using a hand quern. We have several of these in the tun. All of our querns are imported, and made of superior niedermendig lava from Mayen in Germany. These querns are both cheaper and of better quality than those made in Northumbria of Millstone grit stone (Addison 1995). Ours were purchased from a travelling merchant in the nearby town of Wintencaestre (Winchester), although they would have arrived in England at the trading emporium of Hamwic (Southampton).

Our tun is located in the middle of Wessex. This area is mostly open country, with the only major woodland being Selwood to the west, which divides Wessex from the see of Sherbourne. Because of the open nature of the country in Wessex, and because of the fertility of the soil, that our hide is of only 40 acres - the hides of ceorls in less productive kingdoms can be as large as 120 acres.

Our nearest ton is Wintencaestre (Winchester), which is one of the largest fortified towns (ports[5]) in the region. It is not a town in the modern sense, as most people live outside the town. There are some houses, each with its own area of land to work, and a share in shared land of the town (gedalland). However Wintencaestre is primarily a trading centre. Pedlars and caravans continually visit the port to trade, as it is an easily defensible site. Also, most trade takes place in the presence of the town reeve, to ensure that it is fair.

As a scop, I have travelled widely throughout the kingdoms. In my bag I carry a small drum, a flute, and a lyre rather than the less portable harp[6] (Lawson 1981: 244). I also carry a horn on the outside of my bag, as if I travel away from the main highway through a forest, and do not shout or blow a horn, I will be assumed to be a brigand, and can be arrested. I prefer to blow a horn, as I am frequently on the road and do not wish to wear out my voice.

Although of the family of a ceorle rather than an eorle[7], as a scop I am accorded more respect than most of my rank, and am welcomed into the halls of kings and eorles. These are far larger than those of my parents, and those of a few kings (such as Egbert (Ecgberht, reigned 802-839), king of Wessex) are made of stone, and richly decorated.

My family pay tribute to the king of Wessex. In past years, ceorls could make a very good living, but of late as more small kingdoms merge into larger ones, it becomes more difficult to meet requirements, as tax collectors take a cut from taxes collected. Luckily, living close to Wintencaestre, my family are able to pay the bulk of their tribute there in person, thus avoiding the tax collectors. All taxes must be paid in authorised coinage if not paid in goods. There are six authorised moneyers in Wintencaestre (Hunter Blair 1997: 281), all of whom are kept honest by the threat of having one of their hands cut off should they be found distributing debased coinage. The largest unit of currency is the penny, with the more common shilling below this, followed by tryms, sceatt, and mancus (Hunter Blair 1997: 271). We also owe tribute to the church.

As I journeyed north a few years ago, I found that although the Danes used our coinage, they would count it differently, making paying for things much more difficult in the areas near their influence.

My family and I also owe military service to the king. Recently this has been more frequent, due to the incursions of the Danes. However despite taxes and military service, my family are free, and not bound to the soil - free to leave as we please. However, despite our free status, we will rise at dawn to work the land, and return when there is insufficient light. My mother and hr women work at cooking and making cloth, and in particular, tablet-woven braid - the 'English work', which is so prized on the continent.

My family is Christian, and attends the small wooden church nearby regularly on Sunday, and observes all fasts and holy days. However although we are devout, we all acknowledge many small superstitions, which pre-date the coming of the Christian faith. Holy days are also an excuse for less than decorous celebration (Power 1924: 36), and the churchyard is usually the place for these celebrations and dances. I will play at these celebrations when I am at home - which due to my profession, is rarely.

When I am not at home I spend a large amount of time on the road. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the country was criss-crossed with well built roads. As a result of this the best roads in the country are still the Roman ones.

Over the time since the Romans left Britain, their roads and public works have fallen into disrepair. However most Roman roads were well constructed enough to last, and are kept open by the movement of armies, marching to combat the Danes or against other kingdoms. More recent roads tend to follow less direct routes, and vary in size according to the traffic. Most Roman roads through fens have since fallen into ruin, and although some people live around the edges of fens, the centres are not highly populated (Hunter Blair 1997: 241).


Hunter Blair, P (1997) Anglo-Saxon England, A History of England series, The Folio Society, London

Addison, J (1995) Querns, Millstones and Trade in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain, Unpublished dissertation, Adelaide.

Quennel, M and C.H.B. (1959) Everyday Life in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Times, Dorset Press, New York.

Power (1924) Mediaeval People, The Folio Society, London

Lawson, G (1981) An Anglo-Saxon harp and lyre of the ninth century in Music and Tradition - Essays on Asian and other musics presented to Lawrence Picken, D.R. Widdess & R.F. Wolpert ed, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


1 A Ceorle was a free farmer or craftsman (Hunter Blair 1995: 247) – not as important as royalty, nobles, or high clergy, but nevertheless not bound to their land, holdings or profession.
2 Although these terms are interchangeable, and all eventually came to mean town or village, I shall henceforth use tun for consistency.
3 Measure of land that can be farmed by a ceorle and his houseold.
4 A vertical water wheel is onewith a horizontal axle, where water falls onto the top of the wheel or runs under it. This is different from the earlier horizontal wheel, which has a vertical axle and a wheel which turns horizontally in the current.
5 The Anglo-Saxon term port does not refer to a town on the coast. There are a number of terms for what would now be regarded as towns – burgh, a fortified place (or premises of a nobleman), coester, from the latin castra, and port, a trading centre with a market and coinage minting rights (Hunter Blair 1997: 263).
6 Although harps were beginning to come into use during the nith century, they were still unusual instruments in Britain.
7 An eorle refers to a nobleman, as opposed to a commoner or ceorle. One could tell one’s status by looking at one’s weregild. This is a payment due to kinsmen by the man who slew him. A nobleman’s weregild in 7th century Wessex was 1,200 silver shillings compared to that of a ceorle – 200 shillings. Wealthy ceorls could rise to minor nobility status with a weregild of 600 shillings (Hunter Blair 1997: 247-8).