anglo saxon history

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Arguably the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar, perhaps in all the early middle ages.

Entrusted into the care of Bishop Benedict Biscop at the age of 7.  In about 692 when 19 years old, he was ordained a deacon by his diocesan bishop, John, who was bishop of Hexham.  In his 30th year, about 702 he was ordained a priest, again by Bishop John.  He continued to write and teach for the rest of his life, completing more than 40 books on subjects ranging from scripture, history and science.

He dies on the 26th may 735 and was buried at Jarrow, in the 11th century his remains were transferred to Durham Cathedral.

Above are two folios from a manuscript (Cotton MS Tiberius C.II)  containing his great work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum)  This manuscript was likely made within a few decades of his death in 735.  Final image is his tomb in Durham Cathedral

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Is byþ oferceald, ungemetum slidor, glisnaþ glæshluttur, gimmum gelicust, flor forste geworuht, fæger ansyne
Ice is very cold, and immeasurably slippery, it glitters, clear as glass, very like jewels. a floor, wrought by frost, fair to behold.

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ijsselmeer area, the netherlands

The nobility of your forbears magnified you, O Edith,
And you, a king’s bride, magnify your forbears.
Much beauty and much wisdom were yours
And also probity together with sobriety.
You teach the stars, measuring, arithmetic, the art of the lyre,
The ways of learning and grammar.
An understanding of rhetoric allowed you to pour out speeches,
And moral rectitude informs your tongue
– Godfrey of Cambrai, prior of Winchester Cathedral (1082-1107)

Edith of Wessex was born c. 1025, the eldest daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and his wife Gytha. Her family was a formidable one: Godwin was one of the most powerful men in England, while Gytha was the sister-in-law of Cnut.

She was raised at Wilton Abbey, which she later had rebuilt as a sign of gratitude. There she learned Latin, French, Danish, and some Irish as well as grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, weaving, embroidery, and astronomy. There is little else we know about her early life apart from her education, but she seems to have been especially close to her brother Tostig.

Edith’s father, Godwin, had a troubled relationship with King Edward the Confessor because Edward believed that Godwin was responsible for the death of his brother. Even so, Godwin was the most powerful man in England and Edward needed his support, and so married Edith at Godwin’s behest on 23 January 1045.

The relationship does not seem to have been a particularly romantic one. They were 20 or so years apart in age and he disliked her family, but all the same she had some influence and it was said that she always advised Edward wisely, and did a lot to improve his kingly image.

In 1051, Godwin and Edward’s relationship significantly deteriorated. Rather than risk arrest, Godwin fled the country with his sons. Edith was sent to a nunnery and all her lands confiscated, perhaps because he didn’t like her, thought they had little hope of conceiving together and wished to remarry, or simply wanted to get revenge on her father. The next year Godwin returned to England and civil war looked likely, but Edward lacked support and was forced to restore Godwin’s lands to him and reinstate Edith as Queen.

Though the two were still unable to have children (probably not because Edward had taken a vow of chastity, as is often said), Edith’s influence as Queen grew, as is shown by the increase in the amount of charters she witnessed, and she joined the circle of Edward’s most trusted advisers. 

In 1055, Edith’s brother, Tostig, became Earl of Northumbria but his rule was hugely unpopular and 10 years later the local Northumbrian population rebelled, killing Tostig’s officials and outlawing him, asking instead to be ruled by a member of the leading Mercian family. There is some evidence that many of the Northumbrian people viewed Edith as complicit in Tostig’s tyranny, and indeed it’s likely that she herself had one of Tostig’s political enemies assassinated. Finally, one of Edith’s other brothers, Harold was sent to deal with the matter. He agreed to the rebels demands, depriving Tostig of his earldom, and Tostig, who fled to Flanders, never forgave Harold, nor did Edith. 

On 5 January 1066, Edward the Confessor died, leaving Edith’s brother as King Harold II. The main chronicle on Edward’s reign, commissioned by Edith herself, actually attempts to discredit Harold’s claim, showing the extent of the rift between the siblings. Some historians, such as James Campbell, even believe that Edith was in personal danger from Harold, who wanted to placate the still restless Northumbrians by treating Edith harshly.

Harold successfully fought off Norwegian invaders that year at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in which Tostig died fighting on the side of the Norwegians. Edith’s reaction is not recorded, but it is easy to imagine that she must have been heartbroken. Harold’s next major battle, the Battle of Hastings, was fought against William, Duke of Normandy. Harold and 2 of Edith’s other brothers died that day, and William was proclaimed King.

William sent men to Winchester to demand tribute from Queen Edith and she willingly complied. As a result, William allowed her to keep all her estates and income. Following this, Edith lived a comfortable life and when she died on 18 December 1075, she was recorded as the richest woman in England. She was laid to rest next to her husband in Winchester Cathedral and given a funeral befitting a queen. 

As with so many women in history, Edith is often overlooked, but we have much to thank her for. Because she commissioned the Vita Edwardi Regis, she is responsible for much of the information we have on this period, and art historian Carola Hicks even suggests that she commissioned the Bayeaux Tapestry. Regardless of whether this theory is true, Edith is a person worth remembering. She was strong, determined, and loving, though some of her more corrupt actions are utterly deplorable. Nonetheless, her influence and contribution to Edward the Confessor’s reign is not one that should be forgotten.

Thank you!

Great news! We have raised the funds to keep King Alfred’s Coins in the heart of the region in which it was discovered.

The Watlington hoard is the first large Viking hoard discovered in Oxfordshire & contains over 200 Anglo-Saxon coins.

We would like to thank everyone who donated to the campaign. Lead support was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, towards both the acquisition and to fund a range of educational and outreach activities. Thanks to a further major grant from Art Fund as well as contributions from the public and the Friends and Patrons of the Ashmolean, the Museum reached its fundraising target within days of the deadline.

“The Watlington Hoard is one of the most exciting and important acquisitions we have ever made, particularly significant because it was found in Oxfordshire. To be able to keep the hoard in the county and put it on display with the Ashmolean’s Anglo-Saxon collections, which include the world-famous Alfred Jewel, was an opportunity we could not miss.”
     
    – Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean

An Exceptional Discovery

In October 2015, metal detectorist James Mather discovered an important Viking hoard near Watlington in South Oxfordshire. It dates from the end of the 870s, a key moment in the struggle between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings for control of southern England.

The Watlington Hoard sheds new light on the conflict between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and on the relationship between the two great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex.

The hoard contains over 200 Anglo-Saxon coins, including many examples of previously rare coins of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (871–899) and his less well-known contemporary, King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (874–879). This is the first large Viking hoard discovered in Oxfordshire, which once lay on the border of Wessex and Mercia. The Watlington Hoard therefore has enormous relevance to our county. At the same time this is a find of truly national importance, providing a major new source of information about this tumultuous time in the history of our nation.

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The Strickland Brooch from England dated to the 9th Century on display at the British Museum in London

This silver brooch is an especially fine piece of Anglo-Saxon jewellery. Its intricate pattern of animated animals with glittering gold bodies and blue glass eyes in inlaid with niello, a black metal alloy that was popular at this time. The mixture of materials is unusual for a brooch of this date and was probably worn by someone of high status and wealth. 

Photographs taken by myself


Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf


At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: It must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.



Jorge Luis Borges (trans: Alastair Reid)

Image: David Levene - The Sutton Hoo helmet      


From the Guardian: “On a visit to St Andrews, Jorge Luis Borges asked to be taken down to the pier. There the blind Argentine recited many of Beowulf’s verses at the North Sea.”  (from an article in The Guardian,  26 September 1999, Michael Alexander)



Anglo-Saxon inscribed gold strip from the Staffordshire Hoard, 7th-8th century 

This gold strip carries the Latin inscription: “Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.” It has two sources, the Book of Numbers or Psalm 67, taken from the Vulgate, the Bible used by the Saxons.

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever found. It was discovered in a field near the village of Hammerwich, in Staffordshire on July 5, 2009. The items total over 3,500 in all and date from the time of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.