Royal hall revealed at Rendlesham

‘Rendlesham is the most extensive and materially wealthy settlement of its date known in England,’

Excavations at Rendlesham in eastern England have unearthed the remains of a high-status early medieval settlement, including a royal hall built for the first kings of East Anglia.

Excavations at Rendlesham have revealed a royal hall and boundary ditch (the rightmost trench) with associated early medieval settlement remains. Image: © Suffolk County Council; Jim Pullen

Located around 6km from the princely burial site of Sutton Hoo, Rendlesham has long been supposed to have had an illustrious past, having been described in the 8th-century writings of the Venerable Bede as the royal residence where Æthelwold, king of the East Angles between AD 655 and 663, stood sponsor at the baptism of King Swithelm of the East Saxons.

Evidence of a large settlement was first revealed in a preliminary survey of the site in 2008, and a subsequent pilot project involving systematic metal-detecting, geophysical surveys, and aerial photography identified the presence of numerous buildings representing workshops and domestic dwellings. A community excavation project was launched in 2020 by the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, supported by Cotswold Archaeology and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The first summer of fieldwork unearthed evidence of activities such as spinning and weaving, as well as metalworking and large-scale animal butchery and consumption.

This year, excavations uncovered the foundations of a large timber hall, first spotted in 2015 by aerial photography. Measuring 23m by 10m, it is situated within what appears to be an elite compound spanning six hectares and enclosed within a perimeter ditch. Evidence suggests that the compound is one of several such monumental halls set within a larger settlement extending across more than 50 hectares.

‘Rendlesham is the most extensive and materially wealthy settlement of its date known in England,’ said Christopher Scull (Cardiff University), the project’s principal academic advisor, ‘and excavation of the Hall confirms that this is the royal residence recorded by Bede.’ Between AD 570 and 720, Rendlesham had played host to the East Anglian kings, along with their household and armed retinue, as a centre for administering justice, receiving envoys, and feasting.

Gold and silver coinage, dress jewellery, and fragments of pottery and glass drinking vessels are among the many artefacts so far uncovered, all hinting at the status and wealth of those who lived here.

Volunteers from the local community, primary schools, Suffolk Family Carers, and Suffolk Mind assisted in the fieldwork alongside the professional team of archaeologists. Post-excavation analysis is under way, and there is further fieldwork planned for next year.