King Rædwald and the Battle of the River Idle
with Dr Sam Newton (Independent Scholar)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, 14th January, 2017.


A 1400th anniversary reappraisal of one of the great battles of early English history.

The Battle of the River Idle (617) is mentioned by the Northumbrian monk and scholar Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica, completed in 731.  It forms part of his story of how Edwin came to be king of Northumbria, through whom Roman Christianity came to the kingdom where Bede later wrote his Historia.  Bede writes so well that it is easy to forget that he is giving us a very selective, Roman Christian and Northumbrian English view of history.  If, however, we unravel his narrative and place the events to which he refers in chronological order, it becomes evident that he has very much minimised the significance of the battle and the part played by King Rædwald of the Eastern Angles.

Bede tells how Rædwald, then overlord of Southern Britain, provided refuge for the exile Edwin and then defeated and killed the latter’s dynastic enemy Æthelfrith, then overlord of Northern Britain, in battle by the River Idle.  Rædwald had acted honourably, at great risk to himself, and with grievous cost to his own family.  Edwin owed everything to the East Anglian king, but Bede does not acknowledge this explicitly. Rather, after his brief mention of the battle, he subjects Rædwald to his rhetorical weapon of withering silence.  Despite this, it is clear that, following his victory at the River Idle, Rædwald was now undisputed overlord of both Northern and Southern Britain. He should thus be recognised as the first king of England.

Rædwald’s triumph at the Battle of the River Idle in 617 is also the first recorded instance of a baptised English king obtaining victory on the field of battle.  It may therefore have been a significant factor in the re-establishment of Roman Christianity among the English-speaking peoples after the Crisis of Canterbury following the death of King Æthelbert of Kent in 616.

We shall thus see that Rædwald was 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 Battle of the River Idle

14.50 – 15.10:         Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:         Rædwald the Great

c.16.00:                   Thanks and Close

About Dr Sam Newton

Sam Newton was awarded his Ph.D in 1991, published his first book, The Origins of Beowulf and the pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia in 1993, and his second, The Reckoning of King Rædwald: the Story of the King linked to the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial in 2003. He has lectured widely around the country and has contributed to many radio and television programmes over the years, especially Time Team.  He is a tutor for Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education, an accredited NADFAS lecturer, and a Director of the Wuffing Education Study-Day Partnership at Sutton Hoo.

Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

  • Alexander, M., The First Poems in English (Penguin Classics 2008).
  • Bruce-Mitford, R., Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology (Gollancz 1974).
  • 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).
  • Newton, S., The Reckoning of King Rædwald: The Story of the King linked to the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial  (Redbird 2003).
  • Plunkett, S.J., Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times (Tempus 2005).
  • Scarfe, N., The Suffolk Landscape (Hodder & Stoughton 1972, Alastair 1986).
  • Scarfe, N., Suffolk in the Middle Ages (Boydell 1986).
  • Webster, L., & J.Backhouse, The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900 (British Museum 1991).
  • Wilson, R., The Lost Literature of Medieval England (Methuen 1952, 1970).