Julie Hollerton, a student of our Old English course, tells us how taking one of our ancient language courses opened up a whole new world of discoveries for her. 

A few years ago, I joined the Cathedral’s first Old English (OE) class, curious about the language but, in truth, just to accompany my daughter.  Several years later, I can say that this was the best of choices, as learning the language has opened up a world of fascinating interests and pastimes, which have infiltrated everyday life.

I’ve always loved early medieval manuscripts as beautiful objects, so learning the basics of OE was a way to understand more about their content.  Quite quickly the class looked at texts such as Ælfric’s Colloquy, and at poetry including The Seafarer and The Wanderer, which gave a sense of the world experienced by the Anglo-Saxons.  King Ælfred’s preface to his translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care gave great insight into the state of education in the ninth century.  To encourage the teaching of texts in the vernacular, Ælfred sent an æstel with each translated book to the bishops.  This magnificent jewel is believed to have sat upon a pointer and when I discovered that an original (left) resided in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, so began my travels! 

Viewing the æstel was fabulous – Ælfred mec heht gewyrcan ('Ælfred ordered me to be made') is carved in gold around a rock crystal and enamel jewel.  The workmanship is unbelievable.  As I was learning to be a silversmith at St Albans School of Jewellery, this was a wonderful chance to look up more about Anglo-Saxon designs.  So started another opportunity to incorporate Anglo Saxon elements into my hobbies.

Reading more about the life of King Ælfred and his struggles against the invading Viking forces, I began to study early medieval history.  Æthelstan, grandson of Ælfred, was known as the ‘first king of all the English’, and his tomb can be found at Malmesbury (right).  On a visit north, a small detour led to Eamont Bridge, where in 927 Æthelstan accepted the submission of the Welsh and Northern Kings. A visit south led to Milton Abbey, founded by Æthelstan to commemorate the death of his brother Edwin at sea.    

Having an interest in Æthelstan, I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Michael Wood (Professor in Public History at the University of Manchester) at Brixworth, one of the best-preserved Anglo-Saxon churches in Northern Europe.  The highlight of the evening was sitting with a cup of tea and cake, discussing the Battle of Brunanburg with him!

Discovering more about historic sites brought about an interest in how Christianity spread throughout the kingdom from the sixth to eleventh centuries.  Reading Bede independently and the lives of saints in class encouraged visits to cathedrals around the country – Ely and Durham favoured so far.

Durham, the resting place of both Bede (left) and Cuthbert, is particularly wonderful. The Anglo-Saxon stone sculptures in the museum and of course Cuthbert’s coffin with runic inscriptions and his pectoral cross were inspiring to see. Learning about Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels led me to attend my first DigVenture’s archaeological dig on the island of Lindisfarne.  It was uncanny to be excavating the site of the eighth-century monastery and to know that this place was invaded by one of the earliest Viking raids in 793, the same year as Offa is said to have founded St Albans Abbey.  Evocative is not the word!  The discovery of coins from Æthelred’s reign and a runic namestone were mindblowing.  Needless to say, I’m going back to the island excavation again.

Of course, Beowulf beckons any student of Old English!  Hearing Benjamin Bagby at the British Library reciting it with his lyre was magical.  By this time, I knew enough OE to be able to read my copy of Beowulf as he spoke.  And to see the original text displayed in the ‘Anglo-Saxons Kingdoms’ exhibition at the British Library was a high point.   I could not have imagined that I would attend the three-day conference of international academics and students, listening to the latest research in the field.  I came away with so much more to learn.

Being fascinated by palaeography, I attended a one-day summer school course at UCL to learn about insular scripts. Feeling more confident about my understanding of OE, I then transcribed some pages of text for Corpus Christi Library, Cambridge, as part of the public ‘Fromthepage’ initiative to transcribe digitised manuscript texts.

After translating The Dream of the Rood in class, another detour north took me to see the Ruthwell Cross.  With both pagan and christian sculpture, it’s impossible to leave without reciting the poem.  Not the first time, as the site of the Battle of Maldon elicited the same response!

So, far from the murkiness of Grendel’s mere, my journey into Old English classes has afforded a wonderful vista of the Anglo-Saxon world.  Everywhere I go, now, I seek traces of the history that these classes have opened up for me.  Later this summer (hopefully!) the early medieval crosses of the Abbot’s Way on Dartmoor beckon and the ancient sites of Wessex.  If not, books will suffice and I cannot wait for the next Old English Reading Group.  It’s a life-changer.

Julie Hollerton, July 2020       



Image 1: The Ælfred Jewel, Ashmolean Museum (Image in the public domain)

Image 2: Æthelstan’s Tomb, Malmesbury © Julie Hollerton 

Image 3: Bede’s Tomb, Durham Cathedral © Julie Hollerton 

Image 4: The Ruthwell Cross © Julie Hollerton