Sutton Hoo helmet reconstructedSutton Hoo has provided much fascination in the last weeks, ever sine I caught up with the Netflix movie THE DIG (I gave my thoughts on the film in another blog). But while writing that piece, I became fascinated in the actual dig itself, the finds discovered there and the question of just who was likely to have been placed in the barrow in Suffolk.

Much to my surprise there’s been some contention about this matter over the years and some question about whether anyone was buried there at all. The soil in this particular part of Suffolk is acidic and so would have long dissolved any skeletal remains;  but equally there is the possibility that the barrow was always empty of a corpse and was a cenotaph burial, built to commemorate someone who was physically placed elsewhere. So it falls to deriving clues from the known history of the place, as well as the grave goods that did survive in the barrow in order to piece together a likely candidate for the burial.

Sutton Hoo burial mound - by Geoff Dallimore

Sutton Hoo Burial Mound. Photo by Geoff Dallimore

Sutton Hoo was once part of an Anglo Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, which covered parts of modern day Norfolk and Suffolk. The name itself  derives from old English, the language of the Anglo Saxons that is the earliest comprehensive recorded form of English we have. It means a southern farmstead (sut + tun) on a hill “shaped like a heel spur” (hoh). The word “hoo”, and variations of it, is preserved in other English places like Plymouth Hoe and Fingringhoe. Indeed there are a number of locations close to where I write where “hoo” has survived in the place name, denoting the Anglo Saxon past right on my own doorstep – Hooton Roberts, Hooton Levitt and Hooton Pagnall.

The time, the place and the surviving grave goods offer the biggest clues as to who might be buried at Sutton Hoo, for the location was known for the burials of people of eminence during Anglo Saxon history and so opens up the possibility that this was a royal burial, associated with one of the local kings.

Coins from the the burial date it to around 620AD and this ties nicely with the death of Raedwald, King of the East Angles, in 624AD. But there’s some other evidence for Raedwald that I think can be considered when you take into account elements of his life.

Raedwald governed a kingdom in east Anglia that was predominantly pagan, like almost all Anglo Saxon kingdoms of the time. It was untouched by Augustine’s Christian mission that landed in England in 597AD2 with the aim of converting as many pagans as possible until the beginning of the seventh century and when Raedwald did convert, it was not universally accepted in his own kingdom. His wife and household were so opposed to his new faith that they persuaded him to lapse in part and throughout his remaining years as king he kept a temple with both Christian and pagan altars, worshiping gods of both the old and the new worlds3.

Raedwald’s reluctance over his Christian faith may also have had something to do with the politics of the time. His baptismal sponsor is most likely to have been Aethelbert, the Kentish king who himself had been targeted for Christianization by the Pope’s mission. Raedwald’s conversion would have been acknowledgement of a somewhat inferior status to Aethelbert, quite possibly threatening the web of alliances he had built his power on, including his alliance with his wife’s family, the royal dynasty of Essex. 

Sutton Hoo - baptismal bowls and spoons

Baptismal bowls and spoons from the Sutton Hoo burial mound. Photo by British Museum

This reluctant conversion – and the Anglian king’s attempt to keep a foot in both camps – is I think reflected in some of the grave goods discovered at Sutton Hoo. Found in the barrow were a set of silver serving bowls decorated with Christian symbols, and also two silver spoons. The spoons are inscribed, one with the name “PAULOS” and the other with the name “SAULOS”.

To me, this is suggestive of two things: firstly, someone trying to straddle both the long established pagan faith of the Saxons (spoons are a pagan symbol) with the increasingly influential Christian faith promoted by Augustine after 597AD; and secondly, someone who converted to the Christian faith later in life at Saint Paul did – the name Saul denoting Raedwald’s pre-Christian self, and Paul denoting his newly converted Christian persona.

Other items in the grave included a whetstone that was so ornately carved it can only have been for ceremonial use. It’s been suggested by Rupert Bruce Mitford that this was a symbol of office much like a sceptre – perhaps of the office of bretwalda1. The magnificence of the other objects, particularly the quality of the gold ware, also indicates of someone looking to project an Imperial degree power. Whoever commissioned the gold ware found in the grave had access to a highly skilled goldsmith, with skills on a par with or far exceeding those of other European royalty at the time.

These elements all point to the burial of someone of significant status and given the time and place most historians over the last ninety years or so have come to regard Raewald as the person who was honoured there. 

Sutton Hoo - ceremonial whetstone or sceptre

Photo by British Museum

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, the soil at Sutton Hoo is particularly acidic and would have done away with any remains that were interred in the barrow, skeleton and all. A 1967 study of soil samples from where a body was most likely to be did show the presence of phosphates, indicating that there was something organic there once.

But the placement of funerary objects in the grave and the lack of shroud ties, which would have accompanied a corpse, also point to there being no corpse and to the barrow being a cenotaph burial, a memorial to the dead king who was buried elsewhere. 

The absence of a body in the barrow may lend even more credence to the notion that it was built for Raedwald. Here was a king who had converted to Christianity yet continued to worship the old gods; who’s rule for the last twenty or so years of his life was very definitely spent with a foot placed in both Christian and pagan camps. Perhaps his death saw a mix of the traditional Christian burial elsewhere and the centopah burial of a ship and grave goods in the pagan style that itself was in crossover at the time.

If that is the case then we don’t even need a body in the barrow – whether it’s a grave or a cenotaph, it most likely belongs to the 7th century king of the East Angles. 

Most of the Sutton Hoo burial  goods are held at the British Museum in London, with others held by the Ipswich Museum. The site itself is managed by the National Trust – you can currently visit and do the estate walks but other parts of the site are closed due to the ongoing lockdown. Check here for details.

More Raedwald’s life and times, as well as some thoughts on concepts of power and kingship in post-Roman Britain, in a future blog.

1=bretwalda is the name to some of the rulers of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the 5th century onwards who had achieved overlordship of some or all of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It is unclear whether the word dates back to the 5th century and was used by the kings themselves or whether it is a later, 9th-century, invention. It first occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a 9th century text.

2=Augustine was  prior of a monastery in Rome until he was sent to England in 595AD to Christianize the Anglo Saxon King Aethlebert of Kent. He was later made the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

3=Bede, writing decades later, described how Ealdwulf of East Anglia recalled seeing the temple when he was a boy: “he seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods whom he had previously served; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another small altar on which to offer victims to devils. Eadwulf, who was ruler of the kingdom up to our time, used to declare that the temple lasted until his time and he saw it when he was a boy.” – The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,  Bede, Book II , Chapter15