3.1 The Sutton Hoo King


In May 1939, in the shadow of impeding war, Edith Pretty comissioned local archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the largest of a series of mounds on her land – at Sutton Hoo. What they found has become part of England’s foundation story. Marie Hilder talks about the 7th century King they found buried there.


Do go and visit Marie’s Anglo-Saxon History and Language on Facebook – there’s always something interesting to read there

Image: is from the site Rethinking the Future, where there is a yremendous article about Sutton Hoo

Do have a look at What the Sutton Hoo Ship company are doing to recreate Rædwald’s ship.



Hello everyone, and welcome to series Three of the Anglo Saxon England podcast – The Sutton Hoo King. I do not have a name for Series three, because it does not have a theme really; I think I mentioned that the end of series two, Land, Lordship and People, that I intend to publish things into the podcast as and when the mood takes me.

To kick us off, I am very lucky to have a podcast from Marie Hilder. It will sound awfully like me – but is in fact a devilish trick, because the words are in fact written by Marie – I am only speaking them.

I need to tell you who what and why. Well, for many years Marie has curated a fantastic Facebook group I’ve absolutely loved, called ‘Anglo-Saxon History and Language’. I love the group because there are loads of really excellent and interesting posts, many of them from Marie, and the people of the group also have interesting contributions to make. So I asked Marie if she wouldn’t consider putting some of the really fascinating posts into podcast form, because I am absolutely convinced you lot would love them. And so here we are, with an episode from Marie. And may I urge you all to join the Anglo-Saxon History and Language group if you are on FB; I’ll remind you at the end, and put a link into the episode post.

So, what does Marie have for you today? I shall start with a personal anecdote. I had never done much about the Anglo Saxons at school – or not that I can remember, though there must have a been a smidge of Alfred because I do know about cakes. So when I studied them in the first year of University I was blown away by the world I met. And part of that was the story of the 7th century warlord buried at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, and I was amazed by the utter beauty of the artefacts found there – especially the gold and garnet clasp.

So I went to the British Museum, which is a place I have always hated because there is just so much and as soon as I cross the threshold I feel exhausted and head for tea and a bun and then go home because unaccountably my feet hurt. So this time instead I went just to see the Sutton Hoo treasures – and nowt else. They were as magnificent as I could imagine, and it was my best ever trip to the British Museum. I have since then  followed that example – if I ever go to the BM, I got to see a few specific rooms.

So this then is the story of the Sutton Hoo burial, as written by Marie of the Anglo-Saxon History and Language Facebook site. We know much more about the wider landscape of Sutton Hoo and its hinterland now than we used to; we know just how substantial was the royal tribute centre at Rendlesham, which started to grow from about 570, and would thrive until about the 730s. The burial site at Sutton Hoo was intimately linked to Rendlesham, since for about 50 of those years it was where their elite went to be buried. So, over the Marie to tell you all about Sutton Hoo.



In many history books, AD 410 marks the traditional end of Roman Britain. Not in the west of the island where the upper class spent the rest of the 5th-Century laying new mosaic floors in their villas, drinking imported wine from the Mediterranean, and using Latin in memorials to their dead.

It was a different story on the other side of the island, which saw substantial migration from mainland northern Europe. These Germanic-speaking settlers came in sufficient numbers to change the gene pool of eastern Britain and this side of Britain is, not surprisingly, where we find the first Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The early Anglo-Saxons were frontier folk with the North Sea between them and their ancestral homelands.  Nor were the settlers wrong to worry about the native Britons pushing them back into the North Sea.  ‘English’ dominance of lowland Britain only became a certainty after 634, when the Northumbrians overthrew the leading power on the island, Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd (North Wales).   The Anglo-Saxons had a word for the locals – Wealas, which meant anyone whose ancestors had been citizens of the former Roman Empire (and became an ethnic label for the inhabitants of Wales in the 9th Century).

In the middle of the 6th-Century, this mutual hostility found an outlet in a faraway war between Romans and Goths for the control of Italy.   The Britons identified with the Romans, represented by the eastern ‘Byzantine’ rump of the empire ruled from Constantinople and the Anglo-Saxon kings showed solidarity with the Goths, the enemies of the Romans by naming their sons after heroic figures from Gothic history. King Wuffa of the East Angles for example named his son Tytil, after Totila the doomed king of the Goths of Italy and the leading celebrity of the Germanic world at the time. Wuffa and his son were eventually buried in the royal cemetery on a prominent ridge overlooking the the tidal estuary of the River Deben in Suffolk: this is Sutton Hoo. With the coming of Christianity, these heathen burials were left to their ghosts; the cemetery was used as a place of judicial execution in the later Anglo-Saxon period and Tudor grave robbers chased rumours of buried gold.  At least 18 of the graves were marked by large mounds but only one of them kept its secrets into the 20th Century when landowner Edith Pretty commissioned local man Basil Brown to dig on what was now her land. Brown excavated Sutton Hoo in summer 1938 and returned in May 1939 to dig the largest mound on site. Days later, he uncovered the ghostly shadow of a great ship, still anchored to the ground by its rusty nails and rivets.

Once it became clear that this was no ordinary find, a team from Cambridge University was brought in to handle the rest of the dig. There’s no conclusive proof, but this is thought to be the grave of Wuffa’s grandson, King Rædwald of the East Angles. The burial is dated to about 625 on the basis of 37 gold coins, the latest of them issued in Frankish Gaul in the 620s. These coins are a neat fit for the timeline of Rædwald’s life which straddled the 6th and 7th centuries and witnessed one of the pivotal moments in English history: the arrival of a papal-sponsored mission from Rome with the express aim of converting the heathen Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

The Venerable Bede picks up the story. The missionaries were welcomed by Æthelbert of Kent and his Frankish-born queen Bertha. Æthelbert was the most powerful king in lowland Britain and when he accepted baptism, lesser kings had to follow, including Rædwald of the East Angles who submitted to baptism at the Kentish court in about 604. Rædwald would have been rewarded with magnificent gifts, and these may have included the antique silver platter and pair of silver spoons that were discovered in 1939 at Sutton Hoo; because they carried Christian symbols – one of them was engraved in Greek letters with the name of the apostle Paul and the other with Paul’s birth name of Saul.

However … Rædwald returned to his royal hall at Rendlesham. We know more that Rendlesham now, since in 2022, archaeologists working here discovered the foundations of a timber building measuring 23 m long by 10m wide which may be Rædwald’s hall [editor’s note – please see the Editor’s, um I mean David’s, I mean my episode, in the History of England podcast about Rendlesham, posted in January 2024. Back to Marie ).  The king’s changed allegiances sparked fierce debate in his inner circle, with his wife, whose name we do not know, leading the opposition to the new faith. According to Bede, king Rædwald decided to hedge his bets by

“serving both Christ and the gods whom he had previously served; in the same temple he had the one altar for Christian sacrifice and another small altar on which to offer victims to devils”.

Bede is here contrasting the Christian sacrifice of bread and wine at Mass with the pagan sacrifice of cattle and oxen, for which there is both written and archaeological evidence.

As king, Rædwald would surely have presided over the ceremonies that so offended Bede, and more –  can it be coincidence that an axe-hammer,  heavy enough to smash the skull of an ox, was placed in his coffin when he died?

Rædwald may have practised his pick and mix version of Christianity until 616 when his Christian overlord Æthelbert of Kent died and Bede reports a general backlash against the missionaries from Rome. This was possibly led by Rædwald who the leading power in southern Britain now, and free to return to his ancestral gods if he hadn’t already done so.

That same year, Rædwald cemented his position by killing the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king in the north, Æthelfrith of Northumbria.  Bede, writing more than a hundred years later, reduced this conflict to a clash of royal egos over the fate of Edwin, an exiled prince of Northumbria. Bede could not hide his distaste for Rædwald whom he viewed as an apostate, but Edwin was one of his history heroes and it’s only thanks to Rædwald’s patronage at this early stage of his career, that Edwin lived long enough to bring Christianity to Bede’s native home.


King Rædwald enjoyed his supremacy for the next decade. When he died, his family stage-managed a memorable funeral at Sutton Hoo. He was buried in a ship as long as three London buses (27 metres long by 4.5 metres wide, or 88.5 by 15 feet wide).  This had to be dragged 30.5 metres (100 feet) uphill, from the River Deben to the royal cemetery and then lowered into a huge sunken pit.

A wooden chamber on board ship was crammed with treasure to showcase the royal family’s wealth. There was everything the king needed for feasting on a royal scale – a giant cauldron with a chain long enough to hang from the roof of a hall 5 metres (16’4”) high, drinking horns, silverware, a bowl from Egypt, tiny cups of polished walnut wood, and a lyre in a bag lined with beaver fur. There was exquisitely made jewellery including a gold belt buckle worth a king’s ransom, and a beautifully decorated purse holding enough gold to pay 40 oarsmen; which was perhaps the number of men required to row the king’s ship. All this represented only a faction of the royal family’s wealth, and their willingness to part with it spoke volumes about their confidence in the future.

The king’s insignia were also brought on board the ship that would convey him to the afterlife. This included a whetstone to remind the mourners of Rædwald’s authority over his warriors. A blunt weapon was useless if it wasn’t sharpened regularly, and the royal whetstone was a reminder that power belonged to the man who could, quite literally, give his people the edge in battle. The Sutton Hoo whetstone is a particularly intriguing example because both ends of it are decorated with human heads. One of these faces has a concave left eye to give the impression of an eye that’s been carefully removed. This is no accident and is also found in Scandinavia, where it’s a clear reference to the one-eyed god more familiar to us under his Norse name of Odin but also known as Woden to the heathen Anglo-Saxons. The Kings of the East Angles claimed Woden as their ancestor. It seems the man behind the Sutton Hoo helmet went further and presented himself as the earthly representative of the one-eyed god: the illusion depended on the clever use of gold foil around the eye holes of the helmet face mask; viewed by firelight, one eye gleamed with life while the other stayed in shadow.

Just as his grandfather’s generation sided with Goths in order to put space between themselves and the Romanised Britons, Rædwald had toyed with Roman Christianity and decided his natural habitat was in a North Sea world that was still resolutely pagan.

The helmet was in 500 fragments when it was discovered in 1939.  Basil Brown’s excavation of the ship drew great praise, but the fragile condition of the helmet and other finds vindicated the decision to hand the excavation of the burial chamber to Charles Phillips and a team from the University of Cambridge.

As the finds were sorted that summer of 1939, it became clear that one thing was missing… a body. The sandy soil at Sutton Hoo is acidic and doesn’t lend itself to bone preservation. Any traces of human remains were missed in the haste to finish work before the outbreak of world war.  There is a rumour that Mrs Pretty’s chauffeur retrieved unspecified fragments from the site, which she then sent for private testing. The results suggested the presence of an embalmed body – crushed into oblivion when the burial chamber collapsed under the weight of the mound – but war, and Mrs Pretty’s own death in 1942 prevented the news from gaining traction and the samples were lost.

A recent academic paper by Valerie Fenwick thinks there’s something to the embalming theory. We know that the bodies of contemporary Frankish royalty were embalmed, because a mummified lung is all that survives of the 6th-Century Queen Aregund in Paris.  In 2016, scientists identified fragments of black organic material from the original excavation at Sutton Hoo. This turned out to be bitumen from Syria, a high-status product used in ancient times for preserving the bodies of the dead. These fragments of bitumen were found near strips of cloth which was suggestive to say the least. One plausible explanation is that the royal corpse was plastered with a bitumen mix and wrapped in linen to slow down decomposition while the burial ship was prepared to receive the body. Valerie Fenwick wonders if the plan was to dress him one last time in his battle finery and then place him on a waiting bed. In the words of Theodoric the Great, a Gothic King of Italy,

“Let them at least say “How splendid he looks in death’ if they have not had the chance to admire me fighting”.

Unfortunately, the plan came to nothing. When the king’s coffin was taken on board, and his body unwrapped in the privacy of the chamber, the onlookers  were assailed by the sight and smell of a decomposing body. The embalming had failed, and the coffin was hastily resealed. This scenario helps to explain some of the more puzzling features of the Sutton Hoo burial – the discarded linen bandages and tell-tale bits of bitumen dropped on the floor; a bucket of water, brought on board to wash the body and abandoned when the burial party fled the ship. It also explains the haphazard placement of some of the grave goods:  clothes, leather shoes and bedding were dumped; drinking horns, cups and silverware piled up because there was no longer space to display them as planned; the king’s precious coat of mail folded and placed on the floor along with his sword; and his spectacular gold and garnet shoulder clasps – worn as symbols of office in the Byzantine world – placed on the coffin.

The burial party left in a hurry, the chamber was sealed, and a great mound of earth raised over the ship to blot it from view.  In the words of the Old English poet who gave us Beowulf:

‘They buried rings and brooches in the barrow …

…  bequeathed the gleaming gold, treasure of men,

To the earth, and there it still remains,

As useless to men as it was before”.

The acidic soil consumed the king’s bones and the timbers of the ship rotted away to leave a ghostly shadow for Basil Brown to find in 1939, when the ‘treasure of men’ returned to the world of the living.

On 14 August, just weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, local jury men had to decide who owned the treasure in King Rædwald’s inevitable absence – and he was already being touted as the leading candidate for the burial.  For Mrs Pretty to be the rightful owner, the inquest needed proof the treasure was buried in public and with no intention of recovering it later. In the absence of living witnesses, ‘Beowulf’ was called in evidence and the court listened to passages of this Old English poem, this being the closest they could get to the motives behind a royal ship burial in the deep past.

‘Beowulf’ helped swing the judgement in Mrs Pretty’s favour, and she was judged the legal owner of the finds on the grounds that she was both the owner of the site and the person who authorised. and initially paid for the dig.

“ASinc eaðe mæg, gold on grunde, gumcynnes gehwone oferhigian

… Treasure, gold in earth, may easily overwhelm any of the human race”


says a piece of Old English wisdom – in other words, greed often gets the better of us. Edith Pretty proved the doom-sayers wrong because she immediately presented the Sutton Hoo finds to the British Museum to be held in trust for the nation.

This was not only a remarkable act of generosity from a remarkable woman. It was also a heroic gesture in the tradition of kings such as Rædwald, men who were celebrated in their own time as the guardians of hoards and the givers of gold.



Thank you Marie. I hope you all enjoyed that. I really did, Iearned so much; it’s brilliant to hear the words from voices of the same world as Raedwald – Bede and Beowulf  – and the modern story too; I loved the piece about using Beowulf to prove Edith Pretty’s ownership! And, how the helmet face mask emulated the one-eyed God – fascinating.

I wanted to add a few words, nothing terribly historical. I am writing this in June 2024, ahead of the History of England Tour in September and we are going to visit Sutton Hoo. So Jane and I went to see the site; and I was very very nervous that it would not live up to expectations. Both because I want the tour to be a riproaring success. But also because it has become I think a site that is important beyond its strict historical significance. I may be out on a limb here, but the story of Sutton Hoo is part of England’s foundation story, a start of a narrative that becomes distinctively English. Rædwald was one of our earliest Old English ancestors and his story is part of where England comes from. It’s made unique not only by the treasures, but also by the way it was discovered, and the time of its discovery, coming as it did just before the start of an existential crisis in the Second World war.

Well, I may be getting too emotional, but I am glad to say I loved the site, should you ever be tempted to go. The biggest single thing was being able to walk the route of Rædwald’s last journey, up the hill from the river Deben, and that was emotional. You could get a good view of the burial site from a tower they have built, and then there’s a pretty new heritage centre that’s been built. That did exactly what I hoped it would do – it has replicated the treasures found on the site so that you can see them as they would have been. I can’t guarantee anything but I loved it. Plus there’s Edith Pretty house, and momentos of Basil Brown and the modern story.

Couple more things; do catch the film, The Dig, which does a very good job in general. And you might want to catch up on the Sutton Hoo Ship company; That’s rather exciting, because they are trying to rebuild Rædwald’s ship. It’s at https://saxonship.org/ and I’ll put up a link on the website.

So that’s it. Thank you very much Marie, and everyone remember to check out the Anglo Saxon History and Language facebook site and join in! Thanks for listening everyone, good luck, and have a great week.




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