Writing early medieval England: Tracing the first echoes of Anglo-Saxon voices

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This early anglo-Saxon urn from Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire, is one of only around 20 objects marked with runes known from England that pre-date AD 650. (IMAGE: The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.)
How did the kingdoms of early medieval England evolve into a single nation?A new exhibition at the British Library combines artefacts and manuscripts to tell the story of the Anglo-Saxons in their own words. Carly Hilts reports.

In the early 7th century, an Anglo- Saxon craftsman set about repairing the damaged lower panels of an ornate gold disc brooch. This was a strikingly beautiful object, adorned with complex patterns of gleaming red garnets, that was probably made in Kent, where other similar composite brooches are known. Fixing such a fine ornament would require all the skill and artistry at the medieval metalworker’s disposal. Unfortunately, he bodged the job – the marks of his clumsy repair can still be clearly seen on the object, which has survived the centuries thanks to it later being buried in a woman’s grave in Norfolk, in the late 7th century. (Clearly someone still valued the brooch, despite its marred appearance.) The craftsman too seems to have been happy with his work, proudly signing his name on the back of the artefact in a short runic inscription that reads ‘Luda repaired the brooch’.

Was it his workmanship that he was so proud of, though, or his literacy? Although the early medieval period would later see the flowering of a sophisticated English literary culture (of which more anon), the early Anglo- Saxons have left precious few surviving written sources to examine today. Yet we can still find traces of their words in the archaeological record: around 20 objects bearing runic inscriptions that pre-date c.AD 650 have been found in England so far.

On the front of the Harford Farm Brooch, a clumsy repair to one of the lower panels can be seen. (IMAGE: Norwich Castle Museum)

Luda’s brooch (better known as the ‘Harford Farm brooch’) provides one of these fleeting echoes; another example, earlier still, is a funerary urn from the great early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire. Many of the more than 1,800 urns that have been excavated from the site are intricately decorated with incised or stamped patterns, but this vessel is unique in that its upper surface is also marked with a string of runic letters, cut into the clay while it was still soft. Dating to c.450-500, this is one of the oldest-known records of the English language. As for the runes themselves, they spell out a woman’s name, ‘Sïþæbæd’, as well as nine more letters whose meaning is more obscure, although they seem to include the Old English word hlæw (‘tomb’).

Assuming that Sïþæbæd is the name of the deceased person whose remains were consigned to the Lincolnshire soil within this vessel, thanks to this fragmentary text we can at least ‘meet’ one identifiable individual among the anonymous legions of Loveden Hill dead. Might we also be able to gaze into an Anglo-Saxon face, in the form of ‘Spong Man’? This appealing little figurine, sitting with his (or her – despite the object’s nickname, there are no definitive signifiers of its subject’s sex) head in his hands, would have topped the lid of another funerary vessel, although it had become separated from its urn by the time of discovery. It was excavated at Spong Hill in Norfolk, England’s largest-known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. Spong Man dates to the early/mid-5th century and is a unique find from Anglo-Saxon England, from which very few 3D representations of the human form are known, although intriguing parallels have been identified in Germany.

On the reverse of the Harford Farm Brooch, the goldsmith has signed his name in runes. (IMAGE: Norwich Castle Museum)

Perhaps, then, we might today see the figurine as a personification of the enduring North Sea connections that were established during the 5th and 6th centuries – cultural links that form one of the key themes in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, a new exhibition recently opened at the British Library (see ‘Further information’ box on p.41), in which all three of the above artefacts are featured. Its displays encompass all six centuries from the immediate post-Roman period to the Norman Conquest, and showcase numerous historically important (and often beautifully illuminated) manuscripts from the library’s own collections alongside a wealth of loaned artefacts. The following items, combining the written word and artistic skill, have been selected from those on display to help trace the origins of the Anglo-Saxons, the evolution of their kingdoms (and the far-reaching cultural and commercial connections that they enjoyed), and the forging of England as a single nation.


The earliest Anglo-Saxon voices ring out in runes, but it is the reintroduction of the Latin language and its Roman alphabet at the turn of the 6th century that is the game-changer in enabling us to trace the development of Anglo-Saxon England in detail. In the post-Roman period, Latin returned to southern England via Continental missionaries led by St Augustine, and Kent seems to have been one of the earliest kingdoms to adopt these new ways.

Sixth-century Kent was wealthy, and its location close to the Channel made it ideally placed to take full advantage of the opportunities that Continental connections brought. It was also particularly receptive to the missionaries’ message as its king, Æthelberht, was married to a Christian princess from Francia. By 601 Æthelberht had become the first English king to convert, and Canterbury had been established as England’s first bishopric.

Top of the pots: dating to the early/mid-5th century, the rather charismatic figurine known as ‘Spong Man’ decorates the lid of an Anglo-Saxon cremation urn from Spong Hill in Norfolk. (IMAGE: Norwich Castle Museum)

Quite how far-reaching these newly forged links quickly became can be seen in the foundation of a school – and renowned intellectual centre – at Canterbury in c.AD 670 by Archbishop Theodore, a man from Tarsus in Asia Minor. He was joined there by Abbot Hadrian from North Africa (Bede describes him as vir natione Afir) – it is to this latter individual that the presence in Canterbury of a 4th-century North African manuscript is attributed. Included in the British Library displays, this is a collection of letters by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (d. 258).

England’s pagan practices do not seem to have required written records – or, at least, none have survived – but with medieval Christianity came a fully formed manuscript tradition. Kingdoms like Kent did not only use their newly acquired skills to produce beautiful religious texts (many of which show clear Mediterranean influences in layout and style of text and decorations) but also legal and administrative documents that give us vivid insights into the organisation of these early kingdoms as well as the aspirations of their rulers.

The law code devised by Æthelbehrt of Kent – written in Old English, though using the Roman alphabet rather than runes – is the earliest datable work composed in the Anglo- Saxon language, and the first record of English law (though it survives only as a later copy in the 12th-century Textus Roffensis from Rochester). The earliest known charter surviving in its original form also comes from Kent: this is a land grant dating from the reign of Hlothhere (r. 673-685).

The earliest English charter surviving in its original form: this document dates from the reign of Hlothhere of Kent (AD 673-685). (IMAGE: British Library Board)

Kent was not the only kingdom to gain early influence, however. The spectacular wealth displayed in the royal burials at Sutton Hoo eloquently attests that 7th-century East Anglia was also a force to be reckoned with. Among the famous finds excavated from the Mound 1 ship burial are objects that speak of great artistic sophistication – but beyond the goldand- garnet glamour of some of the grave goods, there are also clues to other, more cosmopolitan, interests. Silver tableware from Byzantium, a bronze bowl of Coptic or eastern Mediterranean origin, and Levantine textiles all bear witness to the power and reach of the East Anglian court.

Yet while elaborate burials like these seem to have been something of a last pagan hurrah before the kingdom was Christianised, the intricate interlaced animal imagery on some of the Mound 1 ornaments – such as the great gold belt-buckle, which appears in the exhibition – remained fashionable into the Conversion period. Complex patterns of fantastic beasts, snakes, and birds with interwoven bodies can be seen in early gospel books from Britain and Ireland.


To the north, another 7th-century region was very much in the ascendant, and by c.660 Northumbria could convincingly claim to be the most powerful kingdom in England. While still maintaining links with Rome, its rulers also welcomed contact from the Celtic church. Irish missionaries entered the kingdom via the influential monastery of Iona, and in 635 King Oswald (r. 634-642) had given one of their monks, Aidan, the island of Lindisfarne. The kingdom became an intellectual and creative powerhouse, culminating in the foundation of the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the late 7th century. This institution is best known as the home of the chronicler Bede, one of our most-important sources for the early Anglo-Saxon period, but from its beginnings Wearmouth-Jarrow was a celebrated centre of scholarship boasting one of the finest libraries in Europe. This was furnished by its first two abbots, Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith (d. 716), who travelled to the Continent and brought back manuscripts and people from northern Europe, Italy, and Ireland.

The emphasis that Ceolfrith placed on scholarship is demonstrated by the largest book on display in the exhibition: the mighty Codex Amiatinus. Representing the earliest complete Latin Bible, it weighs 34kg and – we were told at the exhibition launch – needed two people to lift it into place among the displays. The production of such a weighty tome (unusually for its time, it contains both Old and New Testaments) would have been a huge and very expensive undertaking, requiring numerous scribes and reams of parchment – the c.1,030 pages of the Codex Amiatinus are thought to have been created using more than 500 skins.

Weighing a hefty 34kg, the Codex Amiatinus is the earliest complete Latin Bible known. It was made
in Northumbria. (IMAGE: Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)

The book represents an amazing achievement in its own right – yet it was originally one of three produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow. One has not survived to the present day, though a number of leaves from the third do survive and are thought to come from the ‘Great Bible’ recorded at Worcester in the 11th century. This tome is known to have been preserved at least in part until the 16th century, whereupon some of its pages (displayed in the exhibition) were reused to wrap estate records belonging to the Willoughby family of Nottinghamshire. By contrast, the Codex Amiatinus has been carefully looked after in Italy – it was taken to Rome by a mission led by Ceolfrith (although he died en route), and subsequently made its way to Tuscany – it returns to the UK for the first time in over 1,300 years as part of the exhibition.

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 346. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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