[ELH] Anglo-Saxon England and the wider world

England and the British Archipelego: Europe's Offshore Islands

Though the Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to think of themselves as ‘the English’, they never lost sight of their Continental roots or these islands’ place in Christendom and the wider world. Here of course is a constant theme in British history: the tension between Britain’s sense of insularity and its involvement in the Continent and beyond. Some scholars in fact see England as an articifial entity, part of a British Isles archipelego which can be deconstructed into a ‘Celtic’ province around the Irish Sea but including eastern Scotland and ‘Continental’ Britain looking across the North Sea, with a region of interlap from the Humber to the Bristol and English Channels.

A number of aspects of the Anglo-Saxons’ involvement in the wider world are explored in this course. Dr Story’s second lecture, ‘Europe in Transition: from Constantine to Charlemagne’, sets Anglo-Saxon England on that wider European stage. One week later ‘The Arrival of the English’ is considered. Migration involves departure as well as arrival, and inevitably the student of the adventus is involved in thinking about the Continental evidence, cultural and archaeological, for the identity of the migrants, their dwellings, artefacts and lifestyle; why migration took place; and how it fitted in to the vast and complex movements of the peoples which dominates the history of Europe from the third to the sixth centuries - and later, if one takes Scandinavian settlement and Arab conquests to be part of the same phenomenon. Similarly the third bloc of lectures, under the title ‘Kings and Kingdoms’, leads towards a consideration of the Germanic origins of Anglo-Saxon kingship - but such consideration is impossible without exploring the very real influence on ideas and ideals of monarchy that came from the former Roman world. From that same world came the conversion of the English to Christianity, the task scorned by the British church - perhaps in part because it had lost touch with the changing nature of the universal church. But conversion, as we see, also involved conservation - the incorporation into English Christianity of those aspects of pre-Christian belief which seemed worthy and useful, and doubtless also those aspects from which the people refused to be parted. So the English church agreed to share the date of the paschal feast with the church of Rome, but called it Easter, after a Germanic goddess of the dawn and springtime.

In the seminar studies, too, the Continental dimension is crucial to a proper understanding of the material being handled. It is impossible to read Gildas and Nennius without sensing the nostalgia for the time when Britain was part of the Roman Empire. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle must be placed alongside the Royal Frankish Annals, and other Continental records of events. The study of hagiography involves spotting the parallels between Lives of Insular saints such as Cuthbert and Wilfrid with those of Continental saints such as Gregory the Great. Royal biography was approached by comparing Asser’s Life of Alfred with Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne. Frankish legislation and the Lex Romana were reference points for a study of the Laws of Anglo-Saxon kings; Continental theory and practice for a study of Anglo-Saxon charters and writs. Finally, members of the course are asked to consider poetry and literature, and letters. How inexplicable Beowulf would be without an understanding the Continental and Scandinavian world in which it is set. How little we could make of Boniface and Alcuin from their letters without appreciating how it was that that they could work as easily and effectively on the Continent as in England, and how the same could be said in reverse of Augustine and his fellow missioners advised and encouraged by the letters of Gregory.

Having already become familiar with this array of evidence for Anglo-Saxon England’s ‘Continental contacts’, it is reasonable to ask what else remains to say. Two areas not explored in depth in the first part of the course are trade and culture, and although the two may not immediately strike the student coming fresh to these matters as being closely connected, there is a crucial association. This is because ideas about style, fashion and craftsmanship flow along the trade routes, indeed are carried on the trade routes, since merchants in the medieval world were concerned chiefly with the supply of luxury goods, not staple commodities as is the case today. Together with the flow of material culture came the intellectual luxuries - knowledge, learning and progress. So what sort of contacts, trading and cultural, took place, what evidence exists for them, and what is the student of the period entitled to conclude from the evidence?



Archaeology: Artefacts (e.g. Cuthbert’s vestments: the so-called Nature Goddess silk and the Rider silk; Coptic bowls, amythyst pendants from India and Ceylon, lapis lazuli from a single mine in Afghanistan)

Emporia, such as Hamwih (evidence of royal enterprise).

Documentary: Offa’s letters to Charlemagne and his reception of ambassadors from the Caliph of Baghdad.

Thus the trade was two-way. From Britain was flowing raw materials and manufactured goods, particularly woollens, and slaves.

Economic: Offa’s coinage.

Unique example in the British Museum of a gold mancus (that is, 30d) of Offa, copies from a dinar struck in 774 by Caliph Al-Mansur of Baghdad and dated 157 in the Hegiric Era. The die-cutter made errors an Arabic craftsman would have avoided - and even got the Arabic inscription on the coin’s obverse side upside-down when inserting Offa’s name.

Offa’s silver penny was equivalent in weight and content to half an Abbasid dirham. Charlemagne’s denier (that is, his reformed denarius - the Latin coin which is identical, of course, with our penny) was set to be equivalent to two-thirds of the dirham. The Byzantine miliaresion was brought up to the weight and quality of the Arabic dirham.

Topographic (trade routes)


The Anglo-Saxon Achievement; towns; nucleation; Viking raids; culture...



Language (Runes give way to Roman script; Latin continues as linqua franca).

Literature (Libraries. The gift of books.)

Dream of the Rood: poem inspired by a devotional current which originated in Byzantium, but written in the idiom of insular heroic poetry with Christ as a courageous and victorious king and all created things his liegemen. Elene: Helen’s discovery of the True Cross.

The Acts of the Apostles, Andrew, Matthew, Bartholomew, etc.

Beowulf, Christianised version of Scandinavian epic.

Visual arts (Influence of the eastern Mediterranean).

Inhabited vine-scroll motif found on the Ruthwell cross and on a panel in the monastery at Jarrow has been traced to Armenian prototypes.

Standing Annunciation on the Ruthwell cross paralleled only in Syria.

Durham Gospel fragment, mid- to later-seventh century. Interlace patterns are from Egyptian Coptic and/or Byzantine-Italian exemplars.

Book of Durrow, c. 675. Carpet pages: either Oriental, or perhaps inspired by Roman mosaic pavements. Page portraits of the Evangelists echo a Persian manuscript of the Diatessaron of Tatian, perhaps brought to Iona by Arculf, a pilgrim who had visited Jerusalem. These are then copied in the Gospel Book of St Willibrord. Also Pictish influence, as in Lion of St John, with its voluted design.

Lindisfarne Gospels, said made by Eadfrith of Lindisfarne, bishop, c.690. Feasts include St Januarius, a saint of Naples, so suggestive of a southern Italian origin. Text in two columns, suggestive of late antique Italian examplar. Late antique model for portrait of St Matthew at his writing desk - relates to a picture of the prophet Ezra in the Codex Ammantianus. Details in carpet page: geometric design from Persia, interlace from Egypt, and at the same time, Celtic features such as the spiral motifs and hanging bowls like those found at Tara in Ireland. The colours include kermes, a red obtained from an insect that lives in kermes oaks in the Mediterranean, and ultramarine blue, or lapis lazuli, obtained only from a single mine in Afghanistan.

Codex Aureus of Canterbury: Late Antique, Mediterranean models. Much use of gold and, in St Boniface’s Gospel Book, chrysography, gold lettering on a purple background. The height of sumptuousness, and use of imperial colours.

Architecture (Basilican churches, at first on the Roman model, later on the Ottonian, that is the style in Germany under the emperor Otto and his successors).

Using Frankish masons and glaziers, Benedict Biscop built his church at Monkwearmouth in a distinctly Mediterranean style, plastered in and out, with a cement floor finished in pounded red brick. He made no less than five journeys to Rome to amass books and relics to enrich his monasteries.

Church music

Chant is generally ascribed to Gregory the Great, though this may not be strictly accurate. Music at the monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow had been taught by ‘the chief cantor of St Peter’s’.

Belief (saints’ cults, pilgrimage)

Monastic ideals had come from Egypt, via Marmoutier and Lerins, the early monasteries in Gaul. After the renewal of Frankish monasticism through the agency of Irish monks, Anglo-Saxon noblewomen in particular were sent to study at Frankish houses such as Luxeuil.

Devotion to the Virgin (see picture in Book of Kells).


England and the Continent in the Eighth Century; ideas...



World-view (ideas of ethnicity: wealh = roman; ideas of religious identity, as in ‘People of God’ and adoption of biblical interpretation of history).

Rule of law (fear of regicide; dynastic succession; juries; feud; ordeal; tythings)

Obedience to Rome

Piety, charity, virtues (Monastic reforms, hospitals)

Learning (schools, classical knowledge, literacy)


Alfred, role of Low Countries, Crusades, debate about feudalism,evolution of states.

The crucial role of Islam. Henri Pirenne wrote in 1922, in a paper entitled Mahomet and Charlemagne (published in expanded form as a book in 1937), ‘Without Islam, the Frankish empire could never have existed; Charlemagne without Mahomet would be inconceivable’, Pirenne’s catastrophy thesis of the Arab conquests postulated that Islam changed the Mediterranean from a Roman lake into a hostile Muslim lake, and that this led to a cessation of trade and the rapid decay of the Merovingian empire. He pointed to four disappearances: of luxury fabrics, spices, papyrus and gold. But it has been pointed out that luxury textiles, papyrus and gold were Byzantine monopolies and that Byzantium was a greater obstacle to free trade than the Arabs. Gold, in any case, was of less use in the increasingly commercialised West. The flow of spices, on the other hand, may have been interrupted by social unrest in the Arab lands. Erna Patzelt showed from Scandinavian evidence how a new trade route had grown up via Russia and the Northern lands, giving western Europe a second access to silks, spices, drugs, precious stones, and other luxuries. In truth, the Muslim lands were a benefit to European trade, not a hindrance. M. Lombard wrote in the 1947 issue of Annales: ‘The Islamic world, for the Barbarian west, was a centre of economic, artisitc, and intellectual influence, a very reincarnation of both the Hellenistic and Roman worlds’.

The lure of the sun

Letter from Daniel of Winchester to Boniface: best arguments to convert heathen are to contrast the frozen lands of the north with the happy lands of the south with their wine trade and so on; and to promote Christianity as a source of wonderful things.

Individuals and their experiences

Who made the contacts?

Merchants (including explorers?). Ibn Khurdadbeh, a high official of the Abbasid Caliphate, wrote about the Radhanites, a group of Jewish merchants of Baghdad, who spoke many languages and traded as far east as India and China, as well as to the west.

Pilgrims (ditto). Charlemagne wrote asking Offa to curb the actitivities of merhants disguised as pilgrims, and promised to give merchants protection if Frankish `merchants were afforded equivalent protection in England.

Ambassadors and staffs

Armed bands (sea and land)

Ecclesiastics (including teachers, administrators, monks, and academics). Theodore of Tarsus, the aged monk who was sent by Pope Vitalian to be Archbishop of Canterbury, was born, as his name indicates, in what is now south-east Turkey and had studied at Edessa. He is credited with the introduction to England of the Litany, a rehearsal of the names of saints coupled with pleas for their intercession, which was a feature of the Greek liturgy. His pupil, Oftfor, bishop of Worcester, may have been particularly well travelled in an age when clerics were expected to make at least one journey to Rome: his name means ‘oft-farer’, the one who has travelled many times.

Artisans and artists

Civilian seafarers

Reeves, bailiffs and stewards


What did they bring back?

Goods, Ideas, but also Mementoes of their journeys, sacred books, relics, sacred pictures.

Balance sheet of influence

Lack of awareness of external inflences among mass of population not entirely relevant, since we are dealing here with influences which percolate through society largely unbeknown. However, it is revelant in any attempt to establish a balance-sheet between Germanic and Roman characteristics of Anglo-Saxon society. Is such a balance-sheet possible?

Take, for example, language. The vernacular, that is, Old English, survived in the overwhelming mass of place-names, personal names (to the end of the thirteenth century), names of plants and animals, the language of charms, the days of the week (a straight translation of the Roman names and therefore a significant example of the balance-sheet in action), literature (for example, the verse dramas of Andreas, the Dream of the Rood, and Elene), and administrative memoranda (for example, the so-called Tribal Hidage and Burghal Hidage, and The Resting Places of the English Saints. Latin, however, remained the language of the church, diplomacy, and the royal chancery (the Anglo-Saxon civil service).

Taken together this suggests two cultures: a regionalised, vernacular, popular culture; and an international high culture that used Latin as its lingua franca.

Political influences

Merovingian (Frankish) hegemony over Kent and East Anglia? According to Gallic envoy to Byzantium, c. 550, Merovingian king claimed authority over Brittia, following the settlement in Frankia of Angloi, previously resident in Brittia. East Anglian king Sigibeorht bore a name with a Frankish first theme. Sutton Hoo treasures, including a Coptic hanging bowl, and Byzantine silver, may be Frankish royal treasure given to compliant tributary king. Marriage of Frankish princess Bertha to Aethelbeorht of Kent has been seen as an indication of Merovingian overlordship over south-east England.

Such overlordship need not have entailed more than suzerainty, an acknowledgement of political superiority; at the most, perhaps, adjudication and resolution of conflict. Thus Charlemagne may have intervened to secure the reinstatement of the Northumbrian king Eardwulf. This highlights two features of the early medieval political system in Europe. First, conflict resolution, acting as an ultimate court of appeal, may have been one of the functions of the Bretwealda. Second, overlordship was a characteristic of the hierarchical, pyramid system of monarchy in early medieval Europe. Even though the surviving Roman emperor in Constantinople (Byzantium) ceased to have direct involvement in affairs in western Europe, he was still revered and due respect and honour was accorded to him. The Gothic, Frankish and Burgundian kings vied for official positions surviving from the undivided empire: appointments such as magister militum, Master of the Military, that is Commander of the Army. The emperor in Byzantium often conferred the Consulship on them. These kings, in turn, did not address their subordinates as kings, even though powerful subordinates had as much power as they.


Return again to two underlying tensions: between Britain as an island and Britain as a part of Europe; and between the Germanic and Roman worlds.

I make no apology for seeing the latter as a key to understanding much of Anglo-Saxon England.

We see this duality in the so-called Franks’ casket, with its scenes from the Germanic legend of Wayland Smith and Thor’s struggle with the monster, juxtaposed with biblical episodes and themes from ancient Rome - Romulus and Remus being suckled by the Wolf, and the sack of Jerusalem by the emperor Titus. On the one hand the person for whom the casket was made, or perhaps the craftsman, revered the ancient myths of their Germanic ancestors. On the other hand the piece was made with an awareness of Romanitas and Christianity - an attempt to span both worlds.

In the end, Romanitas triumphed. When Cuthbert was buried at Lindisfarne of the Celtic church, he was wrapped in, and accompanied by Gallic and Roman vestments and other artefacts. Indeed it has been suggested that the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was a deliberate move to bring Europe’s off-shore islands into a closer orbit with the Roman world after the loss of much of the Mediterranean to the Arab conquests.

Final case studies

I should like to end by offering two Mercian case studies: one secular, focused on the court of King Offa, and the other ecclesiastical, focused on the court of St Wilfrid.


Breedon: Mediterranean vine-leaves and a Byzantine-influenced Mary, alongside Germanic beasts.

Offa’s coin portrait imitates the Roman emperors. His wife, Cynefryth, was the only Anglo-Saxon queen to have coins minted in her name. She may have been imitating the empress Helena, mother of Constantine. More likely, perhaps, she was imitating the Byzantine empress Irene, who had recently had coins struck in her name - and Irene may have been recalling the coins of Helena. Both women were claiming, by their coins, a special status for the royal consort.

Offa’s son Ecgfryth was consecrated king while his father was still alive. This was an attempt by Offa to further secure the succession - he had already had potential claimants put to death - but the point here is that he was imitating Charlemagne, who had attempted to secure the succession to the empire he had created by having his son consecrated. Little good it did either of them. Both reigned only a short time.

St Andrew (Hedda Stone)

He moved in an international world. Was adopted by the archbishop of a town on his way to Rome.

He adopted Andrew as his patron perhaps in honour of Gregory the Great, who had founded the monastery of St Andrew at Rome where Augustine of Canterbury was Gregory’s prior.

Andrew, nevertheless, was attractive to the English for another reason: his extraordinary adventures in the legendary account of his missionary activities among the monstrous races beyond the Black Sea. His name means, in Greek, ‘First Man’.

Additional reading

Backhouse, Janet (1995), The Lindisfarne Gospels, a Masterpiece of Book Painting (London)

Kelly, Susan (1990), ‘Anglo-Saxon lay society and the written word’, in McKitterick, Rosamond (ed.) (1990, pbk 1992), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge University Press), pp. 36-62.

Keynes, Simon (1990), ‘Royal government and the written word in late Anglo-Saxon England’, in McKitterick, ‘Uses of Literacy’, pp. 226-57.

Sims-Williams, Patrick (1990), Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800.

Lieber, Alfred E. (1981), ‘International trade and coinage in the Northern Lands during the early middle ages’, in Blackburn, M.A.S., and Metcalf, D.M. (eds.), Viking-Age Coinage in the Northern Lands. The sixth Oxford symposium on coinage and monetary history. Part I, British Archaeological Reports, International series 122 (i) (Oxford).

Loyn, Henry (1986), ‘Progress in Anglo-Saxon monetary history’, in Blackburn, M.A.S. (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Monetary History (Leicester University Press).

Bailey, Richard N. (1990), The Meaning of Mercian Sculpture (Vaughan Paper 34, University of Leicester, Department of Adult Education).

[Leicester University] [*]
Last updated: 03 February 1999 10:43
Dr G.R. Jones

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