The Anglo-Saxons had Germanic or Scandinavian roots, and when they first arrived in Britain during the 5th century that followed the religion of these places. Sadly, very little is known about the exact nature of their religious beliefs, since they were largely illiterate and passed down their myths and traditions orally. However, like those left behind in their homelands of Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, they seem to have had a polytheistic religion, with different gods in charge of different aspects of life.

Saxon burial from Ashtead with spearhead and knife (image SCAU)

Saxon burial from Ashtead with spearhead and knife (image SCAU)

Though there is little documentary evidence for the original religion of the Anglo-Saxons, some assumptions can be made from studying their burial practices. Archaeologists often use evidence of the way the dead were treated to learn about the beliefs and structure of a society. In the case of the Anglo-Saxons, the dead were either cremated and their ashes placed in urns, which were then buried, or they were buried directly in cemeteries or barrows. Whatever the method, the body was always accompanied by grave goods, particularly if the individual was of a high status. These were usually weaponry for men and domestic items such as needles or tweezers for women. It is thought that the Saxons buried the objects so the deceased would be able to use them in the afterlife.

In Surrey, both cemeteries and barrow burials are known for the Saxon period. Perhaps most famous is the cemetery of Guildown (HER 1629), in Guildford. This contains cremation and inhumation burials from several centuries, including the 6th century, the heyday of Anglo-Saxon paganism. Other cemeteries are found at Hawkshill (HER 123) and Ewell House (HER 1128).

Another useful source of evidence for early Anglo-Saxon religion comes from place names. Anglo-Saxon names often survive today and are good indicators of the use of a particular area. Words such as hearh (sanctuary), leah (sacred woodland grove) and weoh (idol, shrine or temple) all indicate that a place had religious importance. Various places in Surrey include parts of these, including Thursley, which means the grove of Thor (Anglo-Saxon god of thunder) and Tuesley (Anglo-Saxon god of war).

Even the names of some of the days of the week are derived from the names of Anglo-Saxon gods. Tuesday is Tiws day, Wednesday is the day of Woden or Odin, chief of the gods and taker of the dead, Thursday is Thors day and Friday could be the day of either Frigga (wife of Woden and goddess of love) or Freya (goddess of fertility).

The pagan religion of the Anglo-Saxons may have been thriving in the early part of their occupation of Britain but it was not long until missionaries from the Christian countries of Gaul and Italy turned their attention in this direction. In 597 a mission arrived in Kent from the Pope and set about converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. At the same time monks from Ireland began converting the North.

During the Anglo-Saxon period, Britain was divided into a number of kingdoms. The boundaries of these kingdoms were constantly changing as rival kings competed for territory. Surreys position at the border of Wessex, Sussex, Mercia and Kent meant it changed hands many times during this period. As a result, it is hard to know exactly when Surrey was converted to Christianity. Its neighbour Sussex was the last to be converted, in 681, but nearby Kent was the first, whilst Mercia and Wessex were both Christian by the middle of the 7th century.

The tower of St Mary's, Guildford has projecting stone strips, which may have been used to imitate timber framing. They are characteristic of late Saxon building. Other parts of the church are of many different dates. (Image: R Purkiss)

The tower of St Mary’s, Guildford has projecting stone
strips, which may have been used to imitate timber
framing. They are characteristic of late Saxon building.
Other parts of the church are of many different dates.
(Image: R Purkiss)

It may not be known exactly when Christianity was first introduced to Surrey, but the first monastic settlement was founded at Chertsey (HER 595) between 664 and 673. it was built by Earconwald, who later became bishop of London. Another monastery was founded in the 8th century at Woking (HER 479) and there is some evidence that St Andrew’s Church (HER 1436) in Farnham was originally meant as a monastic church.

As well as the monasteries, Surrey had a number of Anglo-Saxon churches. Some of these survive as parts of later churches, but it is often hard to spot the Anglo-Saxon elements. The best examples include St Marys Church (HER 95) in Stoke dAbernon, St Peters and St Pauls (HER 1808) in Godalming and St Marys (HER 1666) in Guildford. Interestingly several churches were built at former pagan sites, such as St Michaels Church at Thursley (HER 1513) and St Marys Church at Tuesley (HER 1811). The original religion of the Anglo-Saxons may be gone from Britain, but traces of it remain in the names of places and the location of many early churches.

Click here to see an interactive map of Surrey’s Saxon churches.

 

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