Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War @ the British Library

According to the lady on the door, this has turned out to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the British Library. I got there when it opened at 10 and within fifteen minutes it was so packed it began to be difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Why? Because it is the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, with many manuscripts and objects brought from overseas, some for the first time in centuries, and many others on loan from museums all around England.

Which makes it an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures and texts, manuscripts and swords, carved crosses and coins, which paint the completest ever picture of the mysterious and evocative centuries between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the conquest of the Normans in 1066 – 650 years which saw the formation of the English language, geography (the founding of towns and cities and roads), politics and religion.

A brief recap of Anglo-Saxon history

According to the Venerable Bede, within a generation of the last Roman soldiers leaving Britain, raiders from north Europe came pillaging. They came from tribes Bede names as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, based in north Germany and Denmark.

From bases in south England these tribes spread out and established kingdoms the length and breadth of the country. By the sixth century the land had stabilised into seven kingdoms, traditionally known as the Heptarchy, consisting of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

Alongside the main entities was a fluctuating set of smaller kingdoms which included, at one time or another, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria, Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire, the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands, the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire, the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, and the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

By 660 Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and its contacts with both Ireland and Rome produced a golden age of culture.

Mercia began to displace Northumbria as most powerful kingdom in the early 8th century, a process which reached its climax in the long reign of King Offa, from 757 until his death in July 796. Offa controlled London, built the famous dyke along the border with Wales, and conquered Kent, East Anglia, Essex and Sussex.

In 793 Vikings attacked Lindisfarne monastery way up towards the Scottish border, and for the next two hundred years Danish invaders were a constant threat, eventually controlling the east of the country from the Thames to the border with the Scots. This area became known as the Danelaw, with its capital city at Viking-founded York.

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

Alfred the Great (849-899) is remembered because he fought the Danes out of Wessex, recaptured London, and unified all the tribes of England against the foreigner, signing a peace treaty with the Danish leader, Guthrum, in about 880.

But he didn’t manage to expel them. It was only under his grandson, King Æthelstan that, in the 930s, the Danes were completely expelled.

And even this unity was lost when the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard reinvaded in 1013, leading the throne of England to be seized by his son, Cnut the Great, a Dane who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

One last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ruled again, from 1042 to 1066, but it was a dispute over the succession following his death, which led to the invasion of the county by William and the Conqueror and his Normans, and the death of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at Hastings.

The period from 450 to 1066 was, in other words, one of almost constant warfare, in which kingdoms depended for their existence and stability on the military might and strategic canniness of strong rulers. The sophisticated economic systems of the Romans, their agricultural organisation, their towns laid out logically with strong defensive walls – all this was lost within a few generations of the Roman departure in 410.

For most of the next 600 years small communities of peasants eked out a subsistence living, and their surplus was skimmed off by violent kings to fund their high lifestyle and elaborate jewellery and weapons.

The Anglo-Saxon church

But alongside the history of kings and conquest, there is a parallel history, deeply intertwined with it – the history of the Christian Church in England.

There were Christians among the Roman community but their version disappeared when they left. Some missionaries came from Ireland which had a Christian tradition before England. But the main story begins with the mission to Britain of St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century theologian).

Augustine arrived in 597, converted the king of Kent, Æthelberht a, established an episcopal seat at the Kentish capital, Canterbury (which is why we still have archbishops of Canterbury to this day), and established a monastery and seat of learning which could train and educate the monks who would then, themselves, be sent out to convert the various rival warlords to the true faith, throughout the 600s.

We know a lot about the process of conversion because it is described in detail by the monk known as the Venerable Bede, in his masterpiece, A History of the English Church and People, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Bede was a product of Northumbrian culture, a Benedictine monk who spent his entire life at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul near Jarrow. He wrote some 40 books but his masterpiece, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or The History of the English Church and People.

The point is that, although the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people were all pagans they were also illiterate and so all we know about them is filtered through the writings of the literate Christian monks, who all wrote in Latin.

And the little we have of actual Anglo-Saxon, the language these people spoke and recited their histories and legends in, was also recorded by Christian monks.

We have some pagan jewellery, most notably the content of the fantastic burial hoard found at Sutton Hoo, attributed to King Raedwald who lived in the 7th century.

But even carved crosses, much of the remaining jewellery, and all of the remaining texts, are Christian in content, the crosses’ inscriptions in Latin, the jewellery including the cross motif, and even the handful of Anglo-Saxon texts we have – even the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – contain Christian imagery, or subject matter, and were written down by Christian monks.

Beowulf © British Library Board

Beowulf © British Library Board

Alfred the Great’s renaissance

By the 850s most of the kingdoms were thoroughly Christianised. Alfred the Great (d.899) acquired his reputation not only for his military victories against the Danes, but because he saw the need to raise the cultural level of the people he now ruled in the area known as Wessex. He realised he needed educated literate civil servants to administer his kingdom, and – being a good Christian king – he realised the gospels needed to be spread.

Alfred commissioned monks to begin writing a yearly chronicle of events, thus founding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which ended up existing in various versions, kept by monks in monasteries around the kingdom. These are an invaluable source of historical information, and for the grammatical structure of the various regional dialects of Anglo-Saxon. Some of which continued for a generation after the Conquest.

Alfred also commissioned the translation of important texts into Anglo-Saxon. These included a translation and copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care. He distributed these along with ‘æstels’ or wooden pointer sticks, which were used for following words when reading a book.

Attached to the end of each pointer was a valuable example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery which featured a portrait of the king and, around the sides, the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The one and only surviving copy of this is usually in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but has been brought here for this exhibition. It is wonderful, the quaintness of the likeness of the king contrasting vividly with the sophistication of the dragon (snake?)’s head beneath it, from whose mouth pokes the nozzle which is where the wooden pointing stick came out.

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anglo-Saxon treasures on display

This exhibition is so blockbusting because just about every single book, every Bible, psalter, breviary, every manuscript letter, poem, deed and legal document which tells and illustrates these tumultuous 650 years has been brought together and assembled in one place.

The Alfred jewel is just one of the inestimable treasures on display at this massive, comprehensive and dazzling exhibition. Other highlights include:

  • the stunningly ornate gold buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
  • the River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s on loan from National Museums Ireland
  • displayed alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing similar instruments
  • archaeological objects including:
    • the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk
    • the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003
    • key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found
  • the Sutton Hoo gold buckle
  • the Fuller Brooch on loan from the British Museum

Layout

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, in mysterious low lighting (obviously, to protect these priceless manuscripts), the walls hung with long, narrow photographs of unspoilt countryside, vividly conveying a sense of what must have been the largely untamed landscape of the times. It is organised into rooms which take us carefully through the period, with rooms and areas devoted to:

  • Kingdoms and Conversion
  • The Rise of the West Saxons
  • Mercia and its Neighbours
  • Language, Learning and literature
  • Kingdom and Church
  • Music making
  • Conquests and Landscape
  • The Empire of Cnut
  • The Cnut Gospels
  • Domesday Book

There are three or four videos scattered throughout, interviewing scholars who explain key moments or ideas in Anglo-Saxon culture, namely curator, Dr Claire Breay, and well-known TV historian Michael Wood.

The video on the Domesday book is simple and interesting. And there’s a longer one showing the process of preparing vellum parchment and then how the ink and pain for the illuminations were prepared.

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Mostly manuscripts

But the exhibition, as you would expect from its location, focuses mostly on books, on a huge selection of early medieval manuscripts, alongside, letters and other written matter, including:

  • the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the one and only surviving copy of Beowulf
  • a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • the St Augustine Gospels on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge
  • the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin
  • the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters from Utrecht University Library, the British Library and Trinity College Cambridge respectively
  • the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry on display together for the first time, with the British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside:
    • the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli
    • the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library
    • the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving public record, on loan from The National Archives
  • the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver;
  • the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century
  • the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral
  • the earliest surviving will of an English woman, Wynflæd
  • St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century
  • and the enormous Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It will be returning to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence
Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Cnut and Emma

I’d expected it to end sometime after the loosely titled Kingdom and Church section, so I was surprised that the exhibition devotes not one but several sections to reign of King Cnut, the Dane who united England with his home territory to form a short-lived North Sea Empire. He was king of England from 1016 to 1035 and the exhibition shows how manuscripts and books, gospels and psalters of great quality continued to be produced.

There is a section devoted just to Cnut’s strong-minded queen Emma, bringing together references in documents and even illustrations which appear to be of the queen.

The Norman Conquest

And then a final section devoted to a massive copy of the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to list in fine detail every scrap of land in his new domain. The exhibition includes not only a hefty copy of the book, but a rare example of one of the preliminary rolls on which data was initially gathered by William’s army of census takers,before being collated and copied into the Big Book.

Domesday © The National Archives

Domesday Book © The National Archives

Thoughts

Several points emerged for me:

  • The distinction between the Northumbrian Golden Age of the 660s onwards, which is all about Iona, Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop and Bede — and the rise of Mercia under Offa about a century later – there are illuminated books from both periods which, to the really scholarly eye, show the difference in date, origin and cultural links.
  • The idea that the rise of Wessex (which led, eventually, to the unification of England) was a product of the Viking invasions: pushed back into the South-West and West Midlands, the remaining Saxon kingdoms were forced to co-operate and coalesce, and Alfred is the symptom of this newfound focus
  • The sense that, once you get to Alfred, the difficulty of trying to remember the kings and rulers of all the scattered other kingdoms disappears; Alfred is succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), who is himself succeeded by his son, Æthelstan, who, from 927 to 939 has the right to claim himself to be the first king of all the English. From this point onwards it becomes easier to follow the kings, and there is a kind of cultural and legal as well as military unification.

Slaves

I was surprised to come across a record of Athelstan freeing a slave. The earliest will made by an Englishwoman, Wynflæd, from the tenth century, records her wish to free her slaves. And the section about Domesday Book, while running through some of the staggering stats included in the book, mentions that it records that there were some 28,325 slaves in England in 1086 (compared with some 288,000 peasants). I.e. around 10% of the work-force was slaves.

A little-known fact about the Norman Conquest is that it was William the Bastard who formally abolished the (thriving) slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.

Slight criticism

I had one big caveat. I counted 125 books and manuscripts in the exhibition – books carefully propped open so we could see illuminations and text, manuscripts carefully flattened. These were all, of course, accompanied by information panels explaining what they were, what to look for in the illumination or style of writing, and so on.

BUT – none of them contained a translation of the actual words on show.

Most of the books are in Latin, Latin versions of various books of the Bible, breviaries and psalters, texts of Christian advice, letters from bishops to kings or vice versa, deeds to properties, adjudications in land disputes, and so on, with just a handful of texts in Anglo-Saxon, such as Beowulf, the Exeter Riddles, the Dream of the Rood, wills, charters and so on.

But early medieval writing was highly stylised. Although I studied Latin for GCSE and Anglo-Saxon at university, I always find it next to impossible to read Latin or Anglo-Saxon manuscripts because of the cramped and stylised nature of the handwriting.

So it would have been a very good idea, next to the panel telling you the history of the book, to have had a panel simply laying out the actual words on display, in modern orthography.

And then, logically enough – it would have been a good idea to have translated the words into modern English.

We are presented with a page of Beowulf, or of the Domesday Book. It looks great – but I can’t read a word of it. Not only can I not read it, but even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it.

I think this was a big flaw with the exhibition. The overwhelming majority of objects on display are texts. And although the exhibition gives plenty of help with the manuscripts’ provenance and style and general content – visitors are given no help at all with actually reading or understanding them.

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Introduction by the exhibition curator


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