Did the Anglo-Saxons have tattoos?

Historians do not know for certain whether or not the Anglo-Saxons had tattoos.

Most of the evidence to support the argument that they did have tattoos comes from a passage written by the historian William of Malmesbury in his Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings). He describes the English encountered by the Normans in 1066.

In brief, the English of those days wore garments halfway to the knee, which left them unimpeded; hair short, chin shaven, arms loaded with gold bracelets, tattooed with coloured patterns, eating till they were sick and drinking till they spewed.

William of Malmesbury was the son of a Norman father and an Anglo-Saxon mother. He was born after the Norman conquest, and some historians have questioned the accuracy of his description.

The Waltham Chronicle (written in the late-12th century) includes an account of how Harold Godwinson‘s body was identified by marks on his chest. The marks are described as ‘intimate’ (or perhaps ‘private’). These might have been birthmarks or scars, but some have suggested that they could have been tattoos.

The question of whether the Anglo-Saxons had tattoos will probably never be answered with absolute certainty because the body’s skin (the key evidence) decomposes after centuries of burial in Britain.

Learn more about the Anglo-Saxons by visiting our resources page.