I was blown away by this show. OK, I confess I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about Anglo-Saxon history and an obsession with art and artefacts from the period which spans the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans. We’re looking at the years from around 500 to 1066 so it’s big chunk of time. For years this period has been regarded by historians as the ‘dark ages’, simply because it’s a big ask to find objects which have survived from those years but the things that we can see show that life in the Anglo-Saxon lands were far from dark and definitely not boring.
At the press preview for this new show at the British Library I loved the enthusiasm of the curator, Dr Claire Breay and her team who have spent years preparing this show. They’ve assembled items from the Library’s own impressive collection of books, manuscripts and documents and mingled them with sensational loans from museums, galleries, cathedrals and collection from elsewhere in the British Isles and further afield. What you come away with is a sense of the rich creativity, inventiveness and skills of the people of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Yes, there were wars and invasions and lots of local skirmishes. It’s clear that this period must have been pretty tumultuous to live through – and being a woman would have been challenging. However, you soon discover that it was time of intense evolution, innovation and excitement and clearly set down the foundations for the interesting and multi-faceted island race which we remain today.
I’ve long been an admirer of King Alfred, not just because his story was one of my favourite Ladybird books as a child. His reign, (871- 99) was a vastly important time in terms of unifying the warring factions within Anglo-Saxon England, establishing the idea of education for children, establishing that English rather than Latin should be used for administration and developing international links, trade and shared knowledge.
Always on the hunt for portraits, I was impressed to see that King Aethelstan (924 – 39), grandson of Alfred, features in the earliest known contemporary image of a king within a manuscript. Here he is shown presenting a book to the Community of St Cuthbert, established at Chester-le-Street, Co Durham. Aethelstan was prodigious giver of books and promoter of education; we have lot to thank him for.
It’s a joy to peruse the glorious illuminated bibles and manuscripts and revel in the fabulous colours of the paint and the gleaming gold.
I liked an example of the first ever letter – you can tell is was a letter because it was folded up a special way.
I absolutely adored the Lichfield Angel. This sculpture (thought to date from the 660s) was excavated from beneath the nave of Lichfield Cathedral in 2003. If you didn’t know it was so old you might possibly imagine it had been made by one of last century’s sculptors such as Eric Gill or Jacob Epstein – it is sensational.
If you’ve never seen the Doomsday book, then here it is, in all it’s weighty glory, on loan from the National Archives in Kew – the most comprehensive glimpse of life in an organised, wealthy and very desirable country. It’s also remarkable to learn that William the Conqueror commissioned this great record on Christmas Day 1085 and it was completed by 1st August 1086 – extraordinary.
This is very much a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to see so many treasures from this period in one place and beautifully displayed. The show is open until 19 February 2019 and well worth visiting.