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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Ornate Brooch excavated at Hunterston in Scotland from the Mid 8th Century CE on display at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh

It is thought to have been made at a Royal Site such as Dunadd, the Hillfort metioned in the Annals of Ulster and supposedly the capital of the Kingdom of the Dál Riata. The skill of the jeweller can be seen in the familiarity of the use of Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Irish-Scottish techniques in decorating the metalwork of silver and gold with amber and other precious metals.

It was most likely a gift from one ruler to another either as a sign of friendship or of peace perhaps. It is a sign of not only material culture being used to symbolise status and rank but also the importance of trained and skilled manufacturers in society.

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.

Emma of Normandy - Twice a Queen

There is a tantalizingly small amount known of Emma’s early life. She was the daughter of Richard I “The Fearless” Duke of Normandy and his second wife Gunorra and was born between 985 and 990 A.D. Emma was married to the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelred “The Unready” of England in 1002 when she was probably in her early teens. This marriage was a decisive and desperate political move made by Aethelred. The reign of King Aethelred was plagued by war with the invading Vikings and, though he was forceful, Aethelred was branded “Æþelræd Unræd” or “Aethelred of Bad counsel.” The name quickly evolved to “Aethelred the Unready.” He married Emma because she was Norman, and therefore of Viking descent, as her great-grandfather was the Viking Rollo, founder of Normandy. 

Emma was around twenty years younger than her husband Aethelred, who already had ten children by his first wife, including several sons. Nevertheless, Emma produced three children: Edward (later Edward the Confessor), Alfred Aetheling, and Goda of England. The early years of Emma’s life in England can not have been peaceful for her. She was a Danish outsider who could not speak the old English language of her subjects, as far as some people were concerned. She was often caught between the English and Danish factions and was held somehow responsible for attacks carried out by Swein Forkbeard, the ruler of Viking occupied England. Out of this, Emma likely developed a sharp political mind. Soon the volatile political climate turned towards war. In 1109, Aethelred and Emma were preparing for a major battle with the Vikings and all able men in the country were called upon. But in 1011 Swein Forkbeard was victorious and moving dangerously far into southern England. 

Acting as a dutiful queen, Emma followed her husband’s lead and continued to hold court, but she convinced him to move the court to Kent. It was not long before Emma realized the end was near for Aethelred’s reign, even if he did not. She escaped to Normandy, humiliated by her husband, and had her children follow. Meanwhile, Swein and his sons Harold and Cnut established the first Viking dynasty in England. A year later Swein was dead and by 1016 Aethelred was as well, leaving Emma a widow. Emma knew her son Edward was unlikely to succeed his father, as her stepson Edmund Ironside was the obvious heir. She saw Edmund as a chance to save the fortunes of her children and herself and sought to stay in his favor in order to keep her own estates. But Edmund was soon dead. Swein was succeeded by his son Cnut, who would one day be known as “Cnut the Great.” When Cnut made it clear that he would have Emma as his queen it seemed her only safe option was to marry him. But Emma also had her own motives for doing so. She wanted to protect her own wealth, estates, and the Anglo-Saxon people she ruled over. Most importantly, marrying Cnut would save her three children by (ostensibly) neutralizing their claims to the throne. Emma married Cnut and became Queen of England for a second time under a completely new dynasty. She bore Cnut two children, a son called Harthacnut and a daughter called Gunhilda.  

As Cnut’s Queen, Emma took an active role in Church politics and was a patroness of many religious works. It is suggested in the Encomium Emmae Reginae  (written in praise of the Viking kings of England as well as of Emma) that Emma and Cnut did marry for political reasons, but that their union developed into one of real affection. Cnut died in 1035 and was succeeded by his and Emma’s son Harthacnut. In 1036, Emma’s sons Edward and Alfred returned from Normandy and soon afterwards Alfred was captured, blinded, and died as a result. Edward fled after this incident, perhaps to protect his own claim to the throne.

Emma was one of the main influences during the reign of Harthacnut. She also helped to engineer the joint reign between her sons Edward and Harthacnut and maintain peace between the Anglo Saxon and Viking factions.She may even have acted as a co-ruler. When Harthacnut died in 1042, Edward was left as the sole ruler of England. Emma died in 1052 and was buried in Winchester next to her second, and perhaps best loved, husband Cnut the Great and her son Harthacnut. Her influence is still felt in history through the prominence of her eldest son, Edward the Confessor, who may never have been king had Queen Emma not fought for herself and her children. She is the most visible of the early medieval queens and one of the first Queens of England to have a marked role in government.   

Æthelflæd,  England’s Founding Mother

Born around 870, in the midst of the Viking invasion of Anglo-Saxon Britain, Æthelflæd was the eldest child of King Alfred “The Great” of Wessex and his wife Ealhswith. The young Æthelflæd would have spent most of her childhood witnessing her father’s long campaigns against the Danes. Alfred eventually succeeded in forcing the Vikings out of Wessex and Mercia, and back into the kingdom of East Anglia, which would be known as The Danelaw. 

As the eldest daughter of a powerful Anglo-Saxon king, Æthelflæd would have expected to be married to another equally powerful ruler. But as the daughter of Alfred the Great, she was also destined for greatness. Æthelflæd was wed to Aethelred, King of Mercia, in around 886. She bore only one known child, a daughter called Ælfwynn. Æthelflæd and Aethelred are known to have acted jointly when they fortified the city of Worcester and issued charters. Æthelflæd and her husband became the guardians of her nephew, her brother Edward’s son, the future king Æthelstan. Young Æthelstan likely came to live in his aunt and uncle’s court in order to learn the ways of kingship and combat from their example. Aunt Æthelflæd proved an ideal teacher.

After King Alfred’s death and her brother’s succession to the throne of Wessex as King Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd’s husband fell ill and later died. Once Aethelred’s health began to decline, Æthelflæd took his place as ruler of Mercia. She became known as Myrcna hlædige, or “Lady of the Mercians.”  Though she lost some of her territory in return for her brother Edward acknowledging her as the rightful ruler of Mercia, Æthelflæd was a force to be reckoned with. She joined with her brother in an effort to expel the Vikings and take back the Danelaw. Æthelflæd and her army were responsible for the capture of the city of Derby, the first of the five boroughs of the Danelaw to fall to her forces. She later took Leicester as well. By the end of 917 the East Anglian Danes had submitted to Edward and Æthelflæd. In 918 many of the leading men around York promised to pledge their loyalty to Æthelflæd, but she died on June 12 before she could accept them. 

Queen Æthelflæd has been all but lost to modern popular history, though a statue of her was erected in Tamworth, the location of her death. She is overlooked between two kings, her father Alfred and brother Edward. Though her daughter Ælfwynn ruled Mercia after her death, she was deposed and the kingdom was taken by Edward the Elder. Æthelflæd’s legacy rests with her nephew, King Æthelstan. Æthelstan, the boy who received an education in ruling from Æthelflæd, would be the first king to rule a united England and call himself King of the English. A feat which could not have been accomplished without the unification set in motion by Æthelflæd.       

Queen Æthelswith’s Ring, C. 853-874 AD

The owner of this ring was Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia (855-89 AD), and sister of Alfred the Great. It was found at Aberford in West Yorkshire, England in 1870. The bezel is circular with a pearled border; it is ornamented with a medallion inscribed in a quatrefoil and containing the Agnus Dei between two letters; the leaves of the quatrefoil and the spaces between them are chased with foliage. Each shoulder has a semi-circular panel with a pearled border, containing an animal on a ground of niello. Inside the ring is engraved with an inscription: EA⃒ÐELSVIÐ⃒REGNA which translates to Queen Æthelswith. Little is known about Æthelswith, but according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle she married Burgred of Mercia in 853, lived abroad following his exile in 874 and died at Pavia in 888, while on a pilgrimage to Rome.

The Milton Brooch, Anglo-Saxon, 7th Century AD

The Milton Jewel is one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon brooches of the period, with a sophisticated design carried out in a combination of materials.The use of cloisons inlaid with garnet, filigree knot work decoration on gold sheet and shell bosses are typical of this type. The brooch was found in 1832 in a cemetery at Milton, west of Dorchester-on-Thames. There is another similar brooch in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which was found nearby.

On this day in 871 the Battle of Marton takes place.

Æthelred of Wessex was forced (along with his brother Alfred) into retreat following their pyrrhic victory against an army of Danish invaders at the Battle of Ashdown . The King had retreated to Basing in Hampshire, where he was again forced to battle, but this time defeated by the Great Heathen Army under the command of Ivar the Boneless.

It was the last of eight battles known to be fought by Æthelred against the Danes that year, and the defeated King is reported to have died on 15 April 871. Whether he died in battle, or as a result of wounds suffered in battle, is unclear. The site of the battle is unknown. Suggestions include Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset. The more westerly locations tend to be favoured because King Ethelred was buried in Wimborne Minster in Dorset shortly afterwards.

On the death of his brother, Alfred, succeeded to the throne of Wessex and inherited the burden of its defence. This was in despite of the fact that Æthelred left two under-age sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold. This was in accordance with the agreement that Æthelred and Alfred had made earlier that year in an assembly at Swinbeorg. The brothers had agreed that whichever of them outlived the other would inherit the personal property of their father, King Æthelwulf.

Many of the Anglo-Saxon kings subsequently began to capitulate to the Viking demands, and handed over land to the invading Norse settlers. In 876, the Northumbrian monarch Healfdene gave up his lands to them, and in the next four years they gained further land in the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia as well. King Alfred continued his conflict with the invading forces, but was driven back into Somerset in the south-west of his kingdom in 878.

Here the fugitive King was forced to take refuge and, among the marches of Athelney, Alfred had his rendezvous with fate, or, more precisely, some cakes…

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West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, Suffolk, England

via Amethinah on Flickr

“West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village is both an archaeological site and an open-air museum. Evidence for intermittent human habitation at the site stretches from the Mesolithic through the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British period, but it is best known for the small village that existed on the site between the mid-5th century and the early 7th century CE, during the early Anglo-Saxon period. During this time, around 70 sunken-featured buildings were constructed on the site.”

I truly enjoy learning about sites such as these. I find them to be a pleasant and eye-opening way to show how life was in some corner of our past. I particularly enjoy discovering about such a site because it truly gives a small window - although not a perfect one - on the ways of life from before our time.

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The York Helmet from the 9th Century on display at the Yorkshire Museum

This type of helmet is one of the few surviving examples in Europe. It is thought to be made for a member of Eoforwic’s Anglian royal family. The mans name, Oshere, is inscribed above the intricately-cast nose guard. On the writing reads “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God; and to all we say amen Oshere”

The helmet was found carefully buried in a wood-lined pit in Coppergate and is thought to be buried by the man himself perhaps after he retired.

England Across 2000 Years

6 maps that reflect political change, starting off with the very 1st map…

In 325 B.C a Greek explorer called Pytheas became the first person to map-out a distant an mysterious island, that he called Brettaniai, while in modern times its called Britain. From the ancient map above, the English part of Britain is shown for comparison to the newer maps below. This ancient map manages to show both the isles of Mann an Wight, plus the peninsula of south-west England. Upon the map is written the Brythonic Celt tribes that were also discovered.

The status in 150 A.D after a century of Roman rule. Hadrians wall is shown built in the north, thus creating what would later be named Scotland & England, by splitting the native Celtic people.

From roughly 500 to 878 A.D, England was fragmented into 7 Kingdoms. Each independent and at peace with their neighbours. Thus a feudal system existed.

After the Viking invasion wars ended in 878, the Danelaw became a segregated middle kingdom - but only until 927, as by then north & south England unified.

After the Northmen takeover, the new monarchy created the Doomsday book in 1086, from which the above population statistics are represented graphically.

By 1889, the medieval counties had been re-organised to reflect post-industrial society. Some of their boundaries were later redrawn the late 20th century. England is currently organised like as above, with elected politicians representing various districts within each country.

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Rare Anglo-Saxon Runic Ring, 9th-10th Century AD

There are only seven known rings of the Anglo-Saxon period (9th or 10th century) bearing runic inscriptions. This one is known as the Kingmoor Ring since it was found near Greymoor Hill in Kingmoor, England.

The inscription reads: ÆRKRIUFLTKRIURIÞONGLÆSTÆPON-TOL with the last three runes “TOL” being written on the inside of the ring. Another gold ring with an almost identical inscription was found at Bramham Moor in Yorkshire.

Various attempts to decipher the inscriptions on these two rings have not been successful. Three words occur in each case and the meaning is assumed to be magical or amuletic.

More about rings like these…