Life in Anglo-Saxon England

By Tim Lambert

Society in Anglo-Saxon England

Everyday life in Anglo-Saxon England was hard and rough even for the rich. Society was divided into three classes. At the top were the thanes, the Saxon upper class. They enjoyed hunting and feasting and they were expected to give their followers gifts like weapons. Below them were the churls. Some churls were reasonably well off. Others were very poor. However, at least they were free. Below them were a class of slaves called thralls. Their lives were very hard. Some churls owned their land but many ‘rented’ land from a thane. They ‘paid the rent’ by working on the thane’s land for part of the week and by giving him part of their crops.

In early Anglo-Saxon Times England was a very different place from what it is today. It was covered by forest. Wolves prowled in them and they were a danger to domestic animals. The human population was very small. There were perhaps one million people in England at that time. Almost all of them lived in tiny villages – many had less than 100 inhabitants. Each village was mainly self-sufficient. The people needed only a few things from outside like salt and iron. They grew their own food and made their own clothes.

By the 11th century, things had changed somewhat. The great majority of people still lived in the countryside but a significant minority (about 10%) lived in towns. Many new towns had been created and trade was flourishing. England had grown into a stable, civilized state with an efficient system of local government. In the monasteries learning and the arts flourished.

The Anglo-Saxons also gave us most English place names. Anglo-Saxon place name endings include ham, a village or estate, tun (usually changed to ton), a farm or estate, hurst, a wooded hill, and bury, which is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word burh, meaning fortress or fortified settlement. The Anglo-Saxons called groups of Roman buildings a caester. In time that world evolved into the place name ending chester, caster, or cester.

Kinship (family ties) were very important in Anglo-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 person’s 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.

At first, Anglo-Saxon society was relatively free. There were some slaves but the basis of society was the free peasant. However, in time Anglo-Saxon churls began to lose their freedom. They became increasingly dependent on their Lords and under their control.

Farmers in Anglo-Saxon England

The vast majority of Anglo-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 plowed and sown with crops while the other was left fallow. The Anglo-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, 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.

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

Homes in Anglo-Saxon England

The Anglo-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 animal’s 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. 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 Anglo-Saxons used rushlights (rushes dipped in animal fat). Anglo-Saxon toilets were just pits dug in the ground surrounded by walls of wattle (strips of wood weaved together). The seat was a piece of wood with a hole in it.

Food in Anglo-Saxon England

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

Anglo-Saxons ate from wooden bowls. There were no forks only knives and wooden spoons. Cups were made from cow horns. The Anglo-Saxons were fond of meat and fish. However, meat was a luxury and only the rich could eat it frequently. Ordinary people usually ate a dreary diet of bread, cheese, and eggs. They ate not just chicken eggs but eggs from ducks, geese, and wild birds.

Clothes in Anglo-Saxon England

Saxon clothes were basic. Saxon men wore a shirt and tunic. They also wore trousers. 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. However Saxon women did not wear knickers.

Both men and women used combs made of bone or antler.

Rich Anglo Saxons

Rich people’s houses were rough, crowded, and uncomfortable. Even a Thane’s hall was just a large wooden hut although it was usually hung with rich tapestries. Thanes also liked to show off any gold they owned. Any furniture must have been simple and heavy such as wooden chests.

However, at least the rich Anglo-Saxons ate well. In the evenings they feasted and drank. During the day the main pastime of the rich was hunting. Rich Anglo-Saxons kept falcons. In the evenings apart from feasting, they enjoyed storytelling, riddles, and games like chess. After feasts, minstrels or gleemen entertained the lord and his men by playing the harp and singing.

Towns in Anglo-Saxon England

At first, the Anglo-Saxons were farming people and they did not need towns. However in time trade slowly increased and some towns appeared. By the mid-7th century, the Anglo-Saxons were minting silver coins. In Anglo-Saxon times a new town of London emerged outside the walls of the old Roman town. Some towns were created deliberately. King Ine founded Southampton at the end of the 7th Century. Other towns grew up at Hereford, Ipswich, Norwich, and Bristol.

In the late 9th century and early 10th century, Saxon kings created fortified settlements called burhs. These were more than just forts. They were also flourishing little market towns. Examples include Winchester, the capital of England. In the towns, craftsmen worked with iron, leather, bone, and wood. Little wooden ships sailed to and from the Saxon ports. The main export from Anglo-Saxon England was wool. Slaves were also exported.

King Alfred

Nevertheless, all these towns were very small by modern standards. In 1086 the population of London was only 16,000-18,000 and a large town like Lincoln only had 5,000 inhabitants. A medium-sized town like n had about 2,500 inhabitants. Many towns were smaller.

The old Roman towns fell into decay and Roman roads became overgrown. Travel was slow and dangerous in Anglo-Saxon times and most people only traveled if it was unavoidable. If possible people travelled by water along the coast or rivers.

Last revised 2024