Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art

Commemorating the millennium of the death of St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, who died in 984, this sumptuous collection was gathered together and put on display in 1984. At that time, I was a student in London, taking modules which mainly taught me about pre-Conquest history, so I popped along.

Recently, I picked up a second-hand copy of the catalogue and realised that, although I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, I hadn't really appreciated at the time just exactly what it was that I had been privileged enough to see.

I distinctly remember feeling excited to see an open page from Beowulf 

but it's only now that I appreciate all those other treasures, which I've written about so much and so recently.

The Fuller Brooch, dated to the ninth century, is made from silver, and inlaid with the material known as niello (a black mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphides used as an inlay). It depicts all the senses, in the form of a man pictured rubbing his hands, smelling a plant, cupping a hand to his ear etc, and the full length figures depicted are of high quality.  

Attribution Link (Wiki CC Commons)

The Abingdon Sword is an iron sword with a pattern-welded blade (twisting strands of metal together and forge-welding them to form intricate patterns) and it's dated to the late ninth/early tenth century. It has curved upper and lower guards decorated with ornate silver panels.

Attribution link
 As the catalogue notes, such swords were highly prized which is indicated by the frequent mention of them in wills, such as that of Athelstan Atheling, son of Æthelred the Unready. Alfred the Great bequeathed an expensive sword to his son-in-law, Æthelred of Mercia in his will.

The Regularis Concordia is a work to which I've frequently referred, writing fictional and non-fictional accounts of the reign of Edgar and the monastic reform of the tenth century. But I'd forgotten that all those years ago, I saw one of only two surviving original manuscripts. It was in all likelihood drawn up by Bishop Æthelwold and, based on the rule of St Benedict, it was essentially a handbook for monks, and it made clear that monks were under the special care of the king, and nuns under that of the queen. Read more about the Regularis Concordia HERE

Edgar depicted in the Regularis Concordia,
seated between Æthelwold & Dunstan

The Regularis Concordia makes clear that the queen is the 'protector' of nuns, and suggests tacit support by Æthelwold for Edgar's queen, Ælfthryth. In the New Minster Charter, she was described as 'lawful wife' and her son is described as the atheling (heir) whereas Edgar's son by another woman, is not.

Frontispiece of New Minster Charter

The Alfred Jewel and its purpose is hotly debated. But it has been suggested that it is an æstel, a pointer for reading manuscripts, or a bookmark. The inscription famously reads 'Alfred had me made' and the figure has been variously suggested to be Alfred himself, Christ, or a personification of Sight, as in the Fuller Brooch. Whether it represents Sight, or the wisdom of God, either would fit well if its function was as a tool for reading and teaching holy texts.

Showing the inscription. Attribution link

In To Be A Queen, we meet Æthelflæd's aunt, briefly. A gold

ring, with the inscription Æthelswith Regina, is believed to have belonged to, or given as a gift by, this aunt, Alfred the Great's sister, who married King Burgred of Mercia.
St Kenelm, whose sad, if apocryphal (by which I mean doubtful), story is retold in my forthcoming history of Mercia, has his name in capitals at the head of the martyrs in the Winchcombe psalter. 

The will of the ætheling Athelstan, son of Æthelred the 'Unready', is an important document. It tells us, among other things, that Ælfthryth, his grandmother, who was the aforementioned queen of King Edgar, was the woman responsible for his upbringing. It gives insights into the factions and friendships at court centred around the younger members of the aristocracy and royal family. Athelstan leaves the sword which 'belonged to King Offa' to his brother, Edmund Ironside.  

Another important document is the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ, commissioned by Queen Emma, a fairly biased account of her life, and in praise of the sons by Cnut, and carefully ignoring that fact that she had been married to, and had sons by,  Æthelred the 'Unready'. The mansucript on display was thought at the time to be the only surviving medieval copy.

Other important documents in the exhibition included The Sermon of the Wolf to the English,  which can be dated to around 1014. The context of the sermon is the murder of Archbishop Ælfheah by Danish invaders, and some versions of the document also record the flight overseas of Æthelred the unready. Wulfstan, the 'Wolf' referred to, was archbishop of York from 1002-23. The sermon's themes reflect the turbulent times and suggest that the English are responsible for their desperate plight.

Along with the exquisite metalwork, jewellery, charters and documents, there was also an array of Anglo-Saxon coins and strap-ends, seals, and decorative mounts and panels.

I knew, as an undergraduate, how special this collection was. What I couldn't know, of course, was that I would be using translations of the documents, and writing about the artefacts, more than three decades later.

There's to be a new exhibition at the British Library from October this year. I hope this generation's batch of budding historians makes their way to see it and I hope they still find it all beautiful, fascinating and inspiring nearly 40 years hence.


  1. Amazing exhibits, Annie, and I can see why you regret not realising the deeper relevance of some of them at the time. But hey, many of us have been students (in a past life in my case!) and have other things on our minds at the time. I'd love to see many of these, too. Aethelswith's ring is interesting and, of course, the Alfred Jewel - which is in the Ashmolean, I believe, which I never thought to visit when we lived in that area. Great post!

    1. Thanks Millie - I do remember some parts of it vividly, but so much of it passed me by. I bought the official exhibition poster and kept it for years, but it got lost in the last house move. I'd love to have it back, or find a replacement!

  2. Fascinating - I wish that I had visited this in 1984 when I lived in London. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks Roland. I'd love to go the new one in October but getting to anywhere from where I live now is a challenge, so I'm not sure I'll be making the journey :-)

    2. Sadly, I now live in the US so will have to observe third-hand again. Hope your contacts keep you informed.

    3. I know some people who've already got tickets. If I can get there and back in a day, I'll go. But if it involves an overnight stay, it will be cost-prohibitive, sadly.