our collective consciousness of the Dark Ages is increasingly dominated by the Vikings at the expense of the Anglo Saxons through the prevalence of articles and documentaries dealing with the former – and one can appreciate the appeal of these fearsome seafaring raiders (while overlooking the fact that to their victims they were opportunistic rapists, looters and murderers of the helpless). The Saxons are often portrayed as the perennial fall guys to these Dark Age poster boys (although in proper, pitched, stand up fights the Saxons could best them). This point of view culminated in the incredibly irksome slogan of an exhibition in the British Museum a few years back - ‘Vikings rock, Saxons suck’.
Partly to right this state of affairs our project, the Woden Voyages, will be re-enacting three voyages that follow the migration routes the Anglo Saxon tribes (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) took across the North Sea from Denmark and northern Germany shortly after the departure of the Romans from these shores.
The defence of Rome in the early fifth century against the barbarians called for the progressive withdrawal of troops from Britain, and increasing use had to be made of mercenaries to man the defences and to maintain the garrisons of the eastern towns against Pictish raiders. Saxon spearmen were among these mercenaries. Eventually it proved impossible to maintain a centralised army command in Britain, and in A.D. 410 the Emperor Honorius in a letter addressed to the chief cities of the province told them that they must look after themselves.
Then the Saxons and other Germanic peoples, primarily Angles and Jutes, escaping the poor soil of their homeland, came over in greater numbers and seized territory from their ex employers. The newcomers and their kinfolk set up kingdoms, amongst them Essex, Kent, Mercia, East Anglia, Sussex and Wessex. Over the next 500 years, warrior kings forged a united kingdom of the ‘English’.
The Saxons, Angles and Jutes voyaged across the North Sea from northern Germany and the Jutland peninsula. A pristine example of the type of ship they used was found in Nydam, Denmark in the 1860s together with 500 spears, bows, swords and round wooden shields - which is now in the Archäologishes Landesmuseum in Schleswig Germany. c.25m long and built entirely of oak, the strakes are riveted with iron nails. Five huge strakes make up the sides, while a thicker bottom strake is scarphed to the stems. Rowlocks for fifteen rowers are lashed to each side of the ship with a heavy steering oar at the stern. The cleats were carved out which adds much to the materials cost of the replica but is required for authenticity. It is a pure rowing vessel and up to 60 people including rowers and their families would have been crammed aboard. The expedition craft will be of this design, with a crew of 40. The major risk associated with the design is it has a very low freeboard which may make it vulnerable on the open sea – this type was mainly for use on inland waterways and only used for sea crossings during the migration period. So Safety First! – A safety ship will shadow the voyages. The command structure will be Captain (author), Number 1 and three watch mates.
The Routes The ship will undertake three voyages across the North Sea, following the migration routes of the three peoples that would form Anglo Saxon England:
- Voyage 1 will follow the route the Saxons took from (modern day) north Germany to the Thames – approx. 450 miles.
- Voyage 2 will follow the route the Angles took from (modern day) south Denmark to the Humber – approx. 450 miles.
- Voyage 3 will follow the route the Jutes took from (modern day) north Denmark to the south coast adjacent to the Isle of Wight – approx. 750 miles.
The voyages will take place in summer 2018 – 1,600 years after the first landing. The project has a number of goals the first of which is to test the sea keeping abilities of the vessel. Another is to provide a true life enhancing experience for crew members including disadvantaged youngsters and ex-servicemen who have sustained injury through their service, and the ship will be a vehicle for charity fundraising. The crews and passengers will be representative of the diversity of the country today. It will be some experience for the crews! All pulling together we’ll propel ourselves over the sea, cutting through the swell with the salt spray in our faces feeling what our predecessors felt one and a half millennia ago – with no navigational aids apart from what sun, stars and nature can provide. Overall the project aims to re-connect with a fading portion of English history and will also highlight the plight of modern economic migrants with reference to our past – and there will be a lasting educational legacy.
What stage is the project at?
Currently the project has around 40% of its funding and we continue to present to companies, various grant organisations and city councils of the voyage terminating points. It is the intention that the voyaged be televised, this being a key requirement for corporate funding, so we are speaking to a number of production companies.