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What’s in a place name? The toponymy of early medieval England

What do the English place names Everton, Oxford, Winchester and Whitby have in common? They have all been around for more than a thousand years and their origins and original meanings can shed a unique light on the fascinating early history of England!

Traces of Celts and Romans

Map with some Celtic and Roman place names. The Celtic helmet is based on the Waterloo Helmet *map altered slightly on 9/7/2020 due to misplacement of Carlisle*

If we were to go back some 2500 years in time, Britain was inhabited by people who spoke Celtic languages (present-day Welsh and Cornish are among the linguistic descendants of these languages). These Celtic speakers have left their traces in the toponyms (place names, river names) of present-day England. The place name Dover, for instance, derives from a Celtic word for ‘waters’ and the first part of Carlisle stems from a Celtic word for ‘fort’ (cf. Welsh caer and Cornish ker). In addition, about two-thirds of English rivers today have English names, these include the rivers Avon, Trent, Tyne and the Thames – most of these river names excitingly mean ‘river’.

In the first century AD, Britain was conquered by the Romans and their influence too can be found in English place names. Place names with an element like –chester, for instance, ultimately derive from Roman army camps, denoted by the Latin word castra (though via Old English ceaster). In other words, Winchester, Lancaster, Leicester and Chester all show traces of Roman occupation of what is now England. The Latin word vicus for ‘settlement’ is found at the end of the places Norwich and Sandwich (though via Old English wic). The Latin word for ‘harbour’, portus, can be seen in Portsmouth – mouth of the harbour. Intriguingly, the ninth-century compilers of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle appear to have assumed that the name derived from a man called Port, who landed there in 501 with his sons Bieda and Mægla:

In this year, Port came to Britain along with his two sons Bieda and Mægla in two ships to the place that is called Portsmouth and they killed a young British man, a very noble man.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 501

Anglo-Saxons and their place names

After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, the remaining Celts eventually had to give way to Germanic invaders from the European Continent: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who come over from Northern Germany and Southern Denmark. These Anglo-Saxons, as they are generally referred to, bring Old English to England and its is to them that we owe place names that contain such elements as

  • ham (meaning ‘home’, as in Fulham, Westham and Birmingham)
  • tun (meaning ‘town’, as Skipton)
  • ford (meaning ‘crossing in a river’, as in Oxford)
  • burna (meaning ‘stream’ as in Bournemouth and Blackburn)
  • burh (meaning ‘fortification’, as in Canterbury; Bury St Edmunds and, simply, Bury)

Sometimes, these Anglo-Saxon settlers named places and regions after themselves. We can find the Angles in East Anglia and, ultimately, in England. The Saxons gave their name to Sussex, Essex, Wessex and Middlesex; that is the Saxons in the South, in the East, in the West and in the middle. Apparently, there we no Saxons in the North – a common pun is that the Northern Saxons only lasted for one generation since they had Nosex. The Jutes do not seem to have lend their names to a place, but other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ people did. The Old English place name element -ingas means something like “the descendants, followers or people of” and, so, Reading used to be the place where the people of Ræda lived; in Hastings lived the descendants of a man called Hæsta.

In come the Vikings!

Viking place names in England. The heat map on the right shows a rough representation of the concentration of Viking place names, on the basis of data by Key to English Place Names

Another group to make a major contribution to English place names were the Vikings, who not only raided and plundered, but also settled in England and founded villages and towns which they gave Scandinavian names.
Place names ending in -by, for instance, like Whitby and Derby derive from the Old Norse word by ‘settlement’. Another typical Scandinavian place name in England ends in thorpe ‘village’, as in Scunthorpe and the seven places in England simply called Thorpe. The word toft, as in Lowestoft, refers to ‘site of a house’ and is another sign that you are dealing with a Viking place name.

Viking place names are concentrated in the North East of England, as you can tell by the heat map I made above (the map on the right shows a rough representation of the concentration of Viking place names, on the basis of data by Key to English Place Names ). There are good reasons for this geographical distribution: the area in which we typically find Viking place names was known as the Danelaw area, which had been assigned to Scandinavian settlers as part of a peace treaty with King Alfred the Great, following a decisive battle in the year 878.  It is for this reason that place names ending in – by or -thorpe tend to be in the North East of England. As we shall see below, Viking place names are not the only ones to show a certain geographical concentration.

Place names and migratory patterns?

Rough heat maps showing concentrations of Celtic place names and Old English place names (-ingas/-ham and -tun)

Using the data of Key to English Place Names along with the Halogen geospatial search facility it is relatively easy to get an idea of where certain place names occur. The maps above are (very) rough representations that I made on the basis of looking for place names of a Celtic origin and two sets of Old English place names. The results are interesting. Place names of Celtic origin tend to be in the South and in the West; that is near Wales and Cornwall – this has been interpreted as representing the gradual displacement of Celtic speaking people towards these areas due to the gradual influx of the Anglo-Saxons.

The two sets of Old English place names also show an interesting distribution: the place names ending in -ingas and -ham tend to be found in the South East, whereas Old English place names ending in -tun tend to be found further West and North. Scholars have argued that this is because the first set of place names were typically used by the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers, who arrived in Kent and spread their influence West and North from there. The place names based on Old English tun ‘town’ could reflect later settlement patterns, though this is a matter of scholarly debate (see Clark 1992).

Flora and fauna of early medieval England

Of course, place names did not only depend on who inhabited the place at some time, often places were named after the surroundings in which the early settlers found themselves. As such, place names allow us to identify some of the flora and fauna that was around in Anglo-Saxon England.

One of the Old English place name elements that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes brough to England was the word leah, meaning field or clearing in a forest. Today, this element survives at the end of place names like: Ashley,
Stanley, Crawley, Shipley and Sugley. These then must all have been fields or clearings in a forest. The first element in these place names gives us another defining feature of that field. Ashley was probably surrounded by ash-trees (from Old English æsc); there were stones at Stanley (from Old English stan), crows near Crawley (from Old English craw), sheep near Shipley (from Old English sceap) and in Sugley you can see the Old English word for sow, sugu.

We can recognize the Old English words for animals in various other place names as well. In Everton, you can see the Old English eofor ‘boar’; Brock-holes is named after the holes made by a broc, the Old English word for “Badger’; you can see the Old English word bucca ‘goat’ in Buckingham and Swinburn must have been a stream with some pigs (Old English swin) nearby.

In conclusion: place names are fascinating, they reflect the rich cultural and linguistic history of what we now call England. England’s history, as well as the place names on its map, was formed and shaped by various migrations and interactions with different peoples and cultures. These people looked around them and named what they saw: trees, clearings, river-crossings and animals. And if we study their language and history, we can see those things too.

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Links of interest

Key to English Place-Names (University of Nottingham)

HALOGEN geospatial search facility (University of Leicester)

English Place-Name Society

Clark, Cecily. 1992. “Onomastics”. Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 1: The Beginnings to 1066, ed. Richard M. Hogg, 452-489. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kings and Candlesticks in Anglo-Saxon England

Among all of his responsibilities, Alfred the Great found the time to invent the candle clock. As this blog post will demonstrate, Alfred, by no means, was the only Anglo-Saxon king to have a thing for candles.

Alfred the Great: Inventor of time management and the candle clock

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Eight Hour Day Banner, Melbourne, 1856

The slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” is supposed to have been coined by the social reformer Robert Owen (d. 1858); but the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great (d. 899) seems to have divided his time in a similar way. According to the twelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury:

he [Alfred] so divided the twenty-four hours of the day and night as to employ eight of them in writing, in reading, and in prayer, eight in the refreshment of his body, and eight in dispatching the business of the realm. There was in his chapel a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions, and an attendant, whose peculiar province it was to admonish the king of his several duties by its consumption. (source)

Assuming that Alfred regarded writing, reading and praying as recreation – Alfred’s daily routine, as described by William, is quite similar to Robert Owen’s slogan.

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Alfred (played by David Dawson) and his candles make a surprise appearance in The Last Kingdon, series 2, episode 3. © BBC, The Last Kingdom

William’s reference to “a candle consisting of twenty-four divisions” refers to a famous story related in Asser’s Life of Alfred (893), which recounts how Alfred invented a “candle clock” consisting of six candles (not one), which each burned for four hours:

By this plan, therefore, those six candles burned for twenty-four hours, a night and day, without fail…  but sometimes when they would not continue burning a whole day and night, till the same hour that they were lighted the preceding evening, from the violence of the wind, which blew day and night without intermission through the doors and windows of the churches … the king therefore considered by what means he might shut out the wind, and so by a useful and cunning invention, he ordered a lantern to be beautifully constructed of wood and white ox-horn, which, when skilfully planed till it is thin, is no less transparent than a vessel of glass. … By this contrivance, then, six candles, lighted in succession, lasted four and twenty hours, neither more nor less, and, when these were extinguished, others were lighted. (source)

There you have it, in addition to defeating the Vikings (see: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great), suffering from painful diseases (see: Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?), translating the Psalms (see: The Illustrated Psalms of Alfred the Great: The Old English Paris Psalter), and coining the word ‘arseling’ (see: Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?), Alfred also invented a candle clock! He truly was a king among kings.

Æthelwulf of Wessex: Coins and candle holders for the pope

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Anglo-Saxon coin inscribed with “EĐELVVLF REX” (source)

Alfred may have gotten his interest in lights and candles from his father Æthelwulf of Wessex (d. 858). Upon his death, Asser reports in his Life of Alfred, Æthelwulf ordered an annual sum of money to be sent to Rome of which a major part was to be spent on lighting lamps at Easter:

He commanded also a large sum of money, namely, three hundred mancuses, to be carried to Rome for the good of his soul, to be distributed in the following manner: namely, a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Peter, specially to buy oil for the lights of the church of that apostle on Easter eve, and also at the cock-crow: a hundred mancuses in honour of St. Paul, for the same purpose of buying oil for the church of St. Paul the apostle, to light the lamps on Easter eve and at the cock-crow; and a hundred mancuses for the universal apostolic pontiff. (source)

Æthelwulf’s charity did not stop there. The ninth-century Liber Pontificalis (the book of Popes) relates how, upon visiting Rome with his son Alfred, gifted the Church of St Peter with many precious objects, including a silver candle holder:

a crown of pure gold weighing four pounds, an ornamental sword with gold inlay, a gilded silver candle holder in the Saxon style, a purple dyed tunic embossed with golden keys, a golden goblet, and numerous valuable robes. (R. Abels, King Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 53)

Upon his trip to Rome, Alfred may have learned a valuable lesson from his father: candles are candy for the pope!

Æthelred the Unready: Castigated by candles

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Æthelred ‘the Unready’ © British Library, Royal MS 14 B VI

While Alfred and his father Æthelwulf had positive experiences with candles, one of their kinsmen fared differently. As legend would have it, Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (d. 1016), Alfred’s great-great-grand-son, was traumatized by candles in his youth. William of Malmesbury relates the following incident in his Gesta regum Anglorum:

I have read, that when he was ten years of age, hearing it noised abroad that his brother [Edward ‘the Martyr’ (d. 978)] was killed, he so irritated his furious mother by his weeping, that not having a whip at hand, she beat the little innocent with some candles she had snatched up: nor did she desist, till herself bedewed him, nearly lifeless, with her tears. On this account he dreaded candles during the rest of his life, to such a degree that he would never suffer the light of them to be brought into his presence. (source)

As Æthelred grew up, he gained a reputation as being one of the worst kings in English history. He certainly was never able to fill his great-great-grandfather Alfred’s shoes, and we now know why: without the help of candles (or a candle clock), how could he ever have managed his time!?!

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

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Alfred: What do you think of my candles? Uhtred: I find them to be more effective at night. Alfred: I have missed your childish insolence. I’m trying to measure the passing of time. I’m hoping to find a candle that burns from midday to midday. © BBC, The Last Kingdom

 

 

 

Anglo-Saxons putting on Viking (h)airs

Aside from their stereotypical burning, pillaging and raping, Vikings also seem to have introduced a new hairstyle to early medieval England. This blog post discusses how some Anglo-Saxon priests were concerned over Anglo-Saxons mimicking the hair of the Viking invaders.

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The choirs of angels, prophets and the Apostles showing a range of hairstyles in the 9th-century Athelstan Psalter. © The British Library, Cotton Galba A.xviii, fol. 2v.

In the aftermath of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793, the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Alcuin wrote an admonishing letter to King Æthelred of Northumbria (d. 796). Alcuin had noted how the king and his nobles had not been at their best behaviour, not-so-subtly implying that if the Northumbrians would only live modestly and humbly that such horrible events as the raid of Lindisfarne would never happen again. Interestingly, Alcuin reminded Æthelred of the fact that he and his nobles had copied the hairstyle and dress of the Scandinavians that were now causing so much havoc:

Consider the dress, the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people. Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans. Are you not menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow? (trans. Whitelock, source)

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Excerpt from Alcuin’s letter to Æthelred of Northumbria. The Annotation may be by the hand of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) who owned this particular manuscript. © The British Library, Cotton Vespasian A.xiv, fol. 117r

Whereas Alcuin did not go into any detail as to what the Viking hairstyle may have looked like, these details are provided two centuries later by another Anglo-Saxon religious writer, Ælfric of Eynsham (d. c. 1010). In a letter addressed to a ‘brother Edward’, Ælfric complained of various malpractices he had heard of. These malpractices included the eating of blood and consuming of drink and food on the toilet (something Ælfric attributed to ‘uplandish women’). Ælfric also complained about Anglo-Saxon monks dressing up ‘in Danish fashion’:

Ic secge eac ðe, broðor Eadweard, … þæt ge doð unrihtlive þæt ge ða Engliscan þeawas forlætað þe eowre fæderas heoldon, and hæðenra manna þeawas lufiað … mid ðam ġeswuteliað þæt ge forseoð eower cynn and eowre yldran … þonne ge … tysliað eow on Denisc, ableredum hneccan and ablendum eagum. (ed. Clayton, source)

[I also tell you, brother Edward, that you act wrongly when you abandon the English customs which your fathers observed and love the customs of heathens, wit them you show that you despise you kin and your elders, when you adorn yourself in Danish fashion, with bared neck and blinded eyes.]

While no depictions of Vikings (or Anglo-Saxons) with bared necks and blinded eyes have survived, it has been suggested that the Normans on the Bayeux Tapestry are typically depicted without hair in their necks:

 

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Normans rocking a bare-neck-haircut on the Bayeux Tapestry (source)

 

Now why would Anglo-Saxon men want to mimic the hairstyle of the Vikings? The answer: for the ladies. A thirteenth-century chronicle ascribed to John of Wallingford (d. 1258) describes how Danes living in England were able to seduce various Anglo-Saxon women, due to their fashionable hair and beards:

They were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many such frivolous devices. In this manner they laid siege to the virtue of the married women, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobles to be their concubines. (trans. Stevenson, source)

The best way to win an Anglo-Saxon woman’s heart? Viking haircuts and weekly baths!

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Heads on sticks: Decapitation and impalement in early medieval England

In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.

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Impaled heads in The Last Kingdom © BBC

Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred

Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral  which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).

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Left: Illustrated initial showing the martyrdom of Saint Oswald © Darmstadt, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, HS 2766, 44r. Right: Head Reliquary of St. Oswald © Hildesheim Cathedral

The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:

The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)

Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.

Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters

Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested,  suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695).  These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.

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Heads on old London Bridge (source)

An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists

The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.

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Beowulf, ll. 1637-1639 © The British Library, Cotton Vitelius A.xv, ff. 168v-169r

A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!

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Raven pecking at an impaled head on Noah’s ark. © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 15r

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:

Works refered to:

  • Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
  • Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
  • Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.

 

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Decapitation and impalement scene in the margin of an early-fourteenth-century manuscript of the Decretals of Gregory IX. © The British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, 208r

Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England

Beheading is a spectacular way of punishing one’s enemies and often triggers the literary imagination, ranging from Beowulf cutting off Grendel’s head to the Queen of Hearts’s famous phrase “Off with her head!”. This blog post calls attention to the beheadings of three Anglo-Saxons, whose decapitation stories may have been embellished by later generations.

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Illustration of Ps. 128:4 (“The Lord who is just will cut the necks of sinners”) in the Harley Psalter. © The British Library, Harley 603, fol. 67r

1) The beheading of Æthelberht of East Anglia: The head that tripped up a blind man 

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Annal 792 (for the year 794) in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fol. 26v

“Her Offa Myrcna cyning het Æþelbryhte þæt heafod ofaslean”

[In this year, King Offa of the Mercians commanded Æthelberht’s head to be cut off.]

The annal for the year 794 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is straightforward but leaves much to the imagination. What exactly were the circumstances of this decapitation of Æthelberht of East Anglia? In 2014, the finding of a coin bearing Æthelberht’s name and the title “rex” appeared to hold the answer: Æthelberht had claimed independence, to the annoyance of the much more powerful ruler Offa, who had him decapitated (see news article here). Medieval authors came up with more inventive motives for the murder of Æthelberht…

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Offa of Mercia by thirteenth-century artist Matthew Paris, Æthelberht’s head bottom-left (source)

The anonymous author of the twelfth-century Latin Vitae Offarum Duorum (The Lives of Two Offas), for instance, attributed the beheading not to Offa, but to Offa’s scheming wife Cwenthryth. Æthelberht, according to this story, was to marry Offa’s daughter, but Cwenthyrth did not agree and plotted to have Æthelberht murdered. Her plan involved an elaborate boobytrap:

And next to the royal couch she also had a seat prepared, fashioned in the most elegant style and surrounded with curtains on every side. Under which a deep trench was prepared for the heinous plan to be carried through. […] And when he [Æthelberht] settled on the aforesaid seat, he collapsed together with the chair into the bottom of the trench. (trans. Swanton, p. 94-96)

Inside the trench, Cwenthryth’s henchmen were waiting: they suffocated Æthelberht with pillows and stabbed him to death. Since the dead body was still throbbing, they also cut off his head. Thus, Æthelberht, according to the author, died like John the Baptist, “entangled in a woman’s snares”.

Like John the Baptist, Æthelberht became a saint. The anonymous author of the Vitae Offarum Duorum notes how, when Æthelberht’s bodily remains were hurriedly hidden during the night, the head was accidentally dropped onto the ground and left there. By divine providence, a blind man stumbled upon the head:

Finding the aforesaid head a stumbling block to the feet however, he wondered what it was, because his foot was tangled up in the head’s long golden curls. And touching it more carefully, he realised that it was the head of a decapitated man. And intuitively he realised that this was the head of someone holy, and a young man. And when his hands had been steeped in blood, and sometimes in the place where his eyes had been, he put the blood on his face. And immediately his sight was restored. (trans. Swanton, pp. 96, 98)

And that’s how Æthelberht was proven to be a saint: his head tripped up a blind man; the blind man used his blood for face-paint and had his sight restored. Amen!

2) The beheading of St Edmund: The head that kept on shouting

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Annal 870 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fol. 33v

7 þy wintra Eadmund cyning him wið feaht, 7 þa Daniscan sige namon, 7 þone cyning ofslogon

[and that winter King Edmund fought against them and the Danes took the victory and killed the king]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s report of the death of Edmund of East Anglia is once more devoid of detail. The story of Edmund’s death was later greatly expanded. The Anglo-Saxon abbot and homilist Ælfric (d. c. 1010), for instance, composed an Old English saint’s life (based on a Latin original by the monk Abbo of Fleury), in which he described how the Vikings brutally martyred Edmund. In Ælfric’s version of the events, Edmund does not fight the Danes but lays down his weapons and lets the Vikings have their way with him. The pagans began by using Edmund for target practice, shooting him so full of arrows that Edmund resembled a hedgehog (“swilce igles brysta” [like the bristles of a hedgehog]). Next, they struck off the king’s head and hid it in the bramble bushes:

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Viking behead Edmund and hide his head in the brambles. © New York, Morgan Library, M. 736, fol. 14v

The Vikings then returned to their ships and departed. Some time later, Edmund’s people return and find their king’s headless body. They start to search for the head and that is when a miracle happens:

Hi eodon þa secende and symle clypigende, swa swa hit gewunelic is þam ðe on wuda gað oft: “Hwær eart þu nu gefera?” And him andwyrde þæt heafod, “Her, her, her!” and swa gelome clypode andswarigende him eallum, swa oft swa heora ænig clypode, oþþæt hi ealle becomen þurh ða clypunga him to.

[Then they went looking and continually calling, as is customary with those who often go into the woods, “Where are you now, friend?” and the head answered them, “Here! Here! Here!” and so frequently called out, answering them all as often as any of them shouted, so that they all came to it because of the shouting”] (ed. and trans. Treharne, pp. 149-151)

They find the head, guarded by a wolf, and bury the head alongside Edmund’s body.

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Edmund’s head shouting ‘heer, heer, heer’ from John Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund. © The British Library, Yates Thompson 47, fol. 54 r

Edmund’s capital miracles do not end there. Ælfric relates how, when they dig up Edmund’s body and head some years later, they find that the head has been reattached: God works in mysterious ways, indeed!

3) The beheading of Earl Byrhtnoth: The head that was stolen by Vikings

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Annal 991 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fol. 33v

Her wæs Gypeswic gehergod, 7 æfter þæm swyðe raþe wæs Byrihtnoð ealdorman ofslagan æt Meldune.

[In this year, Ipswich was ravished, and very soon after that Ealdorman Byrhtnoth was killed at Maldon].

Annal 991 of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains another bare report on the death of Anglo-Saxon. For more details about the death of Byrhtnoth  we need to look elsewhere. The anonymous author of one of the greatest poems in Old English, The Battle of Maldon, elaborated on how Byrhtnoth and his men heroically (or: foolishly) fought the Vikings on the beach of Maldon, after yielding them free passage over a narrow causeway (see The Battle of Maldon: A Student Doodle Edition). In the poem, Byrhtnoth is struck fatally by a spear in the chest and dies uttering some final words of inspiration to his retainers.

The twelfth-century Liber Eliensis tells a different story, indicating that Byrhtnoth was, in fact, beheaded by the Vikings:

On the last day, and with few of his men left, Brithnoth knew he was going to die, but this did not lessen his efforts against the enemy. Having inflicted an enormous slaughter on the Danes, he almost put them to flight. But eventually the enemy took comfort from the small number of Brithnoth’s men, and, forming themselves into a wedge, rushed against him in one body. After an enormous effort the Danes barely managed to cut off Brithnoth’s head as he fought. They carried the head away with them and fled to their own land. (trans. Calder & Allan, p. 190)

The Liber Eliensis also reports that the abbot of Ely went to the battlefield to collect the remains of Byrhtnoth and buried the headless body in Ely Abbey, replacing the head with a lump of wax: “But in place of the head he put a round ball of wax, by which sign the body was recognized long afterwards in our own times and placed with honor among the others” (trans Calder & Allan, p. 192). The Liber Eliensis‘s reference to the placement of Byrhtnoth’s remains “among the others” is to a twelfth-century shrine of the seven benefactors of Ely Abbey, which is now found in Ely Cathedral:

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Shrine of Byrhtnoth and six other benefactors of Ely Cathedral (source)

Did the Vikings indeed steal Byrhnoth’s head or is this another case of literary embellishment? Judging by a report of how the bones of the seven Ely benefactors were uncovered in May 1769, it seems that this legend has a ring of truth to it:

Whether their relics were still to be found was uncertain … The bones were found inclosed, in seven distinct cells or cavities, each twenty-two inches in length, seven broad, and eighteen deep, made within the wall under their painted effigies; but in that under Duke Brithnoth there were no remains of the head, though we search diligently …It was observed that the collar bone had been nearly cut through, as by a battle axe or two-handed sword. (James Bentham to the Dean of Exeter; cit. in Stubbs, pp. 92-93)

If the Vikings did indeed behead Byrhtnoth, this raises the question of why the anonymous poet of The Battle of Maldon did not include this detail in his poem; perhaps he considered it ‘fake news’.

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:

Works referred to:

  • Calder, D. G., & M. J. B. Allen, Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry (London, 1976)
  • Stubbs, C. W., Historical Memorials of Ely Cathedral (New York, 1897)
  • Swanton, M. (Trans.), The Lives of Two Offas (Crediton, 2010)
  • Treharne, E., Old and Middle English c. 890-c.1450: An Anthology, 3rd edn. (Malden, 2010)

Bonus bunny

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An even more bizarre beheading: the original killer bunny in the fourteenth-century Gorleston Psalter. © British Library, Add 49622, fol. 13v

 

 

#NotMyConqueror: Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon Women’s March against William the Conqueror

The newly elected president of the United States has triggered over half a million women to march in a political protest against the new leader of their country. While this Women’s March was record-breaking, a report in an eleventh-century manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that it may not have been unprecedented. This is the story of Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon rebellion against William the Conqueror. #NotMyConqueror

A Women’s March to Flat Holm in 1068

The entry for the year 1067 in manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes a number of events that took place in the two years following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Most of the executive orders by the new king William  are described in a rather negative manner, such as his imposing a heavy tax on the “earm folc” [poor people] and his siege of Exeter in 1068 (“he heom wel behet, 7 yfele gelæste” [he promised them well and he performed evil]). The annalist is more positive about a curious journey by Gytha, mother of the deceased King Harold Godwinson (d. 1066), who was joined by other women of good standing:

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Entry for 1067, manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.iv, fols. 81v-82r

7 her ferde Gyða ut, Haroldes modor, 7 manegra godra manna wif mid hyre, into Bradan Reolice, 7 þær wunode sume hwile, 7 swa for þanon ofer sæ to Sancte Audomare.

[and in this year Gytha, Harold’s mother, went out and many wives of good men with her, to Flat Holme, and remained there for a while and thus from there over sea to St Omer (France)]

Gytha’s ‘Women’s March’ is part of the English rebellion against William the Conqueror and probably followed the Siege of Exeter in 1068, in which Gytha played an important role.

Gytha and her sons: Breaking their mother’s heart three times over.

Much of what we know about Gytha (fl. 1022-1068) derives from sources post-dating the Norman Conquest. According to the Domesday Book, she was one of the greatest women landowners in the year 1066 (Stafford 1989), She owed much of her wealth and status to her marriage to the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex (d. 1053), whom she bore many sons and daughters. Most of her sons became powerful earls and one of them even became king in 1066 (Harold Godwinson). While their careers may have made Gytha proud, some of her sons’ actions may have broken her heart.

Sweyn Godwinson, earl of Herefordshire (d. 1058), for instance, shocked his mother by insisting that Godwin was not his real father. Instead, he claimed to be the son of Cnut the Great (d. 1035). Sweyn’s claim was recorded in the late eleventh-century Cartulary of Hemming (a collection of charters and lawsuits regarding lands in Worcester). Hemming also included Gytha’s reaction:

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Hemming’s Cartulary. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius A.xiii, fol. 129v

 Quam nimie arrogantie vanitatem mater illius, conjunx videlicet prefati ducis Godwini, exhorrescens, multis ex occidentalium Saxonum parte adductis nobilibus feminis, se matrem illius, et Godwinum patrem ejus esse, magnis juramentis et illarum probavit testmoniis.

[His mother, the wife of the aforesaid Earl Godwin, horrified by his excessive arrogance and vanity, brought together many noble ladies from the West Saxons, and proved by great oaths and their testimony that she was his mother and Godwine was his father.]

Sweyn disagreed and Hemming reports that while Cnut and Sweyn may not have shared blood and genes, they did share certain shortcomings, such as pride and excessive lusts of the flesh. To illustrate the latter, Hemming narrates how Sweyn had once abducted the abbess of Leominster and had kept her as a wife for a year. He had returned the abbess after threats of excommunication by the  bishop of Worcester but had then retaliated by stealing some estates from the diocese of Worcester. Clearly the black sheep of the family, Sweyn was exiled on various occasions and died in 1052 after returning from a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Sweyn certainly did not make his mommy proud!

Her two more famous sons, Tostig (d. 1066) and Harold, did little better. In the year of the Norman Conquest, Tostig had rebelled against the English throne and had sided with the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (d. 1066). In the Battle at Stamford Bridge, brother fought brother and Tostig was killed. Following the battle and his brother’s death, Harold hears the news that the Norman fleet of William has landed and Harold wants to rush south. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis (d. c. 1142) writes how Gytha, having just lost Tostig, feared for Harold’s life and tried to dissuade her son. Harold not only refused to listen to his elderly mother, he gave her a kick to boot: “[Harold] even forgot himself so far as to kick his mother when she hung about him in her too great anxiety to detain him with her” (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 482). Ouch!

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Battle of Stamford Bridge by Matthew Paris. © Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fol. 32v

Gytha’s fear became a reality and Harold did die at the Battle of Hastings. Orderic Vitalis reports how the grieving mother had asked William the Conqueror for the body of her son:

The sorrowing mother now offered to Duke William, for the body of Harold, its weight in gold; but the great conqueror refused such a barter, thinking it was not right that a mother should pay the last honours to one by whose insatiable ambition vast numbers lay unburied (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 488)

Another twelfth-century chronicler, William of Malmesbury (d. c. 1143) supplies an ‘alternative fact’: “He sent the body of Harold to his mother, who begged it, unransomed; though she proffered large sums by her messengers” (trans. Giles, pp. 280-281).

Whatever may have happened to Harold’s body, Gytha had every reason to detest William and she, a well-connected and wealthy noblewoman, became the focal point of resistance against the new Norman overlord.

Gytha and the Siege of Exeter in 1068

It is generally assumed that Gytha was involved in the resistance offered by the city of Exeter in 1068. Orderic Vitalis records how Exeter was the first city to fight for its freedom. The townsfolk barricaded the city walls and claimed “We will neither swear allegiance to the king, nor admit him within our walls; but will pay him tribute, according to ancient custom” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, p. 15). #NotMyConqueror. William gathered 500 horsemen and marched on Exeter. He besieged the town for eighteen days and committed various acts of cruelty, including the blinding of one the hostages. William of Malmesbury related William’s ferocity to an intriguing action by one of the Exeter townsfolk:

Indeed he had attacked it with more ferocity, asserting that those irreverent men would be deserted by God’s favour, because one of them, standing upon the wall, had bared his posteriors, and had broken wind, in contempt of the Normans. (trans. Giles, p. 282)

That’s right, it seems as if someone farted in the king’s general direction! After eighteen days, Exeter capitulated, but Gytha had escaped and began making her way to Flat Holm.

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“I fart in your general direction!” Monty Python quote may be based on Siege of Exeter in 1068.

 A Women’s March or a Women’s Flight?

The Siege of Exeter was a definite blow to Gytha and her rebellion. However, her march might still be regarded as an act of defiance against William, if only because a group of travelling noblewomen was sure to draw the people’s attention. It certainly made an impression on the annalist of annal 1067 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  Whereas he had denounced William’s actions following the Norman Conquest (see above), the annalist writes approvingly of Gytha’s going out, noting how the women who joined her are the “wives of good men”. Orderic Vitalis, generally more appreciative of William the Conqueror, is more negative about Gytha’s retreat to France. After going over how various English uprisings were justly put to rest, Orderic describes how Gytha “secretly collected vast wealth, and from her fear of King William crossed over to France, never to return” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, pp. 23-24).

So, was it a women’s march or a women’s flight? Much depends, it would seem, on the political stance of the person bringing the news – a notion that still very much applies to this day and age.

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Group of women in the Old English Hexateuch – Pussyhats added © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, fol. 92r

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:

Works referred to:

  • Stafford, Pauline, ‘Women in Domesday’, Reading Medieval Studies 15 (1989), 75-94
  • Forester, T. A. (Trans.), The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis (London, 1853-1854)
  • Giles, J.A. (Trans.), William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the English Kings (London, 1847)

 

An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses the time when a peasant beheaded himself.

The Vita S. Ecgwini (VSE) is an account of the life of Ecgwine, bishop of Worcester (?693–717) and founder of Evesham Abbey. The Latin text has been dated to after the year 1016 and is ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Byrhtferth of Ramsey. This saint’s life is full of miraculous tales, including the story of how a long-lost key was found in the innards of a fish, and the story of how a farmer had a vision of Mary in the hiding place of his sow. The tale that struck me most, however, was the tale of the Anglo-Saxon peasant that beheaded himself.

Off with my head!

One day, a certain peasant, “fattened on worldy wealth” (VSE, iv. 10, trans. Lapidge 2009), claimed a substantial part of the land which belonged to the monastery of Evesham. Wigred, the prior of that same monastery, decided that the matter would be settled by having both the peasant and himself claim the land by means of an oath on the relics of Saint Ecgwine. The relics were placed in the middle of the land which both the prior and the peasant claimed to own:

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When the peasant came forward to swear his oath, he felt quite confident, since he “had craftily taken a bit of dirt from his own dwelling and put it – at the devil’s instigation – in his shoe. […] He sought to act fraudulently to this end, that through this soil he might be able to swear that he was standing on his own land” (VSE, iv. 10, trans. Lapidge 2009).  A nice trick!

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Before swearing his oath, the peasant confidently raised up his weapons in the air. That’s when God intervened:

That madman was in utter rage; he even raised up his weapons and his arrogant right hand, with which he intended to fix fiercely in the ground the scythe which he was carrying in his hand; but the just judge did not wish it so: “He directed the suffering on to his head, and the malice on to his skull” [cf. Psalm 7:17]. That rascal fixed the shaft of the scythe so strongly in the ground that with the one blow he cut off his own foul head and neck – not making of himself a martyr for Christ’s love, but dismissing himself from this life, the devil gaining the victory. (VSE, iv.10, trans. Lapidge 2009)

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And that’s how a greedy peasant lost his own head so that the monks of Evesham could hold on to the land that was rightfully theirs.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

References:

  • Lapidge, M., ed. and trans., Byrthferth of Ramsey: The Lives of St. Oswald and St. Ecgwine (Oxford, 2009).

 

Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?

The second episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 29 October, 9 pm, BBC 2) introduces Prince Alfred, who would later become King Alfred the Great (d. 899). In his first scene, Alfred is portrayed as a man tormented both physically (because of his health) and morally (because of his lustful feelings towards the flustered maidservant that had just left his room). This blog post highlights some sources related to the historical Alfred and explores what they reveal about his passions…and his piles.

Alfred (The Last Kingdom, BBC) (SOURCE)

Alfred the Great (849-899): An unlikely king, a sickly sovereign

Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V
Genealogical tree of Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858) © The British Library, Royal 14 B V (Source)

Known as one of the greatest monarchs of Anglo-Saxon history, defeater of the Danes and instigator of an important educational reform, Alfred was, in fact, an unlikely candidate for the throne of Wessex. For one, he was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (reign 839-858), which means he had four older brothers: Æthelstan (d. 852), Æthelred (King of Wessex, 858-860), Æthelbald (King of Wessex, 860-865) and Æthelberht (King of Wessex, 865-871). Only after all his brothers had died, Alfred (apparently, Æthelwulf had run out of Æthel-names…) became eligible to rule. Given that he was the youngest of five, Alfred was probably groomed for an ecclesiastical career (his father took him to see the pope, twice), which may explain his interests in learning in his later life. Another reason why Alfred may have been considered an unlikely king at the time was because he suffered from a terrible illness, as is revealed by a biography written during his life by Bishop Asser in the year 893.

Be careful what you wish for!

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1722 facsimile of manuscript containing Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ (source)

Asser’s Life of King Alfred is a unique source on Alfred’s life and character, written by one of his own courtiers. Asser not only records Alfred’s battles with the Vikings and his dealings at court, he also reports some of Alfred’s medical details, mentioning that, from his youth, Alfred had suffered from “ficus” [piles, haemeroids].

Interestingly, Asser also tells us how Alfred acquired his piles in his early days:

when he [Alfred] realized that he was unable to abstain from carnal desire, fearing he would incur god’s disfavour if he did anything contrary to His will … [he would pray] that Almighty God through His mercy would more staunchly strengthen his resolve in the love of His service by means of some illness which he would be able to tolerate … when he had done this frequently with great mental devotion, after some time he contracted the disease of piles through God’s gift. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74)

In other words, young Alfred, afraid of his own dirty thoughts, asked God to grant him a distraction and God gave him haemeroids!

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: “A sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians”

Asser’s biography also records that Alfred was miraculously cured from his piles when , prior to his wedding, Alfred had asked God to “substitute for the pangs of the present and agonizing infirmity some less severe illness” (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 74). The young prince was miraculously cured: hurray! His regained health would be short-lived, however, since he suddenly fell ill on his wedding night: he had been struck by an illness that proved incurable. This new disease would torment him the rest of his life, as Asser noted:

he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such that he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomily dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, ch. 91)

Bald's Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII
Bald’s Leechbook © The British Library, Royal 12 D XVII (Source)

While the disease may have been unknown to the Anglo-Saxon physicians, modern-day scholars have used Asser’s description to diagnose Alfred with Crohn’s disease (Craig 1991). This diagnosis is corroborated by another document made during Alfred’s lifetime: Bald’s Leechbook.

Bald’s Leechbook is a compilation of various medical texts, which was possibly made at Alfred’s own request. Within this compilation, there is a section that is concluded by “þis eal het þus secgan ælfrede cyninge domine helias patriarcha on gerusalem” [Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem (c. 879-907), ordered all of this to be told to King Alfred]. Included in this section are remedies for the alleviation of constipation, diarrhoea, pain in the spleen and internal tenderness, which all fit well with the pathology of Crohn’s disease(Craig 1991, p. 304). The Old English text also records that Elias sent him a “hwita stan” [a white stone], which could be used against all sorts of illnesses; as an added bonus, the white stone would also protect the owner from lightning and thunders (the text is edited by Cockayne 1864, Vol. II, pp. 288-291).

To make a long story short: Alfred was a passionate boy, God gave him piles and the patriarch of Jerusalem gave him a pebble. Poor Alfred.

If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following blog posts about Alfred the Great:

Join 347 other followers

Works refered to:

  • Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
  • Cockayne, T. O. (ed.), Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England (London, 1846; available here)
  • Craig, G., ‘Alfred the Great: A Diagnosis’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 84 (1991), 303-305.

A medieval giant on display: Last resting place of Beowulf’s Hygelac discovered?

According to an early medieval ‘book of monsters’, the bones of the sixth-century, gigantic king Hygelac were shown to travelers on an island in the Rhine, where this river flowed into the sea. Recent excavations in Oegstgeest (South Holland) and the finding of the unique silver Oegstgeest bowl have brought to light international activities in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. Could these excavations hold a clue to the location of the bones of Hygelac, who is also mentioned in the Old English poem Beowulf?

A Book of Monsters

Hermaphrodites, dragons, centaurs, pygmies, elephants and a whole lot more. Around the year 700, an anonymous Englishman wrote the Liber monstorum de diversis generibus [The book of monsters of all sorts] and provided an overview of the ‘freaks of nature’ that he had heard and read about. A ninth-century manuscript of the text is currently held in the University Library in Leiden (VLO 60). In this overview of monsters, the author describes Hygelac, a gigantic king of the Geats (a people that lived in southern Sweden):

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Et fiunt mire magnitudinis ut rex Higlacus qui imperauit Getas… Leiden, UB, VLO 60, fol. 3r.

There are also monsters of an incredible size, such as King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was murdered by the Franks; from the age of twelve, no horse could carry him. His bones are preserved on an island in the river Rhine, where it flows into the sea, and they are shown to travelers from afar as a marvel.

Apparently, an Englishman around the year 700 had heard a of an island in the Rhine estuary, where travelers would come from faraway and where they would be shown the gigantic bones of Hygelac. Could this be Oegstgeest? And who was this King Hygelac?

Oegstgeest: An island in the Rhine?

Present-day Oegstgeest certainly does not look like an island, but the medieval situation was wholly different.  The name Oegstgeest derives from the personal name Osger and the Middle Dutch word ‘geest’, a term denoting a raised area of sandy soil. In the Middle Ages, Oegstgeest would have been more elevated than the surrounding landscape, which consisted mainly of water (the Rhine and various waterways) and marshland. As such, medieval Oegstgeest may very well be considered an island in the Rhine, which then still had its main estuary in nearby Katwijk (on the medieval history of Oegstgeest, see Lugt 2009).

Recent excavations in Oegstgeest uncovered not only the unique silver bowl, but also imported pottery and wine barrels. Together with a previous find of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle in nearby Rijnsburg, these finds are indications of international activity in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. These archaeological discoveries might now be linked to the text of the Liber monstrorum and the island in the Rhine estuary where, according to the English author, “travelers from afar” were shown the bones of Hygelac.

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The Rijnsburg belt buckle and the Oegstgeest bowl. Both are part of the collection of the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden.

Who was Hygelac?

Although the Liber monstrorum is the only text to comment on Hygelac’s size, his death around the year 525 AD is described in three early medieval texts. The historian Gregory of Tours (ca. 538-594) wrote that Hygelac died in a naval battle, as he returned from a raid to the north of Gaul. The anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written two hundred years later, gives a similar story, but places Hygelac’s raid in the area inhabited by the “Att-oarii”, a people that possibly lived near Nijmegen (Storms 1970).

Hygelac is also mentioned in Beowulf, a long poem in Old English (the language spoken in early medieval England). The poet reports that Hygelac took on the combined forces of Franks, Frisians and “Hetware” (the “Att-oarii” of the Liber Historiae Francorum) and that he died in Frisia:

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Higelac cwom faran flotherge on Fresna land… London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, fol. 197r.

                              Higelac cwom
faran flotherge        on Fresna land,
þær hyne Hetware        hilde gehnægdon,
elne geeodon       mid ofermægene,
þæt se byrnwiga       bugan sceolde,
feoll on feðan;       nalles frætwe geaf
ealdor dugoðe. (Beowulf, ll. 2914b-2920a)

[Hygelac came sailing with a naval army to Frisia, where the “Hetware” assailed him in battle. They acted with courage and superior force, so that the byrnie-warrior had to bow down, he fell in the battle; this leader did not at all give treasures to his warriors.]

In the early Middle Ages, ‘Frisia’ was larger than present-day Friesland and it extended along the North Sea coast, from North-Western Germany south to well beyond the Rhine estuary.

Where did Hygelac die?

Concerning the location of Hygelac’s death, the early medieval sources are not in agreement: to the north of Gaul, near Nijmegen or in Frisia? Gregory of Tours’ naval battle, the mentioning of the Frisians in Beowulf and the text of the Liber monstrorum all seem to indicate a location at least close to the North Sea.

Hygelac’s bones have never been found. In the fifties, a scholar suggested that the bones may have been kept on the island Goeree Overflakkee (Magoun 1953). Given the recent archeological excavations in Oegstgeest and the evidence outlined above, Oegstgeest within the Rhine estuary appears a more likely option. Due to the scarcity of sources for the early Middle Ages, the best we can do is speculate, but I would not be surprised if the archeologists in Oegstgeest should stumble upon some gigantic bones in the ground!

This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the Leiden University website. If you liked this blog post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or continue reading the following posts on Beowulf:

Join 347 other followers

Works referred to:

  • Lugt, F. (2009), Het Goed van Oegstgeest: De Middeleeuwen in Oegstgeest, Poelgeest, Kerkwerve, Rijnsburg en Nieuw-Rhijngeest. Leiden: Ginkgo.
  • Magoun, F., Jr. (1953), ‘The Geography of Hygelac’s Raid on the Lands of the West Frisians and the Hætt-ware, ca. 530 AD’, English Studies 34.
  • Storms, G. (1970), ‘The Significance of Hygelac’s Raid’, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 14,3-26.