The Saxon Slave-Market

Slaves were sold in the marketplace of Anglo-Saxon Bristol. Who were they? And what happened to them?

Coin of Cnut

A coin of King Cnut made in Bristol. Anglo-Saxon coins were minted in market towns, where they fed trade of all kinds. (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery)

The very name of Bristol is a clue to its origins. The Saxons knew it as Brycg stowe, meaning the settlement by the bridge. Some of the world's greatest cities have grown up around the lowest bridgeable point on a major river. At such a meeting of the ways a market can thrive. Bristol was well placed to trade with Ireland. Sad to say a major export was English slaves.

Slavery was deeply embedded in Anglo-Saxon society. The Normans took over an England where about 10 per cent of the population were slaves. The men mainly worked as agricultural labourers. The women had the tedious task of grinding corn, or were serving maids, wet-nurses, dairy maids, weavers and seamstresses.

War was probably the biggest source of slaves. As invading Angles and Saxons swept across the country many native Britons were taken captive. These would often be women and children, since enemy warriors were more likely to be killed if caught. Yet it was not only the Celts who were enslaved. Far from it. The Anglo-Saxons were not at all averse to enslaving their own kind. The Germanic tribes fought each other until England was unified under Alfred the Great. This constant strife would have been a rich source of slaves.

Bondage could also be a punishment for theft or other crimes. If the thief's wife and children were privy to the theft, the entire household could be enslaved. Sheer poverty drove some to sell themselves or their children into slavery. They would at least be fed by their owner. When times were hard in Durham one worthy woman took a number of slaves to keep them from starvation and later freed them for the love of God and for the need of her soul.

Though the Church encouraged such acts of charity, slavery itself was tolerated. The Church did object though to slaves being sold abroad, for fear that they would end up in heathen hands. Under the influence of Christianity, kings banned the sale of slaves overseas. Yet the trade went on. King Cnut forbade it, but his own sister made a fortune in the slave trade. She bought English slaves to ship to Denmark. Beautiful girls were especially sought after. We may guess what their buyers had in mind, though the Church frowned on illicit liaisons too. Cnut declared that if a married man had sexual relations with his own slave-woman, the slave was forfeit. Yet here was his sister apparently selling girls into concubinage.

Bristol was an outlet for English slaves for generations. Around the time of the Norman Conquest, we are told that slave-trading was a long-established custom of Bristolians, come down from their forefathers. It was the last Saxon bishop of Worcester who stopped it. Wulfstan became Bishop of Worcester just a few years before the upheaval of the Norman conquest. He remained in office until his death in 1095. This saintly man was appalled by sights he saw in Bristol.

They used to buy men from all over England and carry them to Ireland in the hope of gain; nay they even set forth for sale women whom they had themselves gotten with child. You might well groan to see the long rows of young men and maidens whose beauty and youth might move the pity of a savage, bound together with cords, and brought to market to be sold.

Why Ireland? The Vikings had founded ports there, such as Dublin. And the Vikings were the greatest slave traders of northern Europe at this time. So Dublin was a slave entrepôt. English slaves shipped from Bristol could be bought for labour in Iceland, Scandinavia or even Arabic Spain.

St. Wulfstan worked on the Bristolians little by little. He knew them for a stiff-necked lot, hard to bend. So he would come to stay nearby, probably at at his estate at Westbury-on-Trym, for two or three months at a time. Each Sunday he would come to Bristol, and by his preaching sow the good seed, which in due time sprang up and and bore fruit – so that not only did they forsake their sins, but were an example to all England.

Eventually William the Conqueror clamped down on that shameful trading whereby heretofore men used in England to be sold like brute beasts.

It was banned altogether in 1102. But Norse-Irish traders were loath to give up their lucrative source of slaves. Even 20 years later they were notorious for inviting unsuspecting people aboard their ships in Bristol, whereupon they would suddenly up anchor and sell their unwilling guests in Ireland.

Revenge was at hand. Henry II conquered Ireland and the Church declared this God's punishment for its enslavement of Englishmen. English slaves throughout Ireland were restored to freedom. In a strange twist of fate, Dublin became a colony of Bristol. So the slave trade was broken. Yet centuries later Bristol was once again embroiled in that shameful trade.