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'Anglo-Saxon' thegnly buildings

Updated: May 23, 2021

How did rich late 'Anglo-Saxons' live? Can their use of buildings and shape tell us about how they viewed themselves, and how they maintained their power?

In the final part of the series discussing how Anglo-Saxon thegns expressed their power and status, after examining diet and textile use, we move onto the biggest archaeological category - buildings, and the built environment.

Anglo-Saxon Long Ranges

It is clear that, between the great halls of the royal site at Yeavering (Northumberland) in the seventy century and the year 900, elite residences in England are largely archaeologically invisible (Blair 2015, 184). However, by around the mid-tenth century, we see the emergence of a new set of settlements that seem to represent elite living as notably distinct. Traditionally these ‘long range’ has been readily identified as a symbol of thegnly residence. These comprised a combination of hall and chamber in a single large-scale building form. Blair identifies six examples, primarily in the East Midlands. Raunds Furnells (Northamptonshire) is perhaps the clearest example. Here a substantial construction measures some 38.5 metres in length is evident, accompanied by internal divisions creating rooms, although rebuilding of later halls on the same site makes interpretation difficult (Audouy and Chapman 2009,79-80). Certainly, these buildings acted as a powerful symbol. Halls, large and imposing in scale, provide physical evidence of wealth and control of manpower. There has also been the suggestion that these long ranges were deliberately constructed to make use of false perspective, exaggerating the grandeur of the settlement (Gardiner 2018, 90). However, it is the remarkable consistency between sites that is truly striking, suggesting a widely employed set of symbols of thegnly culture’ and deliberately employed to reinforce image, representing ‘a desire by individuals to conform and so be recognised as members of a particular group’ (Ibid., 94).

Blair has made clear, however, that the ‘long range’ represents only a single stage in a much broader chronology of the development of elite buildings (Blair 2015, 184-5). Predating it, in the early tenth century, appears to be simple (although still impressive) angle-sided halls, like the example found at the lesser thegnly settlements at Bicester (Oxfordshire) and Springfield Lyons (Essex) (Blair 2018, 356). Remarkable design similarity with the royal site at Cheddar (Somerset), even at the less significant thegnly sites, implies a deliberate attempt to model regal power in a careful focus on presentation (Blair Ibid., 356). Blair suggests that the form of these new aisled halls may have been a more deliberate call-back to the ‘heroic values’ of the mead hall culture in age of Beowulf than the ‘long ranges’ (Ibid., 361). By the end of the tenth century, we see replacement by the aisled hall; Goltho (Lincolnshire), West Cotton( Northamptonshire) and Faccombe Netherton (Hampshire) all illustrate this pattern of remodelling (Blair 2015, 195). This later development Gardiner ascribes to an apparent reorientation of competition from an inter- to intra-class form (Gardiner 2018, 96). Indeed, it is during the early eleventh century that we begin to see greater variation is settlement form (Loc. cit). If anything, this frequency of change in form would seem to reinforce the idea that these buildings were primarily expressing a clear image, as they were forced to update with evolving fashions and trends. It is plausible, indeed, that this expression of thegnly status through architecture was impacted by international, especially Frisian, models (Blair 2018, 361). It is clear, then, that settlement archaeology points to a unique set of architectural expressions of power through the hall, but it is equally clear that to focuses solely on the ‘long-range’ is over-simplistic.

Auxiliary Buildings

In conjunction with this central impressive building, there appear to have existed a set of auxiliary buildings associated with thegnly high-status settlement, representing a ‘spectrum of service structures’ (Thomas 2010, 213). Indeed if Geþycđno is perhaps over-simplistic in its list of thegnly characteristics, it at least establishes the strong link between building types and social status (Shapland 2019, 146). Kitchens have been suggested as a possible purpose of accompanying timber buildings: this is certainly the case at Raunds (Audouy and Chapman 2009, 79). Further buildings have been identified as a weaving shed at Goltho and as a barn at Cotton (Gardiner 2018, 91). Substantial latrine structures certainly seem to represent an example of luxury, and the form found frequently at long ranges are notable for their impressive size and their apparent covered access from the adjoined chambers (Blair 2015, 200). However, it is towers that provide the best example of specialised buildings at high-status sites denoting importance. Timber towers appear to have existed from the late ninth century and are found at high status sites like Bishopstone (Sussex), while stone ‘tower-nave’ churches are also associated frequently with local lords (Shapland 2019, 133-5). Shapland has explored the complex imagery of these towers as part of the general ostentatious nature of thegnly settlements, not least of all promoted by their impressive and domineering size (Ibid., 159). Beyond a single dominating building, then, lordly settlements appear to have drawn on a broad range of symbolic structures in an ensemble expressing status.


That many of these elite sites also had a stone church is also significant, combining an image of ‘permanency and ideological support to the social order’ (Gardiner 2018, 93). The symbolism here is clear, in associating thegnly leadership with religious (and communal) provision. Senecal sees here a parallel with the burial of thegns in Benedictine communities, perhaps in an attempt to secure their legacy through association with a community focused on literacy (Senecal 2001, 262). In architectural terms, too, these churches embody ostentatious spending. Built often in stone, the expenditure of labour in their construction would have been substantial. Certainly, in a world dominated by wooden structures, stone would have been infrequently experienced as a building material for the peasantry, and its permanence would no doubt have been symbolically striking. The frescos on the church in Clayton in Sussex (if indeed it does represent a pre- Conquest building) are a prime example of ‘the pretensions of its lord’ (Fleming 2001, 13).

The bond between these churches and thegnly status is, however, unclear. On the one hand, radio-carbon dating places the construction of the churchyard at Raunds Furnells (or, at the very least, its cemetery) very close to the construction of the long range (if, notably, at a later stage), implying an important symbolic association (Audouy and Chapman 2009, 34). On the other, of the 51 churches in Lincolnshire surveyed by Gardiner, only 28 can be confidently associated with manorial centres (Gardiner 2018, 93). While it is therefore clear that churches could be employed as part of a repertoire of thegnly symbolism, they (as with long ranges) must not be seen as an absolute necessity.

Ritual Use of Space

However, a far more explicit manifestation of rank is seen in the careful manipulation of space at these sites. Consistently, a theme of separation seems to have been stressed by settlement morphology that embodies a world-view of stratification. The ‘inside’ world is frequently divided from the ‘outside’ fields by large ditches; at Faccombe Netherton, these were substantial enough to be identifiable even before excavation (Fairbrother 1990, 228). The evidence for frequent recutting of these ditches, shown by a slot along the bottom, illustrates substantial investment into conceptualising these boundaries as deeply symbolic (Audouy and Chapman 2009, 74). That these sites illustrate little evidence for craft production (especially in comparison to their 9th century equivalents) while still containing locally produced goods implies a further, deliberate, separation from the chain of production (Fleming 2001, 12). Furthermore, internal dividing ditches at Raunds Furnells create order and structure within the thegnly settlement (Loc. cit). A grid planning system here and at West Cotton, suggested by Blair, would no-doubt have further emphasised an image of order to contrast the internal with the external world (Blair 2015, 190). Figure 3 illustrates the layout of Raunds Furnells, visualising this careful delineation of space. The separation of hall and chamber in the long range form has long been noted as a possible further manifestation of the division between public and private (Ibid., 185), but Blair points also towards the frequent internal divisions within hall structures as ‘offering a high degree of personal privacy’ (Ibid., 192). It seems clear, then, that elite thegnly sites build on a repertoire of symbolism to separate themselves from those below them.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that a great deal of the magnificence of these elite settlements, and indeed of ‘thegnly culture’ generally, is invisible to the archaeologist. Indeed, Blair explicitly suggests that Anglo-Saxon grandeur is to be understood not as reflected by space but by decoration (Blair 2015, 186-7). Churches in the period are frequently recorded to have been lavishly decorated with ornate metalwork; Waltham Holy Cross was supposedly given a set of life-sized statues of the apostles by Earl Harold (Fleming 2001, 13-4). Those on thegnly sites are often less grand (the original church at Raunds Furnells is only eight metres in length), but we must surely also expect ostentatious liturgical material culture (Audouy and Chapman 2009, 34).

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES - the role of textiles and food point also to a complex system of symbols and power.

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Audouy, M. and Chapman, A., Raunds: The Origins and Growth of a Midland Village (Oxford, 2009)

Blair, J., Building Anglo-Saxon England (Princeton, 2018)

Blair, J., ‘The Making of the English House: Domestic Planning, 900-1150’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 19/1 (2015), pp.184-206

Fleming, R., ‘Rural Elites and Urban Communities in Late-Saxon England’, Past and Present, 141/1 (1993), pp.3-37

Fleming, R., ‘The New Wealth, the New Rich and the New Political Style in Late Anglo-Saxon England’ in J. Gillingham (ed.), Anglo-Norman Studies XXIII. Preceedings of the Battle Conference 2000 (Woodbridge, 2001), pp.1-22

Gardiner, M., ‘Manorial Farmsteads and the Expression of Lordship Before and After the Norman Conquest’ in D. Hadley and C. Dyers (eds.), The Archaeology of the Eleventh Century: Continuities and Transformations (Abingdon, 2018), pp.88-103

Senecal, C., ‘Keeping Up with the Godwinesons: A Pursuit of Aristocratic Status on Late Anglo-Saxon England’ in J. Gillingham (ed.), Anglo-Norman Studies XXIII. Preceedings of the Battle Conference 2000 (Woodbridge, 2001), pp.251-266

Senecal, C., ‘The Regional Aristocracies of Late Anglo-Saxon England’ (PhD thesis, Boston College, 1999)

Thomas, G., The Late Anglo-Saxon Settlement of Bishopstone: A Downland Manor in the Making (York, 2010)


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