On this day in 616 King Æthelberht of Kent died. He had converted to Christianity under the influence of his Frankish wife, Queen Bertha during the Gregorian Mission sent in 596. He was buried in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Canterbury, near Bertha, who had died a few years before.
At this point in history the nature of burials was slowly changing in line with the changes of religious beliefs. Up until the Gregorian Mission it was mostly Northern European pagan beliefs that were practiced by Anglo-Saxons in England. These beliefs influenced the burying of the dead; for the rich and wealthy these would have included burials such as the one at Sutton Hoo and would have included grave goods, items that might be needed in the afterlife. Cremations would have also occurred with the most widespread form of burial being the simple inhumation which didn’t require as much equipment and time. With the spread of Christianity, customs around burials changed, as is reflected in how Æthelberht was interned. It is markedly different to the burial at Sutton Hoo, which is thought to be that of King Rædwald of East-Anglia, which probably occurred a little later.
We learn a little about Æthelberht’s death and what happened next from Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Just before Bede discusses Æthelberht’s death he recounts his role as Bretwalda (a sort of high king) and lists the first five Kings who held this title, including Rædwald of East-Anglia:
"The first king to hold the like sovereignty was Ælla, king of the South Saxons; the second was Caelin, King of the West Saxons, known in their own language as Ceawlin; the third, as we have said, was Æthelberht, king of Kent; the fourth was Rædwald, King of the East Angles, who even during the life of King Æthelberht was gaining the leadership for his own race; the fifth was Edwin, Kind of the Northumbrians, the nation inhabiting the district north of the Humber."
We learn from Bede that Rædwald succeeded Æthelberht as Bretwalda. Whether this happened immediately after his death is not recorded. We also do not know whether Rædwald would have attended Æthelberht’s funeral, a possibility given the closeness of the two kingdoms within the Heptarchy and their relationship. If Rædwald did attend, maybe his role as the new Bretwalda was immediately recognized, possibly with some tribute from Æthelberht’s widow or son, Eadwald, with some of the tribute ending up as part of Rædwald’s burial goods. We know that Bertha, Æthelberht’s first wife, was from Frankia, maybe it was via Bertha that Frankish coins came to Kent and then onto East-Anglia to be included in the burial at Sutton Hoo. Another object at Sutton Hoo was a scepter/whetstone, the significance of which is now lost. It is believed to be an emblem of power, with its design resembling Roman scepters, owned by holders of high office; was this an item that demonstrated that Rædwald was the Bertwalda?
We may never know what happened at Æthelberht’s funeral or the details around Rædwald’s apparent rise to the position of Bertwalda, but we do have a small and intriguing glimpse at some of the significant events that unfolded after Æthelberht’s death and Rædwald’s elevation in Anglo-Saxon politics. This will be the focus of our next blog on the life of Rædwald.
These scenes were built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on early Anglo-Saxon England. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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