Getting close to Ethelburga

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms Art Word War

The current exhibition at the British Library in London is a chance to see some of the greatest treasures surviving from the Anglo-Saxon period.  There are fabulous manuscripts such as the beautifully decorated Lindisfarne Gospels or the massive Codex Amiatinus, a complete bible created in Jarrow in County Durham in the 8th Century that is so big that it takes two people to carry it.  It is still to this day the authoritative Latin text for the Bible used by the Church.  There are manuscripts that may not look impressive but are important for what they are, such as the  first English law code, the earliest charter recording a land transaction, and the first document written in English.  And there are important texts like the only surviving manuscript of the epic poem Beowulf, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which was the book that first popularised the dating system we still use today counting years from the birth of Christ.

The exhibition contains all these and much more, but for those in search of Ethelburga, there is a manuscript that is even more special because it is a book that almost certainly was used by Ethelburga herself.  The St Augustine Gospels is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels, written on sheepskin.

St Augustine Gospels, showing St Luke

From the style of the script it is identified as written in Italy in the 6th Century.

St Augustine Gospels Luke Shepherds in the fields
St Augustine Gospels, showing changes to the text of the account in St Luke’s Gospel of the shepherds in the fields – see bottom right

Certain changes to the written text that are closely identified with the writings of Pope Gregory the Great strongly suggest that it was created in the household of that Pope who initiated the mission of St Augustine to convert the English in 597.  It is therefore probably the oldest non-archaeological artefact in the country, having been in use for some 1,400 years.  We know for certain that it was in St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury by the 10th Century.  It was kept like a holy relic on the High Altar and used for the swearing of the oath during the enthronement of Archbishops of Canterbury.

Books on the High Altar of St Augustines
Drawing by Thomas of Elmham in 1414 showing books sent by Pope Gregory on the High Altar of St Augustine’s Abbey

From the style of writing in the margin of some pages, we know that it was in England by the late 7th or early 8th Century.  All the evidence therefore points to it being either one of the books brought by St Augustine in his original mission to convert the English in 597 or one of those recorded as sent by the Pope in 601.

The significance of all this is that as a text of the four gospels with illustrations, it would have been an important tool for Augustine when he was teaching about Christianity.

St Augustine Gospels Folio125r Passion Scenes
St Augustine Gospels – scenes of the Passion of Christ

Two of his early converts were King AEthlberht and his daughter Princess Ethelburga, and there is a high probability that such important pupils would have handled this book and looked at the pictures even if they could not read the words.  With this book you are therefore almost certainly just one remove from Ethelburga herself.  There are very few objects that you can link directly to historical people in this way.

You can read much more about this very special book in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel.  This contains a discussion of a dozen of the most important illuminated manuscripts created in Europe over the past 1,500 years, including the Codex Amiatinus already mentioned above.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

If you want to see the St Augustine Gospels for yourself, as well as all the other treasures in the exhibition, you can find out more at Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.  The exhibition is open until 19 February 2019.

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