Anglo-Saxon England and Decoding Anglo-Saxon Art

Ship’s figure-head, late 4th – 5th century, oak, 149 cm, (Germanic?/Roman? found Belgium) © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the British Museum / 02.28.2017

In the fifth century C.E., people from tribes called Angles, Saxons, and Jutes left their homelands in northern Europe to look for a new home. They knew that the Romans had recently left the green land of Britain unguarded, so they sailed across the channel in small wooden boats. This warlike dragon figurehead is from a ship of that time.

Left: Æthelwulf Ring, c. 828-58 C.E., niello, gold, 2.8 cm diameter, and right: Æthelswith Ring, c. 853-74 C.E., niello, gold, 2.6 cm in diameter, both England © Trustees of the British Museum

The Britons did not give in without a fight, but after many years the invaders managed to overcome them, driving them to the west of the country. The Anglo-Saxons were to rule for over 500 years.

Map of Anglo-Saxon England

Some objects were left behind by the Anglo-Saxons which have given us clues about how they lived. The British Museum is home to the largest and finest Anglo-Saxon collection in the world.

Anglo-Saxon England was divided into the five main kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Kent, each with its own king. Kings often died early and violent deaths. As well as fighting against each other for power, they had to keep their own nobles happy, or they might rise up against them. One way that they did this was to give them expensive presents.

Æthelwulf Ring, c. 828-58 C.E., niello, gold, 2.8 cm diameter, England © Trustees of the British Museum

The ring on the left (third image above) was perhaps given to a noble by King Æthelwulf of Wessex. The other ring has AD on it which stands for “Agnus Dei” meaning “Lamb of God” in Latin. On the back the name Æthelswith has been cut. She was Æthelwulf’s daughter and the ring might have been a gift she gave to show her favour.

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

A love of riddles

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, early 6th century, Chessell Down, Early Anglo-Saxon, Isle of Wight © Trustees of the British Museum

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Style I

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th and 11th centuries, but puzzles and story-telling remained central. The early art style of the Anglo-Saxon period is known as Style I and was popular in the late 5th and 6th centuries. It is characterized by what seems to be a dizzying jumble of animal limbs and face masks, which has led some scholars to describe the style as an “animal salad.” Close scrutiny shows that Style I is not as abstract as first appears, and through carefully following the decoration in stages we can unpick the details and begin to get a sense for what the design might mean.

Decoding the square-headed brooch (top) © Trustees of the British Museum

One of the most exquisite examples of Style I animal art is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch from a female grave on the Isle of Wight. Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Decoding the square-headed brooch (bottom) © Trustees of the British Museum

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Turning the brooch upside-down (above) reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple.

Style II

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo © Trustees of the British Museum

Style I was superseded by Style II in the late 6th century. This later style has more fluid and graceful animals, but these still writhe and interlace together and require patient untangling. The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is decorated in this style. From the thicket of interlace that fills the buckle’s surface 13 different animals emerge (above). These animals are easier to spot: the ring-and-dot eyes, the birds’ hooked beaks, and the four-toed feet of the animals are good starting points. At the tip of the buckle, two animals grip a small dog-like creature in their jaws and on the circular plate, two snakes intertwine and bite their own bodies. Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

Further transformations

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch © Trustees of the British Museum

Animal art continued to be popular on Anglo-Saxon metalwork throughout the later period, when it went through further transformations into the Mercian Style (defined by sinuous animal interlace) in the 8th century and then into the lively Trewhiddle Style in the 9th century. Trewhiddle-style animals feature in the roundels of the Fuller Brooch (above), but all other aspects of its decoration are unique within Anglo-Saxon art. Again, through a careful unpicking of its complex imagery we can understand its visual messages. At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

Sight and wisdom

This iconography can best be understood in the context of the scholarly writings of King Alfred the Great (died 899), which emphasized sight and the “mind’s eye” as the principal way in which wisdom was acquired along with the other senses. Given this connection, perhaps it was made at Alfred the Great’s court workshop and designed to be worn by one of his courtiers?

Throughout the period, the Anglo-Saxons expressed a love of riddles and puzzles in their metalwork. Behind the non-reflective glass in the newly opened Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe 300-1100, you can do like the Anglo-Saxons and get up close to these and many other objects to decode the messages yourself.

Rosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

Great square-headed brooch from Chessell Down

Great square-headed brooch, early 6th century, Early Anglo-Saxon, From Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight © Trustees of the British Museum

Because buttons and zippers hadn’t been invented yet, clothes in Anglo-Saxon England were fastened with pins or brooches.

This fine silver-gilt and niello brooch is perhaps the most beautiful of all surviving great square-headed brooches. The casting reveals an artist in complete mastery of his material and current art styles. The brooch was found by George Hillier in 1855 in a woman’s grave, together with two stamped pendants, a pair of tweezers, and iron knife and a waist buckle. It was probably made in the first quarter of the sixth century.

The brooch is the best example of a small group of brooches that reflect southern Scandinavian influence. Like its Scandinavian predecessors, it was cast in silver and then gilt on its front surface. The piece has close stylistic parallels with objects found in Kent, although large square-headed brooches are not typical Kentish types.

The outer border of the head-plate is decorated with scrolls on the sides and two Style I quadrupeds with long ears and humanoid feet at the centre. Scrolls and disembodied Style I body parts fill the rest of the headplate field within borders of stamped and nielloed triangles. The bow is plain. The footplate below the bow is decorated with face masks in the side lobes and another larger face mask in the centre below two Style I heads.

Additional Resources

C.J. Arnold, The Anglo-Saxon cemeteries on the Isle of Wight (London, The British Museum Press, 1982).

E.T. Leeds, A corpus of early Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1949).

J. Hines, A new corpus of Anglo-Saxon Great Square-Headed Brooches (Woodbridge, Boydell for the Society of Antiquaries of London, 1997).

R.A. Smith, A guide to the Anglo-Saxon and Foreign Teutonic Antiquities (London, British Museum, 1923).

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