The Franks Casket

Front panel of Franks casket
Front panel of casket on display at British Museum, photo P Wicks

The Franks Casket is a cornucopia of stories and legends created from the bone of a whale and incorporating its very own riddle. It is not named for the people known as the Franks, but of the donor who gave it to the British Museum, Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97).

The casket was made in the 8th century, probably in Northumbria, and it is astonishingly, although not completely, intact. It bears the scars left by lost metal fittings on the exterior – handle, lock, hasps and hinges – and crude internal repairs. Originally it would have been painted.

The panels around the sides and on the lid show an array of stories from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition. Starting with the Romans, the left hand panel depicts the story of Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, being suckled by the she-wolf. The inscription is in Old English runes and reads:

“Romulus and Remus, two brothers, a she-wolf nourished them in Rome, far from their native land”

The back panel depicts the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD to the Romans. Part of the inscription here is in Latin using the Roman alphabet and the other part is in Old English in runes. In the top left the Romans attack the city and it states “Here Titus and the Jews fight” (Old English runes); then in the top right the population is trying to escape, with the text “Here the inhabitants flee from Jerusalem” (mixed Latin and runes); in the bottom left we see a judge, and the word “judgement” (in Old English runes); and finally in the bottom right the defeated slaves are led away with the word “hostages” (Old English runes).

The front panel has two stories side by side. The first is the Christian Adoration of the Magi at the birth of Jesus. A rather duck-like bird in the scene is probably the Holy Spirit, and word “magi” is shown in runes.

The other side of the panel depicts the legend of Weyland the Smith, a Germanic story about a master smith captured and hamstrung by King Nithhad. In revenge Wayland kills the king’s sons and makes goblets from their skulls which he presents to the king. He also gives drugged beer to the king’s daughter and then rapes her, leaving her pregnant. Wayland finally escapes on wings made from the collected feathers of birds.

Around the border of the front panel is a riddle about the casket itself, written in Old English in runes and ending with the solution:

“The flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff

The terror-king became sad where he swam on the shingle.

Whale’s bone.”

The lid is quite damaged but the detail that remains is taken from the Germanic story of Egil, the brother of Wayland, relating to the front panel discussed above. This is not Egil Skallagrimsson from the eponymous Icelandic saga. Egil is a legendary archer and King Nithhad forces him to shoot an apple from his son’s head, much in the style of William Tell. Later Egil shoots birds to collect their feathers and make wings so that Wayland can escape.

The most mysterious panel is the one on the right hand end of the casket. It depicts a story about which there is no agreed interpretation. An animal sits on a mound confronted by a warrior and another animal, probably a horse, stands in the centre facing another figure with a sword, or stick. Three figures are to the right. The runes themselves are damaged and decoding them is difficult, with different suggestions producing different translations.

There have been numerous suggestions about what story this represents, from Hengest and Horsa through the death of Balder to the story of Rhiannon from the Mabinogion.

Despite the strong Germanic imagery and styling of the casket, the actual design and layout is based on a casket from Brescia in northern Italy. Possibly a similar casket travelled back to Northumbria with Benedict Biscop after one of his many visits to Rome.

The use of a range of stories and traditions is generally understood to promote a Christian message in a way that made sense to early converts to the Church The theme can be seen as good kingship, and perhaps the casket was to hold a psalter comprising the psalms of another king, David as inspiration to an Anglo-Saxon Atheling.