Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – The Exhibition.

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.

Sutton Hoo belt buckle Image: Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31937690

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.

Initial from the Book of Darrow – Image Public Domain

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.

Image Public Domain

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.

St Dunstan praying before Christ. Translated, the text reads Remember, I beg you, merciful Christ, to protect Dunstan, and do not permit the storms of the underworld to swallow me up. Image Public Domain

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.

Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria

Today is a bank holiday (in some places) so I thought I would talk about a recent holiday, or research trip as writers call them.

When I first started writing I made up the places where events took place, I knew exactly what they looked like. Unfortunately I then tried to find the location “in real life”. It made for some interesting holidays and was surprisingly successful. However I am growing up and have started to become more organised. I am visiting before I write – but how useful is it?

I have set part of my second book in Northumberland, at Bebbenburh (Bamburgh). The first problem was that I wanted to visit in autumn, but my husband insisted we go in August. Actually August is autumn according to the Anglo-Saxon calendar, but I was thinking howling winds and lashing rain. Perhaps I would be lucky with the weather – I wasn’t. We had the most pleasant weather imaginable; warm and sunny.

We had booked four nights at the Blue Bell Hotel in Belford. It was very comfortable and the food was good. We didn’t even need a clock as the village church was next door and struck the hour, every hour, even though the night.

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

View from our room.

View from our room.

We had planned a walk for the next day, but it was a bit cloudy. Since the forecast was for sun later, we decided to postpone the walk and drove the few miles to Bamburgh. We parked in the (free) car park and walked up to the entrance. We had explored the castle some years ago, so we intended an external circuit, for me to soak up the atmosphere. We were early and I don’t think it had opened anyway. We peered through gates until we came to a dead-end. We found a path down to the beach and the tide was out. I had a nice paddle and took lots of photos of the castle silhouetted against the dramatic sky. I started planning a scene of my hero galloping along the wide sands, with his dog. First mistake – it seems that the wide sandy beach wasn’t there at the time – scratch that scene!

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Lindesfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Lindisfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Of course I already knew that the castle would not have looked like it does now. It would have been smaller with a wooden Hall and other buildings surrounded by a wooden palisade. At least that is how it was originally built, but might the walls have been replaced by stone by Byrhtnoth’s time (the tenth century)? More research needed! I was sure where the entrance had been. Anyone who has read Matthew Harffy’s book The Serpent Sword (and if you haven’t, why not? Buy it here for only 99p) will remember the opening scene of Beobrand’s arrival by ship (somewhere near the bouncy castle) and entry up the narrow steps – in wind and rain, of course! Interestingly, when I re-read that piece, I noticed that neither the width of the beach nor the composition of the walls is mentioned. A good lesson. If you don’t know the answer, leave it to your readers to imagine it – if they get it wrong it is their fault, not yours!

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

After a coffee and a toasted teacake at the Copper Kettle Tearoom in the village, we visited the local church, originally founded by St Aiden in 635, the first church to be built in Northumbria. The reredos, which dates from the end of the 19th century contains images of many Northumbrian saints.

St Aiden's Church, Bamburgh

St Aiden’s Church, Bamburgh

Reredos in St Aidens Church

Reredos in St Aiden’s Church

As we left Bamburgh the sun came out. We headed inland to start our planned walk. We had found a suitable walk online to St Cuthbert’s Cave and round the surrounding area. It included part of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance footpath from Melrose to Lindisfarne marking events in the life of St Cuthbert.

The cave is supposed to be the place where monks carrying the body of the saint rested on their journey from Lindisfarne Abbey after it was raided by Vikings in 875. The bones eventually arrived in Durham several years later.

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthberts Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthbert’s Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

St Cuthbert's Cave

St Cuthbert’s Cave

Owned by the National Trust - spot the error!

Owned by the National Trust – spot the error!

"Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left" Would you? We did - quickly.

“Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left” Would you? We did – quickly.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The views were worth it. Linisfarne in the distance

The views were worth it, though. Lindisfarne in the distance

After the walk, we returned to our hotel. It had been a long day and there would be another tomorrow.

To be continued