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The Riddle of the Silver Brooch of Aedwen

The Sutton Brooch of Ædwen.

The Sutton Brooch of Ædwen.

A Curious Discovery

In 1634, a farmer was ploughing his field in the rich soils of Cambridgeshire, when something solid came up with the clods of earth with a clunk. Halting from his labour, he investigated further and discovered a casket made of lead that appeared to have been hurriedly buried in the ground. It was filled with around a hundred silver coins and a rather unusual brooch.

We know little about the man that discovered the hoard, less still about what happened to it, nor how centuries later the brooch ended up in the hands of an Irish collector living in Paris. Hector O'Connor had somehow acquired this brooch in his collection, but for whatever reason, was offering it for sale. Thankfully for us, the brooch was purchased by Robert Bruce-Mitford of the British Museum [1]. The silver brooch would be returned to Britain for the whole nation to enjoy, and in 1951 the purchase was secured.

We are fortunate that it did not disappear in the hands of another private collector, as the chance to study the decoration of this rather unique item would have been lost. It is a beautiful adornment, with interesting designs that are steeped in symbolism. The runic panel on the back has had experts scratching their heads for decades.

Unusual Details

The silver brooch is surprisingly large by modern standards, measuring over six inches in diameter. Nine pins would have decorated the item, one of which was lost over the ages. The intricacy of workmanship is quite exquisite, but dents and folds paint a picture of its hard life after it had been stashed in its lead casket to be forgotten for nearly 700 years before the plough brought it to human eyes once more.

Dated to the early eleventh century, it portrays snake-like creatures and monstrous beasts within four overlapping circles. Where the circles overlap, a single eye motif is detailed. The design has been inscribed by hand in remarkable detail.

The Bredfield Brooch, found in 2010, is housed in Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.

The Bredfield Brooch, found in 2010, is housed in Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.

Jane Kershaw writes about the brooch of Aedwen in her excellent work Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England [3], describing the style and its likely origins:

"Ornate silver and gold convex disc brooches decorated in the Ringerike and Urnes styles occur in Scandinavia in hoards from Gotland and Öland, among other locations (Wilson 1995, 208-12). However, three disc brooches from England with late Scandinavian artistic affinities are distinct in both their form and decorative detail - all may be classed as Anglo-Scandinavian products. The Ringerike style occurs independently on just one brooch from England; a large hammered sheet silver disc brooch discovered in a coin hoard (deposited c. 1070) from Sutton, Isle of Ely (cat. no. 493). The surface ornament on this brooch is framed by four, interlacing circles; Ringerike-style snakes and quadrupeds appear in its four main fields, with spiral hips, lentoid eyes, and lobed upturned mouths. The style is also visible in the accompanying trilobite features, as well as in the curved tendrils in the surrounding lentoid panels. Much of the subsidiary linear ornament appears to have lost its original meaning, however, and offers only a highly abstracted version of Ringerike.

While the ornament of the brooch is inherited from the Scandinavian Ringerike style, its flat disc form signals its Anglo-Saxon manufacture; indeed, the brooch may be considered a late descendant of the large, silver Anglo-Saxon disc brooches characteristic of the ninth century (Backhouse et Al. 1984, no. 105). This is confirmed by the division of the ornamental surface into multiple fields by four circles, a treatment similarly encountered on a brooch from the ninth-century Beeston Tor hoard (Wilson 1964, no. 3)."

Since this account, the "Bredfield Brooch" was discovered near Woodbridge in Suffolk in 2010. This is also a large silver disc brooch with Ringerike-style decoration.

Sketch of the rear of the silver disc brooch.

Sketch of the rear of the silver disc brooch.

A Curse?

The back of the brooch is truly fascinating. It carries a warning to any would-be thief in way of a curse, written in Old English:

"Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will."

With the brooch and silver hastily buried in the lead casket and forgotten, I can only imagine that the brooch was indeed stolen, and the thief met a grisly end which prevented him from returning to the site.

Something must have gone wrong for whoever had the casket of silver in their possession, and I wonder if the curse had something to do with it?

The rear of the brooch, which features triquetra etchings as well as the inscription and runic plate.

The rear of the brooch, which features triquetra etchings as well as the inscription and runic plate.

Religious Symbology

Whilst the curse appears to be Christian, the art is a wonderful blend of old and new, as is common around the Anglo-Saxon period. There are two triquetras etched into the rear of the brooch, and whilst used by Christians as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, it has also been noted to be a pagan sacred sign, bearing a resemblance to the Valknut, a symbol associated with the Norse god Odin, known to the Anglo-Saxons as Wotan or Wōden.

Closer detail of the runic inscription, by John Kirkham.

Closer detail of the runic inscription, by John Kirkham.

A Continuing Mystery

Across the back of the brooch, would have been a supporting plate. Half or more of this is now missing, but what we do have is a tantalising riddle.

The length of the plate is inscribed with a fragmentary runic text. It has not been possible for them to be deciphered, as they are very distinctive from the Anglo-Saxon rune alphabet that we know of which appears on the Seax of Beagnoth.

Several theories have been put forward:

  • That these are letters that history has not recorded.
  • It is a poor reproduction by inexperienced hands.
  • They are cryptic runes, created by a runemaster.
  • They are a "magical text" created to amplify the properties of the brooch, stylised from runes or other symbols.

The runes may be highly stylised bind runes, where more than one rune is laid over another to produce a combined meaning. I have often peered at this inscription, wondering if it is split into two; with one set that sits on the bottom meant to be read, then the whole thing tipped upside-down with the next set to be read. Still, it does not make much sense.

The silver brooch is of a high level of craftsmanship and would have been an expensive item for whoever commissioned it. My thoughts are that the runes are deliberately inscribed to be difficult to decipher, as it would be pointless to ruin a beautiful item such as this by handing it to an inexperienced engraver to spoil with useless runes.

As to what they could actually mean, who knows? Answers on a postcard to The British Museum!


[1] Sutton Silver

[2] The British Museum

[3] Jane Kershaw, Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England - ISBN - 978-0199639526

© 2015 Pollyanna Jones


patrick looney on April 16, 2017:

use paper to trace the pattern then fold at the lines--this is a coded message such as they used in the old Mad magazines..folded at the lines it will reveal different patterns .

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on April 21, 2015:

The Anglo-Saxons did love their riddles. Perhaps there is a clue in the pattern. It is such a shame that the rest of the plate is missing.

Norah Elizabeth on April 21, 2015:

It occurred to me that elements on the front could contain the key for deciphering the runes, but with so much of the inscription missing I doubt it will ever be deciphered.

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on April 09, 2015:

Yep, they appear all over the place during this period. Also with some burial goods. I suppose I'll have to write about these at some point too. Thanks for reading!