On this day in 1939, a landowner on the East Coast asked a bloke to have a look at some mounds. The rest is not (as they say) history, it’s archaeology.
Until the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sutton Hoo ship burial was by far the richest find from Anglo-Saxon England in terms of weight of gold and jewels. Archaeologically, it is probably still the richest: although the Staffordshire Hoard, on display in Birmingham Museum and elsewhere in the Midlands, contains more objects, equivalent to the melting down of about 5,000 gold tremisses, the vastly greater context of Sutton Hoo makes it more interpretable—for now at least.
In honour of Sutton Hoo day, here are six things about the Anglo-Saxons that may surprise you. Or they may not.
1 They did/didn’t have horns on their helmets
At the back end of the 19th century, horned helmets were used for a production of Wagner’s ring cycle, and the notion that Anglo-Saxons and/or Vikings had horned on their heads stuck in popular culture. Equally popularly, the intelligentsia have been telling each other for years that they didn’t.
What’s the truth? Well, we certainly don’t have any Anglo-Saxon helmets with horns on them, though there are some pre-Roman helmets which you can look at in the British Museum which have things a bit like horns, very like the helmets you see in Asterix comics. However, before the intelligentsia back themselves on the back in a QI sort of way, we actually only have three to five Anglo-Saxon helmets to go on. There’s a reason why you see the Sutton Hoo helmet again and again and again on pictures of things: it’s prettier than the Coppergate helmet, from York. For others, we have bits of helmets. The Staffordshire Hoard may (and probably does) include bits of one, or perhaps even more.
What we do have is pictures of a man in a helmet with horns. These are easiest to see on the British Museum reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet, but they are genuinely there on the helmet pieces itself, and elsewhere. We could easily argue that these are pictures of Woden, and the horns are for him only. However, in the absence of much in the way of helmet finds, that’s one conclusion too far
Verdict: it is entirely incorrect to say ‘they did have horns’ or ‘they didn’t have horns’. The evidence is ambiguous.
2 They drove the British out of England/they didn’t
DNA studies indicate that there is still plenty of Britishness left in the English populations. As interestingly, what you call ‘truce’ when playing as children (‘pax’, ‘arley-barley’, etc), when mapped, as the Opies did across the whole of Britain, comes out with patterns remarkably similar to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which come out with patterns remarkably similar to the earlier, British, kingdoms. What’s certainly true is that by the Battle of the Winwaed in 655, when Northumbrian Oswiu defeated the Mercian/Welsh alliance under Penda and Cadafael, British sovereign power was confined to what is now north and west Scotland, Wales, Devon, and Cornwall.
There is plenty of evidence of intermarriage at the top-table. Oswiu’s first (or second) wife was the daughter of the king of Rheged, in a late (and possibly non-factual) source it is suggested that Anglian Penda’s sister married the Welsh king Cadwaladr. A subsequent king of the West Saxons had a British name so similar to Cadwaladr’s that it appears at least one writer mixed the two up, and cross-attributed the stories. Oswiu’s nephew is described as ‘Talorcan, king of the Picts’.
Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies are a nightmare, and it’s not always clear whether similarly named persons are the same individual. In some cases, there are early documentary genealogies which entirely conflict with each other. Complex tables can be constructed positing large numbers of step-relationships, but it’s also possible that some of the genealogies are simply wrong.
Nonetheless, the best evidence suggests that there was a significant degree of intermarriage between the Germanic tribes and the British. Whether the ‘conquest’ was only by an elite that essentially supplanted the previous nobility, or was a much larger migration, is something which is still being discussed.
Verdict: DNA mapping and genealogies say they intermarried, but how much it was a conquest, how much a peaceful migration, and how much a mixture of the two is unclear.
3 The Anglo-Saxons worshipped one-eyed Odin (Woden), with his eight-legged steed and the same pantheon as the Vikings/no they didn’t
You probably know the answer to this one, but the internet is awash with people who don’t. If you were to check your copy of Hilde Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, you would note repeated caveats that it isn’t possible to read back from our extensive knowledge of Norse religion into what the Anglo-Saxons believed before they became Christian.
Essentially, we have a magnificent collection of Norse mythology and Norse-religious sagas and stories. However, although they certainly reach back to times before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to Britain (from around CE 415, give or take a pinch of salt), even the oldest poems appear to have been steadily improved and altered along the way. Hamðismál, one of the poems in what is known as the Poetic Edda, begins with the claim that ‘few things are so ancient that this is not twice as ancient’, and then relates the tag-end of a story which can be reliably linked to a historic event which took place around CE 438. However, the checkable details of this event occupy about two lines in the poem. The rest—and the rest of the cycle—grew up over the 800 or so years between then and when the poem was recorded in the Codex Regius.
By contrast, our collection of reliably pre-Christian elements in Anglo-Saxon poetry comes down to a few lines scattered here and there. We have no Angl0-Saxon manuscripts from the pagan period, and the vast bulk of what we do have, even if its origins was in pagan times, was at the very least retranscribed into Late West Saxon in the time of Alfred or afterwards. To what extent were pagan practices removed from Beowulf? We don’t know. It is a poem about the pre-Christian era—in fact, what is datable puts it around the same time as Hamðismál—but the extant recension is quite clearly from a Christian hand: Grendel is described as a monster of the race of Cain, a Christian (or, at least, non-pagan) scop sings of how the world came to be.
We do have some parallels for some Norse myths, most especially Weland, but the literary references are confined to such back-handers as ‘Woden made idols, but Christ made the world’.
It’s therefore very tempting to simply “say ‘Woden’ is the same as ‘Oðin’, ‘Thunor’ is the same as ‘Thor’, the stories are the same, and so are the myths.”
Even if we were going to be very careful about such things on evidential grounds, the depictions of Woden should tell us that the dissimilarities go down to a fairly fundamental level.
Oðin is always described as the one-eyed god: he gave his other eye for acquiring wisdom. It’s probably a reasonable assumption that stories which are ‘early’ in Oðin’s career are also, by and large, earlier stories. That particular story comes right at the start. However, our Anglo-Saxon depictions—if the horned figure is, in fact, Woden—have him always with both eyes. More pertinently, we don’t have Anglo-Saxon depictions of a one-eyed god at all.
Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited is probably about the best contemporary work on Anglo-Saxon paganism. Unfortunately for those looking for the cut-and-dried, it is a book which poses more questions than it answers. There is much scope for work to be done.
Verdict: Although we can be pretty certain that ‘Oðin’ and ‘Woden’ were originally the same mythological figure, almost everything we ‘know’ about Oðin actually comes from after the Anglo-Saxon pagan period.
4 The Anglo-Saxons spoke Anglo-Saxon/Old English/neither/both
This one’s a bit of a trick. As anyone who faced the joys of first year Old English during the 1980s or before will remember, Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer and Anglo-Saxon Reader were the blessed introductions to the language. Mercifully they’ve now been replaced by Bruce Mitchell’s Guide to Old English, or even newer tomes. Aside from the fact that Henry Sweet was working with a 19th century view of language (the primer was published in 1882), he also ‘translated’ his Late West Saxon sources into Early West Saxon, for no readily apparent reason (though it always used to make a good Finals question). The Germanic philologists used to like to break everything into threes, and English philology followed suit, giving us Old English, Middle English and Modern English. For some reason, we’ve stuck with that, so pretty much everyone since Sweet has talked about ‘Old English’ rather than ‘Anglo-Saxon’. This is itself not devoid of difficulties, because there are many people who think that ‘Old English’ is the language of Shakespeare, which it absolutely is not.
Verdict: it’s a matter of terminology, but ‘Old English’ is now the accepted term.
5 The Anglo-Saxon world was male dominated
Almost every written source we have to do with the Anglo-Saxons made its way through monasteries at one time or another. Monasteries were the places where books were kept and copied. We tend to see this as a male-dominated world. Equally, the heroic fights of Beowulf and our other extant poems, such as the Battle of Maldon, would suggest that it was a man’s world.
However, a deeper look suggests that things were not quite thus. Anglo-Saxon England had a number of double abbeys, comprising men and women, presided over by an abbess. The powers of abbesses were not quite settled at that point. Later canon rulings suggest that some, at least, had ‘usurped’ some of the powers normally available only to male priests. We might want to treat some of the stories of abbesses with a pinch of dried-brine: several were said to have preserved their virginity through one, or even two, marriages, before becoming abbesses afterwards. This would seem to be a bit of ret-conning: some, at least, were queens who gave birth to royal children, before eventually settling into abbeys either as a second career or, possibly, a safe retirement. Evidently previous marriage was not regarded as a barrier.
Hild of Whitby (or, more exactly, Streoneshalh) presided over the synod of Whitby (or Streoneshalh—you got it) which determined the all-important question of the date of Easter, and, more importantly, brought Anglo-Saxon Christianity into the Roman fold.
It’s generally been assumed that poets were male, but this is a rather naive assumption. Poems such as the Wanderer and the Seafarer are written from a male, warrior, perspective, but there is no particular reason to believe that they were written by the person who is speaking them in the poem. The Wife’s Lament has a female protagonist.
Once we uncouple ‘gender of narrator’ from ‘gender of author’, there are very few entirely gender-specific poems in the Old English canon. Bede relates that Caedmon wrote the hymn by his name, but, aside from that, most early poetry is anonymous.
Both Maxims I and Maxims II (as they are known) give an impression of a strong understanding of what it was to be female.
In Maxims I, we have:
léoht linda bord, léof will-cuma,
Frísan wífe, þonne flota standeþ;
biþ his ?éol cumen and hire ?eorl to hám,
ágen ?t-giefa, and héo hine inn laðaþ,
wæsceþ his wárig hrægl and him seleþ wæde níewe,
lihþ him on lande þæs his lufu b?deþ.
It comes towards the end of a longish section of gnomic poetry (i.e., made up of obvious or proverb-type maxims).
…a ship must be nailed, a shield bound
with light linden wood; her love is welcome
to the Frisian wife, when the fleet lands;
His ship is come and her man is home,
Her own breadwinner, and she calls him in,
Washes his weary clothes and wraps him in new ones,
Lies him on the land as his love bids.
In Maxims II, we have another series of fairly obvious remarks, each two half lines long, and then, unexpectedly:
………… Ides sceal dyrne cræfte,
fæmne hire freond gesecean, gif heo nelle on folce geþeon
þæt hi man beagum gebicge.
A girl must use secret crafts, the bride to seek her beloved, if she does not want a man to buy her with rings given to her people.
This might not seem like anything surprising, but it comes after a long series of “A king shall rule a realm, a city is seen from a distance…winter is coldest…” which then goes on afterwards in a similar rhythm. The ‘advice for girls’ section is twice as long as any of the others, four times as long as some of them, and different in kind and quality from the rest. Taken as a whole, it comes across as if it were the main point of the poem.
Verdict: The records, the poetry, as well as grave-goods and other finds, suggest that Anglo-Saxon society may well have been substantially more egalitarian, both in the church and in the secular world, than the later medieval period. Like all things, everything is open to interpretation.
6 Raedwald is buried at Sutton Hoo/he isn’t
Sutton Hoo is in East Anglia, and the artefacts found at the site tend to give a date of CE 610 to CE 635. Raedwald, king of the East Angles, died in CE 625. Of all the Anglo-Saxon burials that we have, Sutton Hoo is by far the most royal. What is more, it contains both pagan elements (such as the emboss of the horned god) and Christian elements, including what appear to be a pair of baptismal spoons, marked ‘Saulos’ and ‘Paulos’. Raedwald was known to have been a pagan king who converted to Christianity.
So it’s Raedwald’s tomb, right? Well, of all the kings that we know of, Raedwald is the best fit. However, we have absolutely no reason to suppose that we know of all the kings of that period, nor is there anything in the find which we can say is definitively royal. Concepts of ‘royal’ were much more fluid then. Not long afterwards, both Mercia and Wales had kings who were ‘self-made men’, or, at least, had no royal ancestors that we know of. There are also, in the same period, two kings among the Northumbrians who were stricken from the records (though, bizarrely, we are told this) because their short reigns were considered to be abominable. East Anglians, as well as other Anglian kingdoms, had more than one king reigning together sometimes. It is not always clear whether these were full partnerships or a senior king and a junior king.
What’s more, the dating of the burial is largely based on the gold content of the 37 coins and 3 gold blanks which were found with it. Virtually all Anglo-Saxon gold was melted down Roman coins, and it would appear that the three blanks had been re-coined to make the number up to an even forty, though why this should be is unknown (but not unconjectured). The one gold mine in Britain, at Luentium in Wales, was by this time no longer active, so gold coming into England was coming from the continental mints. The Romans had their own problems with gold, and the gold content of minted coins declined steadily throughout the period. Some very clever numismatics enabled archaeologists in the 1980s to establish the latest date for the coins, which comes out at CE 610 to CE 635. This gives us a latest date for the coins, and, plausibly, a latest date for when the coin collection was assembled. We assume that the three gold blanks were there because they didn’t have any more coins, and had no time to acquire them. This would tend to imply that the hoard had to be quickly finished off. But how quickly is ‘quickly’?
One of the things about gold is that—aside from working out the purity of the metal—it does not carry many traces of its history. Because gold jewellery is, by definition, precious, it can be kept unused except on special occasions for long periods. Therefore, even if the hoard was completed by 635, there’s no guarantee that it was buried then. 635 would be an entirely reasonable guess, but 636 would be entirely possible, which would bring Aethelric and Sigebryht into the frame. There’s also Eorpwald—and these are just East Anglian kings we know about.
Verdict: Raedwald is a best guess—but if you’re doing a quiz and the answer is ‘Raedwald’, then the quiz is wrong.