5 Takeaways from the British Library’s Exhibition: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

07 Nov 2018

In 410 AD, the Emperor Honorius sent a fateful message to the pleading Romano-British: ‘look to your own defences’. No longer would Rome aid them in their struggle against invading ‘barbarians’. The message marks the end of Roman rule in Britain, the end of an era. Yet it was also the beginning of the next.

Over the next 600 years, the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate England. This period of English history has sometimes been perceived as one of little cultural development and the Anglo-Saxons as an unsophisticated people. However, there is plenty of evidence to negate this view.

Recently History Hit was shown around British Library’s new exhibition – Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, World, War – by the curators Dr Claire Breay and Dr Alison Hudson. One of the main purposes of the exhibition is to reveal the sophistication of the Anglo-Saxons and bust the myth that this was a time lacking culture and advancement. Here are 5 of the main takeaways from the exhibition.

1. Anglo-Saxon England had extensive connections with the world

The Anglo-Saxons had strong links with various powerful, foreign realms: Irish kingdoms, the Byzantine Empire and the Carolingian Empire to name a few.

A surviving gold dinar of the Mercian King Offa (famous for building his namesake Dyke), for instance, is inscribed with two languages. In its middle are inscribed two Latin words, rex Offa, or ‘King Offa’. Yet on the rim of the coin you can also see words written in Arabic, directly copied from contemporary coinage of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad, a fascinating insight into the connections Offa’s Mercia had with the Abbasid Caliphate in the late 8th century.

Even the smallest surviving objects reveal the wide-ranging and frequent foreign contacts Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had with distant realms.

The gold imitation dinar of Offa. The dinar is copied from contemporary coinage of the Abbasid Caliph, Al Mansur. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

2. Anglo-Saxon scientific knowledge wasn’t all bad

Among the many beautifully-adorned religious books that survive are several works that reveal Anglo-Saxon scientific knowledge.

The Venerable Bede rightly argued in his work that the Earth was spherical, and some surviving Saxon medicinal remedies have been proven as effective cures – including the use of garlic, wine and oxgall for an eye salve (although we would not advise you try this at home).

Still, the Saxon belief in magic and mythical beasts was never too far away from these scientific discoveries. They also had medicinal remedies for elves, devils and night goblins – examples of there being little distinction between magic and medicine in Anglo-Saxon times.

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3. Some manuscripts provide precious glimpses into Anglo-Saxon society

The beautifully decorated Gospel Books reveal much about how the Anglo-Saxon elite associated power with literature, but certain texts also provide precious glimpses into everyday Saxon life.

Among these texts is one that provides an insight into estate management – Saxon style. Written in old English, it records someone renting a fen on Ely Abbey’s estates for 26,275 eels (the Fens were famed for its eels in Saxon times).

This surviving manuscript records someone renting a fen from Ely Abbey for 26,275 eels.

A Breton gospel book called the Bodmin Gospels also reveals a precious glimpse into Anglo-Saxon society. The Bodmin Gospels was in Cornwall by the 10th and 11th centuries and includes certain pages of erased texts. For many years no-one knew what the Saxon clerks had originally written on these pages.

Over the last few years, however, Dr Christina Duffy and Dr David Pelteret have conducted experiments at the British Library using UV light to reveal the original writing. The uncovered text documented the freeing of slaves in a Cornish town: a certain Gwenengiwrth is freed, along with her son Morcefres.

The discovery sheds some precious light on Cornwall during Anglo-Saxon times, something that is otherwise underrepresented in the surviving sources.

Christina Duffy’s and David Pelteret’s research on the erased manumissions has bubbled our knowledge of topics otherwise underrepresented in the surviving (West-Saxon-elite-dominated) sources: Cornwall, people with Celtic Cornish names, women, people from the lower levels of society. It proves discoveries can still be made in the Library.

Dr Alison Hudson

The uncovered text of the Bodmin Gospels, revealing information about manumissions in 10th and 11th century Cornwall. © The British Library.

4. Anglo-Saxon religious art was richly detailed

In numerous surviving gospel books are richly-decorated illustrations, created with painstaking detail. The Codex Amiatinus for instance, a giant 8th century Latin Bible, includes an elaborate, full-page illumination depicting the Old Testament prophet Ezra writing in front of a cupboard full of books. The illumination is coloured with various paints including purple, a colour associated with the elites since Roman times.

Recently excavated in 2003 at Lichfield, the sculpture depicts the Archangel Gabriel holding a plant out to a missing figure, believed to be the Virgin Mary. What is most fascinating however is the quality of the statue’s preservation.

Away from the surviving literature, the Lichfield Angel is another example of well decorated religious art. Having only recently been discovered, traces of a reddish colour are still visible on the Archangel Gabriel’s wing, providing a valuable clue into how this statue originally looked at the turn of the ninth century. Like the statues of classical antiquity, it appears the Anglo-Saxons adorned their religious sculptures with expensive paints.

5. The Domesday Book adds the final nail in the coffin to the Dark Ages myth

The Domesday book hammers home the wealth, organisation and splendour of late Anglo-Saxon England, the final nail in the coffin of the Dark Ages myth.

The Domesday Book was comprised under the orders of William the Conqueror some 20 years after his victory at Hastings. It records the productive assets of England, settlement by settlement, landowner by landowner. Many shires, towns and villages mentioned in Domesday book remain familiar today and prove these places existed long before 1066. Guildford, for instance, appears in the Domesday Book as Gildeford.

Three audit dates were used to collect data for the survey: at the time of the survey in 1086, after William’s victory at Hastings in 1066 and the day of Edward the Confessor’s death in 1066. This last audit provides a complete insight into the great landed wealth of Anglo-Saxon England immediately prior to the Norman arrival.

The exquisite detail preserved in the Domesday Book reveals that 11th century Anglo-Saxon England was experiencing the golden age of prosperity. No wonder so many claimants desired the English throne in 1066.

The British Library’s exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, World, War (curated by Dr Claire Breay and Dr Alison Hudson) is open until Tuesday 19 February 2019.

Top image credit: © Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.