The St Andrews Sarcophagus is one of the more splendid pieces of artwork left to us from Pictish Scotland. Some might say the most splendid; I would always hold out for Sueno’s Stone, myself, simply because a twenty-foot high cross slab with a three-line battle cartoon full of decapitated corpses and ravens is hard to top, in several senses, but even I would have to admit that the Sarcophagus is a bit better executed. More importantly for many, it draws on a huge range of iconography, Biblical, Insular (let’s not use the word ‘Celtic’ here), Oriental and Classical, and thus helps show that the Picts, or at least the late Picts, were in no way cut off from the wider cultural currents of Christian Europe, but could play with and use them as well as any other people of the period.1
What the thing actually is, as it survives to us, is the front, three corners and one-and-a-bit sides of a box shrine or tomb, about one-and-a half metres across the front, which is the long side. The front shows a royal hunt, with various odd hybrid beasties lurking in a tree past which the hunters ride, and elsewhere David killing the lion, and the sides and corners are heavily decorated with interlace and animal and vegetal motives. It’s done in extremely high relief, so that you can see the other side of some of the hunters’ heads, and it’s generally quite special.2 Most and perhaps all of the surviving bits were discovered buried in St Andrews Cathedral churchyard in 1833, perhaps in use as a cist.3 We don’t know what the back was like, if there was one and it didn’t originally just sit against a wall, and we don’t know what the lid was like: a flat slab and a pitched roof have both been suggested on the basis of parallels elsewhere. Most people have concluded, given its quality and its connection with St Andrews, which long ago was called Kilrymont, ‘church on the king’s hill’, that it once contained a royal entombment, and the art-historical dating and later medieval traditions have made King Unuist map Uurguist, or in Gaelic, Oengus mac Fergus, second of that name, who ruled the Picts more or less from 820-834, the most commonly-suggested candidate, though the first of that name, circa 729-761, remains in the frame too (as do presumably the kings between them, albeit with less support in tradition).4
What, however, has all this to do with Mercia, you may be wondering, and fair enough. The answer lies in that phrase “parallels elsewhere”, because the Mercian kings of the mid- to late-eighth century seem to have put quite a lot of store by impressive entombments. The interesting thing is that these were not necessarily of the kings themselves, though there was a Mercian royal mausoleum at Repton that the Vikings took over in 873, still sadly not fully published.6 Instead or as well, they often seem to have set up burial cults around their enemies, moving them into Mercian border territory to do so. The classic example of this is St Oswald, King of Northumbria whom King Penda of Mercia killed in 642, whose body was moved in the reign of King Æthelred of Mercia, who had married his niece, to Bardney in Lindsey.7 That was presumably a peace-making move; rather less so was King Offa’s burial of King Æthelberht of East Anglia, whom he had just executed for disloyalty, at Hereford on the Welsh border. This was presumably meant to prevent any royal cult growing up around the dead king back in East Anglia, in which respect it failed, but Hereford seem also to have been quite glad to have him.8
This all takes on a sharper relevance to St Andrews when this item is considered, this being what’s left of what you can see was a substantial, full-length ornamental sarcophagus from [edit: the lost church of St Alkmund’s Derby]. (There is a fantastic photo of its discovery on the [edit: website of the still-extant St Alkmund’s Duffield] here, looted since goodness knows how long.) In some ways this is not what we have at St Andrews—it is single piece, not built out of parts, and its carving is much less ambitious—but in other ways it is, because of the identity of St Alkmund.9 This is believed to be King Ealhmund of Northumbria, who lost his struggle for the throne in some of Northumbria’s darker days (darkly alluded to in Alcuin’s letters, indeed) and retreated to Mercia as an exile, where however the forces of his rival Eardwulf found him and killed him in the year 800. The coffin fits with this date, and since it was obviously made for display there seems little a priori reason to doubt that it was meant to house the saint of the church, this royal sort-of-martyr, in which case presumably we see here King Cœnwulf of Mercia doing something slightly different with royal entombment, attacking the current royal family in Northumbria by celebrating as a saint the rival they’d murdered.10
It would maybe be possible to attribute a high-minded sense of right that just happened to be politically convenient to Cœnwulf of Mercia at this point were it not for what Steven Plunkett, who specialises in Mercian art history, thinks probably happened to Eardwulf, Ealhmund’s rival. What we know happened to Eardwulf is that he was exiled himself in 806. Plunkett therefore brings the Mercian church of Breedon-on-the-Hill into the argument at this point, and indeed has already done so in the relevant chapter because of it too having some unusually high-relief sculpture showing a royal hunt and some Classicising figures that all bear very strong comparisons to the St Andrews material, though he fights shy of actually proposing a connection in either direction.11 Here, however, the question is of Breedon’s dedication, which is to SS Mary and Hardulf. Hardulf? This saint is apparently unknown elsewhere. Surely it could not be… Eardwulf? Plunkett suggests that it could, which leaves me boggling somewhat at Cœnwulf’s mindset, if we assume that he was once again involved with this high-status centre.12 Did he decide he had been wrong about Ealhmund? Was he trying to pacify Northumbria? Is it that a king was a king and worth culting as something special whatever one’s relations with him in life? Or did he just decide that what was worth doing once was worth doing twice and carry on with cynical lack of regard to his earlier position on the Northumbrian crown? We will, of course, never know, but as so often, I wish we did. Are there any other cases of both sides of a violent contest being celebrated as holy men by the same agency? Over to you if so, I can’t think of any!
1. A point made throughout Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1997), which I was reading when I wrote this post in September 2013; the wider contention that Pictland was not some cut-off neverwhere is also the basic case to prove for many of the writers in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Europe: the proceedings of a day conference held on 20 February 1993, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1994).
2. Detailed description in Isabel Henderson, “Descriptive Catalogue of the Surviving Parts of the Monument” in Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, pp. 19-35; followed up with much more analysis in Henderson, “Primus inter Pares: the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Pictish sculpture”, ibid., pp. 97-167.
3. Sally M. Foster, “Discovery, Recovery, Context and Display”, ibid. pp. 36-62 at pp. 36-41.
4. Ibid. pp. 42-45; Dauvit Broun, “Pictish Kings 761-839: integration with Dál Riata or separate development?”, ibid. pp. 71-83; Charles Thomas, “Form and Function”, ibid. pp. 84-96. Henderson, “Primus inter pares“, makes a spirited case for Unuist map Uurguist I on the basis of a range of fairly closely-dated art-historical comparisons. On him, see Thomas Owen Clancy, “Philosopher-King: Nechtan mac Der-Ilei” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 83 (Edinburgh 2004), pp. 125-149, DOI: 10.3366/shr.2004.83.2.125 but also online here, and Alex Woolf, “Onuist son of Uurguist: ‘tyrannus carnifex‘ or a David for the Picts?” in David Hill & Martha Worthington (edd.), Æthelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia (Oxford 2005), pp. 35-42.
5. I have found it surprisingly hard to locate images of the Sarcophagus licensed for reproduction, not something I anticipated when I set up to do this post and now, of course, have no time to fix by writing people for permission etc. So, this is from Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, plate 5, with some slight colourisation added by me which I think technically but probably not defensibly makes it a new work, but which in any case I shall replace with my own or some licensed picture of the front as soon as I’m able. I’m pretty sure that having free 600×480-pixel pictures on the web will not hit your postcard sales that much, guys…
6. Martin Biddle & Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, “Repton and the Vikings” in Antiquity 66 (London 1992), pp. 36-51, is about as good as it gets for publication.
7. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, III.11 (an old translation online here should you not have access to one of the newer ones); Steven J. Plunkett, “The Mercian Perspective” in Foster, St Andrews Sarcophagus, pp. 202-226 at p. 206.
8. Morn Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008, pp. 260-273, is the fullest discussion; cf. Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, pp. 224-225.
9. There is basic go-to stuff on this that I haven’t yet read, I must confess, among it C. A. Ralegh Radford, “The church of Saint Alkmund, Derby” in Derbyshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 96 (Derby 1976), pp. 26-61 and Alan Thacker, “Kings, saints and monasteries in pre-Viking Age Mercia” in Midland History Vol. 10 (Birmingham 1985), pp. 1-25; here I run instead from Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, pp. 222-223.
10. David W. Rollason, “The cults of murdered royal saints in Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1983), pp. 1-22 ; Capper, “Contesting Loyalties”, pp. 362-363.
11. Plunkett, “Mercian Perspective”, p. 223 & 215-220, esp. p. 220:
“The carvings [at Breedon, Peterborough and elsewhere] are evidence for the systematic endowment of primary Mercian sites by an elite patron employing a master-craftsman…. The St Andrews Sarcophagus is in no way a product of this atelier, but embodies a comparable initiative, in a context where there is stylistic evidence for cultural exchange between the two regions.”
I do find this frustrating as it suggests a relationship and then argues that the cultural context is probably pretty general across northern Britain. In that case this sort of stuff might be expected to turn up anywhere yet plainly has not. One wants there to be a connection and Plunkett is too cautious to hypothesise one, yet sets out all the material that makes it seem necessary.
12. It has to be admitted that that isn’t strictly necessary. Not least, we don’t know when or how Eardwulf died; it might have been rather later, and Plunkett justly notes the general crisis of the Mercian realm in 825 when such readjustments of politics might have been useful. (On what we know about that see Capper, “Contested Loyalties”, pp. 416-428.) I still wonder, though, as below, what this meant for the cult of Ealhmund.