King Rædwald and the Temple of the Two Altars

King Rædwald and the Temple of the Two Altars
with Dr Sam Newton (Independent Scholar)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, 28th February, 2015.

St Gregory’s, Rendlesham, winter 2005 (© Dr Sam Newton)

As the festival day of St Felix, the first official bishop of the Eastern Angles, approaches (8th March), we shall reconsider Rædwald’s history and the coming of Christianity to the English-speaking peoples.

Rædwald stands at the threshold of the Age of Christianity in England. Our knowledge of him and the early seventh century is dependent almost entirely on Bede’s early eighth-century Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede writes so well that it is easy to forget that his is a selective, Roman Christian and Northumbrian English view of history. Rædwald is a king peripheral to Bede’s main concerns, but if we unravel his narrative and place the events to which he refers within a chronological framework, Rædwald can be seen to have played a possibly vital part in advancing the Christian cause for the English-speaking peoples.

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 his new god alongside one to his old gods. For the ideologically hard-liner Bede this must have been an unacceptable compromise, and he deploys biblical rhetoric to severely condemn Rædwald.

Yet we can infer that there must have been a senior member of Augustine’s mission, Felix’s unnamed ecclesiastical predecessor, 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 rather 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 the south-east. Æthelbert’s death also coincided with a major crisis for Christianity and for a time Rædwald’s may have been the only royal Christian altar still functioning in England.

Over a matter of honour Rædwald then fought the overlord of the north, Æthelfrith, and utterly defeated him at the Battle of the River Idle c.617, which gave him overlordship of all England. As this appears to have been the first successful battle-test for a baptised English king, it may have been seen to demonstrate the power of Rædwald’s altar and his new god to deliver the blessings of victory. If so, this might have been a significant factor in the re-establishment of Christianity in England. By this reckoning, Rædwald may be regarded as one of the central figures in the coming of Christianity to the English-speaking peoples and the first king of all England.

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 – 13.45:                Lunch break

13.45 – 14.35:                 Rædwald and the Canterbury Crisis

14.35 – 14.55:               Tea break

14.55 – 15.45:                Rædwald the First King of England

c.15.45:                            Thanks and Close

About Dr Sam Newton

Sam Newton was awarded his Ph.D in 1991 and is the author of The Origins of Beowulf and the pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia (1993) and The Reckoning of King Rædwald (2003). He has lectured widely around the country as an independent scholar and has contributed to many radio and television programmes, especially Time Team.. He is a Director of Wuffing Education, NADFAS lecturer, and tutor for Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education.

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).

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).

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).