River Deben near Sutton Hoo © River Deben Association

Rendlesham – An Anglo-Saxon Royal Palace Near Sutton Hoo

Rendelsham is located five km north-east of Sutton Hoo and known as an early Anglo-Saxon emporium. Recently a royal mead-hall was discovered there

Swithelm, the son of Seaxbald, was successor to Sigeberht. He was baptised by Cedd in East Anglia, in the royal village called Rendelsham, that is, the residence of Rendil. King Ætelwold of East Anglia, the brother of King Anna, a previous king of the East Angles, was his sponsor.
From: Bede: The Ecclesiastical History, III: 22. Ed. by Judith McLure and Roger Collins. Oxford University Press. 1969

Rendlesham Anglo-Saxon Hall
Rendlesham. This LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) survey shows the core Anglo-Saxon areas at Rendlesham, including the main residence area © Suffolk Archaeological Service

In AD 731, Bede identified six sites as specifically royal in his Historia Ecclesiastica. Among these were Rendlesham, AD 655-663, which archaeologists are now sure they have identified as a royal entre – a vicus regius. For a long time, historians and archaeologist knew of the later village in Rendlesham; however, the exact location of Bede’s royal settlement was unknown until a local landowner in 2008 reported some illegal Night-Ravens metal-detecting in his fields.

The illegal detectorists brought a concerted effort to investigate the site more orderly. For several years a survey area covering 400 acres of land along the east bank of the River Deben was field-walked. All in all, nearly 4000 pieces were discovered, of which a fourth belong to the Anglo-Saxon age. A number of these artefacts were particularly splendid allowing the archaeologists and historians to concluded that, yes, they had found the royal vicus which Bede mentions in his history.

According to later publications, the place must be characterised as a site with a marked chronological continuity, covering the period from approximately AD 550 – 750 (and probably reaching back to AD 450). Finds included gold jewellery, harness fittings, and fragments of a cast bronze bowl from the eastern Mediterranean as well as Byzantine weights, fragments of continental brooches, Byzantine copper coins and Merovingian gold coins.

The coins are especially interesting. With 19 Merovingian Gold tremisses, 6 Anglo-Saxon gold shillings and 168 silver pennies found across the whole settlement area, the evidence is clear. These coins represent losses from transactions and not hoards.
These coins indicate the place was an important trading place – a so-called central place – through which some of the more spectacular items found at Sutton Hoo might have been channelled. However, finds also included scraps of gold, silver and copper alloy, globules and other fragments, and lead models indicating the site was also what is generally called a “productive place”, a location where craftsmen worked creating the more spectacular jewels and weapons found in furnished graves from that period.

Royal Mead-Hall?

Metalwork forun at Rendlesham. Credit: Suffolk Archaeological Service
Metalwork forun at Rendlesham. Credit: Suffolk Archaeological Service

Finally, this summer, the archaeologists carried out a LIDAR survey, identifying the outline of several buildings. One of these have excited the archaeologists: a structure, believed to be a hall, measuring 23 x 9 metres. Perhaps the royal mead-hall of the kings at Rendlesham?
If this is the case might the site should not only be characterised as a trading emporium complete with workshops but also a royal tributary centre, from where the king gradually might begin to organise the extraction of surplus rent from his dependants through the wielding of justice and the levying of fines.

Judging from a published map, the hall would have been located with its gable turned towards the tributary stream; and with a cultic centre nearby (now the St. Gregory’s Church). Across the stream we find the burial grounds. Further along the River Deben small tributary settlements were located, 1.5 – 3 km apart. The Deben estuary was navigable as far as Rendlesham in the 7th century.

The site has been likened to places like Uppåkra in Southern Sweden and Gudme in Denmark. However, a much more obvious comparison would be the royal seat at Lejre in Denmark (famous for its mythical connection with Beowulf) and later places like Tissø and Erritsø. All feature a layout with whitewashed halls raised above a stream or lake, and with a compound consisting of a large hall with a minor cultic house close by. Until the site is excavated, though, the exact details elude us.

Further details are expected to be revealed at a conference at Bury St Edmunds this week (September 2016).

SOURCES:

Anglo-Saxon ‘palace’ found at Rendlesham near Sutton Hoo site

Where Kings lived: Rendlesham rediscovered
British Archaeology vol 137 (2014) pp 50 – 55

Rendlesham Project

Rendlesham Rediscovered

Rendlesham Revealed
By Christopher Scull
In: Saxon (2014) Vol 59

READ MORE:

Archaeology and Geographies of Jurisdiction: Evidence from South-East Suffolk in the 7th century.
By Christopher Scull
Provisional paper published at academia.edu 15.04.2016

THE RENDLESHAM SURVEY: Investigating a Royal Anglo-Saxon Landscape.
by Judith Plouviez Senior Archaeological Officer, Suffolk Archaeological Service)
Joint Meeting with NAHRG at the Town close Auditorium, Castle Museum. 6th of Dec.2014

Social and economic complexity in early medieval England: a central place complex of the East Anglian kingdom at Rendlesham, Suffolk
By Christopher Scull, Faye Minter, and Judith Plouviez
In: Antiquity, December 2016, Volume 90, Issue 354, pp. 1594-1612

KNOW MORE:

Royal residences AD 500 – 800 – New Academic Network

The Royal Residences Project is an AHRC-funded network which brings together scholars from different countries and disciplinary backgrounds to reflect upon and interpret a major influx of new evidence for sites of royal residence in early medieval Britain. The main object of the network has been to organise three international workshops in 2016-09-23

  • University of Reading – site dynamics and social trajectories
  • Durham University – ritual action, performance and the built environment
  • University of Aberdeen – residential sites in wider spheres of social, political and economic interaction.

FEATURED PHOTO:

River Deben near Sutton Hoo © River Deben Association

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