Friday, November 7, 2014

The Franks Casket

by Richard Denning

One of the chief treasures of the Anglo-Saxon Halls in the British museum is the Franks or Auzon Casket. It was discovered in private hands in a village in France called Auzon in the 19th Century where it was being used as a work box. The style of the runes and of the artwork enable us to identify it was having been constructed in the early 8th Century in the North of England, presumably somewhere in the powerful Kingdom of Northumbria. the casket is damaged but has been reconstructed.

The Franks Casket in the British Museum

Some time during the eleven  centuries between its creation and discovery the box was dismantled and one panel was separated from the rest.  That panel was given to the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, from which a cast  has been made. The remaining panels were presented to the British Museum by Sir Augustus Franks, after whom the casket is named. Using the cast of the missing panel the casket could be restored.

The casket is made from Whale bones and elaborately carved with scenes from Anglo-Norse Mythology and Biblical scenes. At this point the Anglo-Saxons were absorbing the new Christian religion as well as preserving some of their old traditions. Around the artwork are Runes commenting on the signs and using the Futhorc or Anglo-Saxon version of Germanic Runes.

The Front Panel

The front panel is divided into two scenes. On the left is an image  showing part of the Germanic legend of Weland the Smith. The right panel, meanwhile, depicts the Adoration by the Magi,  of the newborn Christ.

 The runes on the front is a riddle which seems to refer to the material from which the box was made:‘The fish beat up the seas on to the mountainous cliff; the King of terror became sad when he swam onto the shingle.’ The answer - given on the panel is‘Whale’s bone.’   The box was made from the bone of a beached Whale.

The Lid

The lid shows some now obscure Germanic story about a hero named Ægili who is shown defending a fortification from armed raiders.

Back Panel

The back panel depicts the capture and fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman Emperor Titus. 

Right Panel

The right-hand panel is the cast and is he most difficult to interpret, but probably recalls a lost legend with a text involving a person called Hos sitting upon something called the ‘sorrow-mound’. 

Left Panel
The left-hand end shows the founders of Rome,  Romulus and Remus, being suckled and protected by a she-wolf.

The Casket was created around the time that Bede was writing his history of the Church in England. It is a unique snapshot of its time - and through it we can almost feel the efforts to accept the Church's message of the divinity and power of Christ whilst at the same time maintaining and looking back to the traditions of their fathers. One now unknown Northumbrian noble may have had this casket made to show openly those thoughts and emotions that many of his generation would have been feeling. 


Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord.

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