A theory on Kent I would have taken further

When I wrote the bulk of this post in September 2012, I had lately read an article I should have looked at long previously, by Charlotte Behr, called “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent”.1 It’s is a rather odd piece of writing: it’s thoroughly academic and erudite but it still reads somewhat as if the author had left notes in the margins of things they had meant to mention later and a scribal error had then incorporated them into the main text in the wrong places; it digresses a lot. I read it after a solid week of copy-editing the final version of Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, so I itched to do a major hack job on this article, but this is not much good with something in print for twelve years already and it has made me think, so it’s obviously not bad. I just, would maybe have pushed it a bit further.

A seventh-century gold bracteate pendant from a cemetery at Faversham in kent, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, object no. 1909-194.

A seventh-century gold bracteate pendant from a cemetery at Faversham in kent, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, object no. 1909-194.

What Dr Behr argues is that even though Bede tells us the men of Kent (as opposed to the Kentish men) were Jutes from Jutland, Scandinavian material culture only shows up there with any strength from the mid-sixth century onwards, after we presume any migration to have happened. (Yes, I’m not sure about the assumed links there either, but let’s roll with it for now.) Even once visible, that Scandinavian signal is swamped in Frankish-style goods both imported and locally-made, but it is there. Furthermore, Dr Behr argues that: (a) it is especially to be identified in gold bracteates, which in Kent are almost entirely found in wealthy female graves (though this is not their usual Scandinavian context), (b) these bracteates are related in iconography (and occasionally even in runic text) to the cult of Woden, and (c) that that, as far as place-names can tell us, was confined to one small area of Kent which is also busy with major élite sites, the chief of which are the cemetery of Finglesham, where a ‘founder’ warrior grave became the focus for three centuries of interments, Eastry, where a later villa regalis (royal vill) is well-attested and burial also occurred from early on, and Woodnesborough (‘Woden’s barrow’), presumably the religious site, to which could be added the coastal site of Sandwich as the fourth part of a rather nice little royal development complex linked to Dover and Canterbury by Roman roads.2 Moreover, the bracteates found here and more thinly elsewhere in Kent are all of one specific type, with an identifiably single prototype, suggesting that they were locally-made on demand for a single group who were pushing themselves as Scandinavians in some respect or other.

A gold buckle from the cemetery at Finglesham, supposedly depicting Woden

A gold buckle from the cemetery at Finglesham, supposedly depicting Woden, though a figure in headgear with two things on shafts is perhaps not native to Scandinavia

Now there are bits of this that aren’t logically present in the article but need to be to connect these things up, I think. The conclusion seems perfectly plausible, it’s the sort of thing we’re encouraged to see as behind the goods in the Sutton Hoo ship burial as well, and it lines up with a lot of work going on at the time Dr Behr was writing that encouraged us to see southern Scandinavia as a kind of alternate locus of power and importance which gets its brief spotlight period in the aftermath of the fall of Rome.3 However, the bracteates aren’t die-linked, so there’s not a lot to say that those showing up outside this little core zone aren’t good imitations. That would also work in terms of showing it was an attractive way to represent oneself, I suppose. The fact that it’s almost always women is also interesting, too; should we imagine this ideology being something men can join in with by marriage? Have we then got a successful (and potentially actually Jutish, I feel it should be said, if that term means anything beyond `from Denmark’) warrior family having established themselves at Eastry and area, with their portus at Sandwich, then making links with other élites in sites like Dover and across the water in Francia too that got cemented by marriage, and shortly becoming the number one power in sixth-century Kent?

Reverse of a gold D-type bracteate found at Denton, Kent, and now in Canterbury Museum

Reverse of a gold D-type bracteate found at Denton, Kent, and now in Canterbury Museum, image licensed from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons BY-SA

Dr Behr, perhaps because she was going into print in a respected journal and because she knows how to be careful better than I do (I have not met her), did not go so far in this piece. But this is only a blog, so I can, and I can go further, because it would all fit quite nicely. It marries up a lot of things that Anglo-Saxonists used to believe because the sources tell us them (warrior settlement by small numbers of migrants with ancestral connections overseas establishing themselves in new lands) with more realistic, socially-based work about control of luxury goods, manipulation of genealogy and expression of desired identity via material culture and burial etc. But if we also fit it into the time-frame then it helps explain a disjunction in what Bede tells us about the early Kentish kings. He repeats Gildas about the settlement of the Saxons in Kent, basically, that they arrived as mercenary warriors then rebelled and took over, but Bede puts names on them. Those names are interesting: the first two leaders are the legendary Hengest and a son or colleague Horsa (two names meaning ‘stallion’ and ‘mare’, always an unlikely occurrence), but the subsequent kings take their family name from a third generation in the person of one Oisc. How these three are related varies between the few sources, though all the genealogies ultimately go back to Woden.4 (Dr Behr covers all this, but she doesn’t, perhaps sensibly, go where I’m about to go with it. She does, however, point out what I’d never noticed, that the Kentish kings are the only ones whose Wodenic ancestry Bede also records.5) To this we can also add Ian Wood’s stress on the early kingdom’s Frankish connections; even if we don’t go so far as to claim that Kent was actually subject to Frankish overlordship, the first Christian king of Kent, Æthelberht, had a Frankish wife and a father with a Frankish name, and there is all this Frankish bling in the graves of Kent, as said.6

A fragment of a Frankish copper-alloy buckle found at Hollingbourne, Kent

A fragment of a Frankish copper-alloy buckle found at Hollingbourne, Kent, image licensed from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons license BY-SA

So, okay, a hypothetical way to reconcile all this: in the mid-fifth century a proto-kingship was built up in the Eastry-Finglesham complex identified by Dr Behr which was demonstratively (rather than demonstrably, though maybe that too) Scandinavian, and let’s say Jutish, even if I’m not really sure those two things should be assumed to be overlapping sets, and it rapidly acquired dominating links to other power centres like Dover. It may even have been the power that managed to grab Western Kent into the same hegemony. It stressed this Scandinavian identity because there was opposition that identified more clearly as Frankish, which is why we have Frankish kings reporting themselves as rulers of Britain in Procopius’s recollection (however good that may be). And by the end of the sixth century, that opposition won out in the form of King Æthelberht. But the combined kingdom’s identity remained Jutish at some level, not least maybe because Æthelberht himself seems to have wanted to avoid ties too close to the Franks anyway (else why not accept Christianity from them?) so perhaps liked to be able to get a grip on local feeling like this. (Was his father Irminric’s wife one of these women with bracteates on her dress, do you suppose?)

Reverse of a Frankish tremissis loosely aiming to be one of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, found near Sevenoaks

I couldn’t get through this post without using a coin somewhere, come on. This is the reverse of a Frankish tremissis loosely aiming to be one of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, found near Sevenoaks, image license from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons license BY-SA

I like this because it would allow so many things to be true at once: it could accommodate a genuine migrant warrior group moving into a fragmented power vacuum in eastern Kent and a small family quickly becoming powerful by genius of location and resources and by skilful manipulation of a politically-useful identity for which one could hand out almost literal badges of membership and that other people apparently wanted to join. (I do wonder what the men in this group wore, but whatever it was apparently we haven’t found it as such.) It was such a good appeal to legend that by the time they were remembered in the eighth century Bede knew, or his informant knew, that the founder had been a legendary warrior and Hengest was the name they knew best for the time. And his story would then actually be relevant, explanatory and important! These pseudo-Hengests would have pulled together a small but wealthy kingdom in the space of a couple of generations, substantially just by having a good starting position and an obvious Frankish problem for which they could advertise themselves as the solution. (“No more tribute to the sons of the sea-monster! Choose Jutes for Woden!”7) And then one of the family that must have set up in Canterbury somewhen (and let’s call their founder Oisc) got in on the act and, as luck and skill with a blade and a retinue would have it, completely cleared the floor over most of the south of England, sending the political axis skidding backwards and forwards between Francia and Scandinavia until some well-timed missionaries arrived to offer a third way (unbeknownst to them) and the whole game changed scale. This is, of course, completely unprovable (though one could wish for DNA testing of the female skeletons with the bracteates) but it fits very much with how I have long tended to see the Anglo-Saxon settlement: not many people but a few clever and lucky ones in just the right place and at just the right time to make something that became history.


1. C. Behr, “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 9 (Oxford 2000), pp. 25-52, DOI: 10.1111/1468-0254.00058.

2. Most of what i know about Finglesham comes from the short but good picture essay, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, “Finglesham: a cemetery in East Kent” in James Campbell, Eric John & Patrick Wormald (edd.), The Anglo-Saxons (London 1982), pp. 24-25, but there is much fuller publication, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes & Guy Grainger, The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Finglesham, Kent (Oxford 2006); on the other sites mentioned, see most recently Keith Parfitt, “Further Investigation of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Eastry” in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 129 (Canterbury 2009), pp. 313-332; Parfitt, “Excavations at Ringlemere Farm, Woodnesborough, 2002- 2006″, ibid. Vol. 127 (2007), pp. 39-73; and Helen Clarke, Sandwich: the “completest medieval town in England”. A study of the town and port from its origins to 1600 (Oxford 2010), all of which citations, I should stress, I have pulled out of databases just now rather than actually read

3. Best exemplified by several papers in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), in which many but not all of the contributors were in fact from Scandinavia; there was also John Hines, however, whose book The Scandinavian character of Anglian England in the pre-Viking period , British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 124 (Oxford 1984) is the starting point for this trend on my side of the North Sea. Hines’s contribution to the Sachsensymposium was, admittedly, not about Scandinavian power foci; as to what it was about, that would be a future post

4. All this is best covered by none other than the late lamented Nicholas Brooks, in his “The Creation and Early Structure of the Early Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 55-74.

5. Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 28.

6. Ian Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (Ålingsas 1987), put more lightly but also more easily obtainable in his “The Fall of the Western Empire and the End of Roman Britain” in Britannia Vol. 18 (London 1987), pp. 253-262.

7. I thought of that just because it jingles nicely but IS IT A COINCIDENCE THAT the bracteate type used in this Kentish group is the one whose iconography is actually a monster, defeated and bound, presumably by Woden who is elsewhere depicted in such a combat (Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 37 with illustrations on p. 38)? Or can these things actually be anti-Merovingian campaign badges? OK: if I hadn’t gone too far before, I have now, it’s nice to be sure…

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13 responses to “A theory on Kent I would have taken further

  1. Seems to me that one could conceivably be “thoroughly academic” but lack erudition.
    Is it ‘thesis-synthesis-hypothesis’? or the other way ’round?

    • Which of those do you see as being more academic? I’m used to thesis-antithesis-synthesis but only as an undergraduate essay structure; the scientific method is supposedly hypothesis-testing-theory… I usually work thesis-demonstration-theory myself.

      • I read your post. It just appeared that you didn’t have enough solid information to draw any sort of conclusion. For that time period, it would be particularly difficult to find sufficient evidence.

        • Well, that’s why it’s only a blog-post and not an academic article, as indeed the post itself repeatedly emphasises. The problem is not so much lack of evidence, as for the early Middle Ages sixth-century Kent is actually quite well-favoured in terms of place-names and archæology even if not in texts, as its interpretation, which is vexed and can only ever be hypothetical, for me or for Dr Behr. But I’m fond of quoting Paul Edward Dutton on this: “the best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways”. That’s certainly my hope with this post!

          • Allan McKinley

            Worth pointing out we have no sixth century evidence for place-names in Kent – the evidence is all later. I think the name Woodnesborough is actually eleventh-century evidence – we cannot assume it was automatically earlier without linguistic evidence as to when the name was formed.

            • Right, yes, careless of me. What I meant was evidence of sixth-century place-names, not sixth-century evidence of place-names, and the former is rather more subject to dispute than the latter would be if it existed.

  2. Maybe these women represent marriages with Scandinavians along the lines of later marriages with France. Is it possible that they would take on “Jutishness” from such marriages if it differentiated them from everyone else. And, is Hengest a Jutish hero or a hero made Jutish to match the imagery of the Kentish family?

    • I think Hengest is whomever anyone wanted him to be when they wrote (much as Beowulf is for us now)… As to the former bit, I’m not sure if I follow: you are suggesting that the women with the bracteates could be native or local women married to immigrants and having this signalled by their Scandinavian-style jewellery? I actually don’t know how we could exclude that, if so, that’s a rather sharply pointed possibility. The macro-political hypothesis wouldn’t be affected, but even so…

  3. Allan McKinley

    Question that always bothers me is why do we associate Jutes with Jutland? The link does not appear obvious if you consider the earliest form of Jutland is the late-ninth century Old English Orosius form Gotland. The Gottar were the group we label Goths, and contemporary forms for the Jutes are Geot and similar, not the likely source of Gotland.

    Indeed, there is a case for seeing the Goths as being used as a classical precursor of the Danes. There were no ninth-century Goths (at least from an English perspective – the population of Perpignan may have disagreed) so they could be equated with the Danes (who first appear in the sixth century). The similarity of the Latin Dania and Dacia (origin of the Goths, certainly in Orosius) probably helped this identification, and it is tempting to suggest that the suggestive name of the Danube might have contributed as well. So there is a case (which I maybe should write up at some point) that the earliest reference to Jutland by that name relates not to the Jutes but to the Goths.

    I’m not so certain on how we get from Gotland to Jutland (Danish Jylland) but Stevenston and Elias Wadstein both produced what seem to be good arguments that the modern name Jutland does not derive from the Jutes, which have never been countered to my knowledge. Most historians have however continued to associate Jutes with Jutland unquestioningly, which seems to be making an assumption that requires proving (which as you and Behr both note the archaeology does not provide).

    None of this means you are not right about Kentish leaders drawings on Scandinavian culture. I tend to prefer to see the appearance of this, as it is mainly found in high-status female graves, as a fashion trend (this year the well dressed lady is wearing bracetates…). Which just means Eastry was the Carnaby Street of its time…

    • It’s Susan Reynold’s answer to Jane Kershaw’s work, isn’t it? Maybe some clever smith is making these marvellous new things that you just have to have… But why do they catch on so, is the consequent question?

      As for Jutland, yes, I put that word in in a final edit and wasn’t at all sure I should have. But Bede says the regnum of the Jutes lies the other side of that of the Angles from that of the Saxons, so it’s either in Jutland or in Frisia depending on where you put the Angles, no? That is, assuming that all three are in fact coastal.

  4. Really enjoyed reading this (twice in fact so as to take in everything!). I would recommend you read Tania Dickinson, Chris Fern and Andrew Richardson’s lengthy article ‘Early Anglo-Saxon Eastry’ which appeared in volume 17 of Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History. The authors draw together a lot of material in order to construct an account of the Eastry area which has a fair few affinities with what you set out here (for instance, the equine significance of the names Hengest and Horsa has possible material correlates in the sixth-century bichrome and zoomorphic-decorated horse-harness mounts from the Eastry I cemetery, and a seventh-century ‘horse-and-warrior’ burial at Updown). They take the view that the artefactual evidence fits with a picture of Eastry being home to ‘leading members of the Kentish kings’ retinue’ in the sixth and seventh centuries. As for the fifth-century material, they read it as marking a sudden upturn from what went before in the Romano-Britsh period, but not distinguished from other coastal areas from Canterbury down to Deal, plus more isolated hotspots at Dover and Lyminge (about which Gabor Thomas’ preliminary excavation reports will surely offer some additional insights).

    Personally, I’m not sure I buy into the idea of those from Eastry extending their power so far and so fast, but it’s been ages since I read Behr’s article and bracteates don’t really feature prominently in that of Dickinson et al. – or rather they might, just not in the article’s introduction and conclusion that I was reading photocopies of on the train earlier!

    • I didn’t know about the Eastry article, that’s a welcome recommendation, thankyou! I’m also glad to have started some thoughts, even if they don’t necessarily agree (in fact, given that this is not my field, especially when that happens). I suppose that `far and fast’ is the key issue here, though, isn’t it, and it hangs on some silent assumptions about political range and how many active foci might be within a wide range… Is the Eastry faction one of twenty-odd in East Kent, or only two that can seriously contend? Are they confined to centres close to each other or are fifth-century networks decentralised, especially where coasts are close by? I wonder if a powerful group might quickly gain ‘friends’ in quite a lot of farflung places but not necessarily be able to build much out of this or preserve it long…

  5. Pingback: British Chilterners | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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