Day-To-Day Saxon Wight
A general day-to-day view of Saxon Isle of Wight is hard to discover. There are few Saxon buildings that have survived to this day, both because of their great age, and because of the Saxon approach to building. The Saxons used timber when building houses for themselves, and tended to use stone only for Houses of God1. Despite extensive Saxon limestone quarrying on the Island at Quarr, most of it was exported to the mainland, to places such as Reading, Chichester, Winchester, and Romsey, for the building of Abbeys and Cathedrals2.
The greatest surviving Saxon building is the burgh at Carisbrooke Castle. The other significant structures are the two remaining Anglo-Saxon churches. The first of these is All Saints Church in Freshwater, the second is St George's Church, in Arreton. Each of these has had considerable modifications over the years, so the Saxon influence is hard to see immediately.
The influence is easier to see in place names. Many of the towns and villages retain Anglo-Saxon names. An example of which is Culver Cliff, named after 'culfre', the Saxon word for pigeon. Another is Boniface Down, named after Saint Boniface.
Settlements whose names end in 'ton', 'tun' or 'ham' all show a Saxon origin. Many villages, though, have either been renamed in the last thousand years, such as St. Helens, which was originally called Eadington, or disappeared completely, such as Wolverton.
Archaeologists have also discovered many Saxon burials and cremations across the Island. These have been located all across the Island: at Bowcombe Down, Gallows Hill, Arreton Down, Carisbrooke and Shalcombe Down. Swords, broaches, purses, combs and silver coins dating back to King Æthelwulf3.
Very little is known about the pre-Christian Island. In 686, Cædwalla, having sworn to only rule over Christians, is believed to have wiped out the Island's non-Christian population. Many believe that there was a Pagan shrine in what is now Godshill, yet little evidence has survived to confirm or disprove this. However, it is possible that something on the Island did survive; the Idol of Holy Cross.
The Holy Cross Church, Binstead, contains more than what you would expect to find from a mainly Norman church. The Norman archway in the south-wall, which was originally the north entrance to the church until being re-erected outside in 1844, contains what many believe to be a Saxon Pagan sculpture. The limestone in this area was mined throughout the Saxon age, and was quarried in both Roman and Norman times also, and it is believed that this sculpture was either worshipped by or symbolised protection for the quarry workers nearby. Known as 'The Idol', this sculpture has, throughout the last millennium, suffered the humour of the weather to the extent that it is almost unrecognisable. The figure, thought by many to be a woman, rests on a beast's head. People have thought the animal to be either a horse, ram, or wolf. Some have thought that it is the emblem of Thor, others that it symbolises a Mother Goddess and fertility. The answer may never be known, yet it is a fascinating insight into what may have been Pagan Saxon beliefs.
We have few historical documents that tell us much about day-to-day life on the Isle of Wight. Bede, writing as far away as Northumbria, described the Island in 731:
...The size of the Island is 1,200 hides according to the English way of reckoning... It is close to the South coast of Britain, and is about thirty miles in length from East to West and twelve from North to South, At its Eastern end it is six miles and at its western end three miles from the south coast of Britain...
...The Isle of Wight lies opposite the borders of the South Saxons and the Gewisse, with three miles of sea between, which is called the Solent. In this sea the two ocean tides which break upon Britain from the boundless northern ocean meet daily in conflict beyond the mouth of the river Hamble, which enters the same sea... When their conflict is over they flow back into the ocean whence they came.
- Bede The Ecclesiastical History of the English People4
Other documents concerning the Island tell mainly of its relation to the Church of Winchester. Bede tells us how Cædwalla gave 300 of its 1,200 Hides to the Bishop Wilfrid. We are also told how in 826 King Egbert of Wessex5 gave 30 Hides of Land to Church of Winchester, and how Æthelred II also gave the Bishop there the land between Wootton Creek and Binstead Brook in 982. The Domesday Book, despite being compiled in 1086, can also tell us what was on the Island, many of the buildings listed having been built in Saxon times. Arreton and it's church is also mentioned in King Alfred the Great's will.
However, we can deduce a lot from what has survived. The Island at the time was mainly woodland, with few settlements, and those that existed were small, and many of them were near the sea. There was some fishing, trading and farming, but there were not enough people living locally to be able to defend the Island against invasion, something which happened frequently.