Penrith’s 10th-century Futhark Brooch

Just a quick one this time so you know I’m still here! My recent post on the Kingmoor Ring got me thinking about a number of things. Firstly, whilst people in southern England probably expect to find anglo-saxon archaeology, it’s a bit of a novelty in Cumbria. Secondly, why are we surprised to find an inscription that is a variety of good luck charm? And thirdly, why does this ring get a fancy name with capitalisations – actually, it gets two because it’s sometimes known as the Greymoor Ring – when other fabulous, and magical, things do not?

Norse Brooch from Penrith, copyright British Museum

Norse Brooch from Penrith, copyright British Museum

Let me introduce this unnamed brooch. It was found near Penrith and acquired by the British Museum twenty years ago, although I know no more of the circumstances.

It’s of Norse viking manufacture, probably dating to the 10th century. That in itself isn’t strange, as Penrith was a strongly viking settlement. There are even far more spectacular Norse brooches, such as the one found near Flusco. What’s special about this one is that it has a Norse runic inscription on the back.

Reverse of norse brooch, showing runes, copyright British Museum

Reverse of norse brooch, showing runes, copyright British Museum

Sadly, I’m not expert in runes – although at this rate curiosity will have me reaching for text books very soon – and the BM doesn’t seem to have got around to setting its experts on the inscription. I clunkily blew up the high-res version of this picture and I reckon the runes are:


Now this, to someone who knows nothing about runes, is darned odd as ‘futhark’ is the first six letters of the runic alphabet, and, for the uninitiated, is also the proper name for the runic alphabet. I’m hoping a reader will come along and enlighten me on that one.*

*Edited to add: The futhark row, as it is called, or ‘runic equivalent to an ABC, clearly has an amuletic or magical function’ (p72). Its intent is ‘to reinforce the charm’(p42). (Source: Runic Amulets and Magic Objects by Mindy MacLeod and Bernard Mees, (2006) – two lecturers at Melbourne University.) What charm, of course, is the next question…

Runic inscriptions are often simply the owner’s name, but some, like the Kingmoor ring, are believed to have been a charm, or written spell. Plenty of others are untranslateable. There are also examples of some rather vicious curses like that on the 7th-century Björketorp standing stone in Sweden: ‘The runemaster conceals here runes of power. He who breaks this monument will be plagued by evil and doomed to a insidious death’. Were important messages written in runes because runes held magical power, or was writing still sufficiently uncommon that all written messages were, by definition, of the utmost importance?

Whatever the case, I’m a bit sad that Penrith’s Futhark Brooch hasn’t got a fancy name and fancier reputation. Perhaps it will, by the time a rune expert finally gets around to looking at it.

©Diane McIlmoyle 14.08.12

This is the British Museum’s slightly sparse entry. The pictures there are their copyright: don’t nick ’em. You can get your own licence from the BM.


15 thoughts on “Penrith’s 10th-century Futhark Brooch

  1. You can read all about the object and the inscription in Michael P. Barnes and Raymond I. Page, The Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of Britain (2006). Sometimes it’s good to look in a book!

    • Thank you for that, Judith. As you know, I’m trying very hard to find that book and it looks like it’s very rare indeed!

      In fact, I’ve failed to find it in any online bookstore, online catalogue of in-store books, or searchable library stocks! At this rate, I’ll be trying to request the British Library’s one and only copy…

          • I spent some years working for a book distribution business in the northwest, specialising in academic titles from university publishers in Europe and North America. Review copies, damaged copies and other spare copies tended to end up with staff that had an interest in the subject matter. Strangely enough there wasn’t much competition for obscure titles on runology! Mind you, I had no idea it was quite so rare, and now realise it will be hell to try and pick up other titles in the series!


          • Ah yes, my husband used to work for Blackwell’s and they had a similar arrangement. Unfortunately, this was before he met me so he gobbled up all the lit crit freebies, not the history!

            I did get a different RI Page book (and the Mees/MacLeod one). He has an authoratitive but slightly annoying narrative voice, so I’m not sure I could have stood the longer version anyway… not that I’d resist a copy if I fell over one. Ho-di-hum!

  2. PUtting ‘Futhark’ at the start of an inscription often signified that it had a magical or protective function. I think you would very much enjoy Bernard Mees and Mindy Macleod’s book, Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Again an expensive book, but usually available on Regional library loans.

  3. Ooh, thank you, Tylluan! I’ve been scouring t’interweb for good recommendations and it’s darned tricky for all sorts of reasons. I’ll go search some online book catalogues but I can see I’ll be troubling Penrith library with the strangest inter-library loan requests they’ve had for donkey’s years 🙂

    Edit: whoaaah! You weren’t kidding about the price!

  4. I’ve just ordered a different rune primer by RI Page (the recommended one looks like a very small print run and no one’s shedding any copies – at any price) and the Mees/MacLeod book. Interestingly, they’re all academics who published these (the recommended one in the Page case) in 2006… with opposing views. I shall enjoy moderating that, if only to myself 🙂

  5. Whatever the meanings of the runes are, I find it stunningly beautiful. I hope those hob-nailed boots are easing up a bit.

  6. As always Diane, fascinating and scholarly. I am particularly interested in penannular brooches for two reasons – (This is one from what is generally known as “The Penrith Hoard” – as is the thistle brooch from your earlier post on Loki, I take it?)
    The first reason is that a huge shoulder brooch, worn by Penda in Kathleen Herbert’s ‘Queen of the Lightning’ is used by Arianhrod to kill herself: “… it was the pin that caught her notice. it was as long and sharp as a dagger; whoever put it on was wearing at least one death.” Now I have always thought Kathleen based this brooch on these beautiful but fearsome objects in The Penrith Hoard, despite saying that it was made in Scythia a thousand years before. Apparently early medieval people used ‘Scythian’ for anything from far away and long ago.
    The second reason is that I have made a huge silver penannular brooch, which figured in ‘The Throstle’s Nest’- the play I co-wote for Wigton’s 750th anniversary. I found out that it would fasten course material very effectively, and more interestingly, could be whipped out and raised in a clenched fist in a split second, making it a very effective weapon for defense at close quarters. Even a relatively small woman could stab an attacker in the throat or eye (yurch!) if he got too close. As far as I know, only Kathleen has mentioned using such ornaments as weapons, but it seems to make sense to me!
    There is an essay on pennanular brooches which I will request from Wigton Library when I have a few days free, and if I learn anything of interest I will of course share it. Good luck with your rune research!

    • Hello there Connie – always good to see you here! I agree, the pins on these brooches look downright vicious, especially when you realise just how big they are. No one’s telling me they’ve never been used in anger! There is so much more I need to learn about these things- I did get hold of a couple of mighty tomes myself. Bedtime reading for this historically obsessed 🙂

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