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Have East Anglia's long-lost 'crown jewels' been found after nearly 1,400 years?

14 November, 2019 - 05:30
The Staffordshire hoard helmet reconstruction, with conservator Lizzie Miller  Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

The Staffordshire hoard helmet reconstruction, with conservator Lizzie Miller Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

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What appears to be East Anglia's ancient 'crown jewels' have re-emerged some 14 centuries after they disappeared, in one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Britain.

A pectoral cross which was unearthed  Picture: Birmingham Museums TrustA pectoral cross which was unearthed Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

The extraordinary material, discovered by a metal detectorist, has been painstakingly pieced together - and the results only now made public.

It's thought that the probable long-lost 'crown jewels' of the Dark Age Kingdom of East Anglia vanished after they were captured in a brutal Dark Age battle - possibly near Blythburgh, in Suffolk.

It's likely that a richly decorated golden helmet, found by a metal detectorist in Staffordshire, was the ceremonial royal headgear of a series of East Anglian Kings.

What's more, a probable bishop's ceremonial headdress, found with it, may well have belonged to the region's first two bishops.

A gold inscribed strip  Picture: Birmingham Museums TrustA gold inscribed strip Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

It's likely that they were captured in a bloody early medieval battle by East Anglia's mortal enemy - the powerful pagan ruler of the English Midlands, Penda, King of Mercia.

Other probable East Anglian treasures, likely captured with the golden royal helmet and the bishop's headdress, include a spectacular and very ornate fighting knife (probably owned by a member of the East Anglian royal family), a dozen high status gold-hilted swords, a portable golden battlefield shrine (or reliquary), a gold adorned aristocratic or royal war saddle, and a bishop's ceremonial golden cross.

The extraordinary treasure, pieced together from thousands of fragments by archaeologists over the past 10 years, even features probable images of the Dark Age East Anglian army. They are revealed, in detail for the first time, in the images accompanying this article.

The archaeological study and reassembly of the material has only just been completed.

Some of the items discovered in the Staffordshire Hoard  Picture: Birmingham Museums TrustSome of the items discovered in the Staffordshire Hoard Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

The helmet (more than a thousand fragments of which have survived) was made of gilded silver in a style derived from the late Roman Empire. It was decorated with 14 images of groups of warriors - and would have had a large red or yellow dyed horsehair crest on top of it.

"It potentially adorned the head of a king of East Anglia," said Chris Fern of the University of York, one of the archaeologists who have been studying the treasure.

"It is even more spectacular than the famous early 7th-century helmet unearthed at the Anglo-Saxon royal burial site at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk 80 years ago," he said.

"Such helmets were the equivalents of royal crowns in Anglo-Saxon England," said Mr Fern who is a Norfolk-based heritage consultant as well as being an academic in York.

Some of the detail on the hoard helmet  Picture: Birmingham Museums TrustSome of the detail on the hoard helmet Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

He has studied the helmet in huge detail - and has concluded that it symbolises the early medieval East Anglian ruling dynasty's military might.

"The images portray a hierarchy of warriors - from ordinary soldiers at the bottom of the helmet to aristocratic cavalryman near its top," said Mr Fern.

East Anglia was defeated by Mercia on a number of occasions - but identifying which specific battle these treasures were captured in is likely to be the subject of scholarly debate for many years to come.

However, on balance of probabilities, a leading candidate is likely to be a battle which took place at Bulcamp near Blythburgh, Suffolk in 654 (or possibly 653) A.D.

Some of the detail on the hoard helmet  Picture: Birmingham Museums TrustSome of the detail on the hoard helmet Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

For in that particular battle, the East Anglian monarch (King Anna) was killed, as was his son (Jurmin).

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The kingdom's Bishop - a cleric called Thomas - was also possibly killed in that same battle.

If the treasures were captured as war booty in 653/654, it's likely that, after the East Anglians had been defeated, the victorious Mercians seized the king's helmet and the bishop's headdress and golden cross from them either while they were still alive - or after they had been killed.

Some of the detail on the hoard helmet  Picture: Birmingham Museums TrustSome of the detail on the hoard helmet Picture: Birmingham Museums Trust

The battle was part of a bitter military and geopolitical conflict which ended East Anglia's role as a militarily powerful state. It continued as a culturally important entity - but was ultimately absorbed into other more powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which in turn finally merged to form the Kingdom of England.

It was a long drawn out process in which local identity often collided headlong with the need for wider unity.

Who was King Anna?

If indeed Anna was the last Anglo-Saxon king to wear the ceremonial helmet, and if Bishop Thomas was the last man to wear the golden episcopal headdress, who exactly were they?

Anna had been fighting against Mercian domination for years. His two predecessors as East Anglian kings had also been slaughtered in battle by the Mercians.

Perhaps significantly (given all the high status ecclesiastical material), he was an extremely devout Christian. Although he was not officially made a saint, he was widely treated as one in the centuries following his death. He was regarded as a Christian martyr and his tomb (thought to have been in Blythburgh) was venerated till at least the 12th century.

What's more, his son and four daughters were all made saints. His son, Jurmin, was also killed in the battle (and is now interred in Bury St Edmunds)

King Anna's Bishop (Thomas), who may have been killed in the battle, was a potentially politically significant individual.

Where was the treasure found?

The treasure was found just eight miles west of the Mercian 'capital' Tamworth in Staffordshire by a metal detectorist a decade ago.

Duncan Wilson, Historic England's Chief Executive, said: "In 2009 we received a rather breathless call from an officer of the Portable Antiquities Scheme saying that something astonishing had been unearthed in an ordinary field near Lichfield. What followed exceeded all expectations."

It has taken 10 years of painstaking conservation and research work to piece together all the fragments - and to recreate what were probably, at least in part, the 'Crown Jewels' of the now long-vanished early medieval Kingdom of East Anglia.

The entire hoard - the greatest Anglo-Saxon golden treasure ever found - is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in Britain.

The treasure is on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke on Trent.

The research into the Staffordshire Hoard has been funded by Historic England.

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