The history of paganism in Britain spans more than thirty thousand years, almost the whole time that humans have inhabited these islands, bar a few state-enforced Christian centuries in the medieval and early modern periods. It also takes in many different kinds of belief, for some of which we have written records – Roman, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse – while others are known only from archaeology and from the landscape, which is still marked by many thousands of monuments, some large and obvious, most overgrown or unnoticed. The cairns and barrows and material evidence of grave rituals all signal belief of some kind, but the beliefs of the prehistoric millennia may have been as different from one another as any one of them was from the later documented religions; and the changes from one practice to another, like the change from long barrows to stone circles, or the later and sudden abandonment of henges, even the ‘superhenges’ that had taken a huge amount of labour to create, may have been the result of upheavals fully as great as the conversions of pagan Celts and Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.
Scholars know far more about the pagan millennia than they did even a few years ago, and more information is being unearthed all the time. A paradox that emerges from Ronald Hutton’s extraordinarily wide-ranging survey is that the more data archaeology supplies, the less sure we are of what it all means, or meant. Take the case of the Red Lady of Paviland on the Gower Peninsula, the earliest indication of religious sentiment in Britain. Here, in 1822, amateur archaeologists uncovered a headless skeleton, its bones stained with red ochre, buried with bracelets of mammoth ivory and broken wands. Its discoverers thought they had found the body of what Hutton calls ‘a lady of ill fame’ who had probably plied her trade at the Iron Age fort on the cliff above. We now know that the Red Lady was male, the bones have been dated to 32,000 bc, far earlier than the fort, and the careful arrangement of the body suggests that the dead man ‘most probably possessed some kind of spiritual function’. But what can it have been?
We can only guess, and it’s true that the temptation to make guesses about prehistoric paganism is immense, especially in Britain, where the signs of it are so visible. The beliefs of Stone and Bronze Age Britons were expressed in constructions that involved quite fabulous amounts of work. The six-mile-long ‘cursus’, or embanked walkway, outside Wimborne in Dorset represented half a million man-hours of labour, carried out by labourers using deer-horn picks and shovels made from the shoulder blades of cattle. The bank at Avebury would have taken a million hours. As for the time spent hauling stones and dressing them to a flat surface at Stonehenge (and some of these stones are sarsen, which is harder than granite), what can have motivated the masons to keep pounding away with their stone mauls? And Stonehenge is only one of twelve hundred henges discovered in the British Isles. They must mean something. But again, what?
Repeatedly Hutton confesses that we have ‘no reliable evidence’ and that ‘nothing is certain.’ Yet his survey also makes clear that a quantity of strange facts are being unearthed all the time. On South Uist, archaeologists thought they were on to something when they discovered human bodies under the floor of prehistoric roundhouses. They were buried there as dedications, surely, or maybe as a result of ancestor worship? Then it turned out that the bodies, preserved in peat bog, had been dead for centuries before being reburied. And even stranger, when examined in detail they turned out to be assemblages of several bodies: in effect, ‘jigsaw mummies’. Such careful and complex behaviour must mean something. But what?
What should we make of the chariot cemeteries of East Yorkshire? Most of the bodies face east, and are interred with the left foreleg of a sheep or pig, but some face west, in which case it is the right foreleg. The graves which contain actual chariots have a different system. Is this a matter of social gradations? Competing cults? Just as inscrutable is the much later Roman cremated while sitting in a chair with a cockerel in his lap. Was the cockerel a meal? To wake him up? A gift to Mercury? At Kimmeridge in Dorset, again in Roman times, a group of elderly women were buried with their severed heads, without lower jaws, placed by their feet, and each one was provided with a spindle whorl. Was this execution, or a rite de passage? Questions like this appear again and again throughout the book, with innumerable detailed and even forensic clues but no satisfactory answer.
This has never prevented people from coming up with solutions, on most of which Hutton pours regretful cold water. Over the last hundred years and more, it has been popular to think that past ages worshipped what is variously called the Great Mother, Earth Mother or Mother Goddess. Distinguished scholars pioneered the idea, including Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos, and the Cambridge classicist Jane Harrison, who proposed a prehistoric and peaceful woman-centred civilisation in Greece. The discovery of Palaeolithic ‘Venus figurines’, statuettes with exaggerated breasts and hips, seemed to support the notion. D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves and Rudyard Kipling all picked up the idea, so that by the early 20th century, Mircea Eliade commented: ‘A “search for the Mother” had become a major component of the “unconscious nostalgias of the Western intellectual”.’ The only such figurine found in Britain, however, is probably a fake, and belief in passively fertile Mother Goddesses has now gone out of fashion.
Even where we have documentation, as we have for the paganisms of the first Christian millennium, we may think we know more than we do. We think we know that ‘Ancient Britons’ painted themselves blue with woad, that Celtic paganism involved nude female dancing, and that human sacrifice was carried out by the ubiquitous druids. Pliny reported the naked woad-stained processions of British women ‘at certain sacred rites’, and Tacitus gave a dramatic account of the ghastly practices of the druids on Anglesey. Neither report is reliable: Hutton describes the first as ‘salacious myth’, the other as atrocity propaganda. The child found with her skull split near the centre of Woodhenge was for a long time thought to be a victim of a barbaric ritual, like Lindow Man, who seems to have been strangled, hit on the head and had his throat cut; but in 2000 it was realised that the child’s skull had parted along unclosed suture lines – no axe was involved. She may have been buried normally and reverently. Hutton also casts doubt on the usual verdict on Lindow Man: the strangling cord may have been a necklace, the cut throat later accidental damage by peat cutters.
Hutton accords the same careful treatment to the Celtic deities of Toutatis (familiar from Asterix cartoons), the horned god Cernunnos (connected with Herne the Hunter, who is mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor and reimagined in Susan Cooper’s children’s fiction), and even Epona the horse goddess, often thought to lie behind the horse-dominated stories of Rhiannon in the Welsh Mabinogion. Britain is notably lacking in evidence for the cult of Epona that was widespread elsewhere: there are two dedications in northern forts, perhaps from Roman cavalry regiments, four doubtful images. There is even less British evidence for Cernunnos.
Discard all the favourite beliefs of the last century and a half, and one may wonder what is left. There are the permanent marks on the landscape – barrows, henges, the tallest prehistoric mound in Europe at Silbury Hill, hill forts everywhere, nearly four thousand of them – and constant new discoveries, many with the power to overturn previously accepted theory. In 2010 a Bronze Age ship, around three thousand years old, was found in Salcombe Bay in Devon, reinforcing the familiar view of Britain as a centre for trade in copper and tin, the essential materials for bronze. But this Bronze Age freedom of movement cast doubt on the whole concept of Celticity, in which ‘the Celts’, ancient and modern, were seen as an ethnically distinct group also marked off by art, language and even temperament. This has remained a powerful force even in modern politics. But what Hutton calls the ‘new model of ancient Celticity’, introduced in 2010 by John Koch and Barry Cunliffe in Celtic from the West, sees the spread of Celtic languages as a consequence of the existence of an Atlantic trade route rather than ‘waves of invasion’.
Trade doesn’t necessarily bring peace. Slave shackles have been found at Llyn Cerrig Bach in Anglesey; hundreds of arrowheads often cluster round hill fort gateways; there are signs of burned buildings and stockades, and skeletons with battle wounds, especially in the heavily populated south and south-west of England. Hutton points out also that the past was just as subject as the present to climate change and to problems caused by technological advance. One effect of the developing use of iron was a collapse in seaborne trade: one big advantage of iron is that it is found very widely and doesn’t need to be combined with anything to be used. Climate change in the Bronze and Iron Ages was far more dramatic than anything we have recently seen: marked cooling for a thousand years from 1800 bc, then a long recovery. Much further back in the past, but not so far back that humans weren’t present to be affected, sea levels rose to drown what’s known as Doggerland, create the North Sea and cut off Britain and Ireland from the European continent and each other.
It’s not surprising, then, that we can see evidence of massive changes of behaviour: long barrows giving way to stone circles, circles and walkways in their turn slighted or abandoned. In each case what beliefs were being rejected, and what came in their place, are unknown. All we can say is that there may have been as many as five different ages of prehistoric paganism, signalled by different kinds of archaeological remains.
There are things, though, that persist. Folk superstition isn’t the same as organised religion, but the practices associated with it could be called ‘pagan’ in its original sense: what happens in the pagus, the countryside, ‘out in the sticks’. Such folk superstitions have hung on through centuries of Christianity, a religion until recently totally intolerant of competitors. Builders continued to put ‘witch bottles’ in the walls of houses, as well as carved shoes and dried cats. More than a hundred cats have been recorded in buildings from the last two or three centuries, and many more no doubt were thrown away without comment by demolition men. In 1840 the navvies building road bridges over the new railway between Manchester and Crewe put carvings, some of them very similar to old cave markings, on the parts of the bridges that took the most strain. It’s a pity that no one asked them why, but possibly they would have said no more than ‘for luck’.
Stranger still, between 2001 and 2008 some 35 pits in Cornwall were excavated and found to contain eggs, claws, fingernails, pebbles, human hair and parts of iron cauldrons. Each pit had been lined with a swan pelt. Digging the pits must have involved a good deal of visible effort, which might well have been dangerous, as the pelts have been dated to the time of Oliver Cromwell, when any such practice was certain to be understood as witchcraft or heresy and severely punished. The leader of the excavation believes that this cult has continued in secret to the present day. It seems to have been a ceremonial practice, not a religion or an organised system of mythology.
Attempts to understand what the pagans believed, whether focusing on solar worship, ancestor worship or the Moon Goddess, tell us much more about the theorists than their data. Yet Hutton argues strongly that this diversity, and this incomprehensibility, shouldn’t be seen as intolerably frustrating. ‘Where the past is concerned,’ he concludes, ‘what is open-ended, subjective, multivalent and individual can be as valuable as that which is fixed and certain.’ Many will be glad to hear it. No documentary arguments will crush local faith in the phallic Chalk Giant of Cerne (an area with a notably high level of human fertility). And even if belief in Mabon son of Madron, Divine Son of Divine Mother, doesn’t find confirmation from a ‘single ancient inscription’, the Mabon Stane still stands by the Solway shore. We remain at liberty to construct our own fictions from the facts.
It may nevertheless be a relief to turn from nameless skeletons to Max Adams’s study of King Oswald, also Saint Oswald, king of Northumbria from 634 to 642 ce. It’s unclear why he was selected as the focus for Adams’s attention. There were many other kings in the north in the seventh century, and many other major heroes in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed about 731. Obvious contenders include Oswald’s brother and successor Oswiu, who ruled for 28 years, compared with Oswald’s eight, and convened the Synod of Whitby, which confirmed the Roman Church’s dominance over its Celtic rivals. At the end of his reign – and this really was an achievement in the seventh century – he died in his bed. Oswald’s predecessor was King Edwin, who also reigned for considerably longer than Oswald (approximately 616-33), and was the main protagonist in Bede’s famous story about the king and his followers’ conversion to Christianity: Edwin’s pagan high priest admitted that serving the gods had brought him little benefit; a more philosophical thane observed that the life of man was like a sparrow flying through the brightly lit hall and out into the dark again, so that any religion which offered more hope deserved to be followed.
Why, then, choose Oswald? Adams writes that he was ‘famously generous, brilliant in battle, a fighter against all odds and winner of Christian glory in death against a great enemy … the first quintessential English hero’. The last claim is bound to be taken with at least a pinch of salt. But in the process of making it Adams gives a lively account of what was going on in the north of Britain during the turbulent seventh century. Much of it reads like a soap opera: wives poisoning husbands, cousins and foster brothers fighting to the death, uncles doing away with nephews, all further contorted by the royal habit of ‘serial monogamy’, a process guaranteed to provide ambitious stepmothers and contentious half-brothers ad libitum.
Perhaps the first point one needs to grasp – well known to scholars but rather contradictory to modern national myths – is that while Christian Celtic-speakers and pagan English-speakers were certainly prepared to fight each other, they were just as ready to fight among themselves. The two Anglian kingdoms in the north-east were Bernicia, north of the Tees, and Deira to the south. One of Oswald’s achievements was to unify them, though not securely and not for long. But these two kingdoms confronted not only hostile English Mercians, ‘the men of the Mark’, but also the British kingdoms of Elmet in the Pennines, Rheged round the Solway, Gododdin in central Scotland, and Strathclyde – the kingdom that lasted the longest – on the west coast. The inhabitants of these four all spoke languages ancestral to Welsh, or related to it. Further south were Gwynedd and Powys in Wales, and to the north was Dál Riata, whose people spoke a Celtic language ancestral to Gaelic, as well as the still mysterious Grampian Picts. Any one of these dozen or so polities might decide to declare war on, or ally with, any of the others. Ethnic rivalry and religious antipathy came well below dynastic rivalry or opportunism as political motives.
Oswald grew up speaking Irish (Scots and Irish Gaelic not yet being distinct) and came under the influence of Saint Columba’s foundation on Iona, where he was probably baptised. His career began when, as a 12-year-old, in about the year 616, he was hustled off with his younger brother Oswiu to shelter at the court of King Eochaid Buide of Dál Riata, at the royal fortress of Dunadd in Kintyre. Their father, Æthelfrith, known to the British as Flesaur the Twister, and infamous for his alleged massacre of a thousand praying monks at the Battle of Chester, had been killed by Edwin, the current king. Edwin was the hereditary though exiled king of Deira and had ambitions to take over Bernicia, while Æthelfrith had been king of Bernicia and taken over Deira. Æthelfrith had done his best to have Edwin assassinated, so it must have seemed overwhelmingly likely that Edwin, saint though he would become, would return the favour and kill Æthelfrith’s young sons (who were also his nephews). There is no evidence he tried it, however.
Oswald seems to have learned to fight in battles in Ireland and Argyll. One remarkable entry in an Irish annal records a severe defeat for Dál Riata in Ireland in 628, where one of the casualties was ‘Oisiricc mac Albruit rigdomna Saxan’: Osric son of Ælfred the Saxon atheling. Osric was probably the son of Æthelfrith’s brother Ælfred and so Oswald’s cousin. Adams thinks that Oswald was present when his cousin fell, and that he acquired his nickname Lamnguin (or ‘White-blade’) in these largely unknown Irish campaigns.
Oswald got his chance when King Edwin was killed at Hatfield, by a force made up of followers of Penda, the pagan English king of the Mercians, and Cadwallon, the Christian king of Gwynedd. (Entirely typically, Edwin and Cadwallon were foster brothers, but Edwin had repaid his fostering by attacking Gwynedd by sea.) The winners followed up their victory with a determined ravaging of Northumbria, which ended only when Oswald, returned from exile, and with support from Rheged, Dál Riata and his own Bernicia, defeated and killed Cadwallon at Heavenfield, long thought to be near where the church now stands a few hundred yards north of Hadrian’s Wall. Adams suggests that’s not the right location, and places the battle a few miles away, on the east bank of Devil’s Water, near Corbridge. The results of the battle are more certain. Oswald now had no serious competitors for rule over both Bernicia and Deira. And, allegedly as a result of a vision of Saint Columba the night before the battle, he now supported the introduction of Christianity to Northumbria, using missionaries from Iona rather than those sent by Pope Gregory to Kent more than thirty years before. Bede, the loyal Romanist writing a century later, does his best for Gregory’s emissaries, but they hadn’t been making much headway.
Bishop Aidan, sent out by the Iona community, set about converting people by the example of his own humility and charity. Given a fine horse by Oswiu’s Deiran sub-king Oswine, he gave it away to a beggar; when rebuked by the donor, he asked whether the son of a mare was more precious to him than the son of God. On seeing Oswine’s repentance, Aidan wept: he saw he had met a humble king, and he knew humble kings didn’t live long. Aidan’s mission, settled by Oswald on Lindisfarne, was a long-lasting success. Despite the eventual triumph of the Romanists at Whitby in 664, the Irish-inspired church in Northumbria became a hive of holy men and scholars, notably Saint Cuthbert, and Oswald’s half-Irish nephew King Aldfrith, the first literate king of the Anglo-Saxons.
Most of Bede and Adams’s post-Heavenfield narratives of Oswald centre on his virtuousness and his postmortem miracles. After only eight years of rule, Oswald was killed in battle at Oswestry (‘Oswald’s tree’) in Shropshire, by an alliance this time of Penda and King Cynddylan of Powys. The ‘tree’ referred to in the placename may have been a memorial cross, as suggested by the Welsh Croesoswald, but Adams thinks it was ‘the wooden stake on which his severed head was impaled’. Whichever it was, the stake or cross was rapidly whittled for relics. King Oswiu marched to Oswestry a year later to retrieve his brother’s head and other body parts (notably the right hand, with which he did his deeds of charity and which was blessed by Aidan with the property of incorruption). These were soon distributed to become objects of pilgrimage. Adams notes that there are now five places that claim to have Oswald’s skull; the real skull is probably the one in Durham Cathedral with the relics of Cuthbert, which is distinguished by ‘a gaping three-finger wide slash across the front’. We might well wonder, holiness apart, what Oswald was doing in Oswestry. Probably, he was pursuing the trade of a seventh-century king, which was making war on his enemies. Adams doesn’t mention it, but it is thought that the Anglians captured Edinburgh in 638, in the middle of Oswald’s short reign. He was picking off parts of the weaker British kingdoms, a process continued by his successors.
Adams goes on to tell us what happened next: for Oswiu, who finally dealt with Penda at the battle of the Winwæd in 655; for Cuthbert and Bishop Wilfrid, ‘perhaps the richest man in Europe’ as a result of massive donations of land by Northumbrian kings; and for the Northumbrian Renaissance itself, which produced the Lindisfarne Gospels as well as Bede, who although born in poverty became the most learned man in Europe. By this time we are beginning to get firm dates, and documentary corroboration.
It’s a potentially inspiring story, and Adams tells it well, but it’s still not clear why Oswald is its hero. Adams claims he was the first to ‘envision’ the modern idea of statehood – but admits that he didn’t go as far as Oswiu. Did he preside over an intermingling of ethnic groups? Adams, like most modern historians, is in this area a determined minimiser, arguing that there was never any ‘great physical invasion of Germanic peoples’, just a change of lifestyle among the British population. After all, he says, the Indian subcontinent adopted cricket and the English law code without any population change. One could retort that the inhabitants of the subcontinent still speak Hindi, Urdu, Marathi etc, while the languages of Rheged and Elmet, Gododdin and Strathclyde have vanished almost without trace. Although Adams plays up continuity as much as possible, other historians have shown that the material signs point to a major economic and demographic collapse in the post-Roman centuries in Britain. Not all change is for the better, just as not all conversions are remembered. Adams’s relatively conventional account implies that the arrow of history points inevitably to us. Hutton hints by contrast that many forgotten cultures may have thought the same of themselves.