A portrait of the Evangelist St Mark, from the Coronation Gospels.

Anglo-Saxon England and Europe

In Anglo-Saxon England, relations with the Europe thrived, from manuscript production to cross-continental marriages.

From the very beginning, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had a close relationship with their neighbours on the European Continent. People and manuscripts crossed the Channel in both directions, and connections reached as far as the eastern Mediterranean.

The migration of people from northern Europe to England in the fifth and sixth centuries laid the foundations for the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This early cultural contact set a precedent for six centuries of connections between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their European neighbours.

Mediterranean manuscripts brought to Anglo-Saxon England

The early Christian missionaries who arrived from Rome in 597 would have brought manuscripts from the Mediterranean to aid their establishment of the early Anglo-Saxon Church.

One book that came to England from the Continent around this time is the St Augustine Gospels. The manuscript was made in Italy in the late sixth century, and was certainly at St Augustine’s Canterbury in the 10th century. It is likely that this book travelled soon after its production, possibly in the company of the Roman missionaries who arrived in Kent in 597.

St Augustine Gospels

A portrait of the Evangelist St Luke, featuring illustrations of scenes from his Gospel and a winged bull above, from the St Augustine Gospels.

This page contains a portrait of St Luke, flanked by scenes from his Gospel (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v)

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The Letters of Cyprian made a similar journey. These fragments preserve part of a manuscript produced in northern Africa in the late fourth century.

Letters of Cyprian

A fragment of a 4th-century collection of the letters of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, showing a column of biblical quotations written in red ink.

Annotations to the text suggest that the manuscript may have reached Anglo-Saxon England by the eighth century (British Library, Additional MS 40165A, f. 4r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Abbot Hadrian, ‘a man of African birth’

It is tempting to link the movement of this manuscript of Cyprian’s letters to the arrival of Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede described Abbot Hadrian as vir natione afir (‘a man of African birth’), and Hadrian could have brought books to England to help the school he set up at Canterbury with Archbishop Theodore (668–690).

Theodore was born in the Greek-speaking part of the eastern Mediterranean. Connections between Anglo-Saxon England and the eastern Mediterranean are also illuminated by this eighth-century copy of Primasius’ Commentary on the Apocalypse.

Primasius was bishop of Hadrumentum, in present-day Tunisia. His Commentary on the Apocalypse is a rare text, and survives in only seven manuscripts. This copy, made in Anglo-Saxon England, is the oldest, demonstrating that the text had arrived in Anglo-Saxon England at an early date.

Commentary on the Apocalypse

A page from an 8th-century manuscript of Primasius' Commentary on the Apocalypse, featuring marginal notes and interlinear annotations.

This manuscript demonstrates unusually direct connections between early medieval English scholars and the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 140, f. 4r)

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Models of art and script

Books imported from the Mediterranean would have constituted the original core for many of the earliest libraries in Anglo-Saxon England. These manuscripts provided models for the text, decoration and script of those books subsequently produced in Anglo-Saxon England.

A single-volume copy of the Bible was brought to England and used as a model for three great Bibles produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early eighth century. In 716, Abbot Ceolfrith left Wearmouth-Jarrow to take one of these manuscripts to Rome as a gift to the shrine of St Peter. This manuscript is now known as Codex Amiatinus. Its style and decoration was modelled so closely on its Mediterranean exemplar that, until the 19th century, scholars thought that it had been made in Italy.

Codex Amiatinus

A full-page portrait of the Old Testament prophet Ezra writing in a book, from Codex Amiatinus.

Codex Amiatinus is the earliest complete Latin Bible (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1)

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Some manuscripts were used as models long after their production. The Utrecht Psalter was produced near the city of Reims in northern France in the early ninth century, yet was in Canterbury by the early 11th century. At Canterbury it was used as a model for another psalter, now known as the Harley Psalter. The Utrecht Psalter’s revolutionary style of illustration had a long-lasting impact on the art of Anglo-Saxon England.

Utrecht Psalter

A page from the Utrecht Psalter featuring Psalm 13, with drawings interpreting different Psalm verses.

This psalter was used as a model for the Harley Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 7v)

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Harley Psalter

A page from the Harley Psalter, showing the text of Psalm 14, with a decorated initial in red, and a series of illustrations interpreting different Psalm verses.

The Harley Psalter includes over 100 coloured line drawings, the greatest concentration in Anglo-Saxon art, although some of the illustrations are unfinished. Its drawings are based on those of the Utrecht Psalter (British Library, Harley MS 603, f. 8r)

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The demand for texts by Anglo-Saxon authors led to manuscripts made in England being sent to the Continent. Soon after the death of Bede (died 735), the scriptorium at his Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery was supplying copies of his texts to libraries across Anglo-Saxon England and Francia. 

The Moore Bede is one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of Bede’s most popular text, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This manuscript was copied at Wearmouth-Jarrow in a script that was quick to write and made economical use of the parchment, in order to meet the high demand for Bede’s work.

Annotations in the Moore Bede demonstrate that the manuscript was taken to France, perhaps as early as the reign of Charlemagne (768–814). This manuscript was once owned by the cathedral of Le Mans, France, but takes its name from another previous owner, John Moore, bishop of Ely (died 1714).

Moore Bede

A text page from the earliest surviving manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

The Moore Bede is the earliest extant copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Cambridge, University Library, MS kk.5.16, f. 22r)

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Exchanging letters across the Continent

Monks and scribes crossed the Channel as frequently as books. The exchange of letters allowed travellers to keep in touch with people at home or acquaintances made on their travels.

Alcuin of York (died 804) is famous for the many letters he wrote in his lifetime. He grew up in York but spent the latter years of his life Charlemagne’s court in Francia. Alcuin regularly exchanged letters with Charlemagne, other members of the Frankish court, and friends back home in England.

Throughout the medieval period, letters were often copied into manuscripts to preserve them. Students often consulted these manuscripts when learning how to compose different types of letter. This collection of Alcuin’s letters was copied at Saint-Denis, near Paris, but used by students in Anglo-Saxon England around 1000. In the upper margin, one scribe practised writing the Latin alphabet, followed by Old English letter-forms and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.

Alcuin's letter collection

A text page from a 9th-century collection of Alcuin's letters, with the Latin alphabet written in the upper margin.

The manuscript features annotations showing novice scribes practising writing and appears to have been used in a classroom. At the top of this page, a scribe has added the Latin alphabet, with the letter ‘b’ the wrong way round, followed by four Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. At the bottom of the next page, another scribe has copied an Old English phrase that reads: hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard?] very many ancient tales’). This closely resembles a verse from Beowulf  (lines 869–70a). (British Library, Harley MS 208, f. 87v)

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Frankish clergymen in Anglo-Saxon England

Certain scholars were also trained in Francia, but came to Anglo-Saxon England later in life. One such man is Grimbald of Saint-Bertin, who was recommended to King Alfred of Wessex (reigned 871–899) by Fulk, archbishop of Reims (died 900).

Grimbald was the co-founder of the Benedictine abbey of New Minster, Winchester. A stunning 11th-century gospel-book is thought to have been made at Grimbald’s foundation at Winchester, since a copy of Fulk’s letter of recommendation was added to the front of the manuscript.

Grimbald Gospels

A page from the Grimbald Gospels, featuring an inhabited initial.

An inhabited initial opening a letter from Archbishop Fulk to King Alfred (British Library, Additional MS 34890, f. 158r)

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Another Frankish monk with Anglo-Saxon connections is Abbo of Fleury, who taught at Ramsey in eastern England from 985 to 987. While at Ramsey, Abbo wrote an account of the life of St Edmund of East Anglia, who was killed in 869 by invading Vikings. When the reformer Ælfric (died c. 1010) came to write his own vernacular version of the Life of St Edmund, he stated that his own account was based on a Latin Life written by Abbo of Fleury.

Cross-continental marriages and family connections in Anglo-Saxon England

Edith, the half-sister of King Æthelstan (reigned 924–939), married Otto I, king of Germany (reigned 936–973), in 929 or 930. The names of Otto and his mother, Mathilda, were recorded in a decorated gospel-book made in Francia in the late ninth or early 10th century. This gospel-book was later given by King Æthelstan to Christ Church, Canterbury. It is possible that this book was presented by Otto to his brother-in-law, Æthelstan.

Coronation Gospels

A full-page illustration from the Coronation Gospels, showing the Evangelist St Mark writing, and his Evangelist symbol, a winged lion.

An inscription in this gospel-book records how King Æthelstan, as ‘emperor of the English and sovereign of the whole of Britain’, presented the book to Christ Church, Canterbury (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 74v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Another historically significant cross-continental marriage in the later Anglo-Saxon period was that of Emma of Normandy to King Æthelred the Unready (reigned 978–1016). Upon Æthelred’s death, Emma married England’s new ruler, the Danish King Cnut (reigned 1016–1035). As the wife of two kings, and the mother of two more, Emma was an important figure in early 11th-century politics.

She was commemorated on both sides of the Channel. A text in praise of Emma, Encomium Emmae reginae, was written in Latin by a monk of Saint-Bertin in northern France, and tells of the role Emma played in Anglo-Scandinavian England.

Encomium Emmae reginae

A page from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, showing a portrait of Queen Emma receiving the manuscript.

Image of a monk presenting Queen Emma with a book, while her sons Edward and Harthacnut look on, from ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’ (British Library, Additional MS 33241, f. 1v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Anglo-Saxon trade, travel and cultural contact

One of the primary ways the Anglo-Saxons forged connections with distant places was through trade. A remarkable coin, issued in the name of Offa of Mercia provides valuable insight into connections between the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia and the furthest reaches of the European continent. On one side, the coin is inscribed with the name of the king who issued it, OFFA REX ‘King Offa’.

The other side of the coin bears an Arabic inscription which roughly translates as ‘there is no God but Allah alone’. This phrase is part of the shahadah, the Islamic declaration of faith. The inscription includes some errors and is upside down in relation to Offa’s name and title on the reverse. It is likely that the inscription was copied from a prototype coin by a die cutter who did not read Arabic.

This coin most likely reflects the importance of the gold dinar in international trade, and the presence of Mercian tradesmen in these long-distance trade networks.

Gold dinar of King Offa

The front and back of a gold coin, inscribed with the name of King Offa of Mercia and an Arabic text.

This coin carries the inscription OFFA REX, showing that it was made for Offa, king of Mercia (reigned 757–796) (British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1)

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One of the most evocative examples of Anglo-Saxon interest in the wider world is The Marvels of the East. This text is part travel guide and part zoological description of 36 mythical ‘marvels’ that could be found in the semi-mythical land of the East.

Marvels of the East

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, featuring the Marvels of the East, with illustrations of a blemmya, two snakes, and a centaur or homodubius.

Illustration of a snake from The Marvels of the East. In Beowulf the 'draca' [dragon] is also described as a 'wyrm' [serpent].

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

This text survives in three manuscripts, one of which contains other works which fit with the geographical interests of The Marvels of the East, such as lists of Anglo-Saxon kings, Roman emperors and bishops of Jerusalem, and a map of the world.

Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi

A map of the world from an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon miscellany, containing the earliest known, relatively realistic depiction of the British Isles, seen in the bottom left hand corner

This map of the world was probably created at Canterbury in about 1025. Like other medieval world maps, it is orientated with east at the top (British Library, Cotton Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v)

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  • Becky Lawton
  • Becky Lawton is an Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts Intern at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research, carried out at the University of Leicester and the British Library, focuses on how the Anglo-Saxons experienced the city of Rome in the 7th and 8th centuries.