Wareham, Dorset, United Kingdom
In 1927, workers constructing the new South bridge at Wareham made an exciting discovery. It had not seen the light of day for 1,000 years.
We now know that what they had found was a very rare and special object – a Saxon sword, made in the late 900s. This was no ordinary weapon - a sword like this one was the ultimate status symbol for rich and powerful men, the ‘Rolls Royce’ of their time.
The sword is made of iron, with a horn grip. The hilt and roughly half the blade survives, with remains of intricate decoration on the guard and the pommel (end-piece). There are remains of an inscription on the horn grip. Translated, it reads ‘Æthel..... owns me’. The ‘Æthel’ part of the name was only used by members of the royal family and nobility of Wessex. The sword is the only one known with a royal owner’s name on it!
We know that Wareham was an important town in Saxon times, and there was probably a royal palace here. Coins were minted in the town (see example below). In the 870s the “walls” were built around the town to defend it against attacks from Vikings from Denmark. The walls are the best preserved Saxon town defences in the whole of England.
Although the inscription shows that the sword’s owner was Saxon, the style of the decoration is Viking. The Vikings were the Saxons’ enemies, so we can only speculate on how the sword came to be owned by a Saxon. Was it won in battle? Was it a gift to the person who had their name inscribed into the grip?
How the sword came to be in the river is also a mystery. Perhaps it was lost in battle during a Viking raid. However, the blade appears to have been deliberately broken, so the sword may have been thrown in the river as a ritual offering, or to prevent its use after its owner’s death.
The sword is owned by the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, where it is usually on display. It was loaned to Wareham Museum in 2012 and 2014 and has returned for 2018 and 2019. Our display also features a reproduction of the sword as it may have been when new. It is the centrepiece of a display about Saxon Wareham which includes silver pennies minted in the town in Saxon times.
Saxon coin obv
click to enlarge
Saxon coin rev
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Full size replica of
the original sword
on display in the
Remains found of the 1000 year old Saxon sword