The wonders of the Anglo-Saxon settlement at Rendlesham, near Woodbridge in Suffolk, continue to intrigue. The Suffolk County archaeological team have been excavating here since 2007. A new community project called “Rendlesham Revealed” is now running from 2020–2024. The results of the 2022 dig analysis have just been released, and they are astonishing.
This site is a royal settlement of the East Anglian royal house, the Wuffingas. It was first mentioned by the 8th-century monk and chronicler Bede in his famous work, ‘An Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. Within the large site is a smaller royal compound; there they have now identified a suspected 1,400-year-old Anglo-Saxon temple. This is only the second found in England from this period, with another found in another royal settlement, Yeavering, in Yorkshire.
The first East Anglian king
Why is this so significant? The ancient king who is believed to have been ruler at the time was King Raedwald. He is a potential name for the “king” interned at the famous Sutton Hoo boat burial. That site above the Deben River is only five miles from the Rendlesham site. As the first king of the East Angles, who gave us the term for our region East Anglia, Raedwald was an early convert from paganism to Christianity. So this ritual site may have seen the first Christian worship in the region. The other temple site, Yeavering in Yorkshire, was critical to the Christianisation of Northern England, and Rendlesham may have had a similar role in the East.
As a royal site, the dig has been rich in finds, from fine-worked gold to evidence of extensive metalworking, dating from the 5th to the 8th centuries. Serving a royal court took many hands, from those providing food preparation to those undertaking high-status work like jewellery-making using exotic goods such as garnets from India. This evidence suggests a rich post-Roman global trading network, and technical sophistication.
A culturally significant settlement
Consultant Professor Chris Scull, who is helping the County Archaeology Service, said, “The scale (of the site) is beyond anything that could have been predicted when we first recognised the site. We were fairly clear from the outset that is was a very large settlement covering 50 ha or 125 acres. It stands out as unique in England because of the size and scale of the enclosure.”
Previous excavations of the inner royal enclosure found a great hall where feasting and audiences took place. Some believe that the famous epic poem Beowulf was written for and performed in that very venue at the time of King Raedwald. The Sutton Hoo burial finds point to the sophistication of this royal stronghold, with musical instruments, silver dining plates, spoons, and bowls from the Byzantine Empire, and rich textiles. Coins and weights from areas ruled by the Byzantine empire and all the way from Constantinople itself were found on the Rendlesham site. This was a cultured and well-connected court.
But what were their spiritual beliefs before they converted to Christianity? Professor Cull believes they had a pantheon of gods, like the Greeks, with individuals choosing to align themselves with a particular god or demi-god. Bede tells us that King Raedwald was inconsistent in his conversion and kept altars to the old gods alongside the new Christian God.
This may have been politically astute at a time of divided opinion. A king’s power came partly from the support of warriors and chiefs. Before Christianity was the norm, allowing others their freedom to worship the old ways would have been sensible.
Rendering taxes in Rendlesham
Part of kingship was also collecting tribute, or taxes, in modern terms. These were known at that time as ‘Renders’, mainly given as agricultural produce: what would later in the medieval period be known as tithes. An intriguing thought is that the very name of this site, Rendlesham, perhaps derives from rendering taxes to the royal settlement. A ‘ham’ was the old word for a village or estate. Rendering taxes to the king’s estate?
Where there are taxes, it usually means money. The Rendlesham enclosure did indeed play a key role in the use of coinage, says Professor Scull. Some of England’s earliest gold coins from the 7th century were found on the site. It has been suggested that they were minted here as part of the metalworking taking place. Coins were made partly to promote a king, literally putting his stamp on the area, and to speed up and support a wider economy. Producing and trading using money means more is possible than just with barter.
Furnishing, equipping, and feeding any royal court took a large population, from local farmers to specialist craftspeople working to make leather, swords, boats, pottery, and wonderful jewellery. Hundreds would have been directly involved in supplying the wider settlement. Much like the dig itself, which has used more than 400 local volunteers, from primary school children to Suffolk Family Carers and Suffolk MIND participants, helping to excavate and clean finds. This highly informative site reveals many parallels with our lives in today’s Suffolk and East Anglia.