Paul Dickson reports
THE DISCOVERY OF the Sutton Hoo ship burial and its magnificent treasure has all the hallmarks of a John Buchan adventure novel plot…
Mrs Pretty, owner of the Sutton Hoo estate is convinced that the mysterious grassy mounds across the valley from her Edwardian mansion are linked with Suffolk’s ancient past.
In the summer of 1939, as war clouds gather over Britain, she employs local archeologist Basil Brown to investigate. He discovers rusting rivets and, helped by Mrs Pretty’s gardener, digs on. A ghostly ship is revealed with fabulous treasure. As invasion threats build from across the North Sea, the Seventh Cavalry arrives from the British Museum, to gather up the finds and take them away to safety.
Who was interred in the great ship burial? Why was he buried at Sutton Hoo? Was it King Raedwald, the powerful King of Kings featured in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People! How did he amass his fabulous treasure? These are questions that have intrigued both academics and armchair archaeologists ever since. Thanks to the National Trust, which opened its visitor centre at Sutton Hoo in 2002, everyone now has the chance to delve into the life and times of Raedwald and the Royal Saxon dynasty, The Wuffings.
Beowulf and Wuffings expert Dr Sam Newton and Cliff Hoppitt, both members of The Sutton Hoo Society, have come up with the perfect recipe for people inspired by The National Trust’s exhibition who want to dig deeper into the mysteries of Anglo-Saxon East Anglia. They have established Wuffings Education, which runs up to 30 day schools a year based at The Trust’s Tranmer House, Mrs Pretty’s former Sutton Hoo residence.
Sam Newton, a Suffolk man through and through, caught the Sutton Hoo bug at an early age. “I did my first project on Sutton Hoo when I was ten. I was captivated by the romance of it, the great mound burial and the heroic Saxon age.”
After leaving school, Sam pursued his fascination for ‘mounds’ when he began working for Suffolk archeological unit. “1 soon decided that there should be more to it than just digging holes. There was no contest between exploring a Roman cesspit at Coddenham and unearthing the voice of the past. I was captivated by a female burial that we uncovered in a Neolithic barrow. It was very moving. I wanted her to speak to me.”
Sam decided to pursue the voice of the Anglo-Saxons. He went to UEA and studied English literature. His course included Old English. “I discovered Beowulf and decided that the poem probably held clues to the Sutton Hoo burial mounds.”
Armed with a First in English, Sam headed off to Cambridge in 1983 to research Beowulf, and completed a PhD thesis in 1991 into the origins of this early English epic poem.
“My archaeological experience helped me in my studies. My PhD suggested that Beowulf had its origins in the Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. I moved this up a few notches from being a possibility to a probability.” What a wonderful fillip for Suffolk pride to imagine that Beowulf’s first performance was at the Wuffings’ Rendlesham headquarters.
Meanwhile Sam was getting experience as a lecturer on Anglo-Saxon matters for both UEA and Cambridge University’s extra-mural studies departments. He also taught himself to play the Saxon harp or lyre. “Saxon poets accompanied themselves on the harp. Learning to play it helped me to understand how the poetry related to music.”
His first book, The Origins of Beowulf and the pre-V’iking Kingdom of East Anglia, followed the PhD and was published in 1993. Now in its fourth print run, Sam’s book was received with critical acclaim. Tom Shippey, writing in The Times Literary Supplement exclaimed: “Sam Newton’s book plunges into this terrible quagmire of live issues and dead theories with an irrepressible enthusiasm, which one might have thought had vanished from the scholarly world.”
Sam relishes stirring up the ‘quagmire’ by bringing Beowulf and the Wuffings alive. His next book, published in 2003, focused on the evidence for Raedwald as the Sutton Hoo ship burial king.
“There was no single accessible work on Raedwald aimed at anyone with a general interest in the Wuffings. I decided to reassess the case for Raedwald using Bede and the East Anglian royal pedigrees as my main sources.”
Sam’s The Reckoning of King Raedwald, is an A-Z of the great warrior king. It clearly outlines the evidence for him being the occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, as well as being a key player in the development of East Anglian Christianity. Excellent footnotes and a very full bibliography encourage the reader to follow in Sam’s footsteps and make up their own mind about the Wuffings.
Wuffings Education is also playing an important role in encouraging people to follow in Sam’s footsteps.
“The Sutton Hoo Society has gained a reputation for running excellent conferences focusing on the Anglo-Saxon world,” explained Cliff Hoppitt, a retired BT project manager.
“Sam and I decided to explore the interest in these conferences further by setting up Wuffings Education. But it was The National Trust’s work at Sutton Hoo, creating the visitor centre with its restaurant and other facilities, and most crucially Tranmer House, which was designated for educational use, that was the real catalyst for the launch of our day schools in autumn 2002. The National Trust has been very helpful. Tranmer House is the perfect location for our activities.”
Sam Newton led the first day school, Art and Poetry in the Dream-Ship from Sutton Hoo. But although Sam is a regular lecturer, the courses also involve national and international experts in both the Wuffings kingdom and early medieval England.
“We choose people who have either published a book or thesis and are experts in their own right,” added Sam. “They also have to be very good communicators.”
Graeme Lawson, whose field is the archaeology of music, Elizabeth Solopova from the Bodleian, Michelle Brown, senior outreach officer at The British Library, who covers Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and Tom Plunkett, with Anglo-Saxon art, are just some of the top quality lecturers who have graced Tranmer House.
Cliff and Sam limit numbers to 18 to ensure there is plenty of opportunity for dialogue between students and tutors. The response
has been very enthusiastic: The expertise once again of the speakers -the quality continues. I loved playing the harp/lyre;’ ‘My interest in Anglo-Saxons is fuelled by your enthusiasm – excellent day,’ and finally, ‘The best day I have had for years’ – praise indeed!
Wuffings Education is also plugging a hole left by the demise of specialist adult education classes. “Cuts in government funding mean that what are perceived as minority subjects are disappearing from adult education,” said Cliff. “We are bridging the gap between adult education and higher education.”
As well as the day schools Sam runs successful Wednesday morning seminars at Sutton Hoo under the umbrella Art and Poetry and the Beginnings of England.
The day schools return on February llth, after their Christmas break, with Sam’s Art and Poetry in the Dream-Ship from Sutton Hoo. This is followed in quick succession by The Making of the East Anglian Landscape with Edward Martin on February 25th, the return of Sam with The Old English Heroic Age on March llth, and Resistance and Rebellion – The Norman Conquest in East Anglia with Lucy Marten on March 18th.
• For more information about Wuffings Education and for full programme details see www.wuffingeducation.co.uk.
Text taken from article in Suffolk Journal – January 2006.