Tag Archives: Sutton Hoo

Sparrows and the quest for meaning in life

Sutton Hoo

Irresistibly, I am drawn back to our Wuffings and the beginnings of East Anglian Christianity. It may seem a dry subject to you, but for me it really helps to see how the region developed and took shape over those early years, and, like it or not, Christianity shapes the history of our region, our island, the whole of Europe.  However, we know from many of the tales of mermaids and dragons, of witches and cunning men, of Syleham Lamps and fairy changelings, that the old ways – and human imagination – still kept their hold of the people of East Anglia, right up to today.

So, if you’ve read the previous blogs, A Puff on Wuffings and Woden or Christ? you’ll know that Rædwald made a hesitant half-start when it came to bringing of Christianity to East Anglian shores.  He goes off into eternity honouring an entirely different set of gods, and Mound 1 – if it were to be his – is not the latest non-Christian burial there.  Paganism held sway among some for a time, it seems.  But the march of the White Christ pressed on in East Anglia, and circumstance would see it well entrenched by the time the dreadful Penda years came.  Why such a quick turnaround?  Bede once more has an answer, in the famous sparrow story told while Edwin’s court debates the issue of Christianity vs. their own existing religion up north in Northumbria.

Imagine the warriors of the court sitting on long benches around the central fire with the noble women passing amongst them pouring drinks while the debate rages on the long winter’s night. Outside, the wind howls, and sends the smoke from the fire buffeting through the room.  An old warrior sits back and stares up into the dim, smoky recesses of the rafters.  Can he make out a flitting shape there?  Maybe a bird has strayed in out of the cold.  Whatever he sees, it prompts him to make this famous speech:

Your majesty, when we compare the present life on man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall … The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.  Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.[1]

The hope of a life after death for all, not only for those who were already rich and well-kept in this life was naturally desirable. With so much of the world in explicable except by supernatural means, religion and superstition had a power that many of us now cannot understand – at least while this little bubble of comfortable living we have constructed continues.  Edwin’s chief priest, Coifi, sees the writing on the wall, and immediately declares that his religion is worthless, has got him no gains, when others, less devout than he, have gained more, then jumps on a stallion and rides off to destroy the idols in the grove nearby at modern day Goodmanham in the East Riding.

Bede makes it sound very easy – but he is a Christian monk, with a Christian axe to grind. Between the lines of this time you can see that it wasn’t, really.  When Rædwald dies his remaining son, Eorpwald, becomes king.  Edwin of Northumbria then becomes the Bretwalda, and power passes into the north – effectively, Eorpwald owes allegiance to Edwin, as Edwin had done to Eorpwald’s father.  Edwin leans on Eorpwold, and the new king is christened.  Events move fast.  Eorpwald is killed by another member of the royal family, Ricberht, a pagan, and the kingdom reverts to paganism.  Who knows what was happening to the populace, what faith they followed.  In these times, it was all about kings.

For three years East Anglia stayed pagan, but then a new king arrived: Sigeberht. This young man had been in exile in France, which was already Christian, and Sigeberht had embraced the new faith wholeheartedly.  There may have been a balance – at first Sigeberht ruled with another king, Ecgric, another Wuffing, who was probably a pagan – as, let’s face it, most people would have been in the Anglo Saxon areas of Britain before 650.  But Sigeberht had a mission, and it didn’t take him long to put it into place.

First, he invited a French monk to join him to convert the masses. This was St Felix, for whom we get Felixstowe (probably).  Felix was made a bishop and set up a cathedral in Suffolk , probably at Dunwich, possibly at Walton near Felixstowe.  Unlike many of these early saints, he wasn’t a man for miracles.  He seems to have got on with the job in hand with minimal fuss, only ensuring that the villages of the Saints (the Elmhams, Ilketshalls etc.) were difficult to access to keep them pure and holy, and then after death playing the usual game of dictating where his body was going to end up – he went to Soham, a church founded by the saint, and then to the inveterate relic-hunters at Ramsey, beating the monks at Ely by casting a convenient darkness that bamboozled the Ely monks and allowed the Ramsey ones to escape with their prize.

No, for miracles we need to look elsewhere – and the next blog will be about East Anglia’s first miracle worker – St Fursey.

Photograph © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2013

[1] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo Shirley-Price (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 129-30.

A Puff on Wuffings

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A few months ago it was announced that Rædwald’s home had been found – exactly where it should be, at Rendlesham.   It is always remarkable when archaeology follows ancient sources, especially when those ancient sources postdate the actual events by a good century.  Perhaps the dig at Rendlesham hasn’t revealed a new Mycenae or Troy, but just like the discovery of those once thought to be legendary places, it adds credence to the stories of Rædwald and Edwin.  Of course, we know these people existed as there was no reason for Bede to make people up in his history, just as we have no reason to invent Charles Darwin or Queen Victoria – and Edwin’s palace at Yeavering was found 65 years ago by aerial photography.  But did Rædwald actually have anything to do with the village found at Rendlesham?  Was this where the events recounted in Bede where Edwin takes refuge with the East Anglian king and is oh-so-nearly betrayed?  Is this the place where Rædwald had his shrine to the Christian God and to ‘devils’ – probably Woden, from whom his family, the Wuffingas, claimed descent?

Bede doesn’t say so – what a spoilsport!  Bede talks of Rædwald’s royal vill, but not of Rendlesham.  That comes later, when the mission of Cedd is taking place that results in the conversion of the East Saxon (Essex) king Swidhelm in the mid 7th century, about 40 years after Rædwald died.  But the newly discovered settlement does date back to the early 7th century, when Raedwald was king.  It is also close to St Gregory’s church, long thought to be the site of Rædwald’s famous altars, and to the all important river Deben that would have linked the settlement rapidly with the outside world – and also links the settlement to the burial grounds at Sutton Hoo.  I’m a storyteller – so I would like to believe that this was Rædwald’s home.

It’s probably fair to say that these days Rædwald tends to get more press than most of the early Anglo Saxon kings, even outside of East Anglia.  He is helped by ‘his’ costly burial and also by the high profile visitor attraction that is Sutton Hoo these days.  But in East Anglia in the Wuffings have been well and truly embraced.  From the Eastern Angles production in 1997 to the Wuffings Studio project in Bury, to Wuffings Wood near Flixton to even a twenty20 side the name is used with pride.

Who were the Wuffings?  No – they aren’t people volunteering on organic farms … that’s woofing.  Don’t even think about dogging…  Dr Sam Newton’s site http://www.wuffings.co.uk/ gives full details of the family and reveals the exciting link with the poem Beowulf.  We know a fair bit of what the East Anglians thought about their royal heritage through royal kinglists, that trace the kings back to the first person in the line.  The first East Anglian king was Wehha, followed by the eponymous Wuffa, but before that, back in the old country, we discover a Hrothmund – the same name as the younger of Hrothgar’s sons in Beowulf.  In the poem, the two sons are still boys, even though Hrothgar is an old man.  Could the East Anglian royal family be related to the Danish king?  Was Rædwald a descendent of Hrothgar – and with Rædwald all the East Anglian kings up to Edmund?

After Beowulf had gone home to his own land, the land of the Geats, we learn that there is civil war in Hrothgar’s kingdom between the king and his son-in-law Ingeld.   The old king and his nephew Hrothulf (Rolf!) defeat Ingeld, but shortly after Hrothgar dies.  As Hrothulf is an adult, he takes the throne – but what happens to Hrothgar’s young sons?  Hrethric is killed – but Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s widow, and her younger son escape.  Sam Newton in his book The Origins of Beowulf: And the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, 2004, explores this potential relationship in great detail, and suggests that not only did the East Anglian kings believe they were descended from this Danish royal line, but also that Beowulf may have been composed in East Anglia.

It’s a glamorous notion – the young exiled prince fleeing with his mother and a group of trusted men and possibly women and children, and maybe crossing the North Sea to the place where everyone was going – Britain.  There may have been a struggle to establish rule, or maybe there was a settlement on the other side of the sea as Hrothmund’s ‘grandson’ Wehha, the ‘father’ of Wuffa, is considered to be first king of East Anglia[1].

Were these real people?  We can never know, but the fact that Hrothulf and co. are mentioned not only in Beowulf but in many Scandinavian sagas suggests that they might well be based on real people.  Going back a bit further in the king list we get to someone who definitely was a real person – but definitely wasn’t related in any way to Rædwald!  The name Caser is used – we know him better as Julius Caesar.  Now, Caesar didn’t have any children with Danish women that we know of, but that wouldn’t be important to the compilers of the kinglists.  Rather, making a link to the Roman Empire implies that the Wuffings have a right to rule, and have imperial ambitions – as shown by Rædwald becoming the Bretwalda, or overlord, of the Anglo Saxons.  It shows too the way that these Christianised Anglo Saxons looked outside their own indigenous culture to the wider world.

But the East Anglian kinglist ends with the usual suspect – Woden, the head god of the Saxon pantheon.  We know him better as the Scandinavian version, Odin, but they are much the same.  Most of the kinglists we have (Essex is the most striking example) end with or include Woden.  Wessex goes further – all the way back to Adam.  Rather needlessly, one suspects, as we are all descended from him in the Christian view of the world, but definitely thorough!

This then is Rædwald’s background – descended from kings, emperors (well, almost) and gods, he is declared as fit to rule by his ancestry, and his continued veneration of Woden in his temple is a form of ancestor worship that would be difficult to give up in a still pagan society that recognises his kingship through his descent from the god.   If St Gregory’s is indeed the site the of Rædwald’s temple, then it makes a lot of sense to place it there both from the usual Christian point of view of supplanting the heathen idol with the ‘true’ god but also from the point of view of authority and lineage – by worshiping Christ in the same place that the ancestor Woden was venerated the East Anglian kings might be saying that there is a link between Christ and Woden, and thus a link between them and Christ, reinforcing their authority to rule.  One hopes that there are more discoveries to made so that slowly we can join up our own fantasies about the kingship of Rædwald’s time with the reality of what lies beneath the ground at our feet.

Image © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2013

[1] I’m using the inverted commas as we don’t truly know what relationship these men were to each other – early medieval kingship isn’t nearly as easy to follow as the later rule of primogeniture, and may rest rather on suitability – such as being an adult! – and suitability than on direct descent from the previous king.

Sutton Hoo Part 1: the Importance of Place

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How important is the place to the story?  With local folk tales, it can be everything.  Just as in the Australian Dreamtime where locations are mapped and explained through the stories, so in folk tales the place often dictates the story, and the story gives the place a distinctness that once known, can’t be forgotten.  Can you pass the place where Black Toby was killed without a shudder?  I know I can’t, now – which is a shame as it is very close to where my parents live, on the A12 near Blythburgh.  I can’t see Orford Castle now without thinking of the Merman.  And Sutton Hoo – well, the very name conjures up another era, of warriors and gold, of monsters and heroes, of poetry and silent ships slicing along the Deben.  Does the place match up?  And can you now experience the story of the place – and the story of Rædwald, King of East Anglia and Bretwalda of all the Anglo-Saxons – in the landscape?

The first time I went to Sutton Hoo I lost a button.  I was really cheesed off – I loved that coat, and it had good buttons with fake Roman emperor heads on them.  It was Christmastime, and in my memory the mounds were dusted with a light sprinkling of snow.  My friend ran up and down the mounds.  I didn’t.  I was sulking about the lost button.  This was in the days before the visitor centre and the tours, the café and costumed warriors.  There was, if I recall it correctly, only the mounds and a signboard.  Thrills.

But I should have been more thrilled. I had just finished an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100.  My friend was in the throes of her dphil, also about early Medieval stuff (pesky Vikings), having also done said MA.  Not only that, but I had had a truly thrilling Sutton Hoo experience whilst doing my masters.  Our tutor had been one of the main players in the dig at the site in the 80s, and when he arranged a trip to London to the British Museum he made sure we were given very preferential treatment.  I work in a museum now – I now realise just how preferential this was.

Our little group, all studying Anglo Saxon Art and Archaeology, were invited into a room with a large table on which were shown various pieces of the famous Sutton Hoo treasure.  One of the shoulder clasps was passed around, and I got to put the pin into the loops to join the two halves together.  You have to be very impressed that I managed to type that without putting it in capitals.  It was amazing.  A really key moment in my life, up there with seeing the Grand Canyon, living in Venice, the bliss of swimming in the sea in Greece and standing in MoMA surrounded by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Sunflowers, I and the Village and The Sleeping Gypsy. The jewels are stunning in a display case – but how much more beautiful when held in your hand so you can see the perfection of the cloisonné and the delicacy of the filigree work on the pin?  The sense of connection I felt with both the goldsmith and with the wearer was one of the most intense I have ever felt – the chance to handle the real thing.  Walter Pater talks of objects have an ‘aura’, and having worked in museums for over two decades now, I believe strongly that that is true – but often you need both the story and the object to get that numinous feeling of connection.  William Wordsworth’s pen without Wordsworth is just a pen.  But these ancient things stir you even without a named owner – but you need that hint of story, a story imparted by the boars and the knotwork and the gold of the shoulder clasps, and by our knowledge of Norse gods and Beowulf.

But what about the place now?  These two trips just described took place in the mid-1990s. Sutton Hoo now is a much more exciting experience.  Of course – it is now an ‘experience’ and thus you have to pay, but my feeling is, that in this case, it’s worth it.  I don’t always think that – I still don’t think they have things quite right at Stonehenge.  Unlike Stonehenge and Newgrange, the mounds are a quick walk from the visitor centre.  Hardly anyone visited before.  I was in my early 20s before I first went, and I didn’t go back until after the visitor centre was built.  Mum and I proved how quick a walk it was on one of the field trips for the book, as it was bloody freezing when we went, so a route march around the mounds taking record shots was undertaken, pretty much alone as the biting wind and spitty rain assailed us.  Hey ho – not one of my most exciting trips, though atmospheric!  Too atmospheric…

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I really like the visitor centre.   The temporary displays – well not so much!  Come on British Museum – lend some of the good stuff!  Oh no – you can’t can you? – you’ve slapped it all into your shiny but sadly rather dull display in London.  I love that you can walk right into the replica burial chamber and see all the things laid out.  It’s interactive in the best way – it puts you in the story in your imagination.  But, no longer can you go out onto the mounds to conjure up the spirits of the dead into a procession of warriors carrying the body of their beloved king up the hill from the river and across the graveyard to the ship that has been prepared to take him to the next world, there to either feast with his fellows  in Valhalla or, possibly, go to singing the praises of the Lord for eternity.

I should have been more alert when I visited with my friend back in the 90s.  Because now, like at Stonehenge, like at Newgrange, your visit is a managed experience with interpretation and guided tours giving you the received wisdom on the site.  But half of the pleasure of going on field trips for this project – as well as the previous ones over in the west – is using the imagination to conjure the scene for yourself while stripping back the centuries to try to reveal how the landscape looked when the story took place.  At Sutton Hoo now it is more difficult to tell the story to yourself, and for many people that’s fine as they wanted to gain information about the site and the people who are – were – buried there.  But it’s difficult to experience the unique atmosphere of this estuarine hillside, shrouded by tall trees when you are listening to a guide.  Difficult too to fully experience the site without the guide as you can no longer get onto the mounds without one…

Some of the most magical field trips for this project were in forgotten places – a snowbound wood next to Pin Mill’s Butt and Oyster, searching for dragons on a hot hillside, poking about the farm near my old home in Layham, exploring a hidden Ipswich.  But I’m lucky – I went with information and knowledge already locked in my head.  And I know Rædwald well – I’m both a historian and a storyteller.  Guides and interpretation are good – just let us have the personal experiences as well.

Images © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012