Women buried in their beds in the early English kingdoms were immigrants from continental Europe who brought Christianity along with their unusual funeral rite, research suggests.
The study, from an archaeologist at Cambridge University, sheds new light on the central role of women, including non-royal women, in the conversion of pagan English territories. It also links these women to a burial tradition that may have originated as far afield as Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.
Dr Emma Brownlee, the author, carried out the first integrated analysis of scores of bed burials — where people were interred in their beds, rather than in a coffin or simply wrapped in a shroud — in England and continental Europe. She was inspired by recent isotope analysis by her colleagues Dr Sam Leggett and Dr Alice Rose on human remains from three 7th-century bed burials from cemeteries at Edix Hill and Trumpington in Cambridgeshire.
The technique, looking at chemical signatures in bones or teeth, can yield information about a person’s diet and where they grew up. In this case, analysis hasn’t as yet pinpointed the women’s origins but reveals that they were immigrants. Brownlee said: “They found that none of those women grew up in the British Isles. So they must have moved to Britain at some point after childhood. And that got me thinking about where else do you find bed burials?”
In her paper, in Medieval Archaeology, Brownlee shows that 17 bed burials have been excavated in England. All but one are of women, who were often buried with gold and garnet cross pendants or other explicitly Christian artefacts. In continental Europe, mostly around Germany, the Rhine valley and Scandinavia, 55 bed burials are known and the rite was commonly used for both men and women.
Brownlee said that, across Europe, beds were elite objects and bed burials were rare and associated with elites. Ordinary people were likely to have slept on straw mattresses on raised sleeping platforms.
She found that the practice of bed burial shifted from east to west over time. “In Central Europe they appear from the 5th century, although they’re more common in the 6th and 7th centuries. Then we get them in England in the 7th century and as late as the 10th century in Scandinavia”
On the continent, some of the beds used have ornate balusters and others are simpler, resembling large, lidless crates. The wooden frames of some continental beds survive. In England, where bed frames have not survived, beds are identified through their distinctive metal fittings. Unlike the continental beds, they had headboards and a base made of a lattice or net suspended from metal eyelets, rather than hard planks.
All the beds would look uncomfortable to modern eyes, measuring about 60-84cm across in England, and an average of 60cm in continental Europe. Nevertheless, repairs or modifications to some of them suggest they were used for sleeping and weren’t constructed specially for the funeral rite.
So who were the women buried in this way in England? Given the isotope results, the known movement of women from Francia and what is now Germany to Britain, and the earlier bed burials on the continent, Brownlee suggests they were mostly continental women buried according to the fashion of their homelands.
Genetic and other studies indicate that groups of migrants speaking Germanic languages came to Britain over a number of generations from the 5th century. The nature of this movement is contested, but the traditional idea of a massive “Anglo-Saxon invasion” is no longer widely accepted.
Brownlee said that isotope studies indicated that, by the 7th century, women were more likely to migrate from the continent to England than men. This coincides with a period of Christianisation in which women such as St Bertha of Kent played a major part.
Bertha, a Frankish princess, married Æthelberht, the pagan king of Kent, with the assurance that she could practise her religion. She later backed the famous mission of St Augustine of Canterbury to England and, with her converted husband, was involved in church-building and supporting missionary activities.
“The research tells us something completely new about the role that women played in these conversion processes.”Dr Emma Brownlee
Brownlee said women from Christian families on the continent may have been married to men in England as part of a deliberate policy of Christianisation backed by the Church and newly Christian English rulers. Such marriages may also have been arranged for more traditional, pragmatic reasons, with the same result of bringing about conversions. In other cases, the women are likely to have been nuns or abbesses.
She added: “We’ve got lots of historical accounts of Christian women marrying into non Christian families, and lots of historical accounts of nunneries and women moving between this network nunneries that’s crossing England and Francia. But I don’t think we have the context for most of the cemeteries to say which category people fall into.
“In most cases, we’re probably not talking about royalty, but the next step down.”
Although Christianity survived in areas of Britain after Roman rule, the English bed burials are in regions that had been under pagan control for large parts of the 5th-7th centuries — with concentrations in East Anglia and Wessex.
Brownlee said: “The research tells us something completely new about the role that women played in these conversion processes. Not only that you had this movement of women, but that they clearly maintained these links with the continent and their homelands. And that speaks to a broader network and the development of shared culture and shared religion that you get in multiple aspects in the 7th century.”
She said her findings went against the received wisdom that geographical origins cannot be inferred from burial rites. Previous research has shown that remains once assumed to have been those of Anglo-Saxon invaders due to continental-style grave goods are often those who grew up locally.
As to the earlier origins of bed burials, Brownlee notes that “baluster beds” used on the continent resemble furniture from the easter Roman, or Byzantine, empire. As bed burials are known in Coptic Egypt from the 3rd-5th centuries, she believes the tradition may have originated from eastern Mediterranean influences and been adapted to local furniture styles in the far west.
She said it was possible the practice was intended to suggest sleep as opposed to death, as well as showing concern for the comfort of the deceased. While not incompatible with Christianity, this understanding could also have appealed to pagans when first introduced in Central and Northern Europe.
· The top image shows a reconstruction of the “Saxon Princess” burial, found at the Street House cemetery near Loftus, North Yorkshire. It featured in an exhibition at Kirkleatham Museum. Photo: Prioryman, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.