The Heart Bowl: or, What Happened to King Canute

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Time was, when you shuffled off this mortal coil, you could take your stuff with you.

That was fine by the Egyptians, who built great pyramidic receptacles for the accumulated wealth and splendour of their dead leaders; it was fine by the Vikings with their ship-burning send-offs. It was standard for your average Ancient Brit or Celt. They all had stuff buried with them, to call on once that great and glorious afterlife began.

But those Christians: they held that you can’t pack a bag and kill a wife and servant or two to keep you company.

And so, when Christianity came to Britain, from the late seventh century onwards, the dead simply didn’t pack much. The phenomenon known to archaeologists as grave goods was far rarer.

And this meant that there was one material you saw a lot less of: glass.

There are plentiful, and rather beautiful, examples of Roman glass receptacles but when you get to the seventh century the trail goes cold. Yes, the later Anglo Saxons made less glass, and did not have the ingredients, or the Romans’ ability to import it in bulk; but they were not burying glass stuff for their loved ones to take to the next world, and the only glass archaeologists could find was the glass they filled the windows with.

So that now, in the 21st century, only one complete piece of late Saxon glass is known to remain in all the world.

It is thought it was made to hold a king’s heart.

It was found at Shaftesbury Abbey in front of the high altar, and the circumstances of its finding are rather veiled. They were found in one of two excavations, in 1862 or 1904; and circumstantial evidence led its discoverers to believe that this was the glass jar which held the heart of King Canute himself, who died in Shaftsbury around 1035.

His bones were taken to the capital of the land, at Winchester; and there they remain. At this very moment, they are being reviewed by archaeologists along with those of other Saxon kings and queens.

And so, it was concluded, the heart jar should follow suit. Winchester claimed Canute’s heart-bowl, and it sits high above the hoi polloi, in the cathedral’s museum on a second floor gallery overlooking the hallowed whispering transept.

Where I found it, and spent some considerable time looking, and wondering.

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49 thoughts on “The Heart Bowl: or, What Happened to King Canute

  1. This story is new to me, Kate, wasn’t aware of the circumstances of Canute’s death and burial at all — must get out more maybe, though I know you do it so we don’t have to!

    You’re right about the paucity of glass deposited as Christianity took hold. But it’s interesting — on this longterm post-Roman ecclesiastical dig in the Gower I was involved with we discovered very little in the way of portable finds; this was a relatively impecunious establishment on a remote scruffy Welsh hillside after all!

    But included in what we did find were two contrasting glass objects. One was part of a glass phial, a re-used Roman container for ungeants, possibly. The other was a 6th century Anglo-Saxon glass bead the size of a marble, the furthest west such an object of this date and origin has been found. What stories we tried to weave around around their arrival on this spartan site!

  2. oh, how interesting. i never have known this about glass and why it is found almost exclusively from certain time periods. i am a huge lover of glass and this was such a great post. isn’t it so interesting how religion and time and tradition have such an impact?

    1. Thanks Beth: Roman glass and its history makes great reading. Such beautiful stuff, and it is just amazing that it ha survived all this time to sit in our museums. Yes: it never ceases to amaze me the effect religion and culture can have on what people leave behind from a period.

  3. Beautiful glass and an excellent mystery, Kate. Thank goodness Christians would not permit the elite to bury their wives and servants with them after they shuffle off into the afterlife. In some places, they still do.

  4. I’m sorry to say the bowl doesn’t look very regal. I’ll bet the fancy golden, jewel-encrusted bowl that was originally intended to hold the king’s heart was mysteriously switched for this pickle jar by the early Saxon funeral director.

      1. It might be considered simple to make now, but if it is hand blown, the overall balance and purity of the sphere form would make it a quality piece of work, would it not? Thanks for posting it btw – I never considered before how that Christianity would have also affected development and spreaing of glasswork. Makes absolute sense though, once you think on it, sad though it is.

      2. Pleasure, Raven, thanks for reading. I guess it is sad-especially when you look at earlier burials like the great ship they found at Sutton Hoo. The Saxons could bury goods with the best of them: they just chose not to after a while.

      3. Not only is it sad, it makes it harder to learn from history regarding who was trading where, and what life was like, if all goods are overly perishable.

  5. This is a wonderful find! I’m so it survived to such a late date in what doesn’t seem to be under particularly well protected circumstances. I love the background on why Roman glass was not needed in the Christianized world. I had never heard anything to give me that insight. Very interesting, Kate!

  6. So he was buried with his brain, but his heart was stuffed in a special glass bowl? I hope whoever was assigned to slice it out of the king’s corpse was well compensated, Kate.

    You’ve done some serious renovating over here. Things are very streamlined now.

  7. Wow. I knew the ancient Egyptians used to keep their kings’ hearts in clay jars, but I didn’t know of any similar European tradition until today. Maybe Canute’s heart was the only one?

    1. I would think you’re right, Pezcita, if only because they’ve not found any other examples of glass like this. Canute was not just an English king – he had amassed an empire which stretched much further, and was a really key figure. Maybe this was a burial fit for an emperor.

  8. I had absolutely no idea! How fascinating this is! To be honest, when I first looked at the pic I didn’t think it was something special, but after reading this post I see in a completely different way.

    1. It doesn’t look much when you see it, hipster czar. It took an attendant to point it out to me. Just shows that what we see as beautiful and valuable changes over time…

  9. Is this story for real?? How come no one knew about this. Maybe no one cared so much for glass. I doesn’t look great for king’s glass and it doesn’t look old either. It looks like an unkempt thing.

    1. No – it doesn’t look much, does it? But yes, it is thought to be for real, though how much documentary evidence backs the story up I am not sure. Unkempt – a great word for it.

  10. It is funny what we assume we need to be buried with. I have a baseball card collection so I figure I will grant it to my grandson or if he does not want it have it buried with me.

  11. Lovely writing. Albeit more research towards the actual use of the pyramids; they were as much for the living as the dead. Did you know pyramids conducted energy, were well lit with electricity, and a ceremonial ritual site? Write on lovely lady. Write on.

    1. Hi Miranda! Yes, there is so much more to the Pyramids than a simple set of death customs. It served, though, as a parallel with Canute and the ‘canopic’ glass bowl. Thanks for leaving such a lovely comment.

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