Biddulph & District Genealogy & Historical Society Biddulph Grange by Kath Walton

Local and Family History for the Biddulph area

Current Meeting Reports - 2019

Mr. Frank Harris “Sutton Hoo and links to Staffordshire” - 21st January 2019


“Sutton Hoo and links to Staffordshire - 21st January 2019”

The first meeting of the Society in 2019 was held on Monday the 21st of January when the Speaker was Mr. Frank Harris with a talk on “Sutton Hoo and links to Staffordshire.” The Chairman of the Society, Mr. Roland Machin, introduced Mr. Harris who was surrounded by two tables of books and posters describing both the Sutton Hoo and Staffordshire Hoard finds. There was also an Anglo Saxon helmet, shield and sword which the audience were invited to try on at the end of the meeting.

Mr. Harris began by admitting to a passionate attachment to the Anglo Saxon culture and that the two finds, the Hoard and the Hoo, were pivotal in looking at this time in English history. He described the finding of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009 when Terry Herbert, a recently retired coffin maker, found a large collection of Anglo Saxon artefacts on the land of farmer Fred Johnson at Hammerwich. Having been declared treasure trove the pair shared £3.5 million pounds but they have subsequently had a falling out. The numerous items found, especially the gold and garnet sword parts, initially convinced Mr. Harris that the finding of the Hoard must be related to the earlier find at Sutton Hoo.

There is quite a lot of information about the Hoard and we are fortunate to be able to visit part of it at the Hanley Museum so here is a brief description of the finding of Sutton Hoo treasures. If you travel north from Ipswich on the A12 toward Lowestoft and just after Martlesham turn onto the B1083 Melton to Bawdsey and follow the signs you arrive at the White House on the Hoo.

Map of the area showing the site next to Ipswich and Colchester [Google Maps].

Built in 1910, Tranmer House was originally known as Sutton Hoo House and was designed by John Corder, a local architect from Ipswich and built for artist and gentleman of independent means John Chadwick Lomax. After their marriage in 1926, Mrs Edith Pretty and Lt Colonel Frank Pretty chose to make this house their home. When Edith passed away in 1942, the house passed to their only son, Robert Pretty. He was only 12 at the time and moved to live with his aunt in Eton. He would never return to live in Tranmer House himself. The house instead moved fulltime into the ownership of the War Office, already having provided a home to the Land Army girls – who quite literally left their mark on the house. If you look carefully, you can still see the graffiti they carved into the stone fireplace and the ring of tiny holes in the wooden wall panelling, around where their dartboard would have hung. It is presently being refurbished by the National Trust and will reopen in the Spring of this year.

Photograph of Tranmer or Sutton Hoo House [National Trust].

This description misses one important feature found on the estate when Mrs Edith May Pretty J.P. [photograph on the right] lived in Sutton Hoo House and owned the estate. She had moved there with her husband in 1926, but he died in 1934 leaving her with a young son. They had often wondered what the strange, rabbit-infested mounds were which they could see from the house. In around 1900 an elderly resident of Woodbridge had spoken of ‘untold gold’ in the Sutton Hoo mounds, and Mrs Pretty’s nephew, a dowser, repeatedly identified signals of buried gold from what is now known to be the ship-mound. Mrs Pretty became interested in Spiritualism, and was further encouraged by friends who claimed to see figures at the mounds. By popular account she had a vivid dream of the funeral procession and treasures.

Through the Ipswich Museum, in 1938 she obtained the services of Basil Brown, [photograph below left] a Suffolk man whose smallholding had failed four years earlier, and who had taken up full-time archaeology on Roman sites for the museum. Mrs Pretty took Mr Brown to the site, and suggested that he start digging at Mound 1, one of the largest. The mound had obviously been disturbed, and in consultation with Ipswich Museum Brown decided instead to open three smaller mounds during 1938 with the help of three estate labourers. These did reveal interesting treasures, but only in fragments as the mounds had been robbed. We are fortunate that Mr. Brown was a meticulous man as he recorded carefully all of his work on the site. Later at the Staffordshire Hoard Mr. Jenkins too had been careful in marking and bagging each item he found.

In early 1939 Mr Brown unearthed an astonishing Anglo-Saxon ship burial in Woodbridge, Suffolk; astonishing both for the state of preservation of the objects within the tomb, but also astonishing for the sheer rich quality of the artefacts. The burial goods from Sutton Hoo are remarkable - gold weapons and armour, inlaid ornaments, silver and tableware. Also found within the ship was a purse containing 37 gold Merovingian (Gaulish) gold coins dating from the 620’s AD. No body was found, leading to a theory that the ship burial was intended as a cenotaph, but recent analysis has revealed that the body had simply been destroyed by the acidic soil.

This was the first ‘Saxon Hoard’ and led to a new understanding of Saxon culture in Britain but many questions and revisions of the development of their influence in the first thousand years AD are still unanswered.

Sutton Hoo Ship: an artists impression of the largest Anglo-Saxon ship ever discovered which was about 90 feet long and 14 feet wide, with a high bow and stern.

In the ship were Saxon weapons made in the Swedish style and the burial itself follows a Nordic one as there are many similar Viking sites in Denmark and Sweden. There was also a large silver dish made in Byzantium about 500 AD and a set of 10 silver bowls from the Mediterranean. Which Mr. Harris included amongst his myriad of slides of the items found at both sites.

Who was buried at Sutton Hoo? Who was so powerful in his lifetime to be interred with ceremony in a ship surrounded by so much golden splendour? According to the Venerable Bede in his "Ecclesiastical History", Raedwald, a Saxon "bretwalda", or king, ruled East Anglia in 616, although his power may have stretched as far north as the Humber. Interestingly Raedwald was the first East Anglian king to pay any heed to Christianity. Could this be the man?

Right: The famous Sutton Hoo helmet which along with many other original items is in the British Museum.

The site is now protected and a visitor centre allows people a glimpse into the past; the richness of the find; and, the incredible craftsmanship of the Saxon era. This skill is obviously in evidence in the Staffordshire Hoard and one feature of both sites is the presence of a helmet which with today’s technology can be shaped from small fragments.

The importance of Sutton Hoo is that the grave goods tell us a lot about the pattern of life in this darkest part of the Dark Ages in Britain. The style of the craftsmanship lets us draw conclusions about how strong were Saxon connections with rest of Europe both a strong Norse influence in East Anglia and trade ties to Gaul and the Mediterranean. The importance of the Staffordshire hoard is still being researched but it does include the largest number of military artefacts from this period ever found including parts of a helmet which are stunning.

The Saxon Helmet in Hanley Museum based on the findings at Hammerwich.

Mr. Harris described the craftsmanship of the items found at both sites and had to admit that his original theory for connecting the two sites may be mistaken. There are at least three theories which have been put forward as to the source of the Staffordshire Hoard. Firstly, that it was as the result of grave-robbing from Sutton Hoo. A robber pit dug in the 16th century had been sunk at the apparent centre, missing the real centre and the burial deposit by a narrow margin. Could the hoard have been stolen by digging up a number of mounds and hidden on the way to Wales? Mr. Harris believes there are too many ornate parts of swords for this to be the case.

Secondly, the hoard could be a collection of items recovered from a battlefield by the victorious side which were being stripped down ready to fashion new items. The workmanship is of the highest quality and no item would have been wasted. It is obvious from the find that the artisan skills were of the highest quality, so why dump the Hoard here - many miles from a village which had a workshop or community of craftsmen?

Thirdly, the Hoard was found on open scrubby heathland not far from a Roman road on what had been the border between the Danes in the East and the Mercians in the West. Could the hoard have been collected together to make a payment to the Danes to stop them harassing the Mercians? Could it be that it never arrived as the escort was attacked and the treasure abandoned to avoid its capture.

Mr. Harris explained that he intended to continue his research and find answers to this problem and other questions:

1. How the jewelled objects were made and on the skills required to produce them.

2. Where the raw material came from.

3. Whose body was buried in the ship at Sutton Hoo.

4. What was the truth about the Saxon invasion.

Unfortunately this would have to keep for another meeting and having answering a number of questions from the audience Mr. Machin thanked Mr. Harris for an enthralling and educational talk. The meeting then broke for tea and biscuits and many became Saxon warriors, trying on the helmet, lifting the heavy shield and brandishing the sword.

The Next Meeting of the Society will be held on Monday the 18th of February 2019 when the Speaker will be Mr. Peter Shreyhane with a talk on “ Biddulph Schools - a Lifetime of Education.”

Local and Family History for the Biddulph area

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