Did the early English ('Anglo-Saxons') conduct human sacrifice before their conversion to Christianity?
The Roman writer Tacitus is quite clear that the Germanic tribes in Continental Europe used human sacrifice in the 1st century AD:
Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims.
The same summer a great battle was fought between the Hermunduri and the Chatti [ .]The war was a success for the Hermunduri, and the more disastrous to the Chatti because they had devoted, in the event of victory, the enemy's army to Mars and Mercury, a vow which consigns horses, men, everything indeed on the vanquished side to destruction.
Mercury was the Latin name for the god known to the English and Germans as Woden and to the Norse as Odin.
There is also clear evidence of human sacrifice among the Norse ('Vikings') of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, who were neighbours of the early English. The names of the gods we know about were the same in both cultures, so it is possible that other aspects of their religions were also shared. In the tenth century, an Arab diplomat, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, wrote a detailed description of the Rus, who were Norse traders living on the River Volga in what is now Russia. In it he describes the funeral of one of the Rus leaders:
When the man of whom I have spoken died, his girl slaves were asked, "Who will die with him?" One answered, "I."
Then they laid her at the side of her master; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.
Another Arab chronicler, ibn Rustah, described a different form of funeral sacrifice among the Rus:
When one of their notables dies, they make a grave like a large house and put him inside it. [ .] They also put his favourite wife in with him, still alive. Then the grave door is sealed and she dies there.
--Quoted in Brondsted, 1965, p. 305.
A grave excavated in Birka, eastern Sweden, is consistent with this practice. The grave contained two women, one richly attired and the other lying in a strange twisted position, and was interpreted by the excavator as the grave of a wealthy woman and a serf who had suffocated in the burial chamber (Brondsted 1965, p. 293).
Adam of Bremen, writing in 1070, described extensive human sacrifice at the temple of Old Uppsala in Sweden:
There is a festival at Uppsala every nine years [ ] The sacrifice is as follows; of every kind of male creature, nine victims are offered. By the blood of these creatures it is the custom to appease the gods. Their bodies, moreover, are hanged in a grove which is adjacent to the temple. This grove is so sacred to the people that the separate trees in it are believed to be holy because of the death or putrefaction of the sacrificial victims. There even dogs and horses hang beside human beings.
So, it seems reasonably clear that the 1st-century Germans and the 10th- and 11th-century Scandinavians carried out human sacrifice. What about the early English?
There is no direct reference to human sacrifice in documentary sources. Bede says that when King Oswald of Northumbria was killed in battle in 642,
the king that slew him commanded his head, hands, and arms to be cut off from the body, and set upon stakes.
The remains were retrieved the following year by Oswald's brother Oswy. This may indicate a ritual element, perhaps reminiscent of Tacitus' description of dedicating a defeated enemy to the war gods. Or it may be simply a convenient way of identifying and humiliating the dead king, much as the heads of those executed for treason were displayed on London Bridge in medieval and Tudor England. Or both; these are not mutually exclusive.
Pope Gregory the Great sent priests Augustine and Mellitus to preach Christianity to the English in 597, and in 601 he wrote a letter of encouragement to Mellitus. This letter refers to animal sacrifice, but makes no mention of human sacrifice:
And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, [they may .] celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating.
This may just be absence of evidence; perhaps Gregory did not know what rites the English practiced, or did not think it right to mention such an unpleasant subject in a letter. However, it is notable that a later Pope, Gregory II, specifically mentioned the subject in a letter to Boniface who was preaching in Germany and Frisia and who had evidently asked for guidance on the practice of selling slaves for human sacrifice:
Among other difficulties which you face in those parts, you say that some of the faithful sell their slaves to be sacrificed by the heathen. This, above all, we urge you to forbid, for it is a crime against nature. Therefore, on those who have perpetrated such a crime you must impose a penance similar to that for culpable homicide.
And in the Life of St Willibrord, written by Alcuin in the 8th century, the saint was threatened with death for having insulted the gods of people living between Frisia and Denmark:
The king was roused to intense fury and had a mind to avenge on the priest of the living God the insults which had been offered to his deities. For three whole days he cast lots three times every day to find out who should die; but as the true God protected his own servants, the lots of death never fell upon Willibrord nor upon any of his company, except in the case of one of the party, who thus won the martyr's crown.
Willibrord's unfortunate follower might be considered an execution rather than a sacrifice as such, though the casting of lots to choose a victim is consistent with a ritual component.
The absence of such references in the letters to the Christian mission in England may indicate (but does not prove) that the use of human sacrifice was less widespread, or absent, there.
The (probable) temple excavated at Yeavering in Northumberland contained a pit filled with animal remains, mostly ox skulls, but no human remains were noted (Hutton, 1993, p. 270). This is consistent with the references to animal but not human sacrifice in Pope Gregory's letter to Mellitus, but does not prove that humans were never sacrificed, as such remains might have been disposed of elsewhere.
A small number of excavated graves from early England have features that are consistent with human sacrifice (Ellis Davidson 1992).
These may be instances of funeral sacrifices, as in the Norse grave at Birka and similar to the rites described for the Rus by the Arab writers.
Further evidence comes from Sutton Hoo, believed to be the royal cemetery of the Kings of the East Angles in the seventh century (Carver 1998). Mound 5 contained a cremation burial of a young adult who had died by several blade cuts to the head. One of the quarry pits dug to produce soil to build the mound contained a body without grave goods that had been buried, probably face down, at the same time as the mound was raised or very shortly afterwards. The excavator suggests that this person may have been killed as sacrifice, vengeance, punishment or vindictive attack by a stressed foreman. There is no evidence to say which.
Other burials at Sutton Hoo included one with a dark stain around the neck that could have been the remains of a rope (Burial 49), a triple burial containing a decapitated man and two women buried face down on top of him (Burial 42), several burials in which the head had been removed and replaced in an odd position (wrong way round, on the shoulder, by the knee) or was missing altogether, a burial in which the body had apparently been folded over backwards (Burial 55), several burials with the wrists and/or ankles crossed over each other as though tied, several crouched burials, and one extraordinary grave containing a body stretched out as though hurdling or running and accompanied by unidentified pieces of timber (Burial 27). This last grave has been interpreted as a wooden plough buried with a ploughman (Ellis Davidson 1992), but the excavator noted that the timbers may be from some other object such as a spade or pieces of the gallows (Carver 1998). Radiocarbon dates ranged from the sixth to the eleventh century. A gallows had stood at the centre of the site, and was radiocarbon-dated to 690-980, contemporary with the date range of most of the strange burials (Carver 1998).
Were these strange burials at Sutton Hoo sacrifices or executions? The two need not be mutually exclusive. According to Julius Caesar, the Gauls of the 1st century BC sacrificed criminals to the gods:
They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offence, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.
The distinction between sacrifice and execution may be in part a matter of labelling. The strange burials may represent a dramatic method of despatch (reminiscent of the Roman use of criminals in the arena), or ritual killings, or both. The excavator says in his book, "..most seem to belong to the period after the conversion of East Anglia to Christianity. This group does not therefore offer strong evidence for human sacrifice." (Carver 1998, p. 168). On the other hand, the historian Ronald Hutton cites the evidence from Sutton Hoo and Sewerby as, "fairly clear evidence [of human sacrifice] in Anglo-Saxon England" (Hutton, 1993, p. 274).
It seems certain that the early English knew of human sacrifice, since related and neighbouring cultures in Continental Europe and Scandinavia practised it. Whether they practised it themselves is open to question; the people who settled in late- and post-Roman Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries may have been drawn from tribes who did not practise the rite; they may not have taken the ritual with them, or they may have abandoned it in their new environment, perhaps because there were no large and long-established ritual centres such as the temple at Old Uppsala or because of Roman and/or Brittonic cultural influences. The display of Oswald's head on the battlefield is reminiscent of ritual, and there is some archaeological evidence of burials consistent with human sacrifice, as at Sewerby or Sutton Hoo. The comparatively small number of such graves may represent absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. Until the Sutton Hoo excavation in the 1990s, the existence of the strange burials there was completely unsuspected, and similar surprises may be awaiting the archaeologist's trowel elsewhere. That said, well over 5000 Anglo-Saxon burials have been excavated in Britain (Hutton, 1993, p. 275), so if it was a widespread practice one might expect to have found more of them by now.
On the whole, I would agree with Hilda Ellis Davidson's view (1992); that the early English certainly knew of human sacrifice but that it did not play an extensive part in their society, being reserved (if practised at all) for exceptional circumstances and/or times of crisis.
Full-text sources available online are linked in the text
Brondsted J. The Vikings. Pelican, 1965, ISBN: 0-14-02-0459-8.
Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-7141-0591-0.
Ellis Davidson HR. Human sacrifice in the late pagan period in north-western Europe. In: Carver M (ed.), The Age of Sutton Hoo. Boydell Press, 1992, ISBN: 0851153305
Hutton R. The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles: their nature and legacy. Blackwell, 1993, ISBN:0-631-18946-7.