An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Origins of Warrior Saints and the Early Medieval Conversion to Christianity.

Lorna Webb
The Venerable Bede (©The British Library). 

The advent of the conversion to Christianity throughout the peoples of Britain in the early medieval period using an interdisciplinary approach can give glimpses of how culturally invisible factors can be attributed to accepted changes within society, using both archaeological evidence as well as written evidence. Through this approach, using written evidence can give the names and deeds of particular individuals but this is affected by the agenda of the individual writing. In the case of St Oswald of Northumbria, the Venerable Bede recounts his deeds and the impact this had on early Christianity in the North of England, but from a Christian perspective. This recount frames Oswald as a good Christian king, martyred and venerated as he stands against the perceived paganism around him. For the audience Bede is writing this reinforces his retelling of how Christianised northern England is against the Danelaw. However, the fluidity of conversion, both on a political, religious level and within communities is never that clean cut.

Although Christianity was one of the few remaining institutions left in Britain after the departure of the Roman Administration in AD410, the “migration period” settlers and with them ideas of other religions pushed Christian religion and burial practices to the outer extremes and “pagan” practices became common place. Bede acknowledges the importance of an Augustine mission to the kings of Kent and East Anglia in AD580 and the gradual process of Christianisation which spreads from the elite to the laity. Burial evidence shows an enforcing of burial rites and norms such as “an inhumation of shrouded corpse, free of grave goods on consecrated ground.” Because of this, the most accessible archaeological evidence to appraise that shows a religious shift is that found in burial evidence. High status burial sites of similar dates to that of Oswald (AD604-642) would include that of Sutton Hoo and the Prittlewell Prince.

Silver Spoons from Sutton Hoo (© The British Museum.)

The world famous site of Sutton Hoo contains items reflecting both Germanic warrior culture seen in the “migration period” such as the helmet, a spear, the golden buckle with beautiful animal imagery, shield and knives. But there are also items that show transition. Bede records that Raedwald (AD599-624) converted to Christianity and represented in a few artefacts within the grave at Sutton Hoo including silver Christening spoons. The inscriptions on the spoons read “Paulos” and “Saulos;” these have been interpreted as Christian statements referring St Paul on the road to Damascus. The presence of these spoons among the other artefacts with pagan connotations shows this incorporation of new Christian customs within the existing pagan customs. 

One of the gold foil crosses found at Prittlewell (© MOLA).

The Prittlewell Prince (dated to c. AD580) is a single burial found on a site in Southend on Sea and excavated by MOLA in 2003. Artefacts from this burial included that of warrior culture such as a gaming board and pieces, two large antler dice, a small copper alloy cauldron, a copper alloy basin, textiles, two iron spearheads, a shield, an iron scythe blade, multiple drinking vessels and glass beakers.

The body itself had two small gold foil crosses found on the eyes, gold foil threads possibly from cloth laid over the body, two gold coins both of Frankish gold, a gold belt buckle and two copper alloy garter buckles found near the feet. The importance of the gold crosses and that the burial is an inhumation and not a cremation shows the political shift towards the faith of Christianity but not completely disregarding the rank and status and community from which the individual originated.

The concluding remarks on this short look at the importance of both archaeological evidence and written history centre on the comparison and transitional cultural markers. When comparing the written evidence there is a move away from traditional Germanic warrior or king culture and an effort to detract from the less savoury aspects of early medieval kingship towards a pious and community minded Christian kingship. Bede gives the warrior saints a Christian story and frames it with prayers and Christian imagery. This is reflected in the archaeological evidence with items such as golden crosses and silver spoons. The archaeological evidence from these elite burials does show the Germanic warrior tradition, with the swords, shields and helmets. By tracking the rate that grave items disappear from the archaeological evidence, the rate of Christian conversion can be compared with the written evidence.

Lorna Webb works for the UCL commercial field archaeology branch Archaeology South East as a post excavation archaeologist and regularly writes for the ASE blog page about medieval texts. She explored her interest in an interdisciplinary approach to history and archaeology while completing her MA at Medieval and Renaissance Studies at UCL. Follow on Twitter @winterarch37.

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