Chapter Two – The Dark Ages – Epilogue and Prologue
By the end of the Fifth Century, the Romans had departed from Britain. Their departure heralded the beginning of a long period of darkness in Western Europe. Professor Stenton in his ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ sums it up: “Between the end of the Roman government and the emergency of the earliest English kingdoms, there stretches a long period for which history cannot be written”. For the first time in five centuries Britain was out of touch with the mainland continent. The settlements in the Maltby area were shrouded in this darkness.
“The Dark Ages can be seen either as an epilogue to the Roman Occupation or as the prologue to the later story of Saxon England”, (Prof. Stenton).
Traditions among Sixth Century Britons suggest that between 446 and 554 AD invitations were made to Anglo-Saxon adventurers to help with the defense of their land. There were still British Christians in England. Were there any among the Romano-British people around the Maltby area? These British Christians were the descendants of people who had learned of – and accepted – Christianity before the Roman Mission of Augustine of Canterbury in 597 AD. One of their number was a monk named Gildas.
In a work, which still lies extant, Gildas described the miseries of Britain in these dark years, miseries in which the Maltby area would share. An unknown Saxon minstrel has left his impressions when he came across some Roman ruins: “Wondrous lie these ruins, yet the fortress lies open, frost enters and the towers tumble”.
In this darkness came the Angles from North Europe about 500 AD. They settled in East and Central South Yorkshire. We cannot know whether they penetrated to our remote area. It may be that they established a headquarters at nearby Tickhill. Life must have been grim. Poverty would be a basic problem, the result of plagues, destruction and commercial atrophy. In these Dark Ages the whole of Europe was sparsely populated and practiced a very primitive agriculture.
Maltby had some economic advantages. There was a swift flowing river in the valley. For a long time water mills had been known but not greatly used in Europe. From this period to the Norman Conquest, there was a growing use of water-mills. By the time of the Conquest, Maltby had at least four. The buildings and the mill races still remain for Maltby’s mills at: Wood Lea, Stone and Roche Abbey. During these pre-conquest centuries, the use of the water mill spread over NorthWest Europe. By the time of the Conquest, their use had become common. Doomsday records 6,000 in England. Little Maltby is recording as having three of them.
Into this primitive agricultural economy came the beginnings of the feudal system. It was encouraged by expropriated Britons and by Anglian settlers too poor to be welcomed into settlements of their own people. They would commit themselves to work for an Anglo-Saxon Manorial Lord in the developing system. It was based in Europe on an open field plan in which strips of various ‘fields’ were allocated to the villagers. This required a closely-knit village community working large unenclosed fields of ‘strips’ or allotments’.
Each farmer had a number of arable strips of a half to one acre. The object was self-sufficiency to provide food for the family. It was a local democracy of peasant. On it were superimposed the feudal power and legal rights of the Lord of the Manor. This development of the feudal system must go back to the early days when Maltby was ruled from the Romano-British villas at Stancil, (Tickhill) and Oldcotes.
Of religion in this early history of the district around Maltby, there is no definite evidence. In the Romano-British settlements, the cult of the dark gods of paganism held sway. The new Feudal Lords seem to have accepted Christian Faith. Perhaps Maltby had such a Saxon Christian community.
It was into these simple feudal communities that a new invasion burst in the Ninth Century. The Danes arrived on the Yorkshire coast in 865 AD. The Danish leader Haldane’s Army had its headquarters in York. One of the leaders led an army from the Midlands into South Yorkshire. Perhaps he was helped by the fact that a pre-historic trackway, the Ricknield Way, led from the Midlands into South Yorkshire only two miles from present-day Maltby. This leader’s name was Guthrum.
As they moved north, some of his men must have settled down to farm the rich Midland soil. Those who made up these Danish armies were ‘free’ peasants who remained free when they became farmers. These new settlers brought to the Maltby area a more primitive social organisation than the feudalism of the Anglo-Saxons.
Maltby would, being near to the Ricknield Way, be in a direct line for these invaders. Two of them seem to have succeeded in a claim to land in the area of Maltby and nearby Hellaby. It has been surmised that their names were ‘Mault’ and ‘Helger’, (respectable Danish names), and that they were indeed members of Guthrum’s Army. It could be that Maltby is ‘Mault’s Bie’, (Bie meaning ‘farm), and that Hellaby is ‘Helger’s Bie’.
These Danish settlements do not seem to have greatly changed the original Feudal system. Instead it was ripe for development by the Normans in the Eleventh Century. Saxon Earls governed the Maltby district from Tickhill during the upheaval of the Dark Ages and the Danish invasions. In William’s Doomsday, there is mention of Elsi, Saxon Lord of Tickhill and Maltby. He was the last of these Saxon Feudal Lords.