06 January, 2008

History meme – King Raedwald of the East Angles

Gabriele tagged me for this meme, which requires the player to list seven weird, obscure or random facts about a historical character. I did Eadwine of Deira and Northumbria in a variant of this meme this time last year, so this one is about his ally King Raedwald of the East Angles (flourished around 610s-620s).

1. Raedwald maintained a shrine containing altars to the English heathen gods and to the Christian god. Bede, as a good orthodox churchman, disapproved thoroughly, but as the shrine was still standing two generations after Raedwald’s time, presumably at least some of the East Anglian notables didn’t object to Raedwald’s attempt to hedge his bets.
(Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II Ch. 15)

2. Raedwald took his queen’s advice on both religious and foreign policy. He was baptised as a Christian in Kent, but on his return home his wife and advisors persuaded him to revert to his old faith (Bede, Book II Ch.15). In 616 or 617, he accepted a bribe or yielded to a threat and agreed to murder Eadwine of Deira, who at the time was living in exile at Raedwald’s court as his guest. Raedwald’s queen persuaded him to change his mind, telling him it was “unworthy in a great king to sell his best friend for gold, and worse still to sacrifice his royal honour, the most valuable of all possessions, for love of money.” (Bede Book II Ch. 13).

3. If Raedwald was the king buried in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo (the identification is not certain, but he is one of the most likely candidates), he kept a pet with a small bell on its collar, and the collar and bell (with or without the pet) was buried with him (Carver, p. 126-127).

4. If Raedwald was the Sutton Hoo man, he was buried with a remarkable ceremonial whetstone or sceptre. It was made of stone from the hills of Southern Scotland, and is paralleled by similar sceptre/whetstones found in Llandudno (Gwynedd, North Wales), Portsoy (Banff, Scotland), Collin (Dumfriesshire, Scotland), and Hough-on-the-Hill (Lincolnshire) (Laing and Laing 2001, p 103-104). Who says the small kingdoms of the seventh century were isolated from each other?

5. Raedwald’s family may have had dynastic connections with the family of Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen in the epic poem Beowulf, according to an intriguing hypothesis advanced by Sam Newton. The hypothesis suggests that Wealhtheow’s family, the Helmings, may also have been called Wylfings, and that Wylfings may be an alternative form of the name of Raedwald’s dynasty, the Wuffings.

6. Raedwald was Bretwalda, overlord of all the English kingdoms south of the Humber, some time in the first or second decades of the seventh century (Bede Book II Ch. 5). Since he was allied with Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria, Raedwald would also have had some (it's not known how much) political influence north of the Humber after 617, and thus he may have been the first English king to exercise some form of authority both North and South of the Humber.

7. The kings of East Anglia had a royal hall at Rendlesham (Rendil’s House) (Bede Book III Ch. 22), which is near the coast in south-east Suffolk and only a few miles from the Sutton Hoo burial site (location map here). Given the popularity of alliteration among royal English dynasties, it may be that Rendil was closely related to Raedwald, and the hall may also have been Raedwald’s royal residence. Is Raedwald’s hall under the modern village, waiting to be discovered by archaeology?

In theory I'm supposed to tag seven people, but I don't like tagging, so I'll just invite anyone who would like to join in!

Edited: in answer to queries, the rules can be found here.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Carver, M. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN 0-7141-0591-0.
Laing L, Laing J. The Picts and the Scots. Sutton, 2001, ISBN 0-7509-2873-5.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Thanks for playing.

I like his way of making sure to cover all religions, just in case ... :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Fascinating, Carla! Especially love the bit about the collar and bell. I'll have a go at this meme myself in the next day or two. ;)

Constance Brewer said...

"he kept a pet with a small bell on its collar"

Goat, rat, kitty cat? *g* See, those are the things that makes history interesting. rampant speculation.

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, you can see the logic, can't you? Given what a dangerous job it was to be King in early medieval society, he could do with all the help he could get :-)

Alianore - It's rather a sweet image, isn't it? The whole ship burial is full of things like that, as well as the more famous regalia. I'll look forward to seeing who you choose!

Constance - Good question. Bones don't survive at all in the acid soil, so there are no remains to tell us if there was an animal associated with the bell or what it was. You could probably make some plausible guesses from the size of the bell, but unfortunately Martin Carver's book doesn't specify the size and there's no scale on the drawing. It'll be in the British Museum catalogue entry and/or the detailed excavation report no doubt, but I haven't got that. The most obvious pet for an early medieval king is a dog, perhaps a retired hunting hound, but individual eccentricities don't always follow the obvious. It can be a goat if you like :-)

Constance Brewer said...

Weasel. I vote weasel. *g*

Carla said...

Fair enough. He must have been quite a guy if he managed to domesticate a weasel :-)

Bernita said...

No doubt it's just the connection with Beowulf, but I immediately transliterated "Rendil" to "Grendel."

Carla said...

Bernita - Last time I looked it up, Rendil was suggested to be related to the word for shield (same element as in names like Randolph and Ranulf), or possibly to a word that meant something like 'little shore', which might have been appropriate if the original settlement was nearer the river. Haven't seen a connection made with Grendel before.

Anonymous said...


Interesting read. What's the likelihood that Raedwald was actually the Sutton Hoo man? Who are other candidates? Do you have any archived posts you wrote on Sutton Hoo that I could read?

Carla said...

Steven - the other candidates are the other kings of East Anglia at about the right period, ie in the first half or so of the seventh century. Because there's no inscription saying "Here Lies X", it's a matter of interpretation. It isn't certain that the cemetery is a royal one, although as the wealth of the grave goods is so high, if the people buried there weren't royal they were certainly very rich and high-status individals, so unless we find an even richer cemetery elsewhere it seems likely they were at the top of society, i.e. kings. A key point is the dating, which relies on the Frankish coins in the burial. Sutton Hoo is a huge topic, so it won't fit into a single post, but I'll see what I can do.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I've also added your blog to my blogroll on my site. Take care!

Carla said...

Steven - many thanks! I'll see if I can organise a post on the other candidates in the reasonably near future.