The “Dig” reminded me of something I started in 2019 and just left in my back pocket. I promise I’m not jumping on a bandwagon here. The “Dig” is about Sutton Hoo and those who excavated it and one of my favourite places is the surrounding landscape. Woodbridge, Orford and Rendlesham area. I have been spending time here for almost 10 years. My children have grown up going there. It wasn’t until 2019 that I visited the Sutton Hoo, which is surprising as I used to work for the National Trust and had been invited many times. I enjoyed it. It was fun and well designed. There were a lot of people enjoying the visitor centre and burial site with several mounds that contained Saxon nobility. The wonderful reconstruction of the iconic Sutton Hoo Helmet is, in my books, worth a visit in itself.
But, there is always one thing that frustrates me about visiting such sites. They never tell me what I want to know. I am a tricky customer though, and I always advise that you can’t tell people everything all the time. I do this sort of thing as a living. There is plenty of information and accounts about the site, the treasures found, the boat, the people and (pertinent now) the archaeologists who excavated in the late 1930s.
What I felt bereft of, was how did this fit into the landscape? These mounds were statements and communicated power across the surrounding countryside, similar to churches or pyramids even. They are not a quiet memorial to a beloved father; they are there to be seen. I was really interested in the context of this landscape. It is probably there in the exhibition to some extent, but you’d have to search for it. Then again, most people go for the visit, not to get under the skin of the landscape.
As a bit of background, the burials are from the Wuffingas dynasty, in particular King Rædwald, whose ship and helmet was excavated in the later 1930s. He was an early Saxon King, reigning in the area in the early 600s. In fact, from Wikkipedia, “from around 616, Rædwald was the most powerful of the English kings south of the River Humber.” That’s quite something. This was a time when such northern Germanic and Danish communities were beginning to flourish in the post-Roman Briton. The ship and grave goods alone tell us much about him. He was rich, powerful, an international king with networks across Europe and into the Mediterranean. Although The burials are Pagan in nature, this was a time when the Roman church was sending missionaries to Briton to convert the country back to Christianity. There is much to say that King Raedwald had his foot in both camps. It is believed he converted to Christianity, but was his first wife, we don’t know her name, was a Pagan. Supposedly, there were two alters in his church in Rendlesham, one Christian and one Pagan.
The burial mounds are on a brow of the hill over-looking a main route, the River Deben and right opposite Woodbridge. The River was an important route. Travelling south, it fed into the North Sea linking up with major trade routes than ran all over the then known world. Going upstream, it led to the Manor of the Wuffingas. Anyone travelling to the Manor, would have passed this point and the burial mounds. There was also a river crossing here, the first evidence for which is Roman. So a strategic location. How visible the mounds were to river traffic I do not know, but I would like to think there was a visual language between the river and the burials.
Today the river is wide and navigable, at least up to Woodbridge. It is very evocative with boats and structures slowly rotting in the mudflats either side. It is worth a walk.
The manor of King Rædwald has only recently been discovered on the other side of Rendlesham. It is not too far away. Today, all that is left is a church, fields running and a “manor house”. Looking at the area on a map, it makes perfect sense for a settlement to be there. Surveys of the fields have been carried out over the past few years, building foundations and a few finds were discovered. On the whole, this is generally accepted as the Wuffingas “Manor”. You can trace the boundary of it on a present-day map. It seems a crazy thing to say, but our present-day walls, hedges, roads and boundaries often follow those that were put down 2000 or so, years ago. You may not be looking at the original hedge that, say, King Rædwald also stared into, but the hedges have been managed, died, replaced and rebuilt time and again, over many, many years. It is the case of “Trigger’s Broom”. You can find this across the countryside, boundaries in towns and even objects.
These fields slope down to the River Deben, the river that that flows past Sutton Hoo. There must have been wharfs and jetties at this point. Places to land and moor boats, load, and unload goods, and drop off and pick-up VIPs to and from Europe. I am sure with a bit of investigation, those jetties would be found and possibly the original wood if the conditions have remained water-logged over the past 1500 years, which is likely.
Moving up to the brow of the hill, a survey of the field located underground building foundations. This included a large rectangular building, perhaps the manor house itself. Was this where the royal family live and held court? It would have been a big, impressive hall, the kind of hall that could be afforded by a sea-going Saxon king, with a finely decorated war helmet that accompanied him to his burial. It is on the brow of the hill, would have been a statement, and perhaps visible from the river, or at least becoming visible as one would have walked up the hill from the river to the hall.
All the excavated items around this building indicate it was a high-status area, with Byzantine coinage, buckles and even, my favourite, the bones of well-fed dogs. They were hunting dogs, rather than gluttonous. Hunting was a wealthy man’s pastime. This is all in the report (and well worth a read), New Light on Rendlesham, by Christopher Scull and Tom Williamson (link below).
At first, before I read the archaeological report, I had simply stumbled on this area because I wanted to look at the church. I hadn’t realised the area had anything to do with Rædwald or Sutton Hoo. On discovering it was, my first thoughts were that there would have been a great hall for the King, and that it was probably under the current manor house. This house is medieval, and why would there not be a continuity of the high-status building on the same site. But no, the evidence pinpoints the larger structure to the south of the present manor house and I’ll go with that.
Just behind this area is a present-day road, that runs from the north of this manor, past the house and to the church. As you enter the manor on this road from the north, you can almost feel the landscape change. I can imagine a gatehouse of some description, controlling access.
As it goes south, the road makes a bit of an awkward dog leg around the church. I wonder if the road has been re-routed and once it led more directly to the centre of the manor. We will never know that. The Church we see now, dates from the 14th century. This wasn’t the first church, there were previous structures and before Christianity, there was probably a pagan “temple” on the site, which is not unusual. Often the Christian church gets lambasted for capitalist style aggressive take-overs of existing pagan religions, imposing their churches on previous religious sites, thus brainwashing the locals into a transition to Christianity. That is a very 20th century view of this period. It was probably less black and white and, as I mentioned above, King Rædwald was probably politically and spiritually, balancing two religions at the same time. Thus, the two alters within one church. There is certainly a mixture of paganism and Christianity everywhere you look in this short period.
Something fascinating and linked to this mixture of paganism and Christianity is the name of the church, St Gregory the Great. St Gregory was Pope Gregory I, the bishop of Rome from 590 to his death in 604. And guess what? He is known for instigating the first recorded large-scale mission from Rome, the Gregorian Mission, to convert the then-pagan Anglo-Saxons in England to Christianity. That takes us back to this time, the early 600s, a time of old pagan gods and a new god mingling side by side. I’m not sure when the church was dedicated to St Gregory. That would be interesting to find out. The intangible connections make it perfectly plausible for there being a pagan place of worship on this site.
This was a major, high-status, international complex with a court and religious centre. It was important, powerful and appropriate for a potent early Saxon King. You can see the infrastructure in the present landscape, the field boundaries, ditches, river and buildings. And, I believe, the roads too. That road that runs along the top of the brow of the hill, from north of the manor, past the present manor house and doglegs around the church; it continues south as the A1152. It sweeps across the landscape, following the ridge of the hill. It ends abruptly, when the present road turns right to continues down to Woodbridge, towards that crossing point over the River Deben established by the Romans. But take a look at a map, and continue the road on its present course, across, what is there now, a golf course. In fact, there is a footpath that follows this route, a right of way that I am sure the golf club would rather not be there. A right of way that pre-existed the golf club I sure. Follow that path and it arcs westwards. Where does it lead to? The Sutton Hoo burial mounds. Not a direct route, it misses the centre of the burial site by a matter of tens of metres. The landscape has been obliterated by golf courses and intensive farming, so maybe something is missing. But I think the link is there.
As I keep saying, these features still exist in our landscape. We are surrounded by the past and we don’t always see it. As another thought, we focus a lot on Rædwald because four 20th Century history and discovery. What of the Wuffingas dynasty? For now though, I believe, this road must have been a processional route from the manor to the burial mounds, finally approaching it from the east, perhaps to view it with the sunset behind. The next job then, is to look at how the sun sets in relation to the burial site over the course of a year.
Scull, Christopher and Williamson Tom, New Light on Rendlesham, 2018, The Historian.
As always, Wikipedia tends to be a good starting point
St Gergory the Great – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Gregory_I
The Wuffingas – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuffingas
There is a plethora of material on the subject. You only need to Google the subject to find it. Here is a select few links.
Rendlesham Survey website – https://heritage.suffolk.gov.uk/rendlesham
Rendlesham in the Landscape with Tom Williamson – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRLCMZlVJUo
Dr Sam Newton’s Wuffings’ Website – http://wuffings.co.uk/