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Saxon Guildford


The people known as Anglo-Saxons came to Britain from North-West Europe as mercenaries during the Roman period to help the Romano-British against invaders.  The earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements in Surrey are probably part of a ring of 4th century settlements around London known mainly from cemeteries.  The Surrey cemeteries at Croydon, Beddington and Mitcham were on the nearest good agricultural land to London, and may have been controlling the food supply as well as the roads to and from the city.  After the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 many more Anglo-Saxons moved into the country as invaders, part of a general movement of people throughout Europe at this time.  They landed on the east coast of Britain and spread inland along rivers.

Surrey was in between the East, West and South Saxons of Essex, Wessex and Sussex, and the Jutes of Kent.  Surrey seems to have been influenced by Wessex rather than Kent.  However, similar objects occurring in east Surrey and west Kent may indicate that Surrey had links with Kent. Surrey comes from Suthrige meaning the southern district and was probably once part of Middlesex, and under the influence of Essex.  It may have been a very early kingdom which was quickly taken over by a more powerful kingdom, before its existence was noted in documents.  It came under the control of other kingdoms at various times.

After c.500 when the Anglo-Saxons were defeated at the battle of Mount Badon, they could only expand in areas already controlled by them, and this may be when Guildford was settled.  It was on a ford, and an important route to London and was also on the boundary between two possible early territories, controlled from Godalming and Woking.  The earliest evidence for the Saxons in Guildford is the late 5th and 6th century pagan cemetery on the Mount, found in 1929.  Thirty-five 6th century skeletons were excavated, and there may be others as yet undiscovered.  Another group of skeletons was found downhill in Mount Street.

The Guildown cemetery contained men, women and children buried with a variety of grave goods.  Some were buried with iron spears (the main weapon of the time) but most of the objects were domestic and personal.  Several skeletons had iron knives at their waists which were probably originally in a sheath hung from a belt: several skeletons had buckles with them.  Some bodies were buried with the dark hand-made pots of the period which may have contained food or drink.  Two men were buried with fine glass beakers with pointed bases, that could only be put down when empty.  (They were based on drinking vessels made of animal horns.)  Another burial was accompanied by a little bucket bound with gilt-bronze bands.  Many people were buried wearing brooches or beads, three wore finger rings and one girl had silvered bronze rings on her clothes, perhaps for fastening them.  The layout of the burials suggested that there may have been up to three round barrows on the site.  The site may have been deliberately chosen to mark the territory of the local people.

It is not certain where the settlement was.  The name Guildford comes from the Saxon Gyldeforda meaning golden ford.  This probably refers to the golden sand in the river bed, contrasting with the track across the white chalk, but could also refer to flowers such as flags which flourish in shallow fords.  It is very likely that the settlement was near to it.  The houses may have been along Quarry Street, which would have been the nearest dry land to the ford.  Also, the fact that St.Mary's church is in Quarry Street rather than the High Street, as the other two churches are, suggests that St.Mary's was the original church. The tower is late Saxon, of a date between 950 and 1100, but the church was probably on the site of a wooden one built after the conversion to Christianity in the 7th century. 

 The houses in Guildford would have been rectangular wooden buildings, with walls of planks or wattle and daub.   Some buildings would have had sunken floors.  This type used to be called grubenhaus, but they probably had a wooden floor over the void and may have been work areas.  No Saxon buildings have been found in Guildford, probably because they have been destroyed by the building of later houses.

The first record of Guildford is in king Alfred's will of c. 880, when he left a property at Guildford to his nephew.  We do not know where this was.  The layout of the town is very similar to other towns in Wessex which were deliberately planned in the 10th century.  Many of these towns are mentioned in the Burhgal Hidage’ of c. 914, but Guildford is not.  The two burhs, or fortified centres, for Surrey were Eashing and Southwark.  Eashing was probably only ever a temporary refuge.  After c.920 it is probable that a king of Wessex decided to develop Guildford as a defensive and commercial centre, because of its position on important routes, controlling access along the river.  A central street, the High Street, was laid out with a ditch enclosing it on either side and continuing over the river to include the ford in the defences. There may well have been a bridge by this date.  The stone tower of St.Mary's may be a result of this development.  There was a mint by the reign of Edward the Martyr (975-979) but as earlier coinage did not always include the place of minting, it is not impossible that the mint was established earlier.  The silver penny was the only coin at this time.  The earliest known Guildford coin was struck by the moneyer Aelfweard, and at least ten other moneyers are known.  The latest known coin is by Seric, for William II, 1087-1100.

In 1036 Alfred the Atheling, brother of the man who became Edward the Confessor, came to England from exile in Normandy.  He and his followers were massacred by Earl Godwin, at Guildford.  When the pagan cemetery on Guildown was discovered nearly two hundred other skeletons were found, casually buried and sometimes mutilated.  It has often been assumed that they were the massacre victims, but they are in fact convicted criminals who were hanged on a gallows on the site of the pagan cemetery. 

By the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 Guildford was the principal town in Surrey.  It was held by the king and contained 75 plots and 175 heads of households.  The phrase Ranulf the sheriff holds one site may refer to the castle, showing that the Normans had thoroughly taken control from the Saxons.

Guildford Museum, Castle Arch, Guildford, Surrey

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Page last modified on 04/08/2005
Address: Guildford Borough Council, Millmead House, Millmead, Guildford, Surrey, GU2 4BB Telephone: 01483 505050