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Anglo-Saxon Britain

England's Oldest Town

From Channel 4's Down To Earth series by Doctor Catherine Hills, 1990

Just how town life originated in England is a difficult question to answer, but the earliest of some of the country's most historic towns seem to have begun their lives as Roman military fortresses.

This is the case with Lincoln. It was one of the first Roman forts in the area, known as Lindum (or Caer Lind Colun in later British works). Within a very short time civilians had started to settle in the area around the fort, living in small domestic houses.

Probably from AD 200 it could be said there was a flourishing town in Lincoln. It continued to flourish until about AD 350-360, and then findings indicate that buildings were beginning to decay, walls were falling down, roofs were falling in, and some of the large civic buildings were in ruins. Also the sewers were unlikely to be working by this time.

Archaeological evidence points to large numbers of people moving out of the Roman cities by this time. The lack of coins, pottery, and domestic rubbish confirm the abandonment of large areas of city. Dust and decay would have fallen on this empty area, with nature striving to reclaim the land. Lincoln in the fifth and sixth centuries would not have looked like a town at all. All that would be found would be a collection of deserted ruins.

The old theory that Roman towns continued to thrive into Anglo-Saxon times is no longer held to be true. It's the same all over the country. The Roman cities collapsed and there were no real towns in England for nearly two hundred years. People lived rural lives and avoided the old cities (superstition would have played a part in this). When they did build towns in the Saxon period these were quite different places.

Sutton Hoo mask
While Sutton Hoo was all about the dead, nearby Rendlesham (royal domain of the kings of East Anglia) provided the lifeblood of the kingdom, complete with a royal hall which would have been about the size of a detached modern house

The historic town of Ipswich can be dated back to the early 600s, and there is a cemetery alongside the original settlement area which was used at that time. Ipswich, known in Old English as Gipeswic, was an early trading community, although apart from finding imported pottery it is not known what other activities took place there.

It seems reasonable to assume it was the precursor to the very large trading towns. Early Ipswich is known also to be contemporary to the famous burial site at Sutton Hoo. It is quite likely that the East Anglian royal house, which was based at Rendlesham, only nineteen kilometres away from the town, actually founded Ipswich as their royal town and trading port. A corresponding trading capital can be found in each of the early kingdoms.

Towns became popular again in the seventh century due to a number of reasons: firstly, it was very convenient to concentrate craft production and tradesmen in one place who could feed off one another and increase business.

Secondly, there is the social aspect in that people do like to come to large places for entertainment. Originally the Saxons would have lived their lives in the seclusion of their own hamlets and farm settlements. It may be the case that, in the seventh century, they moved on just that little bit and started to congregate at larger functions which were held in bigger settlements.

Perhaps originally they met just for craft purposes, but then came to realise that all other sorts of social benefits came from that meeting.

The discovery of an early kiln at Ipswich has shown that the town was not just an early trading port but an industrial centre, producing England's earliest known wheel-thrown pottery, called Ipswich-ware.

It was an enormous industrial base of the time, stretching for about one hundred metres along the south side of Carr Street, which supplied the whole of the East Anglian kingdom, and exported to most of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, reaching as far as Bristol and York.

By the seventh century, what is now thought of as England had been established. Most of the country's present villages go back to that time and the first and earliest of the towns, such as Ipswich, had been established.


Map of England AD 625
A map of Anglo-Saxon England in AD 625, showing the main trading ports for the kingdoms of the south and east, some of which are mentioned above



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