How did Byzantium influence the British Isles?

Detail of an early fourteenth century Italo-Byzantine triptych

Byzantium was a continuation of the Roman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean following Rome’s decline in the fifth century AD. It was a strong power for more than 1000 years, and its influence was felt across the world, even as far as the British Isles. Evidence of its influence has survived in buildings, artworks and clothing dated to Late Antiquity and medieval times, in addition to religious and royal ceremonies.

Pilgrimage

Research reveals that many pilgrims from the British Isles visited Byzantium on their way to the Holy Land, and that Byzantine missionaries came to Britain.

Literature suggests that the West Saxons moved along the Dorset coast into what is now Devon. They left behind Byzantine silver pieces dating to the sixth and seventh centuries, examples of which were found in the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.

On the Kentish coast, metallic buckles of Byzantine origin dating to the seventh century have been found. These were unearthed alongside objects from Egypt, which once belonged to Coptic Christians.

Well known works

There are a number of examples of Byzantine art in Britain which have been thoroughly studied by researchers. One example is a slab at York Cathedral that represents the image of the Virgin and Child and resembles the sculpted Mangana Virgin in the Ottoman Museum, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, the capital of the Empire).

Another example is a plaque of Mary and the Child in the style of the Byzantine Virgin of Nicopea which can be seen in Deerhurst Church, Gloucestershire. These items were made in the early ninth and tenth centuries respectively.

More to discover

There are a number of frescoes that look strikingly Byzantine in some of the oldest churches along the coast of Wales and Ireland. These murals have not yet received the scholarly attention they deserve, and need to be catalogued and studied further for us to fully understand how masters from Byzantium influenced their decoration.

Our Byzantine collections

Sutton Hoo Byzantine Bucket

Byzantine Bucket found at Sutton Hoo 

This Byzantine bucket was found near the Sutton Hoo site, and was probably made in the eastern Mediterranean region in the 6th century.

Early fourteenth century Italo-Byzantine triptych

Italo-Byzantine triptych 

This Italo-Byzantine icon, in the collection at Polesden Lacey, depicts the Virgin with the Child adored by Saints Peter, Paul, and four angels. It also shows fourteen other saints, the Crucifixion and Annunciation, and the evangelical beasts. This icon is made of three hinged panels, and is a type of religious object called a 'triptych'.

Sutton Hoo landscape and house in the mist

Sutton Hoo 

Walk around the awe-inspiring royal burial site at Sutton Hoo and discover the incredible story of the ship burial of an Anglo-Saxon warrior king and his treasured possessions.