A Reconstructed Saxon Woman's Outfit

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Copyright © 2012 Shelagh Lewins.


This article describes a reconstruction of a costume that might have been worn by an Anglo-Saxon woman in the late 9th century a.d. The costume reconstruction is intended to portray a wealthy widow who has vowed herself to the church. The costume and this article are works in progress and I plan to add to this article as I gradually create the costume.

The Costume

The planned costume will comprise the following items:

Additional accessories may include:

The Planned Costume

Figure 1: The Planned Costume

The Items


The Dresses

Figure 2: the outfit in progress

The wool overdress with embroidered cuffs is worn over the long-sleeved linen underdress. You can see that I have not yet learned how to put a wimple on properly.


Anglo-Saxon England was famous for its embroidery. The overdress will feature embroidered cuffs, the designs being drawn from a number of sources. The emboidery is executed in coloured wools on a brown wool fabric. The embroidered fillet (headband) is worked in fine silk and couched gold thread on a linen ground.

Embroidered Fillet

Figure 3: Embroidery for fillet, shown flat

The overall design of the embroidery is four roundels on each cuff, with vine decoration in between. This design was inspired by the Maaseik embroideries, which are late 9th century Anglo Saxon, and feature roundels containing animal, plant and other motifs, with vine-type decoration between them.

Because the character is rich but not royal or an abbess, I'm using yellow thread in split stitch instead of the couched gold thread of the Maaseik embroideries. Split stitch is used extensively for the non-gold areas of the Maaseik embroideries, so I have chosen split stitch for the entire work. The roundels are more widely spaced than on the originals, to space them out evenly on the cuffs, but I have kept the use of alternating blue and red for the backgrounds.

Images of the Maaseik Embroideries may be seen at the website of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, Brussels.

Embroidered Cuff Design - The Four Evangelists

Figure 4: Embroidered Cuff Design - Symbols of the Four Evangelists

Embroidered Cuff - The Four Evangelists

Figure 5: Embroidered Panel - Symbols of the Four Evangelists

Embroidered Cuff Design - Christian Symbols

Figure 6: Embroidered Cuff Design - Four Christian Symbols

Embroidered Cuff - Christian Symbols

Figure 7: Embroidered Panel - Four Christian Symbols

Symbols of the four evangelists; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: The Lindisfarne Gospels (7th-8th century a.d.) and the Book of Kells (early 9th century a.d.) both show the symbols of the evangelists, and I used these as inspiration for the embroidery designs.

Lindisfarne Gospels - St Matthew (Man)

Lindisfarne Gospels - St Mark (Lion)

Lindisfarne Gospels - St Luke (Ox)

Lindisfarne Gospels - St John (Eagle)

Book of Kells - Four Evangelists

The second cuff shows other images that would have been significant to this devotedly Christian woman.

Agnus Dei: the Lamb of God is based on a reliquary cross at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This is of later date, circa 1050 a.d., but it is pre-Norman, and the image would have been just as significant in the 9th Century. I also referred to the Queen Aethelswith Ring, held at the British Museum. Queen Aethelswith was the sister of king Alfred, and this ring probably also dates from the late 9th century.

Madonna and Child: I was inspired by the Madonna and Child shown in the Book of Kells, and an 11th century carving from the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the Book of Kells, the infant Jesus looks more like a little man than a baby, and I think my version shares this characteristic!

Tree of Life: this design is based on another 9th century ring, the Athelwulf Ring, also held at the British Museum.

St Saexburh of Ely: I could find no clear images of St Saexburh. There is an image of Saexburh's sister St Ethelthryth (also known as Etheldreda), holding a book and accompanied by another saint, who may be Saexburh, on a wall painting at Willingham Church, in Cambridgeshire. I have depicted Saexburh as bearing a crook (for her status as Abbess of Ely) and holding a bible.

Significance of the Symbols

The four evangelists are credited with writing the four Gospels in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The symbols of the evangelists are the four living creatures that are seen in the vision in the Book of Ezekial (chapter 1). They are also seen in Revelations, standing by the throne of the Lord and ceaselessly singing praises. There are other variations but I have chosen the four that are now commonly considered to be the symbols of the four Evangelists.

Maurus Magnentius Rabanus, a Frankish Bendictine monk writing in the first half of the 9th century a.d., gave three layers of meanings for the symbols:

  1. The Evangelists
  2. The nature of Christ
  3. The virtues required of a Christian for salvation

St Matthew: Man or Angel

Matthew was a Gallilean tax collector, but followed Jesus when called, and became an early apostle of Jesus. His feast day is 21 September.

St Mark: Lion

Mark was one of the Seventy Disciples of Christ, and founder of the Church of Alexandria, thus bringing Christianity to Africa. He was recruited by Peter and wrote down the sermons of Peter, as the Gospel according to Mark. His feast day is April 25.

St Luke: Ox

A Greco-Syran physician who lived in Antioch (Greece). A follower of Paul of Tarsus, and not himself an eyewitness of Gospel events. His feast day is 18 October.

St John: Eagle

John was one of the original 12 apostles, and the only one to live to old age: he was not killed for his faith. He and his brother James were fishermen who were first disciples of John the Baptist, then were called by Christ with Peter and Andrew. His feast day is 27 December.

The Lamb of God

The Agnus Dei appears in the Gospel of John, when John the Baptist says of Jesus "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". The lamb is seen as an inoccent sacrifice; the Passover lamb slaughtered to save them from sin and death, with the unleavened Passover bread being Jesus' body sacrificed for the world. An invocation to the Agnus Dei forms part of the Catholic Mass and Anglican Communion.

During the Carolingian period two practices arose that changed the shape of the Agnus dei ritual: the custom of using small pieces of unleavened bread and the infrequent distribution of communion to all present. These changes greatly decreased the time necessary for both the breaking of the bread and the communion. The Agnus dei was reduced to a tripartite repetition of the supplication. In several of the early sources, though, the second petition was changed to reflect the language of the Gloria in excelsis:

Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus dei qui sedes ad dexteram patris, miserere nobis.
Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who sits at the right hand of the father, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Madonna and Child

The image of the Virgin Mary with her infant son Jesus is of critical importance to any Christian.

Tree of Life

The tree of life is a tree planted by God in the garden of Eden, whose fruit gives everlasting life.

And the Lord God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." (Genesis 3:22) This stricture was only introduced after Adam and Eve had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Some think that Jesus is the Tree of Life.

St Seaxburg (died +c. 699)

It is likely that a Christian woman would have a favourite saint, who she viewed as a special protector and perhaps role model. I have chosen St Saexburh of Ely (also written Sexburgha, Sexburh) as being of particular interest to a widow. Saexburh is an unusual female saint in that she was married with children, and a political force in her own right as queen, regent and abbess.

Saexburh was one of four daughters of the English king Anna (of East Anglia, ruled c. 640s to Battle of Bulcamp c. 653, where he was slain). All four daughters and the son Jumin were honored as saints.

Saexburh's sisters Aethelburg and Saethryth became abbesses of Faremountiers Abbey in Brie.

Saexburh's sister Aethelthryth (aka Etheldreda or Audrey) was probably born in Exning, married young but persuaded her husband Tondberct to respect her vow of virginity and on his death in 655 retired to the Isle of Ely, her morning gift from her husband. She remarried in 660, to Ecgfrith Kind of Northumbria. Shortly after his accession to the throne (670), she became a nun. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Aethelthryth founded the monastery at Ely in 673. This monastery was destroyed by Danes in 870.

During her twenty-four years of marriage to King Eorconberht of Kent, Sexburh gave birth to four children, two of whom are likewise venerated as saints (her daughters Ercongota and Ermenilda). As queen, she was revered for her piety and humility.

Following her husband's death of plague in 664, Sexburh was regent for her son Ecgberht, ruling Kent until he came of age. Sexburh was then able to satisfy her long-standing desire to consecrate her life completely to the service of God, entering a convent she had previously founded at Minster-in-Sheppey, out on the Isle of Sheppey. (This was destroyed by Danes in the mid-9th century) Thereafter, Sexburh sought a yet more hidden life in order to focus her thoughts upon heaven. This prompted her to transfer to the convent founded by her sister Saint Etheldreda at Ely (actually a double monastery).

Despite her hopes for a hidden existence, Sexburh was chosen to succeed her sister as Ely's abbess. It was Sexburh who ordered the opening of Etheldred's tomb after sixteen years. A doctor waiting outside the tent erected over the tomb for the exhumation overheard Sexburh within the tent suddenly exclaim, "Glory to the name of the Lord!" Her sister's body had been found to be totally incorrupt. This legend was described by Bede (672-735)

To a pious woman in the late 9th century a.d., the destruction of the Minster and Ely monasteries must have been a terrible blow. Her horror of the Viking attacks, and her wonder or pride at the English recover under King Alfred, can only be imagined.

Relic Bag

The relic bag is made of fine, golden-brown wool. The embroidery is executed in fine worsted-spun weaving wool, which I bought at the Handweaver's Studio in North London, using split stitch. The drawstrings are 4-way plaits of thicker worsted-spun weaving wools, also from the Handweaver's Studio.

I could not find any evidence of fabric relic bags from this period, so I made a simple bag that is similar to some later period relic bags, with a double drawstring. The central design is a Cuthbert Cross which is certainly appropriate to the late 9th century, and the vine work is in the general style of Dark Age decoration.

The seam edging is a 'guilloche' plait, which I learned from Phiala's String Page, a wonderful resource for anybody interested in braids, plaits and so on. This is a 5-strand plait which can be worked in a variety of ways. I used two weaving tablets, each threaded with one red and one yellow fine wool thread, in diagonally opposite corners. I then wove this as a narrow band, with the blue weft threaded onto a needle so that I could sew the band on to the edge of the bag as I wove it.

I pulled the warp threads too tight while I was weaving, and didn't keep the bag taut enough, especially as I worked it around the corners. So the bag was somewhat crumpled up when I'd finished. I treated it like a needlepoint embroidery, dampening the bag and pinning it stretched out on a board to dry. This worked really well - wool is a wonderful textile! - and the bag is now reasonably flat. This was the first time I have sewn a tablet-woven band on to a piece of cloth as part of the production process, and I'm pleased with the way it has covered the seam.

Of course, a relic bag needs a relic. A fragment of a Nail from the True Cross would be a fine relic that a small religious establishment might treasure. My friend Magnus forged one for me - I use the term advisedly. The nail is wrapped in a fine red silk rectangle that I hemmed with yellow silk thread - only the best for our wonderful relic!

Embroidered Relic Bag

Embroidered Relic Bag

Tablet-woven Seam Decoration

Tablet-woven Seam Decoration

Holy Nail

The Relic

Shelagh Lewins

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