Tag Archives: National Trust

Sutton Hoo, where Raedwald lies

Image of Raedwald of Sutton Hoo

Raedwald of Sutton Hoo - his spirt lives on by the Deben's side at Sutton Hoo.

In times past, when Europe was non-existent and geography was plotted by knowledge rather than maps, Saxon kings moved from place to place by coastal navigation slowly. I should know: I stood on Albion’s shores and watched the raiders come as, indeed, I had seen the Romans before them. Silent rowers, etched in black on silvery waters, moving ever closer to the shore as we watched them from among the gorse and bracken.

Suffolk, named by the Saxons for the South Folk, stands testament to their legacy. As indeed does the whole of eastern England: East Anglia, the home of the East Angles. Here, in this place lay sleeping Raedwald, King of the East Angles; at peace at Sutton Hoo. Let me tell you more…

Today a brooding hough, spur or hoo on the sandlings by the Deben, the mounds at Sutton Hoo once stood proud like temples in the heathland there. When I stand and look now at the shallow ploughed out tumps in the wintry evening light, it fills me with sorrow to think that here, once, great kings imposed themselves on the landscape through death. And before death, of course, life… Life indeed!

Thirteen hundred years ago, the Deben estuary was a different place to now. Not so much a sheltered berth for yachtsmen, tourists and wealthy wives; instead one of the key routes into the East Anglian hinterland from the sea. Picture yourself, reader, arriving from Scandinavia and following the coast of Albion; the Deben, like the Orwell and others beckoned weary sailors to shelter from the dangerous murky sweep of the German Ocean, the great North Sea.

And here it was, all those centuries ago that the people we now called Saxons came to settle, eventually building a magisterial palace at Rendlesham nearby – a palace described by some I knew as “healaerna maest” – the most fabulous of all buildings. East Anglia, as I recall it, was a power base for the early English in these parts: a rich farming land yet with easy communication with friends in distant lands.

This quiet place, far adrift from the heart of England, was the home too of Raedwald, King of the East Angles, a man I remember well. I can see him now in his splendour on the mead bench, distributing rings and gifts to his favoured thanes. In the darkness of the night, he shone by the fire, bedecked in gold and garnets.

His wealth was beyond compare, matchless in these lands; he employed the finest craftsmen to make things for him which even today are almost beyond the wit of those so skilled to mimic.

This warrior lord stood highest in the hall, carrying with him an enormous whetstone, beautifully carved with the faces of his ancestors, as a symbol of his powers. His cloak was clasped with gold buckles inlaid with crimson garnets and finely cut millefiori glass. On his belt, his mighty sword hung by his side. Again gold and garnets glistered there,  while at the centre of his being, a great fire-like buckle interlaced with writhing snakes and weighing as much as a dog’s head, glowed like a hot iron in the smoke-filled room. Hu oa aepelingas ellen fremedon, we might say. How those noblemen wrought deeds of valour!

But now Raedwald’s image in my mind is just that: a memory in the mind’s eye. Yet thanks to providence, we can still today see Raedwald – if not in body then at least in the accoutrements of his power which were uncovered just 70 years ago as I watched in shadows the work of Basil Brown and his colleagues unearthing treasures which today are there for all to see at the British Museum in London.

How I smiled as Brown revealed the remains of the huge ship I saw being dragged up the hill from the Deben so many centuries ago. He did not see what I saw: the ship positioned in the sand and the body of the great king laid to rest with his prize possessions before being sealed within the ship by great oaken boards. He did not see the tears of men and women by the boat-side. He did not witness the last plank being nailed down and Raedwald’s eyes sealed for ever from the glowing sun of this world…

I recall how that ship laid on the hillside for many years before at last the wood began to bend and crack with the sun and the rain and the cold: a vessel stark on the hoo-top, silhoetted against the Suffolk Sky. I remember in my worry that Raedwald would not rest in eternal peace. Yet I need have no fear that the Saxons would not honour their dead.

I remember going back there again a few years later to see the vessel this time being covered in earth so that a great mound – an edifice to a great king – would rise on the Hoo surveying the great Deben and its safe landing places. On the land was a ship and then the ship became the land; Raedwald’s spirit lurked beneath his sandling home. In those days, this place had immense significance – and quite rightly so.

Raedwald was a true king: assertive of his place, protective of his possessions and lands, and, upon his death, commanding such respect and power that for thirteen centuries his body lay undisturbed: free from rabbits, sheep and even the attempted predations of grave robbers. Yet I knew Raedwald and I knew well how he would have laughed to see his worldly goods on display once more for all to see and marvel at.

Sutton Hoo is rightly seen today as one of the world’s great archaeological treasure troves. Yet I recall it when it was a calm inlet to a quiet hinterland. The captains and the kings are now gone again but the treasures of Raedwald will preserve his glorious memory until the ending of the world.

Wel bio paem ye mot aefter deaodaege. Drihten secean ond to Faeder faeymum freodo wilnian! Well will it be for he who after the day of his death may seek out the Lord and ask for peace in the arms of the Father.

Further information:

  • Sutton Hoo is today owned by the National Trust which has an excellent museum in the grounds
  • The Sutton Hoo Treasure is on display at the British Musuem in London, currently on display on the ground floor in an area through the gift display on the right having gone through the entrance
  • There is a special interest group for you to join: the Sutton Hoo Society.

Image of King Raedwald of the East Angles by artist Michael Smith. Copyright Michael Smith 2011. All rights reserved.

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Is mediaeval Britain under threat?

Ancient landscapes under threat from UK government planning policy?

Ancient landscapes under threat? UK government planning policy threatens the intimacy of a land built gradually through time

Readers, I am alarmed. If we are to believe the scare stories being announced by town criers across the kingdom, the massed hordes of planners are advancing on our ancient landscapes. In the name of “sustainable housing” and “giving the economy a boost”, this land we love is under threat…

“Oh no”, cry the commoners who govern this land, sitting in their hall in Westminster. “This is a disortion of the truth. Planning laws are being relaxed but have no fear.” Readers, I do have fear – and plenty of it. Verily, land must be made available for people to live but is the blight of the average and its footprint on the land which I bemoan.

On my travels of Le Gringalet, I see many beautiful buildings, monuments and ancient vistas dotted across the landscape. These are the result of slow change; hidden in lanes whose routes follow ancient land boundaries laid down in my own time and beyond. But modern “development” pays no head to the beauty of gradual change: it brutalises the land and casts dung upon the exquisite.

Planners and government know that when the chips are down, they can argue the needs of the masses against the “NIMBYism” of the few. They expect us to believe that another “stunning development” is anything other than a statement of the average and banal. They care not for lack of proportion, the lines of exact properties built to the lowest price, the starkness of the stultified imagination of an unsympathetic architect.

Modern development has no sense of the vernacular, of localism, or of landscape. It is a monster created by dull individuals whose sense of purpose is governed by the standardised computer package of an architect’s CAD system.

Worse, these developments are dressed up as something to celebrate as if they are for the national good. Alas, these measures highlight yet again the failure of a genuine economic system. Building houses is a short term employement solution which will do nothing for the long term good of the land and which also serves to perpetuate the ever-growing population, expanding on the back of decadence, immorality and a lack of social cohesion.

In today’s Daily Telegraph, now available in modern English as well as the so-called “middle” English I prefer, we read of a consultation taking place between government and the National Trust. The paper is launching a “Hands off our Land” campaign too. The problem, as I see it, is not just one of threats to marquee beauty like grand landscapes and woodlands but a threat to the intimate. This is the far greater threat and glibly ignored by politicians desperate to kick start an economy, irrespective of consequence.

In an English village, next to a pond… In that ancient paddock… Down some crooked lane bent by time… In the fields bounded by strange woodbanks… These are the places where planning law will reach and choose to ignore the beauty which we take for granted. The footprint of “sustainable” development will stamp on a landscape which has, until the last few decades, been defined by where we have gone before.

In the future,  the story of how Britain has grown – mapped out in field systems, lanes, woodlands, deer parks, ancient walls and twisting hedges – will be unintelligible to a future society yet further cut off from its cultural past. This is a cause for deep concern.

In his book, The Making of the British Landscape, Francis Pryor argues that urban sprawl has proved so efficient in Britain that it only accounts for 9% of the land but the majority of the population. He argues we have nothing to fear because towns and cities are very good at controlling “sprawl” by developing inherent economies.

This may indeed be so. But the urban sprawl he supports has been controlled for years by robust planning regulations. Soon, if the House of Lords and common sense don’t intervene, the real beauty of the British landscape – the intimacy of its gradual development – will be gone for ever. And with it, any reason for anyone to visit the country and to see its greatest assets.


Filed under British History, British Landscape, English Counties, English Landscape, Historic places to visit in Britain, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England