Fact & Film: ‘Silly Suffolk’ – The Dialect of ‘The Dig’ at Sutton Hoo.

Above: the Sutton Hoo helmet discovered by Brown’s excavations

History lessons:

Soon after my son moved to Framlingham in Suffolk to take up his first teaching post at the local Thomas Mills’ High School, in 2014, I fulfilled one of my ‘bucket list’ ambitions, which was to visit Sutton Hoo, the archaeological site nearby which had been one of the first sources of the Schools’ History Project materials with which I had begun my own teaching career more than thirty years previously. Our family visit did not disappoint; the site was every bit as fascinating as I had been led to expect it would be, though the finds on display there were replicas of the originals which are now in the British Museum. I was therefore further fascinated by the prospect of watching a film recreating the 1939 discovery of the ‘Dark Age’ ship burial in February 2021.

The Film: The Dig

… is a 2021 British drama film directed by Simon Stone, based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston, which reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo. It stars Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, and Monica Dolan.

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The film had a limited release on 15 January 2021, followed by streaming on Netflix on 29 January 2021.

The plot follows what we know about the discovery of the ship burial. In 1939, Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty hires local self-taught archaeologist-excavator Basil Brown to tackle the large burial mounds at her rural estate in Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge. At first, she offers the same money he received from the Ipswich Museum, which was about the minimum agricultural wage but he says it is inadequate; so she ups her offer by 12% to £2 a week (approximately £120 in 2020), which he accepts.

His former employers try unsuccessfully to persuade Brown to work on a Roman villa they deem more important. They ignore Brown, who left school aged only 12, when he suggests the mounds could be Anglo-Saxon rather than the more common Viking era. Working with a few assistants from the estate, Brown slowly excavates the more promising of the mounds. One day the trench collapses on him, but he is dug out in time and revived. Meanwhile, he spends more time with Edith, a widow, and her young son, Robert, and ignores daily letters from his wife, May. Edith struggles with health issues and is warned by her doctor to avoid stress. Brown is astonished to uncover iron rivets from a ship, which could only make it the burial site of someone of tremendous distinction, such as a king. Prominent local archaeologist James Reid Moir attempts to join the dig but is rebuffed; Edith instead hires her cousin Rory Lomax to join the project. News of the discovery soon spreads, and Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips arrives, declares the site to be of national importance, and takes over the dig by order of the Office of Works.

As war approaches, Phillips brings in a large team, including Peggy Piggott, who uncovers the first distinctively Anglo-Saxon artefact. Brown is retained only to keep the site in order, but Edith intervenes and he resumes digging. Brown discovers a Merovingian Tremissis, a small gold coin of Late Antiquity, and Phillips declares the site to be of major historical significance. Phillips wants to send all the items to the British Museum, but Edith, concerned about the war raids in London, asserts her rights. An inquest confirms she is the owner of the ship and its priceless treasure trove of grave goods, but she despairs as her health continues to decline.

The True Story of the Finds:

Basil Brown was born in 1888 in Bucklesham, east of Ipswich, to George Brown (1863–1932) and Charlotte Wait (c.1854–1931), daughter of John Wait of Great Barrington, Gloucestershire. His father was a farmer, wheelwright and agent for the Royal Insurance Company. Soon after his birth, the Browns moved to Church Farm near Rickinghall, where his father began work as a tenant farmer. From the age of five Basil studied astronomical texts that he had inherited from his grandfather. He later attended Rickinghall School and also received some private tutoring. From an early age he could be found digging up fields. At 12 years old he left school to work on his father’s farm.

By attending evening classes, Brown earned a certificate in drawing in 1902. In 1907 he obtained diplomas with distinction for astronomy, geography and geology through studies with the Harmsworth Self-Educator correspondence college. Using text books and radio broadcasts Brown taught himself Latin and learnt to speak French fluently, while also acquiring some knowledge of Greek, German and Spanish. Although declared medically unfit for war service at the outbreak of World War I, Brown served as a volunteer in the Suffolk Royal Army Medical Corps from 16 October 1918 to 31 October 1919. On 27 June 1923 Brown married Dorothy May Oldfield (1897–1983), a domestic servant, and daughter of Robert Robin Oldfield, who worked as head carpenter on the Wramplingham estate. Basil and May lived and worked on his father’s farm even after George Brown had died, with May assuming responsibility for a dairy. They struggled to make a living, partly through Brown’s preoccupation with astronomy, and partly due to the small size of the farm.

By 1934 the smallholding had become so unviable that Brown gave it up. In August 1935 he and May rented a cottage named Cambria in The Street, Rickinghall, where they lived until their deaths, having purchased it in the 1950s. His investigations of Roman industrial potteries led in 1934 to the discovery, excavation and successful removal to Ipswich Museum in 1935 of a Roman kiln at Wattisfield. In this way Brown got to know Guy Maynard, curator of the Museum (1920 to 1952) and H. A. Harris, secretary of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology. He applied to Maynard to work for the museum on a contractual basis. His first contract with the Museum and the Suffolk Institute was for thirteen weeks of work in 1935 at Stuston and at Stanton Chare at £2 per week. At the latter site Brown discovered a Roman villa, leading to excavations that extended to three seasons of about thirty weeks in 1936–38 (until 1939, according to Maynard). Archaeological work started to provide a semi-regular income for him, but at a lower wage of £1 10 shillings per week, less than the agricultural minimum wage, so that he had to continue working as an insurance agent and also joined the police as a special constable.

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Edith Pretty’s ‘Tranmer House’, from where decision to excavate came.

Meanwhile, landowner Edith May Pretty (1883–1942) was curious about the contents of about eighteen ancient mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate in southeast Suffolk. At a 1937 fete in nearby Woodbridge, Pretty discussed the possibility of opening them with Vincent B. Redstone, member of several historical and archaeological societies. Redstone invited the curator of the Ipswich Corporation Museum, Guy Maynard, to a meeting with Pretty in July 1937, and Maynard offered the services of Brown as excavator. Maynard released Brown from his employment by Ipswich Museum for June – August 1938, during which he was paid 30 shillings a week by Pretty. Arriving on 20 June, he was lodged for the duration with Pretty’s chauffeur, at Tranmer House, then called Sutton Hoo House. He brought along books spanning the Bronze Age to the Anglo-Saxon period and some excavation reports. In what was later known as Mound 2, Brown used the east – west compass-bearing of the excavated board found in Mound 3 to align a 6-foot wide trench. From outside the mound’s perimeter he began digging along the old ground surface towards the mound on 7 July 1938.

A ship’s rivet was discovered, along with Bronze Age pottery shards and a bead. On 11 July Brown found more ship’s rivets, and asked Ipswich Museum to forward material on the Snape ship burial which was excavated in 1862–63. Pretty wrote to make an appointment for Brown with the curator of Aldeburgh Museum, where artefacts from the Snape excavation were housed. Maynard forwarded a drawing which arrived on 15 July and showed the pattern of the Snape boat’s rivets. On 20 July Brown was driven to Aldeburgh by Pretty’s chauffeur, where he found the Sutton Hoo rivet to be very similar to those from Snape. Back at Sutton Hoo, the shape of a boat with only one pointed end was uncovered. It seemed to have been cut in half, with one half possibly used as a cover over the other half. Evidence suggested that the site had been looted, as the upper half was missing. Signs of a cremation were found, along with a gold-plated shield boss and glass fragments.

On 8 May 1939 he started to excavate Mound 1, the largest mound, assisted on Pretty’s instructions by gardener John Jacobs and gamekeeper William Spooner. As before, Brown used the compass bearing uncovered in the end mound to start a narrow pilot trench outside the mound. On 11 May he discovered iron rivets that were similar but bigger than those found in the 2nd mound, suggesting an even larger sailing vessel than the boat found earlier. Brown cycled to Ipswich to report the find to Maynard, who advised him to proceed with care in uncovering the impression of the ship and its rivets. Brown not only uncovered the impression left in the sandy soil by a 27-metre-long ship from the 7th century AD, but evidence of robbers who had stopped before they had reached the level of a burial deposit (pictured below). Based on knowledge of ship burials in Norway, Brown and Maynard surmised that a roof had covered the burial chamber. Realizing the potential grandeur of the find, Maynard recommended to Pretty that they involve the British Museum’s Department of British Antiquities. 

From a photographof the excavated ship looking east towards the prow. The acidic, sandy soil meant that the wooden timbers of the hull had completely rotted away, leaving only an impression of the ship, but an impressive shape.

By this time, Charles Phillips, Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, had heard rumours about the dig during a visit to his university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Downing Street, Cambridge, and of the inquiries made of the Manx Museum about Viking ship burials. He arranged to meet with Maynard and they drove to Sutton Hoo from Ipswich on 6 June to visit the site. Phillips suggested that the British Museum and the Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Works should be telephoned and informed. A meeting convened at Sutton Hoo by representatives of the British Museum, the Office of Works, Cambridge University, Ipswich Museum, and the Suffolk Institute three days later, gave Phillips control over excavations, starting in July. Brown was allowed to continue, and uncovered the burial chamber on 14 June, followed later by the ship’s stern. In 1940 Thomas Kendrick (Keeper, Department of British and Medieval Antiquities in the British Museum) suggested that the burial site was that of Rædwald of East Anglia.

Having ensconced himself in the Bull Hotel at Woodbridge on 8 July, Phillips took charge of the excavations on 11 July. Employed by the Office of Works, he convened a team that included W. F. Grimes, O. G. S. Crawford, and Stuart and Peggy Piggot. On 21 July Peggy Piggot discovered the first signs of what later turned out to be 263 items. Phillips and Maynard had differences of opinion, leading Phillips to exclude the Ipswich Museum. The press had come to learn of the significance of the find by 28 July. Brown continued to work on the site in accordance with his contract with Pretty, although excluded from excavating the burial chamber that he had located.

As the note at the end of the film states, the treasure was hidden in the London Underground during the war and was first exhibited — without any mention of Basil Brown — nine years after Edith’s death. Brown’s contributions to archaeology were recognised in 2009 by a plaque in Rickinghall Inferior Church. Yet he continued to be largely unacknowledged for his work at Sutton Hoo. The plaque attests to his esteem among Suffolk archaeologists, historians, and local. Only very recently has Brown been given full credit for his contribution and his name is now displayed permanently alongside Pretty’s at the British Museum. After the release of this film, his name is now destined to become synonymous with the discoveries at Sutton Hoo.

Basil Brown (front) and Lt. Cmdr. J. K. D. Hutchison excavating the 7th century burial ship at Sutton Hoo in 1939. By Harold John Phillips – Screen capture of image from home movie, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14677136

So why was he effectively sidelined in 1939, and why has his contribution been largely ignored until comparitively recently? Much of this has to do with the class basis of English society in the 1930s. There were many working-class autodidacts at that time, but they seemed to occupy a parallel universe to that of the London-Oxbridge triangle which controlled academic and scientific research both before and after the second world war. Of course, much of this was pure class snobbery, and this is explored extensively in the course of the film. To the Cambridge academics, Brown was regarded simply an ‘excavator’, and his archaeological experience was viewed by them as that of an ‘amateur’, unsupported by published articles in prestgious journals. Only they could authenticate the finds at Sutton Hoo, and Phillips was particularly concerned to have them displayed in the British Museum, rather than having them located locally at the Ipswich Museum. Of course, on reflection, this was probably the best decision in terms of the numbers who could see the finds, but at the time it was quite contentious. It was ultimately the decision of Edith May Pretty, herself an amateur archaeologist, whose visionary inspiration had led her to employ Brown. When she was confirmed as the owner of the hoard, she immediately gave it to the British Museum, where the items have been on display to millions over the eight decades since.

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Ralph Fiennes in 2018

At that time, what the snobbish ‘academics’ also seemed to react against in Brown was his appearance as a local agricultural worker, which he still was, and his accent or dialect. Ralph Fiennes portrays this accurately in the film, no doubt drawing on his own Suffolk origins. He was born in Ipswich in 1962, the son of a farmer and a writer and has a foster-brother who is an archaeologist. He grew up on his father’s farm until moving with his family to Ireland aged eleven, where he attended a Quaker school in County Waterford before returning to England, where he finished his schooling in Salisbury. His surname is of Norman origin, and can be traced back through a leading aristocratic family of ‘Banburyshire’, prominent in its support for the Parliamentarians and Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil Wars and Interregnum. So, in many ways he was well-suited to playing the part of the Suffolk agriculltural labourer and archaeologist, Basil Brown in the 2021 British drama film The Dig alongside Carey Mulligan. The film received positive reviews with critics praising his performance in the film. Mark Kermode, critic of The Guardian described Fiennes portrayal as having an “admirable eloquence”. He was trained by expert Suffolk dialect coaches to sound ‘plausibly Suffolk’.

The Origins of the Suffolk Dialect:

Previous films and TV series featuring attempts at the dialect have tended instead to feature a West Country “burr”, very far removed from any form of East Anglian forms of English. In East Anglia, the ‘r’ consonant is unpronounced, as throughout most of the Midlands and the South-East of England. This applies especially to older generations, as does the absence of the ‘ny’, ‘dy’ and ‘by’ sounds in ‘new’, ‘duty’ and ‘beauty’ in favour of ‘noo’, ‘dooty’ and ‘booty’. Actors are aware of the differences between American accents of the ‘New England’ and ‘Southern’ variety, which are partly based on the different speech forms in East Anglia, where most of the New England settlers came from, and those from Walter Raleigh’s West Country, who settled in the colonies which became the southern states. In addition, of course, the Suffolk dialect has variations in grammar and vocabulary, which make it a dialect rather than simply an accent, and these have been influential on Australian speech from the nineteenth century onwards. The word ‘cobber’ (“cobbah”) in Australian slang is derived from the Suffolk verb ‘to cob’ which means ‘to take a liking to someone’.

In the Anglo-Saxon invasion and settlement of Britain, the Angles occupied the Midlands, the North of England and what is now southern or lowland Scotland. The general term ‘Anglian’ is used to describe their dialect of OE, but their northern and southern varieties call for two dialects to be recognised: Northumbrian (north of the Humber) and Mercian (south of the Humber). The writing system for the earliest English was based on the use of signs called ‘runes’, devised for carving in wood or stone. Few examples have survived in Britain, the most famous of which can be found on an eighteen-foot cross now in the church of Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire. On this cross, which probably dates from the eighth century, are some runic inscriptions in the Northumbrian dialect which are part of an OE poem called The Dream of the Rood:

Use the chart of runic symbols to decypher the extract above from the Ruthwell Cross. It appears at the top of the SW face of the Cross.

We call the language of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods up to circa 1150 ‘Old English’. Our knowledge of it is based on a number of manuscripts that have survived from these times, from which the grammar and vocabulary have been reconstructed by scholars, working from the sixteenth century onwards, but especially from the nineteenth century. The ‘English’ were not a politically unified nation until, at the earliest, late ‘OE’ times, and as they originally migrated from various parts of western Europe, they spoke in different ‘West Germanic’ dialects. They settled in different parts of England, but there was enough in common between their dialects for them to be able to communicate and trade with each other.

Written English as we know it had to wait for the establishment of the Church and the building of the monasteries, at which time the monks wrote manuscripts in Latin, the language of the Church. This did not begin to happen until the seventh century. In that century, much of the north of England was converted to Christianity by monks from Ireland, while Augustine had been sent by the Pope to convert the English to Roman Christianity, beginning in Kent. The Peterborough Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded these events of 595 and 601. The monks adapted the Roman alphabet to write English, with three additional letters for sounds which had no Latin equivalent (the short ‘a’ sound, written as ‘ae’ in OE, together with the two ‘th’ sounds, then written as separate symbols) which we are familiar with in ‘there’ and ‘thanks’) which means that the spelling of OE gives us a good idea of its pronunciation. This also provides the evidence for the different OE dialects, because different spellings for the same words indicate differences of pronunciation.

The earliest known poem in English, ‘Caedmon’s hymn’, was written in the seventh century, and appeared in two dialects in Bede’s History of the English Church and People, which was written in Latin and published in AD 731. The map above is based on the information contained in it. It wasn’t translated into English until the late ninth century, but the two ‘translations’ into the West Saxon and the Northumbrian dialects reveal a great deal of variance between the two. The country as it existed in the seventh century cannot really be referred to as ‘England’, but was a ‘heptarchy’, a ‘country’ of seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. Wars occurred frequently between the kingdoms, with four of the seven sharing ‘hegenomy’ over the period in the sixth to the tenth century. Following the death of Raedwald in 625, Wessex and Mercia fought each other for the ‘overlordship’ of the English kingdoms, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon (Peterborough) Chronicle for 628.

It is usual to use the late West Saxon dialect of the tenth and eleventh centuries to describe OE, because West Saxon was, by then, used as the standard form for the written language, and most surviving manuscripts were written in West Saxon. The long-term effects of the Norse influence are still with us, in the present-day dialects and accents of East Anglia and the East Midlands, but, unlike the English, the Danes and Norwegians had not developed a system of writing other than runes, and therefore no evidence of the dialects of the Norse language spoken in the Danelaw is available. Norse must have been spoken throughout, but it was gradually assimilated with Anglian, in East Anglia, the East Midlands and the North East.

In the ME period, there was no single dialect or variety of English whose spelling, vocabulary and grammar were used for writing throughout the country. In other words, there was no standard English. After the Norman Conquest, the language of the Norman ruling class was Northern French and In the twelfth century, the language of the court was Parisian French, which conveyed more status than Anglo-Norman. Meanwhile, colloquial English in general and the Mercian (Midlands) dialect in particular developed in different ways. The East Midlands had been part of the Danelaw, but the West Midlands was not, so the language of the East Midlands had changed partly under the influence of the Danish Old Norse (ON) speakers who settled there. As a result, OE Mercian became two ME dialects: East Midlands and West Midlands. Speakers simplified their their own language when talking to the other, and OE dialects in the Danelaw in time became modified in ways which were different from the Kentish and Wessex dialects, so that present-day northern and East Anglian dialects show ON features, particularly in vocabulary. In time, the communities merged and Norse was no longer spoken, but the English dialects spoken in different parts of the Danelaw had been modified . in pronunciation, vocabulary and to some extent in grammar. In Middle English (ME), the evidence of the writings suggests that the four main dialectical areas continued, but that the Mercian Midlands of England showed enough differences between eastern and western parts for there to be two distinct dialects. So the five principal dialects of ME evolved as Southern, Kentish, East Midlands, West Midlands and Northern, forming the essential elements of the varieties that continue in modern ‘non-standard’ British English.

Suffolk Dialect in Modern Times:

The word ‘silly’ in ‘Silly Suffolk’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “Saelig” meaning ‘blessed’, and it might well date from the time when the early Christians settled at Dunwich and the first bishopric was established there in circa 630. A.D. Beginning in the 1920s, A. O. D. Claxton collected the local dialect and phrases which he himself heard used, or which were reported to him by reliable sources. His resulting book, Suffolk Dialect (first edition 1954) therefore represents the state of the dialect between 1920 and 1954, and is essentially a record of current usage at that time, before the universal English of the modern media began to drive out dialect words. A comparison with earlier dialect dictionaries such as those of Moor (1823) and Forby (1830) showed that many words listed by them had become obsolete, and no example of their use was found by Claxton. In his introduction to the first edition, Claxton commented:

Education, broadcasting, cinemas, easier transport between country and town and the intermingling of the rural and urban populations during the two Great World Wars have all had their effect on the speech of the rural worker. The result is that the dialect of Suffolk, like that of many other counties, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past although there is much of it that deserves to be kept alive. Many of the old words have stood the wear and tear of centuries of utterance and many of them are of Mediaeval literature form.

Of the words contained in Edward Moor’s Suffolk Words (1823) and in the Rev. R. Forby’s Vocabulary of East Anglia (1830) a large number had been embodied in the English Language and included in the smaller standard dictionaries. Many others were no longer used by the early 1950s, only occasionally heard when spoken by the real ‘owd Hossman’ or seen in print by a writer who had made reference to the older dictionaries. Moreover, snobbish middle-class ‘Standard English’ attitudes towards the dialect had largely succeeded, after ninety years of universal elementary education, in eradicating the dialect from the speech of school pupils, as Claxton observed:

The frontispiece from the 1968 edition of Claxton’s book.

How often in the past has a teacher told a child to call a ‘spade’ a ‘spade’ and not a ‘scuppit’, ‘skavel’ or ‘didall’; that a horse’s bridle is not a ‘dutfin’; or that the proper name for a snail is not ‘dodman’ or ‘hodmadod’? Notwithstanding, it is within the past few years that an adolescent boy said he had found ‘a pudden-e-poke’s nest’ (the nest of the long-tailed tit).

The decline in the use of dialect words appeared to Claxton to be even more marked in the twentieth century than in his boyhood days of the 1890s, when he remembered many more dialect words being in common use which by the 1950s were practically unknown among younger generations than his own. The pronunciation and intonation still remained ‘more or less’ the same and, in particular, the variations in the generally accepted vowel sounds were in the main unchanged. But while there remained great interest in the Suffolk dialect among the county’s people, whether or not they were speakers of it, it’s clear that by the middle of the century the dialect was becoming more of a regional accent. A comparitively small number of the dialect words were peculiar to the county, and many were, and still are, common throughout East Anglia and others are in common use in other parts of the former Anglian areas in the North Midlands, the North of England and lowland Scotland. The main differences between the regional varieties were noted in terms of pronunciation, accent and intonation. Even members of the USA Air Force stationed at the air bases in East Anglia recognised dialect words and pronunciations which were also common in their home country. Claxton asked whether these words and speech features were taken over to New England by the Pilgrim Fathers. I have referred to some examples of this in Early American English above. It follows, as Claxton argues, that many of Suffolk’s dialect words are common to other counties, particularly those bordering along the East Coast.

Claxton himself was born in a Suffolk village and had the opportunity all his life to converse with people of all classes of all ages and classes in rural Suffolk and had, whenever possible, made a point of contacting the ‘oldest inhabitant’ in every village. In this way, he was able to make a collection of words used by Suffolk people in the course of oral or written communication. The ‘curious sing-song intonation’ of Suffolk speech could not, of course, be reproduced in writing, nor could he reproduce the pronunciation of various words using the scientific phonetc system which was, he claimed ‘incomprehensible to the majority of people’ for whom the book was primarily written. Nevertheless, he included a section of pronunciation in which he adopted the method of appending a rhyming word or of indicating the vowel sound, for example ‘hully’ rhymes with ‘fully’, ‘dow’ with ‘cow’ and ‘shoofs’ (‘oo’ as in ‘foot’). He pointed out that the Suffolker often pronounces the what should be the same vowel sounds in different ways in different words and the following is his attempt to set out such grouping as is possible of the widely variable ways in which they were used in the mid-twentieth century:



The long ‘a’ as in ‘mate’: This is generally broadened into almost the dipthong sound of ‘a-i’, e.g. ‘ga-it’ and ‘ca-ik’ for gate and cake. In some words, the vowel is shortened, as in ‘grut’ and ‘met’ for ‘great and ‘mate’.

The short ‘a’ as in ‘mat’: Sometimes sounded as the short ‘e’, e.g. ‘hev’ for ‘have’ and ‘ketch’ for ‘catch’; as the short ‘u’ in, e.g. ‘brumbles’ for ‘brambles’; as ‘aw’ in ‘tawsel’ for ‘tassel’ and ‘dawzle’ for ‘dazzle’; as the short ‘o’ in ‘throshing’ for ‘thrashing’ and ‘strop’ for ‘strap’.

The long ‘e’ as in ‘meet’: Frequently changed into the short ‘i’ as in ‘ship’ for ‘sheep’, ‘sid’ for ‘seed’ ‘bin’ for ‘been’ and ‘strit’ for ‘street’. If the long ‘e’ sound is followed by an ‘r’ as in ‘beer’, it is lengthened into the dipthong ‘i-a’ as in ‘bee-a’.

The short ‘e’ as in ‘met’: Changed into the short ‘i’ in ‘min’ for ‘men’, ‘kittle’ for ‘kettle’, ‘yit’ for ‘yet’, ‘git’ for ‘get’, ‘hin’ for ‘hen’ and ‘togither’ for ‘together’. In a few words the short ‘o’ is substituted, e.g. ‘shod’ for ‘shed’, ‘holp’ for ‘help’, and ‘throshing’ for ‘threshing’.

The long ‘i’ as in ‘mile’: Changed into the dipthong ‘oi’ as in ‘toime’ for ‘time’, ‘oi’ for ‘I’, ‘moi’ for ‘my’ and ‘loike’ for ‘like’; also into the long ‘e’ as in ‘meece’ for ‘mice’ and ‘leece’ for ‘lice’.

The short ‘i’ as in ‘sit’: Generally pronounced as in ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP) except as in ‘set’ for ‘sit’.

The ‘oo’ as in ‘fool’: Sometimes pronounced as ‘e-ew’ as in ‘tew’ for ‘too’, ‘fule’ for ‘fool’, ‘schule’ for ‘school’, ‘sune’ for ‘soon’ and ‘mune’ for ‘moon’; ‘you’ often becomes ‘yow’, rhyming with ‘cow’. In the majority of other words it is sounded as in ‘foot’ in RP, in ‘root’, shoot’, ‘boot’, ‘spoon’, etc.

The long ‘o’ as in ‘mote’: This sound is rarely heard in the dialect, except in combination with ‘ld’, or ‘lt’ when it is pronounced ‘owd’ as in ‘cowd’ and ‘towd’ and in ‘cowt’ for ‘coat’. In other words, it follows the pattern of changing the vowel sound to the ‘oo’ of ‘foot’, as quoted above.

The short ‘o’ as in ‘not’: In a few words this becomes ‘aw’ as in ‘cawst’ for ‘cost’ and ‘lawst’ for ‘lost’

The long ‘u’ as in ‘mute’: Generally broadened to ‘e-ew’

The short ‘u’ as in ‘nut’: As in RP, but it becomes a short ‘e’ in ‘shet’ for ‘shut’ and ‘jest’ for ‘just’.

ai’ and ‘ay’: Broadened to ‘a-i’ as with the long ‘a’ above.

‘ea’: Changed into ‘ar’ and pronounced as the broadened ‘ah’ , e.g. ‘arth’ (earth), ‘arly’ (early), ‘larn’ (learn), ‘hard’ (heard), In ‘heard’ it sometimes becomes ‘haired’ or ‘hud’. When pronounced in words like ‘peas’, ‘beans’, ‘meat’ and ‘each’ it sometimes changes to the long ‘a’ or a-i dipthong as in ‘pays’, ‘bayns’, ‘mate’ and ‘ayche’. The word ‘heart’ changes to ‘hut’.

‘ei’: In ‘either’ and ‘neither’, it is changed to ‘ayther’ and ‘nayther’.

‘ie’: ‘Field’ and ‘friend’ are changed, using a short ‘i’ to ‘fild’ and ‘frind’.

‘ow’: Broadened into ‘e-ow’ in the dialect, so that ‘bowl’ rhymes with ‘howl’.

‘oi’: ‘Boil’ becomes ‘bile’, with a long ‘i’, poison ‘pizen’ and pint ‘point’.

‘aw’, ‘au’ and ‘ou’: All given the sound ‘ow’ as in ‘cow’, so that ‘shoulder’ becomes ‘she-ow-der’.

‘ur’, ‘ir’ ‘or’ and ‘er’: The ‘ur’ sound, as mentioned above, is changed to the short ‘u’ sound, as in ‘chuch’ (church), ‘nus’ (nurse), ‘bud’ (bird), ‘dut’ (dirt), ‘wuds’ (wirds), ‘fust’ (first), but in some it is pronounced as a broadened ‘ah’, as in ‘har’ (her), ‘sarmon’ (sermon), ‘marchant’ (merchant).

‘ar’: As detailed above, this sound is sometimes shortened to ‘u’ as in ‘puttna’ (partner).

If a Suffolk shepherd bumped his head when entering his hut he might say “My hut (heart), Oi hully hut (hurt) my hid (head) on moi hut.”


‘l’: Nearly always turned into a ‘w’ when preceding a ‘d’ or ‘t’, e.g. ‘cowd’ for ‘cold’;

‘t’: Usually articulated and not ‘swallowed’ as in the Norfolk dialect where ‘butter’ is ‘bu-er’;

‘d’: Often takes the place of the ‘th’ sound as in ‘fudder’ for ‘further’.

‘s’: Prefixed to many words, e.g. ‘sparch’ for parch, ‘scrunch’ for crunch, ‘snotch’ for notch, etc.

‘h’: Usually silent between /s/ and /r/ in ‘srimp’ (shrimp), ‘srink’, and ‘sriek’.


There were many variations in grammar in use in the dialect in Claxton’s time, but he did not attempt to set down a ‘Grammar of the ‘Dialect’. Some of these can be found in the OE and ME dialects as they appear in the work of early English writers, but most “jest growed”. One of the most notable ‘peculiarities’ is the frequent omission of the definite article, especially where the article should precede the names of familiar or domestic objects such as house, barn, stable, cattle, kitchen, room, table, basket, yard etc. For example, “Drive cattle up road into midda” or “turn dog into yard”. However, if the noun begins with a vowel, the article is used in the abbreviated form of ‘th’ ot ‘t’, e.g. “Put bread into th’ oven,” or “Turn chickens into th’ orchard”. This trait of the Suffolk dialect is in common with other Anglian dialects, of course, as is the use of a noun in the singular form where it expresses measurement: “Four load o’ hay”, “Ten mile away”, “Four shilling a ounce”, “two ton o’ coal”, “three stone o’ flour”. In addition, the OE plural ending of ‘en’ still survived in the ending of some words: ‘houzen’, ‘neezen’ (nests), ‘meezen’ (mice). In the comparitive and superlative forms of adjectives a kind of ‘additional octave’ was used frequently added, as in ‘lesserer’, ‘lessest of all’, the leastest little thing’ ‘worser’, ‘worsest’ and ‘most worsest’. Also, the suffix ‘ified’ was sometimes added to to an adjective to indicate a kind of adjective, as in the frequent use of ‘stuntified’ for ‘as if stunted’. ‘This’ and ‘these’ are frequently followed by ‘here’ (‘ere’) and ‘that’ and ‘them’ are followed by ‘there’ (‘air’), dependent upon whether the object referred to to is close at hand or some distance away:

Look at this ‘ere new boike o’ moine.

Ken yow see these ‘ere pictures without yar glasses?

Oi a-goin’ t’ that air cottage over hinder.

Dew yow see them air cattle in th’ midda?

With reference to prepositions, ‘on’ was frequently used in place of ‘of’, e.g. “What’s that made on?” Conversely, ‘of’ was sometimes used in place of ‘on’ (“Oi’m allus out of a Wednesday”, and ‘to’ was used instead of ‘of’ (“Oi don’t think much toot”). Claxton refers to a number of other variations with adverbs, conjunctions, and pronouns, before coming to verb forms. A considerable number of verbs retained the old strong form in the past tense and in the past participle, the same form being generally used for each, e.g. show-shew, sow-sew, hoe-hew, mow-mew, weed-wed, wrap-wrop, ride-rid, save-seft; then he gave examples of the past tense which were also used as the past participle, e.g. wake-woke; in a number of cases the dialect retained the old weak form in the past tense and in the past participle, e.g. sell-selled; teach-teached; dig-digged; glean-glent. In addition, the Suffolker also extended the generally-accepted ‘don’t’ abbreviation to many other modal verbs as with ‘eent’ (is not), ‘heent’ (has not), ‘dint’ (did not), ‘marnt’ (may/must not), ‘coont’ (could not), ‘oont’ (will not), ‘woont’ (would not), ‘shoont’ (should not), ‘wawnt’ (were not), ‘dussent’ (dare not). Finally, the auxilliary verb ‘to do’ (pronounced ‘dew’) was frequently used in an imperative sense rather than in the interrogative, e.g. “Dew yow look after them hosses don’t yow’ll git inta a row.” Claxton also provided an extensive glossary of words used in the Suffolk dialect in the twentieth century. His book ends with a colourful collection of miscellaneous anecdotes, such as his recollection of a visit to a parents’ meeting at a small village school in rural Suffolk in the late 1920s with the Director of Education to discuss the Authority’s proposal to transfer the senior children to a neighbouring larger one:

During the discussion the Director stated that one of the … reasons for the proposed transfer was economy. This statement immediately brought forth from one of the mothers, “If they want t’ save money, tell ’em t’ git rid o’ some o’ them nab-nanny hunters.” I had to explain to the Director (a ‘furrina’) that ‘nab-nannies’ were lice and and that the mother referred to the School Nurses.

This was the world that Basil Brown was born into, grew up in, went to work in from the age of twelve, and understood. It was a world which ‘furrinas’ often found hard to comprehend, especially those from the London-Oxbridge triangle, parly due to class and education, but also because of the historical and geographic divisions of dialects. During the war all signposts in Suffolk were removed. Shortly after the war, they were still missing when one of Claxton’s colleagues who had recently joined his staff from ‘another part of England’ had to go to Chattisham. On driving along the narrow country lanes and arriving at Hintlesham she enquired of an elderly villager the way to Chattisham and received the reply, “Yow tarn t’ th’ left where th’ owd signpost used t’ stand.” Claxton commented that perhaps he was still suspicious of ‘furrinas’.

The ‘Ghost’ Ship and the Mystery of the Missing Body:

Aboard the ‘ghost ship’ discovered by Basil Brown was some of the richest treasure ever discovered on the island of Britain, and these discoveries in turn have raised many questions. The one which most frequently arises is: who was buried in this great ship in such glory? It was H. M. Chadwick who published the first scholarly paper on this question in 1940. He concluded that although nothing has yet been found which can provide a decisive identification of the person buried… there is no reason for doubting that he was a wealthy East Anglian king… All probability is in favour of the great and wealthy high-king Raedwald, who seems to have died about 624-5. Rupert Bruce-Mitford reached the same conclusion when he thoroughly reconsidered it in his report on the ship-burial. Since then, most historians have been willing to accept that Raedwald was the Wuffing king most likely to have been honoured at Sutton Hoo. This then begs a further question as to who Raedwald was. At the time, and until Sam Newton’s 2003 publication, there seems to have been no conveniently available history of him and the Wuffing kings. Newton sought to provide one by considering anew the historical sources we have about Raedwald. Whether or not the treasure laid out amidships beneat Mound One at Sutton Hoo was his, his story is worth telling in its own right. But to place it in proper historical context we need to go back a further two centuries to the end of Roman rule in the ‘province’ they named ‘Britannia’.

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Raedwald the High King by Stella Goodsir.

Since the discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial, archaeology has continued to shed light on the ‘Dark Ages’, where documentary evidence is lacking. The distribution of pagan fifth-century Anglo-Saxon burials indicates the probable areas of earliest English settlement in Britain. The English ‘advance’ continued throuhout the period – though both English and British kingdoms fought amongst themselves as often as they fought against each other. British and Irish missionaries spread Christianity throughout the islands, and were followed by continental and native English missionaries who also took part in the successful conversion of the pagan English in the later seventh century. In his 1977 book, A Short History of Suffolk, Derek Wilson wrote that ‘The Dark Ages’ was a term rightly frowned upon by historians. The implication that when the light of Roman civilization was extinguished Europe was plunged into four centuries of barbaric, heathen gloom could no longer be accepted. The Romans were conquerors; so were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Technically, the Romans had been more advanced, with a written language, in which they were able to record their disdain for the ‘barbarians’ without reply, but there the contrast ended. Therein, of course, lies the true meaning of the ‘dark ages’, since the historian is dependent for his ‘light’ on the chronicles left by scribes. But with the evidence unearthed by archaeologists, these centuries no longer remain ‘dark’.

As a result of the discoveries at Sutton Hoo and elsewhere, we now know that the newcomers had viable systems of commerce and agriculture and a vivid culture, expressed through the mouths of bards and the hands of craftsmen in wood, bronze, iron, gold and stone. As with the pre-Roman Celtic cultures, we rely upon archaeology, faintly illuminated by the Latin writings of a handful of monks to compose the narratives of this period of mass migration. Fortunately Suffolk is very rich in sites of this period and, while there is still much room for debate about the ‘Anglian’ kingdoms, there is now a large corpus of established fact.

The Roman shore forts were finally abandoned in AD 407. At that time the inhabitants of Suffolk were British free-holding farmers under a landowning class comprising both independent British and foedarati elements, the latter being bound by a treaty to come to the defence of Rome but who were neither colonists nor citizens. The two ethnic groups dwelt uneasily with each other but they had a common interest in protecting their land from seaborne invasion. There was now no prospect that the old Roman province of the Iceni could be ruled as part of one political unit in south-eastern Britain. In Kent, a local chieftain, Vortigern, tried to rally support for the defence of the whole territory but his efforts only hastened the process of political disintegration. In order to fend off the incursions of the Picts and the Scots from the north, he invited more of the foederati, rewarding them with land in East Anglia and around the Thames estuary. Inevitably, once the northern invaders had been thrown back, Vortigern’s allies turned on him and swarmed all over south-eastern Britain, carving out independent estates and fiefdoms for themselves. This opened the ‘floodgates’ and a succession of warlords crossed the North Sea (the Maris Germanicus) in their long, shallow-draught boats, which was well suited to exploring the coast, rivers, inlets and wetlands of East Anglia in search of land which was vacant or which was vacant or could easily be made vacant.

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The Germanic tribes – the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded ‘England’ during the fifth century AD came from the shores of Northern Europe, from the territorie we know today as Holland, Germany and Denmark. !There is some dispute as to whether the Jutes came from what is now Jutland, or from Frisia.) The Saxons mainly in the South and West, along the ‘Saxon shore’, the Angles landed along the East Coast, around East Anglia and as far North as eastern Scotland, and the Jutes settled along the South-eastern coast, including Kent.

The Angles were fishermen-farmers from the areas of present-day Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germany, the North Frisian islands and in Denmark. Pottery finds in Suffolk suggest that there were a number of distinct communities who migrated seperately over a long period of years in their seventy-foot-long, oar-propelled boats. It was not a concerted or particularly violent incursion or invasion, as populary believed until recent years (due to the accounts of Bede and other monastic chroniclers) but a piecemeal and largely peaceful settlement similar to that of the Celts which had taken place over the millenia before the Roman conquest (see maps A and B below, showing the initial incursions followed by the general and gradual settlement of the country between the fifth and seventh centuries).

The Angles rowed up the inlets and rivers from the Wash, penetrating the ‘Breckland’. Wilson claims that the new Germanic cultures established themselves completely and all Latin traces vanished, as many Britons migrated westwards, but it is clear that the struggles between the retreating Britons and the Angles was a long one. Two battles, shown on map C above, at Deorham in 577 and Chester in 613 are worth remembering, for by them the Britons (‘the Welsh’ or ‘the strangers’ to the Saxons) were isolated into four separate groups living in Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and Strathclyde. These areas, with their moors and mountains, were not attractive to the Angles and Saxons, who were mostly from the lowlands of western Europe.

The map above illustrates how the natural obstacles, such as fens, marshes, rivers and forests, helped to separate the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who settled in the south-east of England. The Angles who settled in the land between the Wash and the Thames estuary were confined by the marshes of Fenland to the west and the dense forests of heavy clay soil to the south. Later ‘raiders’ pushed up the Deben, the Gripping and the Orwell to establish settlements on the salt-marshes known as ‘the Sandlings’. In this compact area the Kingdom of East Anglia developed, the estuary of the Yare and the Wansum dividing the North Folk (Norfolk) from the South Folk (Suffolk).

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Map showing the Migration Period in Britain, c. 400 – 600.

However, while many of the British landowners migrated westwards as shown on the map above, some, including the farmers and traders, established a new modus vivendi with the newcomers. They found it easier to simply adopt the languages and customs of their new ‘masters’. British placenames were soon lost without trace, to be replaced by new Germanic ones – Gipeswic (‘the settlement by the estuary’ – Ipswich), Wudebridge (‘the wooden bridge’ – Woodbridge), Sudybrig (‘the southern fort’ – Sudbury), Gyxeweorde (‘Gisca’s homestead’ – Ixworth). ‘Wic’, ‘Tun’, ‘weorde’ – they are all words indicating small settlements, fortified homesteads where single families lived with their servants. The newcomers had no word for ‘town’ since the concept of urban life and the complex social relationships it entailed was alien to them. They lived in small self-sufficient units, in round houses of timber and thatch within stockades providing shelter for man and beast. The communal fire was the centre of every homestead, and ‘hearth and home’ was very much an Anglo-Saxon concept. The chieftains lived in more imposing timber halls where they feasted their warriors and discussed forthcoming campaigns.

Wilson’s ‘modern-day’ map of Suffolk.

Early in the sixth century a group of settlers arrived in the Sandlings, along the Deben estuary, who were different from their predecessors. They came from Sweden and their leader’s name was Wehha. His family, the ‘Wuffings’ established the first ‘Kingdom’ of East Anglia. From their base at Rendlesham they ranged along the coast and rivers forcing their will on all the settlements, demanding allegiance and the payment of tribute. Within half a century the Wuffings had brought most of East Anglia under their control and the kingdom reached its zenith during the reign of Raedwald (c. 599-625). Their success in gaining the allegiance of the Angles was quite remarkable, and was probably not just due to their reputation as warriors, but also to their claim to be descendents of the God Woden, considered to be the founding father of all the legitimate Anglo-Saxon royal lines. When, in 1939, Brown opened the long barrow, he unearthed not only a magnificent collection of Anglo-Saxon treasures of enormous value in terms of historical significance; he also exposed a whole new series of historical problems.

A purse-lid with gold plaques inset with garnets and millefiori glass. The ground (restored) was probably made of bone or ivory. Length: 19.5 cm.

The Sutton Hoo ‘burial’ is, justifiably, the most famous of all British archaeological discoveries. Sometime in the early seventh century (between 625 and 670) a Wuffing king died. His people took an old longboat, eighty-six feet long, and dragged it on rollers to the royal burial ground overlooking the Deben, and lowered it into a specially dug trench. Then, into a cabin, erected amidships, they carried all their leader’s possessions – his axe, jewelled sword, knife and spears, magnificent helmet of iron and bronze, shield, stone sceptre tipped with a fine bronze stag, leather and linen parade dress with gold buckles and other accoutrements, a purse decorated with panels of gold and enamel (above), a six-stringed harp, drinking horns mounted in gilt, dishes and hanging bowls, wooden cups, combs, clothes, a large hoard of coins, even his pillow stuffed with goose down. The finds have reminded historians of the ship funeral event described in Beowulf’s poem, which may well have been part of the seventh-century standard repertoire of minstrels:

But there was one big difference between what is described in the poem above and what was discovered in the Sandlings. At the Sutton Hoo burial the fabulous treasures were not piled on the king’s breast because the one thing missing from it was a body, and therein lies the great mystery of Sutton Hoo. Were the king’s remains not available for burial, perhaps lost in a storm at sea? Historians developed an intriguing alternative theory, that the Sutton Hoo burial is really a ‘memorial’, representing a culture in transition between paganism and Christianity. There are significant religious questions raised by the Sutton Hoo ship-burial because though the funeral-rite here seems to be wholly pagan in character, there appear to be some very strong signs of Christian symbolism among the grave-goods. In particular, the nest of ten silver bowls decorated with cruciform designs, and the pair of silver spoons inscribed ‘Paulos’ and ‘Saulos’ have been plausibly explained as baptismal gifts for a king who had undergone adult conversion into the Roman church.

Of potential significance too are the cruciform patterns set out on the garnets of lighter hue on the pair of gold buttons which secured the scabbard to the king’s sword belt. These form part of a set of exquisite mounts, probably made in the royal workshop, showing close affinities with examples of early Christian gold cloisonné cruciform pendants. The discovery of two silver christening spoons in the ship suggest that the king had received Christian baptism. The missionaries admitted to his kingdom would have taught him that the soul had no need of earthly treasures after death. But the old traditions and customs died hard among the Angles and the king’s people might well have equipped a long ship with all the necessities for a journey to the next life. While obeying the new God of the missionary monks, they saw no need to turn their backs on the old ancestral gods, and doubtless feared to do so.

Silver spoons (probably christening spoons) bearing the names SAUL and PAUL in Greek.

In his 2003 book The Reckoning of King Raedwald, however, Sam Newton challenges this view that the body was given a Christian burial elsewhere, perhaps at the nearby Wuffing temple of Rendlesham. He claims that the rite of the ship funeral itself need not be seen as purely pagan as has often been assumed. What seems to be strongly to be implicit in the use of the ship as a funeral-vessel to bear its passenger to the next world is the belief that death is but a point of embarkation in a voyage across the waters that encircle the mortal world. In the Old English poetic sources this idea is well developed. The opening movement of Beowulf, for example, culminates in the magnificent account of a royal ship-funeral in which the metaphor of the vessel which ferries the soul in and out of the mortal world across the unchartable waters of gársecg is central. The ultimate destination of his fully laden funeral-ship is alluded to in the in the concluding lines of the Beowulf passage, paraphrased here:

No men can say in truth, whether hall-counsellors or heroes under the heavens, who that lading received.

These lines, widely accepted as having been composed in the eighth century, suggest that, for many of the king’s subjects, the Old English ‘Avalon’ was unknowable to even the wisest and strongest of living men because it lay beyond the horizon of mortal knowledge. The notion of heaven as a ‘haven’ over the horizon is one which both Christian and pagan might share, as in the Arthurian mythology. This was especially the case during a period of religious transition. In his discussion of the religious world of Beowulf, Professor Ted Irving concluded that the secret of the poem’s universe may … be located on the far shore of the Ocean… In this place the heroic world so magnificently exemplified by Beowulf intersects with the Christian world the poet inhabits.

So potent is the metaphor of the ship as the soul’s ferry that it is used as an elegant symbol in the more explicit Christian poetry of Cynewulf’s homily, Christ II. The suggestion is that it might be more accurate to view the royal rite of ship-burial in Mound One at Sutton Hoo as a ‘transitional’ burial. As such, it would come close to matching what we might expect of Wuffing funeral-rites given what we can discern of changing royal religious allegiances during this period. None of this amounts to a compelling case that Raedwald was buried at Sutton Hoo, especially since no human remains were found there in 1939. Nevertheless the ‘reckoning’ of Raedwald’s history which Newton presents serves to confirm the conclusions of Chadwick and Bruce-Mitford that, on the present evidence, King Raedwald is the most likely of the Wuffing lords to have lain in state in the great ship berthed beneath Mound One at Sutton Hoo.

Christianity had entered Suffolk during the reign of Raedwald from two directions, the first missionaries probably being the Irish monks from Lindisfarne in Northumbria. Almost simultaneously, in 597, Augustine and his monks had begun the evangelization of south-eastern Britain, achieving an early signal success in the baptism of King Aethelbert of Kent. At this time there were seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, ‘the Heptarchy’, and Aethelbert had been recognised as the ‘Bretwalda’, the senior ruler or ‘high king’. He was thus Raedwald’s overlord, and when he ordered the East Anglian king to be baptised, Raedwald duly and dutifully complied.

Raedwald’s ‘conversion’, however, did not run very deep and his queen’s devotion to the old ways, in which women played a more significant role, ensured that her husband would only regard the Christian God as a recruit to the company of Woden, Thunor and Frig. But Raedwald’s successor, Eopwald, embraced Christianity only to be murdered by a pagan usurper, Ricbert. Within three years the rightful heir, Sigebert, returned from exile among the Franks and regained the throne. The new king was an impressive and much-loved figure, possessing all the warrior skills of the Wuffingas allied to a devotion to the Christian learning he had encountered in exile. On his return to East Anglia, he set Christian missionaries to work converting and educating his people. These were Felix, a sophisticated Burgundian brought up in the Frankish schools and Fursey, an Irish monk, aflame with Celtic zeal and mysticism. It was at some time between the end of Raedwald’s reign and Sigebert’s reign that the burial took place, so the identity of the ‘missing king’ is still an open question, but he was certainly one who ruled as a Christian – at least nominally – over a still predominantly pagan kingdom.

Our main primary historical source for a biography of King Raedwald is the invaluable early eight century Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Angolorum, ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, written by the Northumbrian scholar St Bede. From this we know that Raedwald was King of the Eastern Angles and overlord of Britain in the first quarter of the seventh century. Following Aethelbert of Kent’s example and command as the previous ‘high king’, as we have noted, he was one of the first English kings to be baptised by Augustine’s mission of 597. It was probably shortly after Aethelbert’s receipt of a letter from Pope Gregory in the middle of 601 urging him to ‘instil’ the Christian faith into ‘the kings and nations subject to you’ that Raedwald travelled by sea from the Deben estuary in Suffolk to the Stour estuary in Kent, a crossing of less than twelve hours as long as the tides were judged correctly. Bede refers retrospectively to the event in his later chapter on the coming of of Christianity to the East Anglian kingdom. This tells us of how circa 626-27, King Edwin of the Northern Angles (ruled c. 617-633) persuaded King Eorpwald of the Eastern Angles, Raedwald’s son and eventual successor, to accept baptism, at which point Bede referred back to Raedwald’s baptism in Kent some years before.

St Gregory’s, Church, Rendlesham (photo by Sam Newton)

Though his commitment to the Christian faith may have been nominal at first, Newton has argued that Raedwald subsequently played a more vital part in advancing the Christian cause in the Heptarchy, at least in dynastic terms, than Bede himself acknowledges. On his return from Kent, around 604, Raedwald established an altar to his new god alongside one to his old gods, perhaps in the royal home of the Wuffing kings at Rendlesham. Bede condemns him for this temple of two altars but Newton suggests, like Wilson, that this could be viewed more as an attempt to resolve the conflicting cultural demands of the day through a synthesis of the old and the new faiths. Newton argues that there was bound to have been a debate in the East Anglian kingdom on the king’s return from Kent, since the abandonment of the old gods and the adoption of Christianity were very serious matters both for the Wuffing dynasty and the Eastern Angles, as Bede himself tells us it was among the Northern Angles in the time of King Edwin. Bede also tells us that Raedwald’s queen, whose name he does not tell us, and certain elders of the kingdom were involved in the question, the implication being that they advised the king against rejecting or relegating the old faith. The royal bedmate clearly had some authority in religious matters as the representative of the female element in the pre-Christian fertility rituals for the land, as can be inferred from the evident tradition whereby a succeeding king would marry his predecessor’s royal widow.

Yet while Raedwald himself would have found it difficult to give up the beliefs that he, the Wuffings and all the Anglians had held for so long, he appears not to have been prepared to forsake his recently established allegiance to Christ, the new god of his overlord. This may have been largely for political reasons, but it is also possible that Raedwald felt some attraction to the Roman cause. For example, the Wuffingas may have felt an affinity with the Roman foundation legend of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf because their own family origin legend may also have involved a totemic wolf, as is arguably implicit in their dynastic name. This might explain the unique presence of the name Caser or ‘Caesar’ (‘Kaiser’) in the upper reaches of their genealogy. Whatever the substance of the suggested debate in Raedwald’s hall in Rendlesham on the question of adopting Christianity, he resolved the question with great diplomatic skill in a way that reconciled both the old gods and the Christian god. For Bede, however, this was unacceptable, so he sought to condemn Raedwald with all the rhetoric he could muster:

… he seemed to be serving both Christ and the the gods whom he had previously served; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another small altar fon which to offer victims to devils. Ealdwulf, who was ruler of the kingdom up to our time, used to declare that the temple lasted until his time and that he saw it when he was a boy. Raedwald, who was noble by birth though ignoble in deeds, was the son of Tytil, whose father was Wuffa, from whom the kings of the East Angles are called Wuffings.

Yet this was clearly not a case of apostacy on Raedwald’s part, for he did not reject his new faith, despite the influence of his wife and the Wuffinga elders. Rather, Newton argues, he was able to find a pragmatic and diplomatic resolution to the conflicting cultural demands of his day through a synthesis of the old and the new faiths. In this way, although he remained loyal to his old gods, it seems likely that that he considered himself to be a practising Christian for the rest of his life. His royal altar to Christ, however much Bede might have disapproved of it, provided the only source of continuity for the Christian faith in southern Britain. After the death of Aethelbert of Kent in circa 616 and the consequent crisis of Christianity, Raedwald’s shrine appears to have been the only one still functioning in southern Britain until the re-establishment of the bishopric of Canterbury some years later. Moreover, Raedwald’s victory over the overlord of the north, Aethelfrith, at the River Idle (shown on the map below), gave him overlordship over the Heptarchy. Newton suggests that the Wuffing king’s success was a battle-test for a baptised English king, demonstrating the power of the new god to deliver the blessings of victory. It may therefore have been a significant factor in the re-establishment of Roman Christianity at Canterbury.

Bede reveals that the memory of Raedwald’s temple of two altars lasted for several generations before he put the story into writing, but the exact site is long forgotten. However, more recently, teams of archaeologists have been exploring a possible site at Rendlesham in Suffolk, located on the east bank of the River Deben some four miles upstream from Sutton Hoo. This place is named by Bede as ‘the house of Rendil’ and as a royal site in the reign of Raedwald’s nephew, Aethelwald, who ruled circa 655-664. There is a reference to this in Bede’s account of the return of Christianity to the kingdom of the East Saxons at around the same time. It refers to the baptism of Swithhelm, king of the East Saxons, by the Celtic monk Cedd at Rendlesham. Bede’s casual reference to Rendlesham as a royal hall is of great significance because it implies a complex of buildings including a great hall beside the royal church where Swithhelm was baptised. Archaeological and landscape evidence suggests that at least part of the royal site at Rendlesham was located in the vicinity of St Gregory’s church. Rupert Bruce-Mitford’s detailed survey of the parish shows how, about eight hundred yards to the north-east of the church, he located a sixth-century burial ground on a piece of ancient glebe land, known by the name of Hoo Hill, with a possible mound nearby. He showed how this revealed that the area was of importance within the Wuffing kingdom.

This has been much strengthened by the more recent fieldwork of John Newman, who reported that the ‘sheer size’ of the area of the finds here of the clearly defined pottery tradition of Middle Saxon Ipswich ware puts Rendlesham into a special category within the survey area. Archaeological excavation work at a location to the north of the church in 1982, where significant metalwork finds dated to the late sixth or early seventh-century were unearthed, reinforces the evidence of the pottery finds. Peter Warner’s recent reconsideration of the landscape context of Rendlesham builds on Bruce-Mitford’s work to include the neighbouring parishes to the south, especially Eyke. He provides a persuasive argument that these may have been formed from the division of a single seventh-century royal estate, with Sutton, the ‘southern manor’ to the south. He also strengthens the argument that this area, centred on Rendlesham, Sutton Hoo and the Deben valley represents the old heartland of the Wuffing kingdom. Warner describes this territory as both the cradle and resting-place of the early East Anglian kingdom. It was bestowed as a Liberty by King Edgar (959-975) which confirmed the re-establishment of St Etheldreda’s Abbey of Ely. In the year that Raedwald’s nephew, King Anna died in the Mercian massacre under the powerful pagan King Penda (654), Botolph built a monastery on the Alde estuary at Iken.

Etheldreda, or Aethelthryth (to give her name its proper spelling) was a Wuffing princess, being the saintly daughter of King Anna, and fell under the spell of holy Felix and his monks. Her only ambition was to lead a life of contemplation and prayer, but as aprincess, she was twice married off, apparently surviving both these ‘unions’ with her virginity intact. After twelve years of marriage to her second husband, Prince Egfrid of Northumbria, he gave her freedom to go and live as a nun, and she founded an Abbey on the Isle of Ely, doubling as a monastery for monks as well as nuns. As founding Abbess of Ely, she was enshrined as a saint after her death on 23 June 679. Following Edgar’s gift of the Five Hundreds of Wicklow, as the area came to be known, it remained a coherent territory until the late nineteenth century. All of this evidence adds weight to the argument that Raedwald’s temple of the two altars was within this territory and may have stood close to the royal hall site of the Wuffing kings at Rendlesham. The last Wuffing king died almost a hundred years after Anna and that century produced few events which the monastic scribes thought worthy of recording. It would appear, Wilson states, that the last generations of the Wuffing dynasty produced no men of stature to compare with the founders of the house. On the other hand the people of East Anglia seem to have been left in peace. Though owing allegiance to the kings of Mercia, they were far enough away from the main arena of political and military conflict to be left much to their own devices. We would be wrong to think of these early Saxon Christians as worshipping in impressive stone churches and minsters bearing any similarity to those built from the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The first Suffolk churches were for the most part very simple affairs of wood and thatch, remaining so even into the Norman period, as the photograph above shows. Stone was not a natural building material locally, and only where earlier edifices existed in the form of disused fortifications, like the Roman sea-fort at Burgh Castle, or pagan shrines, was the more permanent material used. It was often the simple Saxon peasantry who raised the first churches, more for reasons of personal comfort than for devotion. Originally, services were held in the open and the only permanent feature was the altar, often converted from an old pagan shrine. This may well also have been the nature of Raedwald’s ‘temple’ of two altars at Rendlesham. When regular attendance was required by parish priests appointed by bishops, and commanded by the kings and eorls, they decided to build themselves barn-like structures before the altar to protect themselves from the elements. Thus the first ‘naves’ were built, probably using disused longboats (the word ‘navy’ has the same origin as ‘nave’), and thus began the tradition of the nave of the church being the responsibility of the parishioners while the priests were responsible for the maintenance of the sanctuary. For these transitioning Anglians, the use of ships in religious matters may not simply have been symbolic.

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The maps above show how the Angles, Saxons and Jutes formed themselves into seven kingdoms, but they were sketched and published just after the world war, before the finds at Sutton Hoo were well known outside archaeological circles. Moreover, the frontiers shown are those of the early ninth century, as the inclusion of Offa’s Dyke reveals. The smaller kingdoms, such as East Anglia, were truly independent only for short periods, but one of these was the period of the reign of Raedwald, who became Bretwalda in 617, as confirmed by the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet Geffrei Gaimar, probably drawing on a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. When the previousHigh King’, Aethelbert of Kent died on 24th February 616, he was succeeded as king of Kent by his unbaptised son Eabald who, according to Bede, lived by heathen customs, so that he had his father’s widow as wife. This refers to the pre-Christian royal custom that required a new king to marry his predecessor’s widow in order to maintain the queen’s sacred responsibility for the fertility of the land, ensuring the success of the harvest. To the church, however, this meant that Eabald was marrying his step-mother, a union which had been declared incestuous by Pope Gregory before Eabald entered into it.

At about the same time, another crisis arose for the Roman church in the kingdom of the East Saxons where Bishop Mellitus had been installed at St Paul’s in London under the auspices of the East Saxon king Saebert in circa 604. Saebert seems to have died around the same time as his uncle and overlord, to be succeeded by his three unbaptised sons. They refused baptism and drove Mellitus out of his ‘seat’ beginning a pagan period in the kingdom which lasted for several decades. Mellitus sought refuge in Kent, but the bishops there, including Laurence of Canterbury and Justus of Rochester, decided to abandon their mission due to the reassertion of the old faith and to leave the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms altogether. It is not clear why Eadbald changed his mind, or how long it took him to do so, but Archbishop Laurence eventually persuaded him to allow him to re-establish the Roman church in Kent and to accept baptism himself. It is entirely possible that he was following Raedwald’s example in retaining his Christian faith, which seems to have been blessed in the latter’s battles as ‘High King’. His temple of two altars, although later condemned by Bede, was at the time the only royal Christian shrine still standing in southern Britain and it seemed that Raedwald was the last hope of the Gregorian mission, as well as providing an important link to the Irish missionaries.

The fact that Raedwald was able to organise and lead a long-distance military expedition in circa 1616-17 suggests that he was, by then, an experienced commander and a fine warrior in his own right, lending further credence to the association of the Sutton Hoo hoard with him. If all the peoples of Britain had been united under the protection of one great king, this period may have been regarded as something of a golden age. In his 1994 article, The Death of Aethelfrith of Lloegr (England), Craig Cessford has drawn on the Welsh Triads to show that British warriors with grievances of their own against the northern overlord (the slaying of 12,000 Celtic monks at the Battle of Chester), fought on Raedwald’s side at the Battle and that one of them was responsible for the fortunate slaying of Edelfled. Raedwald would have received more tribute from further afield than any ‘high king’ before him, including perhaps some of the Celtic items found in the burial. The Battle of the Idle may be regarded as the first successful ‘trial by combat’ for a Christian Anglo-Saxon king. Raedwald’s triumph there might well have been seen to demonstrate the power of the new God to deliver the blessings of victory, and it may well have been a significant factor in the decision of Eadbald of Kent to accept baptism, enabling the re-establishment of Roman Christianity at Canterbury.

The magnificent gold belt buckle, decorated with intricate animal interlace patterns. Suffolk Anglo-Saxon metalwork had a strong influence on Celtic craftsmanship, producing a fusion of the two.

There is therefore a strong case for recognising Raedwald as a great king whose political and military leadership helped to further the Christian cause in the ‘English’ kingdoms more than Bede, with his Northumbrian bias, allows. Far from being ‘ignoble in deeds’ as Bede would have us believe, in giving refuge to Edwin and fighting a war to defend their friendship, as his pagan wife had urged him to do, he provides an admirable kingly example of success with honour and, in this sense, he may have been regarded and remembered as a good king as well as a great one. Bede tells us nothing about the last years of Raedwald’s life, but there is no reason to doubt that he retained his prestige and power, becoming the most powerful Anglo-Saxon ruler south of the Humber and, after his defeat of Aethelfrith, the overlord of northern Britain at the River Idle, arguably the High King of all the English, if not the British. Neither does Bede record the death of Raedwald, but it may be inferred from the dating of circumstantial events that he had passed away by about 624-25. The state funeral of so successful and wealthy a king as Raedwald would no doubt have been a splendid and memorable event, talked about for a long time after, like those recorded in Norse sagas.

A gilt bronze winged dragon, originally forming part of a shield.

The only potential reference to his funeral in any documentary source might be contained in the Anglo-Norman L’ Estoire des Engles by the poet Geffrei Gaimar. He records a list of the seven overlords of Britain and his verse about Raedwald, the fourth overlord mentioned, ends with: a right wise man, and well he ended. This might be an echo of a bardic memory of Raedwald’s funeral from five centuries earlier. However, although there was no definitive evidence unearthed that Raedwald was the king honoured in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, the historical record of him does tend to reinforce the view of Chadwick and Bruce-Mitford that it is not at all improbable. There is no surviving source referring to Raedwald’s burial-place, yet he, like the other Wuffing kings, may have regarded south-eastern Suffolk as his homeland. This identification has been reinforced by William Filmer-Sankey in his recently-published discussion (2001) of the formation of the kingdom of the Eastern Angles, in which he argues convincingly that the ship-burial sites at Snape and Sutton Hoo should be regarded as Wuffing ‘folk-cemeteries’. So it would certainly seem possible that the Raedwald could have been buried in one of the high-status Wuffing ship-burials at Snape or Sutton Hoo, and that dating indication suggests the latter since the documentary evidence for this seems to correspond with the date of the treasure-laden ship at Sutton Hoo. The coinage evidence suggests a date for the Mound One ship-burial at some point between 613 and 630.

Few places in Britain reveal as much about the nature of early medieval political power as Sutton Hoo. The site is a cemetery containing at least seventeen barrows, the greatest concentration in England, and numerous flat graves and cremations. The largest barrow, Mound 1, excavated by Basil Brown in 1939, has proved to be by far the richest Anglo-Saxon burial ever found in England. It contained a huge collection of precious objects gathered from across Europe, some of which signal the burial’s royal status. These finds include objects needed for a lavish feast (drinking vessels of glass and horn, Byzantine silver plate, bronze hanging bowls and decorated with enamel, a lyre) and splendid jewellery, armour, clothing and other accoutrements fit for a king. As was typical with high-status pagan Anglo-Saxon burials, objects symbolising warrior status were given greater emphasis. The sword, shield and helmet are all richly decorated, to complement the even more spectacular golden jewellery. In the purse a large collection of coins was found, from throughout France, probably all minted before 625. On the basis of this date, the burial is widely regarded as that of Raedwald, and the cemetery as a royal burial ground of his dynasty. The cemetery was also convenienty situated for the royal residence and estate around Rendlesham.

It was shortly after the Battle of the River Idle, in 617, that Raedwald succeeded as Bretwalda and he in turn was followed by Edwin of Northumbria, whom Raedwald had restored to his throne. Penda of pagan Mercia slew Edwin in 633, but when King Oswy of Northumbria in turn killed Penda, removing the chief obstacle to the spread of Christianity, Egbert of Wessex secured supremacy. Then in 664, Oswy, realising the disadvantages of having competing forms of Christianity, summoned a synod at Whitby. Impressed by the power and superior organisation of the Roman Church, he decided to expel the Celtic missionaries, who returned to Iona in the western Hebrides. This prepared the way for the Anglo-Saxons to be united under one king as they had become united in one Church. Sutton Hoo also offers a a unique insight into Anglo-Saxon ceremonial rites, as an élite sought to create a kingdom and secure their rights to it. Burial there probably began early in the seventh century. As time passed the kingdom grew in power and the graves increased in prestige. By the end of the century, Christianity posed a serious challenge to traditional pagan belief. Could it be that, far from representing acceptance of a transition to Christianity, the lavish burial in Mound 1 was intended to send a conspicuous statement of pagan belief in the face of a crusading Roman Christianity, showing a preference for the Celtic variety of the new faith?

Appendix: Gallery



A. O. D. Claxton (1954, reprinted 1981), The Suffolk Dialect of the Twentieth Century. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. (The third edition of 1968 contains an insightful note by Claxton’s daughter, Madge, on changing attitudes to dialect in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly among linguists).

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Sam Newton (2003), The Reckoning of King Raedwald: The Story of the King linked to the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial. Colchester: Red Bird Press.

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation Across Time. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press.

McCrum, Cran & MacNeil (1986), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Stehen Driscoll, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.






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