At the time of writing a season of celebrations is underway for the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, marking her 70 years as reign as monarch of the UK and Commonwealth. Such a long reign is historically unprecedented and means that the overwhelming majority of people living in countries where she serves as head of state have no living memory of the reign of another monarch. In turn this also means that few have any memory of the reign of a king; a woman as head of state in these realms feels perfectly normal - even 'default' - and we have grown up talking of the history of "kings and queens" as if the words and roles have always carried equal weight. Historically this was not the case. Centuries ago, that which now goes without saying -that a woman could rule, competently and successfully in her own right - was a truly revolutionary idea. It only became accepted as the result of the examples set by a series of remarkable female rulers in Britain and the twists of fate which crowned them and tested them.
Though certainly not the first female ruler on these islands, a disproportionate debt is owed to one remarkable lady in particular, who lived eleven centuries ago. Emerging from an age and culture in which female leadership was largely unthinkable and all but unprecedented, she took power only reluctantly, and ruled with such brilliance that any doubt in female leadership would have been banished. But in so doing, she established a dangerous precedent, leading men to try, and thankfully, fail, to erase her from history....
Compared to the famous shield from Sutton Hoo Mound 1, the shields from the other treasure-filled princely Anglo-Saxon burials lack ostentatious decorative fittings. In the first chapter (link) we discussed the striking similarity of these shields, which appeared to be high-performance gear for warrior princes, optimised for agility rather than ostentation. In the second chapter (link) we reported on our project to produce an authentic replica of such a shield, and explore just how light weight they could have been.
Despite the minimal fittings, its hard to imagine the shields of the late 6th century princely burials were entirely plain, and new evidence has come to light concerning early Anglo-Saxon paints, and the painted designs preserved from the late Iron Age, which has allowed us to more confidently wade into the painting of early Anglo-Saxon shields for the first time.
Researching and experimenting these paints, exploring the evidenced designs, and how they relate to decorative motifs seen in other media across both Anglo-Saxon material culture and adjacent cultures, we were finally able to finish our replica princely shield with a plausible painted design.
Aside from the magnificently decorated, heavy shield from Sutton Hoo Mound 1, remains of early Anglo-Saxon shields suggest they were typically relatively plain. Curiously the shields from the other treasure-filled princely burials – Taplow, Broomfield, Prittlewell, Sutton Hoo Mound 17 and others appear especially so, not befitting the status of these burials, with little in the way of decorative fittings, and very minimal, unusually simplified bosses.
In the previous chapter (link) we revealed that (in contrast to the wide variability of shields from contemporary graves) the late 6th century princely burial shields were all practically identical, with suites of four simple disc mounts on the board, simple 1a(i) iron grip reinforcers, and innovative SB-4b / Dickinson’s Type 6 shield bosses – the smallest and lightest of all Anglo-Saxon bosses. In a number of these cases the boards were also made of ultra-light-weight willow. This is the lightest combination of fittings possible, among those evidenced from early Anglo-Saxon graves. We have therefore argued that the princely shields represent a class of very carefully made, high-performance versions of the standard Anglo-Saxon shield, with weight-reduction prioritised over ostentation.
In 2021 we undertook a project to reconstruct such a shield – to explore precisely how light such a shield could be for a given diameter, and to explore methods consistent with archaeological clues which might have been employed to embellish such shields, commensurate with the status of their owners, without compromising their performance. The result would provide a theoretical minimum weight for an early Anglo-Saxon shield of practical size, and represent our tenth and most ‘authentic’ shield reproduction to date.
Each February in the UK is LGBT+ History Month; a time to celebrate the contributions of LGBT+ people and a chance to shed new light on the history of ‘queer’ people. Our organization would not exist without the contributions of LGBT+ / ‘queer’ members and we are strongly committed to maintaining an inclusive atmosphere within the group for people of all sexualities, gender identities and expressions, and celebrating the achievements of all members of our team.
It’s easy to imagine that diversity of sexuality and gender expression is a modern phenomenon, framed as it is by modern terminology, norms, and ways of defining identity, but such diversity has always existed. Folk of ancient cultures would not recognise the ways we define such identities today, but 'Queerness' in its broadest sense (see notes on terminology, below) has always been with us, often accompanied by familiar challenges in navigating a largely heteronormative world, and in finding acceptance, which many of us would recognise and can identify with today.
Notable, oft-cited examples include the well-documented homoromantic relationships of Roman Emperors or certain later medieval kings, the gender-transcending priests of Cybele and Attis, or widespread, celebrated homosexuality in Ancient Greece. Sandwiched between the better-documented Classical and later Medieval period though, the Migration / Early Medieval period which we often cautiously refer to here as the 'Anglo-Saxon Period' is rarely mentioned in the context of historical 'queer' themes and figures. This risks creating the impression that natural diversity in sexuality and gender expression did not exist among the 'Anglo-Saxons', 'Vikings' and related cultures, enabling those hostile to such diversity to falsely identify with and appropriate these cultures, or rather, a mythical and distorted version of them, and to use their example to promote prejudice.
To whatever extent there is a lack of evidence for (broadest sense) 'queerness' in early medieval history this largely reflects a lack of documentary evidence which addresses matters of sexuality at all. The High Medieval blossoming of art and literature celebrating romantic love in NW Europe, for example, had not yet occurred, and aside from bawdy riddles, discussion of sexuality in surviving Anglo-Saxon literature is largely confined to the more or less guarded writings of clerics whose public status as celibate underpinned their acceptance in society as outside dynastic struggles and rivalries, and whose faith celebrated abstinence. That said, there are certainly figures from the period who, were they alive today might be considered 'queer'. To these can be added other exceptional figures who defied gender expectations and norms; trailblazers involved in the huge societal changes of the period, redefining what it meant to be a man or woman, facing challenges which LGBT+ / ‘queer’ people today would identify with. In discussing and remembering these individuals, we also remember the countless people who suffered and died from persecution targeting aspects of sexuality and gender expression in the period and throughout history.
With this in mind, here are some Early Medieval 'queeroes' from Europe; those who today could be thought of as LGBT+ / ‘queer’, and other historical figures from whose lives LGBT+ people might identify with.
Exploring the history, archaeology and cultures of the "Anglo-Saxon Period" (encompassing the Migration and Viking Ages).