Revealing royal Rendlesham: luxury living in early medieval Suffolk

A second summer of excavation at Rendlesham, four miles from Sutton Hoo, has uncovered further evidence of a high-status settlement that thrived from the late 5th to the early 8th century. Carly Hilts spoke to Faye Minter and Professor Christopher Scull to find out more.

Community excavations run by the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, supported by Cotswold Archaeology, and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), have uncovered the remains of a wealthy early medieval settlement complex covering some 50ha overlooking the River Deben. The finds, which include evidence of high-quality metalworking, meat consumption on such a scale as to suggest feasting, and the footprint of an imposing great hall, indicate that this is the ‘royal settlement [vicus regius] called Rendlesham’ described in Bede’s 8th-century Ecclesiastical History, where Æthelwold, king of the East Angles, stood as sponsor for the baptism of the East Saxon ruler Swithhelm.

ABOVE This summer, excavations at Rendlesham have uncovered the remains of a high-status early medieval settlement, including the footprint of a great hall, seen in the rightmost trench.
This summer, excavations at Rendlesham have uncovered the remains of a high-status early medieval settlement, including the footprint of a great hall, seen in the rightmost trench. PHOTO: © Suffolk County Council; Jim Pullen

Hints of Rendlesham’s illustrious past have long been known, but major archaeological involvement began in 2008, after the landowner raised the alarm about illegal metal-detecting. After a preliminary survey revealed the presence of a large and evidently important settlement, a pilot project was undertaken between 2009 and 2017 (see CA 290 and 323), with a systematic metal-detector investigation exploring an area of some 170ha, followed by geophysical and magnetometer surveys focused on the core area of metal finds. Together with analysis of aerial photos, this revealed a detailed palimpsest of features, including over 100 possible Grubenhäuser, representing domestic dwellings and workshops. Meanwhile, finds including gold coins dating to the 5th/6th centuries, silver coins dating to the 7th/8th centuries, and 6th-/7th-century gold and garnet jewellery reminiscent of the Sutton Hoo grave goods testified to the settlement’s status.

In order to establish a more precise understanding of the settlement’s character and development, excavation was required – and 2020 saw the launch of a four-year NLHF-supported community project. Although the start of ‘Rendlesham Revealed’ was delayed by COVID-19, the project has now completed its second year of fieldwork. The previous season had focused on the site’s more ‘ordinary’ domestic settlement, revealing occupation areas and evidence for spinning and weaving, and a zone given over to metalworking and to animal butchery and processing on a huge scale. This year, the team turned their attention to what appears to be an elite compound where a large wooden hall lay within a considerable boundary ditch.

Hallmarks of status

The structure was first spotted in an aerial photo in 2015, and excavation has now confirmed the footprint of a ‘great hall’, its outline picked out by wall trenches and external post-holes. It represents a well-known building tradition, said Professor Christopher Scull (Cardiff University), the project’s principal academic advisor, with walls made of upright timbers that probably secured panels of wattle and daub – fragments of daub have been recovered from some of the hall features. As the walls were not fully load-bearing they were reinforced by external posts acting like buttresses to support the lateral thrust of the roof timbers.

‘The hall, plus the high-quality metalwork, really nails the identification of this place as the vicus regius mentioned by Bede,’ Christopher said. ‘It means that Rendlesham is one of the few places that Bede names as a royal centre that has been archaeologically investigated – along with Yeavering in Northumbria, which was also a setting for baptism.’

above Local primary school children cleaning animal bones from the site, which were found in such quantities as to suggest major feasts.
Local primary school children cleaning animal bones from the site, which were found in such quantities as to suggest major feasts. PHOTO: Suffolk County Council; Katie Everard

Measuring 23m by 10m externally, the hall is at the smaller end of the scale (known great halls measure up to 30m in length – though Rendlesham’s is still five times the footprint of an average dwelling). Christopher suggests that it was not the principal building on the site, but formed part of an array of monumental timber halls within a compound some 6ha in extent. This would have been the jurisdictional centre of a wider region focused on the valley of the River Deben, and would also have been used periodically, when the king was in the region with his retinue and household, as a royal residence and a venue for ruling and lavish hospitality. The princely burial ground at Sutton Hoo, and the high-status cemetery at Snape (which also includes a ship burial), both lie within Rendlesham’s territory and are part of the same landscape of royal authority.

Dating evidence suggests that the royal compound was established towards the end of the 6th century, and the settlement continued to flourish until the early 8th century, boasting such high-status goods as glass drinking vessels and objects imported from the Mediterranean world. The coin sequence suggests a dramatic change in character and status c.AD 720-730, after which there is little to distinguish it from other rural settlements. There is evidence to suggest that the hall may have been dismantled and the boundary ditch levelled in the early 8th century.

Community participation

A key aspect of the project was community involvement, and the team was particularly keen to include local groups who are less likely to get involved with fieldwork. These included 12- to 16-year-olds with caring responsibilities for a family member who has a long-term illness or condition, who participated as part of a respite initiative organised with Suffolk Family Carers. As well as taking part in digging and finds-processing, they were able to visit the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow, and Hands on Heritage, a local experimental archaeology centre. Other volunteers included children from local primary schools, as well as adults with mental health difficulties, whose involvement was facilitated by Suffolk Mind through its Waves service.

‘All volunteers were fully integrated with the rest of the team,’ said Faye Minter, Archaeology Archives and Projects Manager for Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service. ‘Everyone who participated in the excavations was able to get outside, meet new people, and learn new skills. For those who came to us through Suffolk Mind, being part of the team also helped to meet their emotional needs, taking their minds off their problems. Some had not left the house for several years, and it was a big step to come out and try something new, but some have now gone on to join classes and volunteer for other things – I am so pleased that taking part in the fieldwork gave them the confidence to do this.’

Post-excavation analysis of finds is now under way, and the team plans to return to the site next year for further fieldwork. A monograph presenting the findings from survey and excavation between 2008 and 2017 is planned for 2023, and we hope to cover the site in more detail once this has been published.

Further information
For more details on ‘Rendlesham Revealed’, see