Sutton Hoo: Discovering the face of history

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial by Ziko-C | Wikimedia

In the summer of 1937, a town fete was held in Woodbridge in Suffolk. There were floral displays, a cricket match, a concert, and, according to the posters proudly advertising the event, a ‘balloon competition’. In other words, there was absolutely nothing unusual or noteworthy about this quaint, community event. Yet the Woodbridge Floral Fete would indirectly change our entire view of British history, and yield historical riches beyond imagining.

It was here that a local woman named Edith Pretty got chatting with a local historian named Vincent Redstone. The conversation turned to her property, Sutton Hoo, a short distance from Woodbridge. Specifically, some interesting looking mounds on the estate. Might they conceal something more than mere earth, Mrs Pretty wondered?

In her early 50s, Edith Pretty was a worldly woman with a life-long fascination for history. The daughter of a rich Victorian industrialist, she’d travelled the world in her younger years, embarking on Egyptian expeditions and spending one Christmas Day at the Taj Mahal. Like many wealthy types of her era, she also had an interest in spiritualism and supernatural phenomenon. According to one popular story, Edith (or perhaps a friend of Edith’s) said she’d had a vision of ghostly figures of spear-holding soldiers marching over the land of Sutton Hoo, triggering her interest in the mounds and what they might contain.

Incredible treasures had been buried with this ship, including a sword and a gold belt buckle

That conversation at the Woodbridge Floral Fete set a chain of events into motion, with Vincent Redstone contacting his colleagues about Sutton Hoo. A self-taught Suffolk archaeologist and astronomer called Basil Brown was eventually commissioned to start delving into the estate. Brown was presumably intrigued at the possibilities of the estate, but he could never have anticipated excavating an immense ship-burial, every bit the equal of the great Viking ship-burials. The ship itself – like the body it had contained – had long since dissolved in the acidic soil, but Brown was able to carefully reveal its distinct shape, which showed it to have been 27 metres long. Incredible treasures had been buried with this ship, including a sword and a gold belt buckle featuring an intricate lattice of interwoven snakes. But it was on 28 July 1939 that the diggers found what would become the single most iconic Anglo-Saxon artefact of all time: the Sutton Hoo helmet.

Except, the helmet was not a helmet when it was found. The ship-burial had evidently caved in at some point, shattering the artefact into hundreds of pieces. The diggers had an immensely complex jigsaw puzzle on their hands, but the hard work of piecing the helmet back together would pay off. Like the other precious items in the burial, the helmet is extravagantly decorated, and has the quality of an optical illusion. At first glance, the visage depicts a face, complete with a moustache, nose and eyebrows. But a closer inspection reveals these features actually make up a parallel image of a dragon in flight, with the moustache as its tail, the nose as its body, and the eyebrows as its wings. The eyebrows are also capped on either side by small, ominous boars’ heads.

The helmet is emblazoned with enigmatic scenes, including panels depicting dancing warriors. Its elaborate design, and the presence of the other riches in the ship-burial, mean that it very likely belonged to a highly important Anglo-Saxon figure of the 7th Century. The prime suspect is Rædwald, King of East Anglia, whose life and reign are shrouded in mystery. There’s a frustrating lack of first-hand sources from his era, partly due to Viking invaders causing the destruction of monasteries containing tell-tale documents. One valuable surviving source is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was composed in the 8th Century by the Benedictine monk known as the Venerable Bede. His writings are considered one of the most crucial treasure troves of information on the Anglo-Saxons.

While the helmet displays decorative flourishes that may reference the great Norse deity Odin, other objects in the burial have cross-shaped engravings

Thanks to Bede, we know Rædwald converted to Christianity, although he also permitted pagan worship to continue in his kingdom and personally kept two altars – one Christian and one pagan, in his temple. Tellingly, this religious dichotomy is reflected in the discoveries at Sutton Hoo. While the helmet displays decorative flourishes that may reference the great Norse deity Odin, other objects in the burial have cross-shaped engravings, while a pair of silver spoons are marked with the names ‘Saulos’ and ‘Paulos’ – possible references to the Biblical story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.

We also know that Rædwald was a warrior-king, who fought against the forces of a rival Anglo-Saxon monarch in what is known as the Battle of the River Idle around the year 616 – a confrontation that saw Rædwald’s own son slain. Rædwald himself is thought to have died around 624 – and potentially buried with the ship at Sutton Hoo.

Whether or not you believe the helmet belonged to this long-dead monarch, its significance goes beyond a connection to any one man. The face of the Sutton Helmet is the face of Anglo-Saxon England itself, gazing back at us across the gulf of centuries. And we might never have known about it if it wasn’t for that conversation at a town fete in 1937.