Crowns and Helmets

I am currently writing about the transfer of power in East Anglia in the years 634/5, when Sigeberht retired into his monastery at Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds) and Ethelric became sole king of the East Angles.

Now, I have been unable to find out when Anglo-Saxon kings were first ‘crowned’ and I had been mulling over the idea of giving Ethelric some sort of ceremonial wreath – of oak leaves, perhaps. But this does not really ring true to me.

However, last night I was reading Bernard Cornwell’s new book, The Empty Throne, and he has a Mercian ceremony involving a helmet. Does this make more sense? Helmets are certainly rare objects archaeologically, and those that have been uncovered do seem to be invested with symbols of status and power.

So were Anglo-saxon rulers helmeted rather than crowned?

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4 Responses to Crowns and Helmets

  1. Karen Jolly says:

    Although it is much later, Sarah Foot in her recent biography has an extensive discussion of Aethelstan’s unusual crowned image and coronation in comparison to earlier kings. You might check out what she says that sets Aethelstan apart from his predecessors and also Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries, although iconography on coins doesn’t necessarily correlate to actual crowns since they imitate Roman and Byzantine models.

  2. Sally says:

    Thanks Karen. Yes, I had looked at the coin iconography, which is why my initial idea was some sort of wreath – on the grounds that copying Roman and Byzantine images was all the rage – a triumphal imperial wreath sort of thing. I will see if I can track down a copy of Sarah Foot’s work and Anna Gannon.

  3. Charles Barnitz says:

    I think it depends on the character’s inclinations. To some extent, all kings in the period were warrior kings, so a helmet would be symbolic of that. Some of them were more bookish, so maybe they’d want a less belligerent symbol. Look to continental precedent. What did the Merovingian kings use? Charlemagne? In Kent they might well have taken their cues from the Franks because of their affinity for them. The East Anglians might have had contact with the Frisians and taken their cues from them. Look to the royal marriage alliances for clues as to influence in the style of the court.

    • Sally says:

      Thanks Charles. Very helpful. There were certainly Frankish links, from Bishop Felix among others, but also Irish links through the monk Fursey and his family. Ethelric, of course, was married to Hereswith, a member of the Deiran royal family.

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