The Sutton Hoo ship burial, Suffolk, England
King Raedwald of East Anglia
After the recall of the Roman administration of England in 410 AD, the land became open to settlement by tribes from the near continent, notably from what is now Denmark and northern Germany. One of these tribes was the Angles, who originated from what is now the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, immediately south of the Danish peninsula.
The Angles settled mainly in what are now the English counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and would have been well established in the area before the reign of King Raedwald, who was probably king from 599 to 624.
By this time, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had come under the influence of Christian missionaries, most notably Augustine who had arrived in Kent in 597. Raedwald was the second English king to be baptized as a Christian, the ceremony taking place at the court of the first such convert, namely King Ethelbert of Kent, in about the year 605.
However, it would take a long time for the culture and practices of Christianity, as directed by bishops from Rome, to wholly replace those of the formerly pagan English monarchies, and this is evident from the burial customs that are revealed by the Sutton Hoo site, and others.
Raedwald was therefore buried in a manner that was consistent with the Norse tradition of laying the king’s body in one of his ships, together with many of his former possessions, and burying the ship under a raised mound of earth. There is no evidence that ships were ever set on fire and pushed out to sea, as Hollywood directors might fondly imagine, but the body was often cremated within the ship before it was buried.
The Sutton Hoo burial
The site is close to the River Deben at Woodbridge, Suffolk. Visitors are able to walk round the site, which contains a total of 17 burial mounds that date back to prehistoric times, and view an exhibition that tells the story of King Raedwald and explains how the site was excavated, but the treasures that were found are now housed in London’s British Museum, with replicas being on view at the site itself.
It is evident that Raedwald acquired considerable power and wealth during his lifetime, because the items that were buried with him were of extremely high quality. It is clear that the Angles shared with the ancient Egyptians the belief that a monarch needed to be well provided for in the afterlife, hence the nature of the possessions that he was expected to take with him.
The excavation of the site began in 1939 when the owner of the land, Mrs Edith Pretty, decided to dig into the mounds on her land. She soon handed the task over to a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, who found that some of the burial mounds had been stripped of anything of interest by grave robbers, but that “Mound 1” seemed to have been untouched.
Within Mound 1 he found the famous ship burial, in the form of an impression in the sandy soil of a 27-metre long ship. Within the “ship” was an astonishing collection of grave goods.
Basil Brown contacted other archaeologists with a national reputation, and they continued to work on the site while keeping the knowledge of their finds secret from the general public. This was in any case wartime, when public attention was on more pressing matters.
The site continued to be excavated after the war, right up to the 1990s. It is now managed by the National Trust, although Mrs Pretty had decided at an early stage to donate all the finds to the British Museum. She died in 1942.
The finds at Sutton Hoo
There was no sign of King Raedwald’s body, which would have been dissolved by the acidic soils of the burial mound, but it is clear from the position of the grave goods that he was not cremated.
It is also clear that his was a Christian burial, because close to the body were two silver spoons inscribed “Saulos” and “Paulos”, these being the names of St Paul before and after his conversion. There were also ten silver bowls from the Holy Land.
However, most attention has been focused on the items that indicate the Pagan traditions still recognised in East Anglia at the time of Raedwald’s death. There was, for example, a sword with a jewelled pommel and a purse containing coins to “pay the ferryman” who would take the dead king to his final reward of an afterlife among the gods and warriors of the past.
The coins in the purse, which was of an intricate design and would have hung from the king’s belt, came from different continental mints, thus indicating the extent of foreign trade that was carried out at the time.
Raedwald would have been buried in a fine cloak, the cloth of which has long since disappeared. However, the jewelled gold clasps and buckles from this cloak were of the highest quality and demonstrate an advanced degree of workmanship. The “great buckle” is particularly fine, being made of gold and inscribed with an intricate pattern. It contains a small secret compartment that might have been used to house a holy relic.
One very interesting find was a coat of chain-mail in which the links were alternately riveted and welded. Other clothing included leather shoes.
The grave contained fragments of textiles, of which a considerable amount had clearly been buried. From what has been preserved, it is clear that weavers of the time were skilled in design techniques and had access to a range of coloured threads. Some of the textiles may well have been imported.
The king had a quantity of household goods to accompany him, including drinking horns, cups, knives and plates.
Pride of place among the objects found at Sutton Hoo must go to the king’s helmet, which has become the symbol of Sutton Hoo. Intricately worked bronze and iron plaques were attached to an iron skullcap, but even more remarkable was the face mask that included eyebrows picked out in garnets and a full bronze moustache. One has to assume that this was intended to be a portrait of King Raedwald – if so he continues to look at us from a distance of 1400 years.
What Sutton Hoo teaches us
The main lesson of Sutton Hoo is that the term “Dark Ages” to describe the period of around 300 years after the departure of the Romans from Britain is hardly fair. This implies that civil society broke down completely and that the country was in a virtual state of anarchy.
However, the Sutton Hoo finds show that the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms recognised the rule of law and were sufficiently peaceful for trade to flourish and craftsmen to develop a high degree of sophistication in the good they produced. At least as far as the upper strata of society were concerned, it was possible to live a secure life surrounded by the trappings of luxury.
The evidence of the spread of Christianity to the kingdoms of men such as Raedwald implies that literacy and education would have been encouraged, as would the social order that comes from the development of dioceses and parishes that Christian bureaucracy would have introduced.
As well as marvelling at the treasures of Sutton Hoo, one can also reflect on the fact that the so-called Dark Ages admitted a greater degree of light than had previously been thought.