The Harpole Burial

by frankbeswick

Archaeologists have stumbled upon an important Anglo-Saxon burial in eastern England. It is the remains of a very important Anglo-Saxon woman, maybe a princess.

Routine archaeology sometimes produces routine and not very significant finds, but occasionally you get a once in a lifetime discovery. This has just happened in the village of Harpole in Northamptonshire, when the dig produced the grave artefacts of a powerful woman. There are not many significant female graves, and she was certainly no peasant. The grave opens up our thoughts to the significance of women in the Christianization of England.

Photo courtesy of Falco, of Pixabay

An unexpected find.

British law states that prior to building work commencing major construction projects perform an archaeological survey to prevent valuable heritage being lost. Most digs produce routine finds of no great significance, but occasionally you get a big find. The small village of Harpole, set in rural Northamptonshire, a green and pleasant part of rural England, was recently the scene of such a find. The excavation of the site of a new housing estate turned up a grave, and this was the resting place of a woman of high status, judging from the grave goods interred with her. 

The archaeologists have had to infer that the buried person was female. You can normally tell the sex of a skeleton by studying the pelvis, which differs in males and females, but in this case the acidic soils of the east midlands have all but destroyed organic remains, be they flesh, wood or wool, leaving solid grave goods made of metal, along with finger and toe nails, which decay slower than bone, and some bits of wood. Significantly it was a bed burial. The residents of the area were Angles, a tribe who settled in much of England. Their noblemen or kings had a tradition of ship burials, as at Sutton Hoo, and over the ship was heaped a tumulus of Earth, but women had bed burials, in which a bed was laid in the grave and the body deposited on it. Though the wood of the bed had rotted, the imprint of the bed had been left in the soil. Women were also buried without weapons, unlike men who took weapons into the grave with them. There were no weapons in this grave. This was not a person who saw weapons as integral to her identity.

The spectacular find was a necklace. It was composed of golden Roman coins and garnets. Though the date of the burial was probably late 600s, Roman coins were still in circulation in Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons valued them. Those who think of them as crude barbarians may be surprised to know that these Germanic settlers valued Roman things and saw themselves as heirs of Rome. However, there were some pieces of the necklace which were incised with the marks of the cross. Furthermore, a cross was placed under the body. This woman was a Christian buried by people who either shared or respected her Christianity. Such a rich burial shouts princess. 

The presence of grave goods generally marks a pagan burial, but the rules for Christians had not been fully finalized then, and even if the church forbade grave goods, as it later did, wealthy and powerful pagan relatives of the deceased could make their will felt.

But who was she?


Penda of Mercia

King Penda was an alpha male, and none dare say otherwise, at least in his hearing. A fierce and successful warlord, he had made his presence felt, carving out a kingdom as he swallowed up smaller kingdoms across the English Midlands to create the largest of the seven kingdoms of the Heptarchy, the name given to the kingdoml of the English, of whom he was the dominant king, the Bretwalda. Strangely, he had a Celtic name, indicative of the fact that the incoming Anglo-Saxons intermarried with the native Britons rather than massacred them, as was once thought.

Moreover, Penda was a pagan, the last pagan king of England. After him there would be none to worship Woden and Thor. His relationship with Christianity has often been misunderstood. Some think that he forbade Christianity in his domains, but St Bede says otherwise. He did not, but he did nothing to promote it. In fact, Penda made war on his Christian neighbours. He did not fight religious wars, and there was no suggestion of a pagan equivalent of crusade, but he fought and killed king Oswiu of Northumbria and King Sigbert of neighbouring East Anglia. It is probable that he believed that his pagan gods had brought him victory. But they did not in the end, when he was killed fighting the Northumbrians at the battle of the River Winward (winwaed) in  655, aged eighty and .his pagan cause died as a political force with him.

Penda's children had for some time been Christian. His daughters seemed very keen on the new faith, and two sons, Peada and Wulfhere, who inherited political power on Penda's death were sympathetic to the new faith and Wulfhere seems to have been Christian. Peada made what might have been a political conversion on his arranged marriage to a Northumbrian princess. Penda's power was waning by 651 when he was defeated by the Northumbrians. All his children became Christian. Three stand out, his daughters Cynburga, Cynswitha and Tibba. On being widowed in later life these became nuns, and later were appointed abbesses. They later were acclaimed saints. But the bones of these three women were later interred in their own monasteries, as were those of St Werburgha, Penda's widowed daughter in law, at a later date. This body found in Harpole is not one of these major Saxon saints, but probably a minor member of the Mercian ruling family. A princess, an abbess or the daughter of an earl, nonetheless.

Christianity and Women

St Bede, who wrote a history of the English speaking people, observed that the first of the English to take up the new faith were women. This does not mean that all the first converts were female, but that women were disproportionally present among the earliest converts. Why was this so?  The Anglo-Saxons worshipped the Aesir, as did the Norsemen, and these gods were not a particularly desirable bunch. The Aesir were warlike, and this characteristic spilled over into their worshippers. Warlike gods produce warlike worshippers, and thus worship of the Aesir encouraged violence. True, deities like Freya, Thor's wife, were more homely, but they were not at the apex of the pantheon.

 Then a new religion arrives, and it speaks of gentleness ,love and peace. Many Anglo-Saxon women saw that this new faith was an improvement on the worship of the traditional Anglo-Saxon pantheon. Not many women like war, as wars, with all the deaths and horrors that they cause, never do much, if any,. good for women. Is it any wonder that women were attracted by the new faith. Penda's daughters where raised in a court dominated by a culture of violence. Were they repelled by it? We know not, but they eagerly took up the religious culture that replaced the one in which they were raised.


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Updated: 01/16/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 06/15/2023

The site is not easy to excavate, so there could be other burials. Some women went into contents and became nuns on their husband's deaths. Most did not. Abbesses sometimes wore jewellery.

WriterArtist on 06/14/2023

The Harpole burial is an interesting find, no doubt and the archaeological remains give adequate proof of the origins. Forensic anthropology is quite advanced these days. Combined with archaeological science, it can establish the chronology and the culture at that period.
Were there more burials and bodies found at the site? If this was just one, it will be difficult to analyze though. If she was princess or queen of Mercia, probably more of jewelry would be recovered. If she was an abbess, the necklace might have belonged to her when she was a princess or queen. Was it a practice in those ages to renounce the world when the women lost their husbands? An exciting and interesting topic for archaeologists to dig into the enclosure and investigate further.

frankbeswick on 02/09/2023

Yes, that is the right translation. Why it was called dirt pool no one knows. It might have been very muddy.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/08/2023

Online sources identify the etymology of Harpole as Old English horu and pol, for "dirt pool."

Would those be credible word origins?

If so, why would a place have and keep a name vaunting ;-{ -- or warning ;-D about -- unclean waters?

frankbeswick on 01/20/2023

At the Norman conquest Saxon saints were downplayed and they were not politically in favour with the new ruling class. Some, like Wulstan of Worcester, were so saintly that even the Normans respected them, but there was no urgency in England to canonise Saxons.

blackspanielgallery on 01/19/2023

The dates of the three daughters' deaths precedes current canonization rules, and in this period just about anyone could proclaim a saint. Once canonization rules were set those proclaimed a saint earlier had to be vetted using a rigorous standard. Have the three daughters withstood the canonization process, or are they called saints in old texts? I believe canonization came about in the 1000s.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/19/2023

The Wizzley page of new contributions gives a bigger, clearer image of what you selected leftward of your title.

Over the last two days, I kept moving from latest comments to the Harpole wizzley by clicking on your name just above the comment boxes. If I had stopped on the contributions page, I would have seen that it's Jesus Christ stumbling with his Cross.

frankbeswick on 01/19/2023

A burial party. I was limited in my choice of image because there are no commercially available images that I could use.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/19/2023

The image leftward of your title makes me think of Brueghel in its townspeople activities.

But, as I've mentioned previously, the computer treats smaller images less clearly than larger.

What would the image be?

frankbeswick on 01/18/2023

I am not sure of its size, sorry.

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