Exhibition review: Anglo-Saxons at the British Library

04 January 2019

Nicholas Cranfield visits the British Library’s fine Anglo-Saxon exhibition

© Lichfield Cathedral

The Lichfield angel

The Lichfield angel

STAND up if you live in Pentney, Bradwell, Crondall, Britford, Goldborough, Yeavering, or, for that matter, Dunwich, Repton, York, Lindisfarne, Winchester, Glastonbury, Lichfield, Worcester, Bury St Edmunds, or, inevitably, Canterbury, Rochester, or London. The “Anglo-Saxon world” unfurled in your communities.

A much-loved college friend of mine, sadly now dead by his own hand rather than at the hands of the Camorra, whom he ruthlessly explored in his histories of modern Italy, enjoyed a hospitable and friendly association with All Souls College, Oxford.

He relished the fact that here was a college that might admit Prize Fellows on the basis of answering a single essay question: “How Anglo-Saxon was Anglo-Saxon England?”, for instance. That particular criterion, of an essay question, may have been abolished, but the conundrum that that title offered remains and is brilliantly considered in this exhibition that spans six centuries.

It begins with a rare mid-fifth-century sculpture of a seated man (from Spong Hill, Norfolk), and fittingly climaxes with a copy of the Domesday Book, recording for the Norman invaders 13,418 settlements of Anglo-Saxon England in 1086.

With or without the shadow of Brexit, the exhibition reminds us how closely these islands have always been a part of the European landscape, sharing their saints. The Benedictine Boniface from Crediton was a missionary bishop in Germany who was martyred there in old age (754), and the Northumbrian-born Willibrord (feast day 7 November), bishop of Utrecht, lies buried in the monastery he founded at Echternach (Luxembourg).

© sam lane photographyCodex Amiatinus, on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” at the British Library

In what other period of our history have so many lived who became saints in the universal calendar? The Church of England Sanctorale still includes Benedict Biscop of Wearmouth, Chad at Lichfield and Wulfstan in Worcester, Cedd of Lastingham, Bishop Felix and King Edmund among the East Saxons, Cuthbert, Dunstan, Alcuin of York, the Venerable Bede, Aldhelm of Sherborne, Hilda of Whitby, Etheldreda, and Ethelburga. And the list goes on, peaking with King Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066.

Locally, the cultus of many preserves their memory, among them Eanswith at Folkestone, Edith at Wilton, Edburga at Pershore, and Wulfstan at Worcester, who died carrying out his daily ritual washing of the feet of 12 paupers. St Swithun has long been remembered outside Winchester as some kind of early weather forecaster. Members of Oxford University will spot that the exhibition opened on the feast of St Frideswide.

But what might at first appear to be a godly age was also one that confronted violence. You only have to read Beowulf, the only surviving copy of which is on display in this extraordinarily rich exhibition, to learn that at first hand.

The Archbishop of York Wulfstan (d.1023) lamented the coming of war in his Sermon of the Wolf in 1009: “there has been harrying and hunger, burning and bloodshed.” Three years later, the Archbishop of Canterbury was clubbed to death on the Thames at Greenwich, and in 1016 Cnut claimed the country by conquest. After his death, Cnut was commemorated as king of five countries: Denmark, England, Wales, Scotland, and Norway.

© British library boardThe Vespasian Psalter

The exhibition at the British Library celebrates kingship, the growth of literacy, and the ever-present threat of war, from the Sutton Hoo burial site and the mangled remains of the Staffordshire Hoard to a sixth-century sculptural fragment most probably from the gable end of St Chad’s shrine in Lichfield which that was found in 2003.

That we know so much about Anglo-Saxon history is pre-eminently because it had been written up. The earliest known copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge University Library) was owned in the 18th century by Bishop Moore of Ely. Bede took charge of publishing his own book when he finished it in 731, distributing texts to other monasteries to be copied.

He died four years later at Jarrow, and, to judge by the updating on the final page, it is possible that the “Moore Bede” was copied within two years of his death. The scribe, who would have known Bede if he worked at Wearmouth, worked in haste, writing in Insular minuscule script, which was easier to read and to write than uncial, presumably to satisfy the demand for Bede’s work. It was important enough for King Alfred to instruct that it be translated into English, as we see in the manuscript loaned by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Visually, this must be one of the most striking exhibitions that London has seen in years, and it is easy to get lost in the detail, whether of Elizabeth’s finger-wagging disdain for those who challenge the naming of the Forerunner as John in a book of chants “The Caligula Troper”, or in the illustrations for Psalm 13 in the psalter decorated near Rheims around 825 (Utrecht) and copied in Canterbury in the 11th century (British Library).

Guthlac was a nobleman who lived in the kingdom of Mercia, becoming a religious at Repton before living inside a burial mound at Crowland where he died in 714. A mischievous later reader has inked in a pair of spectacles on the face of one bystander in the “cartoon strip” Guthlac Roll.

Written in square miniscule script, the manuscript page from a poem “In Praise of the Holy Cross”, a work written in the 830s by Hrabanus Maurus, includes a palindrome inscribed on a gold cross set within a grid formed by 35 x 43 characters. The author is shown kneeling at the foot of the cross, the relentless lines of text cutting through his body (Trinity College, Cambridge).

Next to it is a celebrated image from St Dunstan’s Classbook (Bodleian Library) depicting a seated Christ in Majesty with the author kneeling at one side, cupping his cowled head in one hand. A later note claims that this is a self-portrait, penned by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.

There is any number of other such secondary relics, for those who wish to see such things. St Boniface wrote marginalia in the text of a Commentary on the Apocalypse by Primasius, a bishop from Justinianopolis in what is now Tunisia, and two centuries later Dunstan annotated the same page.

© British Library BoardBeowulf

Alongside it is a calendar of feast days, open at November and December, in the margins of which St Willibrord has recounted his 690 journey across Francia, and five years later his consecration as bishop in Rome at the hands of Pope Sergius. From Bede (Ecclesiastical History V, 11) we learn that he was consecrated on the feast of St Cecilia in her titular church in Trastevere and allowed to spend only a fortnight in Rome. The diary entry is dated by the septuagenarian bishop to 728.

In death, St Cuthbert (d.687) lay his head on a red-goatskin-covered copy of the Fourth Gospel which is now owned by the British Library. It is the earliest known European book with its original binding intact. According to a note on the flyleaf, it was recovered from his coffin when his body was translated to its shrine in Durham Cathedral in 1104. I rather felt that it should be returned to Durham.

As well as an earlier Gospel Book (mid-seventh century), the Dean and Chapter of Durham have also loaned a somewhat damaged page from another Book of Gospels, dated c.700. What survives of the opening of the Prologue of St John’s Gospel suggests how magnificent the work would have been in a style that is reminiscent of the Book of Kells.

© British Library BoardBeowulf

Perhaps the most exceptional loan is a large-scale (50 x 34cms) single-volume Bible, the so-called Codex Amiatinus, with which Abbot Ceolfrith set out from Wearmouth in 716, inscribing it as a gift to the shrine of St Peter at Rome. In the event, neither the donor nor the gift ever reached the Holy City. The abbot died at Langres, and, although he entrusted other Northumbrian monks to complete the seven hundred miles, the book, said to be the most accurate Vulgate Bible in existence, was unscrupulously repackaged and sent as a gift to the South Tuscan monastery of San Salvatore at Monte Amiata.

The volume (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) has never left Italy since 716, presumably to ensure that it is not reappropriated. It is open at a page where we see the prophet Ezra, vested as a Jewish priest, writing with the book balanced on his knees. Behind him is a cupboard on his study wall in which is kept a nine-volume Bible. The decoration is of such high quality that it was long thought to have been the work of an Italian monk in the sixth century rather than one of the jewels of the Anglo-Saxon world.


“Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1, until 19 February. Phone 01937 546546.


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