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

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