An Axe among the Scepters: Who’s Who in Canterbury’s West Window?

In the West Window of Canterbury Cathedral, ranged below the arms of Richard II and assorted depictions of saints and prophets, is an apparently incomplete series of portraits of English kings whose identities have become confused or forgotten over the centuries. Current attempts to identify these kings rely in part upon the eighteenth-century testimony of English historian William Gostling, who could apparently see in the window more than is visible today:

In the uppermost range of the large compartments are seven large figures of our kings, standing under gothic niches very highly wrought. They are bearded, have open crowns on their heads and swords or sceptres in their right hands. They have suffered, and been patched up again, and each had his name under him in the old black letter: of which there are very little remains. These seven are Canute, under whom remains Can. Edward the Confessor holding a book, under him remains Ed. Then Harold. William I holding his sceptre in his right hand, and resting it transversely on his left shoulder, under him remains …mus Conquestor Rex. Then William II. Henry I. Stephen. The tops of the canopies are all that are left of the fourteen niches of which the two next stages consist: if these were filled in the same manner, the series of kings would finish with Richard III.[1]

Tracery Lights and Upper Range of the West Window in Canterbury Cathedral. I have labeled the position of the kings A-G for ease of reference. All images of the West Window courtesy of Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK.
“Edward” in the West Window

Gostling’s descriptions have proved difficult to match up with the window as we now have it. Any lettering visible in the eighteenth century has disappeared, and at least some portraits are not in the order they once were. According to Gostling’s account, the fourth king (D) should be holding a scepter in his right hand and resting it on his left shoulder: he does not. Nor can the king in position B today be imagined as “holding a book.” So William I (once D) and Edward the Confessor, at least, must have moved between Gostling’s time and now.

B holds a sword in his right hand, which he rests on his left shoulder–this may be Gostling’s William I. If D made a simple swap with B, it would follow, as some scholars have assumed, that today’s D is Edward the Confessor. But the king who now stands in that position holds an emblem not elsewhere associated with Edward: a prominent axe.[2] Instead, Edward might be more usually imagined as here in the famous Wilton Diptych, where he stands alongside Edmund Martyr and John the Baptist in support of Richard II, who commissioned the West Window. Interestingly, scholars have noted similarities between the styling of Edward in the diptych and the king in position A on the West Window, accepted since Gostling’s time as Cnut the Great, the Scandinavian king of Anglo-Saxon England. Despite detailing the similarities between the two, including their forked beards and long sleeves,[3] no one has suggested that this might be Edward himself rather than an Edward-inspired Cnut.

Edward the Confessor in the Wilton Diptych. National Gallery [Public Domain]
“Cnut” in the West Window

But why not? The king of the “Cnut” window (position A) might seem from afar to be holding a book-like object in his left hand (upon closer inspection it is part of his clothing). This may, nevertheless, be the otherwise-unidentified “book” to which Gostling refers in his description of Edward. Besides the marked similarities between the Edward of the Wilton Diptych and the “Cnut” of the Canterbury window is the problem of the inexplicable axe or halberd found in “Edward’s” hand. In fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman art, likely under the influence of contemporary depictions on altar frontals, glass, and panel screens of fellow Scandinavian king St. Olaf of Norway, Cnut was the only king of England imagined as carrying an impressive axe!

Cnut in British Library Royal 14 B VI, membrane 4. Image courtesy of the British Library.

In a recent Alumni Spotlight on the Medieval Institute website, Notre Dame alumna Rachel Koopmans estimates that one in three of the glass narratives of the miracles of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral are misattributed. I wonder if here we have another case of mistaken identity in the Cathedral’s glass, this time of kings! If we are ready to accept that at least some of the portraits of English kings have shifted places since Gostling’s time, why should we be bound to accept that Cnut has not moved from position A since the late eighteenth century? The iconographic evidence surely supports a different conclusion.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] It is unclear how Gostling identifies Harold, William II, Henry I, and Stephen. Are they labeled with the “old black letter”? Or do they simply fill the pattern in the series of fourteen kings from Cnut to Richard III that Gostling envisions? William Gostling, A Walk in and about the City of Canterbury, New ed. with considerable additions (Canterbury: William Blackley, 1825), 343–44.

[2] “The position of his left hand, slanting in front of him, is such that it may have appeared mistakenly to Gostling as ‘holding a book’; his halberd however remains unexplained if he is to be identified as the Confessor.” Bernard Rackham, The ancient glass of Canterbury Cathedral (London: Lund, Humphries, 1949), 129.

[3] Richard II, who ordered the window, had a great devotion to Edward and is supported by English kings Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr in the famous Wilton Diptych.

The Lay of Sigemund

Having recently posted a blog on dragonomics in Beowulf and Tolkien’s Hobbit, I decided to follow up by offering a complementary poetic translation of the Sigemund-episode in Beowulf.

I have chosen to isolate the Sigemund-episode (874-902) and translate this passage as a discrete poem, in part because the episode operates as a poem within a poem, delivered as one of three songs by the Danish court poet and recited in celebration of Beowulf’s victory over Grendel. Numerous scholars have tried to identify its literary function in Beowulf, and the episode has traditionally been regarded as a heroic exemplum, honoring Beowulf and foreshadowing his fight with the dragon. I wish to challenge this reading of the passage.

“The Sigurðr Portal” from Hylestad Stave Church, Setesdal, Norway; now housed at the Oldsaksamlingen of the University of Oslo.

The Sigemund-episode in Beowulf is the earliest known account of the Vǫlsung legend, and this tale is alluded to in both the anonymous Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson as well as in Njáls saga, Þiðreks saga and the Vǫlsunga saga. Christine Rauer notes in her study of the Beowulf-dragon and analogous medieval dragon-fights, “The more extensive accounts of the Vǫlsung dragon-fight, such as those found in Fáfnismál (Poetic Edda) and Vǫlsunga saga, date from the thirteenth century, although the subject matter can be presumed to be of an earlier date” (42). However, in these later Old Norse-Icelandic versions of the legend, it is Sigurðr, Sigmundr’s son, who is credited with slaying the hoard-guarding dragon, Fáfnir—not his father.

I would note that, in the section in Beowulf describing Sigemund’s slaying of the dragon, there appears to be an alliterative formula that features also in the Old English Maxims II. This poem characterizes the behavior, function and stereotypical nature of various things—including references to cyning “a king” (1, 28), wulf “wolf” (18) and þyrs “giant” (42), in addition to geological features such as ea “a river” (30), wudu “woods” (33) and brim “sea” (45), as well as material objects and structures such as daroð “a spear” (21), beorh “barrow” (34) and duru “doors” (36). Maxims II describes sweord “a sword” (25) before shifting focus onto the stereotypical image of a gold-proud and barrow-dwelling dragon. The line reads drihtlic isern. Draca sceal on hlæwe “lordly iron. The dragon shall be in a barrow” (26). This closely parallels a similar line in Beowulf, which reads dryhtlic iren. Draca morðre swealt “lordly iron. The dragon died by murder” (892). Although the ending of the line is altered, the commonalities are nevertheless striking, especially since in both cases the alliteration stretches across two discrete semantic units.

I have also tried in my translation and recitation to emphasize the poetics of this episode, especially the two rhyming b-verse half-lines, which emphasize the dragon’s demise. The first, draca morðre swealt “the dragon died by murder” (892), characterizes Sigemund’s killing of the monster as a crime, in its description of the slaying as morðor “murder” (892). The second, wyrm hat gemealt “the hot worm melted” (897), reiterates the dragon’s death at the hand of the hero, and emphasizes also the element of heat—otherwise absent from the characterization of the dragon in the Sigmeund-episode—though explicitly linked to the Beowulf-dragon, described as fyrdraca “fire-dragon” (2689) and ligdraca “flame dragon” (2334, 3040).

Vǫlsung Legend runestone discovered at Drävle (U 1163), relocated in 1878 to the courtyard of the manor house Göksbo, containing image of Sigurðr who thrusts his sword through the serpent.

The Sigemund-episode is also enveloped by references to his ellendædum “valorous deeds” (876, 900), a compound that appears at both the beginning and end of the passage. However, Mark Griffith has provided a detailed commentary of the episode, and he concludes that “The episode of Sigemund is more highly enigmatic, and its central figure much more problematic than received opinion has it” (40). Griffith observes the numerous pejorative terms used to describe the hero, perhaps most famously his characterization as aglæca “fearsome marauder” (893), a term used to characterize each monster in the poem, Grendel (159, 425, 433, 591, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269), Grendel’s mother (1259), and the dragon (2520, 2534, 2592, 2907, 3061), though notably also Beowulf at two key moments (1512, 2592). As Griffith points out, “if the term does have pejorative meaning, then this applies to both Sigemund and Beowulf” (35).

This calls into question the merits of his heroism, and makes the reader wonder about the nature of his ellendædum, uncuþes fela “valorous deeds, much known” (876). The mystery introduced in this line is resolved when the Danish poet reports that þara þe gumena bearn gearwe ne wiston,/ fæhðe ond fyrena, buton Fitela mid hine “feuds and crimes, of which the the sons of men did not readily know, except Fitela with him” (878-79). Indeed we learn that his valorous deeds are characterized specifically as fæhðe “feuds” (879), a term associated with the Grendelkin’s feud with God (109), and especially Grendel’s mother’s vengeance (1333, 1340, 1380, 1537) as well as the dragons wrath (2403, 2513, 2525, 2689). We learn also that these deeds are explicitly fyrena “crimes” (879)—a term repeatedly associated with Grendel (101, 164, 750, 811)—who likewise performs fæhðe ond fyrene (137, 153).

Moreover, the reference to Fitela, Griffith argues, may call to mind information for the Vǫlsunga saga, which “records how Signy changes shape with a sorceress, visits her brother and sleeps with him, whilst in this disguise, in order to beget a son to further the Vǫlsung feud with her husband” (25). In other words, Sigmundr (Sigemund) is both father and uncle to Sinflǫtli (Fitela), as a result of his incestuous relations with his twin sister. This seems further emphasized by the reference to the secrets shared eam his nefan “uncle to nephew” (881), which focuses the reader’s attentions on Sigemund’s incest and role as eam, an Old English term which indicates specifically “maternal uncle.”

Indeed, troubling descriptions of the hero persist, as Sigemund becomes characterized as wreccena wide mærost “the most famous of exiles”(898), which calls to mind the exiled Grendel, described as mære mearcstapa “famous border-crosser” (103), depicting the hero once again in pejorative terms. I would argue that this bears especially on the final reference to Sigemund’s ellendædum “valorous deeds” (900), and specifically the parenthetical half-line at the end of the episode, which indicates that he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900).

Vǫlsung legend runestone located at Gök (Sö 327), containing a runic text on two serpents that surround much of the Vǫlsung imagery, including a depiction of Sigurðr stabbing the serpent from below (photo from 1922).

If Sigemund prospers through fæhðe ond fyrena “feuds and crimes” (879), what does this say about the warrior ethics displayed in the poem? Indeed, I would suggest that the parenthetical half-line he þæs ær onðah “he prospered before by these” (900) highlights how in the heroic world of Beowulf, the only way to thrive is by imitating monsters and engaging readily in fæhðe ond fyrena. In Beowulf, feuds and crimes result in the protagonist’s death and the subsequent genocide of the Geatish people—which mirrors Sigemund’s (and Fitela’s) annihilation of ealfela eotena cynnes “an entire race of giants” (883)—perhaps in part because Beowulf seems to adopt Sigemund as a role model and seeks to emulate the ellendæda of this aglæca.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


Further Reading:

Abram, Christopher. “Bee-wolf and the Hand of Victory: Identifying the Heroes of Beowulf and Vǫlsunga saga.The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116.4 (2017): 387-414.

Bonjour, Adrien. The Digressions in Beowulf. Basil Blackwell. 1950.

Kaske, Robert.  “The Sigemund-Heremod and Hama-Hygelac Passages in Beowulf.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 74 (1959): 489-94.

Griffith, Mark. “Some difficulties in Beowulf, lines 874-902: Sigemund reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon. D. S. Brewer. 2000.

Whose Runes are These? I (Don’t) Think I Know

In the mid-twelfth century, a stoneworker in the far northwest of England at Bridekirk, Cumbria cut a lavishly-decorated baptismal font with reliefs of dragons, mysterious figures, and, curiously, a line of runic writing. By the early modern period, the characters on the Bridekirk font were nothing but strange. Early English historian and chronographer William Camden, who included a sketch of the runic inscription in the 1607 edition of his Britannia, declared himself perplexed: “Quid autem illae velint, et cuius gentis characteribus, ego minime video, statuant eruditi.”[1]

The east face of the Bridekirk font, by permission of Lionel Wall. 

First published in 1586, Camden’s massive historico-chronographical Britannia went through six editions in the author’s lifetime, and Camden continually updated and expanded the text, augmenting it with maps and diagrams, such as the rendition of the Bridekirk runes seen below. The last Britannia edition on which Camden collaborated was a 1610 English translation by Philemon Holland, who translates: “But what they signifie, or what nations characters they should be, I know not, let the learned determine thereof.” Camden’s uncertainties cut straight to the heart of the matter: whose runes are these? and what do they mean?

The Bridekirk runes as pictured in the 1607 edition of Britannia. Courtesy of Dana Sutton.

In the more than 400 years that have passed since the publication of Camden’s Britannia and despite the best efforts of the eruditi, no simple answer has been found to either of Camden’s questions, the first of which I’ll consider in today’s post. Whose runes are these?

Danish antiquarian Ole Worm learned of the inscription from the Britannia and included his own version of the runes in a 1634 letter to one Henry Spelman:

But if a well-printed text of the monuments inscribed with our characters that exist [in England] is sent to me, they would make up the much-desired appendix to those from our country. As far as the one Camden shows us in his book Britannia, I hardly know whether it can be read: [RUNES] That is, as I interpret it according to the laws of our language: “Harald made [this] mound and set up stones in the memory of [his] mother and Mabrok.” But I claim nothing as certain until someone can supply us with a more accurate description.[2]
Leaving aside Worm’s wildly inaccurate translation, which he based off of the second-hand evidence of Camden’s printed transcription, I’d like to note that Worm seems to claim the Bridekirk runes among the monumentorum nostris notis consignatorum (monuments signed with our script): he counts these as Scandinavian runes.

At other times the inscription has been claimed as English. The description of the Bridekirk font in Charles Macfarlane’s Comprehensive History of England, first published in 1856, praises the “ingenuity of design and execution” of the font and notes its “Saxon inscription.”[3] 

The font as pictured in Macfarlane’s History. 

Modern scholars agree with Worm that the incised characters are, in the main, Scandinavian. But the inscription is not wholly so: the text employs a few non-runic, decidedly English characters, including ⁊, Ȝ, and a bookhand Ƿ. Moreover, the language is not the Norse one might expect from Scandinavian runes but rather English:

Ricard he me iwrokte to þis merð ʒer ** me brokte.[4]
Richard crafted me and brought me (eagerly?) to this splendor.

So if the runic inscription is neither fully Norse nor fully English, whose runes (cuius gentis) are they? While Charles Macfarlane claimed them as “Saxon” and Worm counted them as Scandinavian, the runes are actually neither but rather the product of a mixed society continuing to encode both English and Norse cultural practices on stone. Most literally the runes represent phonological values and a particular message, but for most of the font’s history the place of these symbols in cultural memory – whose runes they have become – has been just as important as what they originally meant. The cultural equivocality of the Bridekirk inscription is emblematic of larger ambiguities involving Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity and culture as imagined by the post-Hastings medieval English. These ambiguous cultural signs, later re-imagined in the early modern period, raise the question of what it meant to be Anglo-Norse in an Anglo-Norman world.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] William Camden, “William Camden, Britannia (1607) with an English Translation by Philemon Holland: A Hypertext Critical Edition,” ed. Dana F. Sutton (The Philological Museum, 2004), Descriptio Angliae et Walliae: Cumberland, 7.

[2] Ole Worm, Olai Wormii et ad eum doctorum virorum epistolæ, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1751), Letter 431. This translation is my own.

[3] Charles MacFarlane, The Comprehensive History of England :Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social : From the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt, Rev. ed. (London, 1861), 164.

[4] The transliteration above is based on that of Page, who reads “+Ricarþ he me iwrocte / and to þis merð (?) me brocte.” R. I. Page, Runes (University of California Press, 1987), 54.