Raising up the enemies of Mercia

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

Current state of the St Andrews Sarcophagus

The Sarcophagus as currently displayed, and as pictured on the website Undiscovered Scotland, from which here linked

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

Front panel of the St Andrews Sarcophagus

The front panel, during dismantlement in 19965

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

St Alkmund's Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund's Duffield, Derby, now in Derby Museum

St Alkmund’s Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derbyshire, now in Derby Museums, whose website has a more enlightened reuse policy that just requires me to point out to you that the image is copyright to Derby Museums

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 St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derbyshire. (There is a fantastic photo of its discovery on the church’s site 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

Ninth-century ornamental panel from Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire

Ninth-century ornamental panel from SS Mary & Hardulph, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire. Photo by Walwyn, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0), taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/overton_cat/4017050229/ with thanks

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.

18 responses to “Raising up the enemies of Mercia

  1. This is interesting to me for parallels in Japan’s classical and medieval periods, where the archetype is actually of honoring the defeated with a cult, and not the winner (but I’m fairly sure there are some victors in the mix as well)–and the veneration is harder to pin down as coming from one individual. I only have time to make the note of this briefly (I’m happy to explain the contexts and some examples over email), but when I return to this subject myself I suspect it might help me with some concepts to look at these Mercia example to see if it’s more similar or more different from what I have in Japan.

  2. Apart from Oswald, Edwin, and Oswine? For Oswiu to enshrine Edwin at Whitby is not what you would expect from the son of the king Edwin killed. Alchfrith was possibly at Whitby as well. I think Bede refers to kings, plural, being buried there.

    • I suppose that’s true, but Edwin at Whitby makes more sense as part of a peace-making strategy, going with the marriages between the families and the twenty years of running Roman and Irish Christianity together. For both of those reasons Edwin was someone whose legacy I would expect to Oswiu to want to gather in for himself. And Whitby was a major centre, too, whereas Duffield is rather less of one. (I’m not sure how convinced to be about Hardulf…)

  3. People speak of the “Kings” of Mercia, but the long sequences of kings with “no known relation to his predecessors”, plus successions through remarriages of Queens, and successions such as Coenwulf’s (a “seventh generation descendant of Pybba, probably through a sister of Penda”), in combination with the sequence of late Mercian Queens:

    Eadburh, succeeded by her daughter:
    Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, succeeded by her daughter:
    Æthelflæd, (d. 12 June 918) ruled Mercia from 911 to her death in 918, succeeded by her daughter:
    Ælfwynn, deposed by her brother, Edward the Elder, King of Wessex

    suggest that, for some centuries at least, the Mercian royal succession was matrilineal.

    • See Pauline Stafford’s article on this, indeed, though she doesn’t go as far as matriliny. Certainly I think we could say that Mercia by the tenth century was prepared to accept female rulership in a way unlike any other part of early medieval Europe. That said, it’s never royal leadership; by the time Ætheflæd and Ælfwynn are there there are no kings of Mercia either, and they are both blood royal of Wessex too. And apart from them, the succession pattern as far as we can observe it, including succession by marriage to queens, is not far different from, say, Byzantium…

  4. Sorry, that should have been “her uncle, Edward the Elder”.

  5. Really interesting and thought-provoking post. Do you have any speculations about the Govan sarcophagus?

  6. Much enjoyed reading this blogpost, Jon, and thanks for the link (btw, if you need a couple of extra photos, you’re welcome to use the ones at my post).
    In response to Victoria’s question, and by analogy with St Andrews and St Alkmund’s, I think we can speculate that the sarcophagus at Govan (late ninth century) was made for a not-long-deceased individual whom the rulers of Strathclyde regarded as a ‘royal martyr’. For me, a prime candidate would be Artgal, former king of Dumbarton, slain by Picts or Vikings in 872. For others, it’s the Pictish king Constantin, son of Cinaed mac Ailpin, hence the dedication of Govan’s parish church to an otherwise mysterious ‘Saint Constantine’.

  7. I would not dismiss Mercian/Strathclyde contacts a priori. Jane Hawkes has speculated on a Sandbach/Iona connection in the 9th century, after all.

  8. Allan McKinley

    A note of caution here. Hardwulf and Eardwulf are both distinct names which would not normally fall together in English, so we’d need a clear linguistic explanation how this change was meant to happen in order to accept it. Similarity is not enough here; we need actual arguments (use of names like this is too often made without proper justification; hopefully Dr Plunkett does substantiate his argument?).

    Furthermore, as John Blair has shown there are a lot of local Anglo-Saxon saints’ cults so we don’t need to explain them away by refer to historical figures; local churches had their own saints. That said, some of these saints could be royal figures, and the Ealhmund/Alkmund link is linguistically fine. Indeed, the fact that Æthelred II and/or Æthelflæd seem to have transferred relics of Alkmund to Shrewsbury might support this identification: they seem to have transported other royal relics west from the Danelaw, notably Oswald to Gloucester and I’d suggest Æthelberht to Hereford (the evidence for the cult there all being later) and perhaps some of those at Leominster (albeit I can’t find my notes for that argument unhelpfully). So overall it is possible to construct a case for entombment of royals from other kingdoms, but to do so we should be careful with the evidence we use.

    Incidentally, if we do see some of these high-status burials as foreign royals, we do not have to imagine them entombed by their host king. An exiled king would likely have followers, and in the one clear case, Oswald at Bardney, a member of his family took the initiative. There would be good reasons for followers and family to ensure suitable burial, as this would presumably continue the commemorand’ s claim to royal authority after death and thus support the dynastic or political position of those responsible for providing the tomb. The amount of Anglo-Saxon sculpture around is too high to believe this was a device to which only reigning kings had access, so visitors to a kingdom may have made their own arrangements, and we may be seeing these in action at Driffield, Hogan or St Andrews as much as any statement by a ruling king. Not sure how one would attempt to separate these two possibilities though.

    • Oh good, some scepticism! Substantiation of the argument about Eardwulf is actually somewhat scant in Plunkett’s piece. We have (p. 223):

      Curiously, the dedication at Breedon-on-the-Hill to St Mary and St Hardulf offers the possibility that the otherwise unknown Hardulf is cognate with King Earduulf of Northumbria, Ealhmund’s antagonist, who was himself exiled in 806 (cf. Rollason 1983).

      He then tries to show that there’s a Northumbrian influence in one sculptural panel at Breedon that could thus be dated from the Book of Cerne to c.  825, thus making a case for activity at Breedon at about the right time

      If, therefore [sic!], King Earduulf was enshrined at Breedon, these panels would accord in style with the estimated date of that event – the conjecture can go no further.

      It’s quite beautifully crafted, isn’t it?

      • Allan McKinley

        Rhetoric: excellently done.

        Use of historical data: questionable.

        Still, the loss of Breedon does not invalidate your suggestion.

    • Also, I need to get you and Morn talking about Æthelberht of East Anglia…

  9. Steven Plunkett

    Hi Jonathan, Thankyou for enjoying and taking an interest in that paper! A couple of points: (1) I think the so-called St Alkmund Sarcophagus came not from Duffield but from the lost church of St Alkmund at Derby. The picture is included on the Duffield webpage because it purports to be the grave of ‘Alkmund’ to whom Duffield church is also dedicated. (2) Several interesting Anglo-Saxon carvings were associated with the church in Derby, suggesting that it had been an important church of pre-Viking ‘Northworthige’ (i.e. Derby) and may have had a succession of events, burials, or other occasions for the patronage of sculpture, during the 9th century. In 870 AEthelwulf, an ealdorman of King Beorhtwulf’s, was carried to Derby for burial after he died in battle. (Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England 3rd Edn., 1971, p. 234 & note 5). (3) The references I made to Breedon on the Hill were not only to the early friezes there, showing that the church itself was an especially ornamental and interesting building, but also to the many other sculptures by various hands in the same place, again showing not merely a single static event but a prolonged history of use and installation of sculpture, including crosses, sarcophagi, wall panels, etc, probably on several different occasions. (4) The possibility that the dedication to the otherwise unknown ‘Hardulph’ represented the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Eardwulf’ seemed to me a strong one. (5) Since the early friezes represent (in pre-Viking Mercia) the highest level of quality, in their vigour, competence and coherence of ornamental design, their special resource in, and affinity with Syrian or Eastern Mediterranean sources, their exceptionally deep, confident and rounded carving, and in the fact that they are not free-standing but part of an architectural structure, they presuppose that the foundation itself, either in Offa’s or Coenwulf’s time,was established by a very wealthy and well-connected patron capable of introducing such resources into Mercia. (6) Among the additional or subsequent carvings at Breedon is one (part of a squared column, possibly cross-shaft) which seems to be by the same hand as certain fragments of grave-covers from Derby which I have studied in the Derby Museum store-rooms, and also a small tapered squared stone (possibly the top of a shaft) among the displayed Derby carvings. It is therefore likely that the same patron, or at least a sculptor or sculptors working for patrons of a similar kind, produced works for both places. (7) The Breedon dedication is in fact to St Mary and St Hardulph, showing that the Anglo-Saxon saint was sufficiently important to be associated with the Marian dedication, possibly by having been buried there or by association through having lived there as a religious person, or (retrospectively) to honour a founder (one does not dedicate a church to oneself). (8) I made the assumption, perhaps wrongly, that this dedication was pre-Viking in origin, and not merely acceptable to the church’s patron(s) but chosen with deliberation. (9) I therefore threw out the conjecture, and it was no more than that, that Hardulph might refer to the exiled King of Northumbria. The ‘If, therefore’ of my sentence quoted above, refers (in the ‘If’) to the mere possibility of this identity, and the ‘therefore’ refers to a preceding argument concerning the artistic evidence afforded by the sarcophagus panels at Breedon which I was there discussing, and the context of date suggested by them – which is the real point of the quoted sentence. (10) The argument was (if I remember) meant to be, that the panels were perhaps from a display sarcophagus: if so, a body was required: the dedication offers us Hardulph: the Alkmund cult suggests Mercian engagement with a Northumbrian royal martyr: some carvings at Breedon and Derby are closely inter-related: the Breedon patron was of very high social status: I therefore held out the conjecture of Eardwulf, and the possibility of a political element in the dedication. I do not argue for it, but I thought it a possibility. It was not an unusual name and might easily be someone else. Best wishes.

    • Dr Plunkett, thanks for all these corrections, especially the one about the location of the excavation of the Alkmund sarcophagus; the Duffield church’s site takes some very sideways reading before your correct attribution emerges from it! I certainly imagine that some importance must have attached to Northworthy/Derby before Vikings based themselves there, because it proved a lasting centre for them unlike, say, Torksey; it must have had something going for it beyond a defensible location. Much of the rest is a matter for expertise to settle, of which you have much more than I on this subject; I would just say that I do, at least, mention the dedication of Breedon to SS Mary and Hardulf. As you may see from the original post, my reading of your argument was sympathetic, I just found (and still find) it very hard to imagine what Cœnwulf thought he was doing if he was behind the endowment. I suspect, therefore, that an easier solution might be to see at least that episode of endowment, and thus possibly others at Breedon, as high-status but non-royal, a category of person in which the later succession crises in Mercia at least show it was rich!

  10. Steven Plunkett

    P.S. Having written the above from memory of an article written 17 years ago, I am reminded that the fragments in the Derby stores were from Repton, not from Derby. I apologise for my memory. The small stone from Derby remains relevant. However, given the royal connections of Repton, the inter-association of the fragments I mentioned tends to enlarge the view of Derby and Breedon lying within the same sphere of patronage at the time those particular carvings were produced. I accept that this does not get us nearer to the identity of Hardulph, nor to the specific context of the sarcophagus panels I was discussing, which are not part of the little group of fragments. I did put some weight on the possibility of the Northumbrian identification with Eardwulf with Hardulph, though that was not the main point of the paper. I still think that Mercian dedications and endowments of that period were often politically gestural, but if I were writing it now I should perhaps have expressed the problematic suggestion more doubtfully.

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