North European Funeral and Burial Rites in the Early Middle Ages

Emma Irving

4 mins

31 Jul 2018

The customs and rituals for the people of Britain in the early Middle Ages were a mixture of the practices of a number of cultures.

Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons shared similar ritual beliefs as is reflected in their burial grounds, which archaeologists are still discovering today. Many of the traditions have their origins in the similar religion of the northern European tribes, Germanic or Scandinavian.

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Anglo-Saxon burials and barrows

The dead of Anglo-Saxon tribes were either cremated or buried. A great deal of the evidence available for the Anglo-Saxons’ way of life comes from their burial sites. Particularly amongst the wealthy, these burial sites are often filled with artefacts which have been vital to understanding the people and the times in which they lived.

People of importance were often buried with their possessions, as it was believed that they needed certain things to take to the afterlife. For example, one Anglo-Saxon, King Raedwald, was placed in a full-length ship along with his most expensive possessions: a ceremonial helmet, gold, spare clothes, food, furs and even musical instruments.

Many archaeologists believe that people were buried with a ship because their religion required them to use some form of transport to get to the afterlife. In other burial sites wagons have been found as well as ship of varying sizes; some people were even buried with a horse.

Anglo-Saxons were often buried with everything they would need after death. In this case the dead woman's family thought she would need her cow on the other side.

Anglo-Saxons were often buried with everything they would need after death. In this case the dead woman’s family thought she would need her cow in the afterlife.

Pagan burials such as these were sometimes marked with a stone with a rune or runes carved upon it, but all were made into barrows. Barrows were mounds of earth on top of the grave. The size of the mound symbolised the importance of the person buried therein.

This is a tradition that permeates Saxon culture from the earlier culture of the native Britons. These prehistoric peoples, by then living on the fringes of the island, had built large barrows that still can be seen today. Many believed them to be the homes of dragons and their hordes of gold.

Viking longboat funerals

A classic image of a Viking burial is the burning longship floating out into the sea mist; a familiar image in popular culture. There is little evidence to suggest that the ship was launched, though some argue that this is problematic to deny (it would be hard to find archaeological evidence if it was the custom).

What we do have is the discovery of some burial sites that are similar to the Saxons, and a primary source in the form of a written account by a witness to the funeral ritual of a Norse chieftain in the 10th century.

A Viking burial, as depicted in the imagination of the 19th century artist.

Sacrifice and fire

The writer describes a ceremony that took almost two weeks. The deceased was first placed in a temporary grave for ten days while the preparations for the cremation were made. A pyre was readied, made from the chieftain’s own longship which was pulled onto the shore and placed on a wooden platform.

A bed was made in the centre of the vessel where the chieftain was then placed, and a tent erected above it. Around it was placed many of the chieftain’s belongings.

Here is where the similarities with the Saxon burial ends. Next, one of the man’s female thralls or slaves was asked to ‘volunteer’ to join him in the afterlife, to continue to serve him and take messages from his men and all who loved him to the other side.

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Sacrifice was more of a common ritual with Viking burials than Saxon. In many burial sites archaeologists have found evidence of human and bestial sacrifice by examining skeletal remains. After the woman had been killed and placed on the ship with her former master, the chieftain’s family set the boat ablaze.

Similarities with Saxon customs arise again in the preservation and marking of the cremation site in the account. A mound or barrow was built over the ashes and a piece of wood was placed with the name of the dead man carved into it.

How Christianity changed things

This golden cross broach was found in the burial site of a 16-year-old girl from the seventh century AD. It was found amongst many other items, revealing the melding of Christian and Pagan tradition at this time.

This golden cross broach was found in the burial site of a 16-year-old girl from the seventh century AD. It was found amongst many other items, revealing the melding of Christian and Pagan tradition at this time.

These customs became more intermingled over time and evolved. Some, like human sacrifice, became less and less popular, while burials became the norm. The arrival of Christianity into these cultures and subsequent conversion of the people lead to many changes in the funeral process but certain pagan rituals continued, like placing a token in the grave or money for the after life.

Christianity would change much in the old pagan world, but the deep cultural trends would live on for many years to come.