The Legacy of a Queen

A textile image of King Raedwald's queen, made by children from Melton Primary School for Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo is a site known for the funeral that took place here 1,300 years ago, but the extraordinary items didn’t place themselves in the ground. Someone, undoubtedly close to the individual buried here was responsible for making those decisions. The person who selected and placed the objects in Mound One left a story behind which was rediscovered centuries later.

Sutton Hoo is home to one of the richest Anglo-Saxon burials excavated to date. Due to the acidity of the soil, the body and much of the organic material that had lain buried for some 1,300 years did not survive. It was not until decades past the initial discovery that archaeologists and historians were able to prove there even was a body buried here, disproving the original theory that this was a cenotaph – an empty monument.

Despite the acidic soil, however, objects crafted from materials such as gold, silver, garnets and bronze emerged from the ground almost entirely intact. Although we cannot say for certain, Rædwald, who was king of East Anglia until his death circa 625AD, is believed to be the most likely candidate for just who was buried in what is now known as Mound One.

The burial leaves behind a glimpse into Anglo-Saxon kingship and how the Anglo-Saxons believed they were to be received in the afterlife. But who prepared him for his journey into the afterlife? Who carefully picked out the items to be buried by his side and organised the twenty-seven metre long ship to be heaved all the way from the River Deben to the top of the hoo?

A textile image of King Raedwald's queen made by children from Melton Primary School for Sutton Hoo
A textile image of King Raedwald's queen made by children from Melton Primary School for Sutton Hoo

One theory, which Professor Martin Caver puts forward, is that Rædwald’s wife and queen may have been the one to orchestrate the burial, using the public event to demonstrate her and her family’s power and social standing.

By organising an extravagant burial – perfectly positioned to be visible to all the surrounding countryside - it highlighted her husband’s importance, and by extension, her own. This would have been an especially important statement in a time where the kingdom was vulnerable after the king’s death, with others now vying for power.

The person buried in Mound One was accompanied with a range of weapons from spears to a decorated pattern-welded sword. It is a clear message being sent out: this is a warrior-king’s grave. His status was to be recognised in life as well as death. The queen may have used this as a reminder to the living as to just who her husband had been and the power she still wielded in his absence.

Although Rædwald’s queen has lost her name to history, her strong character has survived. The Venerable Bede, monk and historian writing approximately 100 years after Rædwald’s reign, mentions the actions of the queen in his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Bede records Rædwald’s conversion to Christianity whilst he was away from home, staying down in Kent. Upon his return, however, Bede claims his wife ‘seduced’ Rædwald away from his new-found religion, back to paganism.

On another occasion, the queen is recorded as stepping in to save the life of Edwin, heir of the kingdom of Northumbria. Edwin had taken refuge in East Anglia but Rædwald was tempted to hand him over in return for a bribe from Edwin’s pursuer, Æthelfrith, who wanted Edwin dead. The queen insisted a great ruler should not sacrifice his honour and his friend Edwin for money.

Both these stories demonstrate her strength of character, influence and conviction to her morals.

Melton Primary School children view their items and artwork within the Sutton Hoo 2018 exhibition
Melton Primary School children view their items and artwork within the Sutton Hoo 2018 exhibition

In the Treasury at Sutton Hoo in 2018, you can now see the hand-crafted wall hangings which pupils from Melton Primary School have made about what role they think Rædwald’s queen may have had in his burial. As each object stowed in Mound One was placed to tell a story, the students have reflected upon which objects would tell their own story.

You can see their choices in the Treasury at Sutton Hoo from February 10th 2018 as part of Her Say: Extraordinary Women of Sutton Hoo.