Magazine article History Today

Beowulf: New Light on the Dark Ages

Magazine article History Today

Beowulf: New Light on the Dark Ages

Article excerpt

It has long been believed that the Beowulf poem, the earliest surviving substantial work of literature in English, is a story from north-western Europe brought over to Dark-Age Britain by the Germanic invaders. New research by the archaeologist Paul Wilkinson, however, raises the intriguing possibility that parts of the poem can be related to specific locations on the North Kent coast. The poem may yet prove to be one of the most important sources we have on century Germanic settlement in Britain.

We can place Beowulf, the hero of the poem, in the early sixth century by the name of his lord, Hygelac. The Historia Francorum of Gregory of Tours records the death of Hygelac in Frisia in about 521. But the main historical character to be mentioned is Hengist. His story survives in Beowulf itself and in the fragmentary poem, The Fight at Finnsburh; in both works, the events described relate to a historical struggle between Jutes (the `Danes' in Beowulf) and Frisians in the early fifth century. Hengist also appears in the historical works of Nennius and Bede. In their accounts, he arrived in Kent sometime before 440, and was given the island of Thanet at the mouth of the Thames Estuary by the post-Roman British ruler Vortigern.

West of Thanet, at the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey, lies an island named Harty. This island was called `Heorot' in the eleventh century and `Hart Londe' in a fifteenth-century map. Heorot is the name of King Hrothgar's hall in the poem -- the destination of Beowulf's journey and the site of his battle with the monster Grendel.

Paul Wilkinson, Director of the Faversham Archaeological Field School, has long been fascinated by the possibility that this island is the location referred to in Beowulf. In the course of an archaeological survey of North Kent for Swale Borough Council, he has begun to piece together evidence to support the idea.

Plutarch estimated the sea journey from the mouth of the Rhine in Frisia to Britain as taking about thirty-six hours. In the poem, Beowulf sights land on the morning of the second day -- exactly thirty-six hours after leaving his homeland. His first sighting is described distinctively: `sea-cliffs shining, shores steep, broad sea-nesses' (Beowulf 222-224). The most likely landfall on the British coast from Frisia is given by the British Admiralty North Sea Pilot as either `Whiteness' (North Foreland) or Sheerness Cliffs. The North Foreland has a well-known optical trick of `shining' when the rays of the rising sun strike the white chalk of the cliffs; in fact, in pre-dawn light the cliffs can shine dramatically while the sea remains in darkness. The cliffs at Sheerness share the same characteristic; their Saxon name emphasises the point -- `Sheerness' means `bright headland', from Old English scir, bright.

Beowulf's landing is at a place identified as Land's-End, and his ship is met by a coastal watchman described in the poem as the Warden. A small sea inlet on Sheppey just to the north of Harty is identified in early maps as `Land's-End', and the cliffs above it are still called Warden. The warden accompanies Beowulf until the hall of Heorot comes into view, then he continues along a straet waes stanfah. …

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