Raedwald: East Anglian King and All-Around Kingmaker

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The Kingdom of East Anglia, it has been noted, was begun about 520 by the warlord Wuffa, who was succeeded by his son Tyttla about 540. East Anglia didn’t really come into its own until the time of Raedwald, the third leader of the kingdom. Raedwald ruled from 593 to about 624. He was an extraordinary leader, both on the battlefield and in administrative matters. He was the only East Anglian leader ever to be named bretwalda (in 616).

He was a strong and able king. He was also a kingmaker. In 613, during the Northumbrian wars, King Edwin of Deira took refuge at Raedwald’s court. It was there a few years later that the Bernician king, Aethelfrith, demanded Edwin as a hostage. This was an extraordinary demand, given that Raedwald was bretwalda at the time. Raedwald refused and later helped Edwin conquer Bernicia and Deira (by killing Aethelfrith at the Battle of Idle in 616) and meld them into the Kingdom of Northumbria.

Raedwald is a source of controversy both for his handling of Edwin and Aethelfrith and for his religious affairs. It seems that Raedwald had converted to Christianity, following Ethlebert’s lead. However, he is said to have drifted back into paganism at the behest of his wife and also to have set up a temple containing both pagan and Christian altars. The sources of the time profess outrage at this fact, even though such a practice was common enough when Augustine was first attempting to introduce Christianity to the Germanic tribes.

Not much else is known about Raedwald or his kingdom. His refusal to depend on monks and other Christian record-keepers meant that written records were scant at best. We know of his name and his reign and some deeds in it because of his contact with others. The rest remains a mystery.

One intriguing fact remains in this discussion of Raedwald: He is believed to have been buried in the ship dug up at Sutton Hoo.

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