Kings, saints, and the woman with the brooch: the mystery of a unique burial in Canterbury

the Burial place of the Anglo-Saxons in Kent – not the most sensational discovery of all: in Kent the remains of this period is found about two thousand, and in the UK, scientifically speaking, “and do not count”. And yet the latest discovery by British archaeologists stands out against the background of numerous previous. Spoiler, two words: time and place.

the Place is famous for many reasons, the city of Canterbury, to be more precise – campus of Canterbury Christ Church University. This school appeared only in the twentieth century and yet is not of interest for the history, but the University is booming and is built in England where the construction of – there and archaeologists (we often talk about the finds made during the rescue excavations, however, to understand the overall picture and its scale we recommend our article “Suddenly: the development of the British economy under threat because of a shortage of archaeologists”).

in 2018 the specialists Archaeological trust Canterbury work on the plot allocated for the construction of new buildings for technical and medical faculties. Excavations at the University campus was conducted before, in the 1990s: then were traces of a poor Roman cemetery II-III centuries.

the Canterbury is an ancient city, and archeologists nor dug, be sure to be found. New discoveries were all ready, but the process of excavation nor romantic, neither looked promising, from the XIX century, this area housed the city jail, where construction has damaged or destroyed the earlier cultural layers.

Excavations on the territory of the future construction in Canterbury. Photo: Canterbury Archaeological Trust

But with the future building site offers wonderful views of the historical monument of world importance: the Abbey of St. Augustine, founded at the end of the sixth century.

the Abbey of St. Augustine’s in Canterbury. Photo: Le Monde1 /

the site – on the border of the territory of an ancient Abbey – turned out to be crucial for understanding the most important finds made by archaeologists in this area: solitary graves with bone fragments of the once buried here.

“because of the peculiarities of the local soil, the remains were in very poor condition – there was only leg bones, small skull fragments and some teeth. Pelvis and facial region necessary for determining the sex of the deceased, no,” – that is the conclusion of Ellie Williams (Ellie Williams), osteoarchaeology and University Professor of archaeology.

the Remains found in Canterbury. Photo: Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Accessory remains mounted differently – not the bones and the things found in the burial jewelry and garments.

“in Addition to snippets definitely women’s clothing, we found a gorgeous gold plated silver brooch with garnets and necklace and copper bracelet. All these artifacts clearly associated with a woman,” said Andrew Richardson (Andrew Richardson), representative Archaeological trust Canterbury.

a gold Plated silver brooch of the VI century, the Kingdom of Kent. Photo: Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Full list of items found near the woman results in the publication Kent Online: a necklace of amber and glass beads, a belt buckle of copper alloy bracelet from copper alloy, an iron knife. Main finding: silver plated brooch inlaid with garnets.

It is a curious fact that it is not unique – such artifacts have been found in Kent and other coastal counties in the South East of England. Onor even received a separate name, “Kent discoid brooches”, on the first and the main place of their production. The most famous of them – the so-called “brooch of Kingston”, found in 1771, however, since Kent the brooches dug up so much that some of the items discovered by modern treasure hunters, museums after the peer review does not redeem, and return to the finder – as happened, for example, with the discovery of 2002, very similar to the brooch from Canterbury.

Accordingly, this type of adornments well-studied and is dated to a particular period: the fashion for discoid brooches came to England from the continent in the middle of the V century, and kept until the end of the VI century, thanks largely to Kent masters.

Based on the results of previous studies finds, archaeologists Canterbury can now make an educated guess about the origin of the garnets adorning brooch: these stones are likely to have been brought from Sri Lanka. On this island in the Indian ocean since ancient times produce the best quality almandine – the most common variety of red and red-purple garnets.

a gold Plated silver brooch of the VI century, the Kingdom of Kent. Photo: Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Use the overseas almandine and elements of the art of cloisonne (cloisonn, from the French cloison, “partition”), in which a thin plate of stone and layers of enamel are placed in compartments separated by partitions, said many experts. On the continent this jewelry technique used by masters of the era of the Merovingians on the same period of time – from mid V to the end of the VI century. During this period, and on the continent, and in England almost all garnets are used to create precious artifacts belong to the almandine imported from India or Sri Lanka.

In the VII century, the situation changes dramatically: the Frankish masters suddenly stop using almandine garnet insert millsyatsya rare, and grenades if caught in the decorations, then refer to another type pyrope mined in Bohemia (modern Czech Republic). In England the use of almandine as abruptly terminates at the beginning of the seventh century, to the same fashion on all types of brooches virtually disappears for a century, until the VIII century, and discoid “Kent” brooches and does go into the past, with no refund.

These details are not just talking about the close ties between England and the continent and indicate a specific time frame: found in the burial brooch with almandine could not be made late in the year 600. Historians also know that this brooch with overseas grenades was commissioned by the Royal dynasty of Kent Anglo – Saxon rulers gave their approximate individuals in the sign location, or for some services. To wear such brooches were supposed to under the throat.

the Presence in the grave such an expensive gift tells that the young woman (she was 20 at the time of death, the age was established according to the degree of deterioration of the teeth) were personally acquainted with one of the kings of Kent. But how?

Analysis of all findings together helped us to narrow down the time frame of burial: the last two decades of the VI century, 580-600 years. Thus, the woman was a contemporary of king Ethelbert I and his wife Bertha, daughter of the Frankish king Charibert I from the dynasty of the Merovingians. These rulers of Kent had played such a role in the history of England, that here, near the site of the excavations, you can see the set of modern monuments.

a Statue of Queen Bertha in Canterbury. Photo: English Heritage

so, “the woman with the brooch,” not only lived at one time and in the same city as the Royal couple king of Kent, she knew some of them personally – either king or Queen, or both. Archaeologists have added another detail that fully reveals the significance of the discovery: perhaps this close to DVOru lady was a witness to key events in the history of the Anglo-Saxons: 597 year, arriving at Canterbury from Rome’s famous Gregorian mission led by Augustine, later canonized.

About the event and its main participants – the Holy Ethelbert, Saint Burt and Saint Augustine – there is enough information in the Russian language, so here puraskaram only the most basic, is essential to understanding the plot.

King Ethelbert was Anglo-Saxon and, accordingly, a Gentile. Queen Bertha’s Frankish Princess and Christian in the fourth generation (her great-grandmother was St. Clotilde). Bert, under the terms of the marriage contract, enjoyed “freedom of religion”, and Ethelbert her not only not prevented, but even restored for the spouse of an abandoned Church built in Canterbury, probably more by the Romans in the IV century. This private chapel of Queen Bertha which after the “renovation” dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, still exists today – it is officially recognized as the oldest operating temple of the Kingdom.

the Church. Martin’s in Canterbury, a photo of the early XX century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bertha Herself, however, does not leave attempts to baptize the Gentile husband, and with him – and the Anglo-Saxons. Perhaps she was summoned from Rome to Canterbury whole of the Christian Embassy, headed by Augustine. Missionaries arrived in the year 597 and immediately got down to business: Ethelbert a couple of years, was baptized and became the first Christian king of England, and soon next to the chapel of St. Martin appeared first monastery (end of the tenth century known as the Abbey of St Augustine) and raised the first Canterbury Cathedral – the main Church of all of great Britain. Here is the chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the Church of England, and the first man in this responsible position was, as you might guess, the Augustine – also called the “Apostle of the English”.

Accordingsince it was the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century, interrupted the first wave of Christianization of Britain, the baptism of the Saxon king and the creation of a major missionary ground in Kent looks symbolic, Pope Gregory was pleased with the results of the mission. All key participants of this process (Augustine, Bertha and Ethelbert) were buried on site founded by Augustine monastery and later canonised, and the traces of their activities – spiritual and material – preserved to this day.

the Abbey of St. Augustine, now transformed into picturesque ruins, was the final resting place of the kings of Kent and their families, as well as the first archbishops of Canterbury – they were all colleagues of Augustine in the composition of the Gregorian mission and all were canonized after death.

All that remains from the tombs of the kings and archbishops. Excavations were conducted in 1920-ies. Photo from

Kings and saints – interesting company for “women s brooch,” which, if you remember (the time and place!), rest here first. The time frame of burial – 580-600 years event – the marriage of Bertha Christian and the pagan Ethelbert (580 years), the arrival of missionaries from Rome (597 ad) and the beginning of construction of the first monastery of saints Peter and Paul (renamed the Abbey of St. Augustine much later, in 978).

Recall also that the grave found in the immediate vicinity of the borders of the Abbey, at a distance of 10-20 meters, but still outside it. Taking into account two main parameters known burial time and place – it can be concluded that at the time of the burial of the “woman with the brooch” the Abbey did not exist, she died before the construction of the first Abbey Church, built in the early seventh century.

But, as mentioned above, in the 1990s in this area were found traces of a Roman (or Romano-Briton) cemetery II-III centuries. The monastic RAYon is situated directly behind the Roman/medieval city wall (now in its place is a wide street between Canterbury Cathedral and the Abbey-see map).

the location of the excavation site on the map of Canterbury. Image: Yandex-maps

This location archaeologists interpret unambiguously: Ethelbert allocated for the construction of the monastery lands, which were used for burials since Roman times and under Roman law (strictly outside of settlements), and initially it was assumed that in the future the monastery will be located tombs of the kings of Kent and archbishops of Canterbury.

“we found a woman’s burial is of great value, because it indicates that a person of fairly high status were buried on this earth in just a few years before the Foundation of the Abbey. The Abbey, which served as the burial place of Augustine of Canterbury and his companions, archbishops and representatives of the Royal dynasty of Kent. This finding suggests that high-status necropolis has arisen not on an empty place – there was a continuity of the tradition of burials in this area. New information will help us better understand the history of the monument, a UNESCO world heritage site,” says Andrew Richardson, a representative of the Archaeological trust Canterbury.

In the header, we call this burial unique, that is one of a kind. Really – with all the richness of local history this is the first burial of the VI century, found in the vicinity of the Abbey. Construction, restoration, demolition, new construction – certain works in this area took place over 1400 years, up to the present day. The modern look of the Canterbury relics – the legacy of the XI century (the Normans, the new rulers of England after 1066, contributed greatly to the development of Canterbury and the cult of St Augustine), the main losses occurred in the sixteenth century (the reformation and the abolition of monastery of Henry VIII, the demolition and rebuilding of the buildings of the Abbey under the Royal Palace for Anne of Cleves) and in the XIX century – the construction of administrative district without conducting archaeological work.

“the Abbey and the University town has been excavated, but so far we have seen nothing from the VI century. For these discoveries, I became an archaeologist,” said Andrew Richardson. Experts believe that the burial was found – not a single, but the limits of the site do not allow to explore the vast area.

Who was this woman “relatively high status” scientists have yet to find out, good teeth and long bones of the feet needed to conduct genetic and isotope studies, have been preserved. Gold plated brooch Kent – the only precious objects found in the burial. Other artifacts, including a necklace of glass and amber, say more about the belonging of women to the “middle class” than to the noble class.

the Necklace was found in the burial. Photo: Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Perhaps it was Frankish Christian, arrived from the continent with Bertha at 580 a year, or a Gentile, a native of Kent, the daughter of one of the king’s courtiers. The differences between pagan and Christian burials of the era is minimal: in the graves, find the items and personal items, which primarily reflected the in vivo status of the deceased. About the shift in burial traditions we are told in detail in the article, “Death under the Merovingians and the Carolingians: in the suburbs of Paris found the largest necropolis of medieval France.”

whatever it was, archaeologists have obtained the first and possibly only chance to “meet” with contemporary people and events that changed the history of England.

Text: To.Science