Archaeology: The Pagan Saxon Period

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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'Archaeology: The Pagan Saxon Period', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century, (London, 1969) pp. 74-79. British History Online [accessed 1 March 2024]

In this section


With the end of the Roman occupation, traditionally fixed at about A.D. 410 when Honorius bade the Britons defend themselves, the fabric of Roman life did not instantly fall to nothing. (fn. 1) The period during which the Romano-British population in the area round London was replaced by an 'English' people is, however, hard to define. It may perhaps be said to have begun with the arrival of early 'Pagan' (Teutonic) elements and to be distinct from the later period during which a discernible organization under known rulers was established. In any case the conventional picture of Teutonic invaders arriving to take advantage of anarchy after the departure of the Romans needs qualification. (fn. 2) In A.D. 429 and about 447 (fn. 3) Verulamium, less than nine miles from the boundaries of Middlesex, was found by St. Germanus to be still run on Roman lines, albeit creakily and timorously. But already 'Picts and Saxons' were advancing in that area and Germanus is credited with helping to repel an attack. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a series of battles in south-east England between Britons and the invaders. A reference to a Cuthwulf or Cutha capturing in A.D. 571, after a battle, places (fn. 4) as near Middlesex as Aylesbury seems to imply that weapon-bearing Romano-British elements remained at large in or near the Chilterns until at least the late 6th century. (fn. 5)

Some aspects of the 'Saxon' or Teutonic settlement may have originated as early as the 3rd century or even before. Various Teutonic peoples were brought to Britain by the Romans: these included Alamanni and, doubtless, others. Archaeological corroboration for this has been found in pottery considered to incorporate both Teutonic and Romano-British features, and dating from the last century and a half of Roman rule. (fn. 6) Ware of this kind has been found in places close to Middlesex: in, for example, the City of London, at Verulamium, and in Essex and Kent. The pottery can be attributed to the presence and influence of mercenaries, of casual or enforced settlers, of traders, and of British women who married incomers. Detailed assessments of this pottery are, however, far from complete or unanimous.

The true picture of arrivals in the mid-5th century and later may be complex, some groups perhaps arriving under their 'lords', while others may have left their homeland as a result of family enterprise. To these might well be added former mercenaries of the Britons now seeking land, and to whom Middlesex, especially the south of the county, offered reasonable agricultural land. Motives for the choice of settlement are not difficult to find, but the direction from which the newcomers arrived is uncertain. Evidence from burials indicates early settlement in the Upper Thames valley in, for example, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Kent and Surrey, especially around Mitcham, Ewell, and Croydon, all near Middlesex, were also settlement areas; and in Cambridgeshire and elsewhere in East Anglia there were also settlements that can be termed 'early', that is, of the 5th century. Essex, on the evidence of burials, was not an area of dense settlement, although 'early' place-names ending in -ing are common. The settlers may have extended their occupation by 'nibbling' where the opportunity offered, but since few Middlesex sites have produced early Saxon material it is difficult to find affinities with occupation areas elsewhere in south-east England.

Roman culture may possibly have remained intact for longer in the district around London than in neighbouring areas. (fn. 7) That there are few Saxon finds from Middlesex and in the area between St. Albans and London, (fn. 8) that Verulamium in A.D. 447 was still 'Roman', (fn. 9) and that in A.D. 456 or 457 the Britons from Kent fled to London (fn. 10) is evidence in support of this theory. After this, however, nothing is known for more than a century, and whether London was destroyed and deserted or continued to exist as a trading centre is uncertain. The earthwork in the Harrow area known as Grim's Dyke was once thought to have been raised against the Saxons, but the finding in the 1950's of Iron-Age pottery in the context of the rampart renders the date of the earthwork problematical.

Cruciform Brooch from Shepperton (actual size)

The subsequent story of the fairly rapid assertion of East-Saxon rule in the London area has not been fully elucidated. London became the seat of a bishopric again early in the 7th century, and this perhaps suggests that some continuity of settlement on the site had been maintained. Moreover, the Old English name Lunden (London) is in form very close to the late Celtic Lundenion, (fn. 11) possibly suggesting that the Teutonic newcomers heard the name from Celtic speakers. Perhaps, then, there were in the 6th and even in the 7th centuries both Celtic-speaking Britons and Teutons in the region.

Archaeological finds in the county have proved inconclusive and are considerably scantier than might be expected from place-name evidence. (fn. 12) Much of the material was, moreover, discovered before 1900 and is therefore inadequately recorded. Finds at Shepperton and Hanwell, however, certainly belong to the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. At Shepperton close to the Thames, near both Chertsey and Walton bridges, and at Shepperton Range (approximately TQ. 06756711) were found at various times (fn. 13) many Saxon burials in the gravels. The burials are varied and seem to suggest a connexion with a settlement. Skeletons and four urns were reported by Shurlock as having been found by labourers in 1867 and 1868. In 1868 eight skeletons were found, all with their feet to the east, three side by side and the rest laid 'promiscuously'. Associated finds included a cruciform brooch, three pots, and some sherds. Two vessels found before 1869 at Walton Bridge Green contained calcinated bones, a small 'opalized glass bead, and a small fragment of a bronze ornament'. Shurlock claimed to have found traces of Roman pottery nearby. An heptagonal pot, possibly of the 5th century, displayed in Shepperton library may be one of those noted by Shurlock. A series of 19th-century water colours (reproduced facing p. 75) of pottery of the 5th century and later from the Shepperton and Walton area was found in the Guildford Museum in 1962. The vessels have disappeared and little is known of the details of the burials with which they were associated. (fn. 14) In a burial found in 1868, of which a drawing exists, (fn. 15) the skeleton is on its back; of the wooden shield that was over the body there survives only the boss over the face. A sword is by the right arm and on the left flank had been a lance, indicated by the remaining split-socket iron spearhead and ferrule. In the drawing is also shown a plain, quasi-globular urn some distance from the feet, possibly the 'inverted urn, covering a heap of calcinated bones' mentioned by Shurlock. The drawing is perhaps not entirely trustworthy since the skeletal toes are shown pointing skywards. The difficulty of generalizing about burial fashions is indicated by the variety of arrangements recorded by Shurlock: 'some bodies were burnt . . . and placed in urns . . .; some were buried at full length, while others were found in a contracted position'. The split-socket spearhead, a brooch, (fn. 16) and the various items of pottery are undoubtedly of the Pagan period, perhaps of the late 5th or early 6th century.

A Saxon burial of the 7th century or later recorded from Twickenham is noteworthy. It provided an ogee-profile shield boss, a garnet-set disc jewel and other items. The uncertain associations of these objects and doubts about their provenance (fn. 17) put them, however, outside the scope of this study. The Hanwell area has produced PaganSaxon finds from at least two sites. (fn. 18) One site was Seward's Pit, noted for Palaeolithic finds, and in an area said to have been 'once heathland'. Seven burials, at least three of which were of men with spears, are said to have been found there in 1886. The skeletons are said to have been found with 'their martial cloaks' held by gold-plated bronze saucer brooches of mid-6th-century date. One of the three (fn. 19) saucer brooches has a piece of fibre still attached to the back. Some fifty iron spearheads were found 'adjoining' the graves.

Pieces of pot and four pierced lead discs were recovered about 1910 and in 1915 at Boston Road, Hanwell (centring on TQ. 153800), which is not far from the Seward's Pit site. Two sherds are said to be from the 'top soil of the gravel pit'. (fn. 20) The plainrimmed and flat-bottomed pots are fairly early, perhaps of the 6th century. The finds suggest a settlement site and the discs were probably loom-weights. (fn. 21)

Between 1953 and 1958 the kitchen area of Northolt Manor was excavated. (fn. 22) The Saxon remains from this site, which was occupied until Tudor times, have been dated as 'late 7th century-early 8th century'. The remains are three graves, at least two of which contained males. A few trinkets were found but no associated structural remains. One of the skeletons, more than 45 feet from the other two, was that of a man aged not more than thirty with a decorated seax-type knife by his left leg; there was also a knife tip and two pieces of iron. The seax was of a broad type found on the Continent in deposits of the 7th century and similar to seaxes from Long Wittenham (Berks.), St. Neots (Hunts.), and Purton (Wilts.). (fn. 23) The excavators of the site considered that there might have been a gap in time between these Saxon burials and the 10th-century occupation.

Little other material firmly datable to the 'early' or Pagan period has been found in Middlesex. Material from the county thought to be of this period is listed in Sir Mortimer Wheeler's London and the Saxons (1935). Examples include a bronze bowl (Roman ?) with triangular suspension lugs rising from the rim (fn. 24) and attractive coloured beads which, despite their uncertain or Roman origins, have been found in Saxon contexts in the Greater London area. (fn. 25)

Saucer Brooches (L.M. 49.107/967,/969) from Seward's Pit, Hanwell (actual size)

The London Museum has a large collection of split-socket iron spearheads, most of which were found in the Thames, especially near Old England. (fn. 26) They are regarded as being of the 'early' period since similar examples have been found in datable contexts elsewhere in south-east England. They cannot, however, yet be precisely dated.

Other material, such as scramasaxes and swords, is omitted from this account. Many of these objects may not belong to the 'early' period, and they have, in any case, been listed elsewhere. (fn. 27) Their archaeological value is limited by the fact that most are unassociated finds from the Thames.

Place-name evidence (fn. 28)

Representing the survival of a description given centuries before, place-names may sometimes indicate early settlements as surely as archaeological excavation. (fn. 29) Some names are regarded as 'early', but it is not always possible to be sure that all the 'early' names, for example, those ending in -ing(s), of which there is a great ring round London, (fn. 30) are of the earliest settlements. Yeading and Ealing preserve the names respectively of the Geddingas and the Gellingas, and Wapping perhaps that of Waeppa's people. (fn. 31) A group of place-names in the west of the county, Uxbridge, Uxendon, and Waxlow, probably denotes the area of influence of the Wixan, a tribe mentioned in a 7th-century source, (fn. 32) while the name Harrow denotes the temple (hearg) of another ancient people (gumeninga). (fn. 33) Wembley and Fulham contain rare personal names. (fn. 34) Sometimes, as in Hounslow and in Earthbury in Stepney, a tumulus (hlaw) or an earthwork is featured in a place-name. (fn. 35) Legendary figures appear in the names Grim's Dyke, attributed to Woden (Grim), (fn. 36) and Grinsgate in Hendon, a name which recalls Grendel, the monster of the Beowulf saga. (fn. 37)

The distribution of early Saxon place-names in Middlesex is significant. (fn. 38) Most farm or settlement names are in the southern part of the county, whereas in northern Middlesex there are hardly any of them. It is clear that early settlers avoided woodland, moors, and some heath and clay areas, much preferring the gravels and the drier parts of the alluvial plain.

Little information can be drawn from the name Middlesex itself. (fn. 39) Although the Middle Saxons are otherwise unknown in history, it is clear from the form in which the name appears in an 8th-century charter that 'Middle Saxons' is indicated. It is only possible, however, to speculate on the relations of this group with the East Saxons (Essex) and their southern counterparts, the men of Surrey and Sussex. They may have been a powerful group or merely dwellers in a region between larger and more powerful groups or kingdoms.


  • 1. The authors are indebted for help and advice to Dr. J. N. L. Myres, and to Messrs. N. C. Cook, J. Morris, and Miss Vera Evison.
  • 2. For example, the Hengest and Horsa episode: SagaBook of Viking Soc. xiv (4), 273-90.
  • 3. The date and number of visits are uncertain: N. Chadwick, Studies in The Early Eng. Church, 23.
  • 4. The places are 'tunas' or villages. It should be noted that there had been Teutonic settlements in Bucks. and Beds. long before A.D. 571. This does not preclude the presence at the same time of British elements: G. J. Copley, Conquest of Wessex in the Sixth Century, 180, 184.
  • 5. See Vera Evison, The Fifth-Century Invasions South of the Thames, 1-8 and passim for a brief assessment of the value of the Chronicle.
  • 6. J. N. L. Myres, 'Roman-Saxon Pottery', Dark-Age Britain, ed. D. B. Harden, 35.
  • 7. J. N. L. Myres, Roman Britain and the English Settlements; Copley, Conquest of Wessex, 113-19; R. H. Hodgkin, History of the Anglo-Saxons, 137-47. Cf. H. Lüdeke, 'The London Basin in the Saxon Invasion', Philologia: The Malone Anniversary Studies (Baltimore, 1949), 105-9.
  • 8. A comparison of the number of finds recorded in the old Saxon and Roman guides to L.M. suggests that the relative paucity of Saxon items is not merely chance.
  • 9. See above.
  • 10. Dr. J. N. L. Myres has said that this does not prove that London was a going concern: 'it may be no more than a geographical expression'.
  • 11. K. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, 306-8.
  • 12. R. E. M. Wheeler, Lond. and the Saxons, 40, where names ending in -thun in the Boulonnais are said to have few corresponding relics of Saxon type.
  • 13. In 1812, 1817, 1853, 1867, 1868, 1869. A.M.L. 227-30 gives a brief account of these sites which are not mentioned in Wheeler, London. One specific find-place is the 'Upper West Field' (TQ. 06756711): Proc. Soc. Antiq. iv. 118-20, 191. G. B. Brown, Arts in Early Eng. iv. 635; 623, pl. clvi (6) (brooch, sword); iii. 177, pl. xviii (burial); 219, pl. xxvi (2). J. Douglas, Nenia Britannica (1793), 94, refers to barrows nr. Walton Bridge. Further useful Shepperton references are in Audrey Meaney, A Gazetteer of Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Sites, 167-8. In the Guildford Mus. are a water-colour of the gravel-pit and some manuscript notes of M. Shurlock. The authors are indebted to the Surr. Arch. Soc. for permission to make use of them. At Walton Bridge, where a part of Mdx. is south of the Thames, Saxon burials, some under tumuli, were reported in the 18th cent. and later. The O.S. card index gives sources and the grid refs. TQ. 09106665 and 09776615. No material is known to survive.
  • 14. Apart from minor notes, such as that the teeth of one skull were 'worn away in an unusual manner'.
  • 15. The drawing is in the Guildford Museum; also exhibited there in 1961 were a sword, a shield boss with grip, and a spear which probably came from this burial.
  • 16. In Guildford Mus. Illustrated on p. 76.
  • 17. A.M.L. 230; Proc. Soc. Antiq. xxiv. 327-9. The material is in B.M.: Guide to Anglo-Saxon and Foreign Teutonic Antiquities (B.M. 1923), 62-63. See Meaney, Gazetteer, 168, n. 19.
  • 18. J. A. Brown, Chronicles of Greenford Parva, 11; Sharpe, Mdx. 152 (photographs of saucer brooches). The fullest account is in Wheeler, London, 136-9, with illustrations of pottery. See also Meaney, Gazetteer, 167, n. 19.
  • 19. In L.M. Illustrated on p. 78. The authors are indebted to Miss Margaret Morris who emphasized how tenuous the dating is for such objects. In St. Albans City Mus. are three scramasaxes, a sword, and a knife from Hanwell which may be from the same site, although the material might be later.
  • 20. The Garraway-Rice finds are in L.M. The pottery and one lead loom-weight are illustrated in Wheeler, London, 136-8. Details of the Hanwell lead loom-weights are on p. 139. Parallels from Felmersham (Beds.) for the Hanwell sherds are given in Antiq. Jnl. xxxi. 138.
  • 21. Wheeler, London, 140, points out that loom-weights were used in sets of four. Two additional lead discs (in Gunn., Sadler Coll.) were found with Saxon pottery at Seward's Pit, Hanwell, in 1910.
  • 22. J. G. Hurst, 'The Kitchen Area of Northolt manor, Middlesex', Medieval Arch. v. 211-99, esp. 226-30.
  • 23. V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 98; there are close resemblances between the finds at Northolt and Purton.
  • 24. Wheeler, London, 147, fig. 25: 'found in the Thames near London'. These bowls may have origins in the Roman period: M. H. P. den Boersted, Bronze Vessels in the Rijksmuseum G.M. Kam at Nijmegen.
  • 25. Wheeler, London, 142-6.
  • 26. Many are in the Layton Coll.: ibid. 162-74.
  • 27. e.g. by Wheeler, London. Many of the swords and scramasaxes have been examined under X-rays and show evidence of 'pattern welding'. Examples of these are in L.M. and Gunn. A shield boss of the pagan period in the Layton Coll.
  • 28. The authors are indebted to Mr. J. M. Dodgson for useful criticism on this section.
  • 29. Wheeler, London, 36, remarked that 'almost every London omnibus bears the name of some Saxon suburb'.
  • 30. Proc. Brit. Academy (1956), 67-88.
  • 31. P.N. Mdx. (E.P.N.S.), pp. xiv, 152.
  • 32. Ibid. xiv, 49.
  • 33. Ibid. xiv, 51-52.
  • 34. Ibid. xiv.
  • 35. Ibid. 27, 196.
  • 36. Ibid. 11.
  • 37. Ibid. xiv-xv.
  • 38. Ibid. xiv.
  • 39. Ibid. xiii-xiv, 1; Jnl. of Roman Studies, xxvi (1), 91.