Anglo-Saxon Art, & Architecture


Anglo-Saxon Taste

The tastes of the Anglo-Saxons were never very different from tastes on the mainland in Europe.  Amongst all the descendents of the northern tribes that the Romans had called barbarian, there was great admiration for artistic workmanship in gold.

There was a view that this interest in gold was a basic element of barbarian taste.  The barbarians, it was thought, were concerned with amazing by the costliness rather than to attract by comeliness:  to astonish rather than to charm.  Certainly, in the Anglo-Saxon culture, as in others, the costliness of gold was part of its attraction.

The minstrel who in Widest, one of the oldest of all Anglo-Saxon poems, received an arm-ring from one patron and a splendid jewel from another was interested in their value as well as their radiance, and he was quite forthright in his statement that the ring, given him by Eormanric, contained six hundred shillings’ worth of pure gold.  This poem refers back to the pagan and Continental period but in Christian times, jeweler and gold were as evaluated.


The Anglo-Saxon poets and writers were so hypnotized by the crafts of the jewelers and goldsmiths that they turned naturally to them for their similes and metaphors.  A frosty surface could, therefore, be ‘as clear as glass and very like gems’; one great Anglo-Saxon king could be likened to a ‘splendid gem’ which ‘illuminated our darkness’.  And then the glory of another compared to streams of gold.  The righteous were those ‘separated from their sins, like beaten gold’.  Christ’s blood was compared to ‘the red gem’.  And even the Word of God was said to be of jeweled gold.


We should not too easily assume that the visual tastes of the poet were also those of the lay observer – the aesthetic feelings expressed by Virgil were very different from those of Pliny.  However, in the Anglo-Saxon period, the tastes of the poet were exactly those of society at large.  If the secular elegist of the deserted city speaks of its gold and jeweled radiance, and the writers of religious poetry envisage heavenly cities as being rich with gold and treasure.  The chronicled accounts of actual courts and actual monasteries are just as refulgent.


Artists and Craftsmen in Anglo-Saxon England

The interest of the Anglo-Saxons in resplendence means that much of our information about their artists is weighted in favor of those who worked in gold.  Two secular poems in old English illustrate this well.  One presents an extended account of the gifts, and the other of the fortunes, of man.  Both ignore completely the sculptor and painter but give attention to the worker in precious metals – the one who ‘is assigns wonderful ability in the goldsmith’s art’: the one who are ‘cunning in gold and gems whomsoever a prince of men bidet him prepare a jewel for his adornment’.  The same bias is seen amongst handled gold or goldthread.  For various reasons, this esteem was expressed with special force during the period after the Anglo-Saxons’ own eclipse – soon after the Norman Conquest.


Before the Conquest, there was no feeling that the craftsmen were inferior to the intellectual:  no patronizing of the gifts of the hands by those endowed with gifts of the head.  All such talents derived from the same God who

Variously distributeth His gifts:

To one virtues, to another crafts,

To another…

A well-orderd mind


In this context of versatility, the two crafts most often associated by writers were those of calligraphy and painting, and we see that Dunstan, Edith, Mannig and Earwig were all scribes as well as painters.  The combination of these two skills would, of course, be especially valuable for the production of beautiful manuscripts in monasteries, and these skills were probably already associated in the earlier period.


The work of the goldsmith was held in such great esteem that monk-goldsmiths continued their craft even when they had become abbots.  What is more, they considered themselves free to travel about to different commissions, and we know of two abbots in the eleventh century who made journeys to other monasteries in pursuit of their artistic vocation.  Some time before 1047, Spearhaforc, who himself then abbot of Abingdon, was fashioning figures in metal at St. Augustine’s Cantebury. And, in the decade before the Conquest, Mannig, the abbot of Evesham, was invited to make artistic objects ‘at Catebury, in the church of Coventry, and in many other places’. If abbots with pastoral and administrative care of communities could move from one place to another to practice their crafts, we might suppose that other monastic craftsmen also traveled if they could get the necessary permission.  There is even indication that, on occasion, both monastic and secular craftsmen went abroad.


The Anglo-Saxons also called in workmen from other areas and other countries.  In their ancestral lands, mirrored in Beowulf, their forebears had sent throughout the whole known world to find artificers to furbish Hrothgar’s mighty hall.


Costume and Vestments

The Anglo-Saxons for particularly costly garments and vestments, as we have seen, used imported silk.  This must have added richness of color and delicacy of texture to both.  And also a much-needed variety, for neither changed very much during the Anglo-Saxon period; the lay garb remained comparatively simple, and the vestments naturally followed the established traditions of the church.  The chief method of diversifying garments for those who could afford it was by decorative embellishments.  Stripes and trimmings in purple and other colors gave variety to some of the secular garments.  Others were enhanced by delicately embroidered patterns, which are often seen in manuscript paintings and drawings of the tenth and eleventh centuries, and which are well exemplified by a drawing of Christ…However, in the centuries of wealth the enhancement common to both secular and religious attire was gold embroidery, supplemented on rare occasions by pearls and jewels.


It is true that only shreds of fabric and leather have been found with the skeletons, but the jewellery – brooches, pins, clasps, buckles, etc.  – That originally both fastened the garments to the body and acted as decoration have survived, and a careful analysis of their positioning has told the archeologist a good deal.  These pagan grave deposits continued for several decades after St.  Augustine’s mission.  But if Christianity itself bequeathed two other forms of evidence:  the one the written word, the other figural art which included representations of dress.  Portrayals of Anglo-Saxon attire survive in stone and ivory carvings, but chiefly in manuscript-paintings.


One find has been recovered from a peat bog in Jutland, which dates back to a time when The Angles were occupying part of that peninsula before their migration to England.  It consists of a singular piece of cloth, five feet seven inches in length and nine feet in circumference, and is like a sack open at both ends.  Originally girt at the waist, and fastened over each shoulder, this example also has a flap across the shoulders, which could be turned up against the weather like as embryonic hood.  Below this kind of gown or robe, the earliest Anglo-Saxon women in England probably wore a blouse with long sleeves ending in leather or woven cuffs, and over it a cloak of coarser weave.  Pins positioned at the heads of the female dead also suggest that some kind of headdress was in use.





Burial Sites: A Key to the Past


Most of the information we have about Anglo-Saxon Jewelry comes from grave excavations. 


At a grave site, the amount of jewelry and the quality of it gives clues concerning the status of the person buried. This woman was buried in a Norton cemetery with several different artifacts including a pair of silver bracelets. The silver bracelets are the only ones found in the cemetery, causing us to believe that the buried woman must have been well respected.


What Was Jewelry Made From?


Bronze, gold, and silver. Bronze was most common, while gold and silver were usually for those of higher status.


Anglo-Saxon Jewelry


An Anglo-Saxon woman wearing a necklace, brooch, girdle hanger, wrist clasps, and a key to her house.


These pairs of wrist clasps were made of bronze and were used to fasten shirtsleeves.


  Girdle Hangers were hung from a woman’s waist and are believed to have no functional use. However, they are believed to be symbolic, perhaps representing a woman’s role as head of her household.




These rings were all made from gold and belonged to persons of royal descent. The first ring, belonging to Aethelwulf, king of Wessex, has his name inscribed on the front.

The second ring belonged to Aethelwulf’s daughter.


The third set of rings are designed with snakes and wire. These rings were also made of gold.


A set of latchkey lifters.


Necklaces were often adorned with beads, precious stones, pendants, and crosses. Rock crystal pendants were believed to have special properties in the eyes of pagan Saxons.


Brooches were used to fasten clothing together, such as cloaks. This brooch, inlaid with garnet, glass, white shell, and gold, is the finest of its kind and is a symbol of the great wealth.


Belt buckles- This belt buckle was found in a prince’s grave. It was made of gold and inlaid with garnets.




Silver ‘fish’ buckle

This buckle has the figure of a naked man wearing a headdress of eagle heads and holding two spears. This figure indicates the cult of Woden.








Anglo-Saxon Architecture: Churches and their history

It was thought for hundreds of years that there were no remains of Anglo-Saxon architecture in Britain. There really isn’t much architecture when it comes to secular buildings but the surviving parts the Saxon features were discovered in ancient churches. Most of what is still left is claimed as some form of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Although there are many churches with Saxon features, there are only about 50 churches that are important Saxon structures that are still standing. Because of Norman invaders many Saxon churches have become a major part of the rebuilding process in Britain. Many small buildings still stand but they are small, not preserved very well, and are located in areas that are known to be "architecturally unfashionable."

About 85% of Saxon architecture dates back from 950 when many churches were destroyed by Viking raids and were rebuilt in later times. Even though most churches and buildings were destroyed, some "gems" as they are called or "churches" still survive and have lasted for many centuries. Some of them are practically untouched and they are remaining from early minister or monastic churches. There are many specific features of the Saxon churches such as: pilaster strips and a more famous feature is the type of window.

One church that still stands is the Church of All Saints or the Brixworth. The date of the construction of this church is unknown but it is the most beautiful and amazing church still standing from it’s time period in England. It is a center of Christian worship and has been since it was constructed. It is the biggest building still surviving from those early years of Saxon architecture. The Brixworth is unusual because it is 100 feet in length and is very large compared to other Saxon churches. It has survived for a long time and it’s quite surprising to many. There is no real explanation only that it is a "fortunate coincidence." However this church is not the oldest site in Brixworth. There is a Roman Villa north of the Brixworth church that still stands made up of Roman tiles and there is an Eagle carved in the doorway. The Eagle is a mystery and its meaning is still to be discovered.

There are still some other remains of Anglo-Saxon churches but very few. The cause of this is the way in which the Saxons built their structures. They used wood which is an impermanent material to build. Another cause of the disappearance of Saxon architecture is because the Viking raiders burned down everything. Most of the remains come from post Viking times in the 10th and 11th centuries. However, churches are an exception to what still remains. There are still pieces of early Saxon churches. Saxon and Roman stones were used to build these churches and some of those walls still exist. The most common Saxon stones are the rough hewn stones that typically surround the windows and doors f the churches. Many of the foundations of these churches are purely Saxon with more a more modern structure above ground.

An example of a church still surviving is the Greensted church in Essex. It was founded in 845 and is called "the oldest wooden church in the world." It has a brick exterior and a nave that is made of vertical oak logs, tongue and grooved in place without using nails. This church originally had no windows and the only light was torch light.

The windows in Saxon churches were small, narrow, and deeply set. The tops of the windows were rounded and triangularly shaped.

The churches had towers that represent the Dark Ages of England. The church towers were developed by the Saxons because they tried to fight off the attacks of the Danes. The towers were used as look out posts and often times a refuge for many in the village. This was a necessity for the Saxons but became later a tradition in the building churches.

Crosses were used when Christianity was young in England and carved crosses were built at sites near the villages for the monks and priests to preach. These crosses were built in what were already known to be "sacred" in pagan worship. Churches were built later on in these sites where the crosses were to maintain the sacredness of these places of worship.

England does not have many surviving Anglo-Saxon buildings because of warfare invasions in the years 800-950 but most architecture that survived after fires and warfare date from either 600-725 or 900-1050. Later the Saxon churches were built more with stone rather than wood. There are two places where the earliest Saxon buildings exist. It is in the southeast near the county of Kent and in North Umbria.

The larger Saxon buildings namely the monasteries were rebuilt in the Norman period and most Saxon architecture remains underground. Most of the smaller Saxon churches were simple in lay out divided by a rectangular chancel and a narrow arch. Most churches are small and do not display the same style of the later Norman times of churches. The doors and windows are simple and there are not many decorative elements. The separation between the chancel and the nave were small and thought to be the builder’s choice to construct them in this manner so that the mystery of the chancel shrine was away from those visiting in the nave.