HISTORY OF THE INSTRUMENT IN Brief

Where does one begin with an instrument that is possibly 10,000 years old in its development, and even then just one branch of a rather extensive family of instruments that are known throughout the world in one form or another. The actual family goes back in time via the Romans to the Greeks to the Egyptians and far off into the eastern deserts of what is now the middle east and maybe even beyond that.

For much more information on this and the various types of known Lyres do take a look at Michael Levy's f
antastic website on the subject. Here is the link, just copy and paste into your URL:

http://www.ancientlyre.com/
 
To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, "To begin at the beginning". I suppose that is the best place of all, but then where was the beginning for this form of Lyre. It is now obvious to those who have an interest in this instrument that the beginning is unknown and yet the form of the instrument we are dealing with here was known throughout the Scandinavian and Northern European region for centuries. To them we must look for guidance as the instrument survived longer there than in Britain, but we must always judge guardedly as their wants and requirements of the instrument were different to the wants and requirements of the Anglo Saxons (Englisc).

In the early to mid 400's AD, (Roman forces had left Britain in about 410 AD) we, England that is, did not exist as a nation but was a fractured and broken up set of fiefdoms, and regions ruled by warlords and petty kings, the remnants of the Romano British Celts, who were by then scraping something of a living in most of the country except the South which was still relatively prosperous as well as the urban centres such as Chester, York, Bath etcetera. The legend tells of the Romano British King Vortigern who was having troubles with invaders from the north and Scotland (the Picts) and hadn't the manpower to fight them
or the cash to pay them off and so he invited Angle and Saxon mercenaries into Britain to fight them. The brothers Hengest and Horsa led men from the lands in what is now Denmark, Jutland, Angl-land and parts of northern Holland and Germany. They landed, forced the picts back, and demanded payment. They got the land and homesteads they desired in Kent and when they wanted more payment for defending Vortigern's lands from further incursions they were refused. A meeting was set up between the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and their entourage and the leaders of the Romano British. At this forsaid meeting the throats of all the British lords and leaders were cut, - the Anglo Saxons had arrived (Engla Tocyme).

Whether this tale is true or not (there does seem to be quite a solid grounding archeologically and historically for this) does not really matter to us in this website but what is, is the fact that with the newcomers to Britain the new settlers bought over from Denmark and North Europe their language, their culture, and their traditions and amongst all that mass of a people exists our tiny but quite significant little instrument with its quiet gentle, delicate voice capable of taming even the most battle hardened warrior.

 
A stylised and inacurate picture portrait of the arrival of the Angles and Saxons but hey we are dealing with the Lyre not the actual happenings here.
The one thing we can be certain about is that the Anglo Saxon Lyre is derived from the ancient Lyres of the Middle East and North Africa by way of the North European trading routes and thus to Scandinavia and finally along with the newcomers, to Britain. It wouldn't have looked like the instrument we know today but would probably have been more like the Ancient Greek Lyres seen on the vases found across the North East of the Mediterranean basin.
Above an Ancient Greek Lyre made for Michael Levy, note the attached plectrum.
The form that we have come to know and recognise as North European, and especially the Anglo Saxon, models are known to us from two basic raw sources.

  1. From archeological excavations such as those at Sutton Hoo, Trossingen and Prittlewell
  2. From writings and images in manuscripts about and by the peoples of England and the North Lands.
From archeological excavations we have the hard dry facts of the instrument and its construction methods and sizes. Always remember no two Lyres are ever the same, they will differ in depth, wood, construction methods, sizes and many smaller details. The instrument had virtually been wiped out from history and certainly from memory by the Norman invaders so when the first remains were found there was confusion. The instrument wasn't known in the exact form that we know and accept today until the 1940's. That was after some bright person put 2 and 2 together, the first 2 stopped trying to make the fragments fit into the shape of the Celtic Knee Harp. The second 2 could see an image of an instrument but did not know it was a Lyre. Amalgamate the two and hey presto we suddenly have the real thing infront of us. As I say the 1940's, and that through the finding of the first models remains that had been found in the great ship burial at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia dating from about the mid 7th century. We now accept that this was actually the great ship burial of the 7th century East Anglian king King Rædwald. At first it was believed to be similar to the Celtic Harp; a not very convincing replica was made along the lines of the famous Brian Boru Harp in the Dublin Museum, better known to most stout drinkers as the Guiness symbol. The attempt was rather shamefully laughable, but at least an attempt was made with the elements that remained as their basis to work with. Shooting in the dark truly comes to mind. We have a handle so how do we make anything from that is a similar analogy. Finally when the 2 and 2 were put together we had the Lyre that we have now come to accept as the closest thing we have to the instruments of the past. Thanks to the bright spark who saw the connection!

Since that time other discoveries of remnants of Lyres have been discovered, the most recent in the Highlands of Scotland where a string bridge was discovered and from its shape and design it has been able to be deduced that it was from a similar instrument to that of the Scandinavian Lyres. This find is actually 2500 years old and predates the arrival of the Roman Empirical forces in Britain. It actually confirms the existance of trading links with Scotlands near neighbours in the Scandinavian land
s and the fact that this style of Lyre was not unknown in parts of Britain at the time.

Only a few years ago (1970's) an extant fully intact example, if unplayable due to age, was discovered in a farmhouse in Kravik, Norway, and was dated to the 13th century. It comes from the time just as the Lyre was about to become a bowed variety which is still played in parts of Norway and Sweden in altered shape and form, but still a Lyre. It was so intact that the metal strings were still on the instrument. They were loose and any idea of tightening them up would have destroyed the instrument due to its fragile nature being made from pine and cedar woods, as well as the age. So the elusive tunning of the instrument remains unknown. Replicas have been made of this more advanced version of the Lyre and is used by Einer Selvik of the Norse Pagan Folk group Wardruna, as well as others. This find was unbelievable for historians as well as musicians.
Einer Selvik and the Kravik replica Lyre
Since these instruments (Sutton Hoo, Prittlewell etcetera) have been found many have now been replicated to the extant of woods, sizes, thicknesses, techniques of construction and even down to the remaking of tools that would have been used by our Anglo Saxon forefathers. This is to replicate as close as possible what our forbears would have heard in tones and colours.

The only problem was what the tuning and melodies would have been, as well as the playing techniques. As for the last point this can be answered fairly objectiveley by experiemntation and obvious choices as perfor
mance remains very much as it always has, and musical archeology is predominantly driven to this final goal even if the route there may be slightly circuitous and strange with leaps of faith thrown in. The two opening questions of tunning and melodies are not known and remain mysterys that we shall never have answers to.  With the melodies we have ideas of form and structure and this does give us a framework to work with when composing for the instrument today. We can hazard guesses generally and for these two questions. Musical archeologists/historians have had to dig deep into the extant manuscripts of the time that survived the destruction of the Norman Invasion of 1066 and the subsequent destruction of the Saxon society that had flourished so strongly before it. As already stated the instrument does appear in a few early medieval manuscripts showing the instrument and how it was held. As with all folk and older instruments this probably varied from region to region, and player to player, but at least we have some documentary evidence to work with. The most famous comes from a manuscript in Durham from the 8th century and depicts King David playing the harp, which in Anglo Saxon times would have been known purely as the Lyre. The harp was as we know the Celtic harp to be today. Even one of the Exeter Riddles gives the clues to a harp and not a Lyre (riddle No. 70).

King David playing the harp (Lyre) 8th Century British manuscript
from the Vesspasian Psalter in Durham, England.
The main written source comes from the venerable Bede's famous "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People", from the 8th century, where he describes how the instrument was passed around the meal hall of the monasteries after feasting and each person would recite, or sing, religious or secular songs to the playing of the lyre. It does also hint at playing techniques and these have been built on by authentic history musicians/archeologists and new ways have also come to light from experimentation by players.

The instrument died out fairly quickly in England after the Norman invasion of 1066 due to the extermination of the native culture by the invading Normans. It was in the end outlawed in the mid 12th century by royal order. The Norman establishment then in power saw it as an insurgent anti Norman instrument that was a vestige of the Anglo Saxon world they were trying to subjugate completely. Even in the monasteries, where the instrument had been used without a break, the lineage was broken and the instrument lost from memory. It probably held on in remote areas such as Cumbria and Northumbria as well as the fens as a folk instrument of the ordinary people but there is no evidence for this in written sources but it is highly likely due to similar instances with dances, other instruments and customs, that are known about.

It is known that most kings and chieftan's during the rise of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms (The Seven Kingdoms) all had Lyre players who would tell the great epics and keep the laws of the people. Their names are not known but it is clear from references in the written documents as well as in the tales they told that the scop (pron: shop) was a highly revered and respected figure in each tribes or kings society and retinue. When other royalty or nobles visited they were entertained by the scop and his skills as a player and teller of stories for entertainment was considered very important. One of the most famous epics is of cour
se "Beowulf" and was probably recited and told over a number of nights to the sound of this most ancient and beautiful of instruments.

We unfortunately have lost so many of these amazing stories due to wanton destruction, or just bad luck, such as the Ashburnham House Fire of 1731 when many original manuscripts were destroyed in a house fire that held the collection of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571 - 1631) who had gathered all that he could of the Anglo Saxon manuscripts that were known at the time. Thus untold treasures and maybe even clues as to details of the Anglo Saxon Lyre were lost forever.
Benjamin Bagby performing part of Beowulf. Note the string support beam on his lyre which is modelled on a German model.
In Conclusion:
It is hard to gather together a definitive timeline of the instrument in such a way as say the Electric Guitar, or the Trombone, can be done due to the time distance being dealt with here. We have no written records to say that in this year that happened to the instrument to push it on to the next level of development. So even though I call this page the "History" page it is impossible to give a definitive history of an instrument that has been around for
millenia and then died out in less than two hundred years due to an alien cultures destruction of the original society that held the instrument in esteem and its players as important role models in that society for lore keeping and story telling. Time has unfortunately destroyed and blurred our view of the true history of the instrument, but like all good things we can certainly try, and enjoy trying, to re-establish a performance technique from the art of practice, and a performance manner from research, and give its overall reconstruction a very good chance of being close to the original. If the feel is correct within us then we can't be far off what it probably was. We have our inner self for guidance and so use this to get there.