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

[The following post is currently being worked up for publication]

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 draft 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.

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