Monday, April 2, 2018

Sutton Who? Who is buried at Sutton Hoo?

by Matthew Harffy

Sutton Hoo is one of the most important historical sites of Great Britain. The name derives from the Old English (Sutton = South farmstead and Hoo = someone who lives on a spur of a hill).

Sutton Hoo is situated near the village of Woodbridge on the River Deben in the county of Suffolk, the southern part of East Anglia. The history of the place can be split into two distinct eras: recent (from 1930s to the present day), and early medieval (from the early seventh century).

Mound 2 at Sutton Hoo

Before the owner of the house at Sutton Hoo, Mrs Edith Pretty, invited local archaeologist, Basil Brown, to dig into the many mounds that dotted an area of her land, there was nothing much to make Sutton Hoo stand out from a historical point of view. But, as the archaeologists dug into the sandy soil in 1939, uncovering perfect lines of rivets showing the shape of the overlapping planks of a great clinker-built ship buried beneath the largest mound, it quickly became apparent that Sutton Hoo had a historical importance none had imagined before then.

The village of Woodbridge and the river Deben
in the distance (viewed from Sutton Hoo)

All of the mounds had been disturbed over the centuries and most of the treasures that lay within had been stolen. But amazingly, although the largest mound (known as Mound 1) had suffered from the attentions of grave robbers in the sixteenth century (possibly the infamous Dr John Dee, who obtained a royal permit to dig for treasure in burial mounds in East Anglia), Brown found in 1939 that the main burial chamber that had been erected over the ship was largely undisturbed.

Reconstruction of the inside of Mound 1

At least it had not been disturbed by men; the earth had fallen in centuries ago, crushing the items stored within and damaging many of them. And of course, the passing of time had wreaked havoc with the organic materials and iron. However, the treasures that were pulled forth from the earth showed that the man buried in the ship was hugely wealthy, a pagan and almost certainly a king.

Basil Brown during the dig of Mound 1 in 1939

The most recognisable artefact is of course the Sutton Hoo helmet, the remains of which are now on display in the British Museum. Time has taken its toll on the helmet, but when we see a replica showing it as it would have been when worn and buried with its owner, we can but marvel at the workmanship and artistry.

Replica of the Sutton Hoo Helmet (by Ivor Lawton)

There were many other important pieces that came from the grave, each providing invaluable insight into the customs of the time and the identity of the man buried.

Among many other items of value, the following are a few of the most important finds from Mound 1:

  • a large Byzantine silver bowl, which had travelled over 1,500 miles to reach its resting place
  • thirty-seven gold coins 
  • an ornate golden belt buckle 


Replica of the gold belt buckle
  • two gold and garnet shoulder clasps 
  • a harp 
  • nine spears 
  • a whetstone sceptre 

Replica of the whetstone sceptre
  • a shield with intricate gold fittings

Replica of the shield and gold fittings

The excavation of the mounds was halted during the Second World War, but since that time the investigations of the site has continued to the present day, first under the direction of Rupert Bruce-Mitford (1965-71), then Martin Carver (1983-92). In subsequent digs since the war, many other graves have been found in the area around the mounds. It is believed that these newly-discovered bodies, which were buried with no grave goods, in shallow graves are from a later time. Looking at the evidence, they were probably criminals who had been hanged from a gallows near the highway that ran past the mounds.


The mounds at Sutton Hoo

Other mounds have also been excavated, shining more light into the darkness of the time when these mounds were erected. A young warrior is buried alongside his horse in Mound 17 and Mound 14 probably held the body of a woman, given the grave goods found.


Replica pattern welded sword

We will almost certainly never know who each of these people were due to the period when they were buried and the lack of documentary evidence in what is commonly known as the Dark Ages.

Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to pinpoint the age of the ship burial of Mound 1 as between 590 and 640. Weighing up the finds of such riches, along with the location of the mounds, only four miles from Rendlesham, where Bede says the King of East Anglia had his great hall, and the fact that the burial is pagan, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo is the ship burial of the great King Rædwald of East Anglia, who died in 624 or 625.

Artist's impression of King Rædwald

This of course takes us into the second historical era of Sutton Hoo. The early seventh century, when Christianity had yet to be adopted by all the kingdoms of Britain. A time when warrior kings of the Angles and the Saxons held sway over retinues of thegns and vied for power and territory with neighbouring kings in a way that could be compared to the gangs of modern-day cities or the cattle barons of the American West in the nineteenth century.

Such a man was Rædwald, ruler over East Anglia, one of the richest kingdoms of Britain. He had supposedly converted to Christianity when visiting Kent, but apostatised once more on his return to East Anglia where, instead of destroying the shrines to the old gods, he built new Christian shrines alongside them. Claiming Woden as one of his ancestors, as did all of the Anglo-Saxon kings of the time, he would have worn the great helmet that was buried with him into combat, not only as protection but as an indication of his wealth and extreme power.

Artist's impression of the interior of an Anglo-Saxon great hall

Rædwald’s power stretched well beyond the borders of East Anglia. When the young Edwin of Deira fled from his enemies in Northumberland, he ended up finding a safe haven in the hall of Rædwald. Edwin’s sworn enemy, King Æthelfrith, would rather avoid a war with a king as mighty as Rædwald but he clearly believed that the King of East Anglia could be swayed by gold. For we are told in Bede’s History of the English Church and People that Æthelfrith sent Rædwald increasingly large bribes in the form of coins in exchange for Edwin. It seems Rædwald was tempted by the offer until his wife famously told him that it was “altogether unworthy of so great a king to sell his good friend in such distress for gold, and to sacrifice his honour, which is more valuable than all other adornments, for the love of money”. And so, listening to his wife and recognising the wisdom of her words, Rædwald not only rejected Æthelfrith’s offer but instead lent his aid to Edwin and marched with him northward where together they defeated Æthelfrith. Thus Rædwald installed Edwin as King of Northumbria.

The National Trust Exhibition Hall at Sutton Hoo

Visiting the site today and seeing in the National Trust Exhibition Hall the stunning replicas of the grave goods that were buried with Rædwald to be carried into the afterlife in his great ship, one gets an idea of the powerful hold this man must have had on his people. And I think we must consider ourselves extremely fortunate that after 1,400 years and numerous attempts to rob the graves of Sutton Hoo, these most fabulous, iconic artefacts have been recovered and kept safe, allowing them to be witnessed and studied by history lovers for generations to come.

Image attribution:

All photos copyright Matthew Harffy, unless otherwise stated.
The image of the 1939 dig is by Harold John Phillips - Screen capture of image from home movie, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14677136

~~~~~~~~~~

Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The latest book in the series, Warrior of Woden was released on 1st April 2018.

The previous books in the series, The Serpent Sword, The Cross and theCurse, Blood and Blade and Killer of Kings are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good bookstores.

Kin of Cain, a standalone prequel novella, is currently free on Amazon worldwide.

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

20 comments:

  1. Great article, Matthew. It is interesting that there are some christian artefacts in the burial (the two silver spoons and the silver bowls for example) and my tutor at Leeds Uni (Ian Wood - who is one of the foremost experts on Frankia and links to Anglo-Saxon England) liked to posit a theory that it could be Raedwald's son, Sigeberht, who had become a monk. However, I must admit that I still see Raedwald as the most likely candidate - for me the christian accoutrements could well represent baptismal gifts from Aethelberht of kent (the Saul / Paul inscriptions on the spoons support their role as such). I also wonder that - rather than apostatising as such - Raedwald simply went along with what his over-king wanted when he baptised. Then rather than throw out christianity he hedged his bets by - as you say - placing a christian altar alongside his existing pagan shrines. Just in case - good to keep all bases covered.

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  2. Thanks, Paul. Yes, I think it is very possible that it is not Raedwald. It really is impossible to ever know, but I went with the most widely accepted theory. I actually wondered if it couldn't be Raedwald's son, Rægenhere. It seems likely to me that a powerful king would build a great tribute to a beloved son, but I think it unlikely that the burial was Sigebehrt, as he had fully renounced the old religion and was fully Christian.

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    1. Very probable. I think the only way it could be Sigeberht is if his people were determined to give him a traditional Wuffinga royal burial despite his conversion. If i recall he was 'dragged' from his monastery to lead the East Angles in battle - a battle in which he was killed - the implication being that his people wanted him to be a ruler first and a monk second. Those same people may have then decided what sort of burial was befitting their king, not Sigeberht himself... Lots of interesting theories :)

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  3. Amazing to be able to walk around your country so strong in history.1000's of years of it.When i look around New Zealand we are lucky if we have a building more than 150 years old.

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    1. We are lucky in Europe to have thousands of years of buildings and archaeology. However, you have some fabulous natural places to visit in NZ and a rich history of the Maoris.

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  4. One of the best things about being a fiction writer is that we can explore the non-factual sde of events in our novels - building upwards from the known facts, of course. For myself I've often thought If I was told I could make one trip back in a time machine to observe history what event would I visit? I think I'd go to Sutton Hoo to find out 'who'. Interesting post, thanks for sharing

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  5. Good article, although not sure why you refer to Dr John Dee as infamous?
    A re-evaluation of Dee's character and significance came in the 20th century, largely as a result of the work of the historians Charlotte Fell-Smith and Dame Frances Yates. Both writers brought into focus the parallel roles magic, science and religion held in the Elizabethan Renaissance. Check his extensive Wikapedia page for more information.

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  6. Confused....thinking this should be ancestor instead of descendant?
    "Claiming Woden as one of his descendants, as did all of the Anglo-Saxon kings of the time.."

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  7. Great article. I enjoyed visiting Sutton Hoo - well worth the visit. I have a replica of this Helmet that always creates awe and amazement. Just last week I did a talk on the period and several of the listeners were amazed that such a wonderful artefact could be created in the 7th century.

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    1. Thanks, Richard! It is amazing to see such elaborate craftsmanship come from such a distant and "dark" time from history.

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  8. I saw the Sutton Hoo treasures many years ago in the British Museum, when I was visiting England. All I could say then was, “Wow!” A fascinating story behind it. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. The treasures at the British Museum are amazing - and all for free for the public to observe. And you are very welcome!

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  9. Great post, Matthew. I did a History 'A' level project on Sutton Hoo, some decades ago, and got to see some of the artefacts in the British Museum. But I later lived in neighbouring Norfolk, I never got to site itself, sadly.

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  10. Thank you, Roland. Maybe one day you'll get a chance to visit.

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    1. A dream now that I'm disabled and living in the US, but then dreams can come true.

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  11. Wonderful article. Having moved to Suffolk and recently visited Sutton Hoo, your piece has helped me understand more clearly the history of the artifacts and archaeology. Many thanks.

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  12. Thanks for this, Matthew. I'm ashamed to say I first visited Sutton Hoo only after I'd retired and even then half expected it be an over-commercialized gift shop. Well, I couldn't have been more wrong as I think of it as very atmospheric place and the NT's exhibitions are very instructive. I've returned each year for the last 7 years and your article has reminded me why. I'm of the age where I have a lot of time to stand and stare and Sutton Hoo is a particularly rewarding site.

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    1. I am ashamed to say that this year was my first visit! But like you, I now intend to return as often as I can. It is an amazing place. Enjoy the time to stand and stare!

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