Some historical settings lend themselves to fiction – and Sutton Hoo is one of them. Legend and mystery surrounds Sutton Hoo. Discovered in 1939, while war raged in Europe, this site is one of Great Britain’s most significant historical findings. The Sutton Hoo burial ground sits above the river Deben in Suffolk, East Anglia, upon a spur of land that contains a number of barrows – burial mounds. These barrows contained a wealth of artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon period. The River Deben is a wide, tidal river that forms one of a group of estuaries that drain from the south-eastern side of Suffolk, through its characteristically flat, gentle landscape towards the North Sea. For many centuries, this river was a major route inland, and the natural choice for the burial ground of kings.
The burial ground contains two sixth and seventh century cemeteries – including the famous barrow with an undisturbed longship burial. The beauty of the Sutton Hoo longship is in its size and completeness. Inside the longship, the archaeologists discovered a wealth of treasures – now on display in the British Museum – including a collection of metalwork dress fittings in gold and gems, a ceremonial helmet, shield, sword, lyre, as well as many pieces of silver plate that would have come from the Eastern Roman Empire.
Sutton Hoo has become a cornerstone for early medieval historians; giving them insight into a period of English history shrouded in myth and legend. The longship burial dates back to a time of Raedwald (who died in circa 625 AD), the warrior king of the East Angles. Many historians believe it is indeed Raedwald who was entombed here. Raedwald was the most powerful ruler of the Wuffinga dynasty, and the wealth and craftsmanship of the treasures found in this burial appear to point to Raedwald.
It does not take much imagination to envisage what the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo must have looked like during the Anglo-Saxon period. To create Raedwald’s barrow, warriors would have dragged the longship up from the river to the top of the bluff and laid it in a trench. Then, they would have built a gabled hut amidships for the king’s coffin before surrounding him with his treasures. Lastly, they would have filled in the trench and raised a mound over it so that the barrow stood majestically against the skyline.
My mother’s family come from this area of Suffolk and Sutton Hoo has always fascinated me. When I visited the exhibition hall and wandered through the site itself on a grey, chilly day, I imagined this burial ground as ‘the Great Barrows of Kings’, a revered place during the time of the Wuffingas. That thought grew into the seed of a story based around King Raedwald and his burial here. Eventually that seed blossomed into my novel, Dark Under the Cover of Night.
Sutton Hoo inspired me to write a tale set in a world dominated by the warrior, the sword, vengeance and honor – and if you are ever in Woodbridge, Suffolk, a trip to this magical site is a must for history lovers!
Books about Sutton Hoo:
Sutton Hoo by Martin Carver (British Museum Press – April 20, 2000)
Treasures from Sutton Hoo by Gareth Williams (British Museum Press – January 14, 2012)
The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial by Angela Care Evans (British Museum Pubns Ltd; Revised edition – August 1995)