The Dark Ages in Bedfordshire


This report is drawn from a variety of sources, is not referenced, and is intended only as a guide for Wryngwyrm members for internal use, so they have some idea of the local history, which we re-enact. It is hoped that this report is factually correct, but as I have used the works of various authors, one must be mindful of the personal judgments of these authors. Mark Twain put it very succinctly in  Following the Equator (1897) ''The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice''       You will find a rich sprinkling of Viking/Saxon characters and names that will assist in developing that all-important persona.


The indigenous early people of Bedfordshire far back in prehistory were the same people whose contempories built Stonehenge. Britain was then known in earliest records as Alba or Alban, and the people as Albans. The Albans eventually pushed out by the invading Celtic tribes, in this area the established tribe being the Catuvellauni,.This tribe built under their King Cunobellinus, a great earthen embankment, to mark their territorial boundary across the Chiltern escarpment. When built this was up to six feet high and twenty feet deep with a similar sized ditch. This is Grim's ditch, and is also called Devil's dyke. Grim or Grimes, is an Anglo-Saxon name for the devil, and in Anglo-Saxon times it was believed to have been built by the devil.

These Celtic dwellers of Bedfordshire had to make way for the invading Romans,who stayed for nearly four hundred years. On the departure of the Romans, the Romano-British inhabitants of Bedfordshire were then over time, subjected to Germanic invaders. These invaders from a variety of Western European areas later became collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons, and the areas of Britain they conquered as England. The debate still continues if this was a large scale migration with the genocide of the British population, or was it more of a take over by an 'English' elite between 400-600AD?

This is when we enter what has been termed 'The Dark Ages', dark in terms of desperate warfare and of the lack of written records, rather than in the lack of art, religion or social structure. They are also now referred to as the 'Early Medieval period'. Main areas of settlement for the Anglo-Saxons were the previously occupied river valleys of the Ouse and Ival and the Icknield way.

Indeed the period covered by Wryngwyrm (AD800-1066), was a period of continuous conflict and warfare involving amongst others, the original Celtic inhabitants, the northern Picts, the English, the Vikings and lastly the Normans.

Bedfordshire as a county was not created until the 10th century under the great administrative advances of the Anglo-Saxon kings.

The discovery of early Saxon brooches in Luton, suggests that in this area was situated one of the earliest English settlements in Britain, possibly in the early 5th century, as part of the forces brought over by Vortigern, the Romano-British high king, who used the 'barbarians', to help defend against Pictish raiders and possibly maintain his hold on power.

At Luton is Wauluds bank, a Neolithic site older than Stonehenge, and sadly neglected by modern councils, so it is now almost insignificant. It was used in many periods through history, in the Anglo- Saxon period became a fortified encampment, It is on the site  of five springs that form the source of the river Lea. It is reputed in legend to be where Lugh, the celtic god drank from and which gave him his powers. Hence the name Lughston, or Luton


                  Wauluds bank, Neolithic Henge in Leagrave, Luton, Bedfordshire. Dating from 3,000BC

The early English sites in Bedfordsire included Dunstable, Sandy and Kempston. These may have been garrisons to protect the Icknield way. Larger forces of English under Hengst were garrisoned at Kent, and it was from here that the first English rebellion exploded in AD440. The small inland pockets of English maintained thier existance at this time but did not expand-this may be due to the still large and functioning Romano-British site at modern day St Albans.

On a Roman farmstead at Dunstable, a Saxon warrior  was buried beside the upper summer track of the Icknield way. The underside of his skull was stove in, smashed by a blunt instrument before he was buried, and with him was a broken spear with out a point. He was buried hardly later than the 5th century, for by the second half of the 6th century, a Saxon village cemetery occupied the site, and later burials cut into the grave of this forgoten warrior.

Was this an area of the war zone,  were the Romano-British leader Ambrosius (who preceded the legedary Arthur), led the British calvalry forces in resistance, in the mid to late 5th century? We can only imagine...

The very large English burial ground at Kempston has provided more Saxon grave goods than almost any site in Britian. There are goods from the 5th century, late 6th century but nothing of the early 6th. This gap is at the time of the suggested peace, bought about by British victories under 'Arthur'


     Early Anglo-Saxon jug, 5th century     AD


Applied Brooch, A stamp guilt bronze sheet in the centre, 6th century AD

The Anglo-Saxon chronicles remeber the destruction of a British army near Bedford (Biedcanford) in AD 571  and the Saxon occupation of Limbury and Aylesbury. They followed their victory by marching through the vale of Aylesbury to the Thames (the date 571 crops up again in this text). This does show that the British clung to the Bedford area and held out for a long time.

There are sources in Welsh poems that mention a south midlands state and an army of Englishmen. Late medieval Welshmen believed this area to have included Dunstable and Northampton. Both of these towns lie within the Roman 'Civitas' of the Catuvellauni, who's capital was Verulanium (St Albans)  where sophisticated Roman building techniques carried on to the end of the 5th century or later  suggesting a largely Romano-British population which as previously stated  probably suppressed the expansion of nearby English Dunstable.

The Saxon chronicles record the victory of AD571  and names the English leader as Cuthwulf  who is possibly a leader of the Eslingas of southwestern Cambridgeshire. Another source states that Cuthwulf may have been co-king or general of the west Saxons. In the process of his victory he destroyed a once powerful British kingdom and opened up the whole of the midlands to the free movement of the English. This was part of the second Enlish revolt that led to the collapse of Celtic Britain.

Another source I read  mentioned a battle being fought for Limbury in 571 (Cuthwulf again)  as Saxon Wessex expanded it's territories at the expense of other English kingdoms. For most of it's English history Bedfordshire formed part of the kingdom of Mercia.

Burials and grave goods suggest that the Icknield way was populated by Saxons but the Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Frisians and other Germanic peoples were not confined to one region of Britain. Some of the ealiest grave goods are 'cruciform' or 'saucer' brooches - these have been found in Bedford and Luton.

King Offa (AD757-96) of Mercia also held the title of 'Bretwalda'. Bretwalda was a title given to a small number of kings who held dominance over several English kingdoms during their reign. King Offa was held in such high status and regard that he was treated as an equal with the famous King Charlemange. Offa was the first king on record to use the title 'King of the English' and be treated as such by the arbiters of Europe. 

Offa was well known for his ruthlessness especially in matters concerned with his succession. His son Ecgfrith, succeeded him but died in the same year, then Coenwulf was Mercian king (AD796-821) but his death in Wales with his war band led to dynastic infighting that destroyed the power of Mercia and aided the rise of Wessex.

In the 790s, a fortified town, north of the river (and within Bedford's present location), was established by King Offa. This secured Offa's eastern border and was an important trading center. Bedford south of the river had to wait until planned building by another king - Edward the Elder in AD915. It has been suggested that as it was an important river crossing as Bedford was an crucial part of the defence system set up by King Offa. The 'ford' at Bedford, may have been replaced in Offa's time by a bridge. In fact, Bedford's place name derives from 'Bede's Ford'. This indicates that there was a river crossing here from early times of English settlement.

A document called the Tribal Hildage, probably compiled during Offa's reign, lists four English tribes in Bedfordshire. The 'Hersingas' occupied roughly the north - so for any Saxon Wryngwyrm's this is your tribe! The 'Gifla' (people of Ival) occupied the east, the 'Giltern-Saetan' the south and the 'Anecung-ga the west.

The crossing was situated where the present town bridge is and the roads north and south used to radiate out from it.

King Offa, whilst returning from his newly founded abbey at St Albans, was taken ill and died at Offley, near Hitchin, on the 29th July 796. His body was taken to Bedford and interned in a chapel on the banks of the river Great Ouse. Unfortunately the river flooded and the chapel, together with Offa's remains, was washed away forever. A talking point with the public is this little known fact that Bedford was the scene of a royal burial. Offa's widow Cynethryth later presided as Abbess at the monastery in Bedford (charter of 796)

In AD796 Coenwulf, the new king of Mercia, followed Offa in that he engaged in military campaigns against the Welsh (Britons) and other English kingdoms. The men of Bedfordshire would have been involved and tied into military service to their king.

By the end of the 8th century Bedford was an important religious centre with two major churches, St Paul and St Peter's.


     St Paul's church Bedford


Window in ST Peter's church Bedford

In AD829 the Wessex king Egbert  invaded Mercia (including Bedfordshire). In 830 , King Wiglaf regained Mercian control of their territory. In 874 the eastern part of the kingdom of Mercia, which included Bedfordshire, submitted to Danish force and became part of Danish East Anglia. In 874, part of a large Viking army under the command of three Danish kings (including Guthrum) took up winter quarters in Cambridge and raided the surrounding countryside. The Vikings stayed in Cambridge for a year and under Guthrum's leadership built up their army.

In 894 a Viking army traveled up the river Lea and built a fortress, believed to be at Hertford. A Mercian army from London and surrounding counties assaulted the fortress but failed to take it. In 895 a second attempt was made by King Alfred to take the fortress but the Viking escaped.

It is well documented and known by many of us from school history lessons, how Alfred, King of Wessex (AD871-99), fought back against almost total Danish conquest of England and at Edington decisively defeated the Danish leader Guthrum. Bedford was presumably under Danish control at this time.


                                                                               King Alfred of Wessex

Between AD886-890 Alfred and Guthrum established a boundery between English and Danish territories. The boundery ran through Bedfordshire, making the area a real frontier area that changed hands many times, with Bedford being a predominantly English garrisoned town.

The boundary ran from the Thames, up the river Lea to it's source in Luton (Marsh farm), then in a straight line north to Bedford. Then along the river Ouse to the old Roman road of Watling street. This boundery became known as the Danelaw and different laws would have applied in different parts of Bedfordshire depending on whether you lived in English settled areas or areas that were predominantly settled by the Danes. This accounts for different archaeological finds in the east of Bedfordshire, which was within the Danelaw. The boundary deliberately takes a big deflection to take in Bedford and it is the only town mentioned in the treaty. This was to ensure that this strategically significant town remained in English hands.

We can only imagine how the English settlers of eastern Bedfordshire felt, as Guthrum would have rewarded his followers with extensive grants of land, leaving many local land owning thegns dispossesed. Under Alfred's laws, drawn up to enforce relations between the two states, the wergild (blood price) of a man was substantially increased to deter fights between the two sides.

The boundery suggests that Alfred made a deliberate decision to include Bedford in the treaty boundary, possibly therefore making it's status hanceforth that of a garrison town. Bedford was therefore one of Alfred's Burh's. A Burh was designated as having every 'pole' of defence perimeter to be defended by four men and every man to be backed up by support of one hide of land. The perimeter was estimated at between 250 and 350 poles. This would require between 1,000 to 1,400 men to defend it.

Evidence suggests that after a short interval, as little as seven years, the Danes had crossed the Danelaw and re-occupied Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Bedford then remained in Danish hands until November 915, as part of the Danish kingdom of York, when it was re-occupied by Edward the Elder, who was a son of Alfred and the royal line of Wessex. Coins of Danish and Anglo Saxon origin have been found in Bedford.

At this time Bedford was known as Bedanforda and was situated on the north side of the river. When the town surrenderd to King Edward he had a broad ditch and rampart constructed on the south side. As part of the plan he re-aligned the roads that formerly headed straight towards the bridge to head to a central crossroads instead. King Edward founded St Mary's church at this time, right in the middle of the area enclosed by the ditch.

The Danes at Bedford were commanded by Jarl Thurketel, who submitted to Edward with a large number of his followers. King Edward spent four weeks in the area of Bedford and as I have stated above constructed his own Burh on the south bank of the river, to keep the Danish fortress under observation. So we have English and Viking troops at the same time within the boundery of modern Bedford!

Edward had left a force of troops at Bedford to monitor the obedience of Thurketel. In 916, Thurketel and his followers left England for the continent, possibly to join the Danish settlement of Normandy, taking place at that time. This henceforth strengthened the rule of the West Saxons in Bedfordshire.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicles have a number of church records that chronicle events at that time. In 917 it records ' and they (the Danes), went until they reached Bedford, and the men who were inside, went out against them and fought them and fought them, and put them to flight, and killed a good many of them'. This was just two years after Edward had recovered Bedford.

In AD917, a Danish army from Huntingdon and parts of East Anglia advanced into Bedfordshire to Tempsford and constructed a new fortress from which they launched the attempt to recover Bedford. Edward is recorded as having assembled a force from his frontier Burh's, and stormed the East Anglian Danish camp at Tempsford where he won a resounding victory, killing the Danish king. The Danes lost a large number of men, so our soil has indeed witnessed big battles with heavy casualties. We can see that Bedford is rich in history of battles and skirmishes between the English and the Danes. In 917 the Abbot of Bedford was named Thurcytel and had a brother, Oscytel, who was Abbot of York. Both of these appear to be Danes but no longer pagan!

 A charter of King Athelstan reveals that King Edward (Wessex) and King Aethelred (Mercia), had commanded their faithful Thegn Eldred to buy land worth ten pounds at Chalgrave and Tebworth from the pagan Viking occupying it. Such policies encouraged the English nobles that they would benefit from reconquest of territory.

Athelstan also issued a decree in 928 that every Burh should have a mint. The first coins to be minted in Bedford were in the reign of King Eadwig (AD955-959) when there were five moneyers working in the town. Bedford was also the administrative centre of the shire.

The Danes had later successes in Bedfordshire during the reign of Athelred the Unready (King AD978-1016). In 1009, nearly one hundred years since the last fighting in 917, Thorkel the tall arrived in southern England with a great raiding army. In 1010 these Danes ravaged East Anglia burning Cambridge, Bedford and Tempsford. As well as the English, settled Danes living within the Danelaw would have suffered and probably resisted these later invaders. These forces became part of the occupying armies of our future Danish kings, Svein Forkbear and his son Cnut.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle of AD1010 states 'along the Ouse until they (the Danes) reached Bedford and on as far as Tempsford and ever they burnt as they went. Then they turned back to their ships with their booty'. So once again we can look back to a time of great turmoil and bloodshed in Bedfordshire, the evidence provides proof of warfare in our county spanning three centuries of the Dark Ages.

In 1016 Sinward, one of King Cnut's supporters was rewarded with the earldom's of Northumberland and Huntingdonshire (which included Bedford). After Sinward's death in 1055, the earldom's passed on to Tostig, brother of the later King Harold. When Tostig was banished by King Edward for murder, the earldom and hence Bedford was passed to Harold - so we of Wryngwyrm can assume with some confidence that the men of bedford fought in those epic battles of 1066. As a fote note, the earldom of Huntingdonshire was passed into Norman hands, and was even inherited by King Malcom of Scotland, through marrige.

Archaeology over the years has provided many links with our Dark Age past in Bedfordshire. There have been finds in Harrold, where there was a Saxon settlement. There is evidence of 7th and 8th century dwellings, and a 9th century Viking dwelling. A Viking burial was uncoverd at Harrold, the mans body was buried with a sword, spear, knife and whetstone. The warriors of Wryngwyrm use accurate replicas of these weapans today, brining to life these links with our local past.


      Coenwulf Gold Coin unearthed at Biggleswade

A recent and famous find has been the Coenwulf gold coin, found in Biggleswade, showing an image of the Mercian king - the coin was stuck in London and is only one of eight coins found for that period. A fish shaped shield mount found in Kempston suggests that some shields were decorated with metal discs and fittings, placing mythical beasts on shields was considerd to bring greater protection in battle.

The building of the southern Bedford bypass uncoverd much archaeology, some relating to our period. Harrowden, despite it's Saxon place name also had evidence of Roman settlement, possibly suggesting the displacement of earlier settlers by Saxons.

An Anglo Saxon charter gives evidence of a trade route for salt in Bedfordshire called the 'Theedway'. This traversed Bedfordshire for twelve miles, it diverges from the Icknield way, north of Luton at the foot of Warden hills, to head westwards towards the river Ousel, which it crossed at 'Yttingford' (now Tiddenfoot). It's influence is still visible today, the northern boundery of Luton is established along the Theedway, and has been the boundery for at least a thousand years, and is the present limit of the built up area.

Place names, anywhere ending in 'ham' are Anglo Saxon in origin, other Anglo Saxon endings include 'ing', 'stowe', 'stead' and 'ton'. Viking settlements can be identified by ending in 'by', 'thorpe', 'toft' and 'scale'. A lot of these endings have been corrupted in place names over time. Dunstable consists of two Anglo Saxon words, 'dun' meaning hill or down and 'staple' meaning market, in it's transformation of name from its Roman origin of Durocobrivis, it was also known as 'Dunastopol'. In Anglo Saxon times Watling Street (the A5), was known as 'Waeclingstrart'.

As stated, a major Anglo Saxon cemetry has been uncoverd at Kempston with over three hundred inumation and cremation burials. There were also Anglo Saxon cemetries at Sandy, Marina Drive in Dunstable, Argyle Avenue in Luton, Chamberlain Barns in Leighton Buzzard and many smaller ones at smaller settlements and farmsteads. 

 At O'Dell, a 6th-8th century Saxon settlement is sited on an earier Romano-British site. Arlesey, Beeston and Renhold all contain evidence of 9th century fortified Viking camps. Bedford still retains its original Saxon grid plan of its central streets.

When Russell park was being constructed, Saxon warrior graves were found and there is evidence of certain areas bieng settled over a long period of time, with the rebuilding of houses at farmsteads situated at Harrold, Puddlehill, Clapham and Stratton. Indeed, Stratton, Clapham and Harrold are on top of earlier Roman sites.

Recent building work around the castle in Bedford has uncovered a lot of Anglo Saxon finds, including a cobbled street - these finds will at some point be published, but what is coming to light Bedford in particular and north Beds were important areas of Anglo Saxon trade and settlement, much more so than the south of the county. At Castle lane there is evidence of a ditched enclosure and the remnants of two large halls of high status, this has been dated to AD650.

At Wotton and Bedford, ther have been interesting and unique finds of a metal ferrule at each site. These ferrules are shaped to a point and are believed to have been used to convert a bow into a spear when the archer ran out of arrows, they date to the 9th century, and no other similar ferrules have been found any where else in the country to date.

The Danish Camp visitor centre and restaurant at Willington near Bedford, is situated on the site of a recognised Viking earthworks. If one goes ther you can see the remnants of what was possibly a homestead and repair harbour. Ther are still earthworks with a water filled moat, and it is suggested that there were also slipways and fisheries at the location, with the ouse flowing up to where the bottom level of the visitor centre now stands.

In the period up to 1066 King Harold, held land in Bedfordshire (including Bedford), but his brother Leofwine as Earl of an area including Bedfordshire, held much more in this county. A charter also shows that Harold held former royal land at Hitchin in Hertfordshire. It has been estimated that Bedfordshire had a population of ten people per squared kilometer, twice the number in Herts or Bucks, illustrating the importance of the county.

Our period closes with the defeat of King Harold and his Anglo-Scandinavian army at Hastings on the 14th October 1066. When the Normans arrived at Bedford shortly after their victory, they would have found a thriving Saxon market town. The population of Bedford would have been a mix of Anglo Saxon and Danish decent, well intermixed into one cohesive nation, calling themselves 'English'.

The Normans were responsible for building the first of many castles in Bedford, so they could control the surrounding area. A quater of the town north of the river was cleard for the castle, and a new suburb created south of the river. The lands owned Harold and his brothers Leofwine and Gyrth would have passed to Norman control.

The Domesday book also gives us a snapshot of some past names, 'A certain Osbern the fisherman, had half a hide in Sharnbrook, which King Edward's Huscarl, Tovi had held, but with the conquest this land went to Ralph Taillebois. A king's thegn called Esckill held twelve different estates in Bedfordshire, and these also passed to Ralph Taillebois.

A man called Alric, held land in Southill, under Walter Fleming, which had beed held by Leofwine, a thegn of King Edward. These lands were also held under the reign of Harold before Norman seizure, but King Harold's reign is ignored in the Doomsday.

Waltheof was a Northumbrian Saxon thegn in 1066, son of Earl Sinward of Northumbria, and held an Earldom that included land in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire as well as other counties. Waltheof collaberated with King William, until the Earl's uprisingof 1079AD, at the end of which he was beheaded by William. The 'Gesta Herewardi' a 12th century document, has Hereward the Wake, at one piont imprisoned in Bedford, but there is little evidence to support this.

The Doomsday book in 1086 shows the castle in Bedford held by a Hugh De Beauchamp. Many Norman castles were built on the sites of English fortifications. Any English warrior thegns left alive after the slaughter of the three battles of 1066, dispersed into exile, emigration (usually as mercenaries), resistance, or to a lesser extent collaboration, leaving huge amounts of land without lordship and many English families extinct, a vacuum in England and Bedfordshire rapidly filled by William with Normans ect, altering the face of England forever (this is why the Norman victory was so total, there were no major English figures left to effectively keep control of the land).

Wryngwyrm exists to bring back to life the dramatic period of our history known as the Dark Ages. In doing so we highlight the prominent role of the warrior and warfare in this period as well as replicating the more day to day activities of ordinary life. Through our role play and activities we reach back in time making direct links between the modern day inhabitants of Bedfordshire and our Dark Age past.

Oswald Olafson