Excavations in Suffolk near Sutton Hoo have revealed fascinating news about the royal centre at Rendlesham, active from 570 to 730 ish. There’s that – and news of a new Anglo Saxon series for you all
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Here’s that Great Hall picture I promised
The Suffolk Explorer Website is choc full of great information on wh9ch this episode is largely based. If you are interested in the excavations at Rendlesham -0 go and have a look and fill up your boots! Here’s a nice brief introductory on to get you started.
Hello everyone and welcome to the History of England and a special episode. I am going to take you back to 6th century Suffolk, and tell you all about the discoveries that have been made at a place called Rendlesham. Why you might ask am I selling you such a dramatic dummy from the English Revolution? Well there are two reasons. Firstly, Rendlesham is a royal site long known to have been associated with Sutton Hoo, the discoveries have told us a lot about the Early Anglo Saxons and 7th and 8th century England. So it’s exciting basically and I thought you’d like to know!
And secondly to tell you about a new series I am publishing into that old podcast feed of mine you may have forgotten – the Anglo Saxon England Podcast. I am doing a series called The Anglo Saxons – Land, Lordship and People. It’s all about how Anglo Saxon society worked, it’s history from the bottom up, the lives of the ceorls and thegns, how their landscape shapes their live and how they shape it. I love that because you can see their imprint everywhere to this day. We go all the way through from early 5th century days to the 11th century and ask -how far did society really change when the Normans happened? Anyway, head to the history of England .co.uk to find out more, or search for Anglo Saxon England Podcast with a blue logo.
So I’m, going to talk briefly about what has been found at Rendlesham, why the place existed and the kind of Lordship and society it reflected.
There have been excavations going on at Rendlesham from as far back as 2007. At one level, Rendlesham is just a small village in South East Suffolk, on the River Deben; this is the same river on which lives its much more famous cousin, Sutton Hoo.
People have always known there was something going on in the general area, because it gets a mench from the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History.
It comes up in a story which tells us quite a lot about the atmosphere of the conversion period – as Christians tried to convince the Anglo Saxons to move from their ancient Gods, to follow Christ.
Bede always has an eye on that as the big story – hence the title of his tract of course.
So, he was telling the story of the King of the East Saxons, a dynasty that proudly traced their ancestry back to King Sledd of the 6th century. The current incumbent King Sigebert had been a very naughty boy in the battle between paganism and Christianity around 650. Because the Christians had converted Saeward his predecessor, so the Essex box had been ticked, or so they thought.
No such luck. Sigebert had apostatised, he’d backslided. His pagan kinsman had talked him room and he’d gone back to the old ways, the old Gods, and taken his people with him. Not the sort of thing calculated to get you into Bede’s good books. The seventh century was slap bang in the middle of the conversion period, and local rulers and strong men took their people in and out of the tub of Christianity like a piece of dirty cheesecloth on an old washboard.
So Bede’s story was all about bigging up one of his great heroes, the mighty Northumbrian Bishop Cedd. Cedd was a great evangelist, and King Sigebert of Essex came to see the King Oswy of Northumbria, he was bowled over by the glory and magnificence of his mighty king of the leading Anglo Saxon Kingdom of his day. Bishop Cedd had done his stuff – and Sigebert was duly convinced, and baptized. Cedd was something of a muscular Christian, so with thundering authority, he excommunicated Sigebert’s pagan kinsmen. As far as Cedd was concerned, they were now outside the law and church. Outcasts. Not to be communed with.
As a recent, Sigebert had rather failed to take all tis huffing and puffing with due solemnity. So he’d gone round for supper with his old kinsmen, why not blood is thicker than even holy water after all. Unfortunately Cedd found out. Well, priests those days were not the sort of shy, sensitive and emotional types they are now; Cedd stormed over to see him, let rip and prophesied dire retribution
this very house will be the place of your death
Which was socially awkward. And worse from Sigebert point of view, also true. Because said Kinsmen decided to murder friendly old Sigebert, take the throne, and take the East Saxons peoples back to the other side, to the bikkies of paganism.
I noodle – just wanted to give you the flavour of your early Bishop – full of the power of the lord and such and in a fight to the death with the pagan Gods. The point of all this that eventually Sigebert was succeeded by one king Swithelm – we are now around the year 655. Once more, Cedd got his hooks in, did the conversion job. To overawe Swithelm, he enlisted the help of a much more powerful king – from next door East Anglia, of the Wuffinga dynasty, now also Christian. Swithelm was duly baptised under the eye of the powerful east Anglian King, at their grandest Royal Hall – a place called, you guessed it, Rendlesham, somewhere between 655 and 663.
So there you go – a pretty typical story of how ecclesiastical and secular Christians worked together to win the battle with paganism, and convert the people through their leaders. So since then, people knew Rendlesham had been a thing. But not much more than that.
But in the 1980s and 90s it became what I believe is known in the trade as a productive site; field walkers found lots of bits of pottery, and lots of stuff was found by nighthawks – as I now know illegal metal detectorists are called from the annals of the DMDC, the Danebury Metal Detecting Club. The County Archaeological Society got involved and over 10 years found and catalogued 250,000 objects some of which were not ring pulls , and in fact 5,000 of them were 5th to 8th century, which sounds amazing. So – there was definitely something down there.
Over the next few years geophysical and arial surveys were done, and digs started with over 400 local volunteers helping and working to sift and sort the objects; last year in 2022 the remains of the great hall were found and peoples’ heads started exploding. The whole thing has been a collaboration between all sorts of organisations, academics, institutes, universities, county councils, landowners, famers local, even the The Antiquisearchers. If you don’t know the DMDC by the way, I strongly advise you look up the Detectorists on the Beeb, a seriously good comedy with McKenzie Crooks and Toby Young.
So what did they find? Well in a way they found what they expected – but what they expected plus. Rendlesham was a royal tribute centre; but its scale exceeded their expectations, this was big seriously big. The whole thing may have been over 120 acres, with a core royal compound of about 15 acres. In the blogs on the subject, the writers concentrate on sizes expressed in terms of football pitches. So that’s about 8 football pitches. Does that help? Anyway the point is that it is something like 10 times bigger than any other centre so far found, places like Yeavering in Northumbria, Drayton in Oxfordshire or Lyminge in Kent. This makes it look exceptional. Maybe more exciting is the prospect that with further research elsewhere, it might yet be found instead to be typical. That sounds a bit obscure of me, sorry for that, what I mean is that the excavations might lead to more work elsewhere that shows there are more Rendleshams and that these royal centres are more advanced and complex than we thought.
We are talking here right at the start of the Anglo Saxon age; Rendlesham started coming into its own around 570, and will last up to the 730s before it starts to decline and lose its relevance as society changes. East Anglia seems to have been one of the earliest areas of Anglo Saxon settlement. The word royal centre in these earliest days is really a misnomer, because the kind of political units that are established are very small regions, called regio, or scirs. Areas of connected social and economic interaction,, tribal areas; in this case maybe covering the river Deben catchment area. Here farms become established, and although all farms were based on subsistence, producing a bit of everything to feed the family, some farms might be on land better adapted to arable or pasture for cattle or whatever, and focus a bit on that. So over the whole connected area or the scir, most things you needed would be produced. It had a sort of political and economic integrity.
It is a time of warrior culture, the warbands that came with their people to settle. There might be hierarchies in the farms and farmers but all were basically free men and women in a society with an emerging hierarchy; Free except the substantial numbers of slaves of course. So the warriors that were more successful, that acquired the greater land, enriched and attracted more followers, were essentially first among equals, but their wealth allowed them to put on a greater display, perform a leadership role. Mini kings you might say, petty kings, who founded dynasties.
The Wuffingas were the people that followed one of these families, the descendants of the mythical Wuffa, around the River Deben and Rendlesham. And during the time of Rendlesham’s pomp , in the early 7th century, the greatest of the Wuffingas come to power and establishes his control over a much wider area than the little river Deben. He genuinely was a king, and controlled a territory all the way westwards to Ely, the Fens and a larger part of the future great kingdom of East Anglia. Rædwald was his name, and Bede would name him more than a king of East Anglia – he would name him a Bretwalda, with supremacy over all the kings of the English. Close by Rendlesham were the burial centres of the Wuffinga dynasty, at Snape – and at Sutton Hoo. And the best bet is that it’s Rædwald who was famously discovered by Basil Brown and Edith Petty.
Anglo Saxon society was based at the time around age old concepts of the honour and respect due between free people – of different rank maybe, but all due dignity and respect, based on shared values. Elite like Rædwald had established their status through leadership and conquest, and gathered around them a household, and gained the commendation or homage of other members of their community, their followers. They travelled around the lands of the people who gave them allegiance, pressing the flesh, listening to advice, making judgements to maintain law and order and resolve disputes. Keeping the Lord’s peace.
As they travelled from place to place, the king, Queen and their household had the right to demand hospitality. It was this right that became, in practice a regular tribute, so that when they came into town, all the produce and goods from the areas were there ready for them to use.
It was never a rent or a tax connected to landholding; after all most of these peasants, the ceorls held land of their own and their family’s right, not from the hands of the king like later feudal days . They might be very small landowners compared to the likes of Rædwald, but they were independent landowners nonetheless. Nor was it seen as a tax; this was formally hospitality, feely given. Now of course, in effect this was indeed a way of the elites appropriating wealth from lower status Anglo Saxons. The concept of hospitality effectively legitimised something that looked darned similar to tax, but the concept is important.
Because this hospitality or tribute was reciprocal, and that’s important. In these days, they couldn’t just pick it up and go, or collect and spend. In return for this tribute, elite like Rædwald had a job to do. They would put on feasts and entertainment, the peasant families would all come in from their farms. They would deliver assemblies to consult with their people, and administer judgements to resolve disputes. Lords like Rædwald had responsibilities to protect and preserve the communities that supported them, and tribute was given as a mark of dignity, with honour due on both sides, the giver and the receiver.
Not that the farmers found giving this tribute easy. This is very much a subsistence economy, most people struggled to just produce enough to eat. Farms varied in size – some would have been quite big, peasants called gebours with a bit of their own land owing work to the farm like tiny estates; others would have barely been able to produce enough to live and would face starvation in bad years without the help of their community. But the tribute would have been progressive in the sense that no one would be asked to give more than they could; society was based on the principle that every individual in the community, irrespective of age and status, had an entitlement to subsistence. So the elite of Rendlesham would have collective very small amounts from a lot of farmers, rather than a lot from a few if you see what I mean. Tribute was taking from the king’s people a nip here and a tuck there, because otherwise it would be something other than hospitality.
The kind of render due was therefore established by custom, which would slowly begin become codified – the laws of King Ine of Wessex for example, which would be issued in 694, laid down what was required from 10 hides of land for example. A hide, you might remember, is a unit of land required to feed one family for a year. Ine is close to 100 years later than Rædwald, but slap bang in the middle of the period when Rendlesham flourished as a tribute centre.
The excavations at Rendlesham have collected vast numbers of objects and developed an understanding of the layout, so here are a few things picked up from the very lovely blog run by Suffolk County Council; I’ll put links on the episode page, there are well written shortish articles, with then longer You tube videos. You can watch those should you wish to know more about, just for example, why the filigree work on the sword pommels was surprisingly shoddy despite the use of good high quality materials – I don’t think there’s an answer to that one though, just a question!
One exciting thing then was the discovery of the big 15 acre royal centre and hall that the heart of the complex. They have reconstructed pictures of the great hall at the centre of that bit, a big, hipped roof thing – again have a look at the website. The hall was about 25 metres by 11, that’s 85 foot by 35 sort of thing, so it’s biiiggg. The thought is that this would not have been alone, there would have been other great halls around in the complex – they normally come in groups; but the others have not yet been found at Rendlesham, so for the moment that’s guesswork.
The excavations of the Great hall also seem to have found bits of what could have been plaster, so not only would the beams and woodwork have been ornately carved, but the whole thing might have been painted as well. Very dramatic, very lordly, very stand out high status. And that would figure; one of the things about the society of the time, which would become increasingly so, is the importance of dignity, honour, display of rank. You needed at least some land, but that was not the whole story of status; to be part of the elite you had to look it, talk it and walk it as well. Ooh, and wear it. And Probably smell it. You get the idea.
Such major centres have parallels in the north Atlantic world such as Gudme in Denmark and Uppåkra in Sweden, where there are also centres of small regional kingdoms. The cultural connections of the Wuffingas have been identified in the past as part of this North Atlantic world. Some of the goods found at Sutton Hoo and Rendlesham have founded a number of theories about their origins. One is that the Wuffingas come from Eastern Sweden; another is that they came from the same people of the poem Beowulf, the Danish Geats, fleeing their conquest by a Swedish dynasty.
Another little wrinkle is the existence of ornaments in something sexily called Style II, so called because Archaeologists too can be wild, unconstrained and wonderful publicists as well as serious scientists. Style II copies an elite style from Lombardy and Burgundy, so firmly outside the area. Robin Fleming suggest this means that Rædwald’s elite household was subtly suggesting they were a bit different, that Wuffa and his descendants came from a conquering, elite, powerful and special family, born to leadership. And the idea of foreign invasion and conquest was very much a part of the Anglo Saxon self-image and historiography, it was part of their foundation story, just as the Anglo Saxons, and the associated words, are an integral part of the English foundation story. Which is why it can be a touchy subject.
Another exciting thing about the excavations are that they suggest the presence of a Roman temple, and there are hints it may have been a late Roman administrative and tax-collection centre; there are hints too that it kept going through the collapse of the Roman state and the chaos of the fifth century. That plays to a couple of stories. To the idea that many of these new Anglo Saxon elites took over existing Roman administrative area, and that the regio or scirs were based on them. That’s always been recognised in some areas, such as Lincolnshire or Lindsey, but more and more recognised elsewhere also; think that Susan Oosthuizen has uncovered a lot of commonality between pre-Roman boundaries and Anglo Saxon ones around Fenlands. And it does make sense does it not; whether you are an invader or whether, as Oosthuizen suggest, you are just the same old people who have changed your culture. The other story it plays to is that the collapse of the Roman state in 410 was not quite as dramatic as it seems. I mean – it was dramatic, the economic impact was deep and severe. But civilisation and society doesn’t collapse. Although it does in a national sense. But society keeps going – just the other day it was reported that a 5th century mosaic has been found at Chedworth, showing that people kept things going. And smaller states and political structures emerge, Gildas’ tyrants like, you know, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vortigern. Our Geoff obviously being a 100% reliable historian and all that.
Like other similar English centres, Rendlesham is two things – a central permanent craft centre, as well as the mainly temporary central elite household bit, though there might be a reeve who stayed there to organise stuff. Because the thing is that Rendlesham was not permanently occupied by the elite household. Supporting such a household would strain the resources of a tiny scir like the Deben Valley, and so they moved on; and anyway that’s not the way lordship worked in those days. You didn’t rule by paper and charter you ruled by being there, looking in the eyes, pressing the flesh, slapping the shoulder. So the household of Wuffinga’s dynasty moved constantly.
So when they turned up, Rendlesham was transformed with temporary structures and tents soring up like colourful mushrooms. A lot of horse ornaments have been found, and a horse adorned with a harness decorated with gold mounts was an expression of wealth and status, so there’d be a lot of that when the elite were in town; though also worth noting that butchery marks have been found on horse bones, so it seems horses were eaten too, and you know, waste not want not and all that.
When the household was in town, its presence would have attracted fairs and markets, with merchants and traders visiting from all over Europe. They’ve found items from the Mediterranean, and a range of Byzantine coinage showing far-reaching trade links in expensive and luxury items. The coinage finds at Rendlesham are interesting; about 30 early gold coins and more than 200 early silver pennies have been found, and there’s a sort of chronology going on. Early high quality gold coins were made on the continent, and have a ‘Pseudo-Imperial’ style, imitating the imperial coin of the Byzantine empire; there are twenty-five Merovingian gold coins – the Merovingians being the dynasty in France at the time, and being French, much posher, richer and more cultured of course. Though worse bread.
Then in the 7th century locally struck coins begin to appear in greater numbers as England begins to produce its own coinage; and a smaller silver penny begins to be used for many more transactions. And then there’s a final stage from about 730, where the coins that appear are much lower quality, with ever greater copper alloy content. And this coincides with the decline of Rendlesham as a centre.
While the royal household was in town, then, all this fuss and bother of markets and fairs would have been going on. A centre piece would very much be the assembly of the people, and delivery of justice; the ceorls and thegns and other groups of society, would have crowded into the hall; excluding the slaves of course. Slaves were very much different, very clearly identified, set apart by their absence of legal rights rather than the more nebulous makers of rank and status we have been talking about. For the free, though, there would have been feasting – you can’t have a good old great hall and get together without feasting, what would Uhtred say? Excavation suggests lavish consumption of meat during feasting, with people mostly eating beef and pork, with some mutton and lamb.
While they were there, hunting would have been the thing – hunting was ever the love of all especially the elite, but also even the most down-on-their-luck ceorl. There’d have been hunting of deer, falconry and wild fowling. One of the other lovely things they have done during the excavations is send mud and stuff away for analysis – Geoarchaeology I am told it is called, understanding what the environment was like in the past. Soil samples are analysed for plant remains, pollen, insect and mollusc remains, and sediment, and it can be radiocarbon dated too.
The river Deben of course has been changed a lot, it’s more like a canal now. From the analysis at Cambridge University, they found three old channels of the river, and found that the main channel began to silt up from the late Roman period; this suggest that when Rendlesham was in its prime, the river was too shallow to be navigable by large ships beyond the head of the estuary 2 ½ miles away, which is interesting and rather counter intuitive. So visitors and sellers would have arrived on horseback and foot.
Lime, ash and beech grew close to old channel, and in the wider area mixed deciduous woodland with oak and hazel, with alder by the wetter fringes. In the river valley, it was wet grass and sedge fen, good for hunting. Willow grew on the drier fringes. Over time with human intervention, the floodplain developed into grassland meadows and land clearance brough the intensification of arable agriculture. So you start to get the growing of wheat, barley, and oat close by.
OK, so when all the assemblies and fairs and hunting were done – and all the food was eaten and the latrines overflowing – the royal household moved on and the place grew quieter. But Rendlesham did not disappear. The centre would probably have a semi permanent royal official, a Reeve, as mentioned. And it looks as though Rendlesham supported a permanent community of maybe 100-200 people. These were craftspeople working both precious metal and bronze; evidence has been found also of antler and bone working, and the production of pottery too.
They ate bread and porridge, and wild fruit. They kept cattle, sheep and pigs for meat and dairy products. Sheep were kept also for wool and of course excavations have found lots of objects connected with weaving – spindle whorls, made of wood, ceramic or bone, clay weights which were used on a loom to tension the threads – self sufficiency was the rule in Anglo Saxon England.
From the 8th century things change though, Rendlesham is less used and visited, and by the 730s its glory days are over. There are many reasons for this. One is very much local; 15 miles down the road, the Tractor Boys and Girls are arriving. Well, I mean they don’t have tractors yet – but they will do, believe you me. For the moment though it is pottery; Ipswich becomes a major centre, based on producing cheap pottery which is used very widely in England and sold internationally. It could also be the early growth of more permanent royal centres as the dynasty of the Wuffingas grows and the kingdom of East Anglia begins to be a better defined and more closely managed thing, and smaller communities and scirs like the Deben valley become subsumed into the bigger entity. As we see from the fascinating document called the Tribal hidage, the same process goes on with tribal groups such as the Gywre in the fenlands, as the East Anglian dynasty becomes recognisably royal, proper kings rather than just mini pretend ones.
So the glory days were over. They had lasted quite a long time by the standards of other royal centres, maybe 150 years or so; by comparison, the days of the nearby Sutton Hoo and Snape burial centres were shorter, focussed in the middle 50 years. Rendlesham reduced in size, the coinage record as I say reduced in quality, and it becomes just like a normal farming community. Slowly everything gets covered up and farmed over, and just Bede’s off hand comment remains to suggest that once upon a time Rendlesham was something special. Until the farmer and nighthawks over a thousand years later notice that there are an unusual number of interesting bits and bobs turning up around there, and people decide to have a look. And here we are.
Do go along to the Suffolk Heritage Explorer website, where you can see a load of links; I have put the link and some pics on the episode post.
Right we are, there’s my shedcast short for Rendlesham, I hope you liked it. Watch out for the wheels of the Anglo Saxon England free podcast starting to grind again, with a screeching of wheels as the Anglo Saxons series appears, Land Lordship and People. At this very moment, there is an introductory episodes available, which tells you all about the new series. If you are a member, you may have listened to much of the series before, when it was called Life and Landscape in Anglo Saxon England, but I ended up tweaking quite a bit here and there especially after the first episode, and who knows you might not have listened to it since it came out in 2019, so here’s your chance.
Do come along everyone to the History of England.o.uk, or to the home page for the new LLP series at https://thehistoryofengland.co.uk/podcasts/anglo-saxon-england
I hope to see you there, and whether or not I do, do let me know what you think, or make suggestions for extra episodes on website or email or Facebook group – good luck and have a great week.
 Yorke, B; ’Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo Saxon England’, p61
 Fleming, R: ‘Britain after Rome’, pp99-100