This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

Children were often sold into slavery by poorer Anglo-Saxon parents

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 November 2013

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about home life first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

Pope Gregory and slave market, picture, image, illustration

Told that the fair-headed slaves were Angles, Pope Gregory is said to have remarked, "Not Angles, but Angels." Picture by Pat Nicolle

“I Thank the Goodness and the Grace
That on my birth have smiled,
And made me in these Christian days
A happy English child.”

Well, are you a “Happy” English child – or Scots, Irish, Welsh or any other nationality? And do you believe that anything in particular “smiled” upon your birth? It probably took place in a practical and businesslike way in the maternity ward of a hospital. You were promptly “tagged” with an identity label in a row of other infants, handed over to your mother at feeding time, and, as soon as possible, “discharged,” the pair of you, to go home and get on with the business of being a kid on your side, and a mum on hers. Dad, of course, would be there, and perhaps a brother and sister or two.

The authors of the four-line-poem above – yes, there were two of them! – were named Jane and Ann Taylor, a pair of pious Victorian sisters who are best remembered for that stirring poem which begins:

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star”!

The Taylor sisters also wrote “Hymns for Infant Minds,” one of which began:

“For God who lives above the skies
Would look with vengeance in His eyes,
If I should ever dare despise My Mother.”

Through the eyes of the Taylor sisters we look, ever so lightly, at the Victorian home where children were born to be seen and not heard. In well-to-do homes their place was the nursery, their keeper was Nanny and their parents rather remote figures who would sometimes come and kiss them “goodnight,” or require Nanny to “Bring the children down” when guests were being entertained. The children, dressed in their very best, would be brought down for brief inspection by the visiting elders. “What pretty little creatures, to be sure.” They were probably given some dainty – some crystallised fruit, or maybe a date each. And then, having made themselves winsome and well-mannered, and maybe done a “party piece,” they would be packed off to the informal cosiness of the nursery, and Nanny.

With Victorian children at the bottom of the “social scale” things were somewhat different. While their pampered “betters” were being bathed with carbolic soap by Nanny, at least some of them were probably shivering in tatters outside the gin-shop, while Pa and Ma were imbibing within.

But more of these Victorian Mums, Dads and kids later on.

Meantime the line: “If I should ever dare despise – My Mother.”

Nobody suggests that the modern child, or adolescent, despises Mum, but, some teenagers do feel there is a gulf between them and their parents:

“What’s your Mum like?”

“Oh, she’s all right. But you know what Mums are.”

“Mine’s a drag – just doesn’t understand.”

Now it’s not claimed that that conversation is typical of all rather “older” children talking today. But there’s nothing very unusual about it. What we call the “generation gap” is more openly recognised than ever before. The Victorian, even the Edwardian, image of the close-knit family has almost totally disappeared, and, in some ways, a good thing too! It’s absurd to expect that two generations can always live happily and understandingly together for any length of time, and the desire for the older teenager to be free and independent of parental criticism is a perfectly natural one. It has been there for centuries. Beyond the home is the exciting, and often dangerous, jungle of “freedom.” And it is no less a jungle, or wilderness, than the real one which lay all about the “family circles” of earlier man.

There are few written records of these old communities, but it is not difficult to discover that the family stayed gathered together as part of the tribal community which itself stayed together for protection from both savage nature and the possible aggression of other tribes.

If an Ancient British teenage girl stamped her foot and flounced out of the nest, her chances of survival would be very small. So small, indeed, that she would surely be aware of it, and not stamp her foot at all. She was safer off at home, though even there she could well be snatched from its shelter by stronger raiding tribes. As for a teenage boy he knew his place all right – he was already a man capable of bearing arms and ready to defend his home, his hearth, and tribe from aggression.

Whatever the relationship between parents and their children, one thing about it was very definite. As soon as ever a child was strong upon its two feet it was put to family and communal work of one kind or another. It was destined to live within the small community and invariably choose a mate from within the community. That is, if it were lucky enough to survive that long. Life was cheap, and weaklings went to the wall.

The Romans, of course, had a generally civilising effect upon the native population of Britain, though very firm on the question of who were the masters. Rich Roman households swarmed with servants and retainers drawn from the home-stock, under conditions not far short of slavery.

But it was the later Anglo-Saxon Mums and Dads who took a cool and practical look at their families were these to grow too large. Should you have the misfortune to be born one of many children in a lower-level Anglo-Saxon home the chances were high that you would find yourself sold off to one of the slave-traders who did brisk business out of Bristol. Not necessarily always by will of your own parents, but very often by that of the richer gentry whose tenants-in-serfdom your parents were.

We all remember the famous story of Pope Gregory the First standing by the Roman slave-market and beholding for the first time the delivery of a batch of blue-eyed, fair-haired children from the British Isles.

“These,” he said, “are not Angles, but Angels.”

However our early ancestors regarded their children, it was most certainly not in the Angelic sense! The young had a high nuisance value until such a time as they could be useful.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.