Medieval(ish) matters #6: Viking military mind games, Anglo-Saxon mind maps, and embroidery before the Bayeux Tapestry

Historyextra content director David Musgrove goes for a run through several millennia of history, exploring Viking military manoeuvres, early medieval mind maps, and the power of Anglo-Saxon embroidery before the Bayeux Tapestry

The front facade of the prehistoric chambered tomb of Wayland's Smithy

As dawn began to break over Didcot and the North Wessex Downs one day last week, I found myself beside the ancient Ridgeway, shivering on the edge of the prehistoric barrow known as Scutchamer Knob. I was having a day off and I planned to spend it trail-running west along a chunk of the Ridgeway.

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I was going to start at Scutchamer Knob, which is a Bronze Age round barrow also known as Cwichelm’s or Cuckhamsley Barrow. It’s not much to look at now to be honest, obscured by trees and not quite the prominent lump it once was, but it still commands big views in all directions.

I’d been to this place once before, over a decade ago, when the barrow still overlooked the now-demolished cooling towers of Didcot Power Station and I was researching a BBC History Magazine book called 100 Places that made Britain, in which I asked historians to nominate important places in British history. Winchester University’s Professor Ryan Lavelle had picked Scutchamer Knob, because of its significance in the story of the Viking assault on Wessex in 1006, when England’s King Aethelred (the Unready) failed to make much of a showing against a Viking army that was making hay in his kingdom.

Professor Lavelle and Exeter University’s Dr Levi Roach have both written biographies of King Aethelred recently if you want the background to the story. But basically, the Viking army had encamped themselves at Scutchamer Knob in a direct challenge to the English, who, according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, had boasted that “if they [the Vikings] sought out Cwichelm’s Barrow they would never get to the sea”. In other words, Aethelred would come and deliver them a lesson for their impudence. However, Aethelred did not come, and the Vikings in the end went back to the ships, stopping on their way to see off the Anglo-Saxon army that finally turned up.

Posture and counter-posture

“Warfare in this period was a series of posturing and counter-posturing, and is summed up beautifully here,” explained Professor Lavelle when I spoke to him for the book. “So the Vikings headed to this place and challenged the Anglo-Saxon army in Wessex to fight. They didn’t respond to the challenge, but there was eventually a battle in Wiltshire where the English were beaten. Probably the reason why the English didn’t respond to the Viking challenge was because it was an assembly site, and if they did respond, they would effectively have been summoned to an assembly by the Vikings. That would have shown that the Vikings held the Wessex countryside. There is a series of meanings to places.”

So, that’s a pretty interesting story, but there’s more to it than that. Professor Howard Williams of the University of Chester has written an absorbing blog exploring why this place has the link to Cwichelm. If you’re not familiar with Cwichelm, he was a famous hero of Wessex’s early history, and was supposed to either be buried here himself or have buried some of his enemies here after killing them in battle.

It’s a little taste of the apparent fascination that the Anglo-Saxons had with the prehistoric remains that they came across (Cwichelm obviously was not around in the Bronze Age, when the Knob was first thrown up on that ridge).

The Anglo-Saxon myth-book

As I followed the Ridgeway westwards, I passed the back of Uffington hillfort (with its famous White Horse – listen to my podcast with David Miles to find out more about that and have a read of his book The Land of the White Horse), and then straight past the splendid (though restored) Neolithic chambered tomb called Wayland’s Smithy. Wayland was the vengeful smith known in Viking and Anglo-Saxon mythology, so here is another example of the Anglo-Saxons appropriating another prehistoric monument to bring into their myth-book. As Professor Williams reminds us in another useful blog post, this place is named in an Anglo-Saxon boundary charter of AD 955, and was clearly part of the local lore, along with the Iron Age hillfort and the earlier white horse, in the 10th century.

So, the Anglo-Saxons were, it seems, consciously incorporating these prehistoric monuments into both their cultural and physical landscape. Professor Andrew Reynolds and Dr Alexander Langlands have also recently dwelled on this idea in a thoughtful piece ‘Travel as communication: a consideration of overland journeys in Anglo-Saxon England’ in World Archaeology, as they talk about Anglo-Saxon long-distance routeways (of which the Ridgeway would have been one), and “introduce mythological and ‘associative’ dimensions to the experience of landscape as a function of travel”:

“An early medieval journey entailed much more than a purely physical act. Situating monuments in association with thoroughfares created maximum exposure to passing traffic and an arena for both direct and associative ideological communication with travellers. A journey laden with mental cues provided a nuanced grammar of landscape, punctuated by symbols and monuments many of which may have retained much older meanings.”

So that’s where the imposition of Cwichelm and Wayland into the earlier landscape features would have fitted in.

Finding the way in the past

I have to admit that I wasn’t considering the early medieval mental landscape as much as I might have been as I was blundering down the bright white chalk path (though it did strike me that the brightness of the bare chalk on the path itself must have lent the track quite a startling air amidst the dun of the Downs, much as the chalk-cut barrows and hillfort ramparts would have done when they were first dug out).

I was more focussed on not twisting my ankle on the heavy ruts in the track, but at least there wasn’t much chance of me getting lost: I was following the handsomely-signposted National Trail route markers. Early medieval travellers (or Viking raiders) wouldn’t have been so blessed, and on that more prosaic level, they no doubt used the obvious and prominent prehistoric landscape features along the side of routeways like this for navigational purposes. If you want to know more about wayfinding in the early medieval period, making use of stones, particular trees, crossroads, and crosses and the mental imagery of the mythologised landscape I mentioned above, have a look at Dr Langlands’ recent book The Ancient Ways of Wessex.

The Viking challenge

I don’t know exactly how the Viking army knew where to go back in 1006, but it is assumed that they would have travelled along the same Ridgeway as I did (probably in a less sweaty and much more intimidating manner), once it became clear that no Anglo-Saxon army was going to pitch up and fight them for impugning the reputation of Cwichelm. The battle they eventually fought and won is thought to have been contested somewhere near West Kennett (home of another famous barrow, and near the equally famous stone circle at Avebury). Dr Thomas J.T. Williams (author of Viking Britain) charts the story of that campaign in his paper Landscape and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England and the Viking campaign of 1006. 

Again, this is a landscape lathered with prehistoric significance and as Dr Williams notes, “It seems likely that an intrusion into this symbolically rich landscape would have been profoundly disturbing to the local West Saxon population, and perhaps part of the deliberate psychological campaign that the Viking here [army] seems to have been waging in 1006″. Dr Williams has also written a piece on 5 other lost Viking battles on the website.

I was planning on running down into the Kennet valley myself, but I ran out of water, and enthusiasm, after 26 miles, and had to stop for a lie down and a rescue mission from my wife at Barbury Castle (another prehistoric Ridgeway landmark). I don’t suppose the Vikings would have been so irresolute, but they had silver, glory, and eventually a kingdom to win, whereas I just had to get home to make lunch for the kids.

Anglo-Saxon embroidery

Aside from over-exerting myself, I’ve also been reading Dr Alexandra Lester-Makin’s new book The Lost Art of the Anglo-Saxon World. Dr Lester-Makin is an expert on the Bayeux Tapestry and has written on the subject for this website, but in this work she explores the antecedents of that most famous example of Anglo-Saxon embroidery.

It’s a fascinating survey, and not just for those with a direct interest in embroidery, because she also tackles the question of what studying such embroidery as does survive from the period (not much – just 43 pieces – but enough for her to draw some thought-provoking conclusions) can tell us about the early medieval mindset. And it seems to me that there are some similarities in her thoughts with what the landscape researchers above have been finding, because as she says, “embroidery appears to have been imbued with an additional level of metaphysical meaning”.

She talks about a particular kind of stitch, the looped stitch, which was used “decoratively to reinforce weak points on textiles, but in its form may also have represented the World Serpent of Germanic mythology” and so “the use of this stitch on areas susceptible to wear and damage was more than simply functional: it had symbolic power”. That sounds a little bit like the way that these same groups of people might have been enmeshing mythologised stories and practical wayfinding in their treatment of the landscape they found around them.

Women at the height of their powers

Dr Lester-Makin also considers who was responsible for making embroideries during this period, and concludes that “it was an art form as highly regarded as metalwork, sculpture and manuscript illumination… and it was created by women working at the height of their powers, whom society regarded with the highest respect”.

I asked her to summarise for me in a paragraph how she’d come to that view:

“We know embroidery was produced by women, and highly thought of because we have evidence from written sources and archaeological contexts. Taking the written sources first, there are lots of stories about female saints and biographies of women in elite and royal circles stating how good they were at embroidery. The wording in these documents show that embroidery was thought of as a form of ‘worthy occupation’ and the skill with which it was made is always highly praised, as are the embroideries themselves. Domesday Book names two female embroiderers, Aelfgyth and Leofgyth, both of whom were working as ‘independent concerns’, and they are not the only two women to make embroidery in this way.

“There is no mention of men embroidering, although we are told that St Dunstan (a monk and Archbishop of Canterbury) designed embroidery for a married woman to stitch with her ‘girls’. Evidence of possible embroidery equipment, in the form of needles and small shears, have been found in many known and probable female graves, also pointing to embroidery being a female occupation.

“We know that the skill of making embroidery was highly regarded because for example, embroiderers were sometimes ‘paid’ with gifts of land or estates. We also know that embroidery was highly regarded because it was used throughout society as an expression of political and religious ideas, a status symbol and to tell stories, to name but a few roles. Documentary sources tell us that the Normans were also in the thrall of embroidery made in early medieval England, and they commissioned items for places that they patronized back in Normandy, even after the Conquest. So even after 1066 embroiderers were able to continue their work, producing some of the finest embroidery that has survived to this day.”

It’s inter-disciplinary studies like the ones above that are the way forward for helping us get inside the minds of these people who lived so long ago, to help us tease out the mindgames they themselves played, from the clues and traces that linger in places and objects as well as the documents they’ve left behind.

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David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. Read the latest in his medieval matters blog series here