15 April, 2008

The Sutton Hoo Man: who was he?

In 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown and a team from the British Museum excavated a burial mound on the river cliff at Sutton Hoo in south-east Suffolk (location map). What they discovered was the richest early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) grave yet discovered in Britain, a magnificent unrobbed ship burial dating from the early seventh century. Whose grave was it?

(This post is in answer to a question raised by Steven Till in an earlier discussion on King Raedwald of the East Angles.)

The ship burial

The burial contained a full-sized wooden ship 90 feet long, recognisable by the positions of the rows of rivets that had held the planks together along the length of the hull. Amidships, roughly where the mast would have been, a wooden burial chamber had been constructed, containing a wooden coffin and furnished with magnificent grave goods, including:

  • a set of silver bowls and a silver dish from Byzantium, the dish dated to the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-518 AD);

  • gold and garnet jewellery of astonishingly skilled workmanship;

  • a purse containing 37 gold coins from Merovingian France, plus three blanks and two small gold ingots (see earlier post for more details);

  • war gear including decorated helmet, shield, spears and pattern-welded sword.

For a description and pictures of the site in general and the ship burial in particular, see Current Archaeology (the date in the headline is wildly wrong and is perhaps a mistake for ‘seventh century’). For more details of the magnificent regalia, see Sam Newton’s site.

No bones were found in the grave, but the acid sandy soil of the locality dissolves organic material, and there was a concentration of phosphorus (which comes from decaying bodies) in the soil under the coffin. So it seems highly probable that the ship burial originally contained a body.

The style of the grave goods indicates that they belong to the late sixth or early seventh century, and radiocarbon dating of two objects from the grave, lamp wax and a piece of timber, gave dates of AD 523 +/-45 and AD 656 +/-45 (Carver 1998). More precise dating depends on the coins. In 1960 a French coin expert identified the latest date of the coin group as AD 625, and on the basis of the gold content (which progressively declined over time as Frankish mints recycled the metal) the coins could all have been made by AD 613 (Carver 1998). This provides the earliest possible date for the burial, as the coins cannot possibly have been buried before they were made (!), but could have been buried at any time after.

There is no fixed latest possible date for the burial. However, once Christianity had taken firm root in East Anglia, one would expect the kings to be buried in churches, rather than in ships under mounds. So the ship burial would be consistent with a king who was either pagan or a recent convert.

The candidates

The Sutton Hoo ship burial is unparalleled in its magnificence (so far), so it clearly belonged to someone extremely important. The war gear suggests it was probably a man. The leader of the recent excavation, Martin Carver, argues that the value of grave goods might represent the ‘wergild’ (man-price) of the occupant. Wergild was the amount that had to be paid in compensation for an unlawful killing. Carver argues that the wergild for a nobleman was 480 oxen, roughly equivalent to 7 oz (200 g) of gold. The amount of gold in the ship burial is far, far higher than this – the great gold buckle alone weighs almost one pound – and therefore the occupant presumably ranked far higher than an ordinary nobleman. On this basis it seems logical to infer that he was right at the top of society, i.e. a king (Carver 1998). (The usual caveats apply, in that we do not know exactly what was meant by ‘king’ in early English society, or how many a kingdom had at any one time).

Sutton Hoo is in the territory of the kingdom of the East Angles, which in the seventh century roughly comprised the modern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. So, the Sutton Hoo Man is most likely to be found among the kings of the East Angles, some time after 613 or 625 when the coins were manufactured.

Thanks to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the genealogies recorded in the ‘Anglian collection’ manuscript in the British Museum, we actually have information about some of the members of the East Anglian royal dynasty. Here are the ones who died in the first half of the seventh century.

Bede tells us that Raedwald was the son of Tytila, that he won a great battle against Aethelferth of Northumbria in 617 AD, that he was baptised in Kent and then changed his mind and honoured both sets of gods, and that he was overlord of all the English south of the river Humber between Aethelbert of Kent (who died in AD 616) and Eadwine of Northumbria (Book II Ch.5, 12, 15). Bede doesn’t tell us when or how Raedwald died, but he was presumably dead by 627 when his son Eorpwald was king (Bede Book II Ch.15). His death date is usually placed around 625 or 626 (this is derived from the politics of Northumbria and is reasonably convincing, but complicated to go into here).

Eni appears in the Anglian Collection genealogy as a son of Tytila, which would make him a brother of Raedwald. Bede says he was the forefather of later East Anglian kings (see below) (Book III Ch. 18), but does not mention him as a king himself.

Raegenhere was Raedwald’s son and was killed in battle in 617 (Bede Book II Ch.12). Like Eni, he is not said to have been a king.

Eorpwald was the son of Raedwald and was king of East Anglia when he was baptised in AD 627. “Not long after this” he was killed by a pagan called Ricbert who ruled for three years (Bede Book II Ch.15).

All we know of Ricbert is that he was a pagan who killed Eorpwald soon after 627 and ruled for three years until he was succeeded by Sigebert (Bede Book II Ch.15). He does not appear in the Anglian Collection genealogy. We do not know how or when he died, or how Sigebert took the throne (though my money would be on Ricbert being killed by Sigebert in battle, somewhere in 630 or 631 based on a three-year reign for Ricbert beginning soon after Eorpwald’s baptism in 627).

Sigebert was the brother of Eorpwald and had been living in Merovingian Gaul during Eorpwald’s reign, where he had become a devout Christian. At some point before 635 Sigebert retired to a monastery and became a monk, handing over his kingdom to “his kinsman” Ecgric. When Penda of Mercia attacked East Anglia in 635, Ecgric insisted that Sigebert leave his monastery and join the royal army. Sigebert did so under protest but refused to carry any weapon, and both kings were duly killed in battle (Bede Book III Ch. 18). The twelfth-century chronicler Florence of Worcester says that Sigebert was Eorpwald’s half-brother on the mother’s side (If so, this raises the interesting question of how he had a claim to be king of the East Angles, if he wasn’t Raedwald’s son, but more on this in another post).

Bede says that Ecgric was the “kinsman” of Sigebert but doesn’t specify their relationship. It has been argued that Ecgric was actually the Aethelric son of Eni son of Tytila who appears in the Anglian Collection genealogy, but this is not proven. Ecgric ruled part of the kingdom during Sigebert’s reign, and then took over when Sigebert retired to a monastery some time before 635. He was killed in battle, along with Sigebert, by Penda of Mercia in 635 (Bede Book III Ch. 18).

Aethelric appears in the Anglian Collection genealogy as the son of Eni and father of Aldwulf. Bede does not mention him by name (unless, as some scholars have argued, he is the same individual as Ecgric. But why should Bede have got the name wrong?). Since he was the father of Aldwulf, he was presumably married to Hereswith, mother of Aldwulf. In which case he was presumably dead by about 647, since Hereswith was already a nun when Hild (St Hilda) considered joining her in around 647 (Bede Book IV Ch. 23). It wasn’t unknown for a royal marriage to be dissolved and the ex-wife become a nun (e.g. Aethelthryth, better known as St Etheldreda or St Audrey, divorced her husband King Ecgfrith so that she could become a nun [Bede Book IV Ch. 19], and Ecgfrith then married a second wife), but this was unusual, whereas it was common for royal widows to retire honourably to a monastery.

Anna was a devout Christian (Bede Book IV Ch. 19) and the son of Eni, brother of Raedwald. Bede says he became king after Sigebert and Ecgric were killed, and was killed by Penda of Mercia in his turn (Book III Ch.18). No date is given, but it must have been before Penda’s own death in 655.

Brother and successor of Anna, he was a Christian as he stood godfather when Swidhelm king of the East Saxons was baptised in 653 (Bede Book III Ch. 22). He had died before 655 when his brother Aethelhere was king.

Brother of Aethelwald and Anna, he was king by 655 when he was killed at the Battle of Winwaed (Bede Book III Ch.24).

Which king is the Sutton Hoo Man?

Anna, Aethelwald and Aethelhere are all unlikely because they were devout Christians and one would expect to find them buried in churchyards rather than in a ship burial. The same applies to their brother Aethelric, who was presumably a Christian like the rest of his brothers and certainly had a Christian wife. Similarly, one would expect Sigebert to have been interred in the monastery he was so reluctant to leave. Raegenhere, although presumably a pagan, was killed before his father and so is perhaps unlikely to have wielded the sort of power and influence that would justify such an exceptionally rich burial.

This leaves Raedwald, his brother Eni, his son and successor Eorpwald, plus Ecgric and Ricbert whose family connection is not known. All belong to approximately the right period. We know Ricbert was a pagan, that Eorpwald had only recently been converted, and that Raedwald’s conversion was skin-deep at best. Since Eni was of the same generation as Raedwald he presumably had a similar upbringing and may have shared his brother’s beliefs. Ecgric’s religion is unknown, but since he hauled Sigebert out of his monastery he presumably wasn’t all that devout a Christian.

Of these five royal East Angles, Raedwald is singled out by Bede as a king who wielded exceptional power and influence. Raedwald is the only king of the East Angles in Bede’s list of the kings who were overlords of all the English kingdoms south of the Humber. It would therefore be fitting if he also had a burial of exceptional magnificence. The Sutton Hoo ship burial fits him very well.

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.
Florence of Worcester, Chronicle. Full text searchable at Google Books.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Being a king in 7th century England wasn't the safest job, it seems. Most of them lasted about as long as a soccer coach during a bad season, only the coaches get fired and the kings got killed. :)

Bernita said...

Raedwald does seem the most likely.
I rather like the weirgeld idea to account for the coin.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Carla for posting this. Good info!

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, it evidently wasn't a job with much security :-)

Bernita - it's an interesting idea, isn't it?

Steven - glad you found it helpful.

Constance Brewer said...

Interesting stuff. Hey, the Egyptians took it all with them, why not other cultures? :)

Carla said...

Constance - it's interesting how some cultures go in for massive investment in funerary rites and others hardly any, isn't it?

Constance Brewer said...

I think our culture (America) gives short shift to funerary rites...