Archive for January, 2016

Coming soon -Plantagenet Ninja Supermarket Sweep!

January 22, 2016

Donald CBE FSA FRHistS  -‘ that’s how many letters I have after my name and still no mention of a knighthood! Snarkey’ will be the talking head behind Channel 5’s new documentary/ game show/ reality tv series which will be launched later this year in response to the great feedback on Dan Jones’s ‘Britain’s Bloody Awful Crown of People who lived before the Tudors.’

The channel is looking to attract a new target audience of students and Big Brother types who want to test their limited knowledge of stuff that happened before the Tudors but in a funky format which allows for ad breaks every five minutes so they can tweet during the show segments.

‘It’s going to be a light-hearted mash-up of the old Supermarket Sweep format meets Ninja warriors with a history angle in the form of questions posed by Donald ‘I’ve been to Buck House and met the Queen and actually have a better claim by hereditary descent through Benedict Cumberbatch and don’t even have a knighthood yet’ Snarkey.’ Said channel executive Tiffany. ‘ He will be barking questions about who killed the princes and how great Henry Bolingbroke was whilst the contestants do an assault course through a dis-used Aldi, picking up inflatable kings and queens against the clock.’

Some commentators have raised queries over Dr Donald’s involvement with such a populist show but producers have confirmed that he is keen to target a new audience in his career-long quest to vilify Richard III by any means at his disposal and sees this as a chance to reach a whole new generation before the new wave of Ricardian novels and spin-off re-assessments endanger the survival of ‘England’s Black Legend’ advocates.

‘The truth has to be told. I can keep bashing away at this til I’m 6′ under.’ Commented Dr Snarkey. ‘I’ve been consistently biased against Richard III since I first saw Sir Laurence Olivier’s ( he was just an actor and got a bloody knighthood) great docu-drama in my prep school. My initial suspicions have now become so ingrained in every interview and documentary I make that it has become my life’s work to discredit this man. I realised that the sources were all full of Yorkist propaganda when I came up to Cambridge. It’s amazing how their twisted view trickled down over the centuries, all that nonsense about beheading Anne Boleyn and dissolving the monasteries and ‘bloody’ Mary. The Tudors were the best thing to ever happen to Britain! Henry VIII is my role model, bloody good bloke all round. This show gives me a floating platform from which to harangue the public and get over my belief that the Plantagenets were a load of murdering psychopaths.’

Professor Emeritus Snarkey will be following the contestants on a specially constructed floating platform pulled by dolphins while they attempt the assault course around Aldi. Highlights will include an Agincourt style mud-bath where contestants must euloguize Henry Vth’s use of lowly English archers, leaving civilians to starve and accusing his step-Mum of witchcraft, followed by ‘name that monarch’ where they must correctly identify monarchs based on sillouhettes of men in different C15th hats. This should separate the men from the boys according to Professor Snarkey as anyone who has watched Dan Jones will have no idea about medieval fashions.

‘Let’s just say there will be no horned helmets or Napoleonic hats in this round!’ Sniggered Chancellor Snarkey. Dan Jones has been criticised for the wandering array of vaguely medieval costumes worn by re-enactors on ‘Britain (not til 1603)’s Bloody Terrible Cock-up of History’ series.

The next section sees contestants climb a fake castle wall whilst being pelted by rotten fruit and dodging boiling oil whilst they recite the history of the feud between cocky would-be usurper Richard of York and slighted consort Marguerite of Anjou. After this they must answer questions on Chancellor Snarkey’s specialist subject ‘England’s Most Dastardly Evil King that Ever Lived.’ Questions include evidence of cannibalism, kitten drowning and fiddling his expenses claims during his time as Lord of the North. Finalists will compete for the chance to win a basket of ‘straight to dvd’ history shows commissioned by the channel over the last 20 years.

Chancellor Emeritus, D Phil, CBE, GCSE, CSE, CLAIT CERT LEVEL 2 Snarkey hopes that the show might raise his profile among the general public and put him at level pegging with Ant and Dec when the Queen composes her next New Year’s Honours list.

‘I’ve been plugging the Tudors for sixty years now, the least she could do would be give me a knighthood for services to the Lancastrian dynasty!’ Muttered Mr Snarkey through flared nostrils. ‘The throne should be mine, I tell you, mine not some German offshoot’s!’








The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Rings of Power

January 21, 2016

Thijs Porck

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the Rings of Power used by Sauron to gain dominion over those who would wear them…

7fdf67087e7a37dceb80c71ab1e9f45d Good guy Sauron meme (source)

“hringa fengel” (Beowulf, l. 2345): the original ‘Lord of the Rings

Why does Sauron give rings to the elves, men and dwarves he wants to control rather than any other object? The answer may be found in the Old English poem Beowulf, one of the texts Tolkien studied closely.

In Beowulf, kings are often described with metaphorical phrases such as “sincgyfan” [giver of treasure] (l. 1012a), …

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Lady Sybil’s hand

January 20, 2016

Bloody Kings: The Plantagenets for Dummies

January 15, 2016

Dim is making a documentary for tv. He has a vision – ‘It’s going to be a mash-up, GOTs meets Merlin with a bit of Simon Schama pacing thrown in to showcase my amazing range of jackets! I want to bring all that old history stuff up to date and make it sexy for the kids, in’nt.’

Cindy is Dim’s research assistant, she once played a cadaver on Casulty which is how she got into the business but studied History at Uni so she really knows her stuff. She did that bit about the Corn Laws and her special module was on the History of Spam through the Ages. She’s going to be checking out all the ‘accuracy’ bits that Dim doesn’t want to think about because they really screw up the sex and violence.

Dim: ‘Right, we’ve got three episodes and we need to cover loads of stuff and keep it real for the kids so let’s make sure we fit in the best bits. I want to like come in through a window on a rope at some point and maybe tie that in with that king who got done up the arse with a poker, you know lots of smoke and stuff and me wearing my Gap jacket with the studs.’

Cindy: ‘Do you mean Edward II because he wasn’t about in the Wars of the Roses.’

Dim: ‘Damn it, perhaps we could do a dream sequence bit and fit it in? The kids would really relate to that.’

‘Ok, so we need to talk about what caused all the battles and stuff so let’s get a shot of some people having a massive punch-up in a cloisters somewhere – you know, where they filmed Harry Potter – then we get one of them stomping off and some horses riding through smoke and a big castle wall, then I will do some walking along that beach with the castle behind it that they used in Last Kingdom or was it Merlin?’

Cindy: ‘Bamburgh Castle?

Dim: ‘ That’s the one, think it was Vikings actually, bloody good show that but needed more action scenes, too much dialogue. Anyway, so I do my bit ‘blah, blah, Richard of York, blah, blah, crazy king, blah, queen having it off with Somerset, who’s the Dad, blah. Then we cut to this sinister looking baby in a cot. This is for episode three where I do the whole ‘England’s Black Legend’ hunchback reassessment, did he, didn’t he right on, loony Ricardians, car park archaeology angle. We defo want the bit with the baby though to set all that up and maybe have it playing with a dagger in the cot or something or a shot of a big spider in a web there.’

Cindy: ‘Production called, they want ideas for the ‘dramatic action’ cut aways.’

Dim: ‘Ok, great, I met this man down the pub called Dave, we all call him ‘Dave the  Viking’ cause he’s really chunky and he’s got long hair and no fringe and everything. He would be awesome.’

Cindy:’ Ah, but there aren’t any Vikings in the show. It’s C15th – the bit before ‘The Tudors.’

Dim:’Yeh, like I know that Cinders, it’s all ‘medieval’ though Ok. Fashions didn’t like change every few years or something, they didn’t have like distinctive hairstyles and different shoes and stuff. Anyway production budget is like £50 cause all the dosh is going on flying me to all the locations and stuff so we’ve got to make some compromises. Get on to the props department they might still have some kit left over from ‘Wolf Hall’ that we can get on discount. Just need some big candle stands and hats and chainmail and see if any of the extras are still available that worked on ‘White Queen’, loved that whole battle scene in the snow with only four men and a dog. It’s all about angles anyway, you can like cut and paste people in to make it look like an army and just do lots of close up shots with bolognaise sauce over the lens. It will be really awesome, want to get the kids to relate to all this old stuff.’

Cindy: ‘So, which battle is this for?’

Dim: ‘All of them, they just shoot one day on location in a big field somewhere near Didcot and then cut it all up in the editing suite and do some shots of hills and scary looking trees and cover it all with smoke effects. Get that rostrum camera guy to do a big swirly shot round a skull with a pike sticking out of it and talk about how they had to dig their own graves and stuff’

Cindy: ‘But what about weather conditions? Wasn’t Towton fought in the snow and Tewkesbury was really hot and like different people were at each battle so the banners need to change?’

Dim:’ You’re making it boring Cindy. The kids want sex and violence, they don’t know what the battles looked like, the closest they’ve got to Agincourt is watching the Lego version on You Tube.’

Cindy: (under her breath) ‘Again not in the WoTRS!’

‘OK, so episode one, build up, causes, moody shots, mad king, evil baby. Episode two?’

Dim: ‘More battles and stuff, I want to do this bit where I get shot out of a trebuchet and land in a boat and talk about going into exile or coming back from exile or something. Want shots of heads on spikes and the three brothers all looking really hacked off about their Dad and then the big scene with Ed and the Elizabeth in the woods with her kids and all soft focus and then he pulls a knife on her and tries it on but then she’s all ‘I’ve going to be queen and have some curtains made into a big dress and get that necklace from New Look and have my big day and he’s like OK then.’ I think episode two really needs to sex it all up a bit. The kids will want a ‘Joffrey’ type character to hate so need to bring in George at this point and he can be really like sulky and shooting people with cross bows and then he can get drowned in the butt of Malmsey at the big wedding massacre scene.’

Cindy: ‘But George wasn’t killed for years after they got married. Isn’t that all too GOTs?’

Dim:’ No-one knows when he gets it. We need to move the action on so do it at the wedding and have this wide angle shot of me stepping over all the bodies after the massacre and talking to camera about all the carnage and how they tore their family apart and stuff then straight on to Ed and Hastings having a threesome with Jane Shore and the queen looking really hacked off staring out of a window.

Cindy: ‘…OK, so the final episode. Shall we do foreign policy, Louis XI, …’

Dim: ‘Boring! No it starts with me swimming through the river and climbing out, all Mr Darcy but in a really tight t-shirt so you see my tats and the kids will love it, cause they can relate to tats so they will really buy in to what I’m telling them cause history and stuff can be ‘cool’ and I do bit to camera about Ed getting a chill, no antibiotics, being dead in a few days, then cut to horses legs in smoke riding with the news to this Dracula type castle with maybe some heads on spikes outside and there’s Richard sat in the dark with a raven on his shoulder and lots of long, greasy hair and lip curling. We can use the same shot of the horses legs as we take him South, then there’s Stoney Statford. Need to get some regular looking guys to play Rivers and his mates and a little kid on a pony looking scared then he likes drops his teddy and it gets trampled under foot by Richard’s horse as they drag him off. Couple of beheading and then the queen crying in the cloisters again.

Cindy: ‘How are we going to cover the Protectorate?’

Dim: ‘The what? No we  to cut straight to Richard’s coronation – like that bit in Maleficent where she slams the doors back and everyone cowers in the corner and he like goes up the Archbish’ and grabs the crown off him and slams it on his head and everyone gets told to kneel down and cheer. Then cut to me in black leather jacket, hair putty, sat on a bed in a dungeon with a pillow in my hands. Blah, blah, never seen again, blah, blah, gone too far, blah, blah, young Welsh hero waiting for his moment.

Cindy: ‘So are you going to skip the problem of plantation of Northerners to the South and Buckingham altogether?’

Dim: ‘ No, got to have Buck but just a passing shot of him, then beheading, beheading, Tudor. We really want to blow the budget on my trip to India.’

Cindy:’ India? For the Tudors?’

Dim:’ Yeh, I know but I found out that Henry Tudor traced his ancestors back to like the Mughals or something which is where he got his claim to the throne from, I don’t do family trees, boring, so anyway I want this shot of me on an elephant talking about how great Tudor was, fresh blood, totally like stirring it up and how he fancied the princess and all that and then straight into Bosworth cuase the kids need to see the whole bit about getting thrown over a horse naked and being chucked into this car park and I’ve got David Starkey lined up for a cameo right at the end where he says how he’s proved that Richard did in the princes cuase he found this letter where he confessed and everything but we need to leave it open just in case they dig them up under Budgens or something!’

Cindy: ‘Sounds really cool. It’s going to be massive. What time slot is it?’

Dim:’ Well I really wanted it on after Hollyoaks but the channel were all like ‘it’s for adults so you need to wait til the mums and dads get home’ so it’s up against like Enders and Emmerdale so it’s going to be tough but I’m like all over Twitter and FB and Instagram with it and we’ve got a really cool trailer lined up – lots of blood and flick-action stuff so you get to see the whole thing in like a minute.’

Dim will be available after the show to chat online with anyone who has been effected by scenes and would like to contact an intellectual self-help group for nerdy types who care about stuff like chronology and facts and why Eric Bloodaxe can be seen behind a tree during the battle of Barnet.

Jorvik – Reconstructing the Viking Age

January 14, 2016

Jorvik 2

The Viking settlement at Jorvik, modern day York, is the largest excavated Viking site in England. Jorvik was an important trading centre due to its river links along the Ouse to the Humber estuary and North Sea and also an important political centre, the largest of the of the six fortified Viking boroughs along with Leicester, Nottingham, Lincoln, Derby and Stamford under the Danelaw.

Jorvik made use of the old Roman city walls and defensive structures left behind when the legions withdrew from Eboracum to defend Rome. It is thought that in this post-Roman, Anglian period the settlement was abandoned but Anglo-Saxon migrants resettled the area in the mid C6th AD. In 627 AD an Anglo-Saxon king, Edwin of Northumbrian, and his ‘people’ were baptised in the first Minster. It became the capital of the Deira kingdom and then of Northumbria and an important religious and commercial centre during the Anglo-Saxon period and was one of only a handful of towns. The population was probably only a couple of thousand at this point. The famous find of the Coppergate Helmet dates to around 750-775 AD and is thought to have belonged to someone of very high status within the Northumbrian royal household. It was carefully deposited upside down in a pit but the owner never returned for it.

The Vikings began raiding Northern England from their Scandinavian homelands in 793 AD and Ivar the Boneless took York in 866 AD with ‘The great Heathen Army’ as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Within ten years Vikings were beginning to settle permanently in England. York would be under Viking control for almost a century until it was reclaimed by Anglo-Saxons in 954 AD. By 1066 AD the population had increased to between 10,000 and 15,000.

Jorvik 1

The range of artefacts found at Jorvik provides an insight into the extent of Viking trading links across Europe and beyond. Finds include silk from the East, Baltic Amber, lava quern stones, pottery and jewellery from the Rhineland, sharpening stones from Norway, cloak pins from Ireland, and even shells from the Red Sea and a coin from Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Local Yorkshire jet has been found in Greenland and may have been produced locally and traded for goods and food stuffs.

Jorvik 4 shoes

The archaeological evidence at Jorvik is especially important due to the particular nature of the soil on the site. At 9 metres belong current street level, the peaty, moist, oxygen-free soil helped to preserve organic material that are usually lost over time which means that the evidence of timber houses, clothing and leather shoes have survived. Further, the soil has also retained seeds, insects, human parasites, pollen and plant fibres which can be analysed to provide information about diet, farming, livestock and the medical health of the community. Thousands of oyster shells were unearthed and these would have been a stable part of the diet, along with fresh water fish and then marine fish as pollution levels in the rivers caused from industrial production killed off the fresh water supplies. They also ate eggs, grains, fruit and vegetables to supplement their diet. We know this due to excavations of cesspits, rubbish heaps and analysis of coprolite – human faeces at Jorvik.

Concentrations of particular types of material within  the remains of Viking Age houses indicate a range of trades being carried out including leather working, antler craving, wood turning and metal working. You can imagine these tradesmen living alongside each other in Coppergate, the street of the cup makers.

Jorvik 3

There is also a wealth of small objects such as combs which were manufactured for trade in Jorvik from antlers and glass beads along with crucibles and chemical deposits from glass production. Jorvik was one of only a few places were the new high-lead content glass was being produced in the C10th. Cobalt glass beads and finger rings also show evidence for high-soda content glass production.

Jorvik 6 beads

Disc broaches and strap ends with high levels of skilled decoration along with metal deposits, off-cuts and ores show that metal workers were using tin from Cornwall, copper from the Pennines, silver and gold from Europe and Ireland and ingot moulds from Scandinavia in their trade. The waste products from these objects indicate that they were produced on site rather than just traded there.

Jorvik 7 disc broaches

Other small objects like ‘buzz bones’ have been found which give a real insight into the community. these were rather irritating toys for children that consisted of a small animal bone with a hole bored through the middle. Sinew was threaded through and twisted so that it made a buzzing noise. There is also evidence of dice and board games being played in Jorvik to help pass the long, dark winter nights.

Archaeologists have even been able to reconstruct the faces of some of the Viking Age residents of Jorvik from their skeletal remains. One of the most striking aspects of visiting the Jorvik Viking centre is the extraordinary level of detail that has gone into the reconstruction of Coppergate, down to how new the wood looks on one house to the next based on tree ring dating of the timbers of the buildings. The models are based on actual reconstructions and the placement of the houses is also completely accurate based on finds on the site.

Jorvik 8 facial recon

The mixture of Christian and Pagan objects found on the site would also suggest a flexible relationship between the two religions during this period. As early as 601 AD, Pope Gregory had written to Augustine and urged him “…to send to the city of Eboracum a bishop”, to found a new church in “..the land of the Angles”. So, there is evidence that even before Edwin’s conversion, York was seen as an important centre of Christianity in the north of the British Isles. Edwin ordered a church to be built where he had been baptised.

Though under threat from the Mercians from time to time, York grew in importance as a centre of Christianity and learning through the seventh and eighth centuries. The Northumbrian Wilfrid was Bishop of York from 665-709 AD. Alcuin (c.737-804 AD) was educated at the cathedral school, became master there, and later became an important scholar and respected adviser at the Frankish court of Charlemagne. Vikings were trading across Europe and meeting ‘cross men’ in their travels. There is even Viking graffiti in Hagia Sofia in Constantinople which was the capital of Byzantine christianity in the East.

In 735 AD York was made the seat of an archbishopric. By the time the Vikings took York in 866 AD they were probably tolerant of the Christian religion even if they continued to believe in Odin and the other Norse gods as well. They seem to have found it politically wise to maintain friendly links with successive Archbishops of York, one of them, Osketel (AD 956), even becoming Archbishop himself.

It is known that a cathedral church was destroyed by fire in 1069 and 10th/11th century graves have been found which show that it is likely that there was an important Viking Age church close to where the present Minster is built. Earl Sigvard (died 1055) had a church built, dedicated to Saint Olav just outside the west wall of the old Roman fort. Another important pre-Norman minster church (called either Holy Trinity or Christ Church) is known from the Domesday Book to have existed on the south-west side of the River Ouse.

From this we can imagine a mixture of religious belief and practice in Viking Age Jorvik and generally a tolerance of communities with a range of belief during this period. Toleration was also good for trade and economic growth which benefitted all.

viking inscription

This Viking Age runic inscription was found in St Mary’s Castlegate and along with other evidence such as tombstones and coinage show evidence of a mixing of the cultures in Jorvik. Churches were founded during the Viking period. Viking kings like Guthram were buried in churches and coins from the mint at York have Thor hammer designs and St Peter’s Pence on the same coin.

So, the Jorvik site enables us to build a very vivid picture of life in a C10th Viking community, from everyday trades and living conditions to the health and even spiritual beliefs of the community. Archaeology allows us to really imagine their world and bring it to life through the physical remains that are unearthed. Used in conjunction with written accounts we are able to build a detailed picture of life for the residents of Jorvik and to spark new interest in this crucial period of our history in the next generation.









Beowulf and Sutton Hoo -Sources for a lost world

January 11, 2016

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ~ Philip Pullman

I was recently asked to visit my daughter’s class and talk to them about archaeology and what we can find out about past cultures from the physical remains that are left behind. The class is also reading Beowulf as part of their topic on the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in Britain which will run for the whole term.

I immediately plunged into further research on Beowulf and two archaeological sites which I hope will be useful; namely the ship burial at Sutton Hoo and the Coppergate dig in York which uncovered part of Viking Jorvik, the largest excavated Viking settlement in the British Isles.

I picked these because the culture of Beowulf would appear to be closely tied to the archaeological site of Sutton Hoo with references made in the poem to artefacts that were very similar to those found at the site and I thought it would be useful to talk about how literary works can be used in conjunction with archaeology and other evidence such as place names and language to build an image of a particular historical community. I also wanted to contrast a high status burial site with a more every day settlement site which was also several centuries later in date but still reflective of the time that we popularly consider to be ‘Dark Age’ or ‘Early Medieval’, that shadowy pre-Conquest period that tends to be neglected by popular history in favour of the Plantagenets and gawdy Tudors.

I am passionate about children studying this period of history and in getting them to ‘feel’ something when they read Beowulf and really make a connection with the DNA that formed most of them and their communities.


I read an article in The Telegraph about a study made by Oxford University into tribal groups in post-Roman Britain and current DNA analysis of rural populations in the UK. The results were striking because the study confirmed that regional ‘tribal’ groupings have barely changed since the C6th – 1415 years later most communities are still made up of people who share the same tribal ancestry as each other and stem from the migrations of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Scandinavia which took place from the mid C5th, most probably in waves of migrations across the North Sea, moving westward across the heart of England. The Celtic tribes fled or were pushed West to Ireland and the ancient Britons concentrated in Scotland. Interestingly, ‘Viking’ DNA was hardly evident which the study interpreted to mean that Vikings did not intermarry with the Anglo-Saxon population but remained in isolated pockets of settlement though it would be worth asking to what extent there was distinct ‘Viking’ DNA in Scandinavia by the time of their migrations South and whether all Anglo-Saxon DNA doesn’t broadly fit into a Nordic/ Germanic super-group with the same shared culture and belief systems and possibly with associated character traits.

I need to add Gaelic/ Celtic DNA from my Irish grandfather into my personal mix and can only trace one branch of my family tree back to 17th Gloucestershire but as far as I am able to establish it is most likely that my DNA is largely Anglo-Saxon in origin and that this is also true for the majority of the population of England.

This study reinforces the belief that I have long held that most of the native population of British Isles has a direct ancestral link to the culture of Beowulf and that it has been marginalized for too long in both history and literary studies in the UK.

I am probably highly influenced as a sub-conscious level by my love of Tolkien’s works which I grew up with from the age of six as my ancestors would have grown up with the narrative story of Beowulf in their cultural make-up. Tolkien set out to create a ‘mythology of England’ in his writing and he drew heavily from the Norse sagas, Germanic myths and from Beowulf to create his characters and their world. Core themes and characters relate directly to myths and legends that would have been familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. Dragon hoards, barrow-wights, horse lords and warrior kings with mythical swords are all straight out of the Anglo-Saxon word hoard. Cursed magical rings, dwarves and elves and dark magic all feature in the myths of Asgard and the Norse gods too. The concept of ‘wyrd’ or fate runs through Tolkien’s writing and the sense that his characters are fated to follow their destinies to the end.

Tolkien’s 1936 lecture on Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics was hugely important in re-assessing the literary worth of the poem as a work of art rather than primarily a historical document and coupled with the timely discovery of the the Sutton Hoo site just three years later in 1939, it seemed that the Anglo-Saxons wanted to be found just at the point when modern day Germany would take the world into a very dark and dangerous place. The Third Reich built it’s propaganda on a controversial interpretation of an Ayran mythological past and borrowed Norse symbols and Wagnar’s mythic operas to legitimize its claims of greatness.



The combined ‘treasures’ of Beowulf and Sutton Hoo gave the world examples of the very best of ancient Germanic/ Nordic achievement though they still struggle to change the cultural dominance of Classical antiquity and the massive imposition of the Norman Conquest on the intellectual mindset of the nation. We are still looking South to Rome a thousand years after the Conquest rather than North to our Scandinavian ancestors.

sutton hoo 1

You can’t ‘romanticize’ the Anglo-Saxons, despite the epic nature of the Beowulf narrative and the beauty of the grave goods; the most highly skilled work to be found anywhere in C7th Europe. It is a culture which speaks of toughness to the bone but there is much to admire there and to feel a connection with.

It has to do with climate, I think, in part. There is a dogged determination to achieve something in the face of the northern climate which breeds a race who battle the elements to light a BBQ in a force 12 gale on August Bank Holiday and enjoy moaning about it. Beowulf would understand the need to spend 5 hours getting into work on the only day of the year when it snowed only to turn around and leave half way through the afternoon in order to get home and tell everyone what a terrible day you had when secretly a part of you thrilled at the whole ‘saga’. There is an ‘Englishness’ to much of Beowulf despite the Scandinavian setting. It’s all about being cold and wrapped in layers of damp clothing and fearing what lies beyond the door in the endless darkness of winter. It’s about mirk and gloom and watery fenland which are still called ‘grendals’ today in East Anglian dialect. It’s about the companionship of sitting with other miserably cold people in a mead-hall and sharing the warmth and the smoky air and drinking too much in order to forget how tough everything is for a few hours.

Sutton-Hoo image.jpg

They say that there is an intrinsic melancholy to Nordic people which displays itself in brooding looks, depression and alcoholism. I don’t think this is exclusively ‘Nordic’ but probably broadly ‘northern’ as the Celts have it too, wrapped up with an ability for self-destructive urges and occasional glimpses of doomed heroism and artistic flowerings which usually end in early death or suicide.

Perhaps we are in danger of diluting this essential ‘northerness’ with access to central heating and indoor shopping centres and in order to re-connect to our ancestors we need to go camping for the weekend or have the boiler brake down for a few days but it wouldn’t take much for us to get back into the psychological head-space of the people who composed and listened to and shared the story of Beowulf’s adventures or to those who laid their king’s regalia out beside his massive ship with symbolic treasures and covered over all that beauty for all time in a final mark of respect for their ‘good cyninga’.

I don’t think you can connect to Beowulf without hearing someone recite passages of it in Old English. I’ve never formally studied it but I love the patterns of the letters on the page, the sound of it rolled around the mouth like Whiskey and spoken out loud and the deep emotional response that listening to it engenders within me. I can’t explain it rationally and don’t want to. It’s about feeling something right at the base of my brain that speaks to a race memory, shared culture, the thrill of a strange world that is just accessible enough to reach out to.

So what makes Beowulf so important as a literary work? Everybody likes a hero and an adventure story. It is about the eternal battle of light and darkness, good and evil, society and chaos. Beowulf comes to the aid of a people who are traumatised by the monster Grendal. He offers the standard Anglo-Saxon response – single combat with the foe. Glory or death. He uses cunning to lie in wait for Grendal and rips his arm off as a throphy to hang up in the hall beams and establishes his claims to heroic status through his actions.

Of course this is all too easy so the second portion of the story sees the next trial by combat in the form of Grendal’s terrible mother, the Sea-Hag who comes to the hall for revenge. Beowulf removes the action to her underwater cave where he uses a magical sword to slay her. The final portion of the book takes place some fifty years later when Beowulf has proved himself to be a great king to his people and grown in wisdom. This time his people are threatened by a fire-breathing dragon who has been disturbed by a thieving slave and comes to destroy human society. Again Beowulf and one loyal supporter take on the dragon in his lair but Beowulf is mortally wounded in the encounter and sacrifices himself for the good of his people, ending with his spectacular funeral pyre on the headland and the undying love and respect of his people which is transmitted through the poem as a lasting tribute for all time.

There is a clear structure of three separate ‘trials’ or tests which the hero must endure in order to fulfill his destiny and a narrative arc as we follow Beowulf from young warrior to hero to wise ruler and finally watch him depart for his journey into the afterlife. The descriptive passages are superb, often cinematic in the detail and full of life and colour. The action is straight forward and carries the impetus of the story along at a good pace. No lists of ships and stalling like the Illiad, epic though the conflict between Achilles and Hector is.

The word hoard is also another wonderful literary device. There is great resonance and impact in language which beats with such a strong rhythm and uses alliteration to such powerful purpose. It is hard to read Beowulf without the hairs on the back of your neck standing up at some point. It is performance poetry at its best – visceral, compelling, involving and beautiful to imagine. Words should conjure up an image hoard for the listener or the reader and Beowulf certainly achieves that for anyone with a pulse.

The imagery in the language is so strong that even inanimate objects hold a ‘life’ within them. The great hall, Heorot, is a symbol of the order of good kingship, of protection and community and the bonds of ‘comitatus’ upon which Anglo-Saxon society depended. Tolkien echoes this in his description of the Golden Hall of Meduseld in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Theodon’s leadership and care for his people carries a similar weight to that of Beowulf and might be projected onto the historical figure of Raedwald, King of the East Angles who is the most probable candidate for the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Objects have a symbolic resonance which increases the impact of the imagery.

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Tolkien said that  mortality was the most important theme running through the narrative “an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die.” The same could be said for all great works of literature. Death is the most pressing issue for humanity, the inevitable conclusion of all effort and achievement, all wealth or renown, every new birth, every young love, every dynasty. All human destiny or wyrd leads ultimately to death but the mortality which separates us from the gods also adds a unique savour and pathos to life. Like the famous metaphor of the sparrow’s flight through the lighted hall before it vanishes into the infinite darkness beyond, it is that glorious and fleeting moment of light and warmth and colour that it experiences during the flight that focus all eyes upon it.

Beyond the literary value of the poem, Beowulf is also a valuable source of information about the thought processes and society of the people it represents and for the people who kept the oral tradition of reciting it alive for hundreds of years. Generation after generation passed the story down until it was finally committed to paper. The only surviving manuscript to hold the text was probably written around 1000AD by two monastic scribes and may have been housed at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, near the border between Wessex and Mercia, as the other works that are bound with Beowulf were all contained in that particular monastic collection. There could have been earlier manuscripts that it was copied from, we will probably never know. The fact remains that its survival is miraculous. The manuscript that is now a treasured artefact in the British Library only just survived a devastating fire which consumed many other priceless treasures in the 1700s and the pages are charred with the flames that may have eaten up other wonderful epic works that are now lost for all time.

The flame flickered and almost went out completely but amazingly it survived, rather like that other beacon of the Anglo-Saxon world, the Venerable Bede, who was the only monk to survive an outbreak of plague at his monastery at Jarrow and went on to write his ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ which remains a major source for the history of the period.

There are parallels with Sutton Hoo. Some of the other barrows were looted for their treasures, perhaps the ship burial would never have been excavated without the driving force of Mrs Pretty and her spiritualist convictions. The Blitz could have destroyed the artefacts or they could have been stolen and hidden away in a private collection but they were meant to be found and meant to survive. Wyrd at work in the world of humans again.


The finds at Sutton Hoo display a high degree of technical skill and also wide trading links with Europe, Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire in the East. Some historians believe that the system of sending young nobles to be ‘fostered’ in Scandinavia may be a factor in the variety of the grave goods – they brought treasures back with them or were rewarded for their service with precious objects which became heirlooms of their house. They may also have been symbolic gifts from other tribal leaders to cement alliances or war booty.

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This blog from the British Museum gives an interesting insight into the symbolism contained within the objects and how we can attempt to interpret the intricate patterns of interwoven shapes and what these meant to the people who wore them.


We are dealing with a complex culture and multi-faceted meanings which can only be guessed at in many cases.

The British Museum collection provides striking evidence of the culture of the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf but also throws up controversies over how this culture can be interpreted. Although no physical remains were found at the Sutton Hoo burial, soil samples indicate the presence of phosphates which suggest that a body was placed with the grave goods. The spoons found with the inscription of ‘Saulus’ may indicate a Christian presence but they do not prove that the burial was Christian or that the occupant had converted. Many historians think that Pagan and Christian rubbed along beside each other, as interwoven as the serpents on the elaborate belt buckle found in the burial. Families were often a fusion of both traditions with one spouse converted and the other holding to the old ways for several generations. The finds can be interpreted in widely different ways depending on the argument you want to put forward.

Some historians maintain that the burial was a cenotaph, an empty tomb, and that the person who ordered it was hedging his bets, keeping one foot in the Pagan world and the other in the Christian.

This fusion is clearly in evidence in the written form of Beowulf too. The insertion of Genesis-inspired passages about the creation of the world and references to God the father seem at odds with a world of mead halls and heroes but in other ways they also probably reflect a rather mixed-up acceptance of both strains of religious thought.  The Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is another example of this mixture of cultures. Talking trees and dream visions and the obvious similarities between Yggdrasil, the world tree upon which Odin hung as an ordeal and the passion of Christ on the wooden cross are hardly surprising. Michael wood’s excellent documentary ‘In Search of Beowulf’ alludes to the poem and suggests that the tree is almost like one of Christ’s war-band. Loyal to its lord but doomed to be the instrument of his torture and death. It is a very emotionally charged image and shrouded in mystery like the whole age.

Beowulf could have incorporated Christian ideas slowly over time or these might have occurred at the time that it was committed to paper by monks. Michael Wood also comments on the popularity of epic tales being read during feasts in monasteries and that some within the church disapproved of this. They wanted the works of the church fathers or the Bible to be the exclusive ‘entertainment’ available to the monks so perhaps by removing the Gods and replacing them with the one God the monks were trying to keep the story alive and adapt it to a new monastic setting as well.

I really enjoy all the questions that arise from this period of migration and conversion and multi-culturalism as it mirrors our own age in so many ways. Many of us are atheists or agnostics yet celebrate Christmas and Easter with a bewildering fusion of Christian, Pagan and consumerist influences. Our festive decorations feature everything from Latin inscriptions, nativity images, fairies, deer and crackers to Darth Vadar and mobile phone baubles. Chocolate eggs and Pagan bunnies hung on Nordic twig trees rub up alongside crosses and empty tombs.

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I feel sure that this will provide future archaeologists with a perplexing array of evidence to digest in just the same way as Sutton Hoo and Beowulf lead to a myriad of interpretations and that this reflects the many influences on contemporary culture in much the same way as the physical and literary remnants of the Anglo-Saxon Age do for their world.