3.3.3 East Central England

Apart from the Pennines, most of East Central England is predominantly lowland and most of this region falls within the ploughzone. However, within the eastern plain there are sufficient areas of upland to have helped shape settlement. The river systems of the Trent and Fens both posed barriers and created lines of communication in the Anglo-Saxon period. Areas of wetland around the Wash, the Witham and the mouth of the Trent were also more extensive landscape features than they are today. There is unlikely to have been Anglo-Saxon occupation here until the 8th century at least, then probably only seasonal (Silvester 1988; 1991).

Marshes and fens surrounding the Wash were far more extensive in Anglo-Saxon England than today. Long-term changes in sea level affected the extent of the tidal marshes, and as a result the boundary between the freshwater fens and the coastal salt marshes gradually moved. By the 7th century the sea level was dropping and the limit of tidal water was retreating east, allowing the freshwater fens to expand. A line of Domesday villages seems to mark the coastline in the Late Saxon period, and places such as Wisbech, Boston and Spalding were coastal settlements. Further inland the peat fen was liable to flooding; no Domesday villages are recorded on it, although there were islands of occupation at places such as Thorney and Ramsey, which could only be approached by boat in the 10th century (Stafford 1985, 5). The best sites for permanent settlement in the Fenlands were the coastal silts or on bands of silt known as roddons, deposited by creeks that once drained the region (Sawyer 1998, 15).

There were also large inland lakes, such as Whittlesey Mere in Huntingdonshire. Marshes stretched up the line of the River Witham almost as far as Lincoln. Before the drainage schemes of the 17th century they also lined the valleys of Ancholme and Axholme, running down from the Humber. North of Gainsborough the Trent flowed into a huge expanse of freshwater marshes that surrounded the Isle of Axholme. West of Lincoln the Rivers Witham and Till combined to feed into a large lake that survives as the Brayford Pool. The Lincolnshire coastline was also vulnerable to flooding and Anglo-Saxon salt-hills were linked to form the earliest sea-banks around the Wash. Before the end of the Anglo-Saxon period the Lindsey coast was protected against flooding by an earthwork bank (Stafford 1985, 6).

As in other regions, the extent of forest in the Anglo-Saxon period is difficult to estimate but Sherwood and Charnwood forests were certainly still extensive in the 11th century (Stafford 1985, 7-8). An area of South Yorkshire was encompassed by the Elmet Forest, which covered the central spine of the country, including the western edge of East Central England. Stenton's (1971) map of Anglo-Saxon England shows this as several forested areas stretching southwards as far as Leicester. In addition, Stenton (1971) shows the forest of Bruneswald covering much of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, stretching eastwards to the edge of the fens, and also the Chilterns (from Buckinghamshire to Essex) as entirely wooded. In Lincolnshire woodland was scarce; pasture woods were mainly in Kesteven, along the Trent and on the Axholme (Sawyer 1998, 22). There may have been other wooded areas, but East Central England was already a well-exploited agricultural landscape by the Late Saxon period. The chalklands provided poor soil for arable agriculture, but the Chilterns and the Lincolnshire Wolds both provided good grazing for sheep. The uplands of the Derbyshire Peak District and west Nottinghamshire also had sparse settlement, which was concentrated in the valleys. Rivers such as the Nene, Welland and Trent had fertile well-drained soils and provided rich areas for settlement as well as routes for communication.

Early medieval settlement: archaeological and historical background
Patterns of early medieval portable antiquities


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