After the initial migration period of Angles and Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries there was a shift from chieftainships and petty kingships with small territories to larger kingdoms (such as the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia which themselves joined to make the larger Kingdom of Northumbria). The larger the kingdom became the more the king found that he had to move about this vast territory in order to keep law and order. Palatial estates like Yeavering in Northumberland were established for the royal families and their courts to stay at and the food and drink that the royal court consumed during these visits were provided by the locals as part of their rent. These royal centres also acted as centres of administration and for Christianity, especially during the 7th and 8th centuries when the new faith was being encouraged amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons.
So what did these royal estates look like? Well unfortunately nothing as exciting as the romantic ideals of stone keeps and crenellations from the norman and later medieval period. During the Anglo-saxon period and at least until the Norman period, palaces were basically enlarged versions of the hall and home model of the rural hamlets. These halls could typically range in size between 18-30m in length and 6-9m wide. This of course varied and there are examples that are known to have been up to 50m long.
Like any other estate or farming community the large ornately decorated halls were accompanied by the smaller structures of the community, churches and chapels, workshops, outhouses, sunken houses or grubhuts, pits and pens for the animals. Some palaces were built on top of earlier Iron Age hill forts or in areas of previous spiritual/political significance. They also took place on areas with military or economic importance which could mean on top of a steep hill, at the cross roads of a river or road, or in the best arable land.
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 and royal estates would have had more extensive and better constructed palisades and embankments than the smaller hamlets and it is these types of settlements that the defensive burhs evolved from in the 9th century.
There are relatively few examples of royal palace sites that have been excavated such as at Yeavering (Northumberland), Cheddar (Somerset), North Elmham (Norfolk), Northampton (Northamptonshire). There are even fewer descriptions in the written record. We know for example, that in the Anglo-saxon chronicle that King Cynewulf was surprised by his enemies in 786 while he was in his mistress’ bower or house within one of his palace estates in Hampshire. We know it was located in a town called Meretun but where exactly this was we still cannot tell.
Cheddar was an important palace site during the time of Alfred the Great. We know that the witan or king’s council met here in 941, 956 and 968 but excavated finds have proven that the site was used by the Anglo-saxons from at least around 845. There is a long hall of timber, bow sided and 23m by 6.5m (in the centre) made either of wattle and daub or else horizontal planks. It had opposing doors in the middle of the hall and a single door near one end with three posts at the other end which may have marked a partition for an inner chamber. It is also thought that this hall was two stories high.
In addition to the main hall there was a privy building, another later building that is interpreted as being a corn mill for processing flour or a fowl house, as well as several grubhuts. There were also chapels at the site built of timber, ashlar and limestone footings.
Around these buildings was a defensive ditch and palisade. The ditch formed the length of the northern boundary of the complex and joined the wooden palisade at a right angle in the east. The wooden palisade ran north-south and had a gate in its centre.
Another palace complex dating from at least the 7th century is found at Northampton. Here an earlier wooden hall or palace was found underneath an 8th century stone built hall measuring 37.6m by 11.4m. This later hall had foundations of ironstone and limestone slabs and shows evidence of the interior walls being plastered. Tile fragments found during excavation suggest that roof was tiled as well. During the lifetime of this particular hall there was evidence of additions and annexes on either end of the halls used as living quarters or storage.
Yeavering, also known as Ad Gefrin in the Anglo-saxon period, has been a location used since at least Neolithic times. The largest hillfort discovered in Northumberland is found nearby and an enclosure within the palace complex may have been in use as early as the roman period. In the early 7th century Northumbria was ruled by a pagan king called Edwin who as part of a political alliance, married the Christian princess of Kent called Ethelburga. Joining the princess on her trip north was Bishop Paulinus and thanks largely to these two figures Northumbria began its conversion to Christianity. It was only two years after their arrival in 927 that even King Edwin converted as well. Yeavering therefore doubled as one of the first Christian centres in Northumbria.
A large timber palace hall had been built at Yeavering and later rebuilt to be over 100ft in length. Internal postholes excavated at the site suggest that the hall may have even been aisled.
There had also been a pagan hall or temple made of wood with the remains of ox bones excavated in a distinct pile, possibly evidence of sacrifice. This was replaced by a Christian church and cemetery after Paulinus’ visit in 925.
One of the most unusual buildings at Yeavering is a large, tiered, wooden grandstand or open air theatre. The theatre composed of nine trenches each forming arcs that fit one inside of each other, of varying depths going out from the centre. These would have had vertical posts and buttresses set in them to form the framework of the grandstand. In front of this was a smaller collection of 8 postholes which is thought to have been the dias used by the orator or speaker. It has been suggested that it was here that civic meetings or the witan was held. It could also have been built or used for the community to hear the strange stories of their new bishop from the south who spoke to them of a man-god who had lived many hundreds of years before them and had died for the sins.
The entire complex of hall, churches, houses, grub huts, workshops and the grandstand was not surrounded by a protective wooden palisade like other palace complexes, however one such enclosure was found off to the side. Two parallel trenches for the palisade fence were dug, the inner being 1.8m deep and the outer being a greater depth of 2.1m. A circular trench flanked the main entrance to the enclosure where a rectangular timber building had once stood. This area may have been in use as early as the Roman period, possibly to house stock such as cows and sheep during market days, horses, or even used as a meeting or ceremonial ground of some sort.
In 633 King Edwin died in battle against the united forces of King Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Wales. The people of Northumbria suffered greatly under these victors and it is from around this time that it seems that parts of Yeavering including the grandstand were burnt and destroyed. It is thought that the complex was abandoned briefly after this date, resettled on a smaller scale, and then abandoned again in the early 8th century in favour of Maelmin a few kilometers north of millfield.
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