East Anglia

East Anglia

East Anglia, kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England, comprising the modern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. It was settled in the late 5th cent. by so-called Angles from northern Germany and Scandinavia. Little is known of its early history, but its large size and the fact that it was protected by fens probably made it one of the most powerful English kingdoms in the late 6th cent. Raedwald of East Anglia (d. 627?) followed Æthelbert of Kent as king of S England. He helped Edwin defeat Æthelfrith of Northumbria and seize the Northumbrian throne. This brief ascendancy was eclipsed by the rise of the kingdom of Mercia, of which East Anglia was a dependency for long periods after 650. In 825 the East Anglians rebelled against Mercia, with the help of Egbert of Wessex, but thereafter their kingdom was a dependency of Wessex. The great Danish invading army was quartered (865-66) in East Anglia and returned (869) to conquer the kingdom completely, to destroy its monasteries, and to murder its young ruler, St. Edmund. When King Alfred of Wessex first defeated the Danes in the 870s, they retired under Guthrum to an area that included East Anglia, and the treaty of 886 confirmed the region as part of the Danelaw. Its Danes gave aid to later Viking invaders and continued to harass Wessex until Edward the Elder finally defeated their army in 917. After that time, East Anglia was an earldom of England.
Rædwald, son of Tytila, was King of the East Angles from c 600 AD until his death in c 624 AD. From c 616 he became the most powerful of the English rulers south of the River Humber, and by military action installed a Northumbrian ruler acquiescent to his authority. He was the first East Anglian ruler to receive Christian teaching and baptism (from the Canterbury mission), and helped to ensure its survival during the apostasy of Essex and Kent. He is the most favoured identification for the famous Sutton Hoo ship-burial. In the late 9th century he is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as being a Bretwalda.


The earliest and fullest source for Rædwald is Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which places his reign between the advent of the Augustinian mission to Kent (597) and the marriage and conversion of Edwin of Northumbria (625-26). A set of annals in late compilations (of uncertain authority) records Rædwald's death twice, in 599 and 624, so possibly the missing annal for 599 was for Tytila's death and Rædwald's accession.

The context of Rædwald's kingdom

During Rædwald's young life the ruling houses of other kingdoms were becoming strongly established. Æthelberht of Kent (ruled c 560-616) was married to Bercta, Christian daughter of the Frankish ruler Charibert of Paris. Ceawlin of Wessex, most powerful ruler south of the Humber, repulsed Æthelberht's inroads from Kent until c 584, when after fighting the British in Oxfordshire his power waned and Æthelberht obtained a similar authority. In Mercia the shadowy figure of Creoda, descendant of Icel, established his family's importance.

North of the River Humber the two kingdoms of Deira (centred on York) and the more northerly Bernicia (centred on Bamburgh) had rival dynasties. Ælla of Deira ruled until his death in 588, leaving a daughter Acha and son Edwin and another sibling. The Bernician dynasty (allied by kinship to Wessex) was gaining ascendancy, and Edwin grew up in exile in the court of Cadfan ap Iago of Gwynedd. In various wars the Bernician Æthelfrith consolidated the Northumbrian state, and in c 604 brought Deira under his own dominion.

Rædwald's family

Rædwald's descent from Wuffa, the eponymous founder of the Wuffinga dynasty, is stated by Bede. He was born c560-580 and was (probably elder) brother of Eni. Possibly during the 590s he married a woman of pagan custom and high moral principle whose name is unknown. By her he sired at least two sons, Rægenhere (? the elder) and Eorpwald. He also had an older son or stepson named Sigeberht.

The name ‘Sigeberht’ is unlike any other Wuffing name, but typical of the East Saxon dynasty. Sledda of Essex (ruled c 587-604) married Ricula, sister of Æthelbert of Kent. Æthelberht supported the succession of his nephew Saebert, their son, in Essex, and both kings became Christian soon afterwards. It is suggested that Rædwald's wife had previously been married to a member of that family and that Sigeberht was (as William of Malmesbury reports) Rædwald's stepson. Sigeberht (who grew up in a pagan household) earned the enmity of Rædwald, who drove him into exile in Gaul possibly to protect his own bloodline.

Rædwald's early reign

If that deduction is correct, Rædwald's marriage brought him directly into the sphere of Kent and Essex but with independent authority. The outstanding fact of his early reign was the recent arrival of Augustine of Canterbury and his mission from Rome, sent by Gregory the Great, and (during the early 600s) the conversion of Æthelberht and Saeberht, and the establishment of bishoprics in Kent and Essex.

Rædwald also received the Christian sacraments in Kent, presumably at the invitation of Æthelberht who may have been his baptismal sponsor. The date of this initiation is not exactly known, but since it is claimed that Saint Augustine himself (d. c 605) dedicated a church near Ely, it may have followed Saebert's conversion fairly swiftly. In this way Rædwald became aligned with Æthelberht's system of authority. Bede states that even during Æthelbert's lifetime Rædwald was building up the leadership of the southern English for his own nation of East Angles.

In East Anglia Rædwald's conversion was not universally acceptable to his household, nor to his wife. She and her pagan teachers probably persuaded him to default in part from his commitment to it. In his temple, therefore, there were two altars, one dedicated to Christ, and one for dedications to the Anglo-Saxon gods.

The exile of Edwin

Æthelfrith, the builder of the Northumbrian kingdom, had married Acha daughter of Ælla of Deira, and pursued her exiled brother Edwin seeking to destroy him, so that the Bernician rulership of all Northumbria should be unchallenged. Edwin had found hospitality in Mercia in the household of its ruler Cearl, married his daughter and produced two sons. Edwin's nephew Hereric, an exile in the British kingdom of Elmet, was treacherously slain there. Edwin wandered secretly as a fugitive through various kingdoms, and at last sought the protection of Rædwald in East Anglia.

Rædwald received him willingly and promised to protect him, and Edwin lived on familiar terms with the king and among his royal companions. When news of this reached Æthelfrith he sent messengers offering much money to Rædwald for Edwin's death, but to no avail. He sent a second and a third time, offering greater gifts of silver, and promising war if they were not accepted. This was a direct confrontation of territorial influence. Rædwald was weakened and promised either to kill Edwin or hand him over to ambassadors.

The deliberation of war

Edwin was offered the chance to escape, but refused. He was then visited by a stranger who was aware of Rædwald's deliberations. A source written at Whitby states that this was Paulinus, a member of the Canterbury mission. He offered Edwin the hope of Rædwald's support, and held out the prospect that Edwin might someday attain greater royal power than any before him among the English.

These offers would have been empty if Rædwald was not contemplating war, and had not foreseen the future power of Northumbria. Rædwald's pagan queen admonished him that a king ought not to betray his trust, more precious than any ornament, for the sake of money, nor sell his imperilled friend for gold. Paulinus had Edwin's assurance that he would accept his religious teaching if he survived and came into such power. Once the ambassadors had gone, Rædwald resolved on war.

The Battle of the River Idle (616)

Rædwald rapidly assembled a large army and marched north to confront Æthelfrith before he had time to gather all his forces. Rædwald's influence in Lindsey is indicated by the fact that he met Æthelfrith just across the River Trent, its western boundary, on the east bank of the River Idle between Gainsborough and Bawtry. Æthelfrith was killed, and Rædwald's son Rægenhere also died in the battle. Edwin thereupon succeeded Æthelfrith as ruler in Northumbria, and Æthelfrith's sons went into exile among the Picts and Scots.

A separate account of the battle given by Henry of Huntingdon states that Rædwald's army was (like a legion) in three formations, led by Rædwald, Rægenhere and Edwin. With more experienced fighters, Æthelfrith attacked in loose formation. At the sight of Rægenhere (quasi praeda inventa – perhaps thinking he was Edwin) they cut their way through to him and slew him. Rædwald then furiously breached his lines and killed Æthelfrith amid a great slaughter of the Northumbrians.

Rædwald's imperium

At about the time of this battle or soon after, Æthelberht of Kent died and was succeeded by his son Eadbald, not yet a Christian. Saebert of Essex had also died and his three sons shared their kingdom under pagan rule, driving out Bishop Mellitus. The Canterbury mission had already almost entirely removed to Gaul for safety before Eadbald was brought back into the fold. In this period therefore Rædwald's was the only royal Christian altar in England. By the time of Rædwald's death the mission in Kent was fully re-established.

Through his action Rædwald's authority became sufficiently universal for Bede to recognise him as the successor to the imperium of Ceawlin and Æthelberht. He also calls him Rex Anglorum (King of the Angles). By Edwin's debt of allegiance to him, Rædwald became the first to hold direct influence in Northumbria, and he probably supported Edwin's subjection of Bernicia. His authority in Kent is specified, for Bede notes that this was not afterwards obtained by Edwin. As foreseen before the battle, Edwin gained imperium after Rædwald's death, fulfilled his promise to become Christian, and married the sister of Eadbald of Kent.


During the first quarter of the 7th century the quayside settlement at Gipeswic (Ipswich) began to assume importance as an estuarine trading centre receiving imports of pottery (and presumably other goods) from the Rhineland areas of Merovingian Gaul. It is likely that the development of this site took place under royal supervision. Although it took another hundred years for Gipeswic to develop as a town, its beginnings probably reflect the personal importance of Rædwald during the age of his supremacy.

With the exception of one furnished grave probably of a Rhineland visitor, the excavated grave-goods and rituals of its cemetery (including burials under small barrows) are not particularly wealthy or elaborate, and lack the strong characterization of the neighbouring late 6th century cemetery at a higher crossing of the river (Hadleigh Road).

Rædwald and Sutton Hoo

The identification of the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 ship-burial with Rædwald cannot be proved. However the magnificence of the ritual and possessions, the far-reaching connections which they demonstrate, and the inclusion of objects denoting the personal authority of the individual buried there, definitely point to a person of very exceptional status. Rædwald is the most likely candidate, though others have been suggested.

The date-horizon shows that this person lived in the time of Rædwald. The gold and garnet body-equipment was produced for a patron employing a goldsmith the equal or better than any in Europe, and was designed to project an image of imperial power. The Mediterranean silverware in the grave is a unique assemblage for its period in Europe, and the inclusion of bowls and spoons which have been interpreted as baptismal gifts does not conflict with the story of Rædwald's conversion.

The ship-burial ritual itself, and the strong connections of the armour with the Vendel-age productions of eastern Sweden, suggest genealogical associations of the kind described in the poem Beowulf. Within thirty years of the date of the burial, it is certain that the neighbourhood of Sutton Hoo (in particular, Rendlesham was a focus of patronage of Rædwald's family heirs.

The interpretation of Rædwald's kingdom and authority through the burial and artefacts requires a personal identification which cannot absolutely be made. Even so, the assemblage illustrates beyond doubt the spectacular riches, contacts and personal culture of the foremost East Anglian patron of his age. No comparable testimony survives in any other English context of this period.

See also


Further reading

  • The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, ed. B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford 1969).
  • R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Archæology: Sutton Hoo and other discoveries (London 1974).
  • R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (Vol I) (London 1975).
  • J. Campbell, The Impact of the Sutton Hoo Discovery, in The Anglo-Saxon State (Hambledon & London, London, 2000). ISBN 1-85285-176-7
  • D. Dumville, 1976, The Anglian Collection of royal genealogies and regnal lists, Anglo-Saxon England 5, 23-50.
  • N.J. Higham, Rædwald, in M. Lapidge et al (eds), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (Blackwell, London 1999). ISBN 0-631-22492-0
  • D.P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings (london 1991).
  • S. Newton, The origins of Beowulf and the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia (Cambridge 1993).
  • S. Newton, The Reckoning of King Rædwald (Brightlingsea 2003).
  • S. Plunkett, Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times (Tempus 2005).
  • F.M. Stenton, 1959, The East Anglian Kings in the seventh century, in P. Clemoes (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons: Studies presented to Bruce Dickens (London 1959).
  • B. Yorke, Kings and kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England (London 1990).

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