Beowulf is possibly the oldest surviving long poem in Old English, believed to have been written between the 8th and the early 11th century. Its author remains anonymous, an Anglo Saxon simply referred to as “the Beowulf poet”.
Set in Scandinavia, the poem tells the story of the Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, who comes to the aid of King Hrothgar of the Danes by slaying monsters. Beowulf has been adapted into various mediums over the years, including films, novels, operas and even into comics. But what might surprise you is that this fantastical story has more grounded roots in Suffolk through the county’s history with the Anglo Saxons.
Rendlesham was once the royal seat of the Anglo Saxon Kings of East Anglia, with the name Rendlesham being derived from the Anglo Saxon words for “the home of the shield”. The royal estate would have encompassed what we know today as Bromeswell, Eyke and Sutton, with Sutton Hoo sitting on the southern edge of Rendlesham.
The burial mound at Sutton Hoo is believed to be that of King Raedwald, who was a member of the Wuffinga family, descended from Wuffa the first king of the East Angles. Dr Sam Newton, a Suffolk born Anglo Saxon scholar, has argued a genealogical connection between the Wuffingas and the Geatish house of Wulfing – mentioned in Beowulf as well as in another Old English poem Widsith which catalogues the people, kings and heroes in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe. It has also been argued that the poem Beowulf was composed in Rendlesham, given the area’s connection to Scandinavia and the royal dynasty. The events of Beowulf take place in the late fifth century when Anglo Saxons were journeying to England. Due to this mix of cultures, it is possible that Beowulf was written with a combination of Geatish history as well as incorporating more local events and people.
There are descriptions within the epic poem which have a striking similarity to the discoveries made at Sutton Hoo, which further supports the claim. Beowulf opens with the funeral of a king in a ship laden with treasure. The poem contains other descriptions of hoards, Beowulf’s burial mound, and a description of a helmet which could all find real life counterparts from the finds at Sutton Hoo.
Of course, whilst there is a definite connection between Sutton Hoo and Beowulf, there is no concrete evidence to confirm this connection as others have also associated the poem with King Alfred the Great, a king of Wessex, and King Cnut the Great, a king of Denmark, England and Norway. Still, it is fascinating to think that there is so much history in Suffolk, not just in the earth but in the stories which has shaped England as well.