A HISTORY OF SAXON PORTSMOUTH

By Tim Lambert

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the Saxons arrived in the year 501. They were led by a man called Port. At that time Portsea Island was probably uninhabited. The Romans built Portchester Castle but there is no evidence of any Roman settlements on Portsea Island.

The Roman army left Britain in 407 AD and a few decades later Saxons from what is now Germany invaded. They settled on Portsea Island and they founded 3 villages. One was called Frodda ing Tun. Frodda was man and tun meant farm or hamlet. So it was the farm of small village belonging to Frodda. In time it became Froddington then Frotton then Fratton. Between Fratton and the sea at Eastney was another settlement called Middle Tun. In time it became known as Milton. There was another village called boche (meaning book) land. In Saxon times any written document was called a book and if the king or an important noble gave land to someone and gave a written document with it then it was called book land. In time the name changed to Buckland.

The Saxons also gave names to other areas. Their word for island was eg. So they called part of Portsea Island Eastern eg. In time it became Eastney. Hilsea was hollis eg. Hollis meant holly trees and this case eg probably meant an area of dry land surrounded by marsh with holly trees on it.

The name Stamshaw was originally made up of two words, stam meaning post and shaw, which was an old way of spelling shore. Nobody knows why there was a post by the shore but posts were sometimes used to mark the boundary of land. There was also an area called Rudmore at the entrance of the motorway. It was reed mere. The Saxon word mere meant pond. Tipner was Tippanora. Tippa was a Saxon and he owned a stretch of shore, in the Saxon language an ora. In the Saxon language Tippan ora meant Tippa's ora. Copnor was originally Coppanora or the ora belonging to Coppa.

The Saxons also gave Portsea Island and Portsdown Hill their names. The Latin for harbour is Portus. The Saxon word for island was eg (pronounced ee). So they called the island Portus eg. In time it became Portsea. Meanwhile language changed and the word eg was forgotten so they began to call it Portsea Island. The Saxon word for hill was dun so the hill was called Portus Dun. In time it became Portsdown. Meanwhile the word dun was forgotten and people began to called it Portsdown Hill.

The Saxon word ham meant village and Cosham was once Cossa's ham. Wymering was once called Wygmaer ingas, which means the people of Wygmaer in Saxon. The name slowly changed to Wymering. Paulsgrove was Palla's grove. The Saxon word tun meant farm or settlement and dray meant drag. It is not certain what they dragged. Perhaps boats were dragged onto the shore. Farlington was Fern leah inga tun, which meant the estate or village belonging to the people of Fern clearing.

In Saxon times Portsea Island was marshy and it only had a small population. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Hayling Island had more people. A church on the site of St Marys in Fratton was first mentioned in the 12th century but there was probably one there much earlier.

However in the 9th century King Alfred the Great created a network of forts or fortified settlements across his kingdom to fight the Danes. They were called burhs. In the event of a Danish attack all the men in each area would gather together in the local burh. Where possible Alfred used old Roman towns or forts. In the 10th century his successor, Edward the Elder, repaired the Roman fort at Portchester and turned it into a burh.

The vast majority of Saxons made their living from farming. Up to 8 oxen pulled ploughs and fields were divided into 2 or sometimes 3 huge strips. One strip was ploughed and sown with crops while the other was left fallow.

The Saxons grew crops of wheat, barley and rye. They also grew peas, cabbages, parsnips, carrots and celery. They also ate fruit such as apples, blackberries, raspberries and sloes. They raised herds of goats, cattle and pigs and flocks of sheep.

However farming in Saxon times was very primitive. Farmers could not grow enough food to keep many of their animals through the winter so as winter approached most of them had to be slaughtered and the meat salted. The Saxons were subsistence farmers. (Farmers grew enough to feed themselves and their families and very little else). At times during the Saxon era there were terrible famines in England when poor people starved to death.

Some Saxons were craftsmen. They were blacksmiths, bronze smiths and potters. At first Saxon potters made vessels by hand but in the 7th century the potters wheel was introduced). Other craftsmen made things like combs from bone and antler or horn. There were also many leather workers and Saxon craftsmen also made elaborate jewellery for the rich.

Saxon women ground grain, baked bread and brewed beer. Another Saxon drink was mead, made from fermented honey. (Honey was very important to the Saxons as there was no sugar for sweetening food. Bees were kept in every village). Upper class Saxons sometimes drank wine. The women cooked in iron cauldrons over open fires or in pottery vessels. They also made butter and cheese. Saxons ate from wooden bowls. There were no forks only knives and wooden spoons. Cups were made from cow horn.

Saxons were fond of meat and fish. However meat was a luxury and only the rich could eat it frequently. The ordinary people usually ate a dreary diet of bread, cheese and eggs. They ate not just chickens eggs but eggs from ducks, geese and wild birds.

The Saxons lived in wooden huts with thatched roofs. Usually there was only one room shared by everybody. (Poor people shared their huts with animals divided from them by a screen. During the winter the animals body heat helped keep the hut warm). Thanes and their followers slept on beds but the poorest people slept on the floor.

There were no panes of glass in windows, even in a Thane's hall and there were no chimneys, smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. Floors were of earth or sometimes they were dug out and had wooden floorboards placed over them. There were no carpets.

Rich people used candles but they were too expensive for the poor. Instead poor Saxons used rush lights (rushes dipped in animal fat).

Saxon toilets were just pits dug in the ground surrounded by walls of wattle (strips of wood woven together). The seat was a piece of wood with a hole in it.

Saxon men wore a shirt and tunic. They wore trouser like garments called breeches. Sometimes they extended to the ankle but sometimes they were shorts. Men might wear wool leggings held in place by leather garters. They wore cloaks held in place by brooches. Saxon women wore a long linen garment with a long tunic over it. They also wore mantles. Saxon women did not wear knickers. Both men and women used combs made of bone or antler.

Kinship (family ties) were very important in Saxon society. If you were killed your relatives would avenge you. If one of your relatives was killed you were expected to avenge them. However the law did provide an alternative. If you killed or injured somebody you could pay them or their family compensation. The money paid was called wergild and it varied according to a persons rank. The wergild for killing a thane was much more than that for killing a churl. Thralls or slaves had no wergild. If the wergild was not paid the relatives were entitled to seek revenge.

A history of Portsmouth

A history of Saxon England

Life in Saxon England

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