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Burial sites show when the pagans died out

06 September 2013

by David Keys


Zealous: Archbishop Theodore

Zealous: Archbishop Theodore

For the first time, archaeologists have been able to date the final phase of the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England.

Although the rulers of most ofthe Anglo-Saxon kingdoms officially converted from paganism to Christianity at various times between AD597 and 655, some evidence now suggests that up to 20 per cent of the population still continued to maintain pagan-originating traditions, especially in terms of burial rites.

But new archaeological research, from a project funded by English Heritage, shows that the practice of the pagan burial tradition, namely the use of grave goods, came to an abrupt end in the 670s.

Up until that time, about 20 per cent of women had been buried with their jewellery, and sometimes also with other possessions. In some places, up to ten per cent of men were still buried with their weapons.

The abrupt end to the practice, discovered through a chronological analysis of almost 600 Anglo-Saxon graves, seems to have come about as a direct result of the arrival in England of a newly appointed and particularly zealous Archbishop of Canterbury- a Byzantine monk, Theodore.

Apart from pagan burial rites, English Christianity was beset with many other challenges: disagreements over how to calculate the date of Easter, tonsure styles, episcopal authority, and incestuous marriages. Sixty years later, in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede wrote that Theodore was "the first Archbishop whom the whole Church in England agreed to obey".

Theodore became Archbishop at a difficult time in Anglo-Saxon Christian history. Besides the various disagreements over Easter and other matters, the see of Canter-bury had been vacant for two years.

Also, it appears that it was not viewed as a particularly desirable posting. The then Pope, Vitalian, offered the job to two potential candidates, who both turned the post down. In the end, a third candidate, Theodore, took on the task, at - for that time - the advanced age of 67. Remarkably, he served as Archbishop of Canterbury for 21 years, dying at the age of 88.

The final termination of pagan burial traditions in the 670s would have been of considerable political significance. The newly analysed archaeological evidence suggests that it was potentially influential elements of the Anglo-Saxon élite that had been clinging to their pagan-originating burial practices.

John Hines, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cardiff, who has been working with English Heritage on the project, said: "The new research sheds unexpected light on how, around the eighth decade of the seventh century, Christianity consolidated its hold over the lives and experiences of everyone in England."

Professor Hines, and English Heritage's scientific-dating expert, Alex Bayliss, together with other specialists, used advanced computer software to analyse radio-carbon dating evidence to narrow down the key decade for the final end of pagan burial tradition in England to the 670s.

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