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....
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.
Did Anglo-Saxons use solid gold coins? What on earth is a "mancus"? And why did King Offa of Mercia put his name on a fake Islamic coin?
One of the most curious coins in the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is a small (20mm diameter) gold coin found in Rome in the 19th century, weighing 4.3g, and which carries the inscription OFFA REX on one side. In all other respects it is clearly a copy of a dinar minted by the Abbasid caliph.
It is also clear that the Mercian die-cutter did not recognise the patterns on the coin he was copying to be a form of writing, much less understand it, perhaps thinking it was merely decorative, as the coin bears the inscription “ There is no God but Allah alone without equal, and Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah ” albeit with a number of mistakes. It also features the date of issue of the coin being copied -ah 157 or 773-4 CE - in the very middle of Offa’s reign, suggesting the parent coin itself was surprisingly new when it was plagiarised.
This coin is often speculatively connected to the a ‘Peter’s Pence’ levy of 365 gold coins which Offa collected and paid annually to the Pope, from 796 CE (Williams, 2008). This levy was known as the ‘Rome-scot’ - the latter part deriving from the Old English name for a different coin (the small thick early Anglo-Saxon silver ‘sceat’). It’s tempting to imagine the bewilderment of the pontiff receiving 365 such coins from a Christian king each bearing ‘the shahada’ (the Islamic Declaration of Faith), but in fact, the dinar on which they were based would have been very familiar in Rome, where all manner of high-value solid gold coins collided....
Netflix’ “The Dig” has left the world abuzz with excitement about the amazing discoveries made at Sutton Hoo, and particularly the time and “lost” civilization they represents. Of course we were obsessed with the “Anglo-Saxons” long before it was cool – that diverse, swirling mix of ancient Britons and new arrivals to our shores who grew new identities and kingdoms from the decay of post-Roman Britain, made spectacular and vibrant art built on global networks of trade, laid down the foundations for the English language, literature and common law, and shepherded this rain-soaked and fractured isle on the edge of the world, to a well organised and influential state, centre of learning and culture at the heart of medieval Europe. The amazing treasures of the king’s burial at Sutton Hoo represent an early moment in this story – the pivotal 6th-7th century – when ambitious new kingdoms were just beginning to emerge, and after a period of relative isolation, were increasingly reconnecting with the world beyond. The treasures themselves illustrate this well, with goods from Scandinavia to the Middle East, materials from as far away as India, and with artwork representing a complex dance between multiple influences, identities and beliefs.
The unfolding of the story of this lost culture didn’t end in 1939 though; since then, many more wonderful treasures have been found, and older ones have been re-discovered. Here are some more treasures from Britain from the time of Sutton Hoo you might not have heard of, in no particular order, and, where you can see them.
Exploring the history, archaeology and cultures of the "Anglo-Saxon Period" (encompassing the Migration and Viking Ages).