Woden or Christ?


Back with Rædwald and the Wuffings again! This time: the tickly question of religion…  Woden or Christ – which way was East Anglia going to fall?  It isn’t as cut and dried as you might think…

Rædwald’s other great claim to fame, aside for his alleged occupation of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, is his double altar at his temple at Rendlesham.  Rædwald is hedging his bets.  He has a Christian altar – that new, exciting religion that was about to whip through Anglo Saxon Britain like wildfire, but was so far just a minority sect, and something that those pesky native Britains do.  He also has another altar – probably to his own ancestor, Woden, and maybe other gods as well – on which sacrifices were made.  Perhaps Rædwald thought he had covered all the angles (boom, boom), ensuring that he was still fine with the old gods, but nonetheless not ruling out the possibility that this new religion might be the right one.

Bede, who records this in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, doesn’t think that Rædwald is doing himself any favours.  Bede considers Rædwald to be apostate – that is that he has wilfully turned away from the True Faith and from Christ.  He is thus worse than those who have not yet been exposed to the new faith.  Bede is not impressed, ‘This King Redwald was a man of noble descent but ignoble in his actions.’[1]

The cause of Rædwald’s apostacy was his wife.  Unlike Rædwald’s friend Edwin, who he assists in becoming King of Northumbria, who is persuaded to Christianity in part by his wife, Rædwald’s wife is an old school heathen who lures him back to the old worship.  Who was Rædwald’s wife?  It has been argued that she might have been an East Saxon, the next door kingdom, because of the close links between the royal families for the next century.

How devout was Rædwald?  Having not one but two altars might make him sound devout – but Bede is of course focusing on religious life.  Rædwald may have been devout – but he was also a politician.  He is baptised probably around the same time as his brother king, Sæberht of the East Saxons.  Bede mentions that both go to Kent to be baptised by the new mission there, which was allowed by the current Bretwalda, at least of southern Britain, the king of Kent, Æthelberht who had also recently converted.  This would have been in the early years of the 7th century.  So for a short time it looked as if Christianity was taking over southern Britain.  Kent, Essex and East Anglia were all notionally Christian.

But in 616 Sæberht dies, and the country reverts to paganism.  Æthelberht dies the same year, and because of various shenanigans concerning the new king Eadbald and his marriage to his father’s wife (his stepmother) to ensure, in the old pagan fashion, the fertility of the land, the church reacts in a bad way and the bishops Mellitus and Justus skip across to France to sit out the political and religious storm.  We know that Rædwald is persuaded to revert to his old faith – while still keeping the flame of Christianity alive.  In 616 he has the only royal Christian altar in all the Saxon kingdoms!

This was a wobble – soon Christianity was re-established in Kent, and starts to gather pace.  But what was going on elsewhere in East Anglia while Rædwald kept his two altars?  There may have been British believers still left in East Anglia in the early 7th century – the named Beccles may suggest a place of a Roman church, an Ecclesia, just as the place name Eccles also does – in the case of Beccles, possibly Beata Ecclesia.  But the British are silent in this land from this point on.  A vague whisper of a monster at Iken when St Botolph arrives suggests British desperate to keep the incoming monks away from their fastness to Norman Scarfe[2], and St Guthlac at Crowland in the Fens also hears the sounds of devils – were these also disenfranchised British as Colgrave suggests[3]?

But the man who was buried in Mound 1 was treated in death a pagan through and through.  He goes to the afterlife in a ship with all the riches and finery of his life around him.  No expense is spared to ensure he has a grand entry to the world of feasting and fighting that would make up an afterlife not dissimilar to the life he had on earth.  The metalwork found on his body hints at the story and ritual world he must have been immersed in – the boars on the shoulder clasps, the serpents on the buckle, the birds and quadrupeds that hint at more than we can ever know.  There are hints that the man buried there was aware of the Christian world – he has an Irish hanging bowl with a fish at the bottom.  A Christian reference?  The fish may be a Christian symbol here – but it might not, it might simply be swimming in the liquid these bowls were meant to contain, just a surprise at the bottom! Then there are the spoons – amazing how a theory can hang on so little a thing!  These two silver spoons look like they are marked Paulos and Saulos – Paul and Saul.  Are they a baptismal gift relating to St Paul’s conversion from nasty Christian persecutor (and tent maker – always good to have something on the side, eh?) to Christian zealot (and tent maker, just in case, eh?) given by – who knows? Æthelberht of Kent as his godfather?  Or are they, as is more likely, simply a gift from a Frankish noble or king to another king?  And is the Saulos simply a mistake of the engraver – should they both say Paulos?

Was this the burial the semi-Christian Rædwald would have wanted? More than likely – it honours the traditions of the ancestors, which we know were important to him, and it asserts his power beyond the grave by the high burial mound there on the river, visible to all who passed by and showing the might and wealth of the Wuffing line. Time would have to wait a little way for kings to realise what Christianity could for them…

[1] Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English People (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 133

[2] Scarfe, Norman “St Botolph, The Iken Cross, and the Coming of East Anglian Christianity”, Suffolk in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1986), pp. 39-51 

[3] Stevenson, Jane “Cristianity in Sixth- and Seventh-Century Southumbria”, in Martin Carver (ed.) The Age of Sutton Hoo: The Seventh Century in North-Western Europe (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1992), p. 177

The lost village and abbey of Minsmere

Minsmere chapel 2

When you think of Minsmere, your mind probably turns towards the flagship RSPB reverse that nestles within the woodland and reedbeds south of Dunwich and Westleton. That’s Minsmere today: a bustling place full of birdwatchers and families and walkers – and the wildlife they have all come to see. The Minsmere New Cut stops you from going too far into the marshes to the south, however, unless you are walking the coast path. Beyond that there is a bit of marshland where few people venture, even though it’s still part of the reserve. And that’s where you’ll find the chapel. The chapel of the bells.

From inland there’s a direct path to the beach. Going from Eastbridge, you can walk out very easily to the rather sad looking ruin. My Mum and I did this one warm day in 2012, after being frustrated in getting a coffee at the RSPB reverse café by time and then picking our way along a rather small road that isn’t very advertised but does run from the reserve to Eastbridge! Unfortified by coffee, we hared out along the path to the coast and back again so that we could be in time for a much more important thing – lunch at the Eel’s Foot pub back in Eastbridge with our menfolk who had not joined us on the walk. The path doesn’t actually go to the chapel (and I wouldn’t ever suggest that you trespassed, of course!) but it’s easy enough to see from it. The building, at first glance, doesn’t even look very ancient – there’s an undeniably concrete structure right in the middle of it. Closer inspection shows this to be a WWI pillbox, one of many, many that are found along this stretch of coast, but offering a little more shelter than most.

Minsmere chapel 1

As your eye gets in, though, you realise that this is an ancient building, and moreover that it is an ecclesiastical one. Most of the larger stones have gone, leaving only the rubble construction behind, but you can see a little buttress here, and the round shape of a Romanesque arch there. A chapel! Then you look around and you wonder why. There’s nothing to see. It’s pretty wild out there, and there is a good mile and a half or so to get back to Eastbridge. Well, never mind, Rendlesham church isn’t very close to the modern settlement, placed as it may be to serve an Anglo Saxon settlement long gone. But this is slightly different.

Minsmere chapel was never a parish church. It was built here to be a desert place for a small group of religious men. The little religious settlement was founded by Ranulf de Glanville in 1182, one of two that this important Suffolk nobleman founded late in life. Ranulf was the Chief Justiciar of England in the last years of the reign of Henry II, and the king’s right hand man, effectively the regent when Henry wasn’t here (most of the time!) The new community was a Premonstratensian community – the White Canons. This was a French order similar to the Cistercians, but canons, ordained priests, who preach and serve in the community, not only in their religious house. I’m carefully not saying monastery – because not being monks, canons don’t live in a monastery! The other one was Butley Priory, which was an Augustinian house, the Black Canons. Not much survives of that, either! Though for different reasons.

The real equivalent to Butley Priory is Leiston Abbey, because just under two centuries later in 1363 the abbey moved to Leiston. It really did move as well – parts of Leiston Abbey are made up of building stone that comes from the Minsmere site – in this area, good building stone was too good to abandon! Only the chapel was left, the canons perhaps unwilling to disturb the house of God. Why did they go? Flooding is the most likely answer, but it’s possible that there was sickness as well – malaria is a possibility, as a recent study of Anglo Saxon populations shows that anaemia without malnutrition was more common in the same coastal and wetland regions as it was in the post-medieval period when we know malaria was definitely here.

It is possible that the church was maintain and a cleric from the abbey was based there throughout the Middle Ages. There may, of course, have been a tunnel to the chapel – Leiston Abbey is well known for its tunnels, which run to the Greyfriars in Dunwich and to Framlingham Castle, they say. So why not to lonely Minsmere as well?

The wild marshland and pasture around the little abandoned chapel doesn’t suggest that anything else was going on except that little religious house. However, areas that look wild now are often discovered to be hotbeds of activity in centuries past. It’s in the Domesday Book, belonging to Roger Bigod, with four free men, and a plough, and a sheriff by the name of Northmann. By 1237 it was described as a port, but when you stand on the empty beach this is hard to imagine. Hard to imagine that is until you remember the little village up the road. Dunwich today is a single street, a church and a few other houses. Everyone knows that in the Middle Ages it was one of the largest ports in England – but then, over the centuries, it was washed away by the sea. The village of Minsmere is gone forever, the people who lived moving perhaps to Eastbridge, or to Theberton where the parish church was.

More recently the coastline had to be guarded. In Tudor times there was some kind of possible artillery fort there against foreign invaders, just like the pillboxes of the Second World War, but in the intervening period a different type of invader had to be patrolled against – smugglers, of course! There was a windpump there from the 19th century: when the marshes were drained for agricultural use – you can even see it at the Museum of East Anglian Working Life in Stowmarket, as it was rescued when it collapsed in 1977. There was even a café and a couple of cottages on the beach by the sluice up to the Second World War, but these were evacuated, used as target practice and then pulled down. The Leiston-cum-Sizewell Newsletter of Autumn 2013 gives details with pictures on pages 15-16.

Minsmere chapel 3

Now the holiday makers are back, and Sizewell’s gleaming white domes the only threatening things to be seen on the horizon. I recommend the walk down to the beach, and the lunch at the Eel’s Foot, too! Just remember, if you should happen to discover a little bell on the site of the old chapel, just leave it well alone!

This blogpost relates to The Bells of Minsmere, story eight in Suffolk Folk Tales.

All images © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012



A Note on Beowulf

This is the greatest poem of the Anglo Saxon corpus of poetry, and was written down in its current form around the year 1000, a long time after Bede wrote his history, and even longer after the supposed 6th century date of the actual events. The content of the poem is probably based on orally transmitted stories – yep, storytelling! – and was written down at some point in the early Christain period.  Whether the poem was composed orally and then written down, or whether it was composed as a written poem from older sources is a source for debate.  It doesn’t matter – whichever way, it is an extremely powerful work, and gives a glimpse into the mindsets of this distant world. 

If you haven’t read it, I would strongly recommend that you do so: not only is it an important poem, but also a gripping story.  The eponymous hero saves the day through his strength and cunning when an unholy monster and his mother threaten the security of Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot.  Ironically, the hall itself is eventually destroyed by fire during the struggles for kingship that follow Beowulf’s intervention.  The story then jumps to Beowulf, now a king, in his old age, and his battle with a dragon.  The language is powerful and raw, and themes cover far more emotional ground than the bare bones of the story suggest.

I was lucky enough to learn Anglo Saxon whilst doing my Medieval Studies MA, and this allowed me (just about!) to read Beowulf in the original language – a swift learning curve, I can tell you, and a galling one, too.  Anglo Saxon is closer to modern German or Dutch than it is to modern English, so the German and Dutch speaking students on the course swiftly pulled ahead of us native English speakers – ah well, at least it illustrated for us the shared culture that dates back to these very times!  I wouldn’t expect that you would want to tackle the original, but there are many translations and retellings out there.  A quick flip onto Amazon shows me the latest retelling by Seamus Heaney from 2009, and the recently released translation by Tolkien.  I confess I have read neither!  But whichever translation you chose, you will be delving deep into the English subconscious. 

The story, however, does seem to have its roots in the reality of 6th century Denmark, and the characters appear in a number of Scandinavian sagas as well as in the English poem Widsith – including mention of Hrothgar and Hrothulf, and their war with Ingeld.  These sagas tend to be more focused on the ordinary wars between the various peoples of Denmark, rather than the fascination with monsters that makes Beowulf such a compelling read.

A Puff on Wuffings


A few months ago it was announced that Rædwald’s home had been found – exactly where it should be, at Rendlesham.   It is always remarkable when archaeology follows ancient sources, especially when those ancient sources postdate the actual events by a good century.  Perhaps the dig at Rendlesham hasn’t revealed a new Mycenae or Troy, but just like the discovery of those once thought to be legendary places, it adds credence to the stories of Rædwald and Edwin.  Of course, we know these people existed as there was no reason for Bede to make people up in his history, just as we have no reason to invent Charles Darwin or Queen Victoria – and Edwin’s palace at Yeavering was found 65 years ago by aerial photography.  But did Rædwald actually have anything to do with the village found at Rendlesham?  Was this where the events recounted in Bede where Edwin takes refuge with the East Anglian king and is oh-so-nearly betrayed?  Is this the place where Rædwald had his shrine to the Christian God and to ‘devils’ – probably Woden, from whom his family, the Wuffingas, claimed descent?

Bede doesn’t say so – what a spoilsport!  Bede talks of Rædwald’s royal vill, but not of Rendlesham.  That comes later, when the mission of Cedd is taking place that results in the conversion of the East Saxon (Essex) king Swidhelm in the mid 7th century, about 40 years after Rædwald died.  But the newly discovered settlement does date back to the early 7th century, when Raedwald was king.  It is also close to St Gregory’s church, long thought to be the site of Rædwald’s famous altars, and to the all important river Deben that would have linked the settlement rapidly with the outside world – and also links the settlement to the burial grounds at Sutton Hoo.  I’m a storyteller – so I would like to believe that this was Rædwald’s home.

It’s probably fair to say that these days Rædwald tends to get more press than most of the early Anglo Saxon kings, even outside of East Anglia.  He is helped by ‘his’ costly burial and also by the high profile visitor attraction that is Sutton Hoo these days.  But in East Anglia in the Wuffings have been well and truly embraced.  From the Eastern Angles production in 1997 to the Wuffings Studio project in Bury, to Wuffings Wood near Flixton to even a twenty20 side the name is used with pride.

Who were the Wuffings?  No – they aren’t people volunteering on organic farms … that’s woofing.  Don’t even think about dogging…  Dr Sam Newton’s site http://www.wuffings.co.uk/ gives full details of the family and reveals the exciting link with the poem Beowulf.  We know a fair bit of what the East Anglians thought about their royal heritage through royal kinglists, that trace the kings back to the first person in the line.  The first East Anglian king was Wehha, followed by the eponymous Wuffa, but before that, back in the old country, we discover a Hrothmund – the same name as the younger of Hrothgar’s sons in Beowulf.  In the poem, the two sons are still boys, even though Hrothgar is an old man.  Could the East Anglian royal family be related to the Danish king?  Was Rædwald a descendent of Hrothgar – and with Rædwald all the East Anglian kings up to Edmund?

After Beowulf had gone home to his own land, the land of the Geats, we learn that there is civil war in Hrothgar’s kingdom between the king and his son-in-law Ingeld.   The old king and his nephew Hrothulf (Rolf!) defeat Ingeld, but shortly after Hrothgar dies.  As Hrothulf is an adult, he takes the throne – but what happens to Hrothgar’s young sons?  Hrethric is killed – but Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s widow, and her younger son escape.  Sam Newton in his book The Origins of Beowulf: And the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, 2004, explores this potential relationship in great detail, and suggests that not only did the East Anglian kings believe they were descended from this Danish royal line, but also that Beowulf may have been composed in East Anglia.

It’s a glamorous notion – the young exiled prince fleeing with his mother and a group of trusted men and possibly women and children, and maybe crossing the North Sea to the place where everyone was going – Britain.  There may have been a struggle to establish rule, or maybe there was a settlement on the other side of the sea as Hrothmund’s ‘grandson’ Wehha, the ‘father’ of Wuffa, is considered to be first king of East Anglia[1].

Were these real people?  We can never know, but the fact that Hrothulf and co. are mentioned not only in Beowulf but in many Scandinavian sagas suggests that they might well be based on real people.  Going back a bit further in the king list we get to someone who definitely was a real person – but definitely wasn’t related in any way to Rædwald!  The name Caser is used – we know him better as Julius Caesar.  Now, Caesar didn’t have any children with Danish women that we know of, but that wouldn’t be important to the compilers of the kinglists.  Rather, making a link to the Roman Empire implies that the Wuffings have a right to rule, and have imperial ambitions – as shown by Rædwald becoming the Bretwalda, or overlord, of the Anglo Saxons.  It shows too the way that these Christianised Anglo Saxons looked outside their own indigenous culture to the wider world.

But the East Anglian kinglist ends with the usual suspect – Woden, the head god of the Saxon pantheon.  We know him better as the Scandinavian version, Odin, but they are much the same.  Most of the kinglists we have (Essex is the most striking example) end with or include Woden.  Wessex goes further – all the way back to Adam.  Rather needlessly, one suspects, as we are all descended from him in the Christian view of the world, but definitely thorough!

This then is Rædwald’s background – descended from kings, emperors (well, almost) and gods, he is declared as fit to rule by his ancestry, and his continued veneration of Woden in his temple is a form of ancestor worship that would be difficult to give up in a still pagan society that recognises his kingship through his descent from the god.   If St Gregory’s is indeed the site the of Rædwald’s temple, then it makes a lot of sense to place it there both from the usual Christian point of view of supplanting the heathen idol with the ‘true’ god but also from the point of view of authority and lineage – by worshiping Christ in the same place that the ancestor Woden was venerated the East Anglian kings might be saying that there is a link between Christ and Woden, and thus a link between them and Christ, reinforcing their authority to rule.  One hopes that there are more discoveries to made so that slowly we can join up our own fantasies about the kingship of Rædwald’s time with the reality of what lies beneath the ground at our feet.

Image © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2013

[1] I’m using the inverted commas as we don’t truly know what relationship these men were to each other – early medieval kingship isn’t nearly as easy to follow as the later rule of primogeniture, and may rest rather on suitability – such as being an adult! – and suitability than on direct descent from the previous king.

Sutton Hoo Part 1: the Importance of Place


How important is the place to the story?  With local folk tales, it can be everything.  Just as in the Australian Dreamtime where locations are mapped and explained through the stories, so in folk tales the place often dictates the story, and the story gives the place a distinctness that once known, can’t be forgotten.  Can you pass the place where Black Toby was killed without a shudder?  I know I can’t, now – which is a shame as it is very close to where my parents live, on the A12 near Blythburgh.  I can’t see Orford Castle now without thinking of the Merman.  And Sutton Hoo – well, the very name conjures up another era, of warriors and gold, of monsters and heroes, of poetry and silent ships slicing along the Deben.  Does the place match up?  And can you now experience the story of the place – and the story of Rædwald, King of East Anglia and Bretwalda of all the Anglo-Saxons – in the landscape?

The first time I went to Sutton Hoo I lost a button.  I was really cheesed off – I loved that coat, and it had good buttons with fake Roman emperor heads on them.  It was Christmastime, and in my memory the mounds were dusted with a light sprinkling of snow.  My friend ran up and down the mounds.  I didn’t.  I was sulking about the lost button.  This was in the days before the visitor centre and the tours, the café and costumed warriors.  There was, if I recall it correctly, only the mounds and a signboard.  Thrills.

But I should have been more thrilled. I had just finished an MA in Medieval Studies: the Early Medieval World 400-1100.  My friend was in the throes of her dphil, also about early Medieval stuff (pesky Vikings), having also done said MA.  Not only that, but I had had a truly thrilling Sutton Hoo experience whilst doing my masters.  Our tutor had been one of the main players in the dig at the site in the 80s, and when he arranged a trip to London to the British Museum he made sure we were given very preferential treatment.  I work in a museum now – I now realise just how preferential this was.

Our little group, all studying Anglo Saxon Art and Archaeology, were invited into a room with a large table on which were shown various pieces of the famous Sutton Hoo treasure.  One of the shoulder clasps was passed around, and I got to put the pin into the loops to join the two halves together.  You have to be very impressed that I managed to type that without putting it in capitals.  It was amazing.  A really key moment in my life, up there with seeing the Grand Canyon, living in Venice, the bliss of swimming in the sea in Greece and standing in MoMA surrounded by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Sunflowers, I and the Village and The Sleeping Gypsy. The jewels are stunning in a display case – but how much more beautiful when held in your hand so you can see the perfection of the cloisonné and the delicacy of the filigree work on the pin?  The sense of connection I felt with both the goldsmith and with the wearer was one of the most intense I have ever felt – the chance to handle the real thing.  Walter Pater talks of objects have an ‘aura’, and having worked in museums for over two decades now, I believe strongly that that is true – but often you need both the story and the object to get that numinous feeling of connection.  William Wordsworth’s pen without Wordsworth is just a pen.  But these ancient things stir you even without a named owner – but you need that hint of story, a story imparted by the boars and the knotwork and the gold of the shoulder clasps, and by our knowledge of Norse gods and Beowulf.

But what about the place now?  These two trips just described took place in the mid-1990s. Sutton Hoo now is a much more exciting experience.  Of course – it is now an ‘experience’ and thus you have to pay, but my feeling is, that in this case, it’s worth it.  I don’t always think that – I still don’t think they have things quite right at Stonehenge.  Unlike Stonehenge and Newgrange, the mounds are a quick walk from the visitor centre.  Hardly anyone visited before.  I was in my early 20s before I first went, and I didn’t go back until after the visitor centre was built.  Mum and I proved how quick a walk it was on one of the field trips for the book, as it was bloody freezing when we went, so a route march around the mounds taking record shots was undertaken, pretty much alone as the biting wind and spitty rain assailed us.  Hey ho – not one of my most exciting trips, though atmospheric!  Too atmospheric…


I really like the visitor centre.   The temporary displays – well not so much!  Come on British Museum – lend some of the good stuff!  Oh no – you can’t can you? – you’ve slapped it all into your shiny but sadly rather dull display in London.  I love that you can walk right into the replica burial chamber and see all the things laid out.  It’s interactive in the best way – it puts you in the story in your imagination.  But, no longer can you go out onto the mounds to conjure up the spirits of the dead into a procession of warriors carrying the body of their beloved king up the hill from the river and across the graveyard to the ship that has been prepared to take him to the next world, there to either feast with his fellows  in Valhalla or, possibly, go to singing the praises of the Lord for eternity.

I should have been more alert when I visited with my friend back in the 90s.  Because now, like at Stonehenge, like at Newgrange, your visit is a managed experience with interpretation and guided tours giving you the received wisdom on the site.  But half of the pleasure of going on field trips for this project – as well as the previous ones over in the west – is using the imagination to conjure the scene for yourself while stripping back the centuries to try to reveal how the landscape looked when the story took place.  At Sutton Hoo now it is more difficult to tell the story to yourself, and for many people that’s fine as they wanted to gain information about the site and the people who are – were – buried there.  But it’s difficult to experience the unique atmosphere of this estuarine hillside, shrouded by tall trees when you are listening to a guide.  Difficult too to fully experience the site without the guide as you can no longer get onto the mounds without one…

Some of the most magical field trips for this project were in forgotten places – a snowbound wood next to Pin Mill’s Butt and Oyster, searching for dragons on a hot hillside, poking about the farm near my old home in Layham, exploring a hidden Ipswich.  But I’m lucky – I went with information and knowledge already locked in my head.  And I know Rædwald well – I’m both a historian and a storyteller.  Guides and interpretation are good – just let us have the personal experiences as well.

Images © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012