Interpreting the ‘Edmund Jewel’

The Drinkstone aestel (‘Edmund Jewel’) as recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme

In December 2014 a metal detectorist stumbled upon a remarkable find somewhere in the West Suffolk village of Drinkstone; an Anglo-Saxon aestel, one of a small number of objects that were probably holders for a thin wooden or walrus ivory wand used to mark a reader’s place in a manuscript. The most famous of all aestels is the ‘Alfred Jewel‘ now in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and all of the surviving aestels (including this one) date from the ninth century. This was, of course, the period of the Viking invasion of England that began in 865 and resulted in the establishment of the Danelaw. The Drinkstone aestel, which is the only aestel so far to be found in East Anglia, has been acquired by Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds and will go on display for the first time this weekend. The aestel has been christened ‘The Edmund Jewel’ (by analogy with the Alfred Jewel) owing to a claimed link between the aestel and Edmund. I was one of the historians who advised Moyse’s Hall on the aestel’s likely provenance, so it is only right that I set out here some of the possible interpretations of the artefact.

Aestels are objects very specifically associated with literacy and therefore with monasteries. We should expect to find aestels on or near monastic sites, therefore. However, there was no monastic community or major church (that we know of) near Drinkstone in the ninth-century kingdom of East Anglia, although a much later source (the twelfth-century Liber Eliensis) claims that King Sigeberht established a monastery at Beodricsworth (the town that would become Bury St Edmunds) in the seventh century. No convincing archaeological evidence has been found to confirm this. One interpretation of the aestel is that it could have been associated with a pre-Viking monastic community at Beodricsworth, and was either dropped by a member of the community or perhaps by the Vikings after looting the monastery in 869, the year the Danes returned to East Anglia and seized the kingdom. However, this explanation relies on us accepting the existence of a monastery for which there is little convincing evidence.

St Edmundsbury Borough Council seems keen to promote the idea that the aestel may have been owned by St Edmund himself, the last English king of East Anglia. Although the Alfred Jewel may have been owned by King Alfred (whose literary interests are well known), there is no reliable evidence that King Edmund shared those interests; he may not even have been able to read and write for all we know. A bigger problem in ascribing ownership of the Edmund Jewel to King Edmund, though, is that we know virtually nothing of the internal organisation of the pre-Viking kingdom of East Anglia. We do not know where Edmund lived, and there is no known connection between Edmund and Beodricsworth while the king was alive. Possible sites for Edmund’s capital include Rendlesham, Ipswich and Thetford, but certainly not Bury St Edmunds.

My own interpretation of the aestel also links it with Edmund, but much less directly. To the west, the parish of Drinkstone borders Bradfield St George. In 1983, the archaeologist Stanley West argued, on the basis of a number of pieces of toponymic evidence, that the name of Edmund’s place of martyrdom (called Haegelisdun in the earliest account, Abbo of Fleury’s Passio Sancti Eadmundi of c. 985) might survive in the field name Hellesden Ley in the parish of Bradfield St Clare. Abbo of Fleury tells how, after Edmund’s head was reunited with his body, the saint’s body was buried close to the site of his martyrdom and a simple chapel was erected over it. Here Edmund remained until his translation to Beodricsworth, traditionally dated to the beginning of the reign of Aethelstan in 924 (there are significant reasons to question this dating, but that’s another story…).

Abbo gives as the reason for the translation the fact that so many miracles were being wrought at the little chapel at Haegelisdun. This crucial detail tells us that the original burial chapel was the site of the earliest phase of the cult of St Edmund, which pre-dated even the discovery that Edmund’s body was incorrupt. My hypothesis concerning the aestel is that it may have been a votive offering left at the Haegelisdun burial chapel (at a time when its original purpose may even have been forgotten) in the 870s or 880s. If we assume that Stanley West’s identification of Haegelisdun as the Bradfield area is correct (and I consider his case a very convincing one), the chapel at Haegelisdun is the only cult centre we know of in the vicinity of Drinkstone in the second half of the ninth century. The distance between Drinkstone and Hellesden Ley is unimportant, since Abbo of Fleury makes clear that Haegelisdun was the name of both a royal residence and a neighbouring silva (wood or forest). This forest of Haegelisdun was probably very large, a predecessor of today’s Bradfield Woods (themselves one of the most ancient surviving pockets of deciduous woodland in England). The chapel may have been located anywhere within a forest of unknown extent, and the survival of the Haegelisdun toponym in one field name simply tells us that Bradfield St Clare was part of or close to the lost forest.

There is a good chance, in my view, that the aestel was associated with the (very) early cult of St Edmund and therefore it is justifiable to christen it the ‘Edmund Jewel’, although it should be borne in mind that there are alternative explanations as to how the aestel ended up in Drinkstone – in theory, the object could have been plundered by Vikings from any monastery in the Midlands or East Anglia in 869 and dropped while its plunderer was on the way to the eastern coast. What is really needed is an intensive archaeological search of the Bradfields/Drinkstone area in an attempt to discover the original Haegelisdun chapel. This would provide confirmation of the proximity of a cult centre and set the discovery of the Edmund Jewel in context.



Publication of Peterborough Folklore

Today is the official publication date of my book Peterborough Folklore, the first dedicated survey of the folklore, customs and legends of the Peterborough region in eastern England. This evening I am launching the book with Lasse Press at John Clare Cottage in Helpston, and I am very grateful to the John Clare Trust for hosting this event and making it possible. John Clare is a key figure in the history of Peterborough’s folklore, as the first ever collector of local folklore in English history. The book draws on Clare’s writings on folklore as well as on the papers of Charles Dack, a forgotten Peterborough folklorist, and many other sources. The modern Peterborough region now includes parts of the ancient counties of Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire. The original region, the Soke of Peterborough (which was a county between 1889 and 1965) was smaller, consisting of the two northernmost hundreds of Northamptonshire (and one parish now in Lincolnshire), but geographically and culturally distinct from that county. Because Peterborough has never truly been considered part of Northamptonshire or Cambridgeshire its distinctive folklore has been neglected until now. I am hopeful that this book will stimulate interest in Peterborough’s heritage and lore and lead to more detailed explorations of the subject.


Publication of The Chronicles of Nazareth, ed. by Caroline Bowden

It gives me great pleasure to announce the publication today of The Chronicles of Nazareth (The English Convent), Bruges 1629-1793, edited by Dr Caroline Bowden, volume 87 in the Catholic Record Society‘s Records Series. It was a great privilege to preside over the publication of this volume as general editor for the Catholic Record Society, marking a fitting end to my period as the Society’s Volumes Editor since 2015. I have more than a passing connection with the English Convent, which remains the last surviving English religious house on the Continent (see this earlier post about my visit there in August 2015). When I was a member of the Community of Reconciliation at Hengrave Hall in 1998-99 I became fascinated by the Augustinian Canonesses from Bruges who established their community in exile at Hengrave between 1794 and 1802. In 2002 I met two present-day Canonesses from Bruges who came to Hengrave to mark the bicentenary of the community’s return to Bruges, and in 2004 my first peer-reviewed article appeared in Recusant History on the subject of Prioress Mary More and the exile at Hengrave. However, the community ended up at Hengrave in 1794 because of the Gage family’s connection with the convent, and indeed the community contained many East Anglian members.

The English Convent’s Chronicle, of which this is the first volume, is without doubt one of the most important documents of the English Catholic diaspora in early modern Europe – partly because it is exceptionally detailed, and partly because the city of Bruges was a critical junction for English Catholic exiles. Periodic wars with France meant that English exiles often preferred to live in the Austrian Netherlands, where the English Convent was the most prestigious English foundation, renowned for its hospitality to high and low alike. The Chronicle is much more, therefore, than an inward-looking record of a religious community; it is an essential record of the English diaspora at large.


Peterborough folklore seminar

This evening I led a seminar at Christ the Servant King church in Hampton on the folklore of Peterborough, a region somewhat neglected by folklorists that lies between East Anglia and the English Midlands, which is the subject of my most recent book. The evening yielded some fascinating snippets of more recent local lore and customs which were new to me. For example, all Peterborough natives are expected to learn the so-called ‘Len Boone Shuffle’ or ‘B&D Shuffle’ to dance along to Boone’s 1978 song ‘Love won’t be denied’, which is played at all discos in the city. The custom is unknown outside Peterborough, and it was explained to me that it arose because the song is a long one which the DJ could put on while he took a toilet break. I was also told that the Mayor’s sausage supper for the inauguration of Bridge Fair, which evolved from ancient customs, remains a somewhat drunken affair and now includes Molly Dancing. I also learnt some legends from Peterborough’s immigrant communities, such as a story of a feud between the Italian and Polish communities in the 1950s that led to the Poles eating all of the Italians’ cats.

People have reported seeing the spectral landing lights of aircraft on the disused Netherton Airfield near Bretton, while another participant reported that she was warned as a child that ‘death lights’ on the fens between Eye and Whittlesey would lead people astray and to their deaths, as well as being told tales of Black Shuck. Distinctive Christmas traditions have grown up, such as a fire engine with Father Christmas riding on the back that travels around the villages between Yaxley and Eye on Christmas Eve. The strangest tradition I heard was a custom unique to the Fen Park estate on the east side of the city, where shortly before Bonfire Night the young men of Fen View, a narrow street leading down to the River Nene, burn other people’s furniture; they deliberately choose the location as it is too narrow for the Fire Brigade to access. This practice has now been going on for two generations, and can probably be situated within the broader traditions of disorder and misrule surrounding Bonfire Night.

I was told a variant version of the legend of St Wulfade and St Rufinus that was recounted to schoolchildren in Dogsthorpe. In the original version of the tale, King Wulfhere of Mercia is led astray by his pagan steward Werbode, but in the twentieth-century Dogsthorpe version it is pagan female witches who corrupt Wulfhere and lead him from the path of the Christian faith. This version of the story was somehow connected to a belief that there had once been witches in Peterborough Cathedral. I was also told of a cupboard located in the Knights’ Tower of Peterborough Cathedral in which an order of druids kept a ram’s head and a peculiar version of the National Anthem, and where they worshipped facing north (according to tradition, the devil’s quarter). My informant claimed to have seen these items as a child; she was warned not to open the cupboard and that strange things would happen if she did. Another informant recounted a story about a Roman temple that is supposed to lie under Peterborough Cathedral. All in all it was a fascinating evening and, as I had hoped, I learnt more from my audience than they did from me.


Review: Michael Howard, East Anglian Witches and Wizards

As someone interested in equal parts in the history of East Anglia and the history of magic and witchcraft, I was naturally eager to read Michael Howard‘s recently published (June 2017) book East Anglian Witches and Wizards. Howard died in 2015, but this posthumous publication is the fourth in Three Hands Press’s ‘Witchcraft of the British Isles’ series (all by Howard so far), preceded by Welsh Witches and Wizards (2009), West Country Witches (2010) and Scottish Witches and Warlocks (2013). I have previously reviewed Howard’s books Children of Cain and Hands of Apostasy, and he was with some reason considered the foremost exponent of ‘Modern Traditional Witchcraft’, a strand of Neopagan religion that largely rejects Gerald Gardner’s interpretation of witchcraft and strives to ground itself in a continuous and historically documented tradition of witchcraft rather than an imagined Neolithic past. The extent to which Modern Traditional Witches succeed in this is a moot point, but books like Howard’s are an attempt to situate the practice of present day self-defining ‘witches’ within an historical and geographical tradition (compare it, for example, with Nigel Pearson’s The Devil’s Plantation (2016)). As such, Howard’s four books about witchcraft in different parts of Britain represent a particular genre of ‘alternative history’ (we might call it ‘witch history’), which seeks to reinterpret historical evidence in the light of contemporary Neopagan belief and practice. Gerald dGardner’s Witchcraft Today (1954) was the first book in the genre, but Howard’s book bears all the hallmarks of being a ‘post-Huttonian’ Neopagan work – it takes into account, in other words, Ronald Hutton’s monumental debunking of Gardnerian Neopagan pseudo-history in The Triumph of the Moon (1999). However, as I shall show in this review, Howard remains more attached to a ‘Gardnerian’ Neopagan historiography and worldview than he would perhaps have cared to have admitted.

Howard’s book has many positive features. Overall, it could serve as a fairly reliable and solid narrative account of the history of witchcraft in eastern England for the general reader. Howard made use of a variety of sources, including some unusual and hard-to-find works of obscure local folklorists. The chapters on cunning-folk, charmers and toadmen are useful compendia of the available evidence. The narrative is greatly enhanced by asides about contemporary oral traditions concerning events and people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which testify to Howard’s immense knowledge of folklore and show he had a unique perspective to bring to the subject. Indeed, it is Howard’s juxtaposition of the historical narrative with contemporary traditions that makes this book worth reading.

However, there are also many problems with this book which I cannot, as a historian specialising in this area, refrain from pointing out. As a general point, the book is littered with errors in the spelling of personal and place names too numerous to list. Whilst some allowance can be made for the fact that Three Hands Press was publishing a posthumous work, they might have taken the trouble to engage an editor able to check and correct these errors, which are particularly irksome to someone with local knowledge – it seems especially surprising that a publisher would go to the trouble of producing an expensive deluxe leather-bound edition of the book without at least engaging the services of an effective proofreader and copyeditor. Furthermore, Howard’s selection of sources is eclectic, with recent and old (1960s and ’70s) scholarship seemingly given equal weight. For instance, although Howard lists Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders (2005) in his bibliography – the most reliable account of the East Anglian witchhunts by far – in the text he seems to rely upon (and perpetuate the errors of) earlier scholarship (and some works, such as Mark Taylor’s Folklore article ‘Norfolk Folklore’ (1929), are cited in the text but not listed in the bibliography). Howard seems unaware of the evidence Gaskill has uncovered regarding the death of Matthew Hopkins, and goes so far as to speculate that folktales portraying Hopkins as himself accused of witchcraft might be true (pp. 78-9).

Howard seems to take as read – and offers no justification for – the inclusion of Essex in East Anglia, in spite of the fact that no East Anglian (and probably no inhabitant of Essex) would regard Essex as part of the region; a more accurate title for the book would have been Witches and Wizards of the East of England. His lack of familiarity with the full range of historical literature on witchcraft is revealed in Howard’s misunderstanding of feminist approaches to witchcraft studies. Pointing out that women were liable to accuse one another of witchcraft, he denies that there was any ‘feminist type sisterhood’ among witches (p. 16). This may reflect the emphasis on male witches as leaders of covines in Modern Traditional Witchcraft and its lack of interest in a Gardnerian goddess, but the actual claim of feminist scholars of witchcraft studies is that the process of witch-hunting was an intrinsically misogynistic one, which is not incompatible with some women becoming part of the patriarchal system by accusing others. Howard seems to be in danger of ignoring the historical evidence when he deliberately conflates magic and witchcraft (pp. 17-18), pointing out that there were many synonyms for supernatural activities that were used interchangeably. There is an element of truth in this, of course, but this does not change the fact that witches and wizards/wisewomen were functionally different in early modern society. Again, Howard’s desire to conflate concepts may be influenced by the claim, inherited from Gardnerian Wicca, that witches and cunning-folk were essentially the same and contemporary ‘witches’ are their successors.

The most obvious sign of Howard’s interest in Modern Traditional Witchcraft, which might not be picked up by the casual reader, is his repeated use of vocabulary specific to Neopagan witchcraft and Modern Traditional Witchcraft in particular. Howard makes several references to ‘the Old One’ (pp. 22, 58, 86, 101, 146), ‘the Horned One’ (pp. 52, 86) or, in one case, ‘the horned god of the witches’ (p. 26). Howard writes of ‘the witch-cult’ (p. 25) and makes numerous references to covens or covines (pp. 42, 68, 86) and ‘witch masters’ (pp. 39, 72, 109, 115, 116). This is vocabulary straight from the lexicon of Murrayite-Gardnerian Wicca, with a particular twist given by Modern Traditional Witchcraft’s emphasis on the horned god rather than Gardner’s goddess.

The reader receives the strong impression that Howard was determined to interpret all the historical evidence within a particular religious interpretative framework. For example, Howard systematically misuses the evidence to argue for the existence of covens/covines of witches, which most historians accept was not part of English folklore of witches outside Cornwall. Thus Howard takes the fact that thirteen people were accused of witchcraft at St Osyth in 1582 as evidence that the St Osyth witches were ‘a coven of the traditional thirteen’ (p. 42). This idea is ‘traditional’ only in the sense that it was popularised by Margaret Murray and it is obvious that thirteen accusations does not in any way mean that these thirteen people belonged to an organised group.

Howard seems determined to portray witchcraft/cunning craft as a religion in its own right, opposed to Christianity, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. This tendency towards the ‘culticisation’ of witchcraft and magic seems widespread among Neopagans. Howard expresses surprise that ‘some … wizards were even clergymen’ (p. 99), when it is obvious from even a cursory reading in the history of magic that most magical practitioners in the west have been clergy. Likewise, Howard reports efforts by a local clergyman to convert the cunning man James Murrell to Christianity on his deathbed (pp. 109-10), when there is no evidence that Murrell was ever anything other than a Christian. Howard seems to take it as axiomatic that no Christian could practise magic because witchcraft is a ‘cult’ separate from Christianity, a view which oddly combines acceptance of the fantasies of Continental demonologists (who imagined the existence of a devil-worshipping cult of witches) and a decidedly ‘Protestant’ view of religion as something requiring a definite profession of faith.

It is unfortunate that Howard does not take the trouble to outline his methodology for the book, since I was continually left asking myself whether Howard expects us to regard all the accounts of witchcraft he gives (even the extremely hostile ones) as accurate. Furthermore, to what extent is the reader supposed to accept the supernatural interpretations of events given in the sources? Were familiars just pets or were they really spiritual beings in animal form? Was the ‘Devil’ literally a manifestation of ‘the Old One’ or are we to interpret all such incidents as encounters with a human ‘witch-master’? Did toadmen really use magic or cleverly concocted scented oils to control the behaviour of horses? I can see why Howard might leave the reader to make up his or her mind on some of these issues, but accepting all hostile accounts of witchcraft as true seems a peculiar stance, making Howard a sort of reverse Jules Michelet (who tried to portray everything witches were alleged to have done in the best possible light). It is part of the culture of Modern Traditional Witchcraft to play up the darker aspects of witchcraft, but surely not to the extent of buying into the polemical narrative of hostile early modern religious commentators? Howard offers hints of interpretation – speaking occasionally of ‘psychic attacks’ and ‘negative energy rays’ but there is no discernible worked-out theory of what witches were actually doing.

It would not be possible to list all of the factual errors in Howard’s book, but the following are some of the most striking:

  1. Ely and Cambridgeshire did not become part of the kingdom of East Anglia by the marriage of Etheldreda and Tondbert (p. 7); the Fens were part of the kingdom because their inhabitants the Gyrwas were considered a tribe of East Angles
  2. Robert Barker was tried in Ely in 1466 for necromancy, not witchcraft (p. 36)
  3. Latin prayers were considered superstitious rather than ‘blasphemous’ (a different category of religious crime) after the Reformation (p. 38)
  4. James I did not introduce witch swimming to England from Scotland. The earliest swimming of a witch in England may have occurred in the tenth century (p. 65)
  5. John Stearne did not move from Manningtree to Lawshall (p. 79); he was a native of Lawshall and continued to hold lands there throughout the witch-hunt
  6. The adjective meaning ‘hare-like’ is lepine, not lupine (which means ‘wolf-like’) (p. 132)
  7. Anne Boleyn was executed with the sword, not an axe (p. 133)
  8. the ‘traditional Rite of Exorcism’ was not ‘bell, book and candle’; this was the traditional rite of excommunication (p. 146)
  9. There is no evidence for an ‘early period of dual observance in the transition from paganism to Christianity’, when churches had two altars and ‘heathens entered the church through the north door to worship the Old Gods’ (p. 153). Bede records one instance in which King Raedwald established altars to both Christ and Woden.

Overall, Howard’s book endeavours to engage with academic scholarship by historians and folklorists and even aspires to the same academic standards, but the author’s credibility as an historian is continually undermined by his attachment to a particular interpretation of witchcraft as a religion that, ultimately, he does not allow the evidence to challenge.