Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Returning Home

Time passes. It was the end of last month that I went to Bristol one Monday evening to hear the University’s Professor Mark Horton lecture at the City Museum and Art Gallery. Admission was free and that included the wine and the nibbles. No wonder tuition fees are set to rise.

The talk was entitled ‘Eadgyth – Bones of an Anglo-Saxon Princess’. Professor Horton spoke about Bristol University’s involvement in the process of identifying bones from Magdeburg Cathedral as those of Queen Eadgyth of Germany, a grand-daughter of King Alfred the Great. With help from more expert colleagues he explained the science behind the conclusion and also went through what else was found in the tomb. Fragments of ancient textiles, 16th century beetles and the remains of floral tributes. He finished with some photographs of the re-interment of Eadgyth in October, the bones placed in a new casket of titanium and silver, engraved in German and Latin. Next time the tomb is opened, German may perhaps be extinct but there will always be Latin.

Mark Horton is an arch├Žologist and it was not his brief to say much about the historical context. Indeed, having described Eadgyth as the mother of Europe, he then confessed to finding royal genealogy boring. Nevertheless, he had to admit that the Germans found Eadgyth fascinating, with huge crowds attending the re-interment. She and her sisters had been much sought after as brides by the continental elite of the 10th century. Apparently, it was all because the Wessex line could claim great antiquity; the upstarts who filled the void after Charlemagne could appreciate that.

Anglo-Saxon England has tended to be the special preserve of rampant nationalism, yet in its own time it was anything but insular. The Anglo-Saxons came from the continent and continued to be part of it: Beowulf is set in Scandinavia. They received clergy and scholars from Italy, Greece and France and sent missionaries to the Frisians and the Germans. Offa corresponded with Charlemagne. Aldhelm, Ine and Alfred visited Rome. Edgar the Atheling – the last Englishman acclaimed King of the English – was born in Hungary. Harold Godwinson’s daughter Gytha married the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus and it is through this marriage that all English sovereigns from Edward III can claim descent from the House of Godwin. The continent is a recurrent part of our history, and therefore to some extent 'home'. Joint ventures like the research on Eadgyth’s bones can only make us realise still more a once obvious fact.