Before the National Health Service – not for the squeamish!

This year, on 5th July, we celebrate 70 years of the National Health Service. It’s often thought of as one of Britain’s greatest achievements, and it’s now been with us so long that life without the NHS is almost unimaginable.

It’s the job of archaeologists to help us understand what the past was like, so what happens when we look back? The first medical tools on the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s database are Roman, and these are mostly thought to be surgical implements. There were no anaesthetics in the Roman world, apart from herbal sedatives, so surgery must have been a painful last resort, yet clearly quite often used.

Roman scalpel handle (SF-97C5D2)
Roman scalpel handle (SF-97C5D2).

After the Romans, we have to wait until the post-medieval period to see much artefactual evidence of medical expertise. A useful reference collection is in the surgeon’s chest from the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship which sank in 1545. This dovetailed walnut chest, about the size of a modern blanket box, contained pottery and metal vessels, wooden ointment containers, syringes, bandages, a feeding bottle, and the handles of surgical implements. None of the iron ‘business ends’ of the tools survived, though, and as most medical tools would have been of iron in this period, we have very few on the PAS database.

As medicine grew more sophisticated in the 18th and 19th centuries, we might expect to record more objects. But, because the PAS doesn’t record objects less than 300 years old, we haven’t recorded many objects associated with recent medicine or health care. The PAS can make a significant contribution in at least one area, though, and that’s the history of tooth decay and its consequences – in a world where sugar was an increasing part of the diet.

There are several documentary histories of false teeth, usually focusing on prominent people who suffered from tooth decay, such as George Washington and William III. We know a lot about these people from surviving correspondence with their dentists and false-teeth suppliers, but they are hardly representative of most of the population, who were also struggling with too much sugar and not enough toothbrushes.

Another problem in the history of dental hygiene has been the ghoulish fascination with the ‘Waterloo teeth’ of the 19th century, re-used human teeth from the battlefields not only of the Napoleonic wars but also wars of later decades, right up to the American Civil War. The idea of using the teeth of a dead person is quite horrible to us today, and can crowd out any other thoughts about how our ancestors coped with the problem of tooth decay.

Hard archaeological evidence of false teeth has until now been scanty. Lost dentures find their way into the archaeological record in a limited number of ways, and I’m indebted to Geoff Burr, dentist and PAS volunteer, for his advice on this.

The most common way in which early dentures were lost stems from the fact that they were not at all comfortable. Many denture-wearers tended to take them out between meals and perhaps put them in a pocket, from which they could fall out and get lost. The second most common way is through sneezing; and the third is vomiting. All of these methods would mean that the teeth would not enter the conventional buried archaeological record. (I’m sorry to have to labour the point, but vomit would normally make its way into nightsoil, which is eventually spread on fields – but it is just possible that it could enter a cesspit, and therefore survive in a buried context).

We now have sixteen dental plates recorded on the PAS, and these form evidence of actual use and loss, to complement the curated collections of the British Dental Association’s museum.

In general the lost dental plates are made from thin gold or silver which would have fitted over the gums. Gold was best, used because it would not react with food or saliva, and because it was soft yet strong so could easily be worked to a thin but sturdy plate. Loops were used to fix most plates to the surviving teeth, although this put extra stress on those teeth and often led to their being lost too.

Gold dental plates with loops to fit around surviving teeth (YORYM-DEF0E2 and DEV-E68EC1)

One or more false teeth survive on some plates, showing that they were normally made from porcelain, again an inert strong substance; but one has teeth made apparently from bone (IOW-A114B2), and we also have a single example with human teeth (WMID-F353B8). The teeth were held to the plate using gold or silver rods.

Porcelain teeth on gold dental plates (LANCUM-3DE363 and IOW-D164D2)
Porcelain teeth on gold dental plates (LANCUM-3DE363 and IOW-D164D2). Note the decoration on the upper surface of LANCUM-3DE363, which is paralleled by small indentations on IOW-E8BFA3. At the time of writing, even the staff of the British Dental Association Museum cannot explain these marks.

It’s interesting to see that, from the PAS’s small sample, human teeth are not as common as porcelain.

The dentures above probably date from the 19th century. By the early 20th century, the rods and plate would have been cast in one piece, and combined with hardened rubber (often called vulcanite). LVPL-ED4792 is an example of an early 20th-century denture. These were eventually replaced by the type of acrylic and plastic dentures in use today.

In the early days of the NHS, teeth were seen as being as important as any other part of health care. This is because poor oral health can affect general health, with bacteria in the mouth being both swallowed and breathed in. The bacteria in the bloodstream can cause blood clots, leading to strokes and heart attacks, and bacteria being breathed in can lead to lung infections.

These days, with modern fluoride toothpastes and inexpensive electric toothbrushes, our teeth are in far better condition. Many dentists no longer offer NHS treatment, and so the link between our teeth and our general health is not so well understood.

False teeth are an intimate thing. They are put in one of our most sensitive places, where normally we are careful to only put things that are delicious and good for us. But are these modern objects worth recording? Yes, in that they provide evidence for life that is rarely easily visible through historical records. Without the real thing, it’s hard to understand the development of prosthetic dentistry in human terms. Many people had tooth trouble in the past, but it’s not something that we often talk about.

Ӕthelflӕd, Lady of the Mercians and defeater of the Great Viking Army

June 12th 2018 marks eleven hundred years since the death of one of the most remarkable women that England has ever produced. Few have heard of Ӕthelflӕd (and fewer can spell her name) yet she was a warrior queen, absolutely the equal of Boudicca or Elizabeth I.

Ӕthelflӕd was Alfred the Great’s eldest child, and she seems to have inherited all of his intelligence and good sense. She was married to Ӕthelred, Alfred’s lieutenant in the Midland kingdom of Mercia, and when he died prematurely she was chosen as leader. She was never officially a queen – Mercia had lost its independence in the conflict with the Vikings – but she had the same status, the unchallenged leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom who led her people into battle against the Vikings.

Penny of Alfred the Great's first coinage, c. 871-875 (PUBLIC-A00281)
Penny of Alfred the Great’s first coinage, c. 871-875 (PUBLIC-A00281).

Ӕthelflӕd was the daughter of Alfred and Ealhswith, a Mercian princess. She was born about 870 AD, a really low point in English history. The Vikings had been around every summer for decades, attacking coastal sites like Lindisfarne and taking plunder home, but in the 860s they started a new tactic known as ‘overwintering’. This meant that instead of going home for the winter, they sailed up a river, built a camp and stayed put. There are famous historically-known camps at Nottingham, York, Cambridge, Repton, Torksey and Thetford, and archaeology and metal-detecting have found traces of all of these.

Ingots of copper alloy, gold and silver from the Torksey area (YORYM-420D6D, DENO-938F91 and DENO-705A57). The Vikings used bullion, such as these ingots, as well as coins.
Ingots of copper alloy, gold and silver from the Torksey area (YORYM-420D6D, DENO-938F91 and DENO-705A57). The Vikings used bullion, such as these ingots, as well as coins.

This was a real change in Viking activity. They seem to have been aiming at conquest, political control and land-taking, rather than simple raiding, and so they became a huge threat to the English kingdoms. Alfred became king of Wessex shortly after Ӕthelflӕd’s birth, but by the time she was about eight, he was in hiding in the Somerset marshes. The story is that he was on the run, given shelter by a woman who didn’t recognise him and asked him to keep an eye on her cakes (probably bread rolls). He was so pre-occupied with thinking about how to defeat the Vikings that the cakes burned – and he was scolded by the woman who had no idea he was king.

The other kingdoms – Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the Midlands, and East Anglia – were occupied by the Vikings. The situation looked hopeless.

Coins of Burgred (LON-61D165) and Ceolwulf (BUC-08EE42), kings of Mercia.
Coins of Burgred (LON-61D165) and Ceolwulf (BUC-08EE42), kings of Mercia. Burgred was the last of the Anglo-Saxon Mercian kings, ruling from 852-874. He was married to Alfred’s sister Ӕthelswith; marriage links were frequent between rival kingdoms. When the Viking army invaded Mercia, they sent Burgred into exile (he went to Rome) and put Ceolwulf on the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls Ceolwulf ‘an unwise king’s thegn’ and implies that he was a collaborator with the Vikings. BUC-08EE42 is the only single find of a coin of Ceolwulf on the PAS database and, very unusually, is a halfpenny rather than a penny. The Watlington Hoard (SUR-4A4231) contains coins of both Alfred and Ceolwulf and has recently changed our ideas of their relationship.

Alfred famously began guerilla-style raids against the Vikings. Eventually he gathered enough people around him to build up an army, and was able to defeat the Vikings and get some measure of peace back to the country. A treaty was agreed some time between 878 and 890, which drew a boundary between the Anglo-Saxon lands and the ‘Danelaw’.

The boundaries of the Danelaw agreed between Alfred and Guthrum. From E. W. Dowe's Atlas of European History, published 1910 (Wikimedia Commons)
The boundaries of the Danelaw agreed between Alfred and Guthrum. From E. W. Dowe’s Atlas of European History, published 1910 (Wikimedia Commons).

By this time, like any good princess, Ӕthelflӕd had got married, but not to a prince or king. She had married Ealdorman Ӕthelred, who was in charge of London, newly liberated from Viking rule. Quite soon Alfred promoted Ӕthelred, to take charge of the Mercian council and the Mercian armies.

The title of ‘king’ was a potent one, and Alfred seems to have realised that he ought to keep it to himself. By putting an ealdorman in charge, Alfred is showing that he’s the top dog – it’s not a separate kingdom any more. This new arrangement isn’t always clear, though, and Ӕthelred issues charters as if he was a king. Mercian sources fudge it, calling him ‘Lord of the Mercians’, and some Welsh sources describe him as a king. No coins are yet known in the name of Ӕthelred.

Ӕthelred’s position was therefore a bit precarious, and being married to someone like Ӕthelflӕd was essential to keep stability. We don’t know Ӕthelred’s background – whether he was from Wessex, or from Mercia, or why he was chosen by Alfred. And he had imposed on the Mercians by their historic enemy, the king of Wessex. So we might expect him to be a bit unpopular, and in need of some backup.

The couple start off quite conventionally – Ӕthelred spends his time fighting the Vikings, and Ӕthelflӕd stays at home and has a baby daughter. But Ӕthelred then becomes ill. We aren’t sure what happens – maybe a battle wound, maybe something else – but at some point between 902 and 910 Ӕthelflӕd takes over. By this point Alfred had died, and Ӕthelflӕd’s younger brother Edward was king – we know him as Edward the Elder.

Coin of Edward the Elder, from a small hoard found in Norfolk (NMS-88D191).
Penny of Edward the Elder, from a small hoard found in Norfolk (NMS-88D191).

The campaign against the Vikings was still at its height, and Ӕthelflӕd organised the Mercian side of things. She travelled with her army, and apparently had a good eye for land, being able to predict where the Danes would be and where would be the best places to attack. She sent her troops into battle in the final great defeat of the Viking army, when (with Edward’s Wessex army) she surprised them at Tettenhall near Wolverhampton in 910. Apparently many thousands of Danes were killed, including all their leaders, and this was the turning point in the war against the great combined Viking army. Again, it’s surprising how little we remember the Battle of Tettenhall, even though it’s one of the great decisive battles of English history.

Ӕthelred then died, in 911. This made Ӕthelflӕd’s position more difficult, because it was not obvious who would take over. In England, there was no tradition of women becoming regents when their husbands (although this did happen in France). In Mercia, queens could issue charters, but in Wessex, apparently the wife of a king didn’t even get the title of Queen. And of course Edward was the official king – so who would now rule Mercia was probably up to him.

Edward doesn’t appear to have interfered, and he was probably waiting to see how Ӕthelflӕd got on. She couldn’t govern without the loyalty of her military retinue, and as we don’t hear much of her for a couple of years, she was presumably building up her strength at home.

The 'Athelswith' finger-ring, found at Abercorn in West Yorkshire in 1870 and now in the British Museum (AF.458).
The ‘Athelswith’ finger-ring, found at Aberford in West Yorkshire in 1870 and now in the British Museum (AF.458). On the back of the bezel it bears the inscription + EAÐELSVIÐ REGNA (Queen Athelswith). It is almost certain that it was a gift or mark of office from Ӕthelflӕd’s aunt Ӕthelswith, the previous queen of Mercia and sister of Alfred the Great. Ӕthelflӕd may have issued similar rings, but she does not appear to have issued coins.

She next emerges into history as a builder of fortified towns, or ‘boroughs’. Between 913 and 915, towns like Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick and Runcorn all had major defences built. Several of these have been excavated, and all were strategically significant, many on major rivers on which the Vikings could use their ships. The ‘borough system’, where towns are fortified and men detailed to guard them in rota, had been invented by Alfred – but Ӕthelflӕd hugely expanded it in her kingdom.

916 was an interesting year for Ӕthelflӕd. She took a break from fighting the Vikings, and switched to annoying the Welsh. Her ally in north Wales, the king of Gwynedd, died in 916, leaving her a bit weaker on her western boundary. So she sent a force against the kingdom of Brecon – in south Wales – presumably hoping to keep the new northern Welsh king on side, under the principle that his enemy’s enemy is his friend. This is significant because both Brecon and Mercia were under the overlordship of Wessex. By attacking another dependent kingdom, Ӕthelflӕd clearly felt that she could safely assert her independence!

It seems that Edward and Ӕthelflӕd in fact had a good relationship, working separately but for the same ends. In 917 she switched from defence to offence, and began to attack the Viking towns – first she captured Derby, and then threatened Leicester, but the Danish town here surrendered without a fight.

Curious object showing a helmeted Viking holding a drinking horn (LEIC-EEF651)
Curious object showing a helmeted Viking holding a drinking horn (LEIC-EEF651). It was found near Loughborough, Leicestershire, and may be a prick spur, with a parallel known from Germany.

The Danish rulers of York then sent a message to Ӕthelflӕd that they would accept her as their ruler, but sadly she died on 12th June in Tamworth, on her way north to York. No similar offer was made to Edward, and in fact the Viking kingdom of York continued for decades until the death of Erik Bloodaxe in 954.

Ӕthelflӕd was about 48 when she died, in the prime of her life and at the height of her powers. The death of a powerful ruler is always a problem, and although Edward was in the middle of fighting with his own army in the east midlands, he immediately went to Mercia to ensure that his authority there wasn’t questioned. In fact, the most extraordinary thing had happened – after the success of one Lady of the Mercians, the leading men there had chosen another one, Ӕthelflӕd’s daughter Ælfwynn, who was now aged about 30.

There is then silence until about six months later. Presumably Ælfwynn had been trying to build up power in Mercia, and had not had the same success as her mother. For some reason Edward ‘deprived her of control’, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and by Christmas 918 she was in exile in Wessex. There was no resistance in Mercia to the loss of their ruler, and so this really ends the story of Mercia as an independent kingdom.

It has been pointed out that the transfer of power from one woman to another is not seen again until Tudor times six hundred years later, with Queens Mary and Elizabeth (and Lady Jane Grey before, if you insist). At this point legitimacy and royal succession was the important thing, whereas in the tenth century the crucial attribute was the ability to command in battle. And in Tudor times there were no male heirs, whereas in Anglo-Saxon Mercia there were plenty of able men around.

William of Malmesbury, writing two hundred years later, probably summed it up when he said that she was “a woman of enlarged soul” and that she “protected men at home and intimidated them abroad”. Let’s remember Ӕthelflӕd (and Ælfwynn) and celebrate their achievements as women before their time.

Powerful Anglo-Saxon Women

Today is International Women’s Day, and this year is the centenary of the first women voting in a UK general election. So I’d like to look today at a few objects that show us the power of Anglo-Saxon women, and where this power came from.

We get hints of this power from written history, but these stunning archaeological finds are the best proof that women, for a short moment in the Anglo-Saxon world, were almost as powerful and important as men.

In the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity – the 7th century AD – women were right in the forefront. Many Anglo-Saxon abbeys had a woman in charge. There was Aethelthryth at Ely, Hilda at Whitby, Mildrith at Thanet, Aethelburh at Barking, and Cyneburh at Castor near Peterborough. These women are really major figures in Anglo-Saxon history, but tend nowadays to be forgotten.

The Trumpington Cross (CAM-A04EF7)
The Trumpington Cross (CAM-A04EF7)

This is the Trumpington Cross, found by archaeologists in 2011 while excavating in advance of housing development on the outskirts of Cambridge. It was found on the chest of a young woman in her mid to late teens, who had been buried on a narrow bed. The grave also contained gold-and-garnet linked pins, a ‘chatelaine’ (a chain hanging from the waist with tools and trinkets) and an iron knife. It has a PAS record (CAM-A04EF7) because it was a Treasure case, and it has now been acquired by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.

You’ll immediately notice that the Trumpington Cross has lugs rather than a pin or a loop, so it’s not a brooch or a pendant. It seems likely that it was sewn on to a garment, and at just 35mm across it’s quite small.

The Trumpington Cross joins a select group of cross pendants mostly associated with women. Until the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, just four were known, all from discoveries in the 19th century: the Wilton and Ixworth crosses, the cross from the Desborough necklace, and St Cuthbert’s cross.

The first to be found was the cross of St Cuthbert, and this is the only one associated with a man. It was found in 1827 when St Cuthbert’s coffin in Durham Cathedral was opened, hidden deep in the robes clothing the body. It is made from gold with inlaid garnets, and although of exceptional workmanship was broken and crudely repaired before burial. I’ll come back to this one in a moment.

The Wilton Cross
The Wilton Cross, set with a coin of Heraclius (610-641). Width: 44mm.

The Wilton Cross was the second to be found. There is little known of its circumstances of discovery, but it is now in the British Museum (1859,0512.1). A report in Volume 3 of Norfolk Archaeology for 1852 (p. 375-6) says that it was found at Wilton near Methwold in Norfolk, by some boys digging for gravel, and that it was bought by Mr W. Eagle of Lakenheath; this purchase was probably the source of the erroneous findspot of Lakenheath in the British Museum accession register. It has generally been felt that the correct findspot is Hockwold-cum-Wilton, about five miles from Methwold.

The Ixworth Cross was the next to be found, in Suffolk in1856, and it is now in the Ashmolean Museum (AN1909.453).  It was found during gravel-digging, probably in Stanton, but it was bought by a dealer in nearby Ixworth soon afterwards, and so became known as the Ixworth Cross. It came from a grave apparently very like that at Trumpington, containing the ironwork of a similar bed, and also the gold plate of a disc brooch. Brooches at this time were worn only by women, so this confirms that the pendant was also almost certainly the possession of a high-ranking woman.

The Desborough necklace, with the pendant cross at the centre.
The Desborough necklace, with the pendant cross at the centre.

The next cross to be found was rather different in nature, as it was apparently part of a prestigious short necklace. It was found in 1876 at Desborough in Northamptonshire, in a grave in a large cemetery. It was apparently the only find in the grave, and no record was kept of how the beads and pendants were arranged on the necklace. It is obvious that there is a second major pendant on the necklace, the large oval gem, and it may be that (as at Winfarthing, see below) the woman in the grave was in fact wearing two separate necklaces. The Desborough necklace is now in the British Museum (1876,0504.1).

There then followed a century or so with no more finds, until the advent of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. One of the earliest PAS records was the Holderness Cross (YORYM214), found in the 1960s in East Yorkshire. This was an accidental find, and how it got into the ground is unknown. It has now been joined by the Newball Cross (LIN-75FD54) which, although it has the corrugated loop characteristic of 7th-century pendants, lacks the garnets of the other examples.

The Holderness Cross (YORYM214) and the Newball Cross (LIN-75FD54)
The Holderness Cross (YORYM214) and the Newball Cross (LIN-75FD54) at the same scale.

So we have a group of crosses, made from gold and garnets, found in high-status graves, all but one associated with women, and all dating from the mid to late seventh century. To put this in context, at this point in history showy male jewellery is virtually absent from graves – and has been since the ‘princely’ burials of Prittlewell, Taplow and Sutton Hoo, all buried between about 590 and 625 AD. Weapons might still be encrusted with gold and garnets (as in the Staffordshire Hoard) but men themselves seem to have been rather more abstemious. So who might these women have been, and why were they ostentatiously wearing symbols of the new religion, Christianity?

Christianity had come to Anglo-Saxon England with the missionary St Augustine, who left Rome in 596 and so probably arrived in 597. The story of its adoption throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is told by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, finished in 731 AD. There were ups and downs – the Kentish kings were the first to convert and among the first to revert to paganism – but in the end Christian missionaries were finally sent to the last pagan kingdom, the Isle of Wight, after its conquest by the West Saxons in 686 AD.

By the time Bede finished his book, the newly Christian kings had endowed abbeys up and down the land. A quick count reveals references to at least three dozen monasteries, the most famous being Whitby, Ripon, Jarrow, Monkwearmouth, Lindisfarne,  Tynemouth, Hartlepool, Beverley, Lichfield, Ely, Peterborough, Malmesbury, Barking and Canterbury.

The evocative site of the abbey of Reculver, founded in 669. The towers were built in the 12th century and are still used as a seamark.
The evocative site of the abbey of Reculver, founded in 669. The towers were built in the 12th century and are still used as a seamark. The site is cared for by English Heritage, and is freely open to visit.

These abbeys were like mini-kingdoms, but powerhouses of religious rather than secular might. They were endowed with huge estates to provide an income, and gave an alternative to ruling or fighting for the aristocrats or minor royalty who ran them. Although copied from successful examples in Europe, they were entirely new, experimental institutions in England.

When flicking through the index to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History to compile this list of abbeys, I was struck by the number of named abbesses as well. In addition to the quick list I gave you above, Bede includes Ebba of Coldingham, Hildilith of Barking, Seaxburh of Ely, Frigyth of Hackness, Heiu of Hartlepool, Heriburg of Watton (in East Yorkshire) and more.  So there are a substantial number of women running these major institutions, controlling a large chunk of the economy of Anglo-Saxon England.

Looking around more widely, other women begin to appear. Conversion narratives often include queens as persuaders of kings; stories of miracles often include queens and princesses who seem to have been visiting or living at abbeys. And archaeological finds very occasionally bring a specific woman into focus. Queen Balthild, who ruled France from 657 to 663, has been better known in her native England since the finding of her seal matrix in Norfolk in 1998 (PAS-8709C3).

Gold seal matrix inscribed BALDEhILDIS, probably of Queen Balthild of France (PAS-8709C3)
Gold seal matrix inscribed BALDEhILDIS, probably of Queen Balthild of France (PAS-8709C3). Width 12mm.

So why – and how – did women wield this power, and why was it then lost? From the archaeological evidence, it seems entirely new, and connected to experimenting with Christianity.

It always takes a while for new ideas and organisations to shake down and get fixed in national and cultural life, and until this happens a variety of approaches can be tried out. Although Christianity was well established in the rest of the former Roman empire, it was a new idea in England and other currently ‘barbarian’ lands, and it wasn’t obvious how it would be handled.

It seems to have become obvious to someone (or several people in different kingdoms) that the new monasteries might be a useful place to put spare princesses while their brothers were fighting each other in the endless wars between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. If they were headed and run by women, this wouldn’t be a problem, as it would be perfectly in order to have women in charge of other women, and would remove any temptation from men.

But of course there are always unintended consequences, and it wouldn’t have been long before the Christian idea of doing good works to ensure a place in heaven resulted in huge endowments being settled on the new abbeys as a visible sign of piety. So the newly Christian Anglo-Saxons found themselves with women in charge of vast resources – and therefore power. The gold-and-garnet crosses are perhaps the clearest archaeological evidence for this power.

Two gold pendants from a grave at Winfarthing, Norfolk (NMS-E95041)
Two gold pendants from a grave at Winfarthing, Norfolk (NMS-E95041)

Another extraordinary recent find has been the jewellery from a grave at Winfarthing, in south Norfolk. There are two circular pendants in this grave, one large and one small, both clearly based on cross shapes. They were not on the same necklace; the larger pendant was found lower down on the chest, but the smaller pendant was on another shorter necklace with two gold beads and two pendants made from coins of Sigebert III, a Frankish king who ruled from 634 to 656 AD. The PAS record for the group is NMS-E95041.

It is always hard to know if the women in graves like those at Trumpington, Winfarthing and Ixworth (or Stanton) wielded secular or religious power. A rich grave (CAM-B4681Drecently found in a cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely has been suggested as part of the religious community there, but there is no convenient abbey near every grave. Maybe our graves contained one of the women listed above, maybe one of their friends or relatives – but whoever they were, their grave-goods were a reflection of their power and status. It’s possible that the beds, and the crosses, had a very specific meaning.

There are other examples of a new force in cultural or political life that is at the start open to men and women, but when women get a foothold and the new area looks promising, women are removed. Football is a famous example. In the early days there were as many women’s teams as men’s, and the women’s game steadily became more popular than the men’s. In 1920 there was a crowd of 53,000 to watch a Preston factory team take on St Helens Ladies. The following year the FA barred women from playing.

As in football, the status of women in Anglo-Saxon England didn’t last. By the time Simeon of Durham was writing, just after the Norman Conquest, women weren’t allowed to enter the shrine of St Cuthbert. They were very definitely second-class citizens, even if of royal rank.

I did promise that I’d come back to St Cuthbert. The presence of a stunningly beautiful and well-made gold and garnet cross in his grave has always sat uneasily with both his gender and with his fame as an ascetic. This was a man who refused to wear lovely clothes, and who got closer to God by standing neck-deep in seawater. Yet the cross has clearly been worn, and is repaired. It has been suggested that it is an offering tucked into the coffin when it was re-packed in 698, and wasn’t Cuthbert’s at all.

But it is also possible that early Anglo-Saxon clerics, like priests in many other cultures, weren’t seen as quite fully male. We have hints that this may have been the case in pagan Anglo-Saxon England from Bede’s story of Coifi, the Northumbrian chief priest who wasn’t allowed to do the normal male things like carrying weapons or riding stallions.

Against this, it has to be said that no other possible priest or cleric has been found in a grave with what appears to be women’s jewellery. It is still a puzzle, and the only way to sort it out might be to carry out more excavations at Anglo-Saxon monasteries.

Until then, let’s enjoy International Women’s Day by remembering some of these remarkable women. They are still known today, as St Audrey, St Hilda, St Mildred, St Ethelburga, St Abb (of St Abb’s Head), St Kyneburga, St Hildelith and St Sexburga – but like many other great women of the past, they should be celebrated more.

PS. If you would like to know more about Anglo-Saxon women, Sutton Hoo’s Historia Festival is running talks throughout the year on this topic.

It’s Pancake Day!

Have you ever wondered why we eat pancakes at the start of Lent? I was always told that it was because they were a good way of using up all the good food before the Lent fast, when  you weren’t supposed to eat things like meat or wine. I’ve always been baffled as to why the using-up meal wasn’t a roast dinner (or at least a meaty stew or pie). Why have an abstemious vegetarian dish which would have been perfectly acceptable in Lent?

In fact my last blog post, about Candlemas, may give the answer – and it seems it’s not the ingredients that are important, it’s the colour and the shape of the pancake. Candlemas rituals are all to do with the end of winter, and in some parts of Europe pancakes are cooked at this feast, because their round golden shape is thought to symbolise the returning sun. In the UK we have moved Pancake Day to Shrove Tuesday, the start of Lent, although this year Shrove Tuesday falls only eleven days after Candlemas.

What about a PAS record for Pancake Day? How about these two objects (WILT-E20CC5 and LON-A6B625): 17th- or 18th-century toy frying pans. Ironically, these tiny toys survive much better than the full-size originals, which would have contained valuable metal and so were probably recycled rather than discarded. They show the kind of shallow circular frying pan in which a pancake could have been cooked a few hundred years ago.

Toy frying pans from Zeal, Wiltshire (WILT-E20CC5) and Tower Hamlets, London (LON-A6B625)
Toy frying pans from Zeal, Wiltshire (WILT-E20CC5) and Tower Hamlets, London (LON-A6B625).

Candle-holders for Candlemas

Today is the first of February, and tomorrow is Candlemas. This obscure Christian festival marks the day when the baby Jesus was supposed to have been presented at the temple at Jerusalem, and was recognised by Simeon and Anna as the Messiah. But why is it called Candlemas?

February 2nd is exactly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so it’s a notable moment in the calendar. There are lots of other festivals around the same time, mainly related to spring-cleaning, the weather, and the return of the sun, and these may give us a clue as to where Candlemas really comes from.

The Roman festival of Februalia (which gave its name to the whole month) involves a lot of washing and ritual purification. And the Irish festival of Imbolc was on February 1st – later adopted by the Christian church in Ireland as St Bridget’s day. As the name Imbolc seems to come from the Old Irish imb-fholc, meaning to wash oneself, Imbolc may also be a festival of spring-cleaning.

Today in Canada and the USA, February 2nd is Groundhog Day. On this day, groundhogs are supposed to come out of hibernation and look around. If they can see their shadow, they return underground for another six weeks; but if the weather is cloudy, apparently winter is over. This tradition seems to have come from Germany (where the animal responsible was the badger, bear or fox) but no-one seems to know how old it is.

There is a parallel tradition for Candlemas, with the saying If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again. So it is an auspicious day for foretelling the weather.

Candlemas has involved candles since at least 600 AD, when there’s a description of them being lit in Jerusalem. There may be a clue as to why in the song of Simeon in the temple, the Nunc Dimittis, which appears in the Gospel of Luke. It says that Jesus will be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’.

Of course before about 1800 AD candles were a very important part of everyday life. That’s when gas lights were introduced, and then electricity came along about a century later, with the incandescent bulb – invented not by Edison, as most people think, but by Joseph Swan of Newcastle.

Blue plaque from the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle; Joseph Swan; poster for Ediswan
Blue plaque from the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, Westgate Street, Newcastle; Joseph Swan himself; poster for Ediswan, the company he set up with Edison to market the new lightbulbs.

Before this, you were largely reliant on candles for lighting. And in the middle of winter that’s from about 4pm in the afternoon to 7am the next morning – 15 hours. We have become so used to electric light that we hardly notice it’s dark for so long.

It’s around the start of February that you get really desperate for the winter to end, and start washing the mud off everything, lighting all your candles, and even consulting hibernating animals.

We have a lot of candle-holders on the PAS database, but perhaps the most evocative are the medieval folding candlesticks which could have been used by travellers.

Folding candlesticks from West Stow, Suffolk (SF4651) and Larling, Norfolk (NMS-D22F86)
Folding candlesticks from West Stow, Suffolk (SF4651) and Larling, Norfolk (NMS-D22F86)

On the left is SF4651, found at West Stow, Suffolk, in 2001 – coincidentally, the record was created on Candlemas! It has a socket for the candle, riveted to the  top of a strip which is hinged at the bottom. Also pivoting on this hinge is a spike, which can fold into a split in the front of the socket.

The hinge has three settings, shown by the slots on it – one for folded up, one for the spike unfolded half open and one for fully open. The final element of the candlestick is really difficult to see, but it is just visible on the middle photo – it is an arm that swings in and out of the slot to lock the spike in any position.

The other one (NMS-D22F86) is from Larling in Norfolk. The West Stow example is stuck in the folded-up position, but the Larling one is stuck in the folded-out position, so you can see how the spike could have been stuck into a table top and the candlestick would then be upright and ready to use. In half-folded position it would have been L-shaped, so you could have jammed the spike into a door, or a window, or a wall beam, and the candlestick would have been locked in this right-angled position, with the socket still upright so you could light your candle safely.

I can’t help feeling that there would be a market for a candle-holder like this today. It’s a real proper gadget, fits in the pocket and you can take it anywhere, giving you a decent light anywhere – whether or not you have electricity. Happy Candlemas!



Magna Carta and Fulk FitzWarin

This week it’s the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 by King John. Magna Carta is the most famous of a series of agreements between kings and barons which limited the power of the kings. It includes things that are still important today, such as taxation needing the consent of the people; accused criminals being judged by their equals; forced marriage being wrong; and beer and wine being sold in fixed measures.

Magna Carta was sealed by King John using his great seal, which had a picture of the king on his throne on the front, and armed and on his war-horse on the reverse.

Great seal of King John (reverse)
Great seal of King John (reverse) Source: Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe by John Hewitt, 1855

The reverse of John’s seal (pictured) is very like a seal matrix recently found in Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire (BERK-FDCFD2).

The Little Bedwyn matrix also has a mounted warrior and, although only half of the object survives, he can be identified from the inscription and from his shields of arms as Fulk FitzWarin III. Fulk was one of King John’s barons, and a famous legal case involving him and John led to one of Magna Carta’s most famous clauses.

Medieval seal matrix
BERK-FDCFD2: Medieval seal matrix of Fulk Fitzwarin III. Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council. Licence: CC-BY.

Clause 40 is one of the shortest but most important: To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice. Before this, ‘justice’ was often simply what the king thought it was, and as King John had expensive tastes he could be persuaded one way of the other by who was willing to pay him the most money.

The case involving Fulk FitzWarin is complicated, and involves competing barons trying to pay John larger and larger amounts of money to hold Whittington Castle on the Welsh border in Shropshire. Although normally this kind of dispute would be settled by deciding who had the legal right to the castle, John’s decision was clearly coloured by who could pay the most, even though one of the barons involved was actually Welsh.

Fulk ended up in open rebellion against John, with a group of border knights. They had to take refuge in Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire, not far from the findspot of the seal matrix. Fulk is not recorded as being among the 25 barons who forced John to accept Magna Carta, but he did become very famous as the hero of the French romance Fouke le Fitz Waryn, a heroic tale of Fulk as a wronged outlaw in the reign of King John that bears a strong resemblance to the later tale of Robin Hood.