Sutton Hoo’s history comes alive for guide Pauline
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
Sutton Hoo guide Pauline Moore has written a historical novel inspired by the warrior king laid to rest there. She told Sheena Grant why Sutton Hoo inspires her and why she thinks Hugh Bonneville would make a great Anglo-Saxon ruler
Pauline Moore isn’t the first person to be enchanted by Sutton Hoo, where the great East Anglian Anglo-Saxon king Raedwald was laid to rest in a ship with some of the most brilliant treasures of the age.
Landowner Edith Pretty, who lived in a house on the site in the 1930s, apparently witnessed ghostly figures walking on the then unexcavated burial mounds, leading her to invite local archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the secrets of the eerie landscape.
What he found, of course, was staggering. Mound one, the king’s mound, guarded a 90ft ship and great chamber filled with swords, spears, shields, helmet, feasting items and exquisite jewellery of gold and garnet of the highest quality.
Anyone who has ever visited Sutton Hoo will know it has a peculiar, almost haunting atmosphere, particularly if you stand on the windswept hillside looking down to the River Deben from the burial mounds.
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But for Pauline, the figures inspired by her time as a guide at Sutton Hoo have been anything but ghostly, as Mrs Pretty’s were. Over the years they have come so completely to life that they seemed to demand their story be told.
And that’s exactly what she’s done.
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A second edition of her novel, Brightfire: A Tale of Sutton Hoo, has just been published. Set mainly in and around the king’s homestead a few miles from the royal burial ground, it mixes fiction and history to create a story that Pauline hopes will show the Anglo-Saxons of the early 7th century as people, with real hopes and fears, who are not so very different from us.
“It wasn’t all just endless battles,” says Pauline, who lives in Woodbridge and is a retired English and drama teacher. “I’ve tried to show how they lived and what impact disease or famine could have on a village.”
Brightfire is the sequel to Storm Frost, Pauline’s first novel, and features the same heroine, Niartha, and her son Ricberht, who is now the king’s jeweller. Raedwald has converted to Christianity but his wife is hostile and others too still cling to pagan ways. When the king dies no-one can control his cruel and jealous son, Eorpwald.
Pauline has always been intrigued by Anglo-Saxon history. She studied Old English at university and her father-in-law was a friend of Basil Brown. “My husband met him when he was a youngster and my father-in-law kept in touch with him throughout his life, so there was always that link,” she says. “When I retired from teaching at Woodbridge School I had the time to get more involved and became a volunteer and then a guide at Sutton Hoo. I’m in my 13th year there now and lead several tours a month.
“The story and the place itself are so inspiring and endlessly fascinating. It is a unique landscape, it really takes hold of you up there. It’s a mystical place that has an aura about it, especially if you go up to the burial grounds in the snow or when few people are around.
“You know how, when you’re walking through a wood and sometimes get the feeling someone is watching you? The Anglo-Saxons would have had that all the time. They were so much part of nature and believed in ‘wyrd’, the forerunner of our word, ‘weird’, which for them was what will be, will be; fate or destiny.”
Pauline’s first book, Storm Frost, was rooted in Anglo-Saxon poetry and what she calls the earliest known love triangle story in English.
“One year when I was teaching we gave students snippets of these poems and got them to write a story based on them. The poems stayed in the back of my mind and when I started at Sutton Hoo it began to develop even more in my imagination,” she says.
Brightfire takes its inspiration more fully from Sutton Hoo and what little early Anglo-Saxon history we know, as given to us by the Venerable Bede, a monk writing in 731, just over a century after Raedwald’s death.
“We don’t know for sure that the great burial ship was Raedwald’s but because of Bede’s writing there is no other king it is likely to be and the dating of the finds seem to match,” says Pauline.
“Bede tells us that Raedwald died in 625/6. His second son, Eorpwald, inherited and he was a pagan. We know burial grounds were a place of great honour and respect. In the story of Beowulf (an epic Anglo-Saxon poem) the people rode round the mound singing songs about the king. The siting of a burial ground was crucial to the Anglo-Saxons. At Sutton Hoo, people would have seen the mounds as they came round the river, which was very important in their lives. Rivers were their motorways.”
Despite all the excavations at Sutton Hoo have revealed, some mysteries remain. Why, for instance, did Raed-wald have a pagan burial when he had supposedly converted to Christianity? Why were Christian baptismal spoons found in his burial ship and why did the church at his nearby homestead have two altars, one to Christ and one to the pagan god Woden?
“I think it was a time when the two worlds, Christian and pagan, were overlapping,” says Pauline. “Raedwald was a pagan king but went to Canterbury to be baptised. The fact his church had two altars was probably a reflection of the pressure he was under to keep everyone on-side. This was the cusp of Christianity and pre-history.”
It took Pauline a year to write Storm Frost but Brightfire was much quicker - just six weeks for the first draft.
“A good friend of mine went off to see her family just as I started writing the second book but she got caught by the Icelandic volcano and was delayed in coming back,” says Pauline. “I was looking after her house and had plenty of time to just sit there, writing. I suppose it was also easier to write because many of the characters were estab-lished in my mind. They may be historic characters but you’ve got to believe in them as people.”
So how does Pauline see Raedwald, the man?
“I was asked who would play him in a dramatisation of Brightfire,” says Pauline. “I kept thinking of Hugh Bonneville. I see the king as strong and scary when dressed in full regalia but I think he would also have been kind and capable of compassion. He obviously wasn’t as cuddly as Hugh Bonneville but equally, I don’t see him as a Sean Bean-type character.
“I suppose in the book I wanted to make him a great king because in reality, he was. By the time I had finished writing I felt I knew him.”
A chapter in Brightfire deals with Raedwald’s imagined death - a wound suffered in a skirmish turns septic - and subsequent burial at Sutton Hoo, telling how it takes 10 days to dig a huge pit in the sand above the Deben.
Of course, the stunning treasures found in the burial chamber, particularly the sword from which the book takes its name, play a big part in the story.
“I have Ricberht, the king’s jeweller, making some of the pieces,” says Pauline. “People who made these treasures would have been given huge respect. It was treated like magic and regarded with awe.”
With the characters so alive in Pauline’s mind it’s hard to imagine the story ending with Brightfire.
Does she envisage another book?
“Perhaps,” she smiles. “I would like to think there might be.”
? Brightfire, by PM Sabin Moore, is published by AuthorHouse. For more information visit Pauline’s website at www.suttonhoonovels.co.uk.