A Wealth of Evidence: The Identity of the Man Commemorated at Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo helmet at the British Museum

A Wealth of Evidence: The Identity of the Man Commemorated at Sutton Hoo

By Dmitri Phillips

Elements: Boston College Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol.3:1 (2007)

Sutton Hoo helmet at the British Museum
Sutton Hoo helmet at the British Museum

Abstract: The history of England did not begin with the Industrial Revolution and not everything supposed about the Anglo-Saxons reduces to the myth of King Arthur and the Round Table. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, the Dark Ages of the North were full of splendor and brilliance; the only thing dark about them is their enshrouded history, but that only makes them all the more fascinating. The great burial mound at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia, discovered just before World War II, shines as one of the most grandiose sepulchers in history, yet the identity of its occupant remains a mystery. Was it a wealthy merchant, a warrior from overseas, or a great king? This paper gathers, presents, and scrutinizes the evidence and arguments from ancient records, opulate grave-goods, and contemporary investigations in an attempt to determine the most likely candidate for the individual interred in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo.

Introduction: From the very moment of the gravefield’s discovery in 1938, sparks of controversy have surrounded the identity of the person commemorated in what was to be named Mound 1 of the Sutton Hoo cemetery, the most lavish and magnificent burial mound yet uncovered in Anglo-Saxon England. On their visit to the site in 1939, Hector Chadwick said to Charles Phillips, “It’s the grave of King Raedwald you know. I’ve no doubt of that.” Chadwick may have had no doubt— shortly thereafter he wrote a paper defending his position”—but others after him have doubted this assertion, and it is still an unresolved question appearing at the head of most considerations of Sutton Hoo.

While some claim the question to be inconsequential, the reconstruction of history, art, and culture depends on such pivotal questions as much as on anything else. The development of a more precise chronology, an understanding of the culture of kingship and of pagan religious practices, and, of particular significance to the period under scrutiny, an appreciation of the meeting point of paganism and Christianity, are all spheres of study that may benefit from a more precise identification of the person honored in the greatest grave at Sutton Hoo. At the same time, these areas must actually assist in the very task we undertake, and one must carefully sift through the literary and archeological evidence accumulated since its discovery to see in what ways the evidence complements and augments, supports and is supported by, our understanding of these key areas of investigation.

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