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What and when was ‘Old English’?   Leave a comment


Above: The Heptarchy, or seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Northumberland, given here, was more often known as Northumbria before the Norman Conquest.

We call the language of the Anglo-Saxon period up to about 1150, following the Norman Conquest, Old English (OE). Our knowledge of OE is based on a number of manuscripts that have survived from those times, from which the grammar and vocabulary have been reconstructed by scholars, working from the sixteenth century onwards, but especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   They have provided us with the dictionaries and grammars of OE, and the editions of OE texts on which we can rely.

Boundaries and Dialects:

The English were not a particularly unified nation until late OE times, from about the time of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. The Anglo-Saxons came from different parts of Western Europe and spoke different dialects of West Germanic. Different tribes settled in different parts of Britain, but were able to communicate with each other in an increasingly common tongue, though retaining differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. The ‘country’ which existed during the seventh and eighth centuries is sometimes referred to as the heptarchy, the seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. There were frequent wars between these kingdoms, in which one tried to dominate the others, first Northumbria, then East Anglia, then Mercia and finally Wessex, until it was overthrown by the Danes under Cnut in 1016. The fact that there were seven kingdoms does not mean, however, that there were seven different dialects. The evidence from the manuscripts suggests that there were four: Northumbrian, Mercian and Anglian, in the North, East Anglia and Mercian, or Midland, from the West Germanic settlers, and a dialect which mixed Jutish with West Saxon across the south. It is usual to use the late West Saxon dialect of the tenth and eleventh centuries to describe OE in its written form, because Wessex was by then the dominant kingdom, and most of the legal manuscripts were written in it, although Mercian remained the most widely spoken dialect north of the Thames throughout the Middle Ages.

005 Above: A chart of runic symbols with their equivalent phonemes in modern English.

The writing system of the earliest English was based on the use of signs called runes, which were devised for carving in wood or stone. One of the few examples to survive in Britain is the eighteen-foot cross in the church in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire. On it are some runic inscriptions in the Northumbrian dialect, part of a famous OE poem called The Dream of the Rood (from the OE for ‘cross’, relating the events of the Crucifixion). The Ruthwell Cross probably dates from the eighth century. Written English as we know it had to wait for the establishment of the Church and the building of monasteries, at which time the monks wrote in Latin. This began to happen in the seventh century when much of Northumbria and East Anglia was converted to Christianity by monks from Ireland, while Augustine had been sent by the Pope to convert the southern English, beginning in Kent. The monks adapted the Latin alphabet to write in English, which means that OE gives us a good idea of its pronunciation. The variations in spelling provide evidence of the different dialects which existed in English.

For example, the earliest known poem in English is Caedmon’s hymn, found in the OE translation of Bede’s History of the English Church and People, written in Latin and finished in 731. Bede’s history was translated into English in the late ninth century as part of the great revival of learning under King Alfred the Great of Wessex. The poem, a hymn to God the Creator, is all that survives of the devotional poet, Caedmon, who lived in Bede’s time. Here are the first lines from it in, first, the West Saxon and then the Northumbrian dialects, followed by a word-for-word translation into modern English:


Nu we sculan herian heofonrices Weard

Metodes mihte and his modgethonk

weorc Wulfdorfaeder; swa he wundra gehwaes

ece Dryhten, ord onstealde.


Nu scylan hergan hefaenricaes Uard

Metudaes maecti end his mogdidanc

uerc uuldurfadur; sue he uundra gihuaes

eci Dryctin, or aestelidae.


(Now we must praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian

Creator’s might and his mind-thought

work Glory-father’s; as he of-wonders each

evelasting Lord, beginning established.)


Runes and Early Writing:


In printing and writing Old English today, present day shapes of Roman letters are used, with three additional non-Roman letters, or phonic symbols, because there was no equivalent sound or letter in Latin. These are the short ‘ae’ vowel sound, known as ‘ash’ in runes, as in the modern word ‘cat’, and two symbols used interchangeably for the voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ sound in modern English. These runes are called ‘thorn’ and ‘eth’. A complete list of the vowels and consonants and their corresponding sounds in modern Received Pronunciation (RP) is given below:


A small book called a Testimonie of Antiquietie was printed in 1567. Its purpose was to provide evidence in a contemporary religious controversy about the Church sacraments. It reproduced, with a translation, a sermon ‘in the Saxon tongue’ by Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury in 995. He was not only a famous preacher in English, but also a grammarian. The book is of interest to linguists because the translation provides an example of Early Modern English (EME) both in style and spelling and printing as well as a copy of the OE manuscript forms. The beginning of Aelfric’s sermon is given below, together with its sixteenth century translation and the list of the Saxon characters or letters that be moste straunge. The word-for-word translation of the OE in the facsimile is:

Aelfric abbot greets Sigeferth

friendily; to me is said that

thou saidest about me that I other

taught in English writings,

than your anchorite*

at home with you teaches,

because he clearly says that is

permitted, that mass priests

well may wive, and my

writings against speak this.


* = religious hermit


The Incursions and Immigrations of the Norsemen:


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records an event in 787 which proved to be an ominous portent of things to come (in word-for-word translation):

Here took breohtric king offa’s daughter eadburh… in his days came first three ships of-northmen from hortha land… and then the reeve thereto rode… he wished drive to the king’s manor because he knew-not what they were… him one slew there. That were the first ships danish men’s that Angle-people’s land sought.


By the end of the eighth century the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had finally occupied almost the whole of what we know of England today, as well as modern-day Scotland as far as the Firth of Forth. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to record battles for supremacy between the kings of the seven kingdoms, as in the following example of the annal dated 827:

In this year there was an eclipse of the moon on Christmas morning. And the same year Egbert conquered Mercia, and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be ‘Ruler of Britain’: the first to rule so great a kingdom was Aelle, king of Sussex; the second was Caewlin, king of Wessex; the third was Aethelbert, king of Kent; the fourth was Raedwald, king of East Anglia; the fifth was Edwin, king of Northumbria; the sixth was Oswald who reigned after him; the seventh was Oswy, Oswald’s brother; the eighth was Egbert, king of Wessex.


But by this time the three ships that the king’s reeve had ridden to meet forty years earlier had been followed by greater numbers of ships and Norsemen, making annual raids for plunder along the coasts and up the rivers of northern France and England. The Peterborough Chronicle annal for 793 records the first Norwegian Viking attack on the monasteries of Lindisfarne and Jarrow:

793, and a little after that in the same year on 8th January* God’s church on the island of Lindisfarne was miserably plundered and destroyed by the heathen, with great slaughter.


(*794 in the Gregorian calendar)


The Norwegian Vikings soon began to raid around the northern and western coasts and islands of Scotland, the north-west coasts of Cumbria, Northumbria, Mercia, Wales and the north of Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Danes began raiding the eastern coasts of the Anglian and Saxon kingdoms in 835, and by the mid-ninth century larger raiding parties regularly ravaged the hinterlands and began to occupy and settle major tracts of these. The most famous of the Saxon kings, Alfred, King of Wessex, after years of continual defeat, negotiated treaties with the Danes. By the time of his death in 899, only Wessex remained intact and independent. The rest of Engaland, north and east of the old Roman road called Watling Street, from London to Chester, was in the hands of the Danish settlers and became known as the Danelaw. The Scandinavian attacks and incursions continued throughout the first half of the tenth century. One of them, dated 937 in the annal, is celebrated in poetry as the Battle of Brunanburh in modern-day Scotland (the exact site is unknown), where Aethelstan, King of Wessex, defeated the Norwegian Vikings attacking from Ireland.

 001Above: The Battle of Brunanburh, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Parker) for AD 937.

(In OE manuscripts, poetry was set out like prose, not in separate lines. Lines and half-lines were often clearly marked with a dot like a full-stop.)


A period of twenty-five years of peace after 955 was once again broken when more attacks by Norsemen began in the 980’s. Some came from Normandy across the Channel, where they had also settled, as well as from Denmark and Norway. In 1017, the Danish king, Cnut, became ‘King of All England’; Danish rule was not ended until 1042, when the Edward the Confessor became the King of England.

004 (2)

The settlement of the Danelaw had important effects on the English Language. Old Norse (ON) is the name now given to the language spoken by the Danish and Norwegian Vikings. It was ‘cognate’ with Old English (OE); that is, they both came from the same antecedent West Germanic group of languages. It seems that the two languages were similar enough in vocabulary for OE-speakers to understand common ON words and phrases, and vice-versa, so that the English and the Norsemen could communicate. Many OE words therefore have a cognate ON word, and we cannot always be sure whether a Modern English reflex is derived from OE, ON or from both. An Icelandic saga says of the eleventh century that there was at that time the same tongue in England as in Norway and Denmark, but speakers of their own tongue simplified it when making transactions with the other, so that OE dialects in the Danelaw became modified in ways which were different from the west Mercian, East Anglian and Wessex dialects. These variations are detectable in present-day northern and East Anglian dialects, which reveal ON features, especially in vocabulary.

Main Published Source:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Who are the English, anyway? Who were the Anglo-Saxons? Part One   1 comment

I recently watched a video online which shows that, according to DNA testing, the English are only 5% English – genetically, that is. And they are far more similar to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish than to people on the continent of Europe. So why, we might ask, don’t more of the people of the British Isles speak a Celtic language, Basque or Welsh, and how is it that it is a form of Mercian Saxon or ‘Midland English’ (not ‘East Anglian’, by the way), which dominates international communication?

DSC09837These questions were very much on my mind this summer, not because of the Scottish referendum debate, but because, at last, I had the chance to visit the supposed burial grounds of one of the first great English kings. I had taught about the Sutton Hoo ship burial in much of my early career as a history teacher in Britain, but had never made the long journey up or across into East Anglia to see it at close quarters, in Suffolk. Of course, lots of the original finds are on display in the National Museum anyway, but there’s something about visiting the original site of the discovery, made 75 years ago this July, which evokes all the atmosphere of Dark Age mythology and the sense of communing with a unique heritage. There was also something very poignant about looking across those mounds, almost on the exact anniversary of the discovery of their treasures which revealed the mixture of pagan and Christian, Anglian and Celtic cultures, which was made on the eve of a war fought against an idea of racial and cultural purity, which plunged the world into a modern dark age far more terrorising than the comparatively minor conflicts of fourteen centuries ago.

DSC09864I also visited the nearby so-called ‘royal’ church of the Wuffing kings, in the old village of Rendelsham, thought to be the site of the first Anglo-Saxon Christian shrine, dating back to the first decade of the seventh century.

As a young historian interacting with the various (mainly Welsh) nationalist mythologies of the early 1980s, which still seem remarkably resilient more than three decades later, I was much influenced by a ground-breaking television series, The Blood of the British, in which the Cambridge historian Catherine Hills traced the cultural changes in the British Isles from ten thousand years ago to the Norman Conquest, challenging and overturning accepted views of waves of successive invaders, from the prehistoric Beaker peoples to the Romans, Vikings and Saxons, fracturing the cultures of indigenous peoples and driving them from their settlements. She showed how, although much enriched by the newcomers of recent centuries, there was, and still is, a great underlying thread of continuity between the present-day British people and their ancient ancestry.

The end of Roman Britain, for instance, has often been seen as a drama involving the irruption of barbarian hordes into a country left undefended and partly empty by the withdrawal of the Roman military and trading network. The traditional story, which we learnt and taught in schools throughout Britain, was that the British king Vortigern, left to face the Pictish threat from the North unaided, invited in Germanic mercenaries to help him defend the rump of Britannia. These arrived in three ships, led by Hengest and Horsa, but soon turned on the Britons themselves, overrunning the country with fire and sword until flames licked the land from sea to sea and the cities ran with blood. Despite the heroic efforts of Ambrosius Aerelianus (often equated with the legendary Arthur), the Britons were pushed into the mountainous western lands, where they became the ‘Welsh’, a Saxon word for ‘alien’, ‘Cymry’ or ‘compatriots’ among themselves. The Anglo-Saxons then took over most of lowland England and Scotland, giving it a more-or-less common language and much of its present agricultural landscape and people.

005This was a version of events given by most writers since monks like Gildas, writing in seventh century Britain, at least a century after the first Anglo-Saxon migrations, and Bede, who wrote in the eighth century, from his Celtic Christian refuge in Saxon Northumbria.  Neither was writing history, nor even straightforward chronicle, with clear dates and events accurately described. They were more like Old Testament prophets, calling the British to repentance and a holy war to defend the Christian order which was being tentatively re-established by saints from the Atlantic coasts and later from Rome itself. There are few other contemporary written sources on which to draw. So we have to turn to archaeology, which has told a very different story since the discoveries at Sutton Hoo. Even here, at first sight, the evidence seemed to confirm a pattern of invasion and migration from the other side of the North Sea, at least into Eastern Britain.

The best known archaeological find is at Sutton Hoo, overlooking the River Deben’s tidal estuary in Suffolk. Here, in the summer of 1939, thanks to the visionary inspiration of the local landowner, a great ship burial was discovered by local archaeologist Basil Brown. It was hidden under the largest of a group of burial mounds, and contained a treasure which most people thought must have belonged to a king. The great gold buckle and the remnants of the helmet found there have become symbols of Anglo-Saxon England, adorning, in their reconstructed form, the covers of dozens of school history textbooks. The whole collection represents a concentration of skills and resources which put its owner far away from the miserable pit-dwelling Saxons of some earlier accounts.  For example, the great gold buckle (see pictures) is covered with complex decoration in the form of intertwined animals. Also, the artefact is hollow, and it is therefore thought that it might have been used as a reliquary.  The purse-lid with gold plaques inset with garnets and millefiori glass, was probably grounded in bone or ivory. The hanging bowl is decorated with Celtic motifs in enamel and millefiori glass, showing that Celtic-style jewelry was either traded or adopted by Anglian craftsmen, giving the lie to the previously held myths of incessant violent conflict between the newcomers and the indigenous Romano-Britons.



So, ‘The Dark Ages’ is a term rightly frowned upon by historians. The implication that when the light of Roman civilisation was extinguished Europe was plunged into four centuries of barbaric, heathen gloom can no longer be accepted. The exact nature of the transition from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon England is not as clear as one might think. At first sight, the traditional picture of a violent replacement of one people by another seems to carry some credence, but closer examination raises a number of questions, much of which is now being resolved through the genetic testing referred to earlier. A lot more of Roman Britain could have survived, even in the east, than used to be suspected. Perhaps there were different patterns of settlement in different areas along the east coast. In Norfolk, it seems that there were large numbers of newcomers who largely replaced the previous population, but elsewhere they may have been a subordinate minority, there on sufferance. Or they may have come to agreements with the natives: in Sussex it seems that Romano-British settlements remained on one side of a river, while the Saxons were allowed to settle on the other side. In Northumbria there was a new ruling élite, but the priesthood and the population remained predominantly British.

When, in later centuries, the peoples of southern and eastern England began to call themselves by the generic word ‘Engelisch’, they did not intend to apply it as a meaningful ethnic label, living in distinct ‘lands’, any more than were the labels ‘Irish’ or ‘Welsh’ supposed to refer to pure ethnic identities. Our chief chronicler for this period, Bede, for example, was unenthusiastic about being identified as a Briton, though he was writing at Jarrow in Northumbria, at an abbey founded by Celtic saints. The ruling dynasties and nobilities may well have been predominantly Angles or Saxons, or a mixture of both but the rest of the population must have been of British or Irish in descent, as there is little evidence of mass Germanic or Scandinavian immigration north of York. The Britons were probably prudent in identifying with the rulers and lords of their own particular area, and this identification increased as time went by. So Kent, Dover and Canterbury kept their (mainly) British names, rather than acquiring Jutish ones, whereas Sussex and Essex gained Saxon ones. Further west, many areas we now think of as ‘English’ were not even nominally Anglo-Saxon until long after the first migrations: both west Mercia (the west Midlands) and Wessex, or the West Country retain many of their Celtic and Roman place names, like combe (cwm in Welsh; small valley), as in Winscombe (Wine or Wini’s Valley) in Somerset, or Winchester in Hampshire, or avon (afon in Welsh; river), as in the two River Avons, one flowing south from the Midlands – Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire – and the other north from Wiltshire (Wessex) – Bradford-on-Avon. 

The newcomers to these lands, like the Celts before them, had viable systems of commerce and agriculture. Like the Britons, or ‘Welsch’, as they called them, they had a vivid culture, expressed through the mouths of bards and the hands of craftsmen in wood, bronze, iron, gold and stone. The fifth to the eighth centuries were a ‘dark’ age in one sense only, in that the first settlers left no written records of themselves, so that our knowledge of them comes from British bards and monks, writing in Brythonic or Latin. In addition, Suffolk in particular is very rich in archaeological sites of this period from which there is now a large corpus of established fact.

The Roman shore forts were abandoned in 407. At that time the inhabited parts of Suffolk were occupied by British smallholders and larger landowners. With the collapse of centralised Roman authority, there was no chance of holding the old Province of Britannia together as a single unit. Initially, the mercenaries from across ‘the German Sea’ were granted land along the Thames estuary and into East Anglia by the local chieftain, Vortigern, but they were soon joined by fishermen and farmers in seventy-foot-long, oar-propelled, shallow-draught boats, probing the coasts, rivers and inlets in search of vacant land and navigable waterways. These people were from as far away as modern-day Denmark, Schleswig-Holstein and the northern coast of Germany, as well as from the north Frisian islands. Pottery finds suggest that there were a large number of distinct communities who arrived  over a long period, settling in piecemeal fashion similar to the settlement of the Celtic tribes which had taken place over the millenia before the arrival of the Romans as conquerors. This was no concerted invasion, like that of the imperial troops or the Norman Knights of the late eleventh century, neither was it part of a wider guerrilla action or trading network, like that of their Scandinavian forebears of the late eighth century onwards. The Germanic settlers rowed far up the rivers, first from the Wash and then along the Rivers Deben, Gipping and Orwell, establishing settlements on the Sandlings.

The new culture established itself rapidly. The larger British landowners either moved westwards or established a ‘modus vivendi’ with the fishermen-farmers. The smallholders gradually accepted the new language of trade, whilst retaining their own within their own villages. New place names appeared – Ipswich (the settlement by the estuary), Wudebridge (Woodbridge), Sudbyrig (the southern fort, Sudbury), Ixworth (Gisca’s homestead). Wic, Tun, weorde –  they are all words indicating small settlements, fortified homesteads, where single families lived with their servants. To begin with, the Anglo-Saxon immigrants had no word for town, since the concept of urban life with its complex social relationships was alien to them. They lived in small self-sufficient units in round houses of timber and thatch within stockades to protect them from wild animals and raiders. Each homestead had its communal fire, while the chiefs lived in more imposing timber halls, where warriors could be mustered, justice could be administered and assemblies could be held. Early in the sixth century a group of settlers arrived in the Sandlings who were different in origins and customs. They were from Sweden and their leader’s name was Wehha. They took on the role of conquerors, perhaps because they were more warlike, and the Wuffings, as they became known, established the first Kingdom of East Anglia. From their fort at Rendelsham they ranged along the coasts and rivers, imposing their will on each settlement, demanding allegiance and payment of tribute. Within fifty years they had brought most of East Anglia under their control, and the Kingdom reached its zenith during the reign of Raedwald (c. 599-625).

DSC09842Was it Raedwald (d. 624/5) or a later seventh-century king (e.g. Aethelwald, d. 664) who was buried with such incredible splendour at Sutton Hoo? When they opened up the long barrow near Woodbridge in 1939, exposing Anglo-Saxon treasures of enormous historical significance, the archaeologists also opened up a whole new set of issues about seventh century East Anglia. Sometime in the early seventh century (between c. 625 and c.670) a Wuffinga king died. His people took an old longboat, eighty-six feet long, dragged it on rollers to the royal burial ground overlooking the River Deben, and lowered it into a specially dug trench. Then they carried all his possessions – his axe, jeweled sword, knife and spears, his 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 accouterments, a purse decorated with panels of gold and enamel, a six-stringed harp, drinking horns mounted in gilt, dishes and bowls of silver, a large hoard of coins, etc., which, according to pagan custom, should have been piled on his body in the central cabin. However, no body was found in the cabin, perhaps because he was given a Christian burial elsewhere. The existence of two silver Christening spoons suggest that the King had received a Christian baptism. If so, the missionaries would have taught him that the soul had no need of earthly treasures after death. However, his people may not have been ready to accept this new belief, and might well have equipped the long ship with what they still believed were the necessities for his journey into the unknown.

They might have accepted the King’s new religion, while as yet seeing no need to turn their backs on the old gods.

003Raedwald was the first of the Wuffing kings of the Eastern Angles who is recognisable from the historical record, although our understanding of him is almost entirely dependant on St Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Angolorum, completed more than a century after the King’s death. Christianity entered Suffolk during the reign of Raedwald from two directions, first from Kent but then, and perhaps more significantly, from Northumbria. The main historical source for the history of his reign is that of the Northumbrian monk, Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. From this we know that Raedwald was King of the East Angles and overlord of Britain during the first quarter of the seventh century. As such, and by referring to other evdence, we can understand that he played an even more significant role in advancing the Christian cause than Bede acknowledges. In 597, the Roman missionary Augustine and his monks began their evangelisation of southern England, achieving an early success in the baptism of King Aethelbert of Kent. By this time there were seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms with Aethelbert as the senior ruler, or Bretwalda of south-eastern Britain.. He was therefore Raedwald’s overlord and when he ordered the East Anglian King to be baptised, Raedwald complied, the ceremony taking place in Kent in about 604, apparently travelling to Kent by sea. However, the conversion did not go very deep. On his return home, Raedwald raised an altar to his new god alongside the one to his old gods, perhaps at the home of the Wuffing kings in Rendelsham. There was probably some debate in the East Anglian kingdom  on the question of adopting Christianity, since the abandonment of the old gods was, undoubtedly, a very serious matter. In particular, the Queen’s devotion to the old religion ensured that her husband would only regard the Christian God as a recruit to the company of Woden, Thunor and Frig. Bede condemned him for allowing himself to be seduced by his wife and certain evil teachers and perverted from the sincerity of his faith, so that his last state was worse than his first. 

However, viewed from distance in time, we can perhaps have more sympathy for this attempt to resolve the growing cultural conflict by a symbolic fusion of the old and new faiths. In particular, we need to understand that there was a close connection between the agricultural year and religious belief in early Anglian society, not least from the information Bede himself provided about the pre-Christian calendar in one of his other books. The Old English calendar provides an elaborate system for reconciling the solar and lunar years. Its months follow the agricultural year, both pastoral and arable, as is implicit in the names of several of them. For example, August was known as Weed-month, a time when unwanted weeds were still a problem. It is also from this book of St Bede that we know that ‘Easter’ was named after ‘Éostre’, goddess of the radiant dawn, whose festival of the quickening of the season of growth was in April. This and other pagan festivals dedicated to mothers and goddesses points to the importance of the feminine in pre-Christian beliefs about life and farming. It is therefore legitimate to infer that these fundamental questions concerning the agrarian economy were a major obstacle to the acceptance of the new faith among the East Anglians, as they were in contemporary accounts from elsewhere in Britain and Northern Europe.

DSC09804What Bede does state is that Raedwald’s Queen and other elders were involved in the discussion, and that they advised him against the total abandonment of the old faith. It may be that the queen had some authority in religious matters, since she represented the feminine characteristic of the fertility of the land. Evidently, there was also a tradition whereby a succeeding king, not in blood relation to his predecessor’s widow, would marry her, in order to maintain this fertility. At the same time, Raedwald was evidently not prepared to forsake his new-found faith in Christ, the new god of his overlord. To do so would have been seriously undiplomatic, but it may also have been that, as a Wuffing king, he felt some attraction to the foundation legend of Romulus and Remus and their totemic she-wolf, since there was an affinity between this story and those of wolves in his own family and its dynastic name Wuffingas. Apparently, later kings in the dynasty used the title Caser or ‘Caeser’/ ‘Kaiser’. Either Raedwald, or the attendant Augustinian delegate, may have made convenient use of this symbolism to convince the elders to agree to a diplomatic synthesis of the two religions. The setting up of two altars in parallel may not have satisfied Bede writing a century later, perhaps given the length of time that the compromise arrangement was in place (according to Ealdwulf (664-713) the pagan altar was still standing in about 650) but in Raedwald’s time and for generations after it secured the presence of Christianity in southern England, at a time when the Augustinian mission had been forced out of Kent and Essex.

Moreover, this was not simply a ‘marriage’ of convenience for Raedwald, who, although loyal to his old gods in economic matters at least, was also ideologically committed to the new one, considering himself to be a practising Christian for the rest of his life.

After Aethelbert of Kent’s death in about 616 and the consequent crisis in Christianity, Raedwald’s altar seems to have been the only Christian one in England until the re-establishment of the archbishopric of Canterbury some decades later. Raedwald was the only English king still in power who had been baptised into the Roman Church so that, for a time at least, it seemed that the last hope for the Gregorian mission in England rested with Raedwald alone. He became the most powerful king south of the Humber, overlord of the south and, following a war with the overlord of the north, Aethelfrith, he gained the overlordship of all England. Aethelfrith had become the most powerful ruler in northern Britain, extending his power over the whole region, including the English kingdom of Deira, south of the River Tees, in what is eastern Yorkshire today. He secured authority there by marrying its princess, Acha, at the same time driving her brother Edwin into exile. He remained unchallenged following his victory in 603, following his victory over Aedan, king of the Irish kingdom of Dalriada in present-day south-west Scotland. He went on to defeat the Britons near Chester in about 616, which meant that his dynastic enemy, Edwin of Deira, an exile in Mercia, where he had married the daughter of the Mercian King Cearl, was forced to seek refuge further away from Aethelfrith’s growing power. Edwin therefore found himself at the homestead of the Wuffing king. An account of his visit appears in a document, The Life of St Gregory the Great,  written twenty years before Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede’s account reports how Raedwald initially received Edwin with great honour, but was then put under great pressure (a combination of bribes and threats) to have Edwin put to death. Raedwald refused three times, hesitating only when Aethelfrith threatened to invade East Anglia. For his part, Edwin refused to flee, placing his trust in Raedwald’s judgement, whether he lived or died. The Old English version of the story goes on to explain how the Queen persuaded her husband that his friendship for Edwin, together with his wisdom and honour, should outweigh Aethelfrith’s bribes and threats. The consequence was war with honour, in defence of the laws of hospitality and friendship.  Yet although the fate of the exiled Prince Edwin may well have been one of the chief causes of the war between Raedwald and Aethelfrith, there must have been other factors as well. This was a war between the two most powerful kings on the island of Britain at the time, between the overlord of the north and the overlord of the south.

006Bede reports how in 617 Raedwald assembled a great army and marched north to meet Aethelfrith before he had chance to summon his full strength. Aethelfrith’s forces had no doubt been depleted by the recent Battle of Chester. The great battle between them took place on the east bank of the River Idle, a tributary of the Trent, which formed part of the border between Nothumbria and Mercia, near the point where it is crossed by the main Roman road, Ermine Street, just to the north of Lincoln, a route still (roughly) followed by the A1 to this day. That Raedwald was able to organise and lead such a long-distance campaign suggests that he was an experienced commander. In his twelfth-century Historia Anglorum, Henry of Huntingdon draws both on Bede’s account and that of an unknown vernacular account, to describe how Raedwald’s troops

made a brilliant and formidable display, marching in three bodies, with fluttering standards and bristling spears and helmets, while their numbers greatly exceeded their enemies.

Fording the river and attacking with it behind him, Aethelfrith,

at once fell upon the close columns of Raedwald, and put to the sword Raegenhere, the King’s son, with the division he commanded… Meanwhile Raedwald, enraged but not appalled by his severe loss, stood invincibly firm with his two remaining columns. The Northumbrians made vain attempts to penetrate them, and Aethelfrith, charging among the enemy’s squadrons, became separated from his own troops and was struck down on a heap of bodies he himself had slain. The death of their king was the signal for universal flight.

There is also a background source in early Welsh poetry, Trioeth Ynys Prydein, (‘Triads of the Island of Britain’) which survives in manuscripts dating from the thirteenth century, using bardic material from centuries before and referring indirectly to the Battle of the River Idle. This poetic sources claim that Aethelfrith was killed by a British warrior, the son of Dissynyndawd, suggesting that Britons fought with the East Anglians and Derians against the Northumbrians to avenge their losses at Chester. In any event, the outcome of the battle was clear. Raedwald’s protectee Edwin became the new king of the Northern Angles, and during his reign the Roman Christian faith became established in Northumbria. For the rest of his life, Edwin remained indebted to Raedwald, who had not only helped him survive in exile, but had made him the new king in the north. As Henry of Huntingdon’s statement that the River Idle ran red with English blood implies, the battle probably ranks as one of the great river battles of British history. Above all it was a victory for King Raedwald, despite the loss of his heir, since not only was his overlordship of the south assured, but he became overlord of the north as well. If he had also gained power over British lands in the north and west conquered by Aethelfrith, he would have been the first overlord of northern and southern Britain. Bede describes him, at least, as King of the Angles. Since this victory for Raedwald was the first successful battle-trial for a Christian King, it may have been seen as a demonstration of the powers of the new god and a significant factor in the re-establishment of Christianity in the East, including, within a few decades, at the sees of Canterbury and London. Despite Bede’s scepticism, there may be a case for recognising Raedwald not just as a great king, whose political and military leadership helped to advance the Christian cause in England, but also as a good king, who demonstrated honour and friendship to be his virtues.

004Bede tells us little of the latter years of his reign, but we might suppose that, if all the peoples of Britannia had been reunited under one great king, this period may have been regarded as something of a golden age, and that he would have received tribute from further afield than any king before him, some of which would have been buried in the ship. Bede at least tells of the peace in the time of Edwin, the first decade of which matched the last decade of Raedwald’s reign. This was so great, he says, that a woman with her newborn child could travel unescorted from sea to sea all over the island of Britain. There is no surviving source referring either to Raedwald’s burial or the burial-place. However, like other Wuffing kings, he seems to have regarded south-eastern Suffolk, the Deben Valley, as his homeland. The approximately datable death of Raedwald appears to more or less coincide with the scientifically datable treasure found on board the ‘ghost’ of the great ship revealed beneath Mound One at Sutton Hoo in 1939. In addition, although the funeral-rite which led up to the burial must have been mainly pagan in character, there were some strong signs of Christian practice among the grave-goods. There was a nest of silver bowls decorated with cruciform designs, a pair of silver spoons inscribed ‘Paulos’ and ‘Saulos’, which were most probably baptismal gifts for a king who had undergone conversion as an adult. Found above the likely position of the right shoulder of the body, they suggest royal contacts, political allegiances and religious 008uncertainty, together with the royal vision of Christian power which characterised Raedwald’s reign. There were also cruciform patterns on other important, though small items, found on site, showing close affinities with other examples of early Christian jewelry.

The ship itself is also an important symbol and metaphor in early Christian imagery, as it remains today, especially around the shores of Britain. The word ‘nave’ describing the length of the churches has the same root as the word ‘navy’ because their roofs were constructed in exactly the same way as long-ships and may even have been ‘recycled’ from disused boats, turned over and thatched. So potent is the metaphor of the ship as the soul’s ferry that it was used in more explicitly Christian poetry as well as in the albeit later-recorded legends of Artorius. The idea of Avalon, associated with the early British legends which grew up about Glastonbury, an island sanctuary known as Ynys Afallon (‘the isle of the Apple Orchard’) in early Welsh, was of a place just beyond the horizon of mortal knowledge, even of the wisest and bravest. Therefore, it might be more accurate to describe the ship-funeral as a transitional burial-rite. Hence the mixture of pagan and Christian symbolism found on the artefacts which also suggest that the body that was lain in state, albeit temporarily, in the great ship found in Mound One at Sutton Hoo, was indeed that of King Raedwald.

Following Raedwald’s death in about 625, however, the uneasy fusion of the two religions broke down, as Eorpwald embraced Christianity more fully, having been persuaded by Edwin of the Northern Angles (ruling c. 617-33) to accept baptism, only to be murdered by a pagan usurper, Ricbert. Within three years the rightful heir, Sigeberht, had returned home from exile and regained the throne. He was an impressive and much-loved figure, possessing the warrior skills of the Wuffingas allied with the religious devotion and love of books which earned him the name of Sigeberht the Learned. The Christian teachers and the schools he had encountered among the Franks had made a profound impression on him and when he returned from exile he set Christian missionaries to work converting and educating his people. St Felix and St Fursey played a significant role in the evangelisation of East Anglia. Though united by a common purpose, they were very unlike. Felix, who like Sigeberht, had been educated in Frankish schools, was appointed Bishop of East Anglia by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Honorius, in about 631.  He established his base at Dummoc (Dunwich), building a cathedral and a school, from where he set out to convert the East Angles, continuing this missionary work for seventeen years. Fursey, by contrast,  was an Irish monk, aflame with Celtic zeal and mysticism. He left Ireland in 630 and became the first Irish missionary to the Anglo-Saxons, arriving in the kingdoms the year before Aidan established his monastery on Lindisfarne. Sigeberht heard of his ascetic life and eloquent preaching and gave him the ruins of Burgh Castle (Norfolk) on which to build a monastery. With a small group of monks, following a strict discipline, for ten years Fursey preached his way around East Anglia, winning hundreds of converts. He died in Frankish lands, but not before he had had a huge influence on King Sigeberht. Impressed by his preaching, the King abdicated his pomp and majesty and took up the cowl, leaving his nephew Ecgric on the throne.

However, these were difficult times for an ordained king to hide away in a monastery. Conflict between the kingdoms of the Heptarchy had developed into a struggle for hegemony between Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria, with the other kingdoms becoming pawns in their game. Britain had no secure state structures even at a regional level. Seventh century rulers tried to build larger and more unified realms within defensible boundaries and to legitimise their power, under the prevailing culture. The most important conflict was between Northumbria and Mercia. Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, continually campaigned against Northumbrian rulers, usually with the support of the Christian Welsh princes. Any defeat in this struggle tended to endanger the fragile unity of the defeated kingdom. When Sigebehrt vacated his throne, Penda of Mercia was in the ascendant, and in the early 630s his army was pressing hard on the East Anglian border. The combined North Folk and South Folk built a dyke and bank , with three lines of defence behind it traversing the limestone ridge, filling in the gaps between the natural obstacles; the fens, forests and hills. These earthworks can still be seen on the road from Royston to Newmarket. The first major crisis came in 636, when the Mercians invaded in force and the East Anglians mustered to meet them. But they had little confidence in their new king, Ecgric, and some went to Bury St Edmunds Abbey to plead with Sigeberht to lead them in battle. But he refused to forsake his devotions and his desperate countrymen eventually abducted him, still in his habit, hoping that simply his presence on the battlefield would inspire the East Anglians to heroic deeds of warfare. However, he refused to put on armour or take up the sword and went into battle armed only with his staff. The battle was soon over, and both Sigebehrt and Ecgric were slain.

Penda now put Anna on the throne, a nephew of Raedwald, to rule East Anglia as a vassal kingdom of Mercia. Anna, like Sigebehrt, was very religious, and had four daughters, each of whom took up the religious life, founding nunneries and monasteries. He spent much of his time at his manor at Exning, near Newmarket, near the centre of the Devil’s Dyke defence line, a good rallying point to which to muster both the North and South Folk. It was also not far from the important religious centre established by St Felix at Soham. In 641, Penda inflicted a crushing defeat on the Northumbrians, killing King Oswald. Northumbria broke into its component parts of Bernicia (north) and Deira, and its rival factions were easily manipulated by Penda. Northumbria was not fully reunited by Oswald’s successor, Oswiu, until 651. The new East Anglian strategic centre of Exning was next to be tested in 654 when Anna fell out with his overlord. Penda’s Mercian hordes once more marched along the Icknield Way and laid siege to the Dyke, eventually breaching it and slaughtering many of the defenders. The Angles were then chased back into their lands for more than fifty miles, through field and forest, over heathland and moorland, until Anna and his remnant made their stand at Blythborough. There Penda fell upon the East Anglians, as the ancient chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon records, like a wolf on timorous sheep, so that Anna and his host were devoured by his sword in a moment, and scarcely a man of them survived. After this disaster little is recorded about East Anglia in the chronicles, a silence which we can interpret either favourably or otherwise. It would appear that the last generations of the Wuffing dynasty, as happens to all families who have a long tenure of power, produced no men of stature to compare with the founders of the house. The last Wuffing king died almost a hundred years after Anna and that century produced few political events worthy of record. However, the people of East Anglia seem to have been left in peace. The balance of power shifted again when the King of a reunited Northumbria, Oswiu, defeated and killed Penda in 655, causing Mercia to descend into disunity for a more than a decade, and allowing the Northumbrian rulers to intervene in Mercian affairs throughout that period. Though owing allegiance to the kings of Mercia, the East Anglians were far enough away from the main area of political and military conflict to be left much to their own devices, certainly in economic and religious life.


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

Sam Newton (2003), The Reckoning of King Raedwald. Colchester: Red Bird Press.

Catherine Hills (1986), The Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

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