Sutton Hoo is a famous Saxon burial ground on the banks of the river Deben near Woodbridge in Suffolk. The burial mounds on the sandy heath are an atmospheric place where one can still sense the power they signified over a thousand years ago. The Sutton Hoo treasure found in one of the mounds in 1939 in a ship burial is one of the glories of the British Museum. Its beautifully worked gold, silver and jewelled objects shed a startling new light onto Saxon life and culture.
I have visited Sutton Hoo several times. Each time I am touched by its special atmosphere and each time I have learnt more about its history from the permanent and changing exhibitions. During one visit I went on a guided tour led by a volunteer guide. Some of her words return to me every time I think of Sutton Hoo. She said ‘We owe what we see before us to three very special women, three widows’.
The first of these women was the widow of Raedwald, a Saxon king who died around 625. The ship burial with the Sutton Hoo treasure is believed to be his last resting place. Raedwald is believed to have converted to Christianity in about 600 – probably for political reasons, for when he returned to his kingdom in East Anglia his wife persuaded him not to desert the old gods entirely. He built a temple with two altars – one to Christ and one to the pagan gods. When he died his widow gave him a pagan burial with the beautiful grave goods he would need in the after life and burial in a ship showing his power in this life. So we owe the treasure in the British Museum to this woman. If Raedwald had had a Christian burial there would have been no ship burial and no grave goods.
The second woman in this tale is Edith Pretty. Over a thousand years later in 1939 Edith Pretty was the owner of the Sutton Hoo estate. At that time she was still grieving following the death of her husband. She had always been curious about the mounds on her land and she asked a local historian Basil Brown to investigate them. This put in train the archaeology that led to the amazing discovery of the ship burial and the Sutton Hoo treasure. In an act of great generosity Mrs Pretty gave the treasure to the nation so that all might enjoy it. For this gift she was offered an honour by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. An honour which she declined.
The third woman is Mrs Annie Tranmer. Also a widow, she too owned the Sutton Hoo estate and on her death in 1998, in another act of great generosity, the burial mounds and the whole estate were given to the National Trust according to her wishes. The house on the estate which had been built in 1910 is now known as Tranmer House and is open to the public as is the whole of Sutton Hoo.
So to these three women we owe the creation of the treasure and public ownership both of the treasure itself and the special place that is Sutton Hoo.