King Offa’s tomb

Coin of King Offa

Coin of King Offa

How does one leave a legacy? All leaders care about their legacy. Modern politicians seem preoccupied by both leaving a legacy and what it will be. Medieval kings did not count on historians to keep their legacy or even memory alive. Most early medieval kings are known only as a name in a list, a signatory on a charter, maybe found on a couple of coins if they are lucky. Merican King Offa is a classic case in point. Everything we know about him comes from outside references, coins, charters, and landmarks. These sources suggest a major, long-lived king, but we have no official narrative record of his reign from within England.

“Overall, Matthew’s writings about Offa indicate how, 450 years after his death, even people with the skill and desire to learn about him had little to go on. What St.Alban’s historian wrote about Offa’s tomb is revealing in this regard. Hearsay suggested Offa was buried in 796 in a chapel on the banks of the river Ouse near Bedford, north of St. Alban’s, but the river soon washed the chapel away. Summer time bathers in the Ouse told Matthew  [of Paris] that sometimes one could spy Offa’s sepulcher beneath the river’s clear waters; however, all attempts to retrieve it failed. Like the historical figure about whom Matthew wanted to know, Offa’s tomb was unreachable.” (Squatriti, 2004, p. 51)

 There is at least some basis for Offa’s burial near Bedford. King Offa’s wife Cynthryth became an Abbess at Cookham and has charge over a church at Bedford where her husband was buried. However, was he buried in a church or in a chapel so close to the river that it eventually wound up submerged so deeply that no could get close to it? Or could it be a Roman mausoleum? And why were they trying to reach it? Had St Alban’s or locals really tried to “retrieve it”, or just to confirm that it is Offa? We are left with even more questions that Matthew of Paris.


Squatriti, Paolo. “Offa’s Dyke Between Nature and Culture.” Environmental History, 2004, 37–56.

Btw, this is my 400th post on Heavenfield!

Glasses on Guthlac’s Monks?

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6  'the Guthlac roll'

Roundel 14, Harley Y.6; ‘the Guthlac roll’

I was looking at the Guthlac roll in the British Library online and I noticed something rather odd. Have you noticed it? The two outer figures are wearing glasses! According to the British Library page for the roll, its dates to c. 1175-1225 and is believed to be prototypes for stained glass windows. This seems a bit early for glasses. The guy on the right has particularly modern looking specs. Come to think of it, the one on the left in addition to the glasses has a rather flamboyant feather in his hat. What do you all think? Are these objects c. 12th century or has someone added these to the roll?

The Bone Thief: Stealing St Oswald


[I didn’t intend to be gone this long. I hope someone is still out there!]

Its been years since I’ve taken much time to read novels. I’m embarrassed to say how few I’ve read in the last couple years, but the Bone Thief finally was a temptation too great. How could I resist a novel about the theft/transfer of St Oswald’s bones from Bardney to Gloucester?

VM Whitworth‘s The Bone Thief did not disappoint. Readers of this blog will know that Oswald’s relics were enshrined at St Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester, so I don’t want to give away anything else. Not surprisingly it follows a quest tale type but it’s not a very typical quest. He doesn’t have to go  very far, but Whitworth finds plenty of obstacles and surprises to keep the tension. She nails the shifting loyalties and tensions of the time perfectly and managed to place Oswald’s relics centrally in West Saxon – Mercian politics  without cheapening their spiritual importance. I loved the way she treated St Oswald throughout the book (and what a nice little surprise at the end!).  I highly recommend the Bone Thief.

For a glimpse into Lady Ætehlfled’s Mercia, here is a previous post on their defense of Chester.

All Cadwaladr’s Mothers

[From the archives with a new title: a little bit of folklore for the first Friday in June.]

Cadwaladr the blessed is one of my favorite Old British folklore figures so I can’t leave 2007 behind without one long post on him. A paraphrase translation follows of some matrilinear notes on Cadwaladr in the Bonedd y Arwyr (pedigrees of the heroes) taken from PC Bartun, Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, Cardiff, U of Wales Press, 1966. I can’t read Old Welsh so this paraphrase is based off the little Welsh I can figure out in the pedigree and translations I’ve seen elsewhere for these names.

These are the mothers of Cadwaladr and most of his paternal ancestors. This list of mothers assumes that you know Cadwaladr’s paternal lineage (given further below).

The Mothers of Cadwaladr o Gogail

  • Mother of Cadwaladr the blessed, daughter of Pybba, sister of Penda son of Pybba.
  • Mother of Cadwallon son of Cadfan, Tandreg the black, daughter of Cynan Garwen [of Powys]
  • Mother of Beli son of Rhun, Perwar daughter of Rhun of Great Wealh son of Einian son of Mar son of Keneu son of Coel [Hen]
  • Mother of Rhun ap Maelgwn, Gwallwenn daughter of Avallach
  • Mother of Maelgwn Gwynedd, Meddyf daughter of Faeldaf son of Dylan Draws of Nan Conway
  • Mother of Meddyf, daughter of Tallwch son of March/Mark son of Meirchiawn, sister of Tristain [Drystann, Drustain]
  • Mother Cadwallon Long Arm, Prawst daughter of Tithlyn Britain [Prydain]
To fill in a few gaps, here is Cadwaladr’s patrilinear pedigree from Bonedd y Sant (pedigrees of the saints):

Catwaladyr vendigeit [ap Kadwallawn ap Catuan] m. Yago m. Beli m. Rhun m. Maelgwn m Catwallawn llawhir m. Einyawn yrth m. Cuneda weldic” (Bartrum, p. 56)

Cadwaladr the blessed [son of Cadwallon son of Cadfan] son of Iago son of Beli son of Rhun son of Maelgwn (Gwynedd) son of Cadwallon Long Arm son of Einian yrth son of Cunedda the Chieftain/ruler.

Cadwaladr became an immensely important ancestor to later kings of Gwynedd because they all traced their descent from him. The remainder of the First Dynasty of Gwynedd were his son and grandsons and the Second Dynasty of Gywnedd legitimated itself through a matrilinear linkage to Cadwaladr’s dynasty. As Cadwallon was universally said to be Cadwaladr’s father, thus the Cadwallon who was slain by King Oswald at Denisesburna close to Heavenfield was the ancestor of all later kings of North Wales.

I should point out that the patrilinear genealogy above probably has at least incorrect link. The ancestry of Iago ap Beli is given differently in different genealogical tracts. There seems to have been claims that Rhun ap Maelgwn was a bastard or died childless. Anyway, Iago ap Beli was related to Maelgwn but probably not his great grandson.

Getting back to this massive matrilinear genealogy… the whole point is to link Cadwaladr to as many Old British heroes and genealogical tales as possible. One of the oddest and most common tales of Cadwaladr is that his mother was the sister of Penda of Mercia. This is also found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Notably, it is not improbable, even if it is too late to rely on. Heroes whom Cadwaladr is said to descend from include Cynan Garwen of Powys (such a marriage, again, is not improbable), a fabulously wealthy descedant of the northern Coel Hen (Ole King Coel was a merry ole soul…), King Mark and Tristain of Arthurian fame, and then some sovereignty type tales. Both Coel Hen and King Mark-Tristain link Cadwaladr to the stories of the Gwyr y Gogledd [Men of the North- British heroes whose land later became Northumbria].

Did you notice a familiar figure here from last week? Cadwaladr via Rhun ap Maelgwn is said to be the descendant of Avallach, whom we met before as the grandfather of Owain ap Urien in the tale of Modron at the Ford. So… this means that Maelgwn Gwynedd had a similar meeting at a ford as Urien Rheged. It is not a coincidence that both fathers have their kingdom (Gwynedd and Rheged) as their epithet; this means that they were the real foundation king for the kingdom. We might say “Penda Mercia”, “Ida Bernicia” or “Aethelfrith Northumbria” as an analogy. Both Maelgwn Gwynedd and Urien Rheged create their kingdoms out of some minor land holding of their family.The last two figures probably represent similar sovereignty tales with local and pan-Brittonic claims respectively. Dylan Draws of Nan Conway is obviously some type of local tale within Gwynedd (which borders or includes the River Conway). The last figure who epithet is “Britain” suggests a similar foundation role but this story has been lost.

These extended genealogies give us a peek into all of the folklore and oral ‘history’ that has been lost and some of the material that Geoffrey of Monmouth and other twelfth century authors drew upon.

7th century English ‘Princess’ Grave Revealed

Multiple news sites (Independent, NewsObserver, ) are reporting that the remains of a seventh century ‘princess’ has been found in a field near Cambridge. The approximately 16 year old woman was found laying on a bed with iron fittings; the fittings are all that remain of the bed. She was buried fully dressed with an iron knife, belt buckle, and a chained purse with glass beads, and most fabulously a 3 cm wide garnet pectoral cross around her neck. Unlike other recently found garnet jewelry and fittings, this cross is solid gold. The grave has been dated to c. 650 to 680, although carbon dates are not available yet.

Apparently the University of Cambridge released the photos popping up online in the stories linked above, so I’ll collect them here. Strangely, I can’t find anything on the University of Cambridge’s website yet.  The picture to the right strikes me, seeing the cross still around her neck. There are many objects visible in the cutting of the grave shown below. So far the only description that I have seen is that they are iron fittings.

English teenager found near Cambridge. Photo: University of Cambridge.

According to the Independent there were two other female graves found nearby and a third of indeterminate gender. No grave goods were mentioned for the others. David Keys’ (The Independent) conjecture that this was a convent and that they all died of plague seems a bit of a stretch. I certainly would like to see them all tested for plague, but I think the nunnery is pretty unlikely. This is not a monastic grave with the funeral bed and burial with a knife.

I also don’t particularly see this grave as a mixed religious tradition. There is nothing particularly pagan about the grave. There is no sign of grave offerings; bowls of food or signs of pagan rites. Burial on a funeral bed is not necessarily more elaborate or expensive than a stone or lead coffin. Secular elites who were not buried in church yards may not have been buried as sparingly as monastic burials. Several rich graves have been found in the last five years that were Christian, like the Essex prince, but still buried with some goods and a bed in particular. Unlike the Essex ‘prince’ this grave is not fitted out for the afterlife with tools and favorite objects. If the objects are limited to apparel, objects worn on the body, this seems normal to me. She appears to have been dressed as she might for  a special occasion like a feast.  Christians today may choose special clothes (a suit or military uniform) and sometimes still leave goods in coffins, like leaving on wedding bands, military insignia, rosaries, or putting special pillows in the coffin. We know that high status clergy like Cuthbert were buried clothed and with jewelry. What do you think about the mixed nature of this grave?

A Hoard of Gold Scrap

The Staffordshire Hoard is easily the biggest Anglo-Saxon news of the last two years, if not decade. Not only spectacular bling, but also intriguing mystery. National Geographic recently aired two documentaries on the hoard of which “Secrets of the Lost Gold” (Nat. Geo., Nov. 2011) was the most interesting because they reveal some of the analysis of the hoard to date.

It is a hoard of scrap. Everything in the hoard is broken, bent or otherwise damaged. Surprising to the analysts many of the 3500 pieces of precious metal and gems to emerge from the dirt so far show signs of recycling. Gold is not mined in England so it must have come from elsewhere. All of the gold is the equivalent of 18 caret with a variety of impurities from the recycling process. Analysts believe that the bulk of gold came from Byzantium, probably coming to England as Byzantine coins. These coins were the universal currency of Late Antiquity because of their gold content. Britain did not have a coin based economy so that these coins were valued only for their gold content. They estimate that the gold in the hoard represents about 3000 Byzantine solidus. Chemical composition of the garnets indicate that some garnets came from Bohemia in the Czech republic (small garnets) and India (large cabochons from the crosses and pendants).  They suggest that the large cabochons had been obtained from India by Rome and recycled by the Saxons.  All of the garnets were specifically hand cut and polished for each piece. Some of the inlay, especially brilliant blues in the garnet cloisonné are made of Roman glass and some were repaired with amber instead of garnet. The style and design suggest that weapons date from 550 AD to early 8th century, a span of about 150 years. Interestingly this is about the amount of time that Bede claimed had passed from the Saxon arrival in Britain to his time in the early 8th century; then again, perhaps this influenced the analysts’ dates.

A few random thoughts on the hoard

First, I don’t think it should be so surprising that it is a hoard of scrap. Every hoard I can think of found in Britain, like silver hoards in Pictland, was made up of objects to be recycled. They were not all military objects, but most were broken, bent or obviously intended for recycling. I think it must also depend on what types of objects that were primarily given precious metals. For the Romans it may have been dinnerware and religious objects, but for the Saxons it may have mostly been weapons.

Is it so surprising that this hoard is scrap considering the amount of recycling evidenced in the hoard itself? Could there have been a scrap market where smiths got their materials?  If so then why no women’s ware or church material? It makes me wonder if war gear was not more likely to be recycled as an insult to the enemy. New young warriors would want designs especially for them and so recycling is necessary. Indeed, kings who commission weapons for their warriors would need to recycle captured goods to meet their gifting needs.There might be specific instances where the gifting of an enemy weapon would be symbolically significant but most of the time, it may have been more important to give newly fashioned weapons with the king’s symbols (rather than the enemies symbols). The onus of obtaining the precious metal and gems for new creations may have fallen on the patron rather than the creator, so the need for raw materials would have driven a recycling mania.

Heirlooms are only heirlooms if they are from your family. The age rage reflected in the hoard does suggest that many of the weapons were old when they were stripped, so may have been heirlooms until lost, eventually broken beyond repair, or the family died out. Destruction of  a processional cross carried before an army could have been common as a way of showing power over the conquered. An object like a processional cross may have been irreparably attached to the people whom it was made for.  The Dream of the Rood, Ruthwell Cross, and indeed the Heavenfield cross, suggest that crosses in particular could continue to do God’s work for their intended purpose or people. Perhaps this personification of objects, as seen in the Dream of the Rood, would make the use of an enemies weapons potentially dangerous to the bearer, as if the weapon could betray its new owner. This would make it far easier to strip a beautiful weapon or shield.

I have to say of the reconstructed weapons I’ve seen I think the sæx was the most impressive. It looks a little like a short machete or Bowie knife. In archaeological contexts, usually only the blade survives but not the handle. Luckily conservationists have been able to put together a complete sæx handle among the metal scrap and it was no simple cleaver handle. One of the few clips of the “Secrets of the Lost Gold” I’ve found online is this one on the construction of a sæx pattern-welded blade.

Sourcing the Materials

Soiidus of Justinian II, 705-711 (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc; Wikipedia Commons))

The materials came from far-flung sites. Given that this hoard must represent a tiny amount of the gold, silver and gems that once existed, it begs the question of where they got it from since Britain does not have gold or gem mines. This one hoard is believed to represent the equivalent of about 3000 Byzantine solidus. What were they trading for Byzantine coins? Granted Byzantine gold coins were the universal currency because of their gold content so they need not have been trading directly with Byzantium. Still, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have a coin based economy so barter would have been the usual type of trade. The only thing I can think of off-hand is slaves. What else could they have been exporting that would be exchanged for gold?

Most of the garnets came from Bohemia and there are a lot of garnets in all Anglo-Saxon metalwork. It’s hard to imagine what they would have been trading for them either. This is trade by royalty only because without a coin based economy smaller merchants would not have been trading in gold and gems. Or, would smaller merchants have traded in scrap like this hoard?  Not exactly raw materials, but sources of gold and gems nevertheless. There must have been some trade in small found objects missed on the battlefield or found in Roman ruins. The larger stones from India would likewise have come to Britain probably in objects to be recycled.

The Roman colored glass is more easy to understand. There must have been a lot of glass and mosaic tiles left in Britain that could have been recycled. It is surprising that more of it is not found in objects and graves. It is possible that a lot of it was recycled into stained glass windows for churches once the technology was reintroduced into Britain in the seventh century.

The conservation of the hoard is still not nearly done so there will be more revelations yet to come. The story of the Staffordshire hoard is still far from complete. There are many questions yet to be answered. Why so many garnets? Why isn’t there more amber or other stones? No jet even as an accent? No pearls or mother-of-pearl, though these may be more common in jewelry. Are we sure this is all Anglo-Saxon metalwork, not British, Pictish or Frankish? And then there will the effect of the hoard on dating metalwork in Britain. It is so much larger than all the other finds that it will force reassessment of all of the smaller finds.

Oswine the Anti-Hero

(A post from the archive on the anniversary of King Oswine’s death.)

King Oswine of Deira (Yorkshire) 20 August 651

Modern Eastern Orthodox icon of King Oswine of Deira

Today is the anniversary of the execution of King Oswine of Deira, considered by some to be a saint. All we know of Oswine is included in Bede’s History (Book III:14). Bede writes a curious tale for Oswine.

“King Oswine was tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manner, and bountiful to nobles and common alike; so it came about that he was beloved by all because of his royal dignity which showed itself in his character, his appearance, and his actions; and noblemen from almost every kingdom flocked to serve him as retainers. Among all the other graces of virtue and modesty with which, if I may say so, he was blessed in a special manner, his humility said to have been the greatest” (McClure and Collins, ed; 1994:132)

This all seems well and good. Bede proceeds to narrate an example of Oswine’s great humility to St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, at the end of the episode, Aidan turns to an Irish colleague and says “I know that the king will not live long; for I never before saw a humble king. Therefore I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.” (p. 133). Oswine death follows and Aidan himself dies only 12 days “after the murder of the king he loved”. The implication is that Aidan dies of a broken heart.

Bede actually begins his tale with Oswine’s murder/execution. Oswine has gathered his army to meet King Oswiu (who would later rule at the Synod of Whitby) in battle near Catterick. When Oswine realized how outnumbered he was by Oswiu, he disbanded his army and went into hiding with a retainer he believes is his friend. This retainer betrayed him to Oswiu who had his rival executed. There is no doubt that this murder caused an outrage in the church. Oswiu’s queen, Eanflaed, was the cousin of Oswine and demanded a weregeld (blood price) paid by the founding of the monastery of Gilling where prayer was to be offered daily for the soul of King Oswine and his murderer King Oswiu.

The question is why does Bede include the story in his History. There is no evidence that he sees Oswine as anything other than a sad victim. Bede provides no evidence that Oswine was considered to be a saint by his day. Oswine was much later reported to be buried at Tynemouth, not the new monastery of Gilling.

The usual explanation is that Bede includes the story because his beloved Abbot Coelfrith came from Gilling, Coelfrith’s family monastery (meaning that Coelfrith was also a kinsman of Oswine). This isn’t really a very satisfying answer. Gilling had ceased to exist before Bede was born and Coelfrith is not mentioned in the story. An interesting side note is that Gilling seems to disband as a monastery after the plague of 664 when all the surviving monks joined Abbot Wilfrid at Ripon (victor of the synod of Whitby the same year). Thus within months of deciding for Rome, the monastery Oswiu had to found as weregeld/penance was allowed to disappear.

Another explanation is that it was part of Aidan’s death story. This isn’t very satisfying either because Aidan’s death is not elaborated on, as it is in a later chapter (which doesn’t mention Oswine at all). These look like two reports of Aidan’s death.

The chapter begins with an assessment of Oswiu’s reign and the next chapter records a miracle of Aidan’s in assisting in the arrival of Eanflaed to her marriage to Oswiu. The context of the story places it within Oswiu’s story as Oswald’s successor. Miracles of St. Aidan and Aidan’s death are then inserted. After Aidan comes the life and death of pious King Sigeberht of East Anglia who had entered a monastery, but his people pulled him out of the monastery to lead them into battle against Penda, the evil pagan of Bede’s History. Sigeberht refused to carry a weapon in to battle and rode to his death carrying only his royal scepter.

Bede has set up a story of three example kings

  • Oswald: Bede’s ideal king: brave, victorious in battle, supporter of the church and evangelist, humble enough to translate Aidan’s sermons before his people, but not too humble to loose their respect, protector of his people up to his death.
  • Oswine: too humble to be a king. A perfect picture of a king, but when it came down to it, not brave enough to ride in to battle and die. He is an anti-hero.
  • Sigebert: a pious king, but nevertheless Bede did not favor kings who retired to monasteries. The fact that his people came to him to lead them in battle suggests that he once was victorious in battle and was still young and healthy enough to do so again. He did not protect his people. Penda destroys the army, Sigebert’s co-king, and then ravages the monasteries and people of East Anglia.

Bede believed that people should live up to the position in life they were given: king, bishop, monk, commoner. A king should be a good king: protector of the people, patron of the church, obedient to the bishop. He offers Oswine as an example to his readers of how a king should not behave.

Perhaps he was also eager to ensure that King Oswiu would not be too glorified. He tallied plenty of pious attributes during his 28 year reign. He may have been the greatest patron of the church of his age, judge at the synod of Whitby, and slayer of Northumbria’s worst enemy (Penda of Mercia), but he was also capable of murdering his rivals and having his own kinsmen, his nephew Oethelwald son of Oswald and his own son Alhfrith, rebel against him. His rebellious kinsmen are never heard from again. Bede does make sure to casually mention these rebellions in the beginning of the chapter before he narrates Oswine’s story. The execution of Oswine may be Bede’s way of indicating the fates of Oethelwald and Alhfrith by implication in a way that would not offend the contemporary rulers of Northumbria.