The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 9th century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife). It was found in the River Thames in 1857, and is now at the British Museum in London. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, as well as the name “Beagnoth” in runic letters. It is thought that the runic alphabet had a magical function, and that the name Beagnoth is that of either the owner of the weapon or the smith who forged it. Although many Anglo-Saxon and Viking swords and knives have inscriptions in the Latin alphabet on their blades, or have runic inscriptions on the hilt or scabbard, the Seax of Beagnoth is one of only a handful of finds with a runic inscription on its blade.

The Seax of Beagnoth (also known as the Thames scramasax) is a 9th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (single-edged knife). It was found in the River Thames in 1857, and is now at the British Museum in London. It is a prestige weapon, decorated with elaborate patterns of inlaid copper, bronze and silver wire. On one side of the blade is the only known complete inscription of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, as well as the name “Beagnoth” in runic letters. It is thought that the runic alphabet had a magical function, and that the name Beagnoth is that of either the owner of the weapon or the smith who forged it. Although many Anglo-Saxon and Viking swords and knives have inscriptions in the Latin alphabet on their blades, or have runic inscriptions on the hilt or scabbard, the Seax of Beagnoth is one of only a handful of finds with a runic inscription on its blade.

Discovery

The seax was found in the River Thames near Battersea by Henry J. Briggs, a labourer, in early 1857. Briggs sold it to the British Museum, and on 21 May 1857 it was exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries of London by Augustus Wollaston Franks (an antiquary who worked at the Antiquities Department of the British Museum), when it was described as “resembling the Scramasax of the Franks, of which examples are very rare in England; and bears a row of runic characters inlaid in gold”. Since then the weapon has usually been called the Thames scramasax; but the term scramasax (from Old Frankish*scrâmasahs) is only attested once, in the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, and the meaning of the scrama- element is uncertain, so recent scholarship prefers the term long seax or long sax for this type of weapon.

Date and provenance

Finds of seaxes in Europe range from the 7th to the 11th century, and the earliest examples in England are from 7th-century graves. Isolated finds of seaxes in England are believed to date from the 9th and 10th centuries. The exact date that the Seax of Beagnoth was made is uncertain, but on stylistic and epigraphical grounds it has been dated to the 9th century, possibly as late as circa900.

Several seaxes of a similar kind are known from southern England (three from London, one from Suffolk, one from the River Thames at Keen Edge Ferry in Berkshire), and one from Hurbuck in County Durham in the north of England.The Berkshire seax is so similar in construction and design to the Seax of Beagnoth that both may have come from the same workshop.

Elliott suggests a southern, presumably Kentish, origin for the seax because its inscription only comprises the original twenty-eight letters of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc, and does not include any of the additional letters in use in Northumbrian runic inscriptions at that time.

The name Beagnoth inscribed on the seax also supports a Kentish provenance, as the only two examples of this name in manuscript sources are Kentish. One Beagnoth was a witness to a charter (S30) by King Eardwulf of Kent, granting pasture rights to the church of St Andrew at Rochester, Kent, which is dated to 748–760, and another Beagnoth (also spelled Beahnoþ) was a monk from Kent who was present at the Synod of Clovesho in 803 and witnessed a charter by King Æthelwulf of Wessex dated to 844. The name “Beagnoth” derives from the Old English words bēag or bēah meaning “ring, bracelet, torque or crown” and nōþ meaning “boldness”, and can be translated as “Ringbold”.

Daniel Haigh (1819–1879), a noted Victorian scholar of Anglo-Saxon history and literature, in an 1872 study of the runic monuments of Kent, considered the possibility that although the Beagnoth Seax was found in England, because the scramasax was thought at that time to be a Frankish weapon, it may have been an import from the continent, and would originally have belonged to a Frank. He therefore attempted to read the name as if the runes represented Old Frankish, suggesting the hypothetical Frankish name Baugnanth (reading ᛠ as au, and ᚩ as an). However, modern scholarship considers Anglo-Saxon seaxes to be native to England, and Haigh’s theory is not widely accepted today.

Significance

The runic inscription on the seax not only identifies the maker or owner of the seax, but also provides a rare example of the twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet. Examples of the earlier, twenty-four letter Elder Futhark and sixteen letter Younger Futhark alphabets are relatively common in continental and Scandinavian runic inscriptions, but inscriptions of the historically later Anglo-Saxon futhorc are rare in England, with most examples of the Anglo-Saxon futhorcbeing known from manuscript sources. This seax represents the only surviving epigraphic inscription of the basic twenty-eight letter Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, although an incomplete inscription of the first sixteen letters of the futhorc occurs on the disc-shaped head of a Middle Saxon pin from Brandon, Suffolk, and the first seven or eight letters of the futhorc are inscribed on the head of a pin from Malton, North Yorkshire.

It is unclear what purpose the inscription of the futhorc served, but Page suggests it cannot be simply decorative, but must have had a magical significance. He notes that the carving of runic letters on swords as a form of magical protection was an ancient practice, but by the 9th century rune lore was probably on the decline in the Kingdom of Kent, and the owner of the seax may have commissioned an archaic runic inscription for prestige purposes. The fact that there are errors in the order and design of the runic letters suggests that the smith who made the seax was not used to adding such runic inscriptions to the weapons he made, and they may have been copied inaccurately from a manuscript text.

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