Medieval manuscripts blog

296 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxons"

23 January 2019

Cambridge loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms  

What do the St Augustine Gospels, the Eadwine Psalter and the Moore Bede have in common? They have all been kindly loaned to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by institutions in Cambridge. On display in the exhibition are a host of manuscripts from Corpus Christi College, Trinity College and the University Library. Read on to find out more about some of these fantastic loans.

The evangelist portrait of St Luke from the St Augustine Gospels

The St Augustine Gospels: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v

The St Augustine Gospels is one of the great treasures on loan from Corpus Christi College. This gospel-book dates from the late-6th to the early-7th century and is thought to have been made in Italy, possibly at Rome. This manuscript likely came to England soon after its creation, perhaps with the mission of Augustine of Canterbury. The St Augustine Gospels is still used today at every inauguration of a new archbishop of Canterbury, travelling from Cambridge for the occasion. This splendid manuscript provides a tangible link to the very early days of the Anglo-Saxon Church.

Photo of the Dean of Canterbury holding the “Canterbury Gospels”, as Archbishop Rowan Williams kisses the ancient book

The Dean of Canterbury holds the “Canterbury Gospels”, as Archbishop Rowan Williams kisses the ancient book (by permission of James Rosenthal/Anglican World)

A burned page from the Otho-Corpus Gospels, showing a miniature of St Mark's lion symbol

The Otho-Corpus Gospels: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

An intact page from the Otho-Corpus Gospels, showing a miniature of St John's eagle symbol

The Cotton-Otho Gospels: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 197B, p. 245

In the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are displayed two portions of the Otho-Corpus Gospels. One fragment is from the British Library’s own collections, and was badly damaged in the Cotton Library fire in 1731; the other part has been loaned by Corpus Christi College. This is a rare opportunity to view these two portions together and to compare the illustrations of John’s eagle and Mark’s lion.

Text page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, manuscript A: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 173, f. 13v

Another manuscripts on loan from Corpus Christi College is the A-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, otherwise known as the ‘Parker Chronicle’. This is a 9th-century copy of the original compilation of the Chronicle, one of the most important narrative sources for the Anglo-Saxon period, and the earliest surviving witness of this text. Later versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are also on display in the exhibition, namely manuscript B, manuscript C and manuscript D.

A 16th-century transcript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred

Asser’s Life of King Alfred: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 100, p. 325

Corpus Christi has also loaned a 16th-century transcript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred. This is a biography of the 9th-century King Alfred the Great of Wessex, written during the king’s lifetime by the Welsh monk Asser. The only medieval manuscript of the ‘Life of King Alfred’ that survived into modern times was destroyed in the Cotton Library fire in October 1731. Although Alfred is commonly remembered as the Anglo-Saxon king who defeated the Vikings, Asser’s work barely mentions this, instead giving a more personal account of Alfred’s life.

A page from the Eadwine Psalter showing three columns of Psalm text with literal illustrations

The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1, f. 24r

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition also features a selection of manuscripts on loan from Trinity College, Cambridge. Among them is the Eadwine Psalter, a mid-12th century manuscript made in England. This Psalter is the second copy made of the 9th-century Utrecht Psalter, which was revolutionary for its inclusion of drawings outside the confines of decorative initials and borders. The Eadwine Psalter is extraordinary because of its elaborate illustrations, and also its inclusion of all three of Jerome’s translations of the Psalms, an Anglo-Norman French translation and a translation into Old English.

A Gospel opening from the Trinity Gospels, with an evangelist portrait on the left and decorated text on the right

The Trinity Gospels: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.10.4, ff. 59v–60r

The Trinity Gospels, also on loan from Trinity College, is one of the most elaborately decorated of all surviving 11th-century gospel-books. This manuscript is notable for containing all four of the full-page decorated ‘incipit’ pages at the beginning of the gospels. They are decorated with gold and painted haloed figures holding books and scrolls.

A carmen figuratum, or picture poem, from Hrabanus Maurus, De laudibus sanctae crucis

Hrabanus Maurus, De laudibus sanctae crucis: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.16.3, f. 30v

A copy of Hrabanus Maurus’s fascinating text, ‘In Praise of the Holy Cross’, is also on loan to the exhibition from Trinity College. This is one of only two copies of this text to be made in Anglo-Saxon England. Hrabanus Maurus was a renowned Carolingian scholar whose works were popular throughout medieval Europe. This particular work contains poems where both word and metre are embedded into a grid, with concealed phrases revealed only by superimposed images and shapes, in this instance a cross.

A text page from the Moore Bede

The ‘Moore Bede’: Cambridge University Library MS Kk.5.16, f. 22r

One of the manuscripts on loan from Cambridge University Library is known as the ‘Moore Bede’. This is perhaps the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. This well-known text is the first narrative historical account of the origins of the English. The manuscript is copied in Insular minuscule, which was faster to write than the more elaborate uncial script, allowing scribes to meet the exceptional demand for Bede’s work.

A text page from the Book of Cerne with a decorated initial letter 'h' and display script

The Book of Cerne: Cambridge University Library MS Ll.1.10, f. 32r

Finally, Cambridge University Library has loaned us The Book of Cerne, a beautifully decorated 9th-century prayer-book. It contains extracts from the four Gospels, 74 prayers, a selection of Psalms and the earliest surviving liturgical drama in England, the Harrowing of Hell. The illustrations in this manuscript are very sophisticated, with each gospel proceeded by a portrait of the evangelist and his symbol.

We are incredibly grateful to our Cambridge friends for lending these manuscripts to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The exhibition runs until Tuesday, 19 February. Tickets are available here. Hurry… they’re selling fast!

Eleanor Stinson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

19 January 2019

From Oxford to London

The city of Oxford is home to a historic network of libraries and museums. Two of these institutions, the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Library, have kindly loaned a selection of their treasures to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition here at the British Library.

The Alfred Jewel, a enamel plaque of a man holding flowering rods, encased in quartz and framed in gold

The Alfred Jewel: Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, AN1836 p.135.371

The Alfred Jewel has been loaned to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms by the Ashmolean Museum. This stunning object was discovered in Somerset in 1693, a few miles from a fortress of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (d. 899). Near to this location was the monastery at Athelney, where Alfred found shelter before fighting back against King Guthrum’s ‘Great Heathen Army’ in 878. The jewel owes its name to an inscription which surrounds the central figure, reading: +ÆLFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (‘Alfred ordered me to be made’). The discovery of this jewel and its fascinating inscription has led scholars to suggest that the jewel may have been made by command of Alfred himself.

A page from a medieval manuscript of King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care

King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms also features six manuscripts kindly loaned by the Bodleian Library. Among them is an Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’), which has also been attributed to Alfred the Great. In a letter which precedes the Pastoral Care, Alfred instructed his bishops to lead a programme of translation of texts from Latin to English, so as to make them more widely accessible. 

A drawing of Adam and Eve becoming aware of their nakedness in the Junius Manuscript

Adam and Eve in Eden in the Junius Manuscript: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 34

The Bodleian Library has also loaned the Junius manuscript to the British Library, a crucial witness to the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, containing over 5,000 lines of verse in Old English. The first three Old English poems in the manuscript, Genesis, Exodus and Daniel, are accompanied by illustrations. The page shown here depicts Adam and Eve, both naked, after Satan had tricked them into disobeying God.  

A text page from the MacRegol Gospels

The MacRegol Gospels: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. D. 2. 19, f. 92v

Also on loan from the Bodleian Library is the MacRegol Gospels. This gospel-book is named after MacRegol, whose name occurs in a contemporary inscription urging the readers to pray for him. Although made in Ireland, the manuscript had made its way to England by the second half of the 10th century, where an interlinear Old English translation of the gospels was added.

A text page from a medieval manuscript of Primasius’ Commentary on the Apocalypse

Primasius’ Commentary on the Apocalypse: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 140, f. 4r 

Another manuscript with far-reaching connections is this 8th-century copy of Primasius’ Commentary on the Apocalypse. Primasius was bishop of Hadrumetum, in present-day Tunisia, but this manuscript was copied in an English context under continental influence. It provides important evidence of connections between Anglo-Saxon scholars and the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world. Two famous English churchmen are believed to have annotated this manuscript: Boniface, archbishop of Mainz (d. 754), is thought to be responsible for the notes in the margins; and Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (959–988), for the interlinear additions.

A drawing of Christ, with St Dunstan kneeling at his feet, from Dunstan’s Classbook

Dunstan’s Classbook: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. F. 4. 32, f. 1r

One of the most famous manuscripts in the exhibition is 'Dunstan's Classbook'. Archbishop Dunstan was a well-read scholar, and his ‘Classbook’ contains homilies, grammatical texts and an extract of a poem by Ovid.

A text page from the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict

The earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Hatton 48, f. 38v

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms has brought together an amazing array of manuscripts, some of which are the oldest examples in existence. This is typified by the final Bodleian loan, namely the earliest surviving copy of the Rule of St Benedict. The Benedictine Rule was written by Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–c. 547) as a series of instructions for communal life in a monastery. This manuscript was copied in England around the year 700, showing that Benedict’s principles for monastic life were known in the early English Church.

We are extremely grateful to the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Library for lending these fascinating items to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. They can be viewed at the British Library until 19 February 2019, and tickets are available here

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 January 2019

Audio description tour of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

On 17 January, the British Library is hosting an audio description tour of our landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. This tour is designed specifically for blind and partially sighted visitors, and it will be delivered and audio-described by a member of the Medieval Manuscripts team who contributed to the preparation of the exhibition. 

A detail of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition poster, showing King Edgar from the Newminster Charter

Among the items we will be introducing to our visitors are Spong Man, Codex Amiatinus, the Stockholm Codex Aureus, the Judith of Flanders Gospels and Domesday Book. The exhibition has received rave reviews and is already one of the most successful shows ever mounted by the British Library.

Spong Man, a clay figure seated with its elbows resting on its knees and its hands on either side of its face

Spong Man, on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms from Norfolk Museums Service


One free ticket for a companion is available per visitor. Guide and assistance dogs are welcome. If you require any other support, or have other access requirements for this tour, please contact [email protected] or phone +44 (0)20 7412 7797. The tour is free with an exhibition ticket.


Audio description tour of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library

17 January



Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 January 2019

Heathens, pagans, Danes …. Vikings?

‘Your tragic suffering brings me sorrow, since the pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.’

Alcuin, writing to the brothers of Lindisfarne, 793 (preserved in an 11th-century letter collection)


This vivid description is perhaps our earliest written record of the activities of the 'Vikings' in England. But who were the 'Vikings', and what do we really know about them? In this blogpost we describe some of the evidence for the 'Vikings' in Anglo-Saxon England, taken from manuscripts on display in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on show at the British Library in London until 19 February.

The opening page of the Gospel of Mark with text written in gold and an elaborate gold foliate frame

The Cnut Gospels: Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45r


Fact and fiction

Modern historians and archaeologists continue to debate the origins, customs and name of the people popularly known as the 'Vikings', but who were often described in the contemporary sources as heathens, Danes or pagans. Many 'popular' facts about the 'Vikings' are themselves highly dubious. For example, the myth that the 'Vikings' wore horned helmets possibly has its origins in the 19th century, as popularised by Richard Wagner's The Ring Cycle. Another myth, that the 'Vikings' were unclean and unkempt, was debunked by John of Wallingford in the 13th century (but working from earlier sources). John commented that Anglo-Saxon women often preferred heathen 'Vikings' rather than Christian Englishmen, because the 'Vikings' were known to bathe every Saturday, comb their hair and dress well. Indeed, the original meaning of the Scandinavian word for Saturday, ‘laurdag/lørdag/lördag’, means ‘washing day’.


The early raiders

A text page in a medieval manuscript

The entry for 793, describing the raid on Lindisfarne, in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 26v

In the letter quoted above, the Anglo-Saxon author Alcuin, writing from mainland Europe, consoled the community of Lindisfarne after a recent attack. The same event is recorded in the entry for 793 in the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which described how ‘the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne’.

In the decades that followed, these same ‘heathen men’ targeted the coastlines of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, other areas of Britain and Carolingian Francia. Many of these raiders are thought to have come from Scandinavia, namely Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The initial raids were seasonal, concentrated in spring and summer, but from the middle of 9th century 'Viking' armies began to over-winter in England. By the late 870s, the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia had all experienced regime change, as the Scandinavian raiders in turn became rulers and landowners.


The treaty between Alfred and Guthrum

The kingdom of Wessex held out against these invaders. Following a series of battles with the 'Vikings', in around 880 King Alfred of Wessex (871–899) signed a treaty with Guthrum, leader of the Danes settled in East Anglia. This treaty set out the lands held by both rulers, divided by a boundary that bisected the kingdom of Mercia. Lands north and east of this line became known as the Danelaw, and lands to the south and west came under Alfred's authority.

A text page in a medieval manuscript

The treaty between King Alfred and King Guthrum: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 383, f. 57r

Towards the end of the 10th century, Anglo-Saxon England became subject to further attacks by the Danes. The English rulers were repeatedly defeated by the Danish leader Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut, until Cnut became king of all England in 1016. He ruled England for nineteen years until his death in 1035, as well as being king of Denmark and Norway.

Miniature of King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a large gold cross on an altar, with Christ in a mandorla above flanked by the Virgin Mary and St Peter

Miniature of King Cnut and Queen Emma in the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r


In search of treasure

Anglo-Saxon churches and monasteries were attractive for pagan raiders. They may have been relatively unguarded, and they possessed books and liturgical equipment which were sometimes richly decorated.

This luxurious Anglo-Saxon gospel book bears an inscription which describes the book’s close encounter with a ‘heathen’ army. The inscription, written in an English hand, records how this mid 8th-century manuscript was ransomed from a ‘heathen’ army by an Anglo-Saxon, Ealdorman Alfred. The gospel book was then donated to Christ Church, Canterbury, in exchange for prayers for the souls of Alfred, his wife, Werburgh, and his daughter, Alhthryth (whose names are entered in the right-hand margin).

A page of text written in gold capital letters, beginning with the Chi-rho, the monogram of the Greek name of Christ. In the lower margin is a later inscription.

The Stockholm Codex Aureus: Stockholm, Kungliga Biblioteket, MS A. 135, f. 11r

Some precious Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were originally bound in what are known as treasure bindings. One famous example, on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, is the Judith of Flanders Gospels. Its script suggests that it was written partly in 11th-century Northumbria, while Judith was married to Earl Tostig. It is rare for medieval manuscripts to retain such treasure bindings, and we often imagine that they were torn off by 'Viking' raiders.

An ornate gold book cover, showing the crucifixion in the lower half and Christ in Majesty above

Treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover


Ancestral connections

The first Anglo-Saxons to arrive in Britain came from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. They retained close cultural connections with their ancestral homelands, using the runic alphabet and (before their conversion to Christianity) worshipping similar pagan gods. The Old English epic poem Beowulf is set in this context, following the exploits of a warrior named Beowulf as he came to the aid of the king of the Danes. The surviving manuscript was copied around 1000 but the poem was likely transmitted orally long before that.

A text page from the Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r


Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.


Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 January 2019

Round up of our Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms conference

On 13 and 14 December 2018, twenty-two world-leading experts on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts gathered at the British Library to present their research to an international audience of over 250 academics, postgraduate students, library professionals and members of the public. This major conference on Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms was held in conjunction with the British Library’s landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.


A full house on the first morning of the conference. Photo taken by Dr Alixe Bovey

Professor Lawrence Nees opened the conference with a keynote lecture on ‘The European Context of Manuscript Illumination in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, 600-900’. Nees explored how certain styles of early medieval manuscript illumination demonstrate frequent connections between scriptoria on both sides of the Channel. The close connections between Anglo-Saxon England, parts of Ireland and Britain, and the European Continent were a recurring theme throughout the two days.


Attendees enjoyed a wine reception at the end of the first day of the conference.

Professor Julia Crick gave the second keynote lecture of the conference on ‘English Scribal Culture in an Age of Conquest, 900–1100’. Professor Crick marvelled that visitors to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition could see a once-in-a-generation collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and then turn the pages of many of those manuscripts on their smart phones and laptops.

Many other speakers praised the benefits of recent digitisation projects and new digital technologies. Dr Tessa Webber commented that this was the first time she had been able to browse digital versions of all manuscripts in her paper from her office. Many speakers used images of medieval manuscripts made available through digitisation projects at the British Library, most notably the recently digitised collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and charters, and 800 manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

Anglo-saxons-conference (26 of 26)

Dr Alan Thacker chairs the questions after Dr Tessa Webber’s paper.

In recent years, scholars have begun to use the latest imaging technologies to make new discoveries on the pages of medieval manuscripts. Many papers at the conference drew on the multispectral imaging work of imaging scientist at the British Library, Dr Christina Duffy. Gasps of surprise and delight rippled through the audience as speakers revealed the ‘before and after’ shots generated by Dr Duffy’s imaging.

Other speakers used traditional technologies to support innovative arguments. For example, Professor Susan Rankin was joined on stage by two of her doctoral students who performed different types of singing known at Winchester in this period. Additionally, in a paper on the diffusion of insular art and script in Carolingian Francia, Professor Joanna Story used tidal patterns to argue that it would have been relatively easy to travel between Canterbury and north-western France. Story noted that tidal patterns are often consulted by archaeologists and military historians, but not by scholars of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.


Chloe Allison and Adam Mathias demonstrate two styles of singing during Professor Susan Rankin’s paper

The conference concluded with speakers and attendees musing on the future of palaeography and codicology. The final keynote lecture and the questions that followed acknowledged the challenges faced by the next generation of scholars, but also highlighted the hope and excitement for future research made possible by recent advances in technology and through the application of scientific techniques.


Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín joked that he likes to refer to this Durham Gospel book as a ‘3 D’ manuscript: Durham, Cathedral Library, MS A.II.10 f.3

On the next day, Saturday 15th December, over 100 attendees of the conference returned for an Early Career Researchers’ symposium. The cross-cutting themes of this symposium mirrored those of the main conference by highlighting cross-Channel connections, the complexities of scribal culture, and utilising digital or scientific technologies. Speakers presented interdisciplinary research, combining history with chemistry and bioarchaeology. Louise Garner explained the use of chemical analysis to identify the composition of pigments in the York Gospels. Jiří Vnouček drew upon his background as a conservator and recent bioarchaeological research to identify the type of animal used to prepare the parchment of the Codex Amiatinus. Vnouček commented that, in his opinion, the future of manuscript studies lies in the use of interdisciplinary approaches to utilise advances in scientific technology.

The final paper of the symposium was given by Dr Simon Thomson, who discussed manuscripts that were community projects, built from complex layers of scribal interaction over time. When we study the digital facsimiles of these manuscripts for research, share images on social media, or turn their pages in a reading room, we too become part of that community and are woven into the story of these manuscripts.


In the Durham Liber Vitae, the original list of names was copied in the 9th century, but more names were added for centuries after: British Library, Cotton MS Domitian A VII, f. 15v

We would like to thank all the speakers, chairs and attendees for an educational and enjoyable conference. Tweets relating to the conference can be found by searching the conference hashtag #MSSinASK. Dr Colleen Curran has made a useful Wakelet thread of all tweets that used this hashtag and she recently wrote a summary of 10 things we learned at the conference for BBC History Magazine.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on display in London until 19 February 2019. You can buy your tickets here.

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 January 2019

The Anglo-Saxon origins of the English counties

At Christmas 1085, William the Conqueror commissioned a great survey of the land and property in England. The information gathered during that survey is recorded in three manuscripts, Great Domesday, Exon Domesday and Little Domesday, which together list the information county by county. This was possible because many English counties have their roots in the very early days of Anglo-Saxon history.

Some English counties owe their names to the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th and 6th centuries. These settlers formed small socio-political units that slowly grew into powerful kingdoms able to claim dominance over smaller kingdoms.

A page from a medieval manuscript with the names of counties in the Tribal Hidage circled

East engle, east sexena, cantwarena, suth sexena, and west sexena in the Tribal Hidage: British Library Harley MS 3271 f. 6v

The Tribal Hidage provides an insight into the kingdoms south of the River Humber between the 7th and 9th centuries. This document lists 35 tribes and the number of ‘hides’ assigned to each territory. A ‘hide’ may have been a unit of tribute that each territory was required to pay to an overlord. The final five groups in the Tribal Hidage may sound rather familiar; east engle, east sexena, cantwarena, suth sexena and west sexena. In their modern form, these places are East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The names of Essex, Kent and Sussex are preserved as modern counties. East Anglia and Wessex may no longer be English counties, but they were important Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and retain strong regional identities to this day.

Gold belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, a gold buckle decorated with interlaced animal forms

The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.1

East Anglia was a powerful kingdom in the 7th century. An East Anglian king was perhaps buried in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Norfolk and Suffolk now occupy most of the land that was once the kingdom of East Anglia, and their names have their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English root of Norfolk is Nordfolc, which can be broken down into two elements, north and folc. These translate to ‘the (territory of) the northern people (of the East Angles)’. Similarly, the old English root of Suffolk translates as ‘the (territory of) the southern people (of the East Angles).

An assortment of gold metalwork objects from the Staffordshire hoard

Items from the Staffordshire Hoard: Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Many English counties now feature the suffix –shire, which derives from the old English scir. A shire refers to a division of land governed by a government official who became known as a ‘shire reeve’ or ‘sheriff’. Shires were often based around a prominent town or city.

The county of Staffordshire is located in what was once the heartlands of the kingdom of Mercia. Key centres of Mercian power include the ‘burgh’ at Tamworth and the bishopric of Lichfield. It was near to these centres of power, in the village of Hammerwich, that the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in 2009.

A page from a medieval manuscript

Entry for 913 in the Mercian Register: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 46r

In the Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the entry for 913 states that Æthelflæd ‘went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and built a ‘burgh’ at Stafford.

A text page from a medieval manuscript

Entry for 1016 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius IV, f. 66v

In 1016, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded King Cnut’s conquest of England. When the chronicler described Cnut’s progression northward, the army moved through ‘Staffordshire, Shropshire and into Chester’. By the 11th century, the land surrounding the burgh at Stafford had become known as Staffordshire.  

A text page from a medieval manuscript

The first mention of Eboracum (York) in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 8v

The city of York gave its name to England’s largest county, Yorkshire. York is first referred to in the written sources as Eboracum, which was the Latinised version of a British name meaning ‘yew-tree estate’. When Bede recounted the history of York in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he referred to the city as Eboracum. This Latin name gradually became the Old English Eoforwic, combining the Eofor- from the old name with the suffix –wic. When the Danes conquered the city in the 9th century, the Old English Eoferwic became Jórvík, which has gradually evolved to York.

A text page from a medieval manuscript

Bede’s account of the Battle of Chester. Legacæstir is written at the end of the second line: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 39v

The city of Chester, from which Cheshire derives its name, was once known as Legacæstir. In the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede described a great battle in 606 between Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria, and an army from the Welsh kingdoms of Powys and Rhôs. Bede explained that the battle happened near ‘the city of the legions which is called Legacæstir by the English and more correctly Cærlegion (Chester) by the Britons’.

A text page from a medieval manuscript

Entry for 980 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 143v

Chester’s association with its Roman history persisted into the 10th century. The entry for 980 in the C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that ‘Legeceasterscir (Cheshire) was ravaged by a northern naval force’.

The scope and scale of English local government has incurred many changes since the Anglo-Saxon period. Although the boundaries of counties and boroughs may warp and shift, in many cases their names persist. These names have deep roots in local history, and many are first recorded on the pages of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

Many of these manuscripts can be viewed in person in the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. It's open until 19 February 2019 and we recommend that you book online before you visit.

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


01 January 2019

Alfred ordered me to be made

King Alfred of Wessex (d. 899) has quite the reputation. He is often referred to as Alfred ‘the Great’, perhaps on account of the victories of his kingdom of Wessex against the Vikings invasions in the late-9th century. Legend has also crafted Alfred as an incompetent kitchen assistant, on account of the myth that he failed to prevent a lady’s cakes from burning when seeking refuge in the marshes of South-West England.

Some of our readers may be surprised to learn that Alfred also has a reputation as a scholar and intellectual, who was keen to promote learning at his court and throughout his kingdom.

19th-century statue of King Alfred holding a sword up

Statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester

A stunning object, which may stand as a testament to Alfred’s patronage of education and learning, is the Alfred Jewel. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has very kindly loaned the Alfred Jewel to the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. This is one of the most celebrated objects surviving from Anglo-Saxon England.

The Alfred Jewel, a tear-drop shaped enamel plaque showing a picture of a man holding two flowering rods, framed in gold

The Alfred Jewel: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, AN1836 p.135.371

It came to be known as the Alfred Jewel thanks to the inscription +ÆLFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (‘Alfred ordered me to be made’), which surrounds the central figure. It was discovered in 1693, a few miles away from King Alfred’s fortress and monastery at Athelney, Somerset. Athelney Abbey is the site where Alfred found shelter and then launched his retaliation against King Guthrum’s ‘Great Heathen Army’ in 878. The combination of its history and the inscription has led scholars to suggest that it was King Alfred himself who ordered this jewel to be made.

the Fuller brooch, a disc-shaped silver brooch with pictures of plants, animals and people

The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

The figure’s prominent staring eyes and the two floral stems held in each hand are rather similar to the central figure in the Fuller Brooch, which has also been loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, this time by the British Museum.

The Alfred Jewel, a tear-drop shaped enamel plaque showing a picture of a man holding two flowering rods, framed in gold

The Alfred Jewel: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, AN1836 p.135.371

At the lower end of the jewel is a small socket that may have once held a small rod, perhaps of wood or ivory. Similar, though significantly less splendid, objects with the same small socket also survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. These objects were perhaps intended to act as the decorative end of a small pointer, used for following the line when reading. 

A page from a medieval manuscript showing a text with a decorated initial made up of entwined beasts

The Old English Bede: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41, p. 352.

Alfred is known to have encouraged the translation of a number of Latin texts into Old English. Some of these were the core texts of the Anglo-Saxon schoolroom, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

A text page from a medieval manuscript

King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r 

The writings of Pope Gregory the Great were widely studied in Anglo-Saxon England and also featured in the programme of translation initiated by Alfred’s court. An Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’) has even been attributed to King Alfred himself. This translation of the ‘Pastoral Care’ is preceded by a letter from King Alfred to Bishop Werferth of Worcester. In the letter, Alfred encourages his bishops to lead a programme of translation of texts from Latin to English, therefore making these texts more widely accessible. The letter also states that translations of the Pastoral Care should all be accompanied by an æstel, an object used to point to words when reading. Some people have proposed that the Alfred Jewel may be an example of such an æstel. If the remarkable Alfred Jewel was indeed ‘ordered to be made’ by King Alfred, it certainly reflects the regal splendour and the intellectual pursuits of a scholar-king. 

Thaks to the generosity of the Ashmolean Museum and our other lenders, you can view the Alfred Jewel and other items discussed in this blogpost in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (until 19 February 2019). Tickets are available here.

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


31 December 2018

Party like it's AD 999

You are invited to an early medieval feast. Doctor Who has kindly agreed to take you in her Tardis to Winchester, around Christmas time in the year 999. But what should you wear? What kind of food, drink and entertainment should you expect? Never fear! Here's a quick guide to Anglo-Saxon feasts.

Depiction of a feast from a Psalter
Depiction of a feast from a Psalter made in the second half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v

What to wear

Very little direct evidence survives about Anglo-Saxon clothing. Textiles tend to disintegrate in the usual archaeological conditions in north-western Europe. However, some written sources, including wills, give us an idea about the sorts of things some wealthy people may have worn. Anglo-Saxon nobles’ most glamorous outfits seem to have involved lots of colours and lots of jewellery, perhaps paired with a badger-skin or patterned dress. Both men and women could finish off the look with cloaks fastened with large brooches — and we mean large. A brooch owned by a woman called Ædwen is 14.9 cm in diameter, and is on loan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition from the British Museum.

The Fuller Brooch
The Ædwen Brooch, made in East Anglia in the early 11th century.
© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.


What to drink

Drinking was doubtless a major component of Anglo-Saxon feasts. It features prominently when describing fictional feasts in secular halls in Beowulf and even in an account of the feast to celebrate the rededication of the Old Minster in Winchester in 980. Two 1000-year-old calendars show people drinking from cups and drinking horns.

Depiction of a feast, from a calendar page for April
Depiction of a feast, from a calendar page for April, in an 11th-century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 4v

Anglo-Saxon writers discussed a wide range of beverages. Here are just a few of the drinks (potiones) listed in a vocabulary list in an 11th-century schoolbook:


Old English

Modern English








Ofetes wos

fruit juice


Niwe win

unfermented or partially fermented grape juice

Infertum vinum


Wine for church services

Crudum vinum

weala win

Crude/foreign wine

Honorarium vinum

hlaforda win

lordly wine



pear juice, perry

compositum vinum

gewyrtod win

spiced wine

defrutum vinum

gesoden win

cooked/boiled wine



Sweet wine cooked down and flavoured with mulberry



sweet wine


Monastic sign language also had gestures to indicate beer, wine from a cask and a herbal drink.

Contrary to popular belief, medieval people could and did drink water: St Wulfstan of Worcester reportedly would not drink anything else. However, water was not considered fancy enough to drink at a feast. The main drinks available at feasts were beor (a very sweet drink), ale, mead and wine

Which drink you got depended very much on where you were sitting. This was in turn a reflection of how important you were. The most important people drank mead or beor at feasts. Mead was strongly associated with power in Anglo-Saxon England and Wales, to the extent that an Old English expression about power-hungry people warned, ‘Sometimes, people are thirstiest after drinking mead.’ Less important people were given wine, and others were given ale.

Also, before you attend an Anglo-Saxon feast, you might want to practice drinking from a horn. Decorated cups were also used.

Detail of a man filling a drinking horn
Detail of a man filling a drinking horn: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

How not to drink

While drinking seems to have been a key part of socialising in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, many Old English writers warned of the dangers of overindulging. A poem in the Exeter Book known as the Precepts depicts a father advising his son to ‘Guard against drunkenness and foolish words’.

What to eat

Feasts would also have included food, although literary and artistic depictions of feasts tended to focus on drinking. Foods eaten in England 1000 years ago included cheese, bacon, herring, beans and eel (all mentioned in the Ely Farming Memoranda). For earlier periods, records of food given to King Ine of the West Saxons (d. c. 726) demanded that every 10 hides of land provide the king with 10 vats of honey, 300 loaves, Welsh ale, clear ale, 2 fully grown cows or 10 sheep, 10 geese, 20 hens, 10 cheeses, a full amber of butter, 100 pounds of fodder and 100 eels.

Food for feasts may have been seasoned by very precious, imported spices. An account of Bede’s death in 735 recorded him giving away some of his most precious possessions, including spices, on his deathbed.

What to do

There will be plenty for you to do at Christmas in 999. There will be elaborate church services. Be sure to catch a sermon delivered by Ælfric or Wulfstan, if you get the chance. And don’t be alarmed if they start talking about putting a baby in a bin: ‘binn’ is the Old English word for manger.

Music for Christmas, from a troper made in the 11th century
Music for Christmas, from a troper made in the 11th century: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 2r

There will be entertainment as well. If you are seated with the workers at a 7th-century feast, be prepared for a bit of karaoke: according to Bede, people used to entertain themselves by passing around a harp and singing after feasts, to the horror of a shy cowherd called Caedmon.

If you arrive in the right year, you might be able to attend a coronation. Christmas and Easter were not times when major governmental work stopped. On the contrary, major political meetings often coincided with major holidays. For example, William the Conqueror was crowned at Westminster Abbey at Christmas 1066. Nineteen years later, at Christmas 1085, he commissioned the survey of the wealth and assets of his kingdom that would become the basis for Domesday Book.

Whatever you do this New Year, in whatever country (and century) you may be, have a wonderful time, and a happy and prosperous 2019.


Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs