Þæt Ealdríces Wéohstede ond Friðgeard – Our Holystead and Frithyard
Nigh two thousand years ago, when Tacitus the Roman wrote of the holiness of our heathen fore-elders, he wrote of holy groves wherein the théodfolk of yore gathered to behold and worship the therewithness of their gods. As so many Churchly penitential and kingly writs give witness, such thew held long after Christianity eclipsed the old théodish belief of the Anglo-Saxons some centuries thereafter. There is a bond between our folk, the beams of the woods, and the gods who haunt the holt. Indeed, ‘twas from the ash and mayhap even the elm, that the gods first shaped our kind. In turn, from wood we have wrought their graven godlikenesses for worship. There is then no holier stead wherein which the children of the woods may gather to worship their many gods than that of the grove.
Yet our gods are not found within holy holt alone. Hills, acres, wellsprings, stones, and such abound in our belief, as do the gods, elves, and good wights that dwell therein. The Penitential of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (late 7th century), the De Auguriis of Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (10th century), the Canons of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (early 11th century), and the Laws of King Cnut the Great (11th century) each forbid the worship of or at stones, trees, wells, and springs alike as well as the swearing of oaths and saying of spells in such steads. Beyond this, Alcuin of York (8th century), in his first letter to Archbishop Æþelheard, forbade the gathering of fellowships at “hilly places where they worship, not with prayers but with drinking bouts.”[i] Such stows then were wéohstede, “holy steads,” and to such earth-wrought wéohstede, Ælfric heaped the heathen barrow and crossroad to the tally in his Homilies.[ii] Such was the thew of our fore-elders. As they did then, so do we the same.
There was, however, another holysteadkind hinted at within the lore. In his Penitential (late 7th century) Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, made mention of oaths being made at trees, spring, stone, and, as wended by the churchman into Latin, cancellos, “lattices” or “enclosures.” As to what Old English word the churchman wended his Latin cancellos from, the answer may be found some centuries later in the writings of Wulfstan.
Betwixt and between his forbiddance of worship at spring and trees, Wulfstan forbade worship at friðsplottum, “frith plots” in his Canons (11th century) and, in his Law of the Northumbrian Priests, deemed that “If a friðgeard is on anyone’s land and about a stone or tree or well or any such folly, then he that wrought it must pay the penalty.”[iii] Such “latticed enclosures,” marked “frith plots,” and wrought “frith yards” find their likeness in the Norse vébond, “holystead boundary.” Begirding the Norse þing a vébond of rope and hazel stakes was raised to mark the lawstead as a friðgarð, “frith yard,” wherein no weapon was to be brought.
At Whitthenge Heall such a friðgeard is to be found, its rods and ropes begirding an earthen ringed berm that runs betwixt the trees that there grow. ‘Tis in this friðgeard that the Ealdríce’s folk of Whitthenge Heall gather to give their yeartidely godyield and to make oaths as they might. At the friðgeard‘s northern rim there is to be found the hearg, the holy stone heap before which the folk fain. Bedecked with wooden godlikenesses as is befitting an altar of our holiness, the hearg is thaned and warded by the blótere, “priest.” There it may be that he will give unto the gods offerings of grain, mead, or blót, keeping the thew of each holytide. Bidding them with words woven in the elder tongue, the blótere seeks from the gods their haleness and godspeed for the fellowship. And, from time to time as is fitting, it may be that the blótere will soothsay and wile godly rede as he may read it in the runes. Such was the thew held by our fore-elders of yore. As they did then, so do we the same.
[i] Translation from John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society
[ii] Specifically Homily XXIX “Macarius and the Magicians, Saul and the Witch of Endor”
[iii] Line 55 – Gif friðgeard sí on hwæs lande ábúton stán oþþ tréow oþþe wille oþþe swilces ǽnige fleard þonne gilde se þe hit worhte lahsliht. Translation by Þórbeorht.