Beagnoth’s Seax

The Seax of Beagnoth
The Seax of Beagnoth from the British Museum, by S Marshall, CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1857 an extraordinary find was made: a 10th century Anglo-Saxon seax, almost 2 feet long, and inscribed with runes, was found by a labourer in the River Thames near Battersea. A seax is a large, single-edged knife and was characteristic of the Anglo-Saxons. The word is even thought to have given the Saxons their name.

‘Seax’ is in fact the generic Old English word for knife, but tends to be used by archaeologists to describe the larger iron single-edged knives which first appear in Anglo-Saxon graves of the seventh century. Later examples tend to be isolated finds, often from rivers, like this example. Seaxes were used for hunting and combat.

Detail of the futhorc inscription on the Seax of Beagnoth
Detail of the futhorc inscription on the Seax of Beagnoth on display at the British Museum, BabelStone [CC BY-SA 3.0]

This particular seax was clearly a prestigious object. It is the only one found to have a full set of the Anglo-Saxon set of the runes, known as the futhorc, inscribed on the blade, along with the Anglo

-Saxon name “Beagnoþ.” It is not known if Beagnoþ was the sword-maker or its owner.  Other seaxes have also been found with inscriptions, using either runes or Latin lettering.

Beagnoþ’s blade was originally inlaid with silver, copper and brass wire. A similar inlaid example was found deposited at Keen Edge Ferry in Berkshire, so close to Beagnoþ’s seax in shape, method of construction and decoration that they may have been from the same workshop.

The order of the runes does not match the usual sequence recorded elsewhere, and some of the individual runes are written slightly differently from usual too. It may be that the craftsman was not familiar with runes or else had problems inscribing the letters into the blade. However, all the runes from the futhorc are included.

It appears that the seax may have been deposited deliberately in the river, like other similar finds, but it is not known for certain why such valuable objects were treated in this way. It may have been for religious reasons, perhaps as protection at difficult crossing places on the river, based on pagan beliefs. At this period there may have been Viking or Scandinavian influences at work, and the law codes of King Cnut and Archbishop Wulfstan in the early 11th century, which forbade such rituals, certainly indicate that such practices were happening at this time despite widespread Christianisation.

The seax of Beagnoth can be viewed in the British Museum in London.