King Rædwald the Great
with Dr Sam Newton (Independent Scholar)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, 16th January, 2016.

A reconsideration of the history of early England in general and of Rædwald of East Anglia in particular.

Our knowledge of Rædwald (died c.625) and the early seventh century is dependent almost entirely on the Historia Ecclesiastica, written by the Northumbrian monk and scholar Bede during the early eighth century. Bede writes so well that it is easy to forget that his is a very selective, Roman Christian and Northern English view of history. Rædwald is a king peripheral to his concerns, but if we unravel Bede’s narrative and place the events to which he refers within a chronological framework, Rædwald emerges as first of the English kings to have been overlords of all of Britain.

Also of special interest is the part Rædwald can be seen to have played in reconciling the religious differences in the interesting times of the early seventh century. He appears to have been baptised in Kent c.604 under the auspices of Æthelbert of Kent, then overlord of south-eastern Britain, who himself had been baptised by Archbishop Augustine not long before. On his return home, Rædwald established an altar to the new deity alongside one to his old gods. For the ideological hard-liner Bede this was an unacceptable compromise, and he deploys biblical rhetoric to condemn Rædwald. Yet we can infer that there must have been more to this story than Bede tells. For example, it seems likely that there was a senior member of Augustine’s mission who accompanied Rædwald on his return from Kent, and who would have consecrated and maintained his new altar. Moreover, if we separate Bede’s rhetoric from the witnessed fact of the temple of two altars, Rædwald’s compromise can be seen as a commendable attempt to resolve a synthesis of the old and new faiths.

Furthermore, this synthesis must have brought Rædwald great fortune, for, following the death of Æthelbert of Kent c.616, he succeeded as overlord of south-eastern Britain. Æthelbert’s death also coincided with a major crisis for Christianity in Canterbury and for a time Rædwald’s may have been the only royal Christian altar still functioning in England. Rædwald’s subsequent triumph at the Battle of the River Idle in 617 is the first recorded instance of a baptised English king obtaining victory on the field of battle and may therefore have been a significant factor in the re-establishment of Roman Christianity among the English-speaking peoples.

We shall thus see that Rædwald may have been a very great king indeed, which in turn strengthens the possibility that he was the East Anglian king who lay in state aboard the magnificently laden Sutton Hoo ship-burial.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:         Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:         Rædwald in the Historical Record

11.15 – 11.40:         Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:         Rædwald and the Temple of Two Altars

12.40 – 14.00:         Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:         Rædwald and the Crisis of Christianity

14.50 – 15.10:        Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:         Rædwald the Great

c.16.00:                   Thanks and Close

Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

Bruce-Mitford, R., Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (Gollancz 1974).

Chaney, W.A., The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester 1970).

Evans, A., The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (British Museum 1986)

Higham, N., An English Empire: Bede and the Early Anglo-Saxon Kings (Manchester 1995).

Higham, N., The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester 1997).

Keynes, S., “Rædwald the Bretwalda”, in Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo, ed. C.Kendall & P.Wells (Minneapolis 1992), pp.103-123.

Kirby, D.P., The Earliest English Kings (London 1991).

Mayr-Harting, H., The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1977; 3rd edn, Philadelphia 1991).

Newton, S., The Reckoning of King Rædwald: The Story of the King linked to the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (Redbird 2003).