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The Anglo-Saxons are coming!

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 16:21 UK Time, Thursday, 11 October 2012


An illustration from '1066 and all that' by John Reynolds


Producer Beaty Rubens introduces a new, extended series of The Essay on Radio 3 – three blocks of ten episodes stretching in to 2013, the first series beginning on Monday 15th October.

I was interested in the Anglo-Saxons – that wasn’t the problem.  In fact, I had attended a primary school called King Alfred’s, and even today could sketch you the school logo – a wonky little line drawing of Alfred, seated on a throne, wearing a sort of Anglo-Saxon dress and pointy shoes and holding up a book to show off his passion for education.  Which is ironic, really, because education – or my lack of it – on the subject was exactly why I felt so unqualified to produce a 30-part series called Anglo-Saxon Portraits.

I knew something about the Celts and the Romans and the Tudors, but the half millennium between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans was a shocking blank.  Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons just weren’t much taught in the 50 years after the War, when the idea of Aryan and Germanic invaders wasn’t all that fashionable.  

The little I did know came almost entirely from that masterpiece of English history, Sellars and Yeatman’s 1066 And All That.  There are sections of their Test Paper I, which I can quote almost by heart:  Question 2, for example, solemnly requires you to: 'Discuss in Latin or Gothic (but not both), whether the Northumbrian Bishops were more schismatical than the Cumbrian Abbots.  While Question 8 simply asks: Have you the faintest recollection of: (1) Ethelbreth? (2) Athelthral? (3) Thruthelthrolth?

And all this did was to confirm my ignorant pre-conception that the Anglo-Saxons had a taste for vaguely absurd names and were constantly engaged in ecclesiastical disagreements over arcane matters such as monastical hair-cuts. 



An illustration from '1066 and all that' by John Reynolds


Over the last six months I have come to see that the Anglo-Saxons were more subtle, more sophisticated, more human and more important in terms of our everyday lives today than I had ever imagined. My colleagues Sarah Taylor and Mohini Patel and I have commissioned leading scholars and enthusiasts in the field to write and read radio portraits of 30 key Anglo-Saxon men and women. 

Barry Cunliffe speaks up for King Vortigern, who has traditionally had a bad press because of his decision to invite in the legendary Anglo-Saxon brothers, Hengist and Horsa, hoping they would protect the country from barbarian attack.  Of course his plan of containment failed and the rest is history.

With the sympathy of a man who has been there himself,  the departing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams re-animates the career of St Augustine – just arrived from Rome and feeling his way into his new role as the first ever Archbishop of Canterbury.

Martin Carver poetically details the life and death of King Raedwald, the occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, with a kindly nod to Raedwald’s unnamed wife, who sent him off to the next world with his shaving kit and a change of clothes.

Barbara Yorke tells the story of her bafflingly overlooked heroine, Hild of Whitby, the abbess who ran a monastery the size of a small town and was in charge of the education of future bishops until the Church of England decided they couldn’t have a woman in such a role, setting a precedent that is only being challenged in the Church of England today.  

With fascinating hands-on detail, Richard Gameson tells of Eadfrith and other scribes responsible for writing mile after mile of manuscript – from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the Lindisfarne Gospel and Beowulf.

The great Seamus Heaney speaks of the hero of the great Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf;  while David Almond, author of Skellig and My Name is Mina wonderfully re-imagines the life of his fellow-Northumbrian, Caedmon, the first surviving poet in the English language.  

Geoffrey Robinson QC explores the legacy of the Anglo-Saxon law-maker and Clive Anderson talks about King Harold. 

Mostly we have focussed on named individuals, but we have also commissioned some 'generic portraits' so as to paint in the lives of men and women whose names are now forgotten:

The peasant farmers, without whose labour, the sight of the classic English village – a cluster of houses surrounded by strips of field – would not be so familiar.  

The smiths – black and gold – who once laboured over treasures such as the famous Alfred Jewel or the Staffordshire hoard, uncovered by a metal detectorist in 2009.   

And then, right at the end of the era, the final programme of the 30 will be on the embroiderers of the Bayeux Tapestry – the magnificent art-work which so decisively marks the close of the Anglo-Saxon era. 

Ask me what I know of the Anglo-Saxons now and I could certainly answer a Test such as that set by Sellars and Yeatman.  What’s more, there’s so much and it’s so much more complex and nuanced and exciting than I had ever imagined that I might honestly be tempted to write on both sides of the page at once! 



  • Comment number 1.

    Was it true that the Saxons would not, or could not, ride horses ? Thus they had no cavalry, and they had to march on foot for hundreds of miles to counter the Norman invasion.

  • Comment number 2.

    Outstanding first few episodes- particularly liked Penda and the Anglosaxon farmers (Helen Hamerow). Have gone out and bought Bede and the Anglo Saxon chronicles to find out more. Shame that the programmes are on so late though...When are the next ten being aired, and which ones will they be?

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Caballo3459. Thanks for your kind words. The next batch of Anglo-Saxons will be broadcast during January. And don't forget that you can listen online to the whole series and you can also download them to listen to on your computer or MP3 player. Sign up for the free podcast here and the episodes will magically arrive on your computer when they go out!

    Steve Bowbrick, Interactive Editor, BBC Radio 3


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