Apologies for the delay of this post. It was left unfinished when the publication of Bright Axe intervened.
Anyone who has the slightest interest in Anglo-Saxon history will have heard about the exhibition that has been running at the British Library, and those within reach of London will have been to see it. If you didn’t make it, you missed a treat; an event which, some say, will never occur again.
Why is it so important? Because it brought together what is probably every important Anglo-Saxon document, to tell the story of this important period, commonly referred to as the Dark Ages. One example is the Codex Amiatinus: one of three bibles made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the eighth century, it was taken to Rome in 716 – and has been there ever since. It had come home after 1300 years, and will probably never come again.
The exhibition starts at the beginning, with the arrival of the people who became the Anglo-Saxons. This is a time of few written records, we have only objects found in graves. I was intrigued by the mysterious figure: Spong Man, a 5th century urn lid, from a time when cremation was the favoured method of burial. It is reminiscent of the Egyptian ivory statuette of Khufu – perhaps it was just the strange hat.
(I should point out here that photography was forbidden in the British Library. I have added links to images on their website)
Other objects in this section were gold pendants from Binham and a brooch from Hartford Farm near Norwich. Then the St Augustine Gospels, sent by Pope Gregory himself, at the end of the sixth century, and the law-code of King Aethelberht of Kent. The latter a later copy, but showing the first example of English law.
The second section, Kingdoms and Conversion, or as I now call it Bling and Bibles, covered the creation of the familiar Kingdoms and the connections that developed with the outside world. The bling included a handful of well known treasures from Sutton Hoo (the sword belt and gold belt buckle) and the Staffordshire Hoard. In fact the slow moving queue to reach some of the exhibits reminded me of the line around Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, to see the Staffordshire Hoard for the first time, with the mud still on it. My favourite piece of jewelry, the Winfarthing Pendant was here and to illustrate the the richness of this exhibition, there is not even a picture of this object on the BL website. See here instead.
If anything, the bibles part was even more beautiful. I could have spent hours studying the patterns of the Book of Darrow. Perhaps not actually Anglo-Saxon, it might have come from Ireland or Iona, but it bears a resemblance to the jewelry. There were other gospels, from Durham and the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. I marvelled at other, less spectacular documents: Wealdhere’s Letter, the oldest surviving letter written on parchment from the Christian West, the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict, and the small leather covered book that is the St Cuthbert Gospel. It is the earliest European book with an original, intact binding and was found beside St Cuthbert, when his coffin was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104. I hung over it, probably the closest I will ever come to a saint.
Mercia and its Neighbours, the next section, covered the 8th century, Aethelbald and Offa (no Penda?). More gospels and charters, and coins: one a (bad) copy of an Arabic dinar stamped with Offa’s name, which shows the importance of these coins in international trade. The other is a silver penny of Offa’s wife, Cynethryth, the only Anglo-Saxon queen to be so honoured. The highlight was The Lichfield Angel, a limestone fragment of a carving found in excavations at Lichfield Cathedral.
In The Rise of the West Saxons, more charters mark the change in the balance of power The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documents the reigns of Aethelberht and Aethelred and the accession of Alfred. One document (Manuscript A) was originally written during King Alfred’s reign. There were (later) copies of Asser’s Life of King Alfred and the Treaty between King Alfred and King Guthrum that set up the Danelaw and the exact boundaries between England and the Danes. Another document, King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care, is attributed to the king himself.
I imagined it as one of those documents that Alfred was perusing when interrupted by Uhtred in The Last Kingdom. The highlight of this section was the Alfred Jewel itself. So many times I had seen it, in pictures or on TV programs, but this was the first time, in the flesh. Beautifully lit in its own separate case, I had time to really look at it. It looked different, I don’t know how, but it was worth the trip just to see this.
With The Emergence of England, I was entering “my” period and the excitement grew. I saw the famous picture of King Aethelstan presenting the Life of St Cuthbert, in the very book. There was a charter of the same king, in which it was possible to pick out the words “King of the English” and “King of Britain”
It was at this point that I originally abandoned this blog post. It was also around this point that the memories of my visit become a little blurred. I started to drift from one exhibit to another without really seeing them.
I turned away from yet another document to come face to face with Matthew Harffy, fellow Anglo-Saxon author of the Bernicia Chronicles. I had seen on Twitter that he was visiting the same day, but didn’t expect to meet him as his time slot was an hour after mine. That was when I realised how long I had been in there. We had a quick chat and then he headed for the exit. I decided to do the same.
But first there was one more manuscript I wanted to see. I had already accepted that I would find nothing to do with Byrhtnoth. After all, the original copy of the Battle of Maldon was destroyed in a fire many years ago. He might have been included in a list of names at the bottom of some document, but was I prepared to search every single one, just in case?
No, the document I was looking for concerned St Dunstan: an image from the Glastonbury Classbook. This was written by St Dunstan himself when he was at Glastonbury and the small figure of a monk kneeling at the feet of Christ is supposed to be a self portrait of the saint himself.
In the end I found the image. Dunstan was alive at the same time as Byrhtnoth. They would have probably have met, spoken together on many occasions. It is the nearest I will ever get to my character. Even this had added interest as displayed next to it was a very similar illustration from another book, demonstrating how books, or monks, must have travelled great distances to study, and copy, other works.
That was it. The exhibition seemed to break up a bit with no overall plan – or perhaps it was just me. I glanced at the occasional document and passed through a section on the Doomsday Book without stopping. Normans? Not interested.
I emerged into the bright light of the British Library, dazed and exhausted. I purchased a copy of the accompanying book, collected my coat and returned to Euston Station and the train home.
It was an experience that I will remember for a long time, and it also left me with an interesting thought.
At the start of the exhibition’s run, I saw a quote from someone who had been to see it. I can’t remember who it was or where I read it, but it was something along the lines of it being like visiting old friends. My reaction was that this must be some “expert” who had studied the period, had intimate knowledge of the documents.
But now I had a similar feeling. With the number of documents surviving from the so called Dark Ages so small, there were so many I had seen in books or online, even in television programmes, that they were, in effect, old friends.
It also made me realise that, as a non historian, I know more than I thought about the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.