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Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Re-enactor stamping replica helmet foils
A craftsman making replica helmet foils at Sutton Hoo | © National Trust/Robin Pattinson

The discoveries made at Sutton Hoo revolutionised our understanding of the early medieval period. A time that had been seen as unsophisticated was illuminated as vibrant and cultured, as the Anglo-Saxons laid the foundations for England as we know it.

Where did the Anglo-Saxons come from?

In the fifth century, when Roman influence was on the wane in Britain, Germanic tribes from continental Europe saw an opportunity. The fifth and sixth centuries saw people from what are now known as the Netherlands, Germany and southern Scandinavia journeying across the North Sea to settle in Britain. They mingled with the native population, creating a new culture and language – English – and today we know them as the Anglo-Saxons.

The kingdom of East Anglia

By the seventh century, smaller Anglo-Saxon kin units had merged (often by force) to create seven kingdoms, including East Anglia. Home to Sutton Hoo, East Anglia derived its name from the Angles – the Germanic peoples who originally migrated to the eastern part of England.

A Royal Burial Ground

The River Deben provided easy passage to and from the North Sea and it’s likely that early ancestors of the kings of East Anglia took this route into the area in the mid-fifth century.

In later years, it is believed that the East Anglian royal family, the Wuffings, took a great interest in the River Deben and its surroundings. One of their royal settlements is thought to have been at Rendlesham and, further downstream, Sutton Hoo was chosen as the place the Anglo-Saxons would bury their royal dead.

Uncovering Anglo-Saxon society

During the seventh century ship burial at Sutton Hoo, the large vessel would have been hauled and pushed from the river below by warriors. No one knows quite how such a feat was accomplished, but what followed would have been spectacular ceremonies, talked about for many generations to come.

Dignitaries from other areas will have travelled from far and wide to witness the burial of these high-profile individuals. The mounds will have been clearly visible from the river, the highway of its day, making a statement to all who sailed here that there was a power in the land.

Fortune, fighting and feasting

The contents of the burial mounds tell us much about Anglo-Saxon values and beliefs.

Alongside its deceased leader, the Great Ship Burial chamber contained vast riches. Together with his sword, shield and helmet were found intricate objects crafted from silver, gold and garnets as well as a musical instrument and feasting and drinking equipment. These were a people who had great respect for wealth, power and the skills of a warrior and they clearly recognised the importance of feasting and entertainment too!

The very fact that they buried their deceased with such cargo also indicates that the Anglo-Saxons were developing spiritual belief systems, including notions of an afterlife.

Cultured craftspeople

You only have to look at the stunning objects found in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo to see that the Anglo-Saxons were a highly skilled, well-travelled and cultured society.

Delicately carved gold buckles, jewel encrusted shoulder clasps and the famous Sutton Hoo helmet were all richly adorned with meaningful symbols and made with precision accurate to a fraction of a millimetre – quite a feat without the aid of artificial light or a magnifying glass!

The rulers of East Anglia were part of an international culture based around the North Sea stretching to the Baltic and far beyond. To them, the sea was no barrier and many of the objects discovered at Sutton Hoo had travelled many hundreds of miles, including garnets used within the jewelled pieces, which may have come from as far away as India or Sri Lanka.

Leaving a legacy

Although it is some 1,400 years since the age of the Great Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo, the Anglo-Saxon way of life still influences modern day British culture. We may not get buried in ships with our worldly belongings these days, but much of the English language we speak today is derived from the Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.

We’re also still using the herbs and spices that were either found growing in Britain or brought over by ship to the British Isles in Anglo-Saxon times. In fact, meadowsweet, a popular wild flower used to flavour mead, has had a recent resurgence and can be spotted on the finest dessert menus around the country.

The Warrior Horseman's burial treasure at Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Sutton Hoo on the National Trust Collections website.

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