Primary History

Anglo-Saxons: Stories and pastimes

  • Story-telling

    Anglo-Saxons liked to gather in the lord's great hall, to eat and drink, and to listen to songs and stories. They loved tales about brave warriors and their adventures. A favourite story told how Beowulf, a heroic prince, kills the fierce man-eating monster Grendel, and Grendel's equally horrid mother. The story of Beowulf was first written down in the 8th-9th centuries, but long before that the story was told around the fire. The storyteller played music to accompany the songs and poems, on a small harp or on another stringed instrument called a lyre.

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  • Riddles and runes

    The Anglo-Saxons liked to play with words. They amused themselves by telling riddles, some of which were written down. Here's one riddle.

    I appear on the ground like a blanket,
    and melt in the midday sun.

    Can you guess the answer?

    Early Anglo-Saxons wrote using letters called runes. They believed runes had magical powers. You can see some runes in the Images section.

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  • Anglo-Saxon feasts

    Anglo-Saxon leaders or lords were expected to entertain their followers with feasts. A lord gave his men gifts in return for their loyalty - treasure after a victory in battle, perhaps, or a roasted boar after a successful hunt. The feast was held in the lord's great hall.

    On dark winter days, people gathered in the hall around a log fire. They listened to stories and poems, and sang. They ate roast meats, bread and fruit. They drank ale or mead, a strong drink made from honey. People often drank too much, so feasts were often noisy and sometimes ended in fights!

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  • Games and sports

    Men enjoyed rough and boisterous pastimes, such as wrestling, weight-lifting (using heavy rocks) and horse-racing. These sports kept them fit, for work and war. They also played ball games. One game seems to have been a bit like hockey, and another like baseball or cricket. In swimming races, it was apparently fair to push other swimmers under water!

    Gambling was very popular. The grave of a prince or king found in Essex in 2003 contained more than 50 bone gaming pieces and two large dice, made from deer antler.

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Fun Facts
  • Our word game comes from an Old English word 'gamen'.

  • Children frightened one another with stories of monsters. One was the thyrs, a nasty goblin which lived in bogs and ponds.

  • In Anglo-Saxon poetry, a 'foamy-necked floater' is a boat and the 'whale road' is the sea.

  • One poem describes a ruined Roman town, possibly Bath, as 'the work of giants'.

  • Among the most precious Anglo-Saxon books are the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

  • One riddle may refer to a musical instrument usually associated with Scotland: with 'its noise pointed downwards, its feet and hands like a bird'. Ans: bagpipes.

  • The Anglo-Saxon for 'sports ground' was 'plegstrow' - Plaistow in London reminds us of this name.

  • One story with a moral (lesson) tells of a man who drank too much ale, staggered outside the hall, and was attacked by a bull!

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Jump to: A-D | E-L | M-R | S-Z

A to D

ale
Drink made from barley.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
A history of England begun in the 800s.
archaeologist
A person who finds out about the past by looking at old objects or buildings that are buried under the ground.
barn
A farm building.
Bayeux Tapestry
An embroidery telling the story of the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Bede
An English monk and historian. He lived from about 673 to 735.
Beowulf
A long poem about a hero, probably made up before AD 800, and written down later.
brooch
Ornament used to fasten clothing.
capital
The main town or centre of government of a country.
Celts
People in Britain before the Romans invaded in AD43.
Charlemagne
King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor.
charm
A magical object or words, to protect a person from harm.
Christian
A person who follows the religion taught by Jesus Christ.
conquer
To beat an enemy and control them using force.
court
The place where a king meets his followers and gives commands.
cremate
To burn a dead body to ashes.

E to L

evidence
Objects and facts that give clues as to what happened long ago.
freeman
A person who was not a slave and owned land.
Hadrian's Wall
Wall marking the northern frontier of Roman Britain.
historian
A person who studies the past.
hearth
A fireplace, usually in the middle of a house, and with no chimney.
influence
The effect of a person or things on another.
invaders
People who attack and try to take over land from other people.
Latin
Language of the Romans.
longship
Viking ship with a sail and oars.
loom
Machine for weaving cloth.
lyre
A small harp played at Anglo-Saxon feasts.

M to R

mail shirt
Armour made from chain mail, worn on the upper body.
monastery
The building where monks live.
monk
A male member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
nun
A female member of a religious group, living, praying and working together and following a set of rules.
oxen
Strong cattle used to pull carts and ploughs.
pagan
A person who worships many gods.
Picts
People who lived in Scotland at the time of Roman Britain.
Pope
Head of the Roman Catholic Church.
potter
Person who makes pots, jars and bowls from clay.
raider
An enemy who attacks and then goes away.
rank
Status or position in society.
Reconstruct
To rebuild something as it was.
riddle
A puzzle based on playing with words.
Romans
People who ruled an empire 2,000 years ago
runes
The letters of the Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

S to Z

Scots
People in Scotland; they called themselves Gaels - 'Scots' was a name the Romans gave them.
settlement
A place where people make their homes.
slave
A person who is not free but is owned and made to work by another.
smith
A worker who makes things from metal, usually iron.
strip fields
Long narrow ploughed fields.
Sutton Hoo
Site in Suffolk, England, of a king's ship-burial.
thane
An Anglo-Saxon nobleman who owned land.
thatch
A roof covered in straw or reeds.
tribe
A group of people who share a common background and culture.
Vikings
People from Scandinavia who were fighters, sea-travellers, traders and farmers.
walled
Having a defensive wall or wooden barrier around it, such as a walled town.
warrior
A person trained to fight in battle.
weaving
Making cloth.
well
A hole dug to supply drinking water to a settlement or house.
Wergild
Money paid to a murdered Anglo-Saxon's family by the murderer.
will
A document setting out how a person wants their possessions shared out after death.