Right up until the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, Britain’s (and really the world’s) economy was largely based around agriculture. Settlements were mostly rural and even large centres such as monasteries, royal estates and palaces, and trading centres called wics would have been very rural by modern standards.
Most settlements took the form of small hamlets and villages found within forest clearings, the rugged moors, or picturesque seaside bays. At this time the population of Britain was still exceedingly small and so to us these communities would have seemed very isolated to each other. In the celtic west and northern England there were also isolated farmsteads as well as nucleated villages. These would have to be extremely self sufficient as the nearest neighbour or village could be very far away. The Anglo-saxons generally settled anywhere near fertile agricultural land, water sources (for transportation as much as for drinking, cooking, washing and industrial uses), or other lines of communication such as woodland tracks or the larger roman roads.
A typical Saxon village comprised of the timber homes of a clan made up of of a few families. Each home sheltered not just the mum, dad and 2.5 kids but also grandma, grandad, and sometimes aunts, uncles, step and foster children. Sometimes the slaves would sleep in the same house as well and it was very common in the winter months especially to have your farmyard animals in specially created sections as well. In addition to these homes there is also evidence for bakehouses, barns, granaries and latrines.
Central to this community was the great hall which in some more affluent communities could be joined by another smaller hall. This was the heart of the community. The social and commercial hub, where meetings, courts, special celebrations, the welcoming of guests, news, trading and general socialising after a busy day took place.
Great halls were usually long and rectangular in shape with two entrances on either side. They could be either wood panelled (vertically) or wattle and daub and sometimes sat on stone bases. The Sulgrave hall in Northamptonshire was one of the timber panelled halls set on a base of stone from the 10th century. The excavation also revealed a smaller antechamber which was possibly used as a storeroom of some sort as well as a smaller detached building which might have been used as a kitchen and another stone walled building which was 2m tall and possibly a strong room or tower.
Inside there was usually one or more fire pits for warmth, light and if there was not a separate kitchen for cooking on as well. along one of the far walls there was a raised platform where the lord and his lady sat, flanked by their advisors and favourite warriors who sat on long mead benches. On the other side of the room on similar benches were the lesser thanes and younger initiates. Long trestle tables could also be brought out for feasts. Some halls also had recesses along the walls with benches that were also used for sitting on to work during the day and sleep on at night. Halls were often the homes of the Lord and his family, they slept on this benches as well as some of the lords fighting men. In other instances the lord and his family may have been separated by a curtained off section of the hall or by a more sturdy wooden partition.
Later in the 9th and 10th centuries when parts of England was influenced by the Danes and the Norse, halls took on a more Scandinavian flavour. These halls were bow sided, resembling an upside down hull of a ship that bowed in the middle and tapered at the ends. An example of this at Goltho in Lincolnshire, an area that was part of the five boroughs in the 10th century, strongholds known to be under the overlordship of the Vikings in Mercia and parts of East Anglia. The hall was bow shaped and measured 25m by 10m. Like Sulgrave, it too had a small separate building used as a kitchen. There was also a narrow wooden building 20m long used when the ladies of the community needed space to weave on their looms.
Another distinct type of building found in the Anglo-saxon period was the pit house, also known as a grubenhauser or grub hut. These buildings had their floors sunken below ground level, two or more central posts that held up the A-frame roof, usually had one entrance, no windows and were fairly small and squat in size. Some people believe that a wooden floor was suspended over his pit providing a storage area underneath, or that the pits were lined with straw to provide insulation. Others believe that this was the original floor.
It is not absolutely clear what their function was but they would have been habitable for anyone thinking of using it as a house. Clay loom weights have also been found in some excavations which have been taken as evidence for the possibility of it being used for ladies doing their weaving or some form of storage building.
After the 7th century the Anglo-saxons began expanding their settlements, bringing two or more smaller clans or family groups closer together to form co-operative villages that could share precious resources such as tradesmen, expensive horses and oxen to pull plows, watermills for grinding flour, share winter food stocks, and protect each other from enemies. The advent of Christianity also saw many of these communities move closer to the newly built churches and monastic sites, a new form of settlement that was being created.
Many communities, whether royal or not, were surrounded by earthen embankments and ditches which were lined with wooden stakes to form a palisade. This could be useful in times of war however it is thought that their best use was in protecting the community and their livestock from animals such as wolves and wild dogs. The larger villages would have had more extensive and better constructed palisade and embankments than the smaller hamlets and it is these types of settlements that the defensive burhs evolved from in the 9th century.