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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

This new display at The British Library, billed as “600 years. 180 spectacular treasures. A once-in-a-generation exhibition” promises much, and certainly lives up to that promise

​Illuminated and decorated manuscript from the Lindisfarne Gospels, The British Library

This exhibition on the culture of Anglo-Saxon England is marvellous, truly; it’s big, in fact the largest ever to explore the history, art, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, and it spans six centuries from the 5th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Wall-to-wall displays of wonderful manuscripts and metalwork pieces, many with serpents and winged beasts and vines curling their way along borders and fabulous interlace designs, plus sheets of dense beautiful scripts and captivating treatises and invocations, makes this a feast for the eyes as well as the mind.

The British Library makes the most of its outstanding collection for the show, exhibiting treasures like the beautiful illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, and the earliest surviving text of Beowulf. But, it also includes exceptional loans from Britain, Ireland and continental Europe, one of which is the Codex Amiatinus, a huge tome that has returned to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, loaned from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

In their telling of the story of Anglo-Saxon history, of the birth of the English language and literature, and of the complicated relationships between often warring kingdoms as gradually the Kingdom of England formed, there is much that is exceptional here. So much so that in writing this I run the risk of superlative overload. In the first few rooms alone, myriad display texts tell me I’m looking at the earliest, the largest, the oldest, the foremost, the only...

The earliest complete surviving Latin Bible, the Codex Amiatinus, on loan from

Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence.

There’s the earliest historical account of the origins of the English people, namely Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, in all probability made at Bede’s monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow soon after his death in 735; the earliest datable text in English and first words of English law in the law-code made for the first Christian king of Kent, 1122-24; the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English; and the earliest complete surviving Latin Bible, the ginormous Codex Amiatinus.

Made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century, the Codex Amiatinus was taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. Thirteen centuries later it is in England again for this exhibition.

Then there is the earliest royal portrait in a manuscript: that of King Aethelstan (924-39), King Alfred’s grandson who united Mercia and Wessex, conquered Northumbria and became Rex totius Britanniae, the first “King of all Britain”. The sepia grey portrait in the volume loaned from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, shows the crowned king presenting a book to a northern ally, the powerful religious community of St. Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street.

The intricate Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum

Unsurprisingly, given that this is a British Library exhibition, books and manuscripts outnumber archaeological objects. But among key pieces here are the Sutton Hoo gold buckle, the splendid late 9th-century silver and niello disc brooch known as the Fuller Brooch, and the Alfred Jewel, a matchless example of Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

There are also pieces from two hoards discovered within the last fifteen years: the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in a field near Watling Street in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, mostly comprising military gear; and the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th-century Britain, found near the north Norfolk coast by metal-detectorists between 2003 and 2015.

Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English, The British Library

The consummate craftsmanship of the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers, illustrators and scribes is self-evident throughout. And perhaps the convoluted beasts and intricate interlacing that embellish many of the works could also be said to reflect the complex intertwined history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as they expanded and retracted in power and lands over the centuries.

The exhibition runs chronologically through galleries entitled the Golden Age of Northumbria, Mercia and its Neighbours, The Rise of the West Saxons, the Emergence of England. In addition, it has sections exploring language and learning (where I find the earliest letter written in English, c. 920, and a lament on the decline of Latin learning), science and medicine and so forth, as well as treatises on law and governance and good leadership - so much of the show seems extraordinarily topical.

The lighting is low in order to preserve the precious documents, but that just adds to a sense of awe that is almost tangible in the visitors to this very special show. It is academic. It requires time. I mistimed my visit and had to pace through the last few rooms.

Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving

public record, on loan from The National Archives

But thankfully, I still had time enough to have a good look at the final exhibit, the most famous book in English history: the Domesday Book (c.1086). Although not strictly an Anglo-Saxon work - it was commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085 and is celebrated as one of the great achievements of the Norman invaders - this uniquely rich record of the landscape and wealth reflects centuries of development in late Anglo-Saxon England.

As the earliest surviving public record, it makes a magnificent finale to a magnificent show.


Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library, London

Showing until 19 February 2019

For more information, CLICK HERE


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