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18 October 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: a once-in-a-generation exhibition

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, opens at the British Library on 19 October.

We are delighted to give you a brief glimpse here of some of the stunning exhibits that will be on show. They range from outstanding archaeological objects to unique literary texts, alongside intricately illuminated manuscripts, some of which are returning to England for the first time. The exhibition highlights the key role manuscripts played in the transmission of ideas, literature and art across political and geographical boundaries, spanning all six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest.

A page from the Utrecht Psalter, showing the text of Psalm 13, accompanied by illustrations of different Psalm verses.

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht

An Anglo-Saxon urn lid in the form of a seated figure.

Spong Man, on loan from Norwich Museums Service

The exhibition presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to encounter original evidence from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a time when the English language was used and written for the first time and the foundations of the kingdom of England were laid down.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on display at the British Library in London from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. You can buy your tickets here. A book accompanying the exhibition, edited by Lead Curator Dr Claire Breay (The British Library) and Professor Joanna Story (University of Leicester), is available to buy from the Library's online shop.

The front cover of the catalogue for Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

Don't forget that the British Library has made its outstanding collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and charters available online in full, allowing people around the world to explore them in detail, and to support future research in the field.

Regular stories about the exhibition will be published on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. You can also follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #BLAngloSaxons. We'd love you to tell us which is your favourite exhibit, from the selection published here. 

Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin, was made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It has returned to England for the first time in more than 1300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

A page from the Codex Amiatinus, showing a portrait of the prophet Ezra writing at a desk.

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

Here is a small selection of some of the outstanding illuminated manuscripts on display. They include the St Augustine Gospels, the Book of Durrow, the Echternach Gospels, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Durham Cassiodorus, the Codex Aureus, the MacDurnan Gospels and the Boulogne Gospels.

A page from the St Augustine Gospels, showing a portrait of the Evangelist St Luke, surrounded by scenes from his Gospel.

 The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

A page from the Book of Durrow, showing an elaborate decorated initial.

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Trinity College Dublin

A page from the Echternach Gospels, showing an elaborate decorated initial.

The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

A highly decorated page from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels (The British Library)

A decorated page from the Durham Cassiodorus, showing an illustration of King David holding a spear.

The Durham Cassiodorus, on loan from Durham Cathedral Library

A page from the Codex Aureus, showing the Gospel of Matthew written in gold, with an added inscription in Latin above and below the Gospel text.

The Codex Aureus, on loan from Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm

An opening from the MacDurnan Gospels, showing an Evangelist portrait and the beginning of one of the Four Gospels.

The MacDurnan Gospels, on loan from Lambeth Palace Library

A highly decorated opening from the Boulogne Gospels, showing illustrations of St Matthew writing alonside the figures of David, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, facing a representation of the Nativity.

The Boulogne Gospels, on loan from Bibliothèque municipale, Boulogne-sur-mer

The exhibition also presents an opportunity to compare side-by-side the Utrecht Psalter with its later descendants, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. 

A page from the Utrecht Psalter, showing the text of Psalm 14, with accompanying illustrations of verses from the Psalm.

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht

A page from the Harley Psalter, showing the text of Psalm 13, with accompanying illustrations of different Psalm verses.

The Harley Psalter (The British Library)

A page from the Eadwine Psalter, showing the three different versions of the text of the Psalms, accompanied by illustrations of Psalm verses and a number of large decorated initials.

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Trinity College, Cambridge

Also on display is the magnificent treasure binding on the Judith of Flanders Gospels.

The treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels, showing the figures of Christ in Majesty and the scene of the Crucifixion.

The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from The Morgan Library, New York

The four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry are on display together for the first time. The British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf is on show alongside the Vercelli Book, returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli; the Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library; and the Junius Manuscript, on loan from the Bodleian Library.

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing a large initial B and Beowulf's name.

Beowulf (The British Library)

A page from the Exeter Book, showing a series of riddles in Old English.

The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library

A page from the Vercelli Book, showing the text of the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood.

The Vercelli Book, on loan from Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolare, Vercelli

A page from the Junius Manuscript, showing the text of the poem Genesis in Old English.

The Junius Manuscript, on loan from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and earliest surviving public record, is on loan from The National Archives. It provides unrivalled evidence for the landscape and administration of late Anglo-Saxon England.

A detail of an opening from Domesday Book.

Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives

Also on display are a number of recently discovered archaeological objects including the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk Museums Service; the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral; and key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

A collection of Anglo-Saxon artifacts made from gold, known as the Binham Hoard.

The Binham Hoard, on loan from Norwich Museum Service

A stone sculpture of a winged angel.

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

A gilded strip with a D-shaped gem, with an accompanying Biblical inscription, forming part of the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

Other objects on display (did we say that this is a once-in-a-generation exhibition?) include the Sutton Hoo gold buckle on loan from the British Museum, and the Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum.

A gold buckle, intricately decorated with a web of snakes, predatory birds and long-limbed beasts.

The Sutton Hoo gold buckle, on loan from the British Museum

The Alfred Jewel, made from gold and inscribed with an Old English text, and featuring an enamelled figure set beneath rock crystal.

The Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s, is displayed for the first time alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing very similar instruments.

The River Erne Horn, made from yew-wood and held together with large bronze bands.

The River Erne Horn, on loan from National Museums Northern Ireland

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, showing an illustration of King David surrounded by musicians and scribes.

The Vespasian Psalter (The British Library)

A number of important documents are on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. They include the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver; the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century; and the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral.

An Anglo-Saxon charter written in Latin, the oldest to survive from England.

The earliest surviving charter (The British Library)

The earliest surviving original letter written in England.

The oldest letter written in England (The British Library)

The Fonthill Letter, the earliest surviving letter written in English.

The Fonthill Letter, on loan from Canterbury Cathedral Archives

The St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, was made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century. It was acquired by the British Library in 2012 following the Library’s most ambitious and successful fundraising campaign for an acquisition.

The St Cuthbert Gospel, with its original medieval binding.

The St Cuthbert Gospel (The British Library)

Last, and certainly not least, the exhibition has on display a number of significant historical manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as the Moore Bede, Textus Roffensis, the New Minster Liber Vitae, and the will of Wynflæd, a 10th-century English noblewoman.

A page from the Moore Bede, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library

A page from a collection of Anglo-Saxon laws known as the Textus Roffensis, showing a large decorated initial in red ink.

Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral

A page from the New Minster Liber Vitae, showing an illustration of Queen Emma of Normandy and King Cnut placing a golden cross on the altar of the New Minster in Winchester.

The New Minster Liber Vitae (The British Library)

The will of an Anglo-Saxon woman named Wynflæd.

Wynflæd's will (The British Library)


Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library, London

19 October 2018–19 February 2019


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