In the early 7th century, an Anglo-Saxon craftsman set about repairing the damaged lower panels of an ornate gold disc brooch. This was a strikingly beautiful object, adorned with complex patterns of gleaming red garnets, that was probably made in Kent, where other similar composite brooches are known. Fixing such a fine ornament would require all the skill and artistry at the medieval metalworker’s disposal. Unfortunately, he bodged the job – the marks of his clumsy repair can still be clearly seen on the object, which has survived the centuries thanks to it later being buried in a woman’s grave in Norfolk, in the late 7th century. (Clearly someone still valued the brooch, despite its marred appearance.) The craftsman too seems to have been happy with his work, proudly signing his name on the back of the artefact in a short runic inscription that reads ‘Luda repaired the brooch’.
Was it his workmanship that he was so proud of, though, or his literacy? Although the early medieval period would later see the flowering of a sophisticated English literary culture (of which more anon), the early Anglo-Saxons have left precious few surviving written sources to examine today. Yet we can still find traces of their words in the archaeological record: around 20 objects bearing runic inscriptions that pre-date c.AD 650 have been found in England so far.
Luda’s brooch (better known as the ‘Harford Farm brooch’) provides one of these fleeting echoes; another example, earlier still, is a funerary urn from the great early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire. Many of the more than 1,800 urns that have been excavated from the site are intricately decorated with incised or stamped patterns, but this vessel is unique in that its upper surface is also marked with a string of runic letters, cut into the clay while it was still soft. Dating to c.450-500, this is one of the oldest-known records of the English language. As for the runes themselves, they spell out a woman’s name, ‘Sïþæbæd’, as well as nine more letters whose meaning is more obscure, although they seem to include the Old English word hlæw (‘tomb’).
Assuming that Sïþæbæd is the name of the deceased person whose remains were consigned to the Lincolnshire soil within this vessel, thanks to this fragmentary text we can at least ‘meet’ one identifiable individual among the anonymous legions of Loveden Hill dead. Might we also be able to gaze into an Anglo-Saxon face, in the form of ‘Spong Man’? This appealing little figurine, sitting with his (or her – despite the object’s nickname, there are no definitive signifiers of its subject’s sex) head in his hands, would have topped the lid of another funerary vessel, although it had become separated from its urn by the time of discovery. It was excavated at Spong Hill in Norfolk, England’s largest-known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. Spong Man dates to the early/mid-5th century and is a unique find from Anglo-Saxon England, from which very few 3D representations of the human form are known, although intriguing parallels have been identified in Germany.
Perhaps, then, we might today see the figurine as a personification of the enduring North Sea connections that were established during the 5th and 6th centuries – cultural links that form one of the key themes in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, a new exhibition recently opened at the British Library (see ‘Further information’ box on p.41), in which all three of the above artefacts are featured. Its displays encompass all six centuries from the immediate post-Roman period to the Norman Conquest, and showcase numerous historically important (and often beautifully illuminated) manuscripts from the library’s own collections alongside a wealth of loaned artefacts. The following items, combining the written word and artistic skill, have been selected from those on display to help trace the origins of the Anglo-Saxons, the evolution of their kingdoms (and the far-reaching cultural and commercial connections that they enjoyed), and the forging of England as a single nation.
The earliest Anglo-Saxon voices ring out in runes, but it is the reintroduction of the Latin language and its Roman alphabet at the turn of the 6th century that is the game-changer in enabling us to trace the development of Anglo-Saxon England in detail. In the post-Roman period, Latin returned to southern England via Continental missionaries led by St Augustine, and Kent seems to have been one of the earliest kingdoms to adopt these new ways.
Sixth-century Kent was wealthy, and its location close to the Channel made it ideally placed to take full advantage of the opportunities that Continental connections brought. It was also particularly receptive to the missionaries’ message as its king, Æthelberht, was married to a Christian princess from Francia. By 601 Æthelberht had become the first English king to convert, and Canterbury had been established as England’s first bishopric.
Quite how far-reaching these newly forged links quickly became can be seen in the foundation of a school – and renowned intellectual centre – at Canterbury in c.AD 670 by Archbishop Theodore, a man from Tarsus in Asia Minor. He was joined there by Abbot Hadrian from North Africa (Bede describes him as vir natione Afir) – it is to this latter individual that the presence in Canterbury of a 4th-century North African manuscript is attributed. Included in the British Library displays, this is a collection of letters by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (d. 258).
England’s pagan practices do not seem to have required written records – or, at least, none have survived – but with medieval Christianity came a fully formed manuscript tradition. Kingdoms like Kent did not only use their newly acquired skills to produce beautiful religious texts (many of which show clear Mediterranean influences in layout and style of text and decorations) but also legal and administrative documents that give us vivid insights into the organisation of these early kingdoms as well as the aspirations of their rulers.
The law code devised by Æthelbehrt of Kent – written in Old English, though using the Roman alphabet rather than runes – is the earliest datable work composed in the Anglo-Saxon language, and the first record of English law (though it survives only as a later copy in the 12th-century Textus Roffensis from Rochester). The earliest known charter surviving in its original form also comes from Kent: this is a land grant dating from the reign of Hlothhere (r. 673-685).
Kent was not the only kingdom to gain early influence, however. The spectacular wealth displayed in the royal burials at Sutton Hoo eloquently attests that 7th-century East Anglia was also a force to be reckoned with. Among the famous finds excavated from the Mound 1 ship burial are objects that speak of great artistic sophistication – but beyond the gold-and-garnet glamour of some of the grave goods, there are also clues to other, more cosmopolitan, interests. Silver tableware from Byzantium, a bronze bowl of Coptic or eastern Mediterranean origin, and Levantine textiles all bear witness to the power and reach of the East Anglian court.
Yet while elaborate burials like these seem to have been something of a last pagan hurrah before the kingdom was Christianised, the intricate interlaced animal imagery on some of the Mound 1 ornaments – such as the great gold belt-buckle, which appears in the exhibition – remained fashionable into the Conversion period. Complex patterns of fantastic beasts, snakes, and birds with interwoven bodies can be seen in early gospel books from Britain and Ireland.
To the north, another 7th-century region was very much in the ascendant, and by c.660 Northumbria could convincingly claim to be the most powerful kingdom in England. While still maintaining links with Rome, its rulers also welcomed contact from the Celtic church. Irish missionaries entered the kingdom via the influential monastery of Iona, and in 635 King Oswald (r. 634-642) had given one of their monks, Aidan, the island of Lindisfarne. The kingdom became an intellectual and creative powerhouse, culminating in the foundation of the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the late 7th century. This institution is best known as the home of the chronicler Bede, one of our most-important sources for the early Anglo-Saxon period, but from its beginnings Wearmouth-Jarrow was a celebrated centre of scholarship boasting one of the finest libraries in Europe. This was furnished by its first two abbots, Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith (d. 716), who travelled to the Continent and brought back manuscripts and people from northern Europe, Italy, and Ireland.
The emphasis that Ceolfrith placed on scholarship is demonstrated by the largest book on display in the exhibition: the mighty Codex Amiatinus. Representing the earliest complete Latin Bible, it weighs 34kg and – we were told at the exhibition launch – needed two people to lift it into place among the displays. The production of such a weighty tome (unusually for its time, it contains both Old and New Testaments) would have been a huge and very expensive undertaking, requiring numerous scribes and reams of parchment – the c.1,030 pages of the Codex Amiatinus are thought to have been created using more than 500 skins.
The book represents an amazing achievement in its own right – yet it was originally one of three produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow. One has not survived to the present day, though a number of leaves from the third do survive and are thought to come from the ‘Great Bible’ recorded at Worcester in the 11th century. This tome is known to have been preserved at least in part until the 16th century, whereupon some of its pages (displayed in the exhibition) were reused to wrap estate records belonging to the Willoughby family of Nottinghamshire. By contrast, the Codex Amiatinus has been carefully looked after in Italy – it was taken to Rome by a mission led by Ceolfrith (although he died en route), and subequently made its way to Tuscany – it returns to the UK for the first time in over 1,300 years as part of the exhibition.
From their mighty Bibles to the extraordinary work of art that is the Lindisfarne Gospels, the manuscripts produced by Northumbria paint a vivid picture of the kingdom’s power at its peak. With the dawning of the 8th century, though, another region was challenging its primacy: the Midland kingdom of Mercia. This area’s ascent had been sparked by the military prowess of pagan rulers such as Penda (d. 655), and such martial success – and the wealth it brought – is well illustrated by the glittering contents of the Staffordshire Hoard. Discovered in 2009 (CA 239), the more than 4,000 fragments among its contents represent extraordinary 6th- and 7th-century artistry, encompassing numerous regional styles. The cache is thought to have been buried during the reign either of Penda or of his son and successor Wulfhere (d. 675).
Many of the items are distinctly warlike in nature, including a large number of ornate sword-fittings and pieces of armour, and recent research has suggested that the hoard might represent booty captured during multiple battles with different peoples (CA 290). Yet one of the items chosen to represent the hoard in the British Library exhibition – a gold-and-garnet pectoral cross – is more reflective of the Christian beliefs that would, with Penda’s death, come to claim Mercia too. Subsequent kings propelled the kingdom to even greater heights: the aspirations of Æthelbald (r. 716-757) are clear in charters where he describes himself as ‘Rex Britanniae’ – but it was his successor, Offa (r. 757-796), who made Mercia supreme.
The span of cultural and commercial connections that Offa’s Mercia was able to achieve is exemplified in the exhibition by a small gold coin issued by the king. Offa usually imitated imperial imagery in his coinage, but this coin’s design is a clear copy of a gold dinar of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, based in Baghdad. So deliberate is the copy that the moneyer has even replicated the original’s Arabic inscription – though apparently it was chosen for aesthetic rather than ideological reasons: it seems unlikely that the Christian Offa would have approved of the text, which includes the traditional Islamic declaration of faith, ‘there is no god but Allah alone’. Certainly the moneyer does not seem to have been familiar with Arabic, as the inscription on the Mercian coin is upside down.
Translating the past
If the 8th century was the time of Mercia, though, the 9th century saw the rise of their southern neighbours, who wrested control of Sussex, Surrey, Kent, and Essex from them. Wessex had established itself as a fighting force that should not be underestimated, and as Viking raids on England intensified in the later 9th century, the kingdom was the last one standing against Norse incursions, with Scandinavians now ruling in Northumbria, East Anglia, and a large chunk of Mercia.
One manuscript on display eloquently represents this turbulent period: at first glance, it is another outstandingly ornate gospel book, its pages extravagantly decorated with purple dye, gold and silver, and colourful inks – yet there is an additional note, written in Old English in a 9th-century hand, that tells another story. The inscription records that Ealdorman Ælfred, his wife Werberg, and their daughter Alhthryth ransomed the book from a Viking army, and donated it to Christ Church, Canterbury.
It was a king of Wessex, Alfred the Great (r. 871-899), who finally brought this wave of Viking incursions to an end, after defeating the Scandinavian king Guthrum at the Battle of Edington in 878. Although this was a resounding victory for Wessex, the Vikings were not expelled from England; rather, peace was bought by dividing the country in two and leaving a sizeable portion, the ‘Danelaw’, under Scandinavian rule. This step was formalised in a peace treaty between Alfred and Guthrum, a copy of which is included in the displays.
Peace may have been secured, but decades of Viking attacks had taken a devastating toll on England’s monasteries, and with them the once-magnificent manuscript traditions that they had maintained. Latin literacy was at a desperate low, accounts of the time attest, and to combat this Alfred instructed his bishops to translate key works into English. He is also said to have composed some translations of his own, and in his preface to Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care he instructs that a copy of the text should be sent to each bishopric and, with it, a kind of manuscript pointer called an aestel. A colourful socketed object, found near Alfred’s stronghold of Athelney in Somerset and inscribed with the words Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan (‘Alfred had me made’), is thought to represent one of these objects. Today, it is known as the Alfred Jewel.
Codices and conquests
Alfred’s efforts bore fruit. His reign saw English writings flourish once more, including the creation of one of the major sources for early medieval England, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Although further Viking attacks threatened periodically, stability was shored up by the military campaigns of his successors – by the 920s his son, Athelstan, was the first king of all England. The country as we know it had been born.
England’s literary culture rose from the ashes of Viking destruction – something emphasised by a remarkable collection of four books dating from the 10th and early 11th centuries (though some of their contents are thought to represent earlier oral traditions). Known as the Four Poetic Codices, they comprise the Nowell Codex (which includes the only surviving copy of the Beowulf manuscript), the Exeter Book (which contains a series of riddles as well as poems known as the Elegies), the Junius Manuscript (a collection of Biblical poetry), and the Vercelli Book (homilies, saints’ lives, and poetry including the Dream of the Rood, which tells the story of the Crucifixion from the perspective of the Cross).
The codices represent 75% of what remains of Old English poetry, and the exhibition marks the first time they have all been displayed together – a fact that makes you appreciate what a precarious, as well as precious, collection this is. In 1731, the notorious Cotton Fire tore through the library of bibliophile and antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, which included many early medieval manuscripts. Around a quarter of his collection is thought to have been destroyed or damaged by fire or water – the pages of the Beowulf manuscript on display bear singe marks from this time.
Yet the 11th century was also a watershed period for England and the English language for another reason: this era saw the country conquered twice, first by Cnut of Denmark in 1016 (see CA 321) and, 50 years later, by William of Normandy. These invasions brough an influx of people speaking Old Norse and French, yet changes to the ruling elite do not seem to have dramatically altered the wider linguistic landscape. Towards the end of the British Library displays, the persistence of the English language is embodied by the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter. Its colourfully illustrated pages contain three versions of the Psalms in Latin. One has a running translation in Anglo-Norman French, reflecting the new political realities of the day. But between the lines of the third is an English translation. The language of the Anglo-Saxons was going nowhere.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms runs at the British Library until 19 February 2019. For more information, see www.bl.uk/events/anglo-saxon-kingdoms. The library has also made its entire collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts available to view online. You can explore these at https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2018/10/manuscripts-from-the-anglo-saxon-kingdoms-online.html.