Dr Caitlin Green @caitlinrgreen History, archaeology, place-names & early lit. Main research on post-Roman Britain & Anglo-Saxon England; also long-distance trade, migration & contact. Apr. 30, 2019 6 min read

King Alfred and India: an Anglo-Saxon embassy to southern India in the ninth century AD — new post by me :)  https://www.caitlingreen.org/2019/04/king-alfred-and-india.html 

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, annal for 883: 'Sigehelm & Athelstan took to Rome—and also to St Thomas in India and to St Bartholomew—the alms which King Alfred had vowed to send there when they beseiged the raiding-army in London' (pic: the annal in ASC MS F,  http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_domitian_a_viii_f055v ).

That India was indeed the intended final destination fits with the identity of the two saints named by the Chronicle, St Thomas & St Bartholomew: both explicitly and repeatedly associated with India in material current in Alfred's day. (pic:  http://www.kornbluthphoto.com/StavelotAltar.html )

Tales of St Thomas in India were circulating by the 3rd/4th centuries & knowledge of a shrine dedicated to St Thomas in India (at 'Kalamene'/'Calamina', prob Mylapore) had reached the Mediterranean by c.500; one famous 6thC ref to Indian Christians is by Cosmas Indicopleustes:

Cosmas—prob writing in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 6thC—seems to have solid info on India; Faller, 2011, for example, suggests his image and text describing pepper are 'so detailed and accurate that personal inspection and experience are almost a certainty':  https://heiup.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/index.php/transcultural/article/view/6127/2962 

Even more interesting is Gregory of Tours, writing France c.590—had met a man who actually visited India & saw 'a monastery & a church that is spectacularly large & carefully decorated' at St Thomas's tomb-site! Needless to say, adds to credibility of AS pilgrims heading there…

The stone cross from St Thomas's Mount, Mylapore, India; the cross includes an inscription in Pahlavi ('Our lord Christ, have pity on Sabriso, (son) of Caharboxt, (son) of Suray, who bore (brought?) this (cross).') that is believed to date to around the 8th century AD...

The cross comes from the probable location of the Indian tomb/shrine of St Thomas that was known in the early medieval west as Kalamene/Calamina; if Sigehelm & Æthelstan did indeed travel to India to visit the shrine of St Thomas in the 9th century, then they may have seen it.

Further to feasibility of trip, worth noting that pepper from India continued to be available in NW Europe in the early medieval era e.g. Chlothar III granted annual rent of 30 pounds of pepper to Corbie monastery (N. France), & Bede's possessions incl pepper when he died in 735.

Indeed, one estimate puts pepper imports to 7th-/8th-century Gaul at 3,000 lbs p.a. and the document concerning Corbie in N. France (reconfirmed by Chilperic II in 716) also mentions an annual quantity of 2 pounds of cloves to this monastery alone, only grown in Indonesia...

Also interesting is Aldhelm's riddle on pepper from Wessex, which mentions use in sauces & stews, and frequent use of pepper in Anglo-Saxon medical remedies in 'Bald's Leechbook' & other sources, e.g. this one which mixes radish, turnip & pepper (see  https://forthewynnblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/25/silk-and-spices-pepper-and-peacocks/ ).

As to the availability of possible routes that King Alfred's emissaries could have taken, worth noting that Ibn Khordadbeh in the mid-9thC enumerated a number of routes from western Europe to India & beyond during his discussion of the activities of the Radhanite merchants then.

Incidentally, a northern trade-route that brought a number of Indian coins & at least one Buddha to 8th- to 10th-century N. Europe & England also existed, but is less relevant here, as Alfred sent Sigehelm & Æthelstan with alms for Rome as well as India:

With regard to the fate of this 9th-century embassy from England to India, William of Malmesbury records a tradition that Sigehelm returned to England with many precious stones and became the bishop of Sherborne; certainly a Sigehelm was bishop there in the early 10thC, fwiw…

Interestingly, the precious stones Sigehelm supposedly returned with from India said to have been used to enrich Sherborne & 'some of them can still be seen in precious objects in the church', according to William of Malmesbury in the early 12thC (pic:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherborne_Abbey ).

For more on the Indian Ocean world of the 9th century that King Alfred's emissaries would have encountered, see this fascinating site dedicated to the copper plate grants of AD 849 from the port of Kollam, in present-day Kerala, India:  https://web.archive.org/web/20170608134326/http://849ce.org.uk/ 

In the first part of this copper plate grant of 849, the local chieftain granted agricultural land & tax privileges to a Christian church at Kollam, India, enabling the community to cover 'the expenses of [lamp] oil & other things' used in the church…

The text also sets out the boundaries of the church lands and describes the different occupations of the people who lived on the land, and further grants legal jurisdiction over those living there to the church: 'Any offence… shall be dealt with by the men of the church alone.'

The 2nd part of the document assigns 2 trade associations, the Manigramam & Ancuvannam, to oversee trade in the 9thC marketplace at Kollam, India, with these being required to 'guard the church & the land' too. 25 witnesses are named, in Arabic, Middle Persian & Judaeo-Persian.

For more on this era & the crosses of S. India & Sri Lanka, see for example 'Trade & Cross-cultural Contacts in Sri Lanka & South India during Late Antiquity (6th–10th Centuries)' ( http://www.heritageuniversityofkerala.com/JournalPDF/Volume4/8.pdf ) & esp 'The Problem of the Saint Thomas Crosses' ( https://www.jstor.org/stable/29757546 ).

The martyrdom of St Thomas in India, from the 'Menologion of Basil II', commissioned by/made for the Byzantine emperor Basil II (r. 976–1025):  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_(Menologion_of_Basil_II).jpg 

St Thomas is laid to rest in India by his followers, from the 13th-century Thomas window in Chartres Cathedral, France:  http://www.medievalart.org.uk/chartres/23_pages/Chartres_Bay23_key.htm 

St Thomas the Apostle preaching to his converts in India, 13th-century stained glass, Bourges Cathedral:  http://www.medievalart.org.uk/Bourges/16_pages/Bourges_Bay_16_panel_20.htm 

Returning to the question of links between early medieval western Europe and India, see further this post from last year: .

Indo-Pacific beads are found in their thousands across early medieval Europe, and occur in graves presenting "varying 'degrees of richness'. The beads... do not appear to be the prerogative of a privileged few":  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352226716300095 

Other early medieval European imports from India include garnets; for example, those used in this lovely 7th-century garnet cloisonné brooch from Wijnaldum, the Netherlands, were recently confirmed to be Indian garnets imported from Rajasthan:  https://www.redbot.frl/blog/de-fibula-van-wijnaldum-digitaal-op-archeologie-frl/ 

Sapphires probably from Sri Lanka are also found in early medieval Europe — an eagle brooch from Mainz, c.1000 AD, with gold, enamel & sapphire, and the 9thC gold & sapphire 'Talisman of Charlemagne':  http://www.kornbluthphoto.com/images/EagleFib1.jpg  &  http://www.kornbluthphoto.com/images/TalChar2A.jpg 

Likewise, at least a few items from early medieval north-western Europe are reported from the Indian Ocean world, such as these possibly Anglo-Saxon beads found in the area of Periplus emporium of Rhapta, Tanzania:  https://www.caitlingreen.org/2016/05/anglo-saxon-finds-france-africa.html 

Incidentally, with regard to these beads, it is perhaps worth noting that well over 100 elephant ivory rings—cut from the base of a tusk of an African savannah elephant—are known from 5th- to 7th-century England alone...

The 9th-century Warminster Jewel, found in Wiltshire, England; a rock crystal set in gold with a blue central gem, possibly lapis lazuli from Afghanistan:  https://salisburymuseum.org.uk/collections/wessex-gallery/warminster-jewel 

The 9th-century Alfred Jewel is a similar object to the Warminster Jewel; it is inscribed AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, 'Alfred ordered me to be made', and can be seen in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.


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