The Pagan King: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial & The Duality of Anglo-Saxon Religion in 7th Century Britain
Great men and women are often memorialized by great monuments and burial rites. The construction of these monuments vary the world over, but comfort and status in the afterlife remain prevalent. A sumptuously adorned mortuary chamber constructed atop a ship buried in eastern England is one of these great monuments. Sutton Hoo has stood since the first part of the seventh century as a testament to someone’s memory. The identity of that someone has been debated since the primary excavation in the late 1930s, when archaeologists determined there were no identifiable human remains. The historical record is also difficult to decipher because of there are so few primary sources that look at this period. Clues within the burial yielded some starting points about the earliest date the burial could have occurred. Utilizing that date, we can search through the historical record for powerful men in the years just following. The dates and sources suggest Redwald, King of East Anglia from 599-624/5 AD as the high-ranking individual entombed at Sutton Hoo. Some doubt remains around the veracity of this conclusion. That being said, the pagan nature of the burial argues for the site being dedicated to Redwald. Many features of the goods left behind coincide with what sources like Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles say about Redwald: that he kept two altars, and that he was marginally Christian. This paper examines the site archaeologically and historically to build a case for Redwald as the commemorated individual buried at Sutton Hoo’s main mound.
Northeast of London by nearly ninety miles, Sutton Hoo has been a source of mystery since its excavation in 1938. The circular barrows that dot the landscape near the Deben River on the eastern coast of England first garnered attention as early as 1601. Official investigation into their contents began in the late 1930s by Basil Brown, a local archaeologist, at the behest of Edith Pretty. These excavations yielded some extraordinarily exciting finds, especially in Mound 1 (Marzinzik 2007). The area is considered an Anglo-Saxon cemetery due to the many burials present. Including the most publicized mounds, there are at least eighteen. Four mounds were found without bodies or remains of bodies present. Two mounds contained great ships. Additionally, there are a total of at least fifty-six burials in the grave-field. Some were internments with grave goods present, some were cremations in urns and at least one contained the burial of a child with some high status goods (Carver 2005).
Mound 1 has garnered the most attention, due to the rich burial hoard found within. The ship discovered there was around 88 feet long and contained a central chamber. That chamber was laid out parallel with the keel of the ship and oriented east-west. The small room that housed all of the goods appeared to be organized thematically at the time of burial. Against the west chamber wall, weapons and high status regalia were found. A sword and crushed helmet were found surrounding what has been proposed as the final resting place of the body. West of that, above the proposed head; a shield, whetstone scepter and lyre were found. Along the east wall of the burial room the Anglo-Saxons preparing the burial placed feasting implements like cauldrons, silver dishes and knives (Carver 2005). Many of these objects came from quite a distance through trade. There were Byzantine silver spoons and Coptic bowls. Quite notably, Merovingian gold coins found in a leather purse aided in dating the site. Shields and drinking horns from Sweden were also found (Carver 2005). The evidence of traded and far-flung goods will prove to be important in determining the status of the individual interred in Mound 1.
One of the mysteries of Mound 1 is the absence of a body. Carver stands with Rupert Bruce-Mitford, one of the earliest investigators of the site, that a body was indeed laid to rest within the burial chamber. Sandy, high acidity soils would likely cause a body to fully decompose. That decomposition can be seen in higher than normal levels of phosphates found surrounding the proposed body internment area. Additionally, Carver cites a 1983 study performed by the British Museum that examined the taphonomy of burials at Sutton Hoo. Their findings showed that these sandy, high acidity soils not only caused rapid decay, but that remains would be seen as “sand shapes.” The visibility of such sand shapes would decrease when in contact with wood. Carver argues, then that the individual buried here was likely placed in a wooden coffin or on a platform. A schematic drawing of the “original” furnishing of the burial shows a body with clothing, chainmail and adornments in a bowl situated at the feet, all within the coffin (Carver 2005). So then, who is this great monument for?
The Merovingian coins found can begin to answer that question. The coins were minted in Gaul between 575 and 625AD, each at different locations. The earliest date Mound 1 could have been constructed would be just after the last coin was minted. Angela Care Evans, author of The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, argues that this was a specifically collected assemblage, not a representation of the treasury wealth of this individual. Utilizing that date of 625, the earliest bracket can be determined (Care Evans 1997). Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People lists Redwald as the king of East Anglia at that first bracketing date. He died in 625 (Ashley 1998). Bede first mentions Redwald as the fourth of the over-kings of England. Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles list Aelle, Ceawlin, Ethelbert and Redwald as the first four over-kings. Redwald was militarily powerful in his own land while Ethelbert ruled over a larger region than just his own holdings in Kent in 616 (Bede 1990). Redwald’s experience is quiet in Bede’s record until 625, where he protects Edwin from Ethelfrid. Redwald momentarily accepts a bribe to turn Edwin over, but at the urging of his Queen rescinds that acceptance. Bede is critical of this action, saying that Redwald did not behave honorably as a king. In documenting the year 627, Bede tells us that Redwald had accepted the Christian faith but that he kept pagan altars as well. He compares Redwald to the Samaritans saying that he tried to serve both Christ and ancient pagan gods (Bede 1990).
This duality of Christianity and pagan faith is something many Anglo-Saxon rulers experienced in the decades after the introduction of Christianity to Britain. Bede asserts that Ethelbert was the first king to enter the kingdom of heaven due to his holy salvation. Ethelbert died in 616, after ruling for fifty-six years. Bede credits Ethelbert’s wife Bertha, who was Frankish, for his predisposition to accept the Christian faith in the late 590s, some twenty years before his death. Following kings that converted to Christianity didn’t always have a Christian wife to direct them towards Christ. Bede blames Redwald’s Queen and other advisers for turning him from the righteous path. Redwald’s conversion happened relatively early in the context of missions to England. This explains why Redwald continues his pagan practice and the grave goods left behind at Sutton Hoo are proportionately more pagan than Christian.
If Mound 1 is indeed a tribute to Redwald, the marginal Christianity to overwhelming paganism can be seen in the burial itself as well as the grave goods left behind. There is an element of duality to the burial that will be examined here. To start with the most obvious element, the ship burial itself is clearly a pagan rite. Ship burial cairns had been in use in Scandinavia since the Mesolithic. Some were above ground stone works that resembled boats, and later became barrow mounds with boats interred (Ballard, et al. 2003). This practice was not solely Scandinavian. It took many forms in many different areas of the continent. The first literary reference to a ship burial is found in the Prose Edda. Albany Major in his article “Burials in Scandinavian Lands and the Beliefs that Underlie Them” reprints the scene; that the Aesir took Balder and placed him on his boat Hringhorn. The push that put the boat in the water was so powerful it lit the rolling logs on fire. While the burial at Sutton Hoo leaves the ship intact and not burned, it is clearly related to the Scandinavian pagan rite. In the Ynglinga Saga, Odin set down the law:
Odin established the same law in his land that had been in force
in Asaland. Thus he established by law that all dead men should
be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and
the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth. Thus,
said he, everyone will come to Valhalla with the riches he had
with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he
himself had buried in the earth. For men of consequence a mound
should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who
had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom
remained long after Odin’s time.
Here, laid out in historical literature are two of the major components of the Sutton Hoo burial: the mound and the ship (Heimskringla 1996). The status of the individual buried at Sutton Hoo has just been shown to be quite high. He was important enough to be buried with a ship and to have a barrow mound built over it. He was likely important enough to have been a king, and that king was likely Redwald.
Another artifact found in the assemblage is also an emblem of power that would likely be found in the grave of someone with higher status than just a great warrior. A whetstone scepter that is capped with an iron torq ring and stag ornament was uncovered with other high status regalia. The scepter, unlike the ship burial, is purely Celtic. Michael Enright, a medievalist that specializes in Celtic symbolism analyzes the images found on the scepter to cement the heritage of the item. This study, The Sutton Hoo Sceptre and the Roots of Celtic Kingship Theory, looks at each of the visual elements in turn. The scepter is a four sided whetstone bar with knobs on each end. At each end of the bar on each facet faces were carved in relief. The topmost faces are carved without beards; those at the bottom of the scepter are depicted with beards and are inverted. Mounted at the top of the scepter is an iron ring with a stag figurine. Each component of the scepter represents an important piece of Celtic pagan beliefs. The use of whetstone itself is quite isolated to Celtic tradition. Not only can it be carved, but it serves a practical purpose of sharpening weapons. The stone comes from the earth which is in turn seeded when the sun sets into it. The torq ornament represents a connection to a solar cult. Enright compares the circle to others that are inscribed on other whetstones. He also notes that the torq rotates around each of the four corners, like the sun looking over the cardinal directions. The stag that is shown with the torq is a symbol that is often tied to solar deities. The two together are connected to authority as well as earth rebirth and fertility (Enright 2006). The symbolic use of stags and deer on the British Islands dates back to the Mesolithic period. At Star Carr, a seasonal forager campsite in Northeast England, red deer skulls were utilized in ritual calendrical ceremonies for renewal and hunting magic (Scarre 2009). This symbolic use appears to have evolved into later Celtic mythology. All of these elements to the scepter create an emblem for authority.
Christianity found its way into the burial by means of spoons of Mediterranean silver inscribed with Saul and Paul in Greek. They were found with silver bowls that do not display any significant outwardly Christian motifs. They were located near the deceased’s shoulder, something that may suggest a more personal meaning than just pretty silver spoons to show wealth (Care Evans 1997). The lack of any easily discernable Christian relics besides the spoons, however, shows that the commemorated man identified more with pagan beliefs than the new religion from Rome.
This duality strengthens the argument for Redwald as the buried ruler over other kings of East Anglia. Based on that same early date from the Merovingian coins, another candidate for the burial is Redwald’s son, Earpwald (Ashley 1998). This can be dismissed, as Earpwald was persuaded to “abandon his superstitious idolatry and accept the Faith and Sacraments of Christ with his whole province.” (Bede 1990) If Earpwald converted so fully, his burial should hold far more Christian elements than pagan, if it holds many grave goods at all. Earpwald’s murderer, Ricbert returned the kingdom to paganism until Sigbert, another of Redwald’s sons and devout Christian, redeemed them (Bede 1990). This is also close to that first date obtained by the coins, but again, the burial at Sutton Hoo does not fit the material profile of a Christian king. Redwald ruled for quite some time and by the sources’ accounts maintained a cooperative worship of two different faiths. The collection of goods at Sutton Hoo most closely reflect a duality of religion, thus of Redwald.
All of the trappings discovered in the burial lend credence to the idea that the man laid to rest at Sutton Hoo was of great importance in East Anglia and in Britain as a whole. The artifacts deposited for his afterlife were a part of a tradition closely connected to the continent. The group of Anglo-Saxons that began taking up kingships in England preceding and following the burial shared their heritage with the same Germanic roots that created the epic of Beowulf. Many of the artifacts found in Mound 1 parallel the treasure given as gifts and treasure laid out with dead high-born men from the tale. Shield Sheafson was the first ruler of the Danes discussed in Beowulf. He was a fierce warrior, described as the “scourge of many tribes” by the author. Upon his death he was attended to by his men.
They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
laid out by the mast, admidships,
the great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
were piled upon him, and precious gear
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle-tackle, bladed weapons
and coats of mail. The massed treasure
was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
on out into the ocean’s sway.
There are several notable descriptors of Shield’s death rites in this passage that are mirrored in Redwald’s burial. He was deposited in a boat. Several of the artifacts came from the continent, as far away as the Mediterranean. Other items were a kit for a warrior: shields, sword, chain mail and helmet. We know from Bede that Redwald held military importance in his time, even before he was king. Like Beowulf the Geat who aided Hroðgar the Dane, Shield’s great grandson; Redwald may have aided the over-king before him in martial pursuits. If he paid tribute to someone like Ethelbert while Ethelbert was most powerful, he likely received high status gifts. Hroðgar gave Beowulf wrought gold, a mail shirt, a helmet and a gold standard for his deeds against Grendel. Redwald’s possessions included wrought gold, a chain mail shirt, helmet and shield of Scandinavian design, a sword and a standard. In turn, Beowulf paid these in tribute to the lord of his own people, Hygelac. Unlike Beowulf, Redwald did not need to pay tribute to a higher lord in his own lands. Beowulf gains power over the Geats, and after a long reign and victory over a dragon, requests a barrow to be built after his death that is visible from the waves. The poet of Beowulf then describes how the Geats constructed a barrow and placed within it torqs, jewels and other treasures. The great burial mound at Sutton Hoo is clearly a part of a shared tradition that can be found in Beowulf.
Additionally, much of the gift giving in Beowulf occurs in the context of the mead hall. Hroðgar as the hosts utilizes the feasts to reward his most loyal retainers and to thank Beowulf for his service in fighting Grendel. At one of these feasts Beowulf speaks about the cemented friendship between the Danes and the Geats. Clearly feasting in the mead hall plays an important role in internal as well as external relations between men. Beowulf pays his tribute to Hygelac when he returns home at a feast, granting his gifts from Hroðgar to him. In much the same way, the feasting goods at Sutton Hoo can be read as part of a world where the mead hall was the center of social interaction. Redwald was laid to rest with a vast supply of mead hall implements. Drinking horns made from post-glacial aurochs were bedecked with silver-gilt and were part of a Germanic drinking horn cultural complex (Care Evans 1997). The Maplewood bottles with silver fittings are more Celtic in decoration, but are essential vessel elements to any feast. Also located with Redwald were highly decorated cups and large serving bowls, like the containers depicted in Beowulf. A lyre was found on the side of the chamber that housed much of the high status regalia, suggesting that as a king, he hosted many feasts for his own vassals. Clearly, Redwald was a king of an early Anglo-Saxon tradition, where status was gained through giving and receiving gifts in tribute. These gifts were distributed at grand feasts within the mead hall, where the social fabric that made up the Germanic tribes thrived.
The historical context and archaeological remains presented show that Redwald was likely the king remembered through the great mound at Sutton Hoo. The duality of religion that is displayed in the material goods of Sutton Hoo reinforce what primary sources have said about Redwald’s religion. The ship burial and scepter are two major pagan elements that indicate one facet of that duality. Later kings of East Anglia converted to Christianity fully, and upon burial would not have been buried with so blatantly pagan goods, or with just two Christian spoons. As the Anglo-Saxon experience in England became more isolated from their continental Germanic heritage, they likely developed localized customs. When Redwald ruled, he was still a part of that earlier context, therefore his burial more closely resembles continental Germanic traditions like what can be found in Beowulf. The Sutton Hoo burial commemorates a great man in the history of Britain, and the physical artifacts and historical record left behind strongly suggest that it must be Redwald. The debate will surely continue, but without studying the two sources; archaeological and historical in conjunction, no conclusion can truly be drawn. One record fills where the other is short.
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