Thursday, 5 April 2018

Kingweston and the Bloody Assizes

The county of Somerset was at the heart of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth, a bastard son of Charles II, led a rebellion against his uncle, the Catholic King James II. Although having some initial successes, the rebels were always short of men and materials, and failed to push beyond the Somerset borders. The battle that sealed the fate of the rebellion took place on Sedgemoor, near Bridgwater, on 6th July 1685. This was the last battle ever fought on English soil.

James took revenge on the rebels in no uncertain way. Trials were held throughout the West Country of people who had any connection with the rebellion, under the direction of Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys. The savagery of the proceedings, and the summary nature of the justice that was meted out to many, led to them being known ever since as the “Bloody Assizes”.

More than 1400 people were brought before Jeffreys and his colleagues, and most of the accused were sentenced to death, many by “hanging, drawing and quartering”. However, some 800 sentences were commuted to transportation to the West Indies, where the victims were treated as virtual slaves on the plantations.

So what has this stone building on a quiet Somerset farm to do with all this? Although most of the trials were held in the county towns of Winchester, Dorchester and Taunton, others took place in much smaller places, such as the village of Kingweston that is only a few miles from the battle site of Sedgemoor. The old courthouse is still there, although it has long been absolved of its legacy as a place where terrible justice was delivered to peasants who had the misfortune to get caught up in a rebellion they probably had little understanding of.

Among the trials held in Somerset (although probably not at Kingweston) were those of a group of schoolgirls, aged 6 to 14, whose crime was to wave at the Duke and his soldiers as they rode past. The punishment was a fine so heavy that it could never be paid.

James II was far more like his father (Charles I) than was his brother (Charles II), at least in terms of his ignorance of the arts of practical politics. James’s oppression of the West Country came home to roost three years later when William of Orange followed Monmouth’s example and landed in the south-west at the start of his campaign for the Crown. The men of Somerset were happy to support William, and the strength of their opposition to James meant that there was to be no second Battle of Sedgemoor.

Folk memory can be long and unforgiving. Even today, when battle re-enactments of Sedgemoor take place, some pub landlords have been known to refuse to serve the men playing the parts of James’s soldiers!

As for Kingweston, it went back to sleep, and the farm where the courthouse now stands offers excellent bed and breakfast!

© John Welford

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Birds Have Flown: How King Charles I made Civil War inevitable

After King Charles I failed to arrest five of his opponents in the House of Commons, there was no alternative to Civil War.

Opposition to the King

King Charles I came to the throne in 1625, utterly convinced that he had been put there by God and that his governance must therefore be beyond question. The newly created United Kingdom of England and Scotland had a Parliament that sat at Westminster but its sole function – as Charles saw things – was to enact his policies and raise the necessary funds for any wars or other forays that incurred expense.

Although Charles had plenty of support among the elected Member of Parliament, who were hardly tribunes of the people but representatives of the country’s squires, wealthy landowners and successful merchants, there was also a good deal of opposition.

The anti-Charles brigade consisted partly of those who objected to raising taxes to pay for Charles’s adventures – the MPs were, after all, among those who would be out of pocket – and also those who were fundamentally against what they saw as the King’s dangerously anti-Reformation religious views.

Within a few weeks of coming to the throne Charles married a French princess, Henrietta Maria, who was openly Catholic and did nothing to temper her Catholicism once she became the Queen of an officially Protestant country. The fear was therefore that she would bring her children up as Catholics, a fear that was given added weight when she brought a coterie of French Catholics with her – including priests – shortly after her marriage.

Many of the Protestants in Parliament were radicals who sought to strip the Church of England of all vestiges of Catholicism. They became known in general parlance as Puritans, because they sought to purify the Church, and many would later find that their efforts could not go anything like as far as they wished. Some founded new “dissenting” religious bodies and some emigrated to the American colonies where they hoped to be free to practice their religion in their own way.

During the period leading up to the 1640s, therefore, the stage was set for violent conflict between the King and Members of Parliament.

Strafford and Laud

Charles relied on two supporters who were every bit as pig-headed as himself and refused to take account of the strength of feeling in Parliament and the country in general. Both believed that they could get their way through force, and both would ultimately pay for this approach by losing their heads on the block.

Sir Thomas Wentworth, who was later given the title of Earl of Strafford, had at first been on the side of reform but then took the view that the reformers were going too far and so he became a staunch defender of the status quo and the “Divine Right of Kings”. He became Charles’s chief adviser, his advice usually being to take strong measures against the King’s opponents.

Archbishop William Laud was an extreme opponent of Puritanism and a stickler for the rules that governed worship in the Church of England. He saw no scope for compromise and imposed stern punishments on anyone who opposed him.

Strafford and Laud worked together to ensure that Charles would get his way, but – not surprisingly – they provided plenty of ammunition for the “equal and opposite reaction” that would eventually lead to the deaths of all three of them.

King Charles’s False Moves

Charles soon found himself in trouble when he tried to use Parliament to raise money for his personal expenses and to finance foreign wars. He summoned Parliament on his accession in 1625 in the belief that they would follow precedent by granting him “tonnage and poundage” for life, but Parliament refused to do so and insisted that Charles should renew this grant on an annual basis. However, although the first year’s payment was agreed by the House of Commons, the House of Lords would not grant even that, and Charles promptly dismissed Parliament after it had sat for only two months.

Charles tried again in 1626 but had no more success than before. Instead, he set about levying “forced loans” on wealthy men – a tactic that his predecessor King Henry VII had used to great effect. However, Charles tried to force money from many subjects who were far from rich and the courts were soon full of non-payers who were promptly sent to prison.

The Parliament of 1628 was therefore occupied with the “Petition of Right” – a latter-day Magna Carta that the Members wished to present to the King with their demands for the ending of non-Parliamentary taxation and arbitrary imprisonment. The King reluctantly signed it, thus apparently conceding that his power was not as absolute as he had assumed.

However, Charles had no intention of giving way to Parliament. This became apparent in 1629 when the issue of church ceremonial came up for debate. William Laud was at that time Bishop of London, and he was keen on restoring rituals to the Church of England that had long been neglected.

The Puritans in Parliament objected but Charles refused to allow any discussion on the matter to take place. When the King’s messenger knocked on the door of the chamber to tell the members to stop the debate he was refused admission and the Speaker of the House was forcibly restrained from leaving his chair. The House promptly condemned the actions of Bishop Laud and also passed more resolutions against non-Parliamentary taxation.

The King’s response was what might have been expected. He had nine Parliamentarians imprisoned in the Tower of London and dissolved Parliament yet again. This time he was determined to do without Parliament altogether – he would not recall it again for another eleven years.

Ship Money

Charles still needed money. Despite the provisions of the Petition of Right he still reckoned that he could raise funds without recourse to Parliament. He did this by taking advantage of the medieval tradition by which sheriffs in coastal counties could levy taxation on behalf of the king for the purpose of building and equipping ships for royal service in time of war.

However, Charles went further than this and demanded that ship money be raised from inland counties as well, and even when the country was not at war. It was quite clear that he had no intention of using the proceeds for anything to do with ships and that this was simply a backdoor way of raising general funds. The first writs for ship money were issued in 1634 with further writs in 1635 and 1636.

Not surprisingly, the raising of ship money led to considerable opposition, with John Hampden, a Buckinghamshire landowner and member of Charles’s first three Parliaments, being the most prominent critic.

In 1637 Hampden refused to pay the tax and was put on trial. Twelve judges heard the case and found against Hampden by seven to five. This margin was narrow enough to give heart to other potential payers, many of whom also refused to pay. Although the levying of ship money had been very lucrative at first it soon ceased to be so. By 1639 only 20% of the expected revenue was flowing into the King’s coffers. John Hampden, on the other hand, became a celebrated figure in the struggle of Parliament against the King and he has long been regarded as one of the heroes of the English Revolution.

Parliament Resumes - Briefly

In 1640 King Charles had no choice but to call a fresh Parliament, his aim – as ever – being to raise revenue. In this case he needed funds to finance a war, but he must have known that this was never going to be easy.

The war in question was the first phase of the Civil War, because it was to be fought against an army of rebellious Scots (known as the “Covenanters”) who had occupied the north of England. This was to become known as the “Bishops’ War” because the rebellion resulted from Charles’s attempt to impose the full panoply of the Church of England - Bishops, Prayer Book and all – on worshippers in Scotland. The money Charles hoped to raise would be used to defray the expenses of the Scots who would then be persuaded to return back across the border.

However, Parliament could see that they had the upper hand and took the opportunity to make a series of demands on the King as their price for coughing up the cash. These demands included the ending of ship money and various reforms in the Church of England. Charles decided that the price was too much to pay and dissolved what would become known as the Short Parliament, which lasted for only three weeks.

Charles Tries Again

The Short Parliament had been dissolved in May 1640, but in November Charles could see no alternative to summoning a fresh Parliament, for the same reason as before. However, nothing had changed since the earlier attempt, apart from the growing anger of Parliament.

The result, for Charles and his supporters, was a complete disaster. Parliament was now emboldened and the Puritan wing seized its chance. Led by John Pym, the members demanded that the Earl of Strafford be put on trial for being “the principal author and promoter of all those counsels which had exposed the kingdom to so much ruin”. A “bill of attainder” was drawn up, which was in effect a death sentence for Strafford. With the Scots still occupying the north of England and mobs creating havoc in London, Charles had no choice but to sign it and send his chief adviser to the block.

Archbishop Laud fared no better. In 1641 Parliament passed the “Grand Remonstrance” that listed all their grievances (204 in total) including many for which Laud had to take the blame. His arrest followed soon afterwards although he was not executed until 1645.

Another act passed by this Parliament ensured that it could not be dissolved except by its own decision. It therefore remained in place until 1648 and was the Long Parliament that followed the Short one.

A Desperate Response

It is interesting to note that the Grand Remonstrance only passed in the House of Commons by a majority of 11 votes (159 to 148). In other words, many MPs thought that the Puritans were going too far and there was indeed considerable support for King Charles within Parliament, especially if the House of Lords was also taken into account. Had Charles had any sense he might have sought to reach a compromise agreement with Parliament that could have avoided the eventual outcome. However, Charles did not do compromise – probably because he did not have any sense.

His response was to take direct action. He instructed his Attorney General to begin proceedings for treason against his five sternest critics in the House of Commons, namely John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, William Strode and Arthur Hazelrig. One member of the House of Lords was also indicted.

Charles then did something extraordinary. On Tuesday 4th January 1642 he marched down Whitehall with a party of guards and entered the Parliament Building at Westminster, fully intending to arrest the five Commons members there and then. However, he had fallen straight into a trap, in that John Pym and the others knew exactly what Charles was up to.

When Charles demanded that the Commons Speaker point out to him the five men in question, the Speaker refused to do so. Charles then said that his eyes were as good as anyone else’s and he tried to pick out the five for himself. However, they were not there, having already left Westminster and taken a boat to escape down the river Thames.

Charles then made his famous remark that “all my birds have flown” and left the chamber with the catcalls of the members ringing out behind him. Any respect for his royal personage had clearly been replaced by utter hatred and contempt.

This was the turning point. Charles saw no way forward other than military action to force his will on Parliament. On 10 January he left London, firstly for Hampton Court and then York, where he hoped to raise an army to fight his course. His Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria, headed for Holland with her children and the Crown Jewels. The English Civil War was about to begin.
©John Welford

The Kensington Runestone hoax

During the early 20th century much excitement was caused by the “discovery” of an ancient stone that seemed to prove that Scandinavians had colonised part of what is now the United States in the 14th century.

The Kensington Runestone

Kensington is a small community in central Minnesota, which is well-known for having attracted relatively large numbers of immigrants from Scandinavia. However, a reported discovery in 1898 seemed to suggest that the area was home to Scandinavians centuries before the Minnesota Territory became a state in 1858.

In 1898 a farmer of Swedish extraction, named Olof Ohman, claimed to have found on his land a stone slab that was carved with an ancient inscription in runic lettering – runes are a type of alphabet that was once widely used in northern Europe, including by the ancient Vikings.

It was known that explorers from northern Europe had reached the North American continent about 500 years before Columbus set sail, but could they possibly have advanced as far as Minnesota? The runes on the stone slab seemed to suggest that this was possible.

The message of the runes

When translated, the inscription read as follows:

 “Eight Goths and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west. We had camp by two skerries one day’s journey north from this stone. We were out [to] fish. One day after we came home [we] found 10 men red of blood and dead. AVM Save [us] from evil. [We] have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships 14 days’ travel from this island. [In the year] 1362.”

(A skerry is a small rocky island. AVM is an abbreviation for Ave Maria)

 Quite clearly a fake

There are many reasons to suppose that the Kensington Runestone was a fake.

For one thing, one has to wonder why a group of explorers who had set up camp and lost some of their number to a raid (presumably by Native Americans) would have bothered to go to the trouble of carving a message on a stone which they clearly had every intention of leaving in place before heading back to their ships. Who did they expect would read it? And what would the purpose have been of leaving such a message?

On the other hand, a farmer with Scandinavian roots who was also a former stonemason might well have thought that this was a good way of establishing some sort of ancient claim to the territory for his fellow Scandinavians. 

People who have examined the Runestone have been quick to point out that nobody writing in 1362 would have expressed themselves in the language used on the stone. It uses phrasing that was common among Swedes and Norwegians living in 19th century Minnesota but not 14th century Scandinavia.

The runes are a mixture of letters known to have been used in the 9th to 11th centuries, plus some homemade symbols. However, by the 14th century runes were only used for monumental and celebratory inscriptions, and not for general messages. On the other hand, they would not have used Arabic notation for the date.

Could a Scandinavian expedition have taken place?

When the Kensington Runestone was first “discovered” by Olof Ohman there were plenty of people who were perfectly happy to accept it as genuine. Many settlers from Europe were unhappy with the notion that they were usurpers in someone else’s land, and they therefore welcomed evidence of former settlement by people of the same genetic background as themselves. 

However, there is no evidence that any such event as detailed on the stone could have happened. Mention is made of “Vinland”, this being an area – possibly in what is now the Canadian province of New Brunswick – that was settled very briefly by Viking explorers in the early 11th century. It was certainly not in Viking hands in the mid-14th century.

Various claims have been made for the authenticity of Viking “finds” on mainland North America, but none have been convincing. The only item that looks to be at all genuine is an 11th century Norwegian coin that was found at a Native American site in Maine. However, there is nothing to suggest that this could not have been “planted”.

The evidence all points to the fact that, although Scandinavians did reach the mainland of North America towards the end of the 10th century, they did not stay for long. They had little reason to settle, and did not do so.
© John Welford

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The non-reign of Queen Matilda

Who was the first Queen of England? This question refers to queens who ruled as monarch, as opposed to being the wife of a king (by convention, such a lady is given the honorary title of Queen, but the husband of a reigning queen is never titled King!). The official answer is Mary I, unless one allows Lady Jane Grey to be credited for her nine-day “rule” in 1553. However, for a few brief periods in the 12th century it could be said that “Queen Matilda” was more in charge than anybody else.

 Matilda and Stephen

The messy period of civil war that followed the death of King Henry I in 1135 was due entirely to the unwillingness of the English aristocracy to be ruled by a woman. King Henry’s only legitimate male heir had been William the Aetheling who had drowned in the White Ship tragedy of 1120. Henry twice made his barons swear allegiance to his daughter Matilda, but they clearly did so under duress because as soon as Henry was in his grave they offered the crown to Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois (the province immediately south of Normandy), although it might be fairer to say that Stephen seized the crown and the barons were not minded to put up much resistance. 

Stephen had had a lucky escape in 1120 because he had chosen to cross the Channel that night in Henry’s ship rather than William’s. It should probably not be wondered at that questions have been raised as to whether there might not have been some sinister reason for Stephen’s choice. However, it is difficult to see how he could have known that the White Ship would be lost with all hands or, indeed, could have arranged that this would happen. 

The fact remains that as soon as Henry died, having eaten too many lampreys (a sort of eel) at a banquet in Normandy, Stephen set off immediately for Winchester and grabbed hold of the royal treasury. He was crowned king three weeks later.

Civil war breaks out

This did not please Matilda, who possessed the Norman fighting spirit in no little measure. A confusing 20-year period of history was to follow in which the fortunes of the two cousins ebbed and flowed. Armies were raised, nobles were bribed, and horrific acts of savagery were performed as the conflict became increasingly bitter.

There were times when Matilda was able to capture Stephen and others when Stephen captured Matilda, but neither could keep the upper hand for long. On one occasion Matilda and her followers escaped from a castle in the depth of winter; they dressed in white so that they would not be seen against the snow.

One thing that eventually became clear was that neither Stephen nor Matilda would be acceptable as ruler of England. Stephen was too weak, inconstant and good-natured to be an effective medieval monarch. Matilda, on the other hand, was spiteful, vengeful and bloody-minded. Neither was likely to attract the wholehearted support of the barons for long.

Indeed, the barons at first regarded the civil war as a good excuse for settling old scores with each other. Each local strongman built himself a castle and set off to ravage the lands of his neighbours, which was easy to do if the neighbours in question had declared for the rival royal claimant. 

The end of the war

However, the net result was that nobody benefitted from a situation of general anarchy. Crops were not grown or harvested and the barons had to spend more on arming men to fight than they would be getting if those men were farming their land and paying their rents.

With the country facing starvation and the war between two unattractive opponents getting nowhere, a truce was eventually arrived at. Matilda agreed that she would surrender her claim in favour of her son, Count Henry of Anjou. This would come into effect on the death of Stephen, who was not in good health. As it happened, Stephen died in 1154, only a year after the truce was declared, and the throne passed peacefully to King Henry II who would thus be the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty that would rule England for the next 331 years.

Matilda outlived Stephen by twelve years. She never ruled as queen, but was for a brief time known as “The Lady of the English” during one of her brief periods of power. There would be powerful women at the helm in England in the years to come – Edward II’s wife Isabella comes to mind – but an official queen would not sit on the throne until almost exactly 400 years later.
© John Welford

Monday, 2 April 2018

The navvies who built Britain's railways

This is a short of account of the navvies – the men who did most of the hard work in creating the network of railway lines built by the Victorians in Great Britain.

Who were the navies?

Some 20,000 miles of railway track were laid in Great Britain before the end of the 19th century, using technology that was limited to simple block and tackle lifting gear and copious amounts of gunpowder for blasting through solid rock. The rest of the work was done by armies of men using picks, shovels and barrows. Many of those men were known by the generic term “navvy”.

The word is a contraction of “navigator” and harks back to the great construction projects of the previous century, namely the building of the canals, or “navigations”, which were now being superseded by the railways. Many of the new “navigators” were direct descendants of the canal-builders, and were proud to carry on the traditions that went with the job.

A special class of workman

A distinction needs to be made at the outset between the navvies and other labourers who contributed to the creation of the railway network. The latter were often agricultural workers who put in a spell on the railways when work was scarce on the land, drifting away when harvest or seedtime came around.

The true navvy tended to look down on the casual labourers who never did the most difficult and dangerous work, and failed to follow the railway as it moved on through the countryside. The navvy was a special type of workman, and he knew it.

Although navvies came from all over the country, the largest contingents were from Scotland, Ireland, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Their pride in their vocation was reflected in their dress sense. In his book "The Railway Navvies", Terry Coleman listed their “uniform” as “moleskin trousers, double-canvas shirts, velveteen square-tailed coats, hobnail boots, gaudy handkerchiefs and white felt hats with the brims turned up”. The true navvy belonged to a working-class elite.

Hard workers, hard drinkers

There were three things that marked a worker out as a real navvy. One was that he did the most demanding jobs that needed to be done, including blasting out tunnels and cuttings with gunpowder and working long hours in all weathers and seasons of the year. Another was that he moved along the railway as it proceeded, spending many months away from his family, camped out in portable huts or sleeping in barns and farm outhouses.

The third “requirement” was that he was as hard a drinker as he was a worker. It was not unusual for a navvy to down a gallon a beer a day, and many employers also paid wages partly in beer.

A navvy’s life consisted of long bouts of incredibly hard work followed by days of total inactivity. Wages were often paid in local pubs, so pay days were followed by drinking sessions that would render the navvies incapable of work for some time afterwards. They would report back for work when the money had all been spent.

It was possible for a local farm worker to qualify as a navvy, but it took about a year for them to gain enough strength, and beer-drinking capacity, to stand the working conditions and be accepted into the “guild”.

When a railway was being built in your locality it was not just the noise and disruption that had to be endured, it was also the presence of hundreds of navvies who were often drunk and caused fights and riots. Local farmers had to put up with their animals being stolen and killed and their crops despoiled, as well as their best workers been lured away with the prospect of better wages.

A dangerous job

Navvies were usually paid via a piecework system which meant that the longer they worked each day, and the more material they shifted or bricks or track they laid, the more money they earned. This had the effect that railway building was very rapid during the “railway mania” of the mid-19th century, but it also meant that corners were cut and the safety record among the navvies was appalling.

For example, if the task involved blasting out rock to create a cutting, and the more material you shifted you more you earned, the temptation was to use larger charges of gunpowder and thus bring down more rock with each blast. The first recorded death of a navvy, on the approach to Liverpool in 1827, was the result of too large an overburden being brought down and the crushing of the man who had made this happen.

The death toll on the railways was enormous and there was also a huge attrition rate caused by poor diet and drunkenness. Very few navvies could expect to live beyond their forties.

The legacy of the navvies

Although the network of railways in Britain is far smaller today than at the close of the 19th century, what remains is testament to the efforts and courage of the navvies. Nowhere is this seen to better effect than on what must be the most scenic railway in England, namely the Settle and Carlisle line, which was a relatively late addition to the network. This runs through some of the most dramatic and wild landscapes in the country and was built by manual labour between 1869 and 1875. 6,000 men worked on the line in all weathers, and the string of lineside cemeteries and memorials is evidence of the high death toll that it exacted.

For example, the magnificent Ribblehead Viaduct, a quarter-mile long and consisting of 24 arches 165 feet high, took five years to build and cost one life a week on average. Close by is Blea Moor tunnel, which is more than a mile long and took four years to dig out of solid rock. Many men were driven mad after months of working on it and were unable to work underground ever again.

The contribution of the navvies can perhaps best be appreciated by walking along some of the disused tracks which now form long-distance footpaths and cycle tracks through some of the remotest corners of the country. The massive cuttings and embankments that were needed to keep the gradients as gentle as possible were built by the sheer physical efforts of men who were far from home and had no prospects in life apart from carrying on till they dropped. The walker or cyclist who is spared a steep hill to climb, but who might fancy a nice pint or two at the end of the day, might consider that the gallon drunk by each navvy who built the route was nothing like enough compensation.

© John Welford

The Sutton Hoo ship burial

 The Sutton Hoo helmet, on display in the British Museum

Sutton Hoo is an important archaeological site in Suffolk, England. It is the burial site of an early English king, and has been described as the English equivalent of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

 King Raedwald of East Anglia

After the recall of the Roman administration of England in 410 AD, the land became open to settlement by tribes from the near continent, notably from what is now Denmark and northern Germany. One of these tribes was the Angles, who originated from what became the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, immediately south of the Danish peninsula.

The Angles settled mainly in what are now the English counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and would have been well established in the area before the reign of King Raedwald, who was probably king from 599 to 624.

By this time, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had come under the influence of Christian missionaries, most notably Augustine who had arrived in Kent in 597. Raedwald was the second English king to be baptized as a Christian, the ceremony taking place at the court of the first such convert, namely King Ethelbert of Kent, in about the year 605.

However, it would take a long time for the culture and practices of Christianity, as directed by bishops from Rome, to wholly replace those of the formerly pagan English monarchies, and this is evident from the burial customs that are revealed by the Sutton Hoo site, and others.

Raedwald was therefore buried in a manner that was consistent with the Norse tradition of laying the king’s body in one of his ships, together with many of his former possessions, and burying the ship under a raised mound of earth. There is no evidence that ships were ever set on fire and pushed out to sea, as Hollywood directors might fondly imagine, but the body was often cremated within the ship before it was buried.

The Sutton Hoo burial

The site is close to the River Deben at Woodbridge, Suffolk. Visitors are able to walk round the site, which contains a total of 17 burial mounds that date back to prehistoric times, and view an exhibition that tells the story of King Raedwald and explains how the site was excavated, but the treasures that were found are now housed in London’s British Museum, with replicas being on view at the site itself.

It is evident that Raedwald acquired considerable power and wealth during his lifetime, because the items that were buried with him were of extremely high quality. It is clear that the Angles shared with the ancient Egyptians the belief that a monarch needed to be well provided for in the afterlife, hence the nature of the possessions that he was expected to take with him.

The excavation of the site began in 1939 when the owner of the land, Mrs Edith Pretty, decided to dig into the mounds on her land. She soon handed the task over to a local archaeologist, Basil Brown, who found that some of the burial mounds had been stripped of anything of interest by grave robbers, but that “Mound 1” seemed to have been untouched.

Within Mound 1 he found the famous ship burial, in the form of an impression in the sandy soil of a 27-metre long ship. Within the “ship” was an astonishing collection of grave goods.

Basil Brown contacted other archaeologists with a national reputation, and they continued to work on the site while keeping the knowledge of their finds secret from the general public. This was in any case wartime, when public attention was on more pressing matters.

The site continued to be excavated after the war, right up to the 1990s. It is now managed by the National Trust, although Mrs Pretty had decided at an early stage to donate all the finds to the British Museum. She died in 1942.

The finds at Sutton Hoo

There was no sign of King Raedwald’s body, which would have been dissolved by the acidic soils of the burial mound, but it is clear from the position of the grave goods that he was not cremated.

It is also clear that his was a Christian burial, because close to the body were two silver spoons inscribed “Saulos” and “Paulos”, these being the names of St Paul before and after his conversion. There were also ten silver bowls from the Holy Land.

However, most attention has been focused on the items that indicate the Pagan traditions still recognised in East Anglia at the time of Raedwald’s death. There was, for example, a sword with a jewelled pommel and a purse containing coins to “pay the ferryman” who would take the dead king to his final reward of an afterlife among the gods and warriors of the past.

The coins in the purse, which was of an intricate design and would have hung from the king’s belt, came from different continental mints, thus indicating the extent of foreign trade that was carried out at the time.

Raedwald would have been buried in a fine cloak, the cloth of which has long since disappeared. However, the jewelled gold clasps and buckles from this cloak were of the highest quality and demonstrate an advanced degree of workmanship. The “great buckle” is particularly fine, being made of gold and inscribed with an intricate pattern. It contains a small secret compartment that might have been used to house a holy relic.

One very interesting find was a coat of chain-mail in which the links were alternately riveted and welded. Other clothing included leather shoes.

The grave contained fragments of textiles, of which a considerable amount had clearly been buried. From what has been preserved, it is clear that weavers of the time were skilled in design techniques and had access to a range of coloured threads. Some of the textiles may well have been imported.

The king had a quantity of household goods to accompany him, including drinking horns, cups, knives and plates.

Pride of place among the objects found at Sutton Hoo must go to the king’s helmet, which has become the symbol of Sutton Hoo. Intricately worked bronze and iron plaques were attached to an iron skull cap, but even more remarkable was the face mask that included eyebrows picked out in garnets and a full bronze moustache. One has to assume that this was intended to be a portrait of King Raedwald – if so he continues to look at us from a distance of 1400 years.

What Sutton Hoo teaches us

The main lesson of Sutton Hoo is that the term “Dark Ages” to describe the period of around 300 years after the departure of the Romans from Britain is hardly fair. This implies that civil society broke down completely and that the country was in a virtual state of anarchy.

However, the Sutton Hoo finds show that the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms recognised the rule of law and were sufficiently peaceful for trade to flourish and craftsmen to develop a high degree of sophistication in the good they produced. At least as far as the upper strata of society were concerned, it was possible to live a secure life surrounded by the trappings of luxury.

The evidence of the spread of Christianity to the kingdoms of men such as Raedwald implies that literacy and education would have been encouraged, as would the social order that comes from the development of dioceses and parishes that Christian bureaucracy would have introduced.

As well as marvelling at the treasures of Sutton Hoo, one can also reflect on the fact that the so-called Dark Ages admitted a greater degree of light than had previously been thought.
© John Welford

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Seward's Folly: the Alaska purchase

On 30th March 1867 William Seward, the American Secretary of State, completed the purchase of a parcel of land that was seven times the size of Great Britain. He committed the expenditure of $7.2 million, which many people at the time thought was a complete waste of money, especially as the land in question comprised a vast frozen wilderness. That was why the deal was known by some as “Seward’s Folly”.

The seller was Russia, and the tract of land is what is now the State of Alaska, although it only acquired this status in 1959, after nearly a century of merely being an American territory. Comprising nearly 600,000 square miles, Alaska is easily the largest State of the Union, being twice the size of Texas, although its population, at around 600,000 – one per square mile – is the smallest of any state.

On the face of it, one can see why Seward’s Folly might have been well named at the time. This mountainous, icy land is not suitable for agriculture and – at the time of the purchase – there were no known mineral deposits that were ripe for exploitation. Even though the price worked out at two cents an acre, it hardly seemed to be a bargain.

The reasons for the purchase had much more to do with international politics than with economic concerns. Russia was keen to sell Alaska because it feared its capture by Great Britain in any future conflict. This would have been entirely possible, given the British presence in what are now the Northwest Territories of Canada. Were Britain to capture Alaska, Russia would have a potential enemy to the east as well as the west.

From the American perspective, keeping the British in check was also a sound move. If Alaska was American, then British Canada would be constrained by American territory on both sides.

As things turned out, William Seward’s purchase was also a good move in economic terms. Modern Alaska has huge fishing and timber industries, but its main asset, which meant absolutely nothing back in 1867, is oil. It has been estimated that the value of the oil lying underneath Alaska equates to $1 million per inhabitant, although all sorts of environmental issues arise in terms of how that value might be realized.

Had William Seward invested his $7.2 million at 5 per cent, it would be worth around $7 billion today. That sounds like very small beer compared with the $600 billion of Alaska’s potential oil wealth.
© John Welford