For many the Sutton Hoo helmet is the face of Anglo-Saxon England. It was a great pleasure, while on holiday in East Anglia this week, to return to Sutton Hoo and view this iconic site that is once more open to the public.
The site is believed to be the royal burial ground of the Kings of East Anglia. It is situated on a sandy ridge overlooking the River Deben in Essex, near Woodbridge. It is only a short distance from Rendlesham, which was recorded by Bede in the 8th Century as the principal royal estate of the Kings of East Anglia.
You can still view the burial mounds, but the ground is being rested at present and so you are unable to walk amongst them. Nevertheless you can view the site where in 1939, the impression of a ship was unearthed beneath a mound. The wood had rotted, but the lines of rivets showed clearly where the ship’s timbers has once been.
The ship contained a burial of significant wealth. The helmet was a symbol of royal power in the early 7th Century, before kings began wearing crowns. So the helmet found in the burial is usually taken as evidence that it belonged to one of the Kings of East Anglia. The design of the goldwork in particular dates the burial to the first half of the 7th Century, and the mix of Christian and pagan imagery suggests a man who was hedging his bets over the new religion only recently introduced under the influence of King AEthelberht of Kent in 597. It is generally thought that the best candidate for who was buried in this ship was King Raedwald, who died in 625. He is known to have nominally converted to Christianity, while maintaining pagan shrines.
On a previous visit to Sutton Hoo in 2015, we found that the National Trust had created in the exhibition hall at the Visitors’ Centre a wonderful reconstruction of the burial chamber in the ship showing how the king was laid out with his finery around him. Sadly, this has been swept away in a reorganisation of the exhibition hall, and the current exhibition is a rather limited selection of replicas of some of the finds from the burial, combined with a range of narrative and reconstructed artefacts that explore the roles of various members of the king’s court. It is interesting to see the kind of dress that might have been worn by Raedwald’s Queen (and indeed by Queen Ethelburga who was an exact contemporary), as well as examples of decorative textiles. This all reinforces an impression of royal courts at this time being alive with colour and the glitter of gold. But I do feel it is disappointing that there is no longer such a focus on the burial of the king himself, as it is first and foremost the ship burial and its gold treasure that causes anyone to visit Sutton Hoo at all.
Sutton Hoo is of more than passing interest for anyone interested in the story of Anglo-Saxon Lyminge. This is because Queen Ethelburga’s husband King Edwin spend some time in exile at the court of Raedwald, and it was with the assistance of Raedwald that Edwin seized back the throne of Northumbria in 616. Edwin’s father Aelle had been King of Northumbria, but on his death, the throne was taken by AEthelfrith, forcing Edwin to flee into exile. Eventually he ended up at the court of Raedwald. AEthelfrith is recorded as having offered money to Raedwald to betray Edwin to him. Instead, Raedwald’s Queen persuaded him to stand by Edwin and instead together they marched out to defeat AEthelfrith in battle on the River Idle in Nottinghamshire. Having gained the throne of Northumbria, Edwin then proceeded to secure a political alliance with the greatest power in England at that time, the Kingdom of Kent, and his own succession through marriage to Ethelburga, sister of Eadbald King of Kent.
Sutton Hoo brings you into close contact with the story of Edwin and Ethelburga that ultimately reached its conclusion in Lyminge. It remains a site of huge interest for anyone seeking to understand England in the 7th Century and the period when Ethelburga was alive.