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WEIRD SUFFOLK: The ghost of Sutton Hoo that helped archaeologists find treasure

PUBLISHED: 18:00 30 May 2020

Did the ghosts of Anglo Saxon soldiers process around one of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo? Photo: Archant Library/Bill Smith

Did the ghosts of Anglo Saxon soldiers process around one of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo? Photo: Archant Library/Bill Smith

An interest in the occult and a ghostly procession of Anglo Saxon soldiers may have led a Suffolk landowner to one of the most spectacular treasure hauls in the UK.

It’s said that Sutton Hoo marked the first page of English history – on the brink of the Second World War, precious gold and silver was found in Suffolk. The haul was found on Edith Pretty’s Tranmer House estate which stands on the spur of land, or ‘hoo’ which overlooks the River Deben near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Edith lived at Tranmer with husband Frank, who she married when she was 42 and he was 47 – she bought the house in 1926, gave birth to her only son Robert in 1930 and suffered great tragedy in 1934 when Frank, the love of her life, died on his 56th birthday. Keen to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, Edith became a keen spiritualist, a popular belief of the age, and would make regular trips to London to visit a medium. She formed a strong friendship with William Parish and his wife and gave him the financial backing that allowed him to set up a healing house in East Sheen in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames.

Back in Suffolk, Edith’s estate boasted 18 Anglo Saxon burial mounds which had, over centuries, been extensively looted to the point where it was widely believed they had disgorged all their treasure. The Anglo Saxons were tribes from mainland Europe who invaded Britain after the Romans left in 400AD. Edith, having seen the excavations of the Nile Valley at first hand and been present when her father Robert Dempster, a keen archaeologist, revealed a Cistercian abbey in the grounds of their home at Vale Royal, was intrigued by the hillocks. There are three stories that add a paranormal twist to the archaeological excavation which began at the site in 1938 by Basil Brown.

One is that a friend of Edith’s, Dorothy Cox, visited Tranmer and saw the ghosts of Anglo Saxon soldiers processing around one of the burial mounds – she saw the soldiers every time she came to the house and was convinced there was buried treasure. Another involves William Parish holding a séance at which a black phantom warrior on a black horse with a drawn sword appeared and told her to dig at the mounds. And the third says that Edith had a dream about a large white horse with a rider wearing a helmet, his burial and the flashing of gold objects as they were buried next to him – she passed this dream on to local historian Vincent Redstone at the Woodbridge Flower Show, who introduced her to Basil.

Basil started work in June 1938 helped by estate labourers and using jugs, bowls, sieves, pastry brushes and bellows from the house, dug into three of the mounts, discovering the remains of a ship burial in one. The following spring, they tackled the largest of the mounds and found iron rivets from the hull of a 27 metre long Anglo Saxon ship – experts were called in and within days, archaeologist Peggy Piggott (later Peggy Guido) returned early from a holiday with husband Stuart to dig. She was the first to discover gold in the ghost ship when she saw something glinting in the soil: it was a tiny gold pyramid inlaid with garnets.

In all, 263 objects were found including weapons, silver cutlery, gold buckles, coins and a distinctive full-face helmet, the only one of its kind found in Britain. Edith, who admitted to hiding the haul under her bed to keep it safe on the first night that it was unearthed, donated the whole collection to the British Museum – during World War Two the treasure was almost reburied, underground in the tunnels of London’s rail system. Believed to be linked to the burial of Raedwald, the ruler of the East Angles who died in 624, the burial mirrors one in the Old English epic poem Beowulf, when Danish royal Scyld Scefing is laid to rest, surrounded by treasures. Just like Edith, the Anglo Saxons believed the present life and the afterlife could be linked, sending their dignitaries into the next world with the items they’d need there.

In an interesting development, an article in The Economist suggests the Anglo Saxon soldiers are still patrolling…in the British Museum. In an article by Killian Fox, he writes: “…every so often a patrol encounters a noise, a flash of movement, or simply a sudden lurch in the pit of the stomach, that stops even hardened veterans in their tracks.

“Take the Sutton Hoo gallery, which houses treasures from an Anglo-Saxon ship, among them a ferocious-looking helmet believed to have been worn by Raedwald, king of the East Angles, in the seventh century.

“On one occasion a guard bolted the double doors and moved on to the next room, only to be informed by a CCTV operator that the doors stood wide open again. Video footage of the gallery showed them moving spontaneously.”

Sutton Hoo is now under the custodianship of the National Trust and has a visitor centre and a reconstruction of the ship-burial chamber. The field can ne toured in the summer months and weekends, when open.

Whether the Anglo Saxon soldiers are still there is another matter…


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