Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sutton Hoo and Handfastings

On Sunday  I made the trip to Sutton Hoo for the first time. This is the site of a 7th century burial, a spectacular Saxon ship and mound graves containing grave goods which tells us much about life in East Anglia during the seventh century. The National Trust Museum on the site brings to life the treasure that was unearthed here. Sutton Hoo is of a primary importance to historians because it sheds light on a period of English history which is on the margin between myth, legend and historical documentation. Use of the site culminated at a time when the ruler of Anglia, Redwald held senior power among the English people and played a dynamic if ambiguous part in the establishment of Christian rule in England; it is generally thought most likely that he is the person buried in the ship discovered here. Importantly, the site has been vital in understanding the early Anglo-Saxon period, in particular East Anglia.
Paul Mortimer, author of Woden's Warriors models the helmet
The purpose of my visit was to attend a one-day seminar about History and Fiction in the Age of Sutton Hoo. Local authors of historical fiction and non-fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England discussed their work.These writers included writer P.M. Sabin Moore, Paul Mortimer, Steve Pollington and Carla Nayland, author of a fiction set in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria titled Paths of Exile.

The highlight was finding out what Paul Mortimer (above) and Steve Pollington thought about handfasting. Paul has written a non fiction study of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, Steve's books  on Anglo-Saxon history and culture are highly regarded for their basis in archeological research.

The Handfasted Wife

It is probable that a whetstone was used in the handfasted ceremony. The whetstone was important in oath taking as well as its traditional use for sharpening ceremonial swords. Weighing around six kilos, it had an significant place in the culture of a Saxon mede hall. The replica I saw on Sunday was exquisitely decorated with stone carvings depicting a man and a woman, thus indicating its possible use in the handfasting ceremony. On the whetstone's top a golden deer stands proudly on a very large golden ring. In this ceremony the bride would face the groom as they made their oath to eachother, their hands clasping the ring at the top of the stone. Interestingly, the groom would give a bride price for his intended, rather than the traditional situation we know later, the provision of a bride's dowry from her family. These historians suggest that handfasting continued throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.

At the top of the Whetstone is the Ring used for oath-taking

Snippets About Anglo-Saxon Women

The Anglo-Saxons often made marriages to create new kindreds out of existing foes thus the notion of the women as peaceweavers.

High status women could hold political influence. Kings and princes might ask their advice as they did of Abbess Hilde in the 600s.

Women owned property and made wills. Places were named after them. Look at maps and you should find female names from Saxon times.

Women had distinct social roles. As early as the 670s Queens had their separate households. These included weaving, advising, managing resources and as practitioners of medicine. From this period we have the notion of the 'distaff' side. Women served the mede horn in the Hall and they traditionally made speeches when their menfolk returned from battle. 

A Special Place

The magic of Sutton Hoo lingers in that gentle Suffolk coastal territory. The wealth this society possessed is illustrated by their gorgeous jewellery, the sapphires, the rubies, rare blue glass and garnets and gold. It is possible to imagine a king wearing the magnificent engraved golden helmet, pictured at top of blog, with its garnet eagle eyes watching as we trespass on their past. And as the sun set and I headed  home, I hoped that the ghosts of Sutton Hoo had not minded too much that we, had but briefly passed through their world.


  1. A very interesting account, Carol. Thank you for it.

    Liz X

  2. Liz, hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for responding too.

  3. Regarding the whetstone and its possible role in hand-fasting, I wondered if there might also be a connection with the Norse custom of laying a hammer in the bride's lap at a wedding ceremony to 'hallow the bride' (I don't think it's known exactly what that means). The custom appears in the Lay of Thrym. I mentioned this briefly on Sunday in my talk on humour - it's the tale in which Thor has to dress up in drag to get his hammer back, knowing that the giants will bring in the hammer to 'hallow the bride' at the ceremony. Both a hammer and a whetstone are associated with Thor in Norse mythology. I wonder if both hammer and whetstone might be associated with marriage?

  4. Hello Carla,

    Thank you for the comments. I don't know enough about the Norse customs but I love the idea of the hammer. I have thought long and hard about handfasting and how it actually worked. I want to write Edith's prequel and I would use these suggestions when I write about the wedding with Harold. I loved Sunday and learned so much. I'm looking forward to reading your novel very much too.

  5. Cnut's two wives, Aelfgifu of Northampton and Emma of Normandy, would have been familiar to Harold, and might be a clue to the sort of model he had in mind. I don't think there's much, if any, detail of the ceremonies recorded. It seems quite likely to me that Harold would have been familiar with Norse customs (his mother was Danish), and Norse influence in England was strong by the eleventh century, especially in the east and north. I liked the idea of the whetstone for a hand-fasting ceremony - I hadn't heard of that before Sunday! I had wondered before if the female and male faces on the whetstone represented gods and goddesses. Snorri says in Gylfaginning that the goddesses were no less sacred or powerful than the gods, so it would fit with that to give them equal treatment on a sacred object (with the usual caveat that Snorri was writing in Iceland in 13th century and a certain amount of caution is in order for extrapolating that to England in the 7th). That could also fit well with a marriage ritual, perhaps asking for the goodwill of all the gods and goddesses for the marriage?
    I'm glad you enjoyed Sunday. It was good to meet you.

  6. Carla, thanks for all this-take a peep at the new one, Divining a witch. I wonder what you know about perceptions of witchcraft in this era.

  7. Only that a law code in Lombardy in the mid-seventh-century-ish forbade Christians to kill women as witches, and that Charlemagne ordered the death penalty for burning someone as a witch after he had conquered the Saxons and forced them to convert, which implies that there were beliefs in witchcraft and harsh penalties in the seventh/eighth century in continental Europe. There's a detailed description of a Norse volva (seeress) in the Vinland Sagas, and an incident of a shirt embroidered with seidr magic being used to kill one of the tenth-century-ish earls of Orkney in Orkneyinga Saga somewhere. Divining a witch by weight is new to me - was that a medieval custom?

  8. Hi Carol Do you have a list of novels inspired by Sutton Hoo? I'm going to visit soon and would like to be prepared. Thanks Liz

  9. Maybe look at Giles Kristian Viking though it is not directly related to Sutton Hoo. I think google novels and Sutton Hoo. I personally cannot think of any off hand though there are a few I believe.

  10. Google Carla Nayland as she wrote one I think.

  11. Hmm. I'm not so sure where the connection with handfasting comes from in concern to the whetstone, the faces seem to be pretty gender neutral to me. Also though the ring is associated with oaths in Germanic cultures I always thought this 'sceptre' to be a symbol of royal power and responsibility as one sharpens the weapons that protect the land on it, with the faces representing the ancestors of the past witnessing and ensuring that this duty is carried out by their descendants.