I would like to draw your attention to this book (a publication of The National Trust) which recently came my way and which I liked very much.
Sutton Hoo, near Ipswich, in Suffolk, is the burial place of Saxon king believed to be Raedwald, who died around AD 625.
It tells in simple terms the story of the finding of that and other Saxon royal graves one at Prettywell in Essex from about the same date "of a king of the East Saxons whose kingdom covered Essex, Middlesex and included Lundenvic" (London). That one contained "gold foil crosses indicating that whoever was buried here was, at least outwardly, of the Christian faith."
But Raedwald was not.
According to Bede (and quoted in this book) Raedwald had shown an interest in Christianity but then returned to his pagan beliefs. Bede blames Raedwald's queen for this (he would) but also praises her as "a woman of great moral character. When Edwin, a Northumbrian prince, was hiding from his enemy Eethelfrith, King of Northumbria, he sought refuge in Raedwald's court. Aethelfrith offered Raedwald a large sum of money to kill or hand over Edwin. Raedwald was tempted by this offer, but his queen persuaded him not to do this. Bede writes that she advised him: 'It is not fitting for a king to sell his friends for gold: much less, for love of money, to sacrifice his honour, which is more precious than any ornament.'"
After a series of lavishly illustrated pages depicting the grave and the burial, there is a chapter called "The Killing Place", where we learn that after Raedwald's death Christianity took root in East Anglia, and Sutton Hoo, the burial place of a pagan king, became a sinister place, used for executions, and the graves of many of those killed there can still be seen today as human shapes in the hard-packed sandy soil. "In one grave lie the bodies of a decapitated man with two women, also violently killed. What strange, sad story led to their deaths ...?" But, we are told, those who were executed were usually the poorest members of society, because each man had his official value (a slave's life was worth one pound, a churl's ten pounds and a noble's sixty pounds) and if the murderer could pay his victim's family that amount he escaped further punishment. Death was all around them and was accepted as a part of life, not as something shocking or strange.
This is an excellent book, especially for young (and not so young!) people new to the subject. It does not go into any depth on the subject of Saxon pagan religion and sorcery (for that see the marvellous The Way of Wyrd) but it does cover most aspects of life and death in early Anglo-Saxon times, and finishes very suitably by pointing out that many Saxon pagan traditions are with us still such as that of celebrating "the Christian festival of Easter with chocolate eggs. Rabbits too are a common symbol both on Easter cards and as chocolate gifts. Yet the very name Easter is derived from the Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess of the dawn and spring, Eostre. In pagan art, her symbols were the hare and the egg
[Now you might like to read one of JW's Anglo-Saxon stories (Wihtred the Unlucky by Jay Wickman, and Flotsam by Jay Wickman) on our FREESTUFF page. JM]