Saturday, 28 December 2019

A man of possible African ancestry buried in Anglo-Scandinavian York

The aim of the following brief note is to direct attention to a burial from a late ninth- to early eleventh-century cemetery in York. The burials here were originally excavated in 1989–90, but an osteological analysis in 2015 suggested that one of the people buried here was a man of possible African or mixed ancestry.

Reconstruction painting of the wooden houses of the Viking-Age city of Jorvik (York), as it might have appeared in the early 10th century (image: York Archaeological Trust, CC BY-NC-SA).

The burial in question is known as SK 3377, which is a well-preserved skeleton of a mature adult male that was buried in a wooden coffin dated via dendrochronology to 'after 892'. This oak coffin comes from a late ninth- to early eleventh-century cemetery that was excavated at 12-18 Swinegate, 14 Little Stonegate and 18 Back Swinegate, York, in 1989–90, this being originally the graveyard of the former St Benet's Church at York (demolished between 1299 and 1307). Around 100 burials have been excavated from this site, half of which were placed in wooden coffins with no metal fittings, and only a single burial within the cemetery was accompanied by grave goods. In this context, SK 3377 doesn't appear to have been treated noticeably different from the majority of the people who were buried there.(1) Seven of the skeletons from this cemetery, including SK 3379, were subsequently examined in 2015 by Katie Keefe and Malin Holst of York Osteoarchaeology. They concluded that the population of this cemetery as a whole showed signs of having lived a physically strenuous life and suffered from poor health, with SK 3379 being just one of a number of people buried here who had evidence for dietary deficiencies, joint disease and crush injuries to their spines. However, an examination of the remains in order to make ancestry determinations suggested that SK 3379 was unusual in one way: unlike the other six individuals examined, Malin Holst and Katie Keefe concluded that he 'may have been of African or mixed ancestry and may have migrated to York or descended from those that did'.(2)

A tableau of fishermen working and talking at Anglo-Scandinavian York, from the Jorvik Viking Centre, York (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Needless to say, the above possibility is of considerable interest. SK 3379 is not, of course, the first person from Late Saxon/Anglo-Scandinavian England to have been identified as of potential 'Sub-Saharan' African ancestry. As was detailed in a previous post, a small number of other burials from this period have been identified with varying degrees of certainty as those of people of African ancestry on the basis of an examination of their skeletal remains. One of these burials was discovered in 2013 at Fairford, Gloucestershire, and has been described as being that of 'a woman, aged between 18 and 24, from Sub-Saharan Africa', with radiocarbon dating indicating that she very probably died at some point between AD 896 and 1025, although the full details of this burial are unfortunately yet to be published.(3) Perhaps the best known, however, is that of an apparent African woman buried c. 1000 in the Late Saxon cemetery at North Elmham, Norfolk. This burial is discussed in detail in Calvin Wells' and Helen Cayton's contribution to the East Anglian Archaeology report on North Elmham, published in 1980, and also in Helen Cayton's 1977 PhD thesis, and the identification is said by them to 'leave little doubt' and be 'incontestable', although we do need to be aware that this ancestry determination was made some time ago and without details provided of how it was reached.(4) In addition, there is an interesting body of oxygen isotope evidence drawn from archaeological human teeth for the presence of people in seventh- to ninth-century in eastern Britain who could potentially have grown up in North Africa. In particular, multiple people buried in both the Bamburgh and Ely cemeteries have phosphate oxygen isotope values that might be consistent with them having spent their youth in a warmer and more southerly region such as parts of southernmost Iberia or North Africa. Such a situation would, of course, find support in the often-noted description of Hadrian—the later seventh and early eighth-century Abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury—as 'a man of African race' by Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica, IV.1), perhaps reflecting an early life spent in Libya Cyrenaica, although in the present context it must be recognised that the above isotopic evidence cannot tell us about the ancestry so much as the geographical origins of these people.(5)

The final section of FA 330, detailing how the Vikings brought a 'great host' of North African captives back to Ireland, from O'Donovan's 1860 edition of the text; click the image for a larger view (image: Internet Archive).

In addition to such archaeological parallels, attention can also be drawn to the evidence of the eleventh-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, which relates the story of a Viking raid on Morocco (Mauritania) in the mid-ninth century that led to the taking of 'a great host' of captives:
Then they brought a great host of them captive with them to Ireland, i.e. those are the black men. For Mauri is the same as nigri; 'Mauritania' is the same as nigritudo. Hardly one in three of the Norwegians escaped, between those who were slain, and those who drowned in the Gaditanian Straits. Now those black men remained in Ireland for a long time.(6)
This account was discussed at length in a previous post, and the notion that it reflects real events is supported by Al-Bakrī's Kitāb al-Masālik wa-al-Mamālik, which relates that 'Majūs [Vikings]—God curse them—landed at Nakūr [Nekor, Morocco], in the year 244 (858–9). They took the city, plundered it, and made its inhabitants slaves, except those who saved themselves by flight... The Majūs stayed eight days in Nakūr.'(7) Likewise, the late ninth-century Christian Chronicle of Alfonso III relates that the 'Northman pirates... sailed the sea and attacked Nekur, a city in Mauritania, and there they killed a vast number of Muslims.'(8)

Of course, it does need to be emphasised that there is no reason to directly connect the burials of a small number of people of possible African or mixed ancestry in Late Saxon/Anglo-Scandinavian England with this specific, mid-ninth-century Viking raid on Morocco. Rather, the various accounts of a raid on Morocco are best interpreted as offering support for the plausibility of the sort of movement between North Africa and Britain/Ireland in this period that might have resulted in SK 3379 having 'migrated to York' or been 'descended from those that did', if he was indeed of 'African or mixed ancestry' as Keefe and Holst cautiously suggest. Likewise, we don't need to assume that all such interactions were hostile in the way described in the Fragmentary Annals either, nor that any people of African ancestry who might have been present in Britain at this time were enslaved or descended from enslaved people. Certainly, there is nothing from the burial of SK 3379 himself to offer support for such a conclusion; instead, he appears in both life and death to be similar to the rest of the community buried at St Benet's.

A silver penny minted at York in the name of St Peter of York, c. 921–7, found in Lincolnshire near to Newark (image: PAS).


1.     For details of this burial site and discussions of the material found there, see K. Keefe & M. Holst, Osteological Analysis 12-18 Swinegate, 14 Little Stonegate & 18 Back Swinegate, York, North Yorkshire, York Osteology Report no. 1815 (York, 2015); J. M. McComish, The Pre-Conquest Coffins from 12-18 Swinegate and 18 Back Swinegate, York Archaeological Trust Report no. 2015/46 (York, 2015); S. J. Allen, Wooden Coffins and Grave Furniture from 12–18 Swinegate, 14 Little Stonegate, and 18 Back Swinegate, York (YORYM 1989.28, 1990.28, 1990.1): an Insight Report (York, 2015); and J. L. Buckberry, A Social and Anthropological Analysis of Conversion Period and Later Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, 4 vols. (University of Sheffield PhD Thesis, 2004), vol. 1, pp. 23–5, 185, 217–19.
2.     Keefe & Holst, Osteological Analysis; see especially pp. 1 (quotation), 7–8, on the ancestry determination; my thanks to Malin Holst of the York Osteoarchaeology and the University of York for discussing this burial with me. The remains were analysed using standard methods for the assessment of ancestry in modern forensic anthropology, like those undertaken recently for a significant number of Roman-era burials from York too, using the criteria set out by S. N. Byers, Introduction to Forensic Anthropology (International Edition), 3rd edn (Boston, 2010), pp. 152-65. For the Roman-era studies, see S. Leach et al, 'Migration and diversity in Roman Britain: a multidisciplinary approach to the identification of immigrants in Roman York, England', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140 (2009), 546–61, and S. Leach et al, 'A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Britain', Antiquity, 84 (2010), 131–45.
3.     M. Archer, 'Fairford schoolboys who found skull are fascinated to hear it dates back 1,000 years', Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, 20 September 2013, newspaper report, available online.
4.     P. Wade-Martins, East Anglian Archaeology Report No. 9: Excavations in North Elmham Park 1967–72, 2 vols. (Gressenhall, 1980), vol. 2, pp. 259–62, 317–9; H. M. Clayton, Anglo-Saxon Medicine within its Social Context (University of Durham PhD Thesis, 1977), pp. 224–6.
5.     The phosphate oxygen isotope values recorded from the seventh- to ninth-century cemetery at Bamburgh (the 'royal city' of the Northumbrians) and the seventh-century cemetery at Ely both show the presence of multiple people buried there with values significantly above the maximum values expected for people who grew up in the British Isles (often defined as 18.6‰ δ¹⁸Op, although people on the far western margins of Britain and Ireland could theoretically have values up to 19.2‰ δ¹⁸Op) or, indeed, anywhere in Europe: see further this previous post, especially footnote 2. So, at Ely two people buried there had results of 19.7‰ δ¹⁸Op and 19.9‰ δ¹⁸Op, whilst at Bamburgh two people had results of 20.1‰ δ¹⁸Op and 20.3‰ δ¹⁸Op and a further five people had results ranging from 19.3‰ δ¹⁸Op to 19.5‰ δ¹⁸Op. See on these sites S. Lucy et al, 'The burial of a princess? The later seventh-­century cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely', Antiquity, 89 (2009), 81–141; J. A. Evans, C. A. Chenery & J. Montgomery, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation in archaeological human tooth enamel excavated from Britain', Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, 27 (2012), 754–64 and 'Supplementary Material I' (14 pp.); and S. E. Groves et al, 'Mobility histories of 7th–9th century AD people buried at early medieval Bamburgh, Northumberland, England', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 151 (2013), 462–76. On Hadrian's origins, see for example B. Bischoff & M. Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 84–92.
6.     J. N. Radner (ed. & trans.), Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978), FA 330, pp. 120–1.
7.     A. Christys, Vikings in the South: Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean (London, 2015), p. 54.
8.     V. E. Aguirre, The Viking Expeditions to Spain During the 9th Century, Mindre Skrifter No. 30 (Odense, 2013), p. 21.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2019, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

King Alfred and India: an Anglo-Saxon embassy to southern India in the ninth century AD

One of the more intriguing references to early medieval contacts between Britain and the wider world is found in the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', which mentions a late ninth-century AD embassy to India that was supposedly sent by King Alfred the Great. The following post offers a quick discussion of the evidence for this voyage before going on to consider its potential context and feasibility.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 883 AD in MS F, which refers to Alfred sending alms to the shrines of St Thomas in India and St Bartholomew (image: British LibraryCotton MS Domitian A VIII, f. 55v).

According to the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' for AD 883, King Alfred of Wessex sent two men, Sigehelm and Æthelstan, overseas with alms to carry both to Rome and to the shrines of 'St Thomas in India/Indea and to St Bartholomew', fulfilling a promise made when he besieged a Viking raiding-army at London (MSS D, E & F; also mentioned with additional details by William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, see below).
883: Sigehelm and Athelstan took to Rome—and also to St Thomas in India and to St Bartholomew—the alms which King Alfred had vowed to send there when they beseiged the raiding-army in London; and there, by the grace of God, they were very successful in obtaining their prayers in accordance with those vows.(1)
Needless to say, this passage has been the subject of considerable interest. Some have suggested that 'India seems an unlikely destination for two English thanes' and argued that we might thus see India/Indea as a mistranscription of Judea, based on variant forms in MSS B & C.(2) However, whilst possible, this is by no means a necessary assumption, and a reading of Sigehelm and Æthelstan's intended goal as indeed being India remains commonly accepted.(3) Certainly, a final destination for Alfred's two emissaries at shrines in India, rather than Judea, would fit well with contemporary Anglo-Saxon knowledge of the two saints mentioned in the Chronicle's account. As the ninth-century Old English Martyrology attests, both St Thomas and St Bartholomew were said to have been martyred in India in tales that were current in King Alfred's time; likewise, Cynewulf's arguably ninth-century Old English poem The Fates of the Apostles explicitly links these two saints with India, and so too do the works of Aldhelm, d. 709, whom King Alfred notably considered England's finest poet.(4) Furthermore, it may well be that, rather than India being an 'unlikely destination for two English thanes', its remoteness from early medieval England was, in fact, the very point of Alfred's gift: that, in return for success against a Viking raiding-army that had occupied London, King Alfred had deliberately pledged to send alms to the very furthest-known reaches of Christendom, to the land that was conceived of as mirroring Britain's position on the very far edge of the known world.(5)

A Late Anglo-Saxon map of the world, orientated with east at the top; Britain and India are situated at opposite sides of the world and both at its very margins, Britain on the far bottom edge of the map and India at the far top. Click the image for a larger version of this map (image: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius BV, f. 58v).

If two emissaries of an Anglo-Saxon king carrying alms for the shrines of St Thomas and St Bartholomew were indeed sent to India in the 880s, then this would naturally raise a number of additional questions, namely what, exactly, were Sigehelm and Æthelstan travelling to visit? How might they have travelled there and what was the context for such a visit? And who actually were these two travellers?

With regard to their intended destination, the usual—and most credible—interpretation of alms being sent to India by King Alfred is that they were being sent to shrines located in southern India. The existence there of an early and notable Syriac Christian community, known usually as 'Thomas Christians' after their claimed founder St Thomas the Apostle, is well-established. Although the exact circumstances of this community's origins are much debated, there is little doubt that stories of St Thomas's claimed missionary activity in India were circulating in the Mediterranean world by the third and fourth centuries AD, nor that there was indeed a permanent Christian community established in southern India by at least Late Antiquity.(6) So, for example, the Chronicle of Se’ert is believed to offer plausible testimony for fifth-century Christians in India, referring to a bishop of Rev-Ardashir at coastal Persis (Fars, Iran) sending materials for use among Christians in India in c. AD 470, and Isho'dad of Merv mentions that 'Daniel the Presbyter, the Indian', assisted Mar Koumi in preparing a Syriac translation of a Greek text for Bishop Mari of Rev-Ardashir, something that must have taken place in the early to mid-fifth century. Likewise, two letters of Isho‘yabh III, bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Patriarch of the Church of the East from 649 to 659, refer to the metropolitan of Fars administering Indian episcopal sees then, and India recieved its own metropolitan bishop in the seventh century by his hand and then again—possibly after a period in which it was once more under the authority of Fars—in the eighth century.(7)

A copper plate grant of AD 849 from Kollam, southern India, providing documentary evidence of the privileges and influence that the Saint Thomas Christians of the church at Kollam enjoyed in early Malabar; the document contains signatures of the witnesses in Pahlavi, Kufic and Hebrew scripts. For a colour image of these plates and further details, see the De Monfort University/British Museum project on the copper plates (image: Wikimedia Commons).

As to a knowledge of this Indian Christian community, with its Persian connections, in the Mediterranean region and Europe, various pieces of evidence from the fifth century and after are suggestive of an awareness of Christians in India that extended beyond the circulating accounts of the Acts of the Apostle Thomas. For example, the anonymous author usually known as Gelasius of Cyzicus, writing around AD 475 in Bithynia (modern Turkey), was certainly aware that Indian Christians were linked with the Persian church. Furthermore, by c. AD 500 the tradition had begun to circulate in Greek, Latin and Syriac sources that St Thomas had died at Kalamene/Calamina in India (Cholamandalam), something that is thought to reflect knowledge of the establishment of a tomb/shrine associated with St Thomas on the Coromandel coast in south India by this point at the latest, presumably the site at Mylapore where Thomas Christians venerated his tomb in subsequent periods (it is perhaps worth noting that this site is indeed mentioned in the ninth-century Old English Martyrology account of St Thomas, referred to above).(8) Other sources take us even further. Perhaps most famously, the Byzantine author known as Cosmas Indicopleustes—probably writing in Alexandria, Egypt, in the sixth century—demonstrates a notable degree of knowledge of India and Sri Lanka, making a number of references to Christians in India and Sri Lanka:
Even in the Island of Taprobane [Sri Lanka] in Inner India, where also the Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians, clergy and believers... The same is true in the place called Male [Malabar, India], where the pepper grows, and the place called Kaliana, and there is a bishop appointed from Persia... 
[Sri Lanka] has a church of Persian Christians who are resident in that country, and a priest sent from Persia, and a deacon, and all that is required for conducting the worship of the church.(9)
Even more intriguingly, Gregory of Tours—writing at Tours, France, towards the end of the sixth century—not only recounts a number of significant details regarding the shrine of St Thomas in India in his account of the saint, but also specifies the source of his knowledge of the shrine and church there as someone who had actually visited it, a point of considerable significance in the present context. The account in question is found in Gregory's Glory of the Martyrs, chapter 31, finished c. AD 590, and runs as follows:
The tomb of the apostle Thomas... [I]n that region of India where he had first been buried there are a monastery and a church that is spectacularly large and carefully decorated and constructed. In this church God revealed a great miracle. A lamp was placed there in front of the spot where he had been buried. Once lit, by divine command it burned without ceasing, day and night: no one offered the assistance of oil or a new wick. No wind blew it out, no accident extinguished it, and its brightness did not diminish. The lamp continues to burn because of the power of the apostle that is unfamiliar to men but is nevertheless associated with divine power. Theodorus, who visited the spot, told this to me.(10)
All told, it thus seems clear that there was indeed an early Christian community in southern India that was associated with St Thomas, as per the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', and which had a shrine and church—'spectacularly large and carefully decorated and constructed'—that visitors carrying alms from north-western Europe might journey to during the early medieval period. If the destination itself is therefore not implausible, what then of the second query outlined above, namely the context of such a visit and how two ninth-century Anglo-Saxons might have travelled to India?

Illustration of pepper trees, accompanying the text of Cosmas Indicopleustes's sixth-century Christian Topography in Codex Sinaiticus graecus 1186, fol. 202v, eleventh century, probably from Cappadocia, now at St. Katherine's monastery, Sinai; the text associated with it is translated as follows in Faller 2011: 'This is a picture of the tree which produces pepper. Each separate stem being very weak and limp twines itself, like the slender tendrils of the vine, around some lofty tree which bears no fruit. And every cluster of the fruit is protected by a double leaf. It is of a deep green colour like that of rue.' Faller suggests that both the image and text are 'so detailed and accurate that personal inspection and experience are almost a certainty' (image: Faller 2011, used under the CC BY 3.0 licence specified by the Journal of Transcultural Studies).
An Old English recipe for a salve against cysts, which contains a number of ingredients including radish, turnip and pepper from India, from BL Cotton MS Domitian A. i, f.55v (image: British Library, via For the Wynn).

With regard to this wider context, the early medieval journey of Theodorus to St Thomas's church in India, probably located at Kalamene/Calamina (Mylapore), and then back to western Europe—where he could inform the Bishop of Tours, Gregory, of the magnificent monastery and church that he found there—coincides with a period in which there is significant material evidence for contact between the Mediterranean and Europe on the one hand and the Indian Ocean world on the other.(11) However, there is no reason to think that subsequent centuries saw the severing of routes between India and the Mediterranean/Europe. Certainly, pepper from India continued to be used in north-western Europe into the mid-seventh century and beyond, and in impressive quantities: for example, the mid-seventh-century Merovingian king Chlothar III granted an annual rent of 30 pounds of pepper (grown in India) to a single monastery at Corbie in northern France, along with sizeable amounts of other spices including cinnamon (from Sri Lanka) and cloves (from Indonesia), and this grant was reconfirmed by Chilperic II in 716.(12) Likewise, in England Bede's few personal possessions included pepper when he died in AD 735, and Aldhelm at the end of the seventh century composed a riddle to which the answer was 'pepper', indicating that he expected his audience to be familiar with this spice:
I am black on the outside, covered with wrinkled skin, yet inside I have a glistening core. I season the delicacies of the kitchen: the feasts of kings and extravagant dishes and likewise sauces and stews. But you will find me of no value unless my inwards are crushed for their shining contents.(13
Indeed, in the probably late ninth-century 'Bald's Leechbook', written for Anglo-Saxon physicians in King Alfred's reign, Indian pepper frequently occurs and is, it should be noted, mentioned more times than many native ingredients, being prescribed in more than thirty recipes in the first book alone.(14) Perhaps most famously of all, however, several trade routes leading from western Europe to India and beyond were, in fact, documented during the mid-ninth century in Ibn Khordadbeh's account of the Jewish Radhanite merchants found in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms:
These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Roman (i.e. Greek and Latin), the Frank, Spanish, and Slav languages. They journey from West to East, from East to West, partly on land, partly by sea. They transport from the West eunuchs, female slaves, boys, brocade, castor, marten, and other furs, and swords. They take ship from Firanja (France), on the Western Sea, and make for Farama (Pelusium, Egypt). There they load their goods on camel-back and go by land to al-Kolzom (Suez), a distance of twenty-five farsakhs (parasangs). They embark in the East Sea (Red Sea) and sail from al-Kolzom to al-Jar (port of Medina) and Jeddah (port of Mecca), then they go to Sind, India, and China. On their return from China they carry back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries to al-Kolzom and bring them back to Farama, where they again embark on the Western Sea. Some make sail for Constantinople to sell their goods to the Romans; others go to the palace of the King of the Franks to place their goods. Sometimes these Jew merchants, when embarking from the land of the Franks, on the Western Sea, make for Antioch (at the mouth of the Orontes); thence by land to al-Jabia (? al-Hanaya on the bank of the Euphrates), where they arrive after three days’ march. There they embark on the Euphrates and reach Baghdad, whence they sail down the Tigris, to al-Obolla. From al-Obolla they sail for Oman, Sind, Hind, and China... These different journeys can also be made by land. The merchants that start from Spain or France go to Sus al-Aksa (Morocco) and then to Tangier, whence they walk to Afrikia (Kairouan) and the capital of Egypt. Thence they go to ar-Ramla, visit Damascus, al-Kufa, Baghdad, and al-Basra (Bassora), cross Ahwaz, Fars, Kirman, Sind, Hind, and arrive in China.(15)
In light of all this, it seems clear that Sigehelm and Æthelstan's claimed late ninth-century journey from England to 'St Thomas in India' was not only credible in terms of its proposed destination, as noted above, but also the availability of routes for getting there, to judge both from the continued availability of imports from India (and beyond) in north-western Europe and Ibn Khordadbeh's testimony as to routes accessible in the ninth century for travelling from West to East and back again (note, a northern trade-route that brought a small number of Indian coins and at least one statuette of the Buddha to eighth- to tenth-century northern Europe and England also existed, but is perhaps less relevant to the present inquiry, not least because King Alfred is said to have sent Sigehelm and Æthelstan with alms for Rome as well as India).

Map of Eurasia and North Africa, c. AD 870, showing trade routes of the Radhanite Jewish merchants (blue) and other major routes (purple) blue; cities with sizable Jewish communities are shown in brown. Click here for a larger version of this map (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Finally, as to the question of the identity of these two Anglo-Saxon royal emissaries, several candidates have been proposed. William of Malmesbury, writing in England in the early twelfth century, identified Sigehelm as a bishop of Sherborne in both his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum and his Gesta Regum Anglorum, and claims that the gems Sigehelm brought back from India could still be seen at Sherborne in William's day:
He [Ealhstan, bishop of Sherborne] was followed as bishop by Heahmind, Æthelheah, Wulfsige, Asser and Sigehelm. Both the last two are known to have been bishops in the time of king Alfred, who was the fourth son of Æthelwulf... Sigehelm was sent overseas on almonry duties for the king, even getting as far as to St Thomas's in India. Something which could cause wonder for people of this generation is that his journey deep into India was a marvellously prosperous one, as he brought back exotic precious stones, in which the land abounds, and some of them can still be seen in precious objects in the church.(16)
Being devoted to almsgiving, he [King Alfred] confirmed the privileges of churches as laid down by his father, and sent many gifts overseas to Rome and to St Thomas in India. For this purpose he dispatched an envoy, Sigehelm bishop of Sherborne, who made his way to India with great success, an astonishing feat even today, and brought with him on his return gems of exotic splendour and the liquid perfumes of which the soil there is productive...(17)
This identification of Sigehelm is also briefly alluded to by John of Worcester in the early twelfth-century Chronicon ex Chronicis, in which he states that the 'bishop of Sherborne', Swithelm [sic], 'carried King Alfred's alms to St Thomas in India, and returned thence in safety'.(18) Needless to say, the claim that Sigehelm returned from India bringing with him 'exotic precious stones' that 'can still be seen in precious objects in the church' suggests that William was basing his account on local traditions at Sherborne. Nonetheless, his identification has been subject to some scepticism on account of the fact that William omits the names of three bishops of Sherborne who come between Asser and Sigehelm in the preserved episcopal lists, and that Sigehelm signs charters as bishop from AD 925 to 932, not in Alfred's reign, 871–99.(19) Whether these discrepancies are fatal to William's identification is open to debate, however. The mistaken attribution of Sigehelm's episcopacy to Alfred's reign and the omission of three intervening bishops in the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum may simply reflect an attempt by William and/or his source to reconcile a local Sherborne tradition that Sigehelm, bishop of Sherborne, was Alfred's envoy to India—and that he returned with riches subsequently used to endow the church at Sherborne with, and which could still be pointed out in the early twelfth century—with the dates of King Alfred, working from a false assumption that Sigehelm must have been bishop when he was sent overseas. In this light, it is worth pointing out that Sigehelm could conceivably have both travelled to India in 883 and attested charters from 925–32 if his pilgrimage carrying alms to India for King Alfred took place in his relative youth and he had become the Bishop of Sherborne in his relative old age.(20)

On the other hand, if the early tenth-century bishop of Sherborne named Sigehelm was not the Sigehelm sent to India in 883, contrary to what William of Malmesbury appears to have been told and shown of his supposed spoils from his trip at Sherborne, then identifying him is significantly more difficult: he could be the western Kentish ealdorman killed by the Danes in 902, as some have speculated, but he could equally well be another Sigehelm active in the era, either recorded or otherwise. As to Sigehelm's companion, Æthelstan, he is even more obscure, and unfortunately no recorded traditions of his identity survive. He may be a Mercian priest and chaplain of this name who was associated with Alfred according to Asser's contemporary Life of Alfred, but the name is very common and there are multiple alternative candidates available, including at least two thegns and an ealdorman active in Alfred's reign.(21)

In conclusion, what can be said of King Alfred's apparent embassy to India in the 880s? All told, it seems credible that India was indeed the intended destination for the alms carried by Sigehelm and Æthelstan in 883. Not only is this reading of the text the most commonly supported position and backed by the majority of the manuscripts, but it accords well with the identity of the two saints whose shrines were to be visited according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, St Thomas and St Bartholomew: these were both explicitly and repeatedly associated with India in material current in Alfred's day. Indeed, India's remoteness from early medieval England could well have been the very point of Alfred's gift, as noted above, and it would moreover fit with what we know of Alfred's own intellectual curiosity about the wider world and its limits, as Oliver Pengelly has recently pointed out.(22) Beyond this, it would seem that such a journey would also have a good context. It is clear that there was indeed a permanent Christian community in India from at least Late Antiquity, if not before, and knowledge of a shrine and church dedicated to St Thomas at Mylapore had spread to the west by c. 500; indeed, Gregory of Tours' account of the church and monastery of St Thomas in India indicates that Sigehelm and Æthelstan would have been by no means the first to visit this shrine in the early medieval era. Furthermore, a journey from western Europe to southern India appears plausible in terms of not only its proposed destination, but also the availability of routes for getting there, given the continued availability of imports from India and Ibn Khordadbeh's account of ninth-century trans-continental routeways. Finally, whilst the identity of King Alfred's two emissaries, Sigehelm and Æthelstan, remains uncertain, it can be tentatively suggested that we should be wary of rejecting outright the apparent Sherborne tradition recorded by William of Malmesbury in the early twelfth century that Sigehelm, bishop of Sherborne, was one of those who travelled to India; likewise, it is not impossible that Æthelstan may have been the Mercian priest of that name who appears in Asser's contemporary Life of Alfred as Alfred's close confidant.

The famous stone cross preserved on St Thomas's Mount, Mylapore, Chennai; the cross includes an inscription in Pahlavi ('Our lord Christ, have pity on Sabriso, (son) of Caharboxt, (son) of Suray, who bore (brought?) this (cross).') that is considered to date on palaeographic grounds to around the eighth century AD.(23) The cross was found in the area of India believed to be the location of the Indian tomb/shrine associated with St Thomas that was known in the early medieval west as Kalamene/Calamina, discussed above; as such, if Sigehelm and Æthelstan did indeed travel to India to visit the shrine of St Thomas in the late ninth century, then it is not implausible that they could have looked on this cross during their visit there (image: Wikimedia Commons).


1.     M. J. Swanton (ed. & trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London, 1996), p. 79. Note, this annal is missing from MS A of the Chronicle but is present in MSS B, C, D, E and F, and is thus thought to represent a contemporary insertion into the text—see, for example, O. Pengelly, Rome in Ninth-Century Anglo-Saxon England (University of Oxford D.Phil Thesis, 2010), pp. 164–5, 246, 286; S. Keynes, 'King Alfred and the Mercians', in M. A. S. Blackburn & D. N. Dumville (eds.), Kings, Currency, and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century (Woodbridge, 1998), pp. 1–45 at pp. 21–4.
2.     J. Harris, 'Wars and rumours of wars: England and the Byzantine world in the eighth and ninth centuries', Mediterranean Historical Review, 14 (1999), 29–46, quotation at p. 39; others holding to this interpretation include R. Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1998), p. 192, and J. Parker, 'Ruling the waves: Saxons, Vikings, and the sea in the formation of an Anglo-British identity in the nineteenth century', in S. I. Sobecki (ed.), The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages: Maritime Narratives, Identity and Culture (Cambridge, 2011), pp.195–206 at p. 200.
3.     See, for example, M. J. Swanton (ed. & trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London, 1996), p. 79; D. Anlezark, Alfred the Great (Bradford, 2017), p. 54; C. R. Hart, Learning and Culture in Late Anglo-Saxon England and the Influence of Ramsey Abbey on the Major English Monastic Schools (Lampeter, 2003), p. 178; O. Pengelly, Rome in Ninth-Century Anglo-Saxon England (University of Oxford D.Phil Thesis, 2010), pp. 245–7, 254, 267, 277; M. B. Busbee, 'A paradise full of monsters: India in the Old English imagination', LATCH, 1 (2008), 51–72; R. E. Frykenberg, Christianity in India (Oxford, 2008), pp. 112, 117; N. J. Andrade, The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity: Networks and the Movement of Culture (Cambridge, 2018), pp. 225 (fn. 67) & 228; H. R. Loyn, Society and Peoples: Studies in the History of England and Wales, c. 600-1200 (London, 1992), p. 253; D. Whitelock (ed. & trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London, 1961), p. 50; and Dr Beachcoming, 'Anglo-Saxons in southern India?', blog post, 15 July 2011, online at
4.     Old English Martyrology: C. Rauer (ed. & trans.), The Old English Martyrology: Edition, Translation and Commentary (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 167, 227 ('On the twenty-first day of the month [December] is the feast of the apostle St Thomas, who in Greek was called Didymus... And after Christ's ascension he instructed many nations in Christ's faith...[including] two Indian nations... he travelled through the lands of pagan people and the eastern parts of the world, and in India he built their king's hall in heaven, whose name was Gundaphorus... In another Indian country... one of the pagan bishops then killed the servant of Christ, and the texts sometimes say that he was stabbed with a sword, sometimes they say he was stabbed with spears. He suffered in the city of Calamina in India...'; 'On the twenty-fifth day of the month [August] is the feast of the apostle St Bartholomew; he was Christ's missionary in the country of India, which is the outermost of all regions... In this country he cast out idols which they had previously worshipped there...'). The Fates of the Apostles: S. A. J. Bradley (ed. & trans.), Anglo-Saxon Poetry (London, 1995), pp. 155–6 ('Certainly, it has been no secret fact abroad that Bartholomew, a soldier strong in the strife, went to live among the people of India... So too Thomas bravely ventured to other parts in India, where the heart was illumined and the purpose strengthened in many people through his holy word...'). The works of Aldhelm: M. Lapidge & J. L. Rosier, Aldhelm: the Poetic Works (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 53–4, 55 ('On Thomas: ...Christ, therefore, the holy offspring of God, sent this man, who was performing many miracles with magnificent success, to convert the peoples of the orient with holy books. India at that time worshipped icons with unspeakable rite... but it confessed the true faith when Thomas won its salvation and (henceforth) believed in Christ, Who controls the sceptres of heaven.'; 'On St Bartholomew: Mighty India stands as the last of the lands of the earth... Given over to pagan rites, India used to worship idols. But Bartholomew destroyed the pagan shrines, duly smashing the images of the pagan gods...'); M. Lapidge & M. Herren, Aldhelm: the Prose Works (Cambridge, 1979), p. 81 ('Didymus [Thomas] at one time the disbelieving doubter of the Lord's resurrection—but once the scars of Christ's wounds had been seen, (became) its confident preacher—who illumined the tripartite provinces of eastern India with the clear light of evangelical preaching and totally annulled the... rites of (pagan) sanctuaries...'). On King Alfred's view of Aldhelm as the finest Anglo-Saxon poet, see M. Lapidge, 'The career of Aldhelm', Anglo-Saxon England, 36 (2007), 15–69 at p. 18 and fn. 17, & A. Orchard, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm (Cambridge, 1994), p. 5.
5.     For the view that there was indeed a Viking raiding-army that occupied London in 883, see S. Keynes, 'King Alfred and the Mercians', in M. A. S. Blackburn & D. N. Dumville (eds.), Kings, Currency, and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century (Woodbridge, 1998), pp. 1–45 at pp. 21–4; for the idea that India was conceived of as mirroring Britain's position on the edge of the known world, see M. B. Busbee, 'A paradise full of monsters: India in the Old English imagination', LATCH, 1 (2008), 51–72. See further O. Pengelly, Rome in Ninth-Century Anglo-Saxon England (University of Oxford D.Phil Thesis, 2010), pp. 246–7, 267, 277–8, on how dispatching a expedition to the far-eastern limits of Christendom may have been a deliberate choice on Alfred's part.
6.     See especially R. E. Frykenberg, 'Thomas Christians and the Thomas tradition', in Frykenberg, Christianity in India (Oxford, 2008), pp. 91–115; N. J. Andrade, The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity: Networks and the Movement of Culture (Cambridge, 2018); S. Neill, A History of Christianity in India (Cambridge, 1984); and W. Baum & D. W. Winkler, The Church of the East: A Concise History (London, 2003), pp. 51–8.
7.     N. J. Andrade, The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2018), especially pp. 143–4; M. D. Gibson (ed. & trans.), The Commentaries of Isho'dad of Merv, Bishop of Hadatha (Cambridge, 1916), vol. V, part 2, pp. xi–xiv; C. Buck, 'The universality of the Church of the East: how Persian was Persian Christianity?', Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society, 10 (1996), 54–95 at pp. 68–9; S. Neill, A History of Christianity in India (Cambridge, 1984), p. 44.
8.     N. J. Andrade, The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2018), especially pp. 144–5, 212–13, 222–5, 227–32; C. G. Cereti, L. M. Olivieri & J. Vazhuthanapally, 'The problem of the Saint Thomas Crosses and related questions: epigraphical survey and preliminary research', East and West, 52 (2002), 285–310 at pp. 303–04. On the shrine/tomb and associated church at Mylapore, Chennai, see further Cereti, Olivieri & Vazhuthanapally, 'The problem of the Saint Thomas Crosses and related questions', East and West, 52 (2002), 285–310 at pp. 302–09.
9.     R. E. Frykenberg, Christianity in India (Oxford, 2008), p. 110; on Cosmas Indicopleustes and his knowledge of India, see further S. Fallar, 'The world according to Cosmas Indicopleustes—concepts and illustrations of an Alexandrian merchant and monk', Journal of Transcultural Studies, 1 (2011), 193–232. Incidentally, it is worth noting that Cosmas Indicopleustes's work was probably known in Anglo-Saxon England, see B. Bischoff & M. Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 208–11.
10.     R. Van Dam (trans.), Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Martyrs (Liverpool, 1988), p. 51; N. J. Andrade, The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2018), p. 227.
11.     Long-distance trade and contacts in the fifth to seventh centuries AD have been the topic of several previous posts on this site, especially C. R. Green, 'A very long way from home: early Byzantine finds at the far ends of the world', blog post, 21 March 2017, online at, & C. R. Green, 'Indo-Pacific beads from Europe to Japan? Another fifth- to seventh-century AD global distribution', blog post, 22 July 2018, online at See further, for example, R. Tomber, Indo-Roman Trade: From Pots to Pepper (London, 2008); K. R. Dark, 'Globalizing late antiquity: models, metaphors and the realities of long-distance trade and diplomacy', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalisation? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 3–14; J. Drauschke, '"Byzantine" and "oriental" imports in the Merovingian Empire from the second half of the fifth to the beginning of the eighth century', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalisation? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 53–73; C. Pion & B. Gratuze, 'Indo-Pacific glass beads from the Indian subcontinent in Early Merovingian graves (5th–6th century AD)', Archaeological Research in Asia, 6 (2016), 51–64.
12.     D. W. Rollason, Early Medieval Europe 300-1050: The Birth of Western Society (London, 2012), p. 160; I. Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms 450–751 (London, 1994), pp. 215–16.
13.     Aldhelm: M. L. Cameron, 'Bald's Leechbook and cultural interactions in Anglo-Saxon England', Anglo-Saxon England, 19 (1990), 5–12 at p.8. Bede: Epistola de Obitu Bede, 'Cuthbert's letter on the death of Bede', translated in J. McClure & R. Collins (ed.), Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1994), p. 302. Another reference to pepper (and cinnamon) in Anglo-Saxon England comes in a letter of 732–42 to an English abbess named Cuniburg that mentions the sending of both pepper and cinnamon to her: E. Emerton, The Letters of St Boniface (New York, 1940), pp. 55–6.
14.     M. L. Cameron, 'Bald's Leechbook and cultural interactions in Anglo-Saxon England', Anglo-Saxon England, 19 (1990), 5–12 at p.8; K. S. Beckett, Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 62–5. Note, 'Bald's Leechbook' is not the only Anglo-Saxon medical recipe book to include pepper and other eastern ingredients; they also occur in the tenth-century Lacnunga, for example. Moreover, it is worth emphasising that the evidence is against these medical recipes being simply indiscriminately copied and not actually used: whole recipes containing rarely used exotic ingredients were omitted and other recipes saw modification to omit perishable exotic ingredients, whilst further recipes see pepper and cinnamon compounded with native ingredients according to typical English methods, as Beckett, p. 65, observes.
15.     Ibn Khordadbeh in E. N. Adler, Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages (New York, 1987), pp. 2–3; on the Radhanite merchants, see further M. Gil, 'The Rādhānite merchants and the land of Rādhān', Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 17 (1974), 299–328.
16.     William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, chapter 80, trans. D. Prest (Woodbridge, 2002), pp. 117–18.
17.     William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, ii.122.2, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, & M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol. 1, pp. 190–1.
18.     John of Worcester, Chronicon ex Chronicis, trans. T. Forester, The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester (London, 1854), p. 73.
19.     For the bishops and their dates, see M. A. O'Donovan, 'An interim revision of episcopal dates for the province of Canterbury, 850–950: Part II', Anglo-Saxon England, 2 (1973), 91–113 at pp. 104–05. For scepticism over William's identification, see W. H. Stevenson, Asser's Life of King Alfred (Oxford, 1904), pp. 289–90; D. Whitelock, 'William of Malmesbury on the works of King Alfred', in D. A. Pearsall & R. A. Waldron (eds.), Medieval Literature and Civilization: Studies in Memory of G. N. Garmonsway (London, 1969), pp. 78–93 at p. 83. R. M. Thomson & M. Winterbottom, William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: II, General Introduction and Commentary (Oxford, 1999), pp. 98–9, accept Stevenson's scepticism, but also note that 'There is no reason to doubt that William here represents local (Sherborne) tradition' (p. 99), and Whitelock similarly considers that William of Malmesbury must have been 'told at Sherborne that this church still had in its possession some rare gems brought back from India by Bishop Sigehelm' (Whitelock, 'William of Malmesbury', p. 83).
20.     See, for example, L. White, Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays (London, 1978), pp. 214–5.
21.     The two specific alternative candidates for Sigehelm and Æthelstan detailed here are supported by W. H. Stevenson, Asser's Life of King Alfred (Oxford, 1904), p. 290; D. Pratt, 'The illnesses of King Alfred the Great', Anglo-Saxon England, 30 (2001), 39–90 at p. 69; and R. Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1998), p. 191. Æthelstan, a priest, is said to have been summoned from Mercia by King Alfred in Asser's Life of Alfred, chp. 77; he attests a number of charters and may be the Æthelstan who was appointed bishop of Ramsbury in c. 909, which is intriguing given the traditional identity of his companion, Sigehelm, and the suggestion made above as to his career: S. Keynes & M. Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (London, 1983), pp. 92–3, 259.
22.     O. Pengelly, Rome in Ninth-Century Anglo-Saxon England (University of Oxford D.Phil Thesis, 2010), pp. 246–7, 267, 277–8; Pengelly has argued that the dispatch of the mission arguably reflects 'something of the king's intellectual curiosity about the wider world and its limits... Alfred was probing the horizons of the wider world he had inherited from Christian Latin culture' (p. 247).
23.     S. Neill, A History of Christianity in India (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 47–8; C. G. Cereti, L. M. Olivieri & J. Vazhuthanapally, 'The problem of the Saint Thomas Crosses and related questions: epigraphical survey and preliminary research', East and West, 52 (2002), 285–310; N. J. Andrade, The Journey of Christianity to India in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2018), pp. 211–2.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2019, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Were there camels in medieval Britain? A brief note on Bactrian camels and dromedaries in fifteenth-century Kent

The following brief note is concerned with an intriguing fifteenth-century reference to both Bactrian camels and dromedaries (aka Arabian camels) in England, examining both the context of these specific animals in late medieval Kent before moving on to look at the wider evidence for the presence of camels in medieval Britain and Ireland.

King Arthur riding a camel on a glass roundel of c. 1500; click here for a larger version of this picture (image: Met Museum).

Previous posts on here have discussed the archaeological and textual evidence for the presence and use of camels in Roman and early medieval Europe, but have only touched on their presence in medieval Britain and Ireland. The prompt for the present discussion is an intriguing reference in the fifteenth-century work known as John Stone's Chronicle, f. 78b:
In the year of the Lord 1466, on the twelfth day of the month of December, namely, on the vigil of St. Lucy the Virgin, there came to Canterbury [gap in text] the Lord Patriarch of Antioch, who, in honor of the king and queen, had here four dromedaries and two camels. And this had never before been seen in England.(1)
Needless to say, this is a most intriguing reference, indicating the presence of both two-humped Bactrian camels and single-humped dromedaries (or Arabian camels) in medieval Kent! The chronicle itself is preserved in a fifteenth-century manuscript, CCCC MS 417, written by a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, in 1467, with contemporary additions through until 1472, and as such can be considered an exemplary witness. The context of the presence of six camels at Canterbury is rather more mysterious. In particular, the identity of the 'Lord Patriarch of Antioch' who seems to have brought these camels to Canterbury 'in honour of the king and queen', has often been unclear. The first editor of the text, W. G. Searle, identified him simply as 'Peter II, Maronite patriarch' of Antioch, following W. F. Hook's suggestion in his 1867 Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury.(2) However, it seems likely that he was, in fact, Ludovico Severi da Bologna, a Franciscan observant who styled himself as Patriarch of Antioch and papal legate to the East.

One of a number of gold camels bearing flower baskets that march across the fifteenth-century Erpingham Chasuble, embroidered in late medieval England (image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, used under their non-commercial licence). 

A miniature of a camel from a manuscript probably made for King Edward IV of England (1461–70, 1471–83), who was the king in whose honour the six camels were paraded by the Patriarch of Antioch in 1466; from MS Royal 15 E III f. 200 (image: British Library).

Although Ludovico da Bologna is sometimes described as a fraud, this is arguably unfair. Ludovico first appears in a papal bull of 1454, when he is residing in Jerusalem and is granted privileges and dispensation by Pope Nicholas V to travel to Ethiopia and India, and in 1456 he is again engaged to act as Pope Callixtus III's messenger to Ethiopia. In 1457 Ludovico is sent by the pope with letters of recommendation to the Christians of Persia and Georgia, and the next pope, Pius II, confirmed these tasks and the perogatives granted to him in 1458. In 1460, Ludovico returned from the East accompanied by what seem to be genuine ambassadors from a number of eastern rulers including David Megas Komnenos, the Emperor of Trezibond, and George VIII of Georgia, who were seeking aid against the Ottomans, and Uzun Hasan, the Turkoman ruler of Persia, who was said to be ready to provide military assistance. Upon meeting with Pope Pius II, the ambassadors not only specified the readiness of their kingdoms to engage in military action, but also requested that Pope Pius II name Ludovico as Patriarch of Antioch, something that the pope agreed to do but stipulated that Ludovico should not use the title until he was consecrated as such by him after both the completion of his mission and the territorial jurisdiction of the patriarchate had been defined. Ludovico's party was then sent on by the pope to Milan, France and Burgundy—where they were received with apparent enthusiasm and great celebrations—in order to obtain and confirm commitments for a future crusade against the Ottomans, before returning to Italy in 1461.

It is at this point that things seem to have gone somewhat awry, as Ludovico da Bologna and his party for some reason decided not to wait any longer for Pope Pius II to do as he promised and instead had Ludovico consecrated as Patriarch of Antioch immediately in Venice, a decision that aroused papal wrath and saw Ludovico having to leave Venice to escape this. In the long-term, however, this dispute over his proper consecration as patriarch seems not to have greatly affected Ludovico's ability to function as a papal envoy and diplomat. In 1465, for example, he is recorded as acting as papal legate for Pope Paul II (1464–71) to the first Crimean khan Hacı I Giray and then subsequently ambassador from the khan to Casimir IV Jagiellon, King of Poland, with Ludovico using the title Patriarch of Antioch whilst in Poland. Similarly, in 1468–9 he seems to have been present in Denmark as papal ambassador and 'Patriarch', where he helped in ending the rivalries between Denmark and Sweden, and in 1471 he was in Rome meeting with Pope Paul II on behalf of the Uzun Hasan of Persia. In 1472, the new pope, Sixtus IV, reconfirmed and republished Ludovico's nomination to Patriarch of Antioch and invited him to resume negotiations for an anti-Ottoman alliance. Ludovico was subsequently also appointed by Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, as his ambassador to Persia in 1473, and in 1475 he was recorded in Persia in audience with Uzun Hasan, who sent back positive messages with him to Europe.

In light of all of the above, it thus seems highly likely that the 'Lord Patriarch of Antioch' who arrived in England in December 1466 can be identified as Ludovico Severi da Bologna. Not only was he clearly active as a diplomat in this period, visiting a number of northern European countries as a papal ambassador using just this title, but he also clearly had close connections to a number of eastern rulers and states that might have provided the camels that he brought with him 'in honor of the king and queen' of England, if they weren't sourced in Europe itself. The visit of 1466 was presumably an otherwise-unrecorded diplomatic endeavour by Ludovico acting as 'Patriarch of Antioch' to promote positive relations and commitments for an anti-Ottoman alliance between the rulers of East and Europe.

A miniature of a man riding a camel, probably drawn in south-east England (possibly Rochester, Kent); from the mid-thirteenth-century MS Royal 12 F XIII f. 38v (image: British Library).

If this is the immediate political context for the presence of four dromedaries (Arabian camels) and two Bactrian camels in fifteenth-century Kent, what of the wider context of camels in medieval Britain? Whilst John Stone's assertion that such a mixed troop of six Bactrian and Arabian camels 'had never before been seen in England' could be true, it is demonstrably not the case that 1466 represented the first appearance of camels in Britain since the Roman era. Indeed, the earliest reference to camels as definitely present in medieval Britain comes rather from the beginning of the twelfth century. William of Malmesbury, writing in the early twelfth century, records the following of the menagerie of King Henry I of England (1100–35) installed at Woodstock near Oxford, which he had apparently visited himself:
Henry took a passionate delight in the marvels of other countries, with much affability... asking foreign kings to send him animals not found in England—lions, leopards, lynxes, camels—and he had a park called Woodstock in which he kept his pets of this description. He had put there an animal called a porcupine, sent him by William of Montpellier, which is mentioned by Pliny in the eighth book of his Natural History and in Isidore in his Etymologies; they report the existence of an animal in Africa, called by the Africans a kind of hedgehog, covered with bristling splines, which it has the power to shoot out at dohgs pursuing it. The spines, as I have seen for myself, are a palm or more in length, and sharp at both ends, something like goose quills at the point where the feather-part leaves off, but rather thicker, and as it were striped black and white.(3)
Moreover, the king of England was not the sole possessor of camels in Britain and Ireland then, with the Irish Annals of Inisfallen recording under 1105 that 'in the above year a camel, an animal of remarkable size, was brought from the king of Alba to Muirchertach Ua Briain', indicating that the rulers of both Scotland and Ireland had camels amongst their own royal menageries in the early twelfth century. Whether there were any camels in medieval Britain or Ireland before the start of the twelfth century is undocumented, although Rodulf Tortarius writing, according to Mark Hagger, at the end of the eleventh century in his Epistula IX, recounts that William the Conqueror provided the citizens of Caen in Normandy with a wild animal show involving lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and ostriches that Rodulf himself witnessed. If correct, this obviously raises the distinct possibility that an Anglo-Norman royal menagerie containing camels may have been at least occasionally present in William's English domains too, and that Henry I's menagerie at Woodstock could furthermore have been partly an inheritance from his father.

Two Bactrian camels positioned above Duke William of Normandy, later King William I of England, on the Bayeux Tapestry, probably made in England in the 1070s (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Camels in the eleventh-century Old English Hexateuch, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 39v (image: British Library).

Looking forward in time from Henry I, the medieval English royal menagerie seems to have regularly included camels. For example, in 1235 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II sent a camel to King Henry III of England 'as a token of the continuation of his regard', and Henry's son King Edward I is recorded as having kept a camel at his palace at Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, for the amusement of his children. Edward II likewise kept a camel at Kings Langley Palace—his camel-keeper was called Ralph Camyle and the animal's feed included hay, beans, barley and oats, with the area of the royal park responsible for producing the camel's fodder apparently being subsequently known as Camylesland. Edward II is also recorded as being the recipient of two camels in 1317 from the wealthy Genoese merchant Antonio di Pessagno in return for appointing him steward of Gascony, and camels continued to be kept during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II too. Indeed, the latter granted John Wyntirbourne 'the keepership of the king's camel' for life in January 1393 and apparently receiving a camel and a pelican from the people of London at around the same time, the two events presumably being related. Finally, moving into the fifteenth century, Henry VI is recorded as having received 'of late three camels and an ostrich from Turkey' in March 1443 from an Italian merchant named Nicholas Jone of Bologna, and in 1472 Edward IV sent a camel to Ireland, this being potentially one of the beasts brought to England in 1466 by the Patriarch of Antioch 'in honor of the king and queen'.

In conclusion, it seems possible to elucidate the context of the intriguing reference to both Bactrian camels and dromedaries in medieval Kent found in John Stone's Chronicle for 1466. Firstly, the 'Lord Patriarch of Antioch' who paraded six of these beasts in Canterbury can be identified as Ludovico Severi da Bologna, an important papal diplomat who was promoting positive relations and a potential anti-Ottoman alliance between the rulers of East and Europe in this period. The four dromedaries and two Bactrian camels that John Stone saw were presumably intended as gifts for King Edward IV as part of this diplomatic effort, and in this light it is interesting to note the possibility that one of these camels was subsequently 'regifted' by Edward IV to Ireland a few years later. Secondly, although John Stone expressed astonishment at the sight of these six exotic beasts, it ought to be emphasised that they were by no means the first camels to be physically present in medieval Britain. Indeed, there is solid evidence for the presence of such creatures in England, Scotland and Ireland at least as far back as the early twelfth century, with potential hints of an even earlier presence, and English kings are recorded as receiving a number of camels as gifts from other rulers as well as townsfolk and merchants at various points in previous reigns.

A Barbary macaque riding backwards on a camel, England, c. AD 1300; note, there is both documentary and archaeological evidence for the presence of Barbary macaques in medieval Britain and Ireland. Click here for a larger version of this illustration (image: MS. Douce 151 f.26r).

A kneeling camel misericord carving, c. 1390, in the Church of St Botolph, Boston, Lincolnshire (image: Spencer Means, CC BY-SA 2.0).


1.     M. Connor (ed. & trans.), John Stone's Chronicle: Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, 1417–1472 (Kalamazoo, 2010), p. 116, and W. G. Searle (ed.), Christ Church, Canterbury: I. The Chronicle of John Stone (Cambridge, 1902), p. 97; my thanks to Richard Hopper for drawing my attention to this reference.
2.     W. G. Searle (ed.), Christ Church, Canterbury: I. The Chronicle of John Stone (Cambridge, 1902), p. 122; W. F. Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury (London, 1867), vol. v, p. 357.
3.     William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, v.409.2–3, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, & M. Winterbottom (Oxford, 1998), vol. 1, pp. 740–1.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2018, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

The submerged prehistoric forests on Trusthorpe and Cleethorpes beaches, Lincolnshire

The aim of this post is simply to share some recent images of the underwater prehistoric forests at Trusthorpe and Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. The submerged forest at Trusthorpe is only rarely seen, especially since beach replenishment works along the coast here; however, an unusually low tide on Monday 13th August, 2018, exposed at least two of the tree stumps and I was able to take the following pictures of these.

One of the tree stumps exposed on Monday, 13th August 2018 at Trusthorpe, Lincolnshire; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Top view of the submerged prehistoric tree stump exposed at Trusthorpe, Lincolnshire, in August 2018, showing its tree rings; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Another of the prehistoric tree stumps exposed by an exceptionally low tide at Trusthorpe, Lincolnshire; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

The tree stumps and trunks that are revealed by such very low tides and in excavations all along the Lincolnshire coast from Immingham to Ingoldmells have their origins in a drowned prehistoric forest that once stretched out over what is now the floor of the North Sea after the last Ice Age, when global sea-levels dropped to around 120 metres below their current levels. For the early part of the Mesolithic era, beginning c. 9600 BC, the actual coastline lay a significant distance to the north-east and eastern Lincolnshire represented part of an upland district rather than a coastal zone. However, from about 8,500 years ago, this situation began to change as the inexorably rising sea-level due to the melting of the glaciers pushed the coastline ever nearer. Sometime around 6200 BC, the land bridge connecting Britain to the continent was severed, perhaps being finally destroyed by the Storegga Slide tsunami, and by approximately 6000 BC the flooding of what remained of Doggerland had advanced sufficiently that the coastline probably lay just to the seaward of its present position along much of east Lincolnshire. As this process continued, the trees that are now found submerged off the Lincolnshire coast were first subject to waterlogging as the water-table rose and were then submerged by the rising tide. The date of this waterlogging and submersion varies from site to site, depending on the elevation of the land on which the forest grew: at Immingham and Theddlethorpe the waterlogging of the prehistoric landscape has been dated to 5840–5373 BC and 6205–6012 BC respectively, whilst at Anderby Creek and Cleethorpes the trees on the foreshore were submerged in 3514–3349 BC and 2912–2299 BC, as determined by the radiocarbon dating of their wood.

The extent of Doggerland about 12,000 years ago at the end of the last glacial era, with possible reindeer migration routes shown (drawn by C. R. Green for Origins of Louth, based on Barton, 2005 and Shennan et al, 2000, with permission).

The last stages in the drowning of Mesolithic Doggerland, from the perspective of Lincolnshire and the Fens (drawn by C. R. Green for Origin of Louth, based on Shennan et al, 2000, with permission). Louth is marked to help in understanding the changes; darker blue indicates areas permanently under water, light blue the inter-tidal zone and low-lying marshland.

The photographs of submerged trees at Trusthorpe included above were taken at approximately 14:30 in the afternoon, when the tide was at its lowest point of 0.4 metres above chart datum, equivalent to around 3.35 metres below Ordnance Datum. Unfortunately, this wasn't quite low enough to expose more than a handful of tree stumps, especially after beach replenishment works along this coast, although wading a short way out beyond the shoreline revealed a number of additional tree stumps lying just below the water's surface. A number of photographs are available online of the more dramatic exposures in the Mablethorpe to Huttoft area visible in previous decades, especially those in 1984 and 1992, although none of these in turn seem to approach those recorded in previous centuries, leading to the suggestion that the drowned forest remains have been subject to recent erosion as well as being covered up by beach replenishment schemes. In particular, the outcrop of exposed forest seen in 1796 by Sir Joseph Banks and Joseph Correa de Serra was around 1 mile wide just to the south of Trusthorpe at Sutton-on-Sea (something also apparent on Robert Mitchell's 1765 coastal sailing chart, where the forest 'islets' are marked as a wide belt of 'Clay Huts' between Sutton and Anderby Creek), whereas in 1923 it was only 150 yards wide. According to A. J. Clapham, 'even allowing for the shifting pattern of the sand covering the foreshore and the fact that the tides might not have fallen as low in 1923 as on the 1796 visit, this is evidence for considerable erosion of the outcrop in a century and a quarter'.(1) With regard to the 1796 exposure, it is worth quoting Joseph Correa de Serra's 1799 description of the 'submarine forest' at length as an indication of what was visible in the eighteenth century:
It was a common report in Lincolnshire, that a large extent of islets of moor, situated along its coast, and visible only in the lowest ebbs of the year, was chiefly composed of decayed trees. These islets are marked in Mitchell's chart of that coast, by the name of the clay huts... In the month of September, 1796, I went to Sutton, the coast of Lincolnshire, in company with the Right Hon. President of this Society [Sir Joseph Banks], in order to examine their extent and nature. The 19th of the month, being the first day after the equinoctial full moon, when the lowest ebbs were to be expected, we went in a boat... and soon after set foot upon one of the largest islets then appearing. Its exposed surface was about thirty yards long, and twenty-five wide, when the tide was at its lowest. A great number of similar islets were visible round us, chiefly to the eastward and southward... These islets, according to the most accurate information, extend at least twelve miles in length, and about a mile in breadth, opposite to Sutton shore... The channels between the several islets [representing the eroded lines of drainage from wave backwash], when the islets are dry, in the lowest ebbs of the year, are from four to twelve feet deep.(2)
Banks and De Serra examined the composition of these 'islets' on the 19th, 20th and 21st of September, 1796, and concluded that
they consisted almost entirely of roots, trunks, branches, and leaves of trees and shrubs, intermixed with some leaves of aquatic plants. The remains of some of these trees were still standing on their roots; while the trunks of the greater part lay scattered on the ground, in every possible direction. The bark of the trees and roots appeared generally as fresh as when they were growing; in that of the birches particularly, of which a great quantity was found, even the thin silvery membranes of the outer skin were discernible. The timber of all kinds, on the contrary, was decomposed and soft, in the greatest part of the trees; in some, however, it was firm, especially in the knots.... The sorts of wood which are still distinguishable are birch, fir, and oak...
     The soil to which the trees are affixed, and in which they grew, is a soft, greasy clay; but for many inches above it is entirely composed of rotten leaves, scarcely distinguishable to the eye, many of which may be separated by putting the soil in water, and dextrously and patiently using a spatula, or a blunt knife. By this method, I obtained some perfect leaves of Ilex Aquifolium [holly], which are now in the Herbarium of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks; and some other leaves which, though less perfect, seem to belong to some species of willow. In this stratum of rotten leaves, we could also distinguish several roots of Arundo Phragmites [common reed].

Robert Mitchell's 1765 coastal sailing chart of Lincolnshire, showing 'clay huts' (islets of exposed submerged forest separated by deep eroded backwash channels) extending significantly offshore from Sutton to Anderby Creek.

Whilst only the tops of a few tree stumps were visible at Trusthorpe as a result of the unusually low tides this August, rather more was visible of the submerged forest at Cleethorpes on 14 August 2018 (when low tide was only 0.1 metres higher than on the previous day) and some pictures from this visit are shared below as a comparison. As was noted above, the forest at Cleethorpes is perhaps a thousand years younger than that further south at Mablethorpe–Anderby, being probably drowned in the Late Neolithic era, and both this and the lack of intensive beach replenishment as seen elsewhere on the Lincolnshire coast may explain why significantly more trees are visible here. In any case, as can be seen from the pictures below, a variety of fallen tree trunks, stumps and roots were easily to be seen on Cleethorpes beach without having to venture too far out, many well-persevered due to a layer of marine crustaceans overlying them.

A tree stump from the Late Neolithic drowned forest on Cleethorpes beach; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Two fallen trees from the Late Neolithic drowned forest on Cleethorpes beach; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Another tree trunk from the Late Neolithic drowned forest on Cleethorpes beach; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

A tree stump from the submerged prehistoric forest on Cleethorpes beach; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Another piece of the drowned Late Neolithic forest visible on Cleethorpes beach; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).


1.     See A. J. Clapham, The Characterisation of Two Mid-Holocene Submerged Forests (Liverpool John Moores University PhD Thesis, 1999), pp. 62–4, for a brief discussion.
2.     This and the following quotation are taken from J. C. de Serra, 'On a submarine forest, on the east coast of England', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 89 (1799), 145–56.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations unless otherwise stated, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2018, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.