We three kings – early medieval burials in popular fiction

This is a kind of companion piece to my last entry – I was going to include a lot of this in my original paper for TAG, but there wasn’t enough time to squeeze this all in.

This is a brief contribution to some of the on-going discussions about the depiction of early medieval burial practices in various forms of creative practice. A number of scholars, particularly Howard Williams have explored in particular, how images of mortuary rituals associated with early medieval cultures have been used in museums, television programmes and films. In this blog I want to look at three particular examples of where images of seventh century high status Anglian burials have been integrated into the action.

The first is in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising – a classic child’s novel in which the young protagonist 11-year old Will Stanton is drawn into a cosmic battle between the Light and the Dark played out across time. It draws extensively on British mythology and folklore, particularly elements of the Arthurian cycle and figures such as Herne the Hunter. Taking place over the period between the Winter Solstice and the twelfth day of Christmas, the action centres around the Middle Thames valley, specifically the fictional village of Huntercombe, which seems to be located somewhere in the Slough and Maidenhead area. Although this is a part of East Berkshire that is increasingly built up, the book is set in the early 1970s, when this area was more rural.

Will fights to fulfil a series of prophecies that will allow him to defeat the forces of the Dark, he has to collect a series of magical signs made from wood, bronze, iron, fire, water and stone. As the action intensifies, and the snows melt into torrential floods, Will finds himself on a mystical island in the Thames. Here he as it rises out of the ground, he encounters an early medieval boat burial.  Cooper vividly describes it emerging, with a figure-head in the shape of a stag

He had never seen such a ship. The long timbers of which it was built overlapped one another like the board of a fence, heavy and broad: they looked like oak. He could see no mast. Instead, there were places for row upon row of oarsmen, up and down the whole length of the vessel. In the centre was a kind of deckhouse that made the ship look almost like Noah’s Ark. It was not a closed structure; its sides seemed to have been cut away, leaving the corner beams and roof like a canopy. And inside, beneath the canopy, a king lay.

The dead king is described, lying with a sword and shield at his side, wearing an elaborately decorated helmet crested by a silver image of a boar. He is surrounded by his burial goods including silver dishes, jewelled purposes and gold-rimmed drinking horns, and in his hands he holds the Sign of Water, the last of the Great Signs.

The author is clearly drawing here on an image of an early medieval boat burial derived from the seventh century Sutton Hoo boat burial found in Suffolk in the late 1930s, one of the most iconic early medieval burial sites from England. The description of a clinker built boat, the decorated helmet, the weapons, purse and horns are all borrowed directly from the SH discovery. However, there are some creative tweaks. Sutton Hoo had no surviving decorated figurehead, though a stag surmounting a (ritual) whetstone found accompanying the burial, allows Cooper to integrate this with the image of a stag that appears earlier in the book, and also in immediate following scenes with the sudden appearance of Herne the Hunter. There is no boar on the Sutton Hoo helmet, although an iron boar crest is present on the fragmentary remains of the Benty Grange Helmet, which at the time that Cooper was writing was the only other extant Anglian helment (although there have been subsequent discoveries, most notably the Coppergate Helmet from York).

The Sutton Hoo sceptre

Although clearly derived from well-known archaeological comparanda, in the book the date of the boat is a little muddy. Merriman (in essence, Merlin) tells Will that ‘He has lain in his burial ground for fifteen hundred years’ , which gives a 5th century date – the Dark is Rising being set in the 1970s. He also describes the occupant as ‘An English king of the Dark Ages… the Dark Ages were rightly named, a shadowy time for the world, when the Black Riders rode unhindered over all out land. Only the Old Ones and a few noble brave men like this one kept the light alive’ and then says: ‘He was part-Viking himself’. For an archaeologist, the reference to Vikings would imply a later, 9th or 10th century date, although in truth, the precise date is irrelevant to the narrative beyond placing it in a broadly early medieval context.’

The boat is ultimately set on fire by the Dark and last seen floating down the Thames towards the sea. Crucially, the only people to ever have seen it were Will and Merriman, it was never seen or intended to be seen by a wider audience. It was a secret not to be divulged more widely. Intriguingly, it was also one of a group of other great ship-burials. Merriman states:

 “There are three great ship-burials near this Thames of yours, in days past. One was dug up in the last century near Taplow, and destroyed in the process. One was this ship of the Light not destined ever to be found by men. And one was the greatest ship, of the greatest king of all, and this they have not found and perhaps never will, it will lie in peace”.

Yet, again, Cooper is showing some knowledge of Anglo-Saxon archaeology. The reference to the burial at nearby Taplow is indeed based on a real site. A high-status burial in a mound was uncovered by antiquarians in 1883. However, this was not in fact a boat burial, but clearly part of that wider group of very high-status 7th century princely burials. The deceased was accompanied by a sword, shield and spears, as well as belt-buckle, drinking horns, elaborate drinking vessels and a gaming set – all like the Sutton Hoo objects, now in the British Museum.

Cooper’s knowledge of Anglo-Saxon archaeology can be found in elsewhere in the Dark is Rising sequence. In the same novel, in describing the Sign of Light, decorated with gems, rubies and sapphire and bearing the inscription: ‘LIHT MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN’ [The Light ordered that I should be made] – this is clearly a direct borrowing from the inscription on the 9th century gold aestel known as the Alfred Jewel found in Somerset, which carried the formula ‘AELFRED EMC HEHT GEWYRCAN’ [Alfred had me made]. In the preceding novel Over Sea and Under Stone, set in Cornwall, the protagonists discover the holy grail in the Cornish village of Trewissick. This certainly seems to be making some allusion to the 9th century silver gilded chalice found in the 18th century at Trewhiddle, also in Cornwall. Although the fictional cup is more elaborately decorated than the real one, there is evidence that the Trewhiddle chalice once had additional applied decorative elements. Aspects of the description of the grail also suggest the author was familiar with more heavily decorated Insular early medieval chalices, such as the 8th century Tassilo Chalice, located in Austria, but possibly of Northumbrian workmanship. Will Stanton’s encounter with an Anglo-Saxon burial, whilst part of a sequence of terrifying events, was ultimately a positive one – a Sign was recovered and the Dark was vanquished. However, the next case study of fictional interaction between the protagonist and a burial has a less happy ending.

In MR James’ short story  A Warning to the Curious, set in the early 20th century an amateur antiquarian, Paxton, discovers an Anglo-Saxon royal burial mound on the Suffolk coast. He fastens on to the trail of this burial mound through a combination of research and an engagement with folklore. It is revealed that local tradition holds that there were three crowns buried in the ground that will defend the land against foreign invasion. This idea of three symbolically important guardian burials, is of course, echoed in the Dark is Rising. This piece of folklore seems to be a work of James’ imagination – drawing on genuine records of an antiquarian discovery of a crown at Rendlesham and blending it with the popular Suffolk symbol of three crowns, conventionally associated with St Edmund.

In the story, two crowns have gone – one of these is explicitly the one from Rendlesham, and the other seems to have been located at the town of Dunwich, much of which has now been lost to the sea. The remaining crown, the goal of the hapless amateur archaeologist, is located in a burial mound close to the coast in the fictional Suffolk town of Seaburgh. The idea of a coastal burial mound protecting the land is surely also an allusion to the final resting place of the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf whose ashes were interred in a barrow on the coast, visible to passing sea-farers.

The author, MR James, is also someone who had a good understanding of the archaeology of early medieval England – although he was writing at a time when the discipline was far less developed. A specialist in early manuscripts and palaeography, he once applied to be Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. It is hard not to read of an early medieval burial mound in a coastal location in East Anglia without thinking of Sutton Hoo, yet James was of course writing several decades before its discovery. However, Sutton Hoo is not the only high status early medieval burial from this area. It is more likely that James was drawing on his knowledge of the burials at Snape (Suffolk). Although about 7km inland, these burials did overlook the estuary of the River Alde. Here excavations in the 1860s (and more recently) uncovered a substantial early medieval cemetery that included a boat burial of later 6th century AD date. Despite not being as elaborate as the Sutton Hoo or Taplow burials (and a little earlier in date) items within the Snape grave included a gold ring and elaborate glass drinking cups and was clearly of high status. The Alde, which can be seen from the site, debouches into the North Sea at Aldeburgh, which, lightly disguised as Seaburgh, was the setting for A Warning to the Curious. Aldeburgh was a town that James knew well and regularly visited when young, as it was home to his Grandmother. Crucially, the period of his regular visits would have overlapped with the period of the major 1860s excavations so it is more than likely that he was aware of what would have been one of the most significant excavations of this period in mid-19th century East Anglia – it was also subject of a paper delivered to the Society of Antiquaries and was published in Archaeological Journal. It seems probable that in his fictional royal burial at Seaburgh, James was reworking his knowledge of the Snape burials.

 In the story, following exploratory excavation Paxton reveals a silver crown, which he takes. However, unknown to him, the mound is protected by a ghostly guardian, who haunts him – and even though he attempts to return the crown to the mound, he is ultimately killed by its supernatural guardian.

The crown is described as being made of silver and ‘set with gems, mostly intaglios and cameos, and was of plain, almost rough workmanship’ Some scholars have seen this as anachronistic- although it has been suggested that this reflects James’ recollection of a Roman gemstone reset into an Anglo-Saxon ring discovered at the cemetery at Snape. However, more recent discoveries of re-used Roman gems in an early medieval English context, such as the 7th century burials from Street House, Redcar (North Yorkshire) has shown that this practice was not uncommon in Anglo-Saxon jewellery. However, I suspect that it is more likely that James’ model for this high status metalwork was not from a dress item, but early medieval book covers. His main academic focus was medieval manuscripts; many early volumes had elaborately decorated ornamented covers, which he would undoubtedly have been familiar with. Good examples are the Ansfriedcodex, now in Utrecht, or the 11th century gospel book from Metz (BnF Latin 9391) – both of which are decorated with cabochon cut gems and re-used Roman intaglios.

If the early medieval burial in the Dark is Rising emerges fully formed from the ground, whilst Paxton’s barrow burial is a little more reticent in revealing its secrets, the final burial I want to look at never actually makes itself known to the protagonists at all In BBC TVs series The Detectorists written and produced by Mackenzie Crook, the two main characters, Lance and Andy are metal detectorists pursuing their hobby, like Paxton in East Anglia – rural North Essex to be precise. The object of their quest is the burial site of Seaxred, King of the East Saxons. Seaxred is a genuine figure, mentioned in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as one of the sons of Saeberht , the first Christian king of East Anglia. He was killed in battle against an army from Wessex sometime around 626. His actual burial place remains unknown.

However, Lance and Andy are on the trail – they are shown what is clearly 7th century gold and garnet metalwork by a local farmer and they realise that the grave must be somewhere on his land. They try to home in on the site of the grave – Andy’s wife helps here

BECKY:  Well, if you’re talking about a high status, royal Saxon ship burial it would have been on the highest point of the landscape with clear views of the sea which is this point here…

SOPHIE You can’t see the sea from Bishop’s farm.

BECKY You can’t now. Over the centuries agriculture has changed the whole make up of the land, in Elizabethan times pine woodlands were planted which thrived in the naturally acidic soil but in the sixth and seventh centuries that same soil would have meant hardly any native trees at all, giving clear views all the way to Southey Creek in the East and the River Crouch in the South. And look, you can’t see it now because a lot of this land is built up or forested but strip away all these features and look at the natural contours of the land, there’s a clear passage. They would have sailed the ship up the river, taken it out of the water right here, and brought it up this valley to here.

This is a lovely piece of landscape analysis  – Becky is after all a geography graduate! Yet despite her help, they never quite find the ship. At the end of the final episode of the series, they finally cease digging- as they talk the camera ‘scrolls’ through the earth “ to reveal, just underneath, the grave goods of a rich Saxon ship burial: gold and garnet sword pommels, buckles and clasps, intricately decorated shield bosses and a beautiful Saxon warrior’s helmet” and finally a wide aerial shot revealing the parched outline of Anglo-Saxon boat grave. Our heroes just miss finding their quarry.

This fictional burial seems to be making references to two real-life discoveries. Sutton Hoo is clearly being alluded to, with its location near a creek and the elaborate gold and garnet work grave goods. But the idea of the high-status burial of a king of Essex must surely also be riffing off the discovery of the high profile late 6th century élite burial discovered in 2003 at Prittlewell in Southend (Essex). Although slightly earlier in date that Seaxred and not a boat burial, this incredibly well-furnished barrow burial was widely in the public eye.

Three kings- three burials – all treated in different ways in different fictional works. Yet, they are unified by their depiction as ultimately unattainable. Will Stanton sees the boat burial but then watches it be destroyed, Paxton is doomed to never secure the crown he seeks, whilst Andy and Lance never no how close they are to finding their boat burial. The notion of early medieval high-status burial has obviously struck a chord with three very different writers working in different genres; the idea of elusive early medieval aristocratic burials chimed with all of them. The reasons for this are complex and contextually specific to each writer. Yet, nonetheless there is this common engagement with Anglo-Saxon mortuary culture in all of them. It is tempting to draw a line through these recurring ideas of an unattainable warrior grave through to the older traditions of the missing grave of Arthur – the once and future king, whose grave lies to the west, inaccessible and unknowable in Avalon; though this may be taking things too far. It would be interesting to identify other examples of the depiction of similar burials in fiction. I know of at least one other example; in John Buchan’s 1925 novel John McNab set in the highlands of Scotland, two American characters, the Bandicotts, are, in a sub-plot, searching for the boat burial of the Viking King, Harold Blacktooth. Whilst not specifically related to graves, middle Anglo-Saxon objects appear as MacGuffins in at least two books I’m aware of. In Angus Wilson’s a mysterious phallic figurine is found in the grave of the tomb of an East Anglian bishop, Eorthwald. Although ultimately revealed to be a hoax, the book alludes once again to the Sutton Hoo burial. Meanwhile Colin Wilson’s Inspector Morse novel, The Jewel that was Ours (filmed as The Wolvercote Tongue) uses the disappearance of a gold and garnet belt buckle as a key element in the plot. Rather pleasingly I’ve recently discovered that the fictional Wolvercote Hoard from which the ‘tongue’ came also made an appearance in the Morse prequel series Endeavour (Series 2:1 Trove).

All these examples of the creative engagement with early medieval English material have different undertones and allusions. There is still much to unpick here, particularly I think, with references to the interplay between ideas of England and Englishness and the relationship between these contested and inflected national identities and archaeology – it’s something I hope to return to.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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