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Settlement mobility and the ‘Middle Saxon Shift’: rural settlements and settlement patterns in Anglo-Saxon England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008

H. F. Hamerow
The University of Durham


The traditional image of the stable Anglo-Saxon village as the direct ancestor of the medieval village is no longer tenable in view of growing evidence for settlement mobility in the early and middle Saxon periods. Indeed, it now appears that most ‘nucleated’ medieval villages are not the direct successors of early, or even middle Saxon settlements, and that nucleation itself appears to be a remarkably late phenomenon.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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1 Taylor, C., Village and Farmstead (London, 1983).Google Scholar

2 The high profile of archaeology within the wider spectrum of settlement studies is apparent in Anglo-Saxon Settlements, ed. Hooke, D. (Oxford, 1988)Google Scholar, the contributors to which evaluate the results of archaeological excavation and survey within the same topographical context as place-name and charter evidence. The present study owes a considerable debt to this book, as will be apparent.

3 Leeds, E. T., ‘A Saxon Village at Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire’, Archaeologia 73 (1923), 147–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; A Saxon Village at Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire: Second Report’, Archaeologia 76 (19261927), 5980Google Scholar, and A Saxon Village at Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire: Third Report’, Archaeologia 112 (1947), 7994.Google Scholar

4 For a general overview of the archaeology of Anglo-Saxon rural settlements, the standard reference remains: Rahtz, P., ‘Buildings and Rural Settlements’, The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Wilson, D., 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 4998Google Scholar. A valuable update has been provided by Welch, M., ‘Rural Settlement Patterns in the Early and Middle Anglo-Saxon Periods’, Landscape Hist. 7 (1985), 1324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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7 ibid. II, fig. 301.

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9 Jones, M.U., Evison, V. and Myres, J.N.L., ‘Crop-mark Sites at Mucking, Essex’, Ant J 48 (1968), 210–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The following section is based on Hamerow, H., ‘Anglo-Saxon Pottery and Spatial Development at Mucking, Essex’, Berichten van de Rijksdienst voor bet Oudheidkundig Bodemonderzoek 37 (1987), 245–73.Google Scholar

10 Jones, M.U. and Jones, W.T., ‘The Crop-mark Sites at Mucking, Essex, England’, Recent Archaeological Excavations in Europe, ed. Bruce-Mitford, R. (London, 1975), pp. 133–87Google Scholar; Hamerow, H., ‘Mucking: the Anglo-Saxon Settlement’, CA 111 (09 1988), 128–31.Google Scholar

11 During the early years of the excavations, it was suggested that a substantial settlement of barbarian mercenaries – foederati – had been stationed at Mucking in the late fourth or early fifth century, to protect London and reinforce the strained defences of the civitates. While the hypothesis is historically plausible, it rests upon rather tenuous assumptions regarding the early date and supposed military affiliations of certain types of late Roman metalwork, so-called ‘Romano-Saxon pottery’ and other pottery types. Many of these assumptions have since come under serious criticism. In short, while the hypothesis that Anglo-Saxon Mucking originated as a federate settlement cannot be dismissed, the archaeological evidence is insufficient to prove it. See Morris, J., review of Myres, J.N.L. and Green, B., The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries of Caistor-by-Normich and Marksball, Norfolk, in MA 18 (1974), 225–32Google Scholar; Hawkes, S., ‘Some Recent Finds of Late Roman Buckles’, Britannia 5 (1974), 386–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Roberts, W., Romano-Saxon Pottery, BAR, Brit. Ser. 106 (Oxford, 1982).Google Scholar

12 The archaeological basis of this phasing is described in detail in Hamerow, H., Mucking: the Anglo-Saxon Settlement, English Heritage Monograph (London, 1991).Google Scholar

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15 Waterbolk, H.T., ‘Mobilität von Dorf, Ackerflur und Gräberfeld in Drenthe seit der Latènezeit: archäologische Siedlungsforschungen auf der nordniederländischen Geest’, Offa 39 (1982), 97137, at 103.Google Scholar

16 The fact that so few post-hole buildings are recorded from phase ‘A’ is almost certainly due to necessarily incomplete excavation in advance of quarrying which took place in this part of the site.

17 van Es, W.A., Wijster: a Native Village Beyond the Imperial Frontier, Palaeohistoria 11 (1967)Google Scholar; Waterbolk, H.T., ‘Odoorn im frühen Mittelalter’, Neue Ausgrabungen and Forschungen in Niedersachsen 8 (1973), 2589Google Scholar; Schmid, P., ‘Ländliche Siedlungen der vorrömischen Eisenzeitbis Völkerwanderungszeit im niedersächsischen Küstengebiet’, Offa 39 (1982), 7396Google Scholar; Zoller, D., ‘Die Ergebnisse der Grabung Gristede, Kr. Ammerland, 1971–73’, Neue Ausgrabun gen und Forschungen in Niedersachsen 9 (1975), 3557Google Scholar; Hansen, T., ‘Nørre Snede’, Jnl of Danish Archaeol. 1 (1982), 181Google Scholar; Hvass, S., ‘Vorbasse: The Development of a Settlement through the First Millennium A.D.’, Jnl of Danish Archaeol. 2 (1983), 127–36.Google Scholar

18 Jankuhn, , ‘Die eisenzeitlichen Würzeln’, pp. 93103Google Scholar; Müller-Wille, M., ‘Siedlungs- und Flur- formen als Zeugnisse frühgeschichtlicher Betriebsformen der Landwirtschaft’, Geschichtswis-senschaft und Archäologie: Untersuchungen zur Siedlungs-, Wirtschafts- und Kirchengeschichte, ed. Jankuhn, H. and Wenskus, R. (Sigmaringen, 1979), pp. 355–72, at 365.Google Scholar

19 The settlements of Cowdery's Down and Catholme, for example, appear to have been relatively stable. Cowdery's Down, however, was not founded until the sixth century, and appears to have been both short-lived and of high status. A t Catholme, it may be that the planned layout of the settlement orginated at a later phase of occupation.

20 Hvass, S., ‘Die Völkerwanderungszeitliche Siedlung Vorbasse, Mitteljütland’, Acta Archaeologica 49 (1979), 61112, at 108Google Scholar; Hvass, S., ‘Die Struktur einer Siedlung der Zeit von Christi Geburt bis ins 5. Jahrhundert nach Christus: Ausgrabungen in Vorbasse, Jutland, Dane-mark’, Studien zur Sachsenforschung 2 (1980), 161–80, at 179.Google Scholar

21 This sort of demographic analysis is fraught with ambiguity, however. For example, it seems certain that there may originally have been many more post-hole buildings at Mucking than were recorded, and some of those recorded may not have functioned as living quarters; estimates of the life spans of people and houses in early Anglo-Saxon England remain, furthermore, little more than educated guesses. A more detailed demographic analysis is attempted in Hamerow, Mucking.

22 An elaborate silver-inlaid bronze belt-set or cingulum, several sword burials and imported glass vessels excavated from the cemeteries are among the grave-goods illustrated in Jones, and Jones, , ‘The Crop-Mark Sites at Mucking, Essex’, pls. xxvii–xxviii and figs. 58–62.Google Scholar

23 Ethelberg, P., Hjemsted: en gravplads fra 4. & 5. årh. e. kr. (Haderslev, 1986)Google Scholar; Haarnagel, W. and Schmid, P., ‘Siedlungen’, in Siedlungen im deutschen Küstetigebiet vom 5. Jh. v. Chr. bis zum 11. jh. n. Cbr., ed. Kossack, G., Behre, K.-E. and Schmid, P., 2 vols. (Bonn, 1984) I, fig. 78Google Scholar; and van Es, Wijster.

24 van Es, , Wijster, p. 503Google Scholar; see also Schön, M.D., ‘Gräberfelder der römischen Kaiserzeit und frühen Völkerwanderungszeit aus dem Zentralteil der Siedlungskammer von Flögeln, Ldkr. Cuxhaven’, Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Niedersachen 18 (1988), 181297, at 233.Google Scholar

25 Statistical evaluation of the Mucking cemeteries is in progress (S. Hirst and D. Clarke, forthcoming).

26 West, West Stow. It seems unlikely, however, that the whole of the settlement was excavated.

27 Bullough, D., ‘Burial, Community and Belief in the Early Medieval West’, Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society, ed. Wormald, P. (Oxford, 1983), pp. 177201, at 194–5.Google Scholar

28 Hamerow, Mucking.

29 Bullough, , ‘Burial, Community and Belief’, p. 195.Google Scholar

30 Chapelot, J. and Fossier, R., The Village and House in the Middle Ages (London, 1985), p. 41Google Scholar; Morris, R.K., The Church in British Archaeology (London, 1983)Google Scholar. The recognition that the majority of pre-conversion cemeteries are adjacent to their associated settlement finds further confirmation in the recent publication of Anglo-Saxon settlement/cemetery complexes at Puddlehill, Bedfordshire; Spong Hill, Norfolk; and West Heslerton, N. Yorkshire. See Matthews, C.L. and Hawkes, S.C., ‘Early Saxon Settlements and Burials on Puddlehill, near Dunstable, Bedfordshire’, ASS AH 4 (1985), 59115, fig. 1Google Scholar; Hills, C., Perm, K. and Rickett, R., The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill, North Elmham Part IV: Catalogue of Cremations, East Anglian Archaeol. 34 (Gressenhall, 1987), fig. 133Google Scholar; and Powlesland, D., ‘Excavations at Heslerton, North Yorkshire 1978–82’, Arch J 143 (1987), 53173, at 143, fig. 70.Google Scholar

31 Especially the proximity of place-names in -. See Brooks, N., ‘The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent’, The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Bassett, S. (Leicester, 1989), pp. 5574Google Scholar; Hamerow, Mucking.

32 Unwin, T., ‘Towards a Model of Anglo-Scandinavian Rural Settlement in England’, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, ed. Hooke, , pp. 7798, at 80Google Scholar; Müller-Wille, ‘Siedlungs- und Flurformen’; Hughes, M., ‘Rural Settlement and Landscape in Late Saxon Hampshire’, Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Settlement, ed. Faull, , pp. 6580, at 74.Google Scholar

33 Berisford, , ‘The Early Anglo-Saxon Settlement Sites in the Upper Thames Basin’, p. 22Google Scholar; Hall, D., ‘The Late Saxon Countryside: Villages and their Fields’, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, ed. Hooke, , pp. 99122, at 102–3Google Scholar; Welch, , ‘Rural Settlement Patterns in the Early and Middle Anglo-Saxon Periods’, pp. 21–2.Google Scholar

34 Arnold, C. and Wardle, P., ‘Early Medieval Settlement Patterns in England’, MA 25 (1981), 145–9Google Scholar; Bonney, D., ‘Pagan Saxon Burials and Boundaries in Wiltshire’, Wiltshire Archaeol. Magazine 61 (1966), 2530Google Scholar; Bonney, D., ‘Early Boundaries and Estates in Southern England’, Medieval Settlement, ed. Sawyer, P. (London, 1976), pp. 7282.Google Scholar

35 Arnold, and Wardle, , ‘Early Medieval Settlement Patterns in England’, p. 148Google Scholar. New data from excavation and surveys are often fitted too readily into the framework offered by the ‘Middle Saxon shift’. Thus, the results of the recent ‘East Anglian Kingdom Survey’ which has identified numerous potential settlements primarily from surface scatters of finds and pottery have provisionally been interpreted as reflecting ‘a clear fall in the number of sites between the fourth and fifth centuries, a steady growth throughout the later fifth and sixth followed by a shift in the seventh century, and then a dramatic increase in the ninth and tenth centuries’. See Newman, J., ‘East Anglian Kingdom Survey: Final Interim Report on the South East Suffolk Pilot Field Survey’, Bull, of the Sutton Hoo Research Committee 6 (04, 1989), 1719.Google Scholar

36 Welch, , ‘Rural Settlement Patterns in the Early and Middle Anglo-Saxon Periods’, pp. 1921.Google Scholar

37 Russel, A., ‘Early Anglo-Saxon Ceramics from East Anglia: A Microprovenience Study’ (unpubl. Ph.D. thesis, Univ. of Southampton, 1984), pp. 96114Google Scholar. I am grateful to Dr Russel for allowing me to refer to his work.

38 This is not to say that such relationships did not exist. For example, ‘early estate groupings’ can be shown to have influenced the formation of parish boundaries in the south-west: see Hooke, D. ‘Introduction: Later Anglo-Saxon England’, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, ed. Hooke, , pp. 18, at 5.Google Scholar

39 Russel, , ‘Early Anglo-Saxon Ceramics from East Anglia’, p. 112.Google Scholar

40 Arnold, and Wardle, , ‘Early Medieval Settlement Patterns in England’, p. 147.Google Scholar

42 The transition, for example, from grass-tempered pottery, usually associated with the ‘pagan’ Saxon period, to the earliest ‘shelly’ wares of the Upper Thames valley, cannot be dated with any precision. Excavations at St Aldates, Oxford, suggest that the shelly wares were already developed by the late eighth- or early ninth-century, but there is no securely dated, stratified sequence linking these wares with the grass-tempered pottery of the fifth to seventh centuries. See Durham, B., ‘Archaeological Investigations in St Aldates, Oxford’, Oxoniensia 42 (1977), 83203Google Scholar. The difficulties of dating late-seventh- and eighth-century contexts are addressed by: Arnold, and Wardle, , ‘Early Medieval Settlement Patterns in England’, p. 147Google Scholar; Meaney, A. and Hawkes, S., Two Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries at Winnall, Soc. of Med. Archaeol. Monograph Ser. 4 (London, 1970)Google Scholar; Hodges, R., The Hamwih Pottery: the Local and Imported Wares, CBA Research Report 37 (London, 1981), 53Google Scholar; Hamerow, H., ‘The Pottery and Spatial Development of the Anglo-Saxon Settlement at Mucking, Essex’ (unpubl. D. Phil, dissertation, Oxford Univ., 1987), p. 99.Google Scholar

43 Newman, ‘East Anglian Kingdom Survey’.

44 Wade, K., ‘A Settlement Site at Bonhunt Farm’, Archaeology in Essex to A.D. 1500, ed. Buckley, D., CBA Research Report 34 (London 1980), 96103Google Scholar; Priddy, D., ‘Excavations in Essex 1986’, Essex Archaeol. and Hist. 18 (1987), 104.Google Scholar

45 Vince, A., ‘New Light on Saxon Pottery from the London Area’, The London Archaeologist 4.16 (Autumn, 1984), 431–9.Google Scholar

46 The distribution of early Kentish settlements, for example, appears to have been strongly influenced by the position of Roman roads and trackways, water courses and fertile soils. See Everitt, A., Continuity and Colonization: the Evolution of Kentish Settlement (Leicester, 1986), passimGoogle Scholar; and Hawkes, S., ‘Anglo-Saxon Kent c. 425–725’, Archaeology in Kent to A.D. 1500, ed. Leach, P., CBA Research Report 48 (London, 1982), fig. 28.Google Scholar

47 Cunliffe, B., ‘Saxon and Medieval Settlement-Pattern in the Region of Chalton, Hampshire’, MA 16 (1972), 112.Google Scholar

48 Hughes, , ‘Rural Settlement and Landscape in Late Saxon Hampshire’, p. 112.Google Scholar

49 Gelling, M., Signposts to the Past (London, 1978), p. 112Google Scholar; Cox, B., “The Significance of the Distribution of English Place-Names in -hēm in the Midlands and East Anglia”, JEPNS 5 (1973), 1573Google Scholar; Hawkes, ‘Anglo-Saxon Kent c. 425–725’; Dodgson, J. McN., ‘Place-Names from hēm, Distinguished from hēm Names, in Relation to the Settlement of Kent, Surrey and Sussex’, ASE 2 (1973), 150.Google Scholar

50 Biddle, M., ‘Hampshire and the Origins of Wessex’, Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology, ed. Sieveking, G., Longworth, I. and Wilson, K. (London, 1976), pp. 323–42, at 332 and fig. 2.Google Scholar

51 Hughes, M., “The Meon Valley Landscape Project”, Soc. for Landscape Stud. Newsletter, 1988, pp. 710.Google Scholar

52 Hurst, J.G., ‘The Changing Medieval Village in England’, in Man, Settlement and Urbanism, ed. Ucko, P. J., Tringham, R. and Dimbleby, G.W. (London, 1972), pp. 531–40Google Scholar; Hall, D., ‘The Late Saxon Countryside: Villages and their Fields’, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, ed. Hooke, , pp. 99122, at 100–1.Google Scholar

53 Silvester, R., The Fenland Project 3, East Anglian Archaeol. 45 (Ipswich, 1988), 158.Google Scholar

54 Hughes, , ‘Rural Settlement and Landscape in Late Saxon Hampshire’, p. 76.Google Scholar

55 Taylor, C., Village and Farmstead, p. 120Google Scholar. Also, Dodgshon, R., The Origins of British Field Systems: an Interpretation (London, 1980), p. 110Google Scholar. W. J. Blair has observed that this transition from scattered settlement (i.e. multi-vill estates scattered across parochiae) to nucleated settlement (i.e. villages based on ‘cellular’ manors) seems in many cases to have been associated with the breaking up of multiple estates from the ninth to eleventh centuries. See Blair, W. J., ‘Minster Churches in the Landscape’, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, ed. Hooke, , pp. 3558, at 56.Google Scholar

56 Hooke, D., The Anglo-Saxon Landscape: the Kingdom of the Hwicce (Oxford, 1985), p. 144Google Scholar. Medieval villages could also shift, of course, although this generally involved the expansion, contraction, or complete relocation of villages, rather than the gradual drifting characteristic of the Wandersiedlungen of this earlier period. See Taylor, C., ‘Aspects of Village Mobility in Medieval and Later Times’, The Effect of Man on the Landscape: the Lowland Zone, ed. Limbrey, S. and Evans, J.G., CBA Research Report 21 (London, 1978), 126–34.Google Scholar

57 Hawkes, S., ‘The Early Saxon Period’, The Archaeology of the Oxford Region, ed. Briggs, G., Cook, J. and Rowley, T. (Oxford, 1986), pp. 64108, at 85.Google Scholar

58 Hooke, D., ‘Regional Variation in Southern and Central England in the Anglo-Saxon Period and its Relationship to Land Units and Settlement’, Anglo-Saxon Settlements, ed. Hooke, , pp. 123–52, at 151. I am grateful to John Blair, Martin Welch and Alan Vince for their comments on an earlier version of this article. I also wish to thank the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities of the British Museum, and English Heritage, for granting free access to the Mucking archive. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Mary Somerville Research Fellowship, Somerville College, Oxford.Google Scholar

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