Heavenly Happenings in Anglo-Saxon Times


The Saxons, it would seem, at least the chroniclers who have given us the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, were mindful of strange happenings in the heavens.

The Chronicle has many references to such normal occurrences as solar and lunar eclipses, as well as references to strange things lighting up the night (and daytime) sky.

Here are a few:

A.D. 538. This year the sun was eclipsed, fourteen days before the calends of March, from before morning until nine.

A.D. 540. This year the sun was eclipsed on the twelfth day before the calends of July; and the stars showed themselves full nigh half an hour over nine.

A.D. 664. This year the sun was eclipsed, on the eleventh of May.

A.D. 678. This year appeared the comet-star in August, and shone every morning, during three months, like a sunbeam.

A.D. 733. This year Ethelbald took Somerton; the sun was eclipsed; and Acca was driven from his bishopric.

A.D. 734. This year was the moon as if covered with blood.

A.D. 774. This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters. This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.

A.D. 795. This year was the moon eclipsed, between cock-crowing and dawn, (31) on the fifth day before the calends of April

And that’s just up until the 9th Century. In a later column, we’ll look at more strange happenings in the sky.

But back to this list: In 538, we have the sun being eclipsed but the stars being full for quite awhile. This would normally not be a result of a solar eclipse. Usually, the Sun’s light is not blocked so completely that stars are visible.

Also interesting is the comet-star in 678. This wasn’t Halley’s Comet. That appeared in 618 and 694. No, this was a different comet. Or was it something else. We just don’t know.

In 734, the Moon was “as if covered with blood.” Could this have been a large dust cloud obscuring the view of the Moon? Or was it some sort of solar phenomenon?

The final entry, from 774, is puzzling as well, for it describes a red crucifix shining in the heavens. Stargazers of this time would have been familiar with the Southern Cross, but why would these stars have appeared red?

In any event, solar and lunar events are usually noted in historical journals precisely because they do not happen very often. Why the Saxons chose to write about them in their Chronicle when they chose not to write about so much else (the Synod of Whitby included) is anyone’s guess.