Castle Corner: Who were the Anglo-Saxons and did they help build our beloved city of Norwich?

Anglo-Saxon Winfarthing pendant on display at Norwich Castle

Norwich Castle has one of the best collections of Anglo-Saxon objects in the country, including this intricately cut, garnet inlaid Winfarthing pendant dating back to the 6th or 7th century. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

We delve into the history of Norwich, discover how our fine city was formed and what part the Anglo-Saxons had to play.

As the Castle’s transformation through the Royal Palace Reborn project is well underway, we’re taking a look back in time at key moments in the Castle’s history. This week, in the first of a series of weekly interviews, Lee Warden from Norwich Castle leads us through our journey back in time to share the secret lives of the Anglo-Saxons, and helps us get to know them better.

Q: Who were the Anglo-Saxons and why did they come to Britain?

A: During the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the Romans withdrew from Britannia, leaving the native Britons vulnerable to raiding Picts and Scots from the north. After years of relying on Roman forces for security, which were now absent, the Britons looked elsewhere for burly, seasoned fighters to ward off near-constant raids and attacks. 

The Angles and Saxons from Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia, hardened by years of harsh fighting, offered their expertise in return for land where they could settle. They were given a region of fertile land in the south that became known as ‘East Anglia’ to mark the name of the tribe that settled there – Angles from the East. This was the first Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain.

Q: Were the Anglo-Saxons settlers or invaders? 

A: At first the Anglo-Saxons were grateful to receive rich land where they could farm, as conditions in Northern Europe made it difficult to grow crops. However, the Anglo-Saxons were people who enjoyed fighting. They were warriors, and it soon became apparent that Britain was defenceless.

Anglo-Saxon illustrations on show at Norwich Castle Museum and Gallery

As well as being adept hunters and farmers, the Anglo-Saxons were also skilled jewellers, textile makers and leather workers. - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service. Illustration: Andy Peters

Seeing the opportunity to seize control of the country from the native Britons, they did so swiftly and fiercely, renaming the country from Britannia to 'The Angle's Land' - England. They didn't arrive as invaders, but as invited guests who refused to leave - and then changed all the locks and wouldn't let you back into your house. 

Q: How did the Anglo-Saxons influence British culture?

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A: The Anglo-Saxons were initially pagans and believed in the old gods. However, upon hearing that England was being run by non-Christians, Rome stepped in. The Pope sent two missionaries – Theodore of Tarsus and an African preacher named Hadrian, to convert the Angles. Over time they succeeded in their mission, so much so that Angles back home in Germany also adopted the Christian faith.

Anglo-Saxon artefacts and gold coins on exhibition at Norwich Castle in the city centre

Treasures from Norwich museums were pictured on the castle in March 2021, including this Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold coins. - Credit: Peter King

It was during this time that the Anglo-Saxon town of Norvic (later to become known as Norwich), meaning ‘the town of the north men,’ was built along the banks of the River Wensum and Yare. They also built churches in dedication to their new faith across the county, which is why East Anglia has so many Anglo-Saxon round-tower churches. 

As well as being adept hunters and farmers, the Anglo-Saxons were also skilled jewellers, textile makers and leather workers. Evidence of this can be seen with the many artefacts and objects we’ve gathered at Norwich Castle, including a pendant discovered by a student in 2014 in an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman's grave in Diss.

The Winfarthing pendant dates back to the sixth or seventh century and is one of the best-preserved pieces of Anglo-Saxon jewellery. The piece is intricately cut and inlaid with garnets and perfectly demonstrates their extraordinary talent.

Q: How can I learn more about the Anglo-Saxons at Norwich Castle?

A: As a result of early Anglo-Saxon settlement in the area, we have one of the best collections of Anglo-Saxon objects in the country. The collection contains a variety of artefacts, including Anglo-Saxon instruments, tools, farming equipment, textiles and jewellery. We have over 900 items of significant historical value and beauty.

We’ve gathered items found from all over the country, though many of the oldest items in the collection were found here in East Anglia, as this was their initial settlement, and we’re still finding objects today.

Our Anglo-Saxon exhibition will be open again shortly and visitors can attend one of our handling sessions, to view these amazing artefacts in all their glory and experience first-hand some of the region’s rich history. 

Norwich Castle Royal Palace Reborn project

Norwich Castle's exciting Royal Palace Reborn project is making great progress. - Credit: Norwich Castle

Norwich Castle’s exciting £13.5m transformation is underway

Construction work to transform Norwich Castle’s iconic 900-year-old Keep back into the Norman royal palace it originally was began in 2020 and is making great progress. Once completed in spring 2023, visitors will be able to experience the Keep in all its medieval splendour.

The recreated Norman rooms, dressed with historically accurate replica furniture and furnishings, will convey the colour and grandeur of a palace built to impress. A spectacular new gallery of the medieval period, created in partnership with the British Museum and featuring over 1,000 objects, will tell the stories of those who lived through this fascinating time of change and turmoil. And for the first time in its history, a new lift will mean all five levels of the Keep are fully accessible – from the basement to battlements!

Local Norwich businesses support Norwich Castle's Royal Palace Reborn project

Local businesses, trusts and supporters of the Royal palace Reborn Project. - Credit: Heritage Fund / Norwich Castle

To find out more visit museums.norfolk.gov.uk/royalpalacereborn.

For the latest updates, follow Norwich Castle on FacebookTwitter and Instagram #CastleReborn.