Founded in AD635 by King Oswald and sacked by the Vikings in AD793, the early medieval Anglo-Saxon monastery at Lindisfarne was abandoned at the peak of its power and influence. Its exact location was lost to history for over 1,000 years until, armed with a detailed set of geophysics results and support from hundreds of crowdfunders, we set out to locate it in June 2016. If only we could find some trace of its buildings, then there’d be a good chance we’d also find evidence of the monks who masterminded its golden age…
We didn’t have to wait long. Halfway through the first week of excavation, the dig team started finding fragments of human bone including a tooth, a piece of leg bone, a finger, part of a skull – enough to suggest that this area had once been a reasonably sized burial ground that had been disturbed by later building work.
And then we found the smoking gun; a smooth, rounded stone bearing an inscription. It was an Anglo-Saxon namestone, a rare type of burial marker specific to the mid 7th to 8th centuries, and incontrovertible evidence that the dig team had landed among burial remains that were contemporary with the very monastery we were looking for.
Emblazoned across the centre of the stone was a series of letters. It was someone’s name! The first part was damaged and hard to decipher, but the second part was clear: it said FRIÐ.
In Old English, FRIÐ (prounounced ‘frith’) means peace, fealty or stately beautiful, and was a common ending for Anglo-Saxon male names and sure enough, there were many famous -friths connected with Lindisfarne. There was Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria from AD 670-685, and his successor Aldfrith, who ruled until AD705. There was also Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from AD698, and Æthelfrith – Oswald’s father – who died in AD616. Debates, guesses and speculation raged on Facebook and Twitter; was it possible that our namestone belonged to any of these historical figures?
To find out, we sent the stone off to be examined by Elisabeth Okasha at the University of Cork. After careful analysis, she sent us an answer. It didn’t belong to any of these people, but to someone called yþfrið.
According to Elisabeth, Ythfrith (pronounced ‘Uthfrith’) is not a name that she has come across before, or been able to find written down in any historical document. To all intents and purposes, this discovery had revealed a new Anglo-Saxon name – one that hadn’t been seen or heard for over 1,000 years.
But was it a man or a woman? As Elisabeth explained, the fact that the name ended in -frið could in fact be a bit misleading. Although it is a common ending for Anglo-Saxon male names, it can – albeit rarely – also be used to form female names, of which one recorded example is Eadfrið.
The first part, yþ- (or ‘Yth’) is also very rare, and the only instance of it appears in the female name Ythsuið, which is recorded in the Durham Liber Vitae – a list of the names of donors to Durham Cathedral, requesting prayers to be said for their souls, almost like the medieval equivalent of a visitors’ book. Is it possible then that the namestone belonged to a woman?
The typical telling of Lindisfarne’s story is one of kings, monks, and Vikings; in other words it is a male-oriented one. But they weren’t the only people on the island; there were pilgrims, patrons, visitors and a well-established lay community living on the island.
At Hartlepool, another early Anglo-Saxon monastery, archaeologists have found many namestones belonging to women. Hartlepool was, after all, a double monastery inhabited by both monks and nuns, and run by an abbess. While there is no written record of nuns at Lindisfarne, we do know that there were multiple churches, including one known as the Green Church dedicated to use by women.
For now, we can only speculate about who Ythfrith was, but according to Dr David Petts, our project co-director and lecturer at Durham University, it is not implausible that Ythfrith was a woman, and if she was then there are several possibilities.
The first is that Ythfrith was a nun. Lindisfarne was after all founded by the same people as Hartlepool, so the namestone could be evidence that, despite the lack of historical records, there were in fact nuns at Lindisfarne.
An alternative is that Ythfrith might have been a wealthy noble, a patron who made a donation of land or money to the monastery. In fact, one previous example of a namestone found at Lindisfarne belonged to a woman called Osgyth. Although women would not have been admitted into the monastery’s inner sanctum in life, what the namestone does show is that at least in death, its owner was welcomed and given the honour of being buried there.
Finally, as Elisabeth points out, Ythfrith might in the end have been a man; a monk, or a noble. Although –frith does very occasionally appear in female names, and the only known instance of Yth- is in a female name, first elements don’t give much indication of gender. The name is still therefore more likely to be that of a man than a woman, but it is indeed a ‘new’ name; one that neither historians nor archaeologists have seen written down before.
Regardless of gender, and whoever Ythfrith was, the limited timeframe in which these namestones are used means we can be fairly confident that Ythfrith lived during the earliest phase of the monastery, and was someone important who may even have known its founders Oswald and Aidan, or some of its later historical figures like Eadfrith or Cuthbert.
The namestone is also engraved with a cross with a sun-like disc at the end of each arm, and a central cavity that may once have held a relic or jewel. Above the name, you can also just about make out the letters ‘A’ and ‘W’, representing alpha and omega – a clear reference to the Bible, Revelations XXII, 13 which says ‘I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end’, a surefire sign that the namestone was indeed an early Christian relic, and incontrovertible evidence that we were in the vicinity of the island’s earliest monastery.
Anyone who has ever taken part in an excavation will recognise the distinctive tingle that runs down your spine when you discover something that has lain untouched for millennia. It’s even more thrilling when that ‘something’ unlocks the name of a real person which hasn’t been spoken aloud for over a thousand years. Say it with us… Ythfrith!
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