Gold Working in the Roman and Medieval Periods

This is the next in our series of posts on metal-working written by Dr. Kevin Leahy, PAS National Finds Adviser. The articles were first published in The Searcher magazine and are reproduced here with kind permission of Harry Bain, editor for The Searcher.

The Juliane Bracelet from the Hoxne Hoard. Pierced work was used in the Late Roman period. The inscription tells us something of the owner – it reads “VTERE FELIX DOMINA IVLIANNE”, meaning “Use [this] happily, Lady Juliane”. Copyright: Trustees of The British Museum.

The arrival of the Romans brought many changes to Britain – towns, villas, plumbing and a sudden abundance of small metal objects. While Roman gold is relatively uncommon, we have some amazing hoards: the Thetford Treasure, found in 1979, contained 22 gold finger rings, four bracelets and five necklaces. Even more startling was the Hoxne hoard from Suffolk, found in 1992, with six gold necklaces, three rings and 19 bracelets, along with 565 gold coins, 14,191 silver coins and 24 bronze coins, the latest of which dated to AD408. The workmanship of the gold was typically late Roman – filigree rings with settings for glass or semi-precious gems (removed before burial) and sheet gold bracelets (actually closed bangles), some bearing repoussé decoration resembling basket weave, others are “opus interrasile” where the gold is perforated giving a lace-like effect.

Was any of this stuff made in Britain? There is evidence for a goldsmith working at Malton in North Yorkshire where an inscription was found reading “FELICITER SIT GENIO LOCI SERVVLE VTERE FELIX TABERNAM AVREFICINAM” (Good luck the Genius (spirit) of this place. Young slave, use to your good fortune this goldsmith’s shop).

The Malton (North Yorkshire) goldsmith’s inscription. Most craftspeople are anonymous but, although not mentioned by name, we know something of this young goldsmith from the inscription. Copyright: Kevin Leahy.

The PAS recorded 204 pieces of Roman gold plus 148 gold coins, finger rings being themost common item of Roman gold jewellery with 121 finds. By the Roman period metallurgical techniques had developed allowing improved control over the alloys used and gold objects were often made from good, pure metal. Cupellation was used to rid gold of base metal impurities by oxidation, and liquidation and amalgamation using mercury came into use.

1. Roman lunate earring showing the use of applied filigree, AD50-150 (BH-16AE53). 2. A ring typical of many of the Roman gold rings recorded by the PAS, AD200-400 (DENO-BC9E66). 3. Roman finger ring set with an intaglio – it appears to represent quite a lump of gold but the crack shows it to be hollow, AD1-200 (BH-58E8E6). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

The PAS has recorded a total of 473 items of Anglo-Saxon gold, including 119 gold coins. The amazing Staffordshire Hoard has not been included here as it is a one-off that distorts the overall picture. If we look more closely at Anglo-Saxon gold use, an interesting story emerges. There doesn’t appear to have been much gold around in the 5th century (or they weren’t putting it where we can find it). From the 5th to the  6th century we have 37 records of gold objects (plus 11 coins). The most common type of object are thin bracteates with 19 finds. Silver-gilt was used in the 6th century – perhaps they aspired to gold but couldn’t get it.

4. Bracteates are the earliest gold object we have from Anglo-Saxon England. They are single-sided – the back simply shows the underside of the face. They were based on Roman coins and, if inverted, it is possible (with a bit of imagination) to see a disjoined horse and rider, AD500-600 (NMS-A13EDD). 5. The gold used in Anglo-Saxon England was imported in the form of ‘Tremissis’ – small gold coins which were melted down. This tremissis was struck on behalf of an anonymous ruler by the moneyer Aigoaldus at Beauvais, now in France (KENT-7A24B0). 6. A die stamp used for making raised designs in gold work, AD870-970 (NLM-690F57). 7. Front plate of a viking gold brooch, possibly made on a die stamp like Fig. 6 (NMS-73CD11). 8. Made from wound filigree wire on a plain base, neads like this form part of the necklace of an aristocratic woman, AD625-670 (KENT-7009B3). 9. Group image showing part of the Staffordshire Hoard. This amazing collection of gold and silver objects revolutionised our knowledge of Early Anglo-Saxon gold working. Many of the object were damaged giving insights into how they were made (image copyright Birmingham Museums Trust). Other copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

Finds of early 7th century gold are more common and the PAS has recorded 136 finds (plus 61 coins), pendants being the common type of object with 62 finds. Unfortunately, (for both the Anglo-Saxons and us) things went wrong around the middle of the 7th century. The gold they used was probably coming into the country in the form of Merovingian coins which they melted down. Around AD640 the gold content of these coins plummeted, the gold being replaced by silver. By 675 the gold coinage was replaced by silver; they couldn’t get any more gold. Not only gold disappeared – garnets were no longer used and elephant ivory was no longer available. For the 366 years of the Middle and Later Anglo-Saxon period we have only 81 records (plus four coins). Finger rings are the most common object with 28 finds and there are 16 ingot fragments.

The PAS has 781 records of Medieval gold (1066-1485) including 435 coins. Rings are the most common object with 271 finds. We have 1104 records of Post-medieval gold (1486-1800) which includes 277 coins and 720 finger rings. The increasing availability of gold may reflect the massive influx from the New World mines.

Medieval ring brooch with collets containing gemstones, AD11280-1320 (LVPL-039CF2). 11. Medieval gold ring brooch with incised decoration. The brooch is hollow and the decoration was probably picked out in enamel, AD1400-1500 (IOW-506491). 12. The ‘stirrup’ ring is a common but elegant Medieval finger ring, AD1150-1400 (ESS-oEAD95). 13. Medieval ‘iconographic’ finger rings bear the images of saints and were worn for personal devotion. This example shows the figure of a man holding a scallop shell, showing him to be St. James the Great (of Compostella), AD1400-1500 (SOM-5D3915).

Gold was always scarce and valuable, and great economy was exercised in the way that it was used. It was rarely cast; most gold objects have a hollow, box-like construction. I remember many years ago seeing a massive Roman gold ring set with an intaglio which had fallen out to reveal that the ring was hollow and quite thin – most disappointing. The economical use of gold is aided by its remarkable workability. It can be beaten to any shape, joints are easily made and, uniquely, it is possible to cold-weld it. 

Gold is perfect for plating other materials. Gilding using mercury is one method but gold can also be beaten to form gold leaf, four to five millionths of an inch thick. Leaf can be used to cover other metals and materials, leaving them looking like solid gold. Gold leaf can be applied to wood and plaster and it was used to great effect on illuminated manuscripts like the 8th century “Codex Aureus” (golden book) now in Stockholm.

Filigree and granulation were much used in the decoration of gold objects. Filigree consists of gold wire, sometimes as thin as 02.mm in diameter fused to the surface of the gold. Granulation involves the attachment of small pellets of gold. We are not sure how the Anglo-Saxons made gold wire. There isn’t any evidence for the use of draw-plates of the sort used now. This leaves two possible methods: strip-twisting and block-twisting. In strip-twisting a narrow strip is cut from the edge of a thin sheet of metal. This is then twisted to form a helical tube with an open centre (like a paper straw) which is then rolled between two smooth blocks of stone to compress the tube, cold-welding it to form a round-sectioned wire. In block-twisting, a square or rectangular sectioned strip of metal is cut from the edge of a thicker sheet and then twisted so that its four edges tightly encircle it. This can then be rolled between two blocks smooth the surface and produce round wire.

14. One of the cloisonné garnet pommel caps from the Staffordshire Hoard. The garnets were set in a network of cells, each lined with gold foil patterned to scatter the light so that they sparkled. 15. While the garnet work from the Staffordshire Hoard is rightly celebrated, the filigree is also amazing. Fine, twisted gold wire and granulation pellets laid onto the surface of the gold. 16. Enlarged detail of the pommel cap. Only close-up shows what the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths were achieving. The cabled effect was made by laying two counter-twisted wires next to each other. 17. The fish and birds mount from the Staffordshire Hoard. The back of this superb piece is interesting as it appears to show the cold-welding of the pieces together. 18. The great cross from the Staffordshire Hoard. While the metal appears to be quite thick it is actually made from two thin sheets of gold, one bearing the decoration with a blank sheet hiding the negative of the design. All Staffordshire Hoard images copyright Birmingham Museums Trust. 19. It is odd that the Staffordshire Hoard doesn’t contain any feminine dress fittings like this filigree and garnet pendant. Outside the Hoard, these are much more common than sword fittings (DOR-1B7E81). 20. A gold and garnet pendant of 7th century date (DOR-1B7E81).

While we can see how plain wire was made, we’ve not been able to discover how beaded wire was produced. Every attempt results in beads with a groove around their middle – they didn’t have this problem in the past, what did they know that we don’t? The tiny gold beads used for granulation were less of a problem. Small pieces of cut gold wire were heated on a flat surface and naturally formed balls. Strips of gold leaf were wrapped around silk to form gold thread, traces of which have been found in graves.

Once they had got their wire (beaded or unbeaded) it had to be attached to the surface of the gold. This was done by a process known as eutectic soldering. The gold wire or granules were stuck to the surface using an adhesive made up of resin mixed with a copper salt and possibly a flux. When everything is stuck in place the object is heated in a furnace. With rising temperature the organic component of the adhesive carbonises to form carbon monoxide which reduces the copper salt to copper.  This is absorbed by the gold or silver to form an alloy with a lower melting point than the components (a eutectic) and this new molten alloy is carried into the joint by capillary action, pulling the components together to form a strong, tight joint. While the process is apparently simple, it was not easy to carry out as the melting point of the eutectic was not much less than that of the work piece!

Analysis of Anglo-Saxon gold shows that they were using surface enrichment to make alloys look like pure gold. This was done by leaching out the silver from the surface of the gold. We don’t know how they managed to do this but they may have surrounded the object with salt and heated it. The ingenuity of people in the past never fails to impress me. The question “how did they do that?” constantly springs to mind. The trick that really amazes me is the separation of gold from silver. Imagine you have an alloy of gold and silver and want to separate them – how would you even start? The process is actually simple: the alloy was beaten into thin sheets which were laid in a pottery container interleaved with common salt and finely crushed tile. This was then sealed and heated in a furnace to a temperature below the melting point of the alloy and held at that temperature “a day and a night”. The salt reacts with the silver in the alloy to form silver chloride which is absorbed by the tile fragments and the clay vessel. The gold remains unchanged. Once the process is complete, the silver was extracted from the silver chloride. Easy – but how did anyone ever discover this trick?

Prehistoric Gold

This is the first in a series of posts on metal-working written by Dr. Kevin Leahy, PAS National Finds Adviser. The articles were first published in The Searcher magazine and are reproduced here with kind permission from Harry Bain, editor for The Searcher.

Gold is, perhaps, the strangest of the metals not through its inherent properties (interesting as they are) but through gold’s social role. Here we have a metal grubbed from the earth at great cost and labour, and because of which countless people have died, but which is effectively useless. Tools and weapons were made from stone, bronze and iron but, until recently, when high-tech applications appeared, gold’s only use was decorative and as a high level means of exchange.

Britain is lucky in having its own sources of gold. These are all in the north and west – Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The gold is present in the ancient hard rocks of these areas to which it was brought, from deep with the Earth, by volcanic and hydrothermal activity. However, these rocks have been eroded and so redeposited gold can be extracted from streams by “panning”, swirling sand around in a shallow, water-filled dish so that the sand is washed away, hopefully leaving a smudge of gold dust in the centre.

What is it about gold that gives it its allure? Soft and weak its mechanical properties are hopeless but it does offer the advantage of being very easily worked. It is highly malleable and can be beaten so thin that it becomes transparent. It can also be cold-welded by hammering and offers a craftsman almost unlimited possibilities. 

Then there is its colour. Most metals are either grey or white; only gold and copper are coloured. But unlike copper, gold does not tarnish – even after long burial it remains lustrous and bright yellow, the colour of the sun. Gold is also dense and has “heft” – if you toss it in your hand you can feel it landing on your palm. Finally, gold is scarce and scarcity makes it desirable to those with the power to obtain it.

Image of three gold archaeological objects.
(1) Beaker period “Basket ornament” found in Oxfordshire (BERK-0D1A05) and dating to 2400-2200BC. These ornaments were made from thin sheet gold decorated with raised dot. They may have been worn as earrings but it has been suggested they were actually worn in the hair. (2) Drawing of DUR-02828D from Northumberland showing how a “basket ornament” was fitted, if not how it was used. (3) Gold lunula made from thin sheet gold and found in Dorset, dating to 2400-2000BC (DOR-2198F8).

By about 5000BC gold was being used to make trinkets in Eastern Europe. Its early use was due to it occurring in a “native” state, not as an ore that needed to be smelted but as metallic gold which just needed to be beaten to shape and cold-welded to form small objects.

Gold working appears in Britain around the middle of the third millennium BC when “basket ornaments” were placed in Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age “Beaker” graves; that of the celebrated Amesbury archer was dated to 2470BC. In this period we find small gold discs (about 30mm in diameter) with raised decoration and also gold “lunulae”. Lunulae bear incised, zig-zag linear decoration similar to that seen on beaker pottery suggesting that they are of similar date, although there are no examples from graves or anything else that might date them. We also don’t know who wore them or how they were worn – were they around the neck or inverted on the head? Most lunulae have been found in Ireland where they must have originated but a few stray into Britain and onto the European mainland.

Similar in shape, if not in decoration, to Bronze Age beakers is the wonderful cup found at Ringlemere, Kent, in 2001. Beaten from a sheet of gold, its corrugated sides more than compensate for the lack of an incised pattern.

(4) The Ringlemere Cup from Kent (PAS-BE40C2), dated 1700-1500BC. The strip of metal forming the handle was attached using distinctive diamond-shaped washers, a feature which also appears on continental gold cups. (5) Composite finds like this twisted bracelet threaded through gold rings from Berkshire (BERK-A5FFE5) date from the Middle Bronze Age, 1300-1100BC. (6) This massive twisted gold torc (CAM-E5D871) from Cambridgeshire dated 1300-1100BC would have encircled the wearer’s neck multiple times or may even have been worn around the body.

From later in the Early Bronze Age (up to c.1700BC), we get a series of small amber pendants covered, at least in part, by thin gold sheet; also dagger pommels decorated with hundreds of tiny gold nails. These are found in graves of the so-called Wessex Culture but so far none have been recorded on the Database.

Although important technical advances continued to be made in bronze working, gold seems to disappear with the end of the Wessex graves, or perhaps they were putting it somewhere where we can’t find it. Gold reappears big-time around 1400BC as part of the Middle Bronze Age “Ornament Horizon” which included gold bracelets, neck rings and ornaments often made from twisted bars. These objects aren’t based on earlier British Bronze Age types but are new forms introduced from the Continent. Some hoards of this period were enormous – the Mountfield, Sussex, hoard contained 13lb of gold.

(7) Fragment of a Middle Bronze Age torc from Hampshire (HAMP-C8DC02) dated 1300-1100BC. This fragment shows how they were made – the square rod was grooved to form a cross-shaped section which was then twisted. (8) An example of a “ribbon torc” found in Buckinghamshire, dated 1400-1150BC (BUC-C07E88). (9) A Late Bronze Age ribbon bracelet with buffer terminals from the Isle of Wight, dated 1150-750BC (IOW-7477D4). (10) A gold buffer-ended bracelet of Late Bronze Age type found in Hampshire and dated 1150-750BC). (11) Bronze Age bracelet with C-shaped section from the Isle of Wight, dated 1000-750BC (IOW-FA17F8). (12) A hoard of five Bronze Age gold bracelets found in a pottery vessel found in Milton Keynes and dated 1150-800BC (PAS-833958).

After 1100BC we have another gap in our knowledge of British gold working. Things start to pick up again with the production of gold bracelets. Most of these are found in hoards, usually of around three bracelets, sometimes with bronze objects. These come in a range of simple shapes with round, flat, D-shaped and hollow C-shaped sections. Most had expanded buffer terminals although the flat type had scrolled ends.

Of similar date is the so-called “ring money” consisting of small penannular rings sometimes decorated with bands of different coloured alloys. The function of these rings is unknown but it is unlikely that they were any sort of money. Lock rings represent another enigmatic object. The two faces and inner edge were fixed together with binding strips to form a hollow triangular section. Lock rings are in Britain, Ireland and north-west France but we have no idea of how they were used.

One of the emblems of the Iron Age is the gold torc. These splendid objects are, like so much else in archaeology, mystifying. They don’t stand at the apex of any deep tradition of gold working but represent, with the exception of coins and a few late brooches, the totality of Iron Age gold working. Made using techniques drawn from copper-alloy working these objects stand alone.

(13) This piece of “ring money” found in Kent (KENT-FF00A6) appears to be gold but many of them consist of a gold plated bronze core. (14) A feature of gold is that its alloys can come in a range of colours including pink, white and even green. This penannular ring from Buckinghamshire dated 1150-800BC, was analysed and found to have a content of approximately 78% gold and 18% silver. (15) A Late Bronze Age lock ring decorated with incised lines, found in Sussex and dated 1000-750BC (SUSS-5EA230). (16) This buffer ended torc from Lincolnshire (NLM-605352) dated 400-300BC is of continental type and must have been imported to Britain. (17) A torc from Nottingham dated 110-50BC, made with gold wire with terminals decorated in Iron Age style. (18) An Iron Age bracelet made up of two gold ropes plaited together. Each rope is made up of two twisted wires. It is made from an alloy containing 55% gold, 38% silver and 7% copper. Dated 100-50BC, it was found in North Yorkshire (SWYOR-681CE4).

Some of the discoveries have been amazing: excavations at Snettisham, Norfolk, revealed at least 12 hoards packed together into pits. Some of these torcs showed signs of wear and others look like continental imports. The alloys from which they were made became increasingly debased with the later torcs contained less than 25% gold. Mercury gilding, in which gold is dissolved in mercury for application to a silver or copper-alloy object appeared for the first time.

The Iron Age saw the large-scale use of coins, many of which were made from gold or “electrum” (a gold/silver alloy). This is not the place to discuss the massive and complex topic of Iron Age coins but one aspect of them is interesting from a technical point of view: we find tray-like slabs of pottery which bear rows of hollows. These may have been used to ensure the alloy composition of the coins was correct. Into each hollow was weighed the correct amount of gold, silver and copper, and the tray was then placed into a furnace so that the scraps of metal fused together to form a pellet of the right weight and composition ready for striking coins.

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.

Festive Finds: PAS Christmas Countdown #7

Twelve Days of Christmas

Five Gold Rings, by Anonymous.
Five Gold Rings, by Anonymous. License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A popular song at this time of year is “The twelve days of Christmas”. The song was first recorded in English in AD1780 in a book entitled “mirth without mischief”, which was aimed at children as a sort of memory game.  The twelve days relate to the days after Christmas day, leading up to Epiphany on the 6th January. This is the day on which it is believed the three Magi arrived to greet the new-born baby Jesus. It would often be sung as a game of forfeits, with a new item being added with each child that sings. If a child forgot one of the objects in the series, they would have to do a forfeit..

The meaning of the gifts within the song has caused some debate. The five gold rings were often assumed to be rings worn on the finger as seen in illustrations from that era (see right). However, an alternative was suggested by William Stuart Baring-Gould (1962, 197) who believed it referred to five “ringed pheasants”, as all other gifts up until that point had been birds. Several of the other items appear to have changed throughout history, yet golden finger-rings seem to have persisted. probably because the desire for gold jewellery far outweighed the desire for game birds.

The five gold rings below (PAS-833958) are dated to the Late Bronze Age (1150-750BC). They are all of a similar shape, though they vary in size and style. The larger two are believed to be neck rings, whilst the smaller examples are likely to be bracelets. They were found within a ceramic vessel, suggesting the objects had been deposited intentionally. Much like the rings in the song, these five gold rings were possibly given as a gift to the Gods (though not necessarily on the 5th day of Christmas). There is a lot of debate about why objects were intentionally buried in the past, with each explanation being as likely as the next. As more and more hoards are being uncovered and making their way into museum collections, we are learning a great deal about these fascinating practices in the past.

These objects fell under the Treasure Act 1996 and have subsequently been acquired by the British Museum. The British Museum currently has an exhibition on Prehistoric and Roman hoards in room 69a.

Reference: Baring-Gould, W. S. and Baring-Gould, C. 1962. The Annotated Mother Goose. New York: Bramhall House.

Five Bronze Age gold rings and pot.
Five Bronze Age gold rings and pot (PAS-833958). Copyright British Museum. License: CC-BY
Five Bronze Age gold rings (PAS-833958).
Five Bronze Age gold rings (PAS-833958). Copyright: The British Museum. License: CC-BY