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

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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On this day in history, June 6, 1683 – The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, opens as the world’s first university museum. 

The Alfred Jewel is a piece of Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing work made of enamel and quartz enclosed in gold. It was discovered in 1693, and is now one of the most popular exhibits at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It has been dated to the late 9th century, in the reign of Alfred the Great and is inscribed “aelfred mec heht gewyrcan”, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The jewel was once attached to a rod, probably of wood, at its base. After decades of scholarly discussion, it is now “generally accepted” that the jewel’s function was to be the handle for a pointer stick for following words when reading a book. It is an exceptional and unusual example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery. (Wikipedia)

From our stacks: Frontispiece illustrations “The Jewel in four aspects with separate figure of enamel” from The Alfred Jewel: An Historical Essay By John Earle, M.A., LL.D. With Illustrations and Map. Oxford At the Clarendon Press, 1901.


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)



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.

Princess Aethelflaed, of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, was born over 1100 years ago in dark-age England, an was the daughter of Alfred, the first king of England. She eventually ruled Mercia in the English Midlands from 911 until her death. She was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, an was born around 870 in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The name Æthelflæd is old English an means ‘noble beauty’ ~ an it is pronounced ‘ef-el-fled’. 

After the Battle of Edington in 878 the foundation of England was born, as the Wessex-controlled western half of Mercia came under the rule of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, who accepted Alfred’s overlordship. In the mid-880s, Alfred sealed the strategic alliance between the surviving English kingdoms by marrying Æthelflæd to Æthelred. Æthelred and Æthelflæd fortified Worcester against vikings raids several battle. 

After her husbands health declined early in the next decade, Æthelflæd was mainly responsible for the government of the Mercian kingdom. After Æthelred died in 911, Æthelflæd then ruled Mercia as Lady of the Mercians. The accession of a female ruler in Mercia is described by historians as “one of the most unique events in early early-medieval history”. 

Alfred had built a network of fortified boroughs and in the 910s King Edward and Æthelflæd embarked on a programme of extending them. In 917 she sent an army to capture Derby, the first of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw to fall to the English, a victory described by historians as “her greatest triumph”. 

In 918 Leicester surrendered without a fight. Shortly afterwards the Viking leaders of York offered her their loyalty, but she died on 12 June 918 before she could take advantage of the offer, and a few months later Edward completed the conquest of Mercia. Æthelflæd was succeeded by her daughter Ælfwynn.

Historians agree that Æthelflæd was a great ruler who played an important part in the conquest of the Danelaw. She was praised by Anglo-Norman chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury, who described her as “a powerful accession, the delight of the kings subjects, the dread of his enemies, a woman of enlarged soul”. Like Queen Elizabeth I, she became a wonder to historians in later ages.

English actress Millie Brady plays her the historical tv-drama ‘The Last Kingdom’

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.   

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.