It is difficult to find out about the lives of ordinary people in the early English kingdoms. Monks who kept historical records usually wrote only about kings and churchmen. Even then, most of the kings are just names to us. We usually know the dates of their reigns and battles they fought. But we have no pictures of them and little idea of what they were like as people. All we have left are some of their possessions-armour, weapons, jewels, rings, and perhaps coins. Their wooden buildings and furniture have rotted away, so to imagine the halls kings lived in we must turn to the works of poets. Old English was mainly a spoken language. Only a tiny fraction of Anglo-Saxon verse was written down and preserved. But luckly we have all 3, 182 lines of Beowulf, a stirring tale of kings and warriors, composed in England probably some time in the eighth century. Beowulf, the hero of the poem, goes to help the Danish king and his followers, who are living in fear of an evil monster called Grendel. After a fierce struggle Beowulf overcomes the monster, and then dives into the sea to kill its mother in her under-water cave. Years later he becomes a king himself, and has to rescue his people from a terrible dragon, which destroys their homes with its fiery breath. The aged Beowulf slays the dragon in its lair, but in the struggle he is wounded and dies. The story is a fairy tale, yet its background helps us to understand the way real kings, and their followers lived.
For instance the Danish king, Hrothar, had a banqueting hall, which was a large barn building, made of wood. To celebrate Beowulf s killing of Grendel, we are told that Hrothgar decorated its walls with golden tapestries and had agreat feast prepared. The guests drank toasts of mead, an intoxicating drink made with honey.
The evening closed with a visit from the queen, who carried a jewelled goblet round the hall for all to drink. The royal couple left to sleep in a separate chamber, but the king s followers, or thanes, stadyed in the hall.
Benches were cleared away and pillows and bedding spread upon the floor. The warriors slept with their weapons close at hand, for it was their practice to be ready to fight at any moment This reminds us that there was more to a thane s life than the joys of the hall.
He had to serve and protect his lord at all times. Thanes accompanied the king when he rode out to hunt the stag, fox, and wild boar. They also went on longer expeditions, to fight wars and help keep law and order in the kingdom. A king s power depended on the loyalty, strength, and courage of his thanes. In Bede s History, the Christian kings of Northumbria seem peace loving, almost saintly men. Priests and monks were honoured members of their household. No doubt this was true, but it is a rather one-side picture. Bede was not a fighting man. From Beowulf we get a more down-to-earth view of kinks surrounded by their warriors. In the poem we see how important it was for ...