The Hidden Isle: History of the Isle of Axholme before 1066

Alex Harvey

Introduction & The Roman Isle

England's history is sometimes fairly cut-and-dry, a chronology with well-established periods and transition points. Most school courses will start with the broad sweep of ‘Prehistory’ ahead of Roman occupation, and then onto the ‘Anglo-Saxon migrations’, the Viking Age and the Norman Conquest, before getting into ‘the good stuff’ with the High Medieval Period onwards. Dissatisfaction with this established paradigm, of treating everything before 1066 as merely the preamble before one gets onto ‘proper history’, was the impetus for this research project. While the history of England as a nation is quite well-known, the individual histories of many small local areas remain hidden. One such example of this would be the Isle of Axholme. The Isle is a small corner of North Lincolnshire sandwiched between Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire. Nowadays, it is a collection of farmlands, fields, and walking routes, bisected by a motorway and home to various parishes and villages. If you’ve already heard of the Isle of Axholme, I’d wager it is because of its important Methodist history starting in the Early Modern Period. Before industrial drainage, however, the Isle was an Isle, separated by its surroundings by the wider floodplains of the Humber Wash, surrounded by water and at one with the tide. Encircling the modern Isle are the Rivers Don, Trent, Idle, and Torne, all tributaries of the River Humber, which have been reduced in size and ferocity thanks to the plethora of installed drainage canals. These works were done in the 1600s on the orders of King Charles I, changing the Isle from a rich marshland environment into what it is today. The history of the Isle of Axholme before said drainage has been well-researched by individuals like Marilyn Roberts: between the 12th and 16th centuries, the Isle formed the central estate in the web of territory of the Mowbray royal family, with such traditions as the exotic Haxey Hood emerging from this time. As stated in the beginning, however, the history of the Isle before 1066 may well be worth checking out. It is, after all, where the enigmatic name of the place originated: Axholme, formed from three distinct language groups, each one representative of the different cultures that once roamed these shores. First came the native Britons, or ‘Celts’, followed by Old English speakers or ‘Anglo-Saxons’, and then finally in the Viking Age the addition of Old Norse. These three dialects each contributed a small slice to the name ‘Axholme’, ultimately meaning ‘watery island island’ from the original form Axeyholm. With the addition of ‘the Isle of-’ as a prefix, this place becomes ‘the Isle of watery island island’, giving you but a small taste of this environment. But said environment was ever-changing. If I could characterise the history of the Isle of Axholme in one word it would be ‘transient’. This island, like all islands, was locked in a constant struggle with the fluctuating nature of water: one year, the surrounding swamplands might have been shallow enough for a traveller to traverse via wooden trackways, which have been identified near the Isle dating to the Neolithic Period, but a year following, the tide may have risen, and now those same routes must be travelled via boat. The earliest antiquarian researchers to attempt to uncover the prehistoric Isle did so by analysing the layers of submerged peat in the era of industrial peat-cutting. Layers upon layers of compressed plants and podzol formed over generations, and in the earliest layers, corresponding to just about the time of Roman occupation these antiquarians discovered twisting roots: oak, birch, yew. Great forests once spanned the Humber Wash, and their eventual deforestation sometime in the first century CE destabilised the quality of the soil, allowing for the rivers to burst their banks, and for the Isle to become an Isle for the very first time. An environment in constant flux, then, best summarises the pre-Norman Isle. Some of our best evidence from the first settlers of the Isle of Axholme comes from the Portable Antiquities Scheme or PAS. The PAS, and the Finds Liaison Officers who uphold it, are tasked with recording all disparate metal-detected and mud-larked finds from up and down the United Kingdom. The Isle’s earliest artefacts are all flint-scrapers, arrowheads, and tools; the kit of homo sapiens from the last Ice Age to the advent of farming. Nomadic hunting, over time, developed into seasonal agropastoralism, and eventually around 4,000 BCE, agricultural development and fixed abodes. Numerous waves of migration have affected the British Isles over countless millennia, but one of the earliest identifiable waves would be that which has given us the Celtic language group. These languages are most closely tied to modern Welsh and Irish and, through them, and also through fluctuations in Old English and modern English, we can see the evolution of certain names and words. One such would be the River Trent, which runs along the eastern borders of the Isle of Axholme. Via a linguistic method called ‘back-mutation’, toponymists and philologists (those who study place names and historical language structure) have convincingly argued that Trent, with its earlier form of Treant, hails from a Celtic original Tri-sant, roughly meaning ‘trespasser’, concerning the Trent’s tendency to flood (which it still does to this day)! Near the modern villages of Beltoft and Owston Ferry are a collection of raised mounds and earthworks, so far undated and unexcavated, but from their shape, they probably date from the Neolithic Period. The ‘Clouds Lane’ mound, as the one near Beltoft is described, may well be a long barrow from over 3,000 years ago, whilst the ‘Giant’s Graves’ that once stood near Owston: a trio of round tumuli, might well be even older, though they were unfortunately ploughed over in the 1800s. Beltoft, however, lends us even more evidence for this ancient past, for it, and its larger neighbour Belton, have an interesting prefix of Bel-, which finds no counterpart in our modern language. Like the Trent, then, Bel- hails from one of the older languages of the British Isles: Celtic, or Brythonic, and may refer to a long-lost deity or landscape feature. Belton and Beltoft aren’t alone, either. There is also Belgathorne Hill, Belgrave, Belshaw, and Belwood - all of which point to there being, at some point, some kind of sacred shrine or figure active in the Belton area, which was so notable that nearby place names had to refer to it. Whomever this Bel- was may well have parallels in Welsh genealogies that mention a figure named Beli Mawr, or miscellaneous ‘Celtic’ fire gods. Regardless, as far as physical evidence goes, we are left with a few scatterings of flint and a notable torc (neck ring) that dates from the Bronze Age, discovered near the village of Low Burnham though - perhaps annoyingly - given the moniker of ‘the Haxey Torc’ named after the next village. The Haxey Torc reveals that wealthy individuals from the Bronze Age were active in the Isle, and so too were their Iron Age antecedents: two possible Iron Age roundhouses have been identified near the village of Sandtoft, where an airfield now sits. If these hut circles were indeed roundhouses, then the residents would have had to pack up their things quickly and leave town, for the Romans were coming… The Roman impact on the Isle of Axholme was scarce in one way and important in others; it is widely believed that the mass deforestation around the first century CE, which led to the Isle’s initial flooding, was through Roman military activity (after all, they needed timber for their marching camps and nearby fort at Doncaster). However, it is possible that deforestation can be equated with a general uptick in elite land management consistent across Late Iron Age England. Whatever the case, by the time Roman legionaries were active in England and had formally declared it as part of the Empire, the Isle was - for perhaps the first time - an Isle at last. Archaeological evidence for Roman activity in this area takes the form of a few stray finds but it is possible a trading station existed by the aforementioned Iron Age roundhouses near Sandtoft though excavation would have to confirm this. The nearest Roman road was Ermine Street which ran to the west of the Isle through Bawtry. We must, then, look at parallels with other marshy areas across the United Kingdom to see how the Roman industrial complex utilised the Isle. Across South Lincolnshire are an abundance of ‘salterns’: structures which utilised furnaces and sieves to evaporate saltwater from fenlands to create salt and brine. One was discovered nearby at Helpringham, for instance. Salterns were in use across Iron Age England but they were industrialised under Roman governance - it would make sense if the Isle was, too, used more generally as an area for fisheries and salt production, with the surplus being shipped westwards to the soldiers stationed at Doncaster, or eastwards over the Lincolnshire Wolds to those based in Caistor. This raises the question of ‘which direction did the Isle face’? There was significant Roman activity in all four cardinal directions: over the River Humber between Winteringham and Brough, as another example, and so the Isle - while unsettled by legionaries - clearly functioned as part of a wider hinterland. An abundance of Roman grey-ware pottery is always being turned up by field walkers around the Isle, indicative of the area being connected via navigable riverine routes and waterways to areas of production. One such area would be the Lea Kilns, near Gainsborough, or at Cantley near Rossington, both sites of Late Roman kilns which were still producing material even after the legionaries withdrew.
The Hidden Isle: History of the Isle of Axholme before 1066
Location of the Isle of Axholme rural district within Lincolnshire and England, as it was upon its establishment in 1970.

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The Hidden Isle: History of the Isle of Axholme before 1066
The speculative sites of major seventh century battles, all within the vicinity of the Isle. The Battle of the Winwaed (655) and the Battle of Maserfield (642) have been omitted due to either being further afield or not conclusively located. This image is taken from a DTM (Digital Terrain Model) of the Isle.

Migrations To The Isle

It is likely that the Isle and its residents - called Islonians even to this day - were not Romanised to any great extent. Outside of urban and economic centres, the process of Romanisation up and down Britain was a poultry affair - 90% of the country was a rural agrarian society which persisted during the Late Roman economic decline and remained in place long after, during the ‘Great Migrations’. With ongoing academic discussions around the nature of the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘Celt’, and ‘Roman’ for this time period, it is perhaps prescient to turn our attention to the material proof. In Belton, two grubenhauser or ‘sunken featured buildings’ were discovered dating between 400 and 600 CE. These ‘pit-houses’, as they are often called, are commonly thought of as a ‘Germanic’ architectural style that became popular in England with the shifting movements of Anglo-Saxons from Northern Europe. However, pit-houses actually appear more or less at the same time all over Northern Europe and, indeed, in Baltic regions too - their first appearance in England also predates the withdrawal of Roman legionaries, so can they really be argued to be ‘Germanic’ in nature? Whatever the case, these grubenhauser provide us with evidence for the first settlers of the Isle in this turbulent time; at least two individuals - skeletons recovered from the site - were weaving, fishing, and feasting in the post-Roman Isle. But what landscape did they fit into? Politically, there is a growing body of evidence posed by Caitlin Green and Kevin Leahy that Lincolnshire maintained a strong continuity with its Roman heritage compared to other English provinces. Archaeological and linguistic evidence from in and around Lincoln demonstrates that, until the end of the sixth century, an insular power was ‘holding back’ waves of migrant communities, who were instead relegated to their cremation cemeteries atop the wolds such as at Cleatham and Scremby. It is difficult to work out the identities of these people, but it seems pertinent to ascribe Lincolnshire in Late Antiquity to two distinct groups: a northern contingent (which would include the Isle) based around the Wolds living in communes connected through similar burial rites, and then a central and southern contingent exercising dominion from behind the walls of the Roman colonia at Lincoln. The Notitia Dignitatum, a list of garrison and troop stations across Late Roman provinces, refers to numerous poly-ethnic squadrons across the Lincolnshire area: the Taifali, the Vandals, the Goths, Huns, and miscellaneous North Sea pirates too. Was this area awash with migration even before the withdrawal of Roman forces? And how can we even be sure that these ‘Roman forces’ weren’t simply mercenaries from all over Europe and Asia? How can we even be sure that they left? The historical record for the Isle of Axholme becomes more clear once we move into an era of recognisable kings and conflicts. Though, this is a half-truth. The Isle of Axholme is mentioned in the vernacular for the first time only in the twelfth century as Haxeholm - to work out what was happening in the area beforehand has, as demonstrated, required a lot of guesswork, comparanda, and filling-in-blanks. Nevertheless, it is clear the Isle rose to significant importance in the Mid-Saxon or Anglian period, as the political ambitions of petty tribal leaders rose to those of kings. First of all, there is the site of Flixborough. This was a small trading colony established on the parallel bank of the River Trent opposite the Isle, near modern Scunthorpe, likely founded as a seasonal market sometime in the late sixth century. From its inception, Flixborough grew and grew, transitioning from a transient trading post to a proto-urban residential site, with evidence for building repair, defensive dykes, animal butchery, and crafts production. Earlier, I pondered ‘which direction did the Isle face?...’ - the answer from this point on must have been ‘East’ - the Isle and its inhabitants were the main agricultural hinterland of Flixborough. And with prosperity, came wealth, and with wealth, came predators… In 616, King Aethelfrith of the Northumbrians fell in battle against his rival Edwin. This conflict occurred along the banks of the River Idle somewhere near the Roman fort at Scawforth or Bawtry - merely a few miles to the south of the Isle. Aethelfrith had been hunting Edwin due to the threat he posed as a dynastic rival. Needless to say, Edwin succeeded Aethelfrith and it was, instead, his son’s turn to go into exile - they did so, and one of these sons - Oswald - would only return to the Northumbrian political scene after Edwin’s own death in 632. Edwin died at the Battle of Haethfelth against King Penda of Mercia, located roughly in the marshlands of Hatfield Chase to the west of the Isle of Axholme. Oswald, his successor, would then perish barely a decade later, in the Battle of Maserfield against the same opponent. While most historians locate Maserfield near Shropshire, there is a convincing argument to be had that it also occurred in the Isle near the village of Low Burnham, given local place-name evidence and the fact a holy spring was located here dedicated to Oswald until recently. Wherever Oswald fell, it is said that a sacred pool of water soon emerged, renowned for healing. Regardless, Oswald was not the last king to be defeated near the Isle. In 655, King Penda met his end in the Battle of the Winwaed, a location which evades identification but may well lie along the banks of the River Went near Leeds. Following this, between 674 and 679, King Ecgfrith of the Northumbrians continued his border wars with Mercia along the bounds of northern Lindsey until he was finally defeated in the Battle of the River Trent to the east of the Isle. These successive battles reveal a few things; that the seventh century was undoubtedly a turbulent time in central England, but also that most of these conflicts can be placed within a few miles of one another in this nebulous ‘frontier zone’ between Northumbria and Mercia. Central to this frontier zone was a landmass that served as a key point of articulation amidst the surrounding fenland - this was the Isle of Axholme. With Ermine Street to its west, and the rich emporia of Flixborough to its east, the Isle would have been a very observable landmark in a flat boggy expanse and was evidently the site of many battles, with the interests of Northumbria, Lindsey, and Mercia juggled between them all. Wider evidence from Lincolnshire for the eighth century reveals that the shire was one of the richest in all of England. The transferable currency known as sceattas, small silver pennies, have been found in abundance across Lincolnshire - far more than anywhere else in the country. Lindsey, then, was a very wealthy sub-kingdom, and Flixborough no doubt played a role in this network of exchange and trade. Ergo, so did the Isle, as Flixborough’s immediate neighbour and hinterland.
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Viking Age Axholme & Conclusion

With prosperity, comes predators. The key to taking advantage of a marine environment filled with islands and tidal banks is to master the art of shipbuilding and sailing; over the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, developments across the Baltic and Scandinavia led to a technological breakthrough, a combination of flexible keel and thick woollen sail. The end result, of course, was the onset of the Viking Age, in which Scandinavian raiders ravaged England. Their activities grew in scale from minor coastal raids to inland river assaults, and finally to large-scale military invasions. The Isle, a key landmass surrounded by water and connected via rivers to major important centres, played a large role in the proliferation of viking activity. In 865, a ‘Great Viking Army’ launched an invasion against England, landing at East Anglia and making their way up and down the country thereafter. As this huge force travelled, they grew in number, gathering locals to their cause and attracting migrants and tradespeople from afar - effectively becoming a mobile kingdom. Such a mobile kingdom leaves behind lots of evidence; nails for the repair of ships, cut silver bullion for use in their economy, and coins from all over Europe brought to England by far-reaching travellers. Archaeologists can use this assortment of evidence, called a ‘Great Army’ signature, to track the movements of these warriors. While the largest camp nearest to the Isle is Torksey, down the River Trent, it is highly likely that the Isle itself served as a smaller temporary camp en route to Torksey. Shane McLeod has identified items from this ‘Great Army’ signature on both banks of the River Trent near the Isle, and local detectorists have even discovered parts of a viking sword in High Burnham! From raiding to invading, and finally to settlement, the narrative of the Viking Age culminates in the transition of Northern England from an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ character to an ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ character. This can be best seen in a few local place names like Haxey (Hakr’s Island, a Norse name) and also in the Domesday Book, an economic survey taken of the Isle in 1086. Here, contained within the pages, is a myriad of Scandinavian-sounding names: Gytha, Sigurd, Ulf… Clearly, the Isle - then as it is now - had become a very multi-ethnic and multi-lingual location. As hopefully demonstrated, there is quite a lot of history before the history of the Isle of Axholme begins, and much is the same for the rest of England. By interrogating an array of disciplines, and utilising some common geographical sense, plus a helpful bit of guessing, we can tease out these ‘hidden’ histories and provide parallels for other areas of the country. I’m sure there are many other areas in former marshlands that have interesting histories just like the Isle of Axholme - indeed, this need not only be relegated to marshlands. Wherever you look, there will be remnants of pre-1066 history. For many, this is the good stuff. This article summarises bits and pieces from the research contained within my book; Riddles Of The Isle, an extended history of the Isle of Axholme prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066, published by local publisher JJ Moffs Ltd. It was a joy to write. If the early history of the Isle of Axholme seems of great interest, then (perhaps shamefully) my book would be a good starting point, but let us not forget the fantastic fellow historians who paved the way for me, by researching slightly later periods of history than I: Bob Fish's work on local folklore and Isle landscapes, Colin Ella's village-by-village breakdowns, Marilyn Robert's Mowbray genealogy. Doctor Kathryn Bullen's work on the Isle's place names also contributed heavily to the creation of my book. More broadly, if the hidden histories of England fascinate your interests, then Thomas Williams' 'Lost Realms', published in 2022 by HarperCollins is a brilliant starting point, and Caitlin Green's 'Britons & Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 450-600' for those willing to tackle the really juicy academic studies. For wider studies on Early Medieval marshlands, Max Adams' 'Aelfred's Britain' (2018) brilliantly captures how important they were, and so too does Susan Oosthuizen's wider work on 'The Anglo-Saxon Fenland' (2017). All these works, and more, should further reveal even more hidden isles.
The Hidden Isle: History of the Isle of Axholme before 1066
Sword pommel recovered from High Burnham. This is of a ‘Cocked Hat’ type, most similar to Norwegian examples or those from the wider Danelaw. Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme - PAS ID: NLM-C65791.
The Hidden Isle: History of the Isle of Axholme before 1066

Alex Harvey

Based in York, and interested in the wider Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire area, I am a student of the Early Medieval Period and great lover of all things archaeology, history, legend, folklore, place-names... if it can be cobbled together to form some kind of vague narrative of the past, especially the fascinating interim between Late Romans and Normans, then I am interested. I have spoken at numerous conferences on similar research and have published (so far) one book on the subject of Early Medieval North Lincolnshire. Hopefully, there will be more to come...
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