The origins of Surrey: two scholars’ work and my two pennies’ worth

(This is a long post. I didn’t set out to write such a whopper, rather it grew and grew as a result of choosing such a big, juicy topic which requires time to do it justice. Which is not to claim that what follows below is somehow the definitive word on the matter – far from it. Instead I offer it as a series of linked observations and suggestions that sort-of add up to a thesis about the roots of Surrey as a territory and a place-name. Hopefully, you’ll stick with it across the several pages as it was written to be read in one go. All the same, I will highlight that a lot of useful references are collected – and linked to where they can be read online for free – in the bibliography at the end, so if nothing else this might act as a useful online resource for researchers looking into aspects of the subject matter in the future.)

Late summer and early autumn last year were a busy time for me. Not only did I finally finish the redraft of the article on transhumance and the Weald I’ve been trailing for some time now, I began my PhD – though I’ve been SO part-time I have very little to report thus far. In between, I found the time to put together and present papers at two events: the Naming in Diasporic Contexts workshop in Leicester, and a Surrey Archaeological Society Medieval Studies Forum meeting on ‘Village Life’ in East Horsley. I also had the pleasure of being present at Prof Chris Scull’s frankly astounding Wilson lecture on the hitherto hush-hush research project finding evidence (and lots of it) for the high-status Early to Mid-Anglo-Saxon period centre at Rendlesham in Suffolk, which is set to be a real game-changer on several fronts. Each would warrant a blog post of their own but, given my work rate over the last four months of 2015, realistically that’s not going to happen…


A select band of place-name scholars navigate their way along a hollow way through the deserted medieval village site of Ingarsby, Leicestershire, during the second day of the Naming in Diasporic Contexts workshop, September 2015

Not that the following should be read as a judgement on the quality of the aforementioned, but the impetus for me to write this post was another lecture I attended during this time, namely John Hines’ talk to the SyAS Roman Studies Group about the Roman-Saxon transition in Surrey. There was – and is – no person better-placed than Prof. Hines to speak on the topic, given the remarkable amount of work he’s done on Surrey (or at least making reference to elements of its Early Anglo-Saxon archaeology) over the years, and more generally his masterful knowledge of both the archaeology and philology of the period. For me, it was a great chance to hear him talk through the issues at hand and thereby compare mental notes with my own thinking.

What got me even more excited is that Hines cited another of my favourite scholars working in this field, Dr Caitlin Green. Her work on Lincolnshire, published in the book Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400-650, has put forward the idea that a British territory and populace known as *Lindēs endured through the fifth and earlier sixth century, centred on the Roman city of Lincoln (formerly Lindum Colonia). Contemporary cemeteries – mostly large cremation cemeteries at places like Cleatham and Loveden Hill – of Anglo-Saxon (in this case Anglian, at least for the most part) type have not been found in the vicinity of Lincoln; in fact, the nearest is some 17 miles distance from the city.

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This stark separation is explained first as the hand of ‘some sort of British authority based at Lincoln … preventing the Anglo-Saxon groups represented by the cremation cemeteries from settling in this territory’ (Green 2012, 62-63), and later, in conjunction with “British” artefact distribution patterns, as ‘suggestive of the deliberate direction of Anglo-Saxon settlement … to provide for the defence of their [i.e. the British *Lindēs] territory’ (Green 2012, 89). Green doesn’t formally present this as a model but effectively it can be boiled down to several transferable elements, against which similar evidence from in and around other former Roman urban centres in eastern Britain can be tested. (I heartily recommend Green’s book, but you can read a digest of most of the above in this post on her personal blog.)

Last year, I started tinkering with the idea of taking the basic tenets of Green’s hypothesis and applying them to the situation in Surrey, as there’s what seems to be a very big gap – 10 miles or more – between the Roman city of London with its suburban bridgehead at Southwark and the earliest Anglo-Saxon-type cemeteries in historic Surrey at Mitcham, Croydon, Beddington, and Ewell. Hines identified an arc of Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (and by extension communities) extending from Shepperton in the west (now Surrey but historically Middlesex), through Surrey, on to Orpington and Dartford in Kent and ultimately Mucking close to the Thames in Essex, all of which could be seen as being sited in reference to London and its hinterland (cf. Hines 2004, 92-3 (esp. Fig. 7.1)). Only minor details and emphases need be changed for this proposition to accord with Green’s hypothesis.

Much more recently, I rediscovered Ken Dark’s Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, first published in 2000, and found he’d got there first with the idea of a post-Roman British buffer zone around London. Now I’ll admit to having not been the biggest fan of Dark’s book at the first time of asking, but it’s been really stimulating rereading the section ‘Thinking the unthinkable: British kingdoms in eastern Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries’ (Dark 2000, 97-103). Its title is something of a misnomer, as all talk of kingdoms is quickly dispensed with in favour of ‘enclaves’ of British ‘political control’. He dedicates several paragraphs to setting out his stall (or rather one he acknowledges is inherited from the work of Mortimer Wheeler in the 1930s) in regards to one such enclave around London.

Dark’s take on things (2000, 99-100) is pretty sophisticated in some respects. Finding a dearth of suitable evidence from within the walls of the former Roman city of Londinium (a situation I’ll address on the next page), he argues for a shift of ‘sub-Roman’ activity to the west in the vicinity of what would become the emporium of Lundenwic. But, as I read his argument, he suggests that this was not the sole centre of enduring British political control, rather one of a dispersed network of nodal settlements, often of fifth-/sixth-century date with potential Late Roman precursors nearby. The locations of the earliest so-called Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of Surrey and Essex in Dark’s eyes betray the original role of the interred as members of ‘military communities’ offering protection from the periphery (often settled at strategic points on lines of land and water communications), and trading their ceramics and metalwork with their British masters.

Another riff on the hypotheses of Green and Dark is to be found in this multi-author article reporting the preliminary results of research into the origins of the West Saxon kingdom, the fruit of a project which I’ve been keeping tabs on for a good while now. Here too, along the course of the upper Thames and tributaries, a decidedly uneven pattern of post-Roman material culture has come to light. For good reason the primary focus is upon the ‘hotspots’ of material, containing several nationally and internationally-important excavated settlements, burials and other find-spots, which arguably stand for a riverine heartland zone of the nascent kingdom of Wessex. What is more relevant for the purposes of this post are the conspicuous gaps in the artefact distribution maps which require explanation, such as west of the Thames-Evenlode confluence, and the wording of Helena Hamerow’s assessment is worthy of direct quotation:

‘Such gaps in the evidence, though often ignored, raise the possibility that some of these areas represent enclaves where “native” forms of settlement and burial persisted into the post-Roman period. In considering the distributions of different kinds of dress items and buildings, it is necessary to recall that “early Anglo-Saxon” material culture stands for a whole social and political system; its absence therefore is unlikely to indicate an empty landscape, but rather to communities with different ways of doing things.’ (Hamerow, Ferguson and Naylor 2013, 61)

In this case, there is no major Roman urban centre in the area which might be compared to Green’s Lincoln of the fifth and sixth centuries, with civic leaders who continued to exercise considerable intramural and extramural control. Not that this actually matters, particularly in terms of the evidence from Surrey that will be examined in a little bit, or at least not so much as the suggestion that British communities were continuing to do things their own way in the face of the importation and/or native uptake of a new material culture.

With Hines having brought the north-east of the historic county back into the frame as the most credible location for the original Surrey, and invoking Green’s work to explain the Roman-Saxon transition, I’ve been spurred into digging out the draft plan for this post and, well, the rest is history (and archaeology and onomastics). My key concern is whether the obviously uneven geography of Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and artefacts in north-east Surrey reflects a similar situation to what has been hypothesised at Lincoln/*Lindēs, or what might be characterised as the more informal explanation advanced by Hamerow for parts of western Oxfordshire.

As with so many aspects of the early medieval period, it comes down to the issue of whether absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Do areas of north-east Surrey lacking in “Anglo-Saxon” artefacts = areas of persistent “British” control and material culture, as Dark believes? Or do they represent areas that were genuinely empty or very sparsely populated in this period? Alternatively, are such interpretations premature and pessimistic, ignoring the relevant evidence, perhaps because it has only recently been reported? Was the situation more complex? We can at least define the period of time with which we are primarily concerned: the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Finally, if the evidence is found to be significantly different from what has been identified in Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire, could/should we construct a distinctive “Surrey model” to explain it, or just chalk it up to local-cum-regional diversity not worthy and/or capable of being modelled?

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Brittonic, Language, London, Old English, PhD, Place-Names, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Roman, Surrey, Thames, Topography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The origins of Surrey: two scholars’ work and my two pennies’ worth

  1. Pingback: Early Anglo-Saxon burials in historic North-East Surrey: bodies in the Thames? | Surrey Medieval

  2. Pingback: Not in my name or theirs: considering my future in early medieval studies | Surrey Medieval

  3. Pingback: Trying to be a better medievalist | Surrey Medieval

  4. Pingback: 410-1066 CE: What should we call the period? | Surrey Medieval

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