Sutton Hoo through time

If you mention Anglo-Saxons, the first thing most people think about is Sutton Hoo – the famous helmet and shield, the beautiful jewellery and the mounds that stand on a hill near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In recent years the Staffordshire Hoard has become famous, but it was probably made by the same artists, and in the same place as the Sutton Hoo treasure.

Since I am writing about the Anglo-Saxon period, I must take my characters to Sutton Hoo. After all, Byrhtnoth was Ealdorman of Essex, not far away. But what was the site like when he visited? The Anglo-Saxon period lasted a long time – over four hundred years from the 7th century to 1066. Byrhtnoth died in 991. I wanted his sword to have a beautiful gold and garnet hilt, but he lived too late. King Rædwald, probable owner of the treasure died about 624. It would be like a modern soldier using a flintlock pistol. I don’t suppose swords changed that much, but how they were decorated would. A warrior would be ashamed to wear “last season’s” sword. And Byrhtnoth was a Christian, no one was buried in burial mounds with treasure any more. You gave it to the church to pray for your soul

Sutton Hoo has meant many things to many different people. As you will see, I am one of them.

There were prehistoric farmers on the site, the woodland was cleared in the neolithic period, they placed pots in pits there. There were bronze age roundhouses but the land became infertile and farming was abandoned, used for sheep and cattle. Farming returned in the Romano-British period, perhaps growing grape vines. Then came the Anglo-Saxons.

A little while ago I read Monsters by C R May the third of his Sword of Woden series about Beowulf, which includes a scene where Beowulf himself visits Sutton Hoo and buries a body there.  It’s fiction, but a nice idea,  someone must have made the first burial there. It was followed by others.

There are about 17 burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, dating to the sixth and early seventh centuries. King Rædwald ruled from 599 to around 624. He was the greatest of the East Anglian kings. He defeated Northumbria, installing Edwin as king. He was called Bretwalda, chief of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Therefore we assume he was the king buried with the great treasure, but we cannot truly know. Who was buried in the other mounds? His relatives and family? Possessions of both men and women have been found; one boy was buried with his horse. On this hilltop, the clan of the Wuffingas demonstrated their power.

By Byrhtnoth’s time there was no longer a king of East Anglia. King Alfred’s Wessex had expanded to form a single country, England. Danes had invaded the eastern part of the country. Æthelstan was Ealdorman of East Anglia. He was called half-king because of his power. In later life he became a monk at Glastonbury and presumably buried there, his sons were buried at Ramsey Abbey. Sutton Hoo had been abandoned, at least by royalty. Archaeologists have discovered graves from the later Anglo-Saxon period. There was a gallows on one of the mounds and criminals were buried there.

So it stayed, seemingly forgotten, until the 20th century, but not untouched. A boundary ditch was dug, destroying part of the largest mound, so looters in the 16th century missed the burial. although other mounds had been robbed.

Now, a slight diversion. Before I became a writer, I was a genealogist, in fact that was what started me writing. I gradually became interested in one unusual name, Madder. The family came from Norfolk and I got stuck in the mid 18th century. In my efforts to break this brick wall I extended my search. I came across a family of that name in Suffolk. They lived in Sutton. I didn’t realise the significance of this until I was transcribing the will of Robert Mather (both names appear in records for this family) in 1639. He leaves the property etc “in which I dwell called the Howe”.

Line from will of Robert Mather 1639 (Suffolk Record Office ref:
IC/AA1/77/74

Old map (date unknown) from website of The Sutton Hoo Society

Robert is referred to as “gentleman”. There are twelve wills of the Madder/Mather family dating back to 1474, early members were “yeoman”. They owned the site of Sutton Hoo, they became richer over the years – Robert’s son, Henry moved away and I lost track of them. Are they related to my family? Did they dig up some of the Anglo-Saxon treasure?

I will leave it there for now.

There were a few digs in the 19th century, but it was not until 1939 that the then landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty, employed Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, to dig the largest mound.

When he found the burial chamber the dig was taken over by “professionals”. It was the eve of WW2 and the objects were whisked away to the British Museum. A later coroners inquest awarded everything to Mrs Pretty, who eventually donated the collection to the BM. There is an interesting book, The Dig by John Preston which tells the story of the 1939 events. Fiction, but it gives a good description of the atmosphere and the characters involved.

This should be the end of the story, but there is one more event in the history of this place.

In July 2002, it was my birthday. I was visiting my parents in Essex and decided what we would do. We had visited Sutton Hoo before, but the National Trust had recently opened in new visitor centre, the British Museum had loaned objects. We would go there, have lunch, visit the display and walk around the site.

At this time my father (centre in the above picture) had health problems; he had trouble gripping things with his hands and sometimes swallowing, but he walked round the site (We told him that although he had problems with his hands, his legs were OK.) and enjoyed the day out. Three weeks later he went into hospital, for tests. Motor Neurone Disease was diagnosed, I visited him (he was in a London Hospital.) and we talked about how he would cope, make alterations to their house. He died, peacefully, three days later, on 4th August 2002. Exactly fifteen years ago last Friday.

I don’t know why; perhaps I had a premonition, but I took a photograph of him at Sutton Hoo, standing outside the exhibition, beneath a representation of the Sutton Hoo helmet. It is the last picture I took of him.

Sutton Hoo has a long and interesting history, that is why have included it in my book (you will have to wait to see how). It is also a special place for me.

RIP Kenneth Bernard Madder-Smith (1926-2002)

 

 

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Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria – Part 2

The second full day was more holiday than research trip. A long drive round the area in which I demonstrated my map reading skills.

We visited Cragside, a National Trust property. I won’t say too much about it. This is an Anglo-Saxon blog and Cragside is (very) Victorian. It was built by industrialist Lord Armstrong and was the first house to be lit by electricity. If you are interested in hydraulics, bridges and large Victorian paintings of dead animals, it is worth a visit.

Cragside and bridge

Cragside and bridge

On the way back, we stopped at Warkworth Castle which belongs to English Heritage. There was a “Fighting Knights” event on, so this magnificent medieval castle was packed with children. We arrived as the fighting finished, so it soon quietened down. I was attracted to the swords (wrong era I know, but a sword is still better than Victorian lampshades.) and had a chat with the knights. Turned out they had travelled up from Warwick and Kenilworth – practically next door.

P1160858+

Warkworth Castle, entrance

Warkworth Castle, Bailey

Warkworth Castle, after the battle.

Another long day, but I was looking forward to tomorrow.

On my list of places to visit was Yeavering, or Ad Gefrin as it was known. This was the site of King Edwin’s Palace in the 7th Century. Yes, I know there is nothing to see nowadays, but I wanted to use the location in my book.

I had sold it to my husband as an interesting location for a walk and again we found a route online. It included another section of St Cuthbert’s Way (see my last post). We like to have a theme to a holiday!

The route started in the village of Kirknewton, climbed Yeavering Bell and returned via the Ad Gefrin site. Although I was looking forward to it, I was bit apprehensive. I am not the fittest of walkers and the hill, topped by a hillfort, was high. I looked at the map and found a short cut back “just in case.”

I am glad to say that I didn’t need it. The ascent was gradual, the weather was beautiful and the views were stupendous. In fact the worse bit was coming down, straight down what seemed the steepest slope.

Looking back at Kirknewton. The first stretch was a gentle uphill farm track.

Looking back at Kirknewton. The first stretch was a gentle uphill farm track.

"Go through the gate, and bear right to reach a waymarked post beside the track." Not even reached the short cut yet!

“Go through the gate, and bear right to reach a waymarked post beside the track.” Not even reached the short cut yet!

"Do you think it's that peak straight ahead?"

“Do you think it’s that peak straight ahead?”

Yeavering Bell mean s "Goat Hill". Must be the right place. That's the wall of the hillfort ahead, nearly there!

Yeavering Bell means “Goat Hill”. Must be the right place. And that’s the wall of the hillfort ahead, nearly there!

Reached the top! Looking south along the Cheviots

Reached the top! Looking south along the Cheviots.

View North. Not far to Scotland.

View North. Can you see the Scottish border?

Ad Gefrin can't be seen from the summit. View from a few yards down.

Ad Gefrin can’t be seen from the summit. This view is from a few yards down.

And here is a close up if you can't pick it out.

And here is a close up if you can’t pick it out.

The way down. Just follow the signs

The way down. Just follow the signs – is that one in the distance?

As I mentioned in my last post, for the purposes of my research I wanted bad weather. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much though.

I did try to imagine it. When we walked though a small stream, we discussed whether it would be frozen when Byrhtnoth came this way, or just a bit of ice along the edges. Would it be snowing or raining? Perhaps a bit of sleet? Well, it helped to pass the time.
You will have to read the book to find out what happens – but first I’ve got to write it. One thing I do know – Byrhtnoth would have made it up a bit quicker than me!

We reached the bottom of the hill at last, legs quivering, and visited the site of Ad Gefrin. As expected, there was nothing to see but a grassy field and a lot of sheep. I tried to imagine the great mead hall and the “theatre”. The place in the river Glen where Paulinus spent 36 days baptising new converts to Christianity.

Site of King Edwin's palace at Ad Gefrin. Explanation board needed!

Site of King Edwin’s palace at Ad Gefrin. Explanation board needed!

Yes, but… That was in the seventh century. The palace was burnt down not long after and the site abandoned. It will be three hundred years later that Byrhtnoth visits. It would probably look much like it does today. Would there even be any memory of it? Something to think about.

We finished the day with a cream tea in Wooler in a cafe called “ramblers” – very appropriate.

The next morning we had to leave. Would you believe that the weather was grey and misty? All the way down the A1 and M1 we never saw the sun, plenty of fog and rain. If only it had arrived a few days earlier – or perhaps not.

On my Kindle during this trip I was reading (not that I had much time to read, but I have finished it since) The King of the North by Max Adams. It added greatly to the trip and I learned a lot.

This weekend I am of to the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford.
Say hello if you see me, and you might appear in next week’s post.

Goat gate to Ad Gefrin, looking back to Yeavering Bell

Goat gate to Ad Gefrin, looking back to Yeavering Bell

Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria

Today is a bank holiday (in some places) so I thought I would talk about a recent holiday, or research trip as writers call them.

When I first started writing I made up the places where events took place, I knew exactly what they looked like. Unfortunately I then tried to find the location “in real life”. It made for some interesting holidays and was surprisingly successful. However I am growing up and have started to become more organised. I am visiting before I write – but how useful is it?

I have set part of my second book in Northumberland, at Bebbenburh (Bamburgh). The first problem was that I wanted to visit in autumn, but my husband insisted we go in August. Actually August is autumn according to the Anglo-Saxon calendar, but I was thinking howling winds and lashing rain. Perhaps I would be lucky with the weather – I wasn’t. We had the most pleasant weather imaginable; warm and sunny.

We had booked four nights at the Blue Bell Hotel in Belford. It was very comfortable and the food was good. We didn’t even need a clock as the village church was next door and struck the hour, every hour, even though the night.

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

View from our room.

View from our room.

We had planned a walk for the next day, but it was a bit cloudy. Since the forecast was for sun later, we decided to postpone the walk and drove the few miles to Bamburgh. We parked in the (free) car park and walked up to the entrance. We had explored the castle some years ago, so we intended an external circuit, for me to soak up the atmosphere. We were early and I don’t think it had opened anyway. We peered through gates until we came to a dead-end. We found a path down to the beach and the tide was out. I had a nice paddle and took lots of photos of the castle silhouetted against the dramatic sky. I started planning a scene of my hero galloping along the wide sands, with his dog. First mistake – it seems that the wide sandy beach wasn’t there at the time – scratch that scene!

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Lindesfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Lindisfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Of course I already knew that the castle would not have looked like it does now. It would have been smaller with a wooden Hall and other buildings surrounded by a wooden palisade. At least that is how it was originally built, but might the walls have been replaced by stone by Byrhtnoth’s time (the tenth century)? More research needed! I was sure where the entrance had been. Anyone who has read Matthew Harffy’s book The Serpent Sword (and if you haven’t, why not? Buy it here for only 99p) will remember the opening scene of Beobrand’s arrival by ship (somewhere near the bouncy castle) and entry up the narrow steps – in wind and rain, of course! Interestingly, when I re-read that piece, I noticed that neither the width of the beach nor the composition of the walls is mentioned. A good lesson. If you don’t know the answer, leave it to your readers to imagine it – if they get it wrong it is their fault, not yours!

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

After a coffee and a toasted teacake at the Copper Kettle Tearoom in the village, we visited the local church, originally founded by St Aiden in 635, the first church to be built in Northumbria. The reredos, which dates from the end of the 19th century contains images of many Northumbrian saints.

St Aiden's Church, Bamburgh

St Aiden’s Church, Bamburgh

Reredos in St Aidens Church

Reredos in St Aiden’s Church

As we left Bamburgh the sun came out. We headed inland to start our planned walk. We had found a suitable walk online to St Cuthbert’s Cave and round the surrounding area. It included part of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance footpath from Melrose to Lindisfarne marking events in the life of St Cuthbert.

The cave is supposed to be the place where monks carrying the body of the saint rested on their journey from Lindisfarne Abbey after it was raided by Vikings in 875. The bones eventually arrived in Durham several years later.

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthberts Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthbert’s Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

St Cuthbert's Cave

St Cuthbert’s Cave

Owned by the National Trust - spot the error!

Owned by the National Trust – spot the error!

"Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left" Would you? We did - quickly.

“Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left” Would you? We did – quickly.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The views were worth it. Linisfarne in the distance

The views were worth it, though. Lindisfarne in the distance

After the walk, we returned to our hotel. It had been a long day and there would be another tomorrow.

To be continued