MORE to BROWSE - Pages that might be of Interest

16 October 2021

Stepping Back Into Saxon England ...

To round off our tour a Q & A 
with Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick... 

Here are Annie's answers to Helen's questions

Helen's answers to Annie's question can be found 
HERE on Annie's Blog  

1. The Anglo-Saxon ‘Age’ covers quite a few centuries (from the 400s to 1066!) What is your particular favourite period? Why?

I think my favourite periods are the seventh and the tenth centuries. In the seventh, the English began to convert to Christianity, the English kingdoms began to be formed, and one of the most interesting and perhaps inaccurately presented families emerged: Penda, the last pagan king, and his numerous offspring. As far as I can tell, he remained faithful to his one and only wife, and almost all of their children took the religious life. Not bad for a ‘heathen’! And religious life, at that time, meant abbeys where monks and nuns lived alongside each other, and where the abbeys were run by females, one of whom even educated future bishops. Quite the unusual set-up compared with other medieval periods. 

Coldingham Priory, showing the dig site where the A/S
abbey was found. The powerful abbess who ruled here in
the seventh century features in The Sins of the Father

The tenth century, once my heroine Æthelflæd and her brother had done their bit, was relatively free of Viking incursions, but  the little-known reigns of the kings that weren’t blighted by these attacks saw noblemen developing as canny politicians, and Churchmen being Machiavellian before Machiavelli was even born. This was a time of intrigue, assassination but also a perid which saw the erstwhile kingdoms come together pretty much under a single banner. (It unravelled a bit at the end of the century with the reign of Æthelred the ‘Unready’...)

Edgar being crowned by Archbishop Dunstan
a scene featured in Alvar the Kingmaker

2. If you could select one artefact to have for your very own (regardless of its value!) what would you choose?

Just one?! There is so much to choose from because, despite its label ‘The Dark Ages’, this was a period of beautiful books, exquisite jewels, and intricately decorated weaponry. I’m sure everyone is aware of the staggering and glittering ‘bling’ of the Staffordshire Hoard* and the Sutton Hoo burial. But the one item I would love to own has to be the comparatively rather dull piece known as the  Æthelswith ring. This item is too large to be a ring designed for a female hand and seems to have been commissioned by Queen Æthelswith, who was not only a queen of Mercia, but a sister of Alfred the Great, and the mother of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. To own an item with a known connection to Æthelflæd’s mother would thrill me no end. In the meantime, I must make to do with my replica:


* read Annie's post last Monday! 

3. You have been granted a wish to change one thing that happened during the Anglo-Saxon period – what would you change?

I always think it would have been nice had Edmund Ironside not died, either by wounds or treachery (the jury is still very much out on that one). He was a great warrior, not at all a chip off the block, given that his father was the afore-mentioned Æthelred the ‘Unready’, and his descendants were involved in the tussle for the English crown in 1066 and afterwards. But perhaps a tiny thing, if altered, might have really changed future events, and that’s the removal of Æthelflæd’s daughter, Ælfwynn, from power after her mother’s death. She did, albeit briefly, succeed her mother as Lady of the Mercians and England would have to wait until the Tudor age before a woman succeeded another woman to power. I often find myself wondering what the fate of Mercia would have been, although if Hastings and 1066 had still happened, then we know that answer. 

It’s always fun, though, to think, What If, which is pretty much how the book 1066 Turned Upside Down came about.  

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, subject
of my novel To Be A Queen


Buy the book
(now also available in paperback)

For the three questions set by 

Annie for Helen to answer 

go to Annie's Blog  


thank you for following our tour

we hope you have enjoyed it!

e-book: special low price
during October
the story of Queen Emma
c. 984 – 6 March 1052
(US/Canada only)


 < Did you miss anything?

Revisit the Tour  on Annie and Helen's Blogs
Three questions for Annie
Three questions for Helen 

15 October 2021

Friday Furries - Anglo-Saxon Animals by Annie Whitehead


Helen's cat, Mab           
Let's talk about ...
cats, dogs, horses, bunnies,
hamsters...
or  anything with fur!
(or feathers, not sure about scales though)

















Here I am again as Helen’s guest, as we continue our mini blog tour through Saxon England. Helen’s Friday guest spot is all about ‘Furries’ so I thought that today I’d talk about animals in pre-Conquest England. Some furry, some woolly, but almost no pets (sorry!)

Once they’d settled on these shores (and there’s a long debate about how that settlement came about) the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and all the other folk who’d come over from Europe worked the land. They farmed and, with one or two notable exceptions, we’d recognise the processes today by which they brought food from the fields to the table, although their methods were more labour-intensive. 

They did not milk and have fresh dairy produce all year round. The cows and other milking animals - goats, sheep - went ‘dry’ over winter, so there was no fresh milk or cheese (though they did smoke the surplus summer cheese, so hard cheese was available in the ‘dry’ months).

Still, the basic idea of keeping animals for meat, dairy, and by-products is fairly standard. Would we, though, recognise the animals?

Dexters in the field next to Helen's
North Devon home.
Most Dexters are black but there are red variations
© A.S.

The cows were probably smaller than the ones you’d encounter in fields today. A good idea of what they looked like can be gleaned from pictures of the Dexter cow, a European breed of which there are several examples at Bede’s World in Jarrow. 

A Dexter Eating Hay - by Annie Kavanagh

Sheep bones have been found in abundance and it’s clear that they were used for milk and meat. Even today there are many different sheep breeds but the sheep of Saxon England would, like the cows, have been smaller than their modern-day counterparts and certainly would have been hardy. The Soay sheep of St Kilda remained isolated and therefore unaffected by later breeding improvements, so perhaps their Saxon counterparts resembled them, or the Manx Loaghtan. Wool was, of course, a valuable by-product of sheep farming. 

Manx Loaghton - Public Domain Image

Goats were also used for milk and meat, with the milk perhaps used for invalids, being easier to digest. Skins were used for parchment, as were sheepskins and of course calf skin, which was specifically known as vellum. (As you’d expect, calves would not have been killed just for their skins and it’s been suggested that young animal meat, when available, was considered a treat, a bit of a luxury.)

Pigs were kept, but were semi-feral, living not on the farms but in woodland and were often kept more for commercial purposes, rather than in small numbers for individual families. They foraged in the woodland, and there are many - slightly later - images depicting them eating acorns. 

Public Domain Image

Few foot bones have been found, suggesting that while the main joints of ‘pork’ might have been salted, the trotters might have been disposed of, perhaps even fed back to the pigs although there is a possibility that they were sold as delicacies. [Ann Hagen - Anglo-Saxon Food]

Pigs, again, would not have looked like their modern-day counterparts, something which was recently bemoaned in this blog post 

We should perhaps think more in terms of the Tamworth pig or even, of course, the wild boar, which were plentiful. 

Tamworth Pig - Public Domain

What did the meat taste like? Well, again, here the animal husbandry differed from modern practices, in that the beasts were mostly killed at the end of their useful life (although see vellum, above), so might have been quite tough. The majority of meat was boiled or stewed. 

What about smaller, ‘domesticated’ animals? Well, they had chickens and geese, but not domesticated ducks at this point, though they might have eaten them, catching them perhaps with nets. Eggs, like milk, were seasonal, and hens did not lay all year round. Perhaps the spring glut added to the association of eggs with Easter. *

In the tenth-century Colloquies of Aelfric, the king’s hunter says that with swift hounds he hunts down wild game. He takes harts and boars, bucks and roes, and sometimes hares. These dogs were working dogs, probably kept in kennels. But there is some evidence of dogs being buried in human graves, suggesting a role as faithful companions, or perhaps even personal guard dogs, but much more evidence of dogs being buried in middens, or rubbish pits, which suggests a less friendly relationship. We should perhaps imagine these dogs as predominantly deer hounds and greyhounds. 

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting hawking

Since pests needed to be kept out of the grain stores, and mice and black rats were certainly present in Saxon England, it stands to reason that some kind of animal was employed for pest control, and remains of cats have been found on numerous sites. But what might be more surprising is that there is evidence that weasels and polecats were also used for this task and tamed and trained specifically to catch rats and mice. **

Were even these small furries pets? No. Any animal would need to earn its keep. But I’m sure that human nature being what it is, there must have been some young children who had their favourites and perhaps tried to cuddle them from time to time. What is not clear is how ‘tamed’ these beasts were. Watch your fingers! 

From Helen: 

* interesting that modern domestic hens often do lay all year round - though they go 'off lay' if it gets very cold or when they are molting. Also you don't need a rooster (male bird) for a hen to lay eggs - although, of course, you do if you want the egg fertile for new chicks)

** the forerunner of the modern ferret! Most domestic cats will eat mice, but will rarely eat rats (Mab tends to leave these on my bedroom carpet! Thanks Mab...) However the Wild Cats (a specific breed) do eat rats - they are being re-introduced into certain areas of the UK where rats are a problem.


Annie is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and is on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) Editorial team and is senior reviewer at Discovering Diamonds. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017 and is now a judge for that same competition. She has also been a judge for the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Short Story Competition. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books

Connect with Annie:

Twitter       Facebook      Blog

Website        Amazon



 < Did you miss anything?

Revisit the Tour  on Annie and Helen's Blogs
Three questions for Annie
Three questions for Helen