REVIEW: Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War – The British Library

By Lucy Jackson | @Lucy_BreatheN @lucyajackson

Sub-edited by Catherine de Guise

The largest collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts was celebrated in a recent exhibition at the British Library in London. Taking seven years of planning, it was advertised by the lead curator Dr Claire Breay as being a “once in a generation” collection.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which ran from December 2018 until February 2019, was a complete sell-out and an incredible success for the library. Dr Breay went on to say “I think people always think of this time as the Dark Ages, we are trying to show the public the literary and artistic evidence of the Anglo-Saxon people’s complex and sophisticated lives”.

The exhibition was brought to life with the inclusion of writing by the monk Bede (c. 672-735). He stated that “the earth is not circular like a shield…but resembles a ball”, an idea that is widely thought to have been discovered only in the works of Galileo a thousand years later.

‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’ contains an extensive and varied collection, as Anglo-Saxon England spanned six centuries, from the fifth century to 1066. The exhibition covered six rooms and housed over 180 items, ending with the famous Domesday Book.

The visitor was taken on a chronological journey through the different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, looking at the intricate balances of power and the political and cultural battles through wall-to-wall displays of manuscripts and metalwork.

The exhibition started its display with a room based in fifth century Britain, which described the first settlements of the Angle, Jute and Saxon peoples from northern Europe, whose runic writings are seen as the beginnings of the English language.

Other highlights from the rooms included objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. The Codex Amiatinus is another object worth lingering over; it is the earliest surviving complete bible in Latin, which would have required the skins of 500 calves to make the vellum for its pages, returned to England for the first time in 1302 years from Florence.

The exhibition ended with a dramatic look at the last days of the Anglo-Saxon world, including the Norse king Cnut and the Norman Conquest. This leads visitors into the last room and the brilliantly framed Domesday Book (c. 1086), a big hit with visitors to the exhibition. The Book was a survey of the land in England and parts of Wales, ordered by the new King William the Conqueror, and really does close the chapter on Anglo-Saxon England.

The exhibition underlines and pays homage to the birth of the English language, with the earliest surviving letter in English being displayed, and four major manuscripts of old English poetry.

Whilst the exhibition is now closed, the British Library has made its collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts now available to read online for anyone who wants to learn more or missed the exhibition, an opportunity worth making the most of.

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