When most people think of notable Anglo-Saxon lineages, they either think of Wessex’s Cerdicing dynasty or the Iclingas dynasty of Mercia. The lesser-known Wuffingas were a dynastic line that founded and ruled over the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia from the 6th-8th century. The dynasty would start as a conquering Pagan tribe in an unfamiliar land and end as a royal Christian house in a unified and peaceful realm. Though their reign experienced strife and loss, they would build East Anglia’s foundations through economic enterprise, religious reform and cultural progression. The Wuffingas would produce some of the most significant historical figures, early literary works and later landmarks for modern archaeological discoveries.
Compared to other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, East Anglia’s historical timeline is vague and mysterious. To understand this occurrence, we must look to 865, when no king from the Wuffingas line had sat on the throne for over a century. At this point, the now Christianised Anglo-Saxons had to withstand an invasion from a Pagan force. This foreign menace came from Scandinavia, and they were known as the Vikings. Their contingent, which was predominately made up of Danes, would be referred to by contemporary Anglo-Saxon scholars as the ‘Great Heathen Army’. The Vikings mainly started their occupation in the East of England (Northumbria and East Anglia). At the time, it was the clergy’s duty to scribe and record accounts of domestic events and noteworthy inhabitants. The clergy were also tasked with storing essential documents inside churches, monasteries and abbeys. The majority of these religious sites were burnt and destroyed during the Viking sack of East Anglia, resulting in many historical scriptures being lost or destroyed. During this epoch, the ruler of the East Angles was King Edmund. He would later be known as Saint Edmund the Martyr after being executed and beheaded by Viking marauders for championing the Christian faith. Legend has it that Edmund’s executioners then discarded his dismembered head in a forest; a local search party recovered the head with the assistance of a talking wolf. The wolf is an animal that is synonymous with the Wuffingas. Perhaps the creation of this legend was a subtle homage.
Like the 9th century Vikings, the first Pagan Anglo-Saxons to arrive in Britain during 449 conducted a purge upon the predominately Christian Romano-Britons. The land’s easterly region was initially populated by the native Britons of the Celtic Iceni and Trinovantes peoples. Among them would have been remnants, both genetically and culturally, from the Roman occupation, which lasted from 43 to 410. Like many Britons during the 5th century, they would either be expelled or subjugated by the invading Germanic tribes of Angles (from Anglia, Germany), Saxons (from Old Saxony, Germany), Jutes (from Jutland, Denmark and Germany) and Frisians (from Frisia, Netherlands). The first of these tribal warbands would swiftly conquer and settle the coastline of the modern county of Suffolk; they would subsequently push further inland to cover the area which would later become East Anglia. Being some of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers to reside in Britain, it would be safe to surmise that the East Angles would have spoken the first and earliest form of Old English in Britain.
East Anglia’s terrain is marshy, with low-lying meadows and over 90 miles of coastline covering its eastern boundaries, making it an ideal environment for agriculture and fishing. The kingdom covered the now English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, along with parts of Cambridgeshire and The Fens. Norfolk refers to the ‘North Folk’ inhabitants of the realm, and Suffolk refers to the ‘South Folk’. The first ostensible king of East Anglia was named Wehha, although some believe his son, Wuffa, was the first true king of the domain. Wehha’s identity is uncertain as there are minimal sources about him from this protohistoric time. We can only assume he was a warlord or chieftain who arrived with the invasion force and founded a nation that would act as a home for the Angles (hence the name East Anglia) and other Germanic peoples. Both Wehha and Wuffa are viewed as semi-historical figures, but Wuffa would sow the seeds for a long-ruling dynasty inspired by his name: the Wuffingas. Old English translations of the name ‘Wuffingas’ vary from ‘the kin of the wolf’ to ‘descendants of the wolf’. Like the wolf, members of this royal house would have to use cunning, unity and endurance to survive.
UK East Anglia counties map. Credit: johnwoodcock. Source: istock
It is believed Wuffa’s reign began in 571 when he established his royal seat at Rendlæsham (Rendlesham, Suffolk): a base of authority and administration for future East Anglian monarchs. His son, Tytila, then succeeded Wuffa’s crown. Like his father, details of Tytila and his reign are not fully known. He would sire two sons named Rædwald (or Redwald) and Eni. After he died in 616, his eldest son, Rædwald, would ascend to the throne. Rædwald’s younger brother, Eni, would never become king, but his children would later influence East Anglia’s history. Rædwald is considered to be one of the most famous historical Anglo-Saxon figures. His formative years on the throne would be under the overlordship of King Æthelberht of Kent, who held the title of Bretwalda (or Imperium) over the southern kingdoms. Bretwalda—which translates from Old English as ‘Britain-ruler’ or ‘wide-ruler’—was a title bestowed upon an Anglo-Saxon monarch who acted as overlord for more than one domain. Through the guidance of Æthelberht, he would be the first East Anglian king to be baptised as a Christian. It is a common conjecture that many of his Pagan kin were unhappy with his conversion to Christianity, chiefly his wife, whose name is not indeed known. It is a general understanding that she was a Pagan princess from the Kingdom of Essex. She and her followers allegedly attempted to persuade him away from the faith. Caught between old traditions and new advancements, Rædwald did something unprecedented: he praised and preserved Christian and Pagan places of worship within his kingdom. This religious sentiment would set a precedent for Rædwald’s oscillation between the two faiths throughout his life.
Rædwald helped to defeat King Æthelfrith of Bernicia and Deira at the Battle of River Idle. During the battle, Æthelberht of Kent was slain; thus, Rædwald was made an honorary Bretwalda in his sted. As the new potentate over the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, he subsequently installed a puppet king named Edwin to sit on the throne of Bernicia and Deira (two realms that later amalgamated into Northumbria). Most of the large settlements in East Anglia were originally Roman foundations and structures. Rædwald would build the first major Anglo-Saxon settlement in the region by funding the development of the trading port of Gippeswic (now modern-day Ipswich, Suffolk). The construction of Gippeswic would put East Anglia on the map while setting in motion the region’s trade with the rest of Britain, going as far as Northern Europe and even the Byzantine Empire! Rædwald’s remarkable reign would come to an end after his death in 624. Rædwald is renowned for being the most plausible candidate for the Sutton Hoo ship barrow in modern-day Woodbridge, Suffolk. The cenotaph burial discovery of Sutton Hoo was made by an amateur archaeologist named Basil Brown in 1938 and would be the most famous Anglo-Saxon discovery of its kind. Inside the ship were gold and silver coins, jewellery and cutlery, alongside a lyre, a shield, a sword and the famous helmet—which has continually acted as an emblem for Anglo-Saxon culture. Only someone of Rædwald’s high-standing could have received such a lavish contemporary funeral and memorial.
Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon Helmet. Credit: lightphoto. Source: istock
Rædwald had sired two sons in his lifetime; they were named Rægenhere and Eorpwald (or Earpwald). His eldest son, Rægenhere, perished at the Battle of River Idle. Eorpwald, the younger, would be crowned in 624. Eorpwald’s reign was not as long and illustrious as his father’s. Initially, King Edwin of Northumbria (the same man his father had put on the throne) would influence Eorpwald to convert to Christianity. Christianity was still a relatively new religion to the East Angles, with concepts that significantly differed from the old Pagan beliefs. Some saw this new faith as an opportunity to progress the dominion both culturally and politically; others saw it as an insult to the ancient Gods who their forefathers had served to build the East Anglian nation. Such negative sentiments towards these religious reforms became evident when a Pagan nobleman named Ricberht assassinated Eorpwald in 628. Eorpwald’s legacy didn’t end there: he would be the first English king to be murdered for his Christian beliefs and would later be revered as a martyr and saint by the Church. In a coup that year, Ricberht would take control of the kingdom and plunge it into a time of turmoil and instability. To have the temerity to commit such an act, Ricberht must have had support and sympathy from others within the royal court. He was likely of noble birth and a relative of Eorpwald. Still, we can not know for sure if he was officially crowned during his three-year subjugation of the land. Thankfully, it would not last, as he would be replaced by East Anglia’s first joint ruling monarchs.
The first of these two kings was named Sigeberht. Sigeberht’s background is a complex one. It is feasible to infer that his step-father was Rædwald, and his mother was the same assumed Pagan princess who tried to sway the East Anglian court away from Rome’s allure. Rædwald exiled Sigeberht to Gaul, which leads to the presumption that Rædwald saw him as an illegitimate threat to Eorpwald’s claim to the throne. During Sigeberht’s time in Gaul, he was baptised and educated himself with the teachings of Christ and other academic subjects—making him the first-ever English king to do so before his accession on the throne. Sigeberht returned from Gaul to replace Ricberht as ruler of the Angles. Sigeberht was famed for being a competent leader, both militarily and politically. His innate qualities were obviously conducive to his swift accession and popularity within the kingdom.
The second king was named Ecgric (other sources perhaps refer to him as Æthilric). It is disputable whether Ecgric was the youngest son of Rædwald or the eldest son of Rædwald’s brother, Eni. It was typical for some Anglo-Saxon realms to have two ruling kings. In the case of East Anglia during this period, it was a political masterstroke. Sigeberht was an astute Christian who had expelled a toxic and despised sovereign. Ecgric was a Pagan who was a legitimate member of the Wuffingas bloodline. This solution would have undoubtedly calmed tensions between specific social and religious demographics. We can surmise that the realm would have been divided into North Folk and South Folk, with each monarch given regional autonomy. Their joint coronations occurred during the year 630. Undoubtedly, Ricberht’s ending was not a happy one. If he were lucky, he would have merely endured exile, but he likely either suffered death through execution or on the battlefield.
Sigeberht’s initial royal proclamation was to replicate what he had seen in Gual by further establishing Christianity within his kingdom. He requested Felix of Burgundy (Saint Felix) to help him spread the word of God to the Angles. Sigeberht granted Felix ecclesiastical authority in Dommoc (Dunwich, Suffolk), making Felix East Anglia’s first Bishop. At the time, Dommoc was of great significance because it was the kingdom’s de facto capital. Sigeberht also welcomed into his domain the arrival of the Irish monk, Saint Fursey. Fursey would be allowed to build the Abbey of Cnobheresburg amidst an old Roman fort (most likely Burgh Castle, Norfolk). Sigerberht would likewise construct a monastery at Beodricesworth (Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk). He would encourage these new religious institutes to teach reading and writing to local children.
Sigeberht would later abdicate his throne in 634 to pursue the monastic life at Beodricesworth, which also made him the first English monarch to do so. Ecgric would take complete control of the realm that same year. In 636, the East Anglians would find their borders under threat from a hostile Mercian army led by its belligerent king named Penda. Ecgric and his subjects urgently requested Sigeberht to help them as he once did against Ricberht. Sigeberht refused, for his piety would not allow him to cause harm to others. However, he had no choice as Ecgric hauled him from his monastery to fight the Mercians. Sigeberht would have only provided moral support to Ecgric’s warriors, as he declined the option of arming himself during the battle. King Penda, a fervent Pagan, would take full advantage of any Christian benevolence. When the two armies finally clashed, the Mercians would destroy the East Angles and slay Sigeberht and Ecgric. Though Ecgric’s hereditary legacy would continue, Sigeberht would become an iconic pioneer of early Christianity in East Anglia. He was ordained as a saint for his religious commitments and would have an annual feast day on 29th October in his honour.
In the aftermath of a Mercian victory, the Angles would still live to fight another day and see a Wuffingas family member wear their nation’s crown. The kingdom’s successor would be Anna (or Onna), who came into power somewhere between 636-640. He was the brother (or cousin) of Ecgric, and like Sigeberht, he was devoutly Christian. His royal seat was based at Exnyng (Exning, Suffolk), rooted near the border fortifications of Devils Dyke. These fortifications would have initially been Roman earthworks that spread across modern-day Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. At the time of Anna’s reign, the Devil’s Dyke was likely militarised in preparation for another Mercian invasion from Penda. Anna had five children who would all eventually be beatified by the Church. Anna even helped to spread and promote the Christian faith to other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He converted the soon-to-be king Cenwalh of Wessex during his forced exile away from Penda’s prevalent aggression. Upon Cnewalh’s return, he would establish Christianity in his home kingdom of Wessex. Anna’s daughter, Æthelthryth, married Prince (or Chief) Tondberct, who hailed from the Fenland Kingdom of South Gyrwe. Through this partnership, Anna was able to further expand his nation’s borders into the Fenlands by incorporating the settlement of Eilig (Ely, Cambridgeshire). The marriage of his other daughter, Seaxburh, to King Eorcenberht of Kent secured Anna a powerful ally against the threat of Mercian aggression.
Unfortunately, such preventive measures would not be enough as the troublesome Penda would again assault East Anglia’s borders. In 651, the Mercians launched an assault on the Abbey of Cnobheresburg, home to many riches and relics. Anna arrived with his forces to aid the monks in evacuating any objects of worth. The monks of Cnobheresburg escaped but at a high cost. Penda defeated Anna and drove him into exile. Paradoxically, Anna spent his time exiled in Mercia; it was probably the last place his enemies expected him to be! Anna would return to East Anglia in 653. Not long after his return, he would have a final showdown with Penda at the Battle of Bulcamp (on the outskirts of Blythburgh, Suffolk). Alas, the East Angles inevitably lost to the Mericans, with Anna and his son, Jumin, slaughtered on the battlefield.
In 654, another of Eni’s sons would inherit the crown of this war-weary nation. His name was Æthelhere, and he would have the shortest reign in East Anglian history. The circumstances to which Æthelhere was granted power were bleak. It is likely that Mercia gave the new king a join or die ultimatum. Æthelhere certainly appeased Penda by recognising him as an overlord, for in 654, Æthelhere would take up arms with Penda and other sub-Mercian nobles against the Kingdom of Northumbria. This coalition would meet to fight the much smaller army of King Oswiu at the Battle of Winwaed (near Cock Beck, Yorkshire). Between the two opposing armies was a river with burst banks from torrential rainfall. Though Oswiu was vastly outnumbered, he ensured that the invading forces would have to cross the deep overflowing river before they could attack his ranks. It was a tactical success, with many Mercian and East Anglian warriors falling victim to the strong river currents. Æthelhere and Penda would also become casualties of this catastrophic defeat.
Not long after the battle, Æthelhere’s brother, Æthelwold (or Æthelwald), would take his place as sovereign. If Æthelwold were to look at his family’s track record, he would not have had much hope for the future. Since the death of Rædwald, the Christian monarchs of this newly converted kingdom had all failed miserably by dying in unfavourable conditions. It is easy to suggest that Æthelwold would have refrained East Anglia from any military campaigns, especially with their arch-rival Mercia. Like the majority of his predecessors, he was a good Christian. Like his brother, Anna, he would promote the faith by sponsoring a royal baptism in Rendlæsham—this time being King Swithhelm of Essex. Sadly, an unseen terror far worse than an invading army would strike at the heart of Æthelwold’s lands. It would come in the form of a plague that spread across Europe and claimed countless lives. East Anglian peasants, clerics and nobles all fell victim to the disease. A crown can grant power and riches, but it can not give the wearer immunity to deadly illnesses. As a result of the outbreak, Æthelwold would die in 664, leaving no direct heirs to take his place.
The man to take his place would be Æthelwold’s nephew. His name was Ealdwulf (or Aldwulf), and in 664, he was enthroned as ruler over the East Angles. He was the son of Hereswitha, a Northumbrian princess, and the late King Ecgric, who died alongside Sigeberht in combat against the Mercians. From infancy, Ealdwulf had an astute observation as he recalled the Christo-Pagan temples constructed by his grandfather, Rædwald. Seeing this would have left an imprint on the young royal, and even then, he would have likely known the significance of the temples. With his father’s death and the absence of his mother residing in a royal Frankish oratory, Ealdwulf would have to mature quickly and independently.
A good notion is—unlike his predecessors—he would have been inspired by Rædwald’s legacy of success and longevity. Ealdwulf would have kept lawful order and protected his kingdom’s borders through strength and diplomacy. He minted East Anglia’s first coinage while expanding his enterprise throughout his lands via economic trading hubs at Theodford (Thetford, Norfolk), Hunigstán (Hunstanton, Norfolk), Rendlæsham, Gippeswic, Burgh Castle and the Fenlands. He consolidated diplomatic relations with Mercia by supporting and protecting its future king, Æthelbald, who sought political asylum in the East Anglian Fens.
Sunset over arable farmland in Barrow, Suffolk, England. Credit: Nigel Wallace. Source: istock
During his sovereignty, the East Anglian diocese would halve after another plague that blighted the land in 660. It took the lives of most high ranking ecclesiastical members within the domain, only sparing Bishop Brigisus (or Boniface). Together with ministerial powers, Ealdwulf would exact religious reforms and declarations by creating a new diocese seat in Helham (North Elmham, Norfolk). Pope Sergius would highly regard Ealdwulf in a letter with Æthelred of Mercia and Aldfrith of Northumbria exhorting their approval of Berhtwald, Abbot of Reculver, to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
Ealdwulf fathered two children with an unknown queen; they had a boy named Ælfwald, who would be heir, and a girl named Ecgburga, who would become an abbess. Ealdwulf would die in 713. His reign of 49 years made him one of the longest-ruling kings in Anglo-Saxon history. His son, Ælfwald, became king that same year in 713. Ælfwald, whose name mystically translates from Old English as ‘Elf-Ruler’, would have paternal similarities in his governance style. He progressed East Anglia’s commerce through the continued development of the trading port at Gippeswic and the further minting of royal embossed coins. As an unequivocal Christian stemming from his religious background, Ælfwald would maintain strong relations with the faith and its notable members. A good insight into Ælfwald’s character and intellect comes from a letter he wrote during his reign in the mid 8th century to the now Archbishop Brigisus (Boniface). The letter demonstrates his skills in statesmanship and academia through the use of Latin prose:
‘To the most glorious lord, deserving of every honour and reverence.
Archbishop Boniface, Ælfwald, by God’s gift endowed with kingly sway over the Angles, and the whole abbey with all the brotherhood of the servants of God in our province who invoke Him, throned on high, with prayers night and day for the safety of the churches, greetings in God who rewards all.
First of all we would have thee know, beloved, how gratefully we learn that our weakness has been commended to your holy prayers; so that, whatever your benignity by the inspiration of God commanded concerning the offering of masses and the continuous prayers, we may attempt with devoted mind to fulfil.
Your name will be remembered perpetually in the seven offices of our monasteries; by the number seven perfection is often designated.
Wherefore, since this has been well ordered and by God’s help the rules for the soul have been duly determined and the state of the inner man is provided for, the external aids of earthly substance, which by the bounty of God have been placed in our power, we wish to be at your will and command, on condition, however, that through your loving kindness you have the assistance of your prayers given to us without ceasing in the churches of God.
And just as the purpose of God willed thee to become a shepherd over His people, so we long to feel in thee our patron.
The names of the dead and of those who enter upon the way of all flesh, will be brought forward on both sides, as the season of the year demands, that the God of Gods and the Lord of Lords, who willed to place you in authority over bishops, may deign to bring His people through you to a knowledge of the One in Three, the Three in One.
Farewell, until you pass the happy goal.
Besides, holy father, we would have thee know that we have sent across the bearer of the present letter with a devout intention; just as we have found him faithful to you, so wilt thou find that he speaks the truth in anything relating to us.’
Translated by Edward Kylie, English Correspondence. (Translated from Latin to English)
Ælfwald kept a good relationship with his powerful neighbour, Mercia, and its king, Æthelbald. This peaceful association between the two kingdoms was due to a previously mentioned act of benevolence by Ælfwald’s father, Ealdwulf. At the time of Ealdwulf’s reign, the current ruler of Mercia was King Ceolred. Contemporary chroniclers claimed that Ceolred was unjust, sinful and deranged. Understandably, this made him unpopular among his Mercian countrymen! For reasons specifically unbeknown, he oppressed and exiled his second cousin, Æthelbald, who fled in search of safety to the East Anglian Fens in Crowland. With Ealdwulf’s support and protection, he lived in Crowland with a hermit named Guthlac, who would later be venerated as a saint and was also part of the royal Mercian bloodline.
Guthlac died in 714, followed by Ceolred in 716, making Æthelbald the new king, thus, transforming the Mercian kingdom into a powerhouse. Though he was now highly established in the Anglo-Saxon world, Æthelbald never forgot his debt to the East Anglian royal line and Guthlac. Subsequently, after obtaining the Mercian crown, he became the benefactor of a newly built monastery at Crowland in memory of Guthlac. He retained amity with Ealdwulf and later Ælfwald, and as an acting Bretwalda, he consolidated East Anglia’s position through an alliance with Mercia.
Ælfwald championed a renowned monk and scholar named Felix to perform the task of writing a book in celebration of Saint Guthlac. The title of the book was titled: Life of Guthlac. In the book, Felix depicts Guthlac’s journey from being a famed Mercian warrior and noblemen to a reclusive holy man, who acted as both saviour and mentor to many—most notably, Æthelbald.
The underlying significance of the book goes beyond Guthlac’s hallowed tale and Felix’s eloquent prose. As the books benefactor, Ælfwald may have learnt to appreciate its power and value. Words can create stories; stories can create ideas; ideas can often change history far more effectively than warfare. Ælfwald’s sensibility on such matters could have motivated him to endorse an epic poem that would become an essential piece of early English literature. The said fictional poem is titled Beowulf and takes place during the 6th century in pre-Christian Scandinavia.
In the story, Beowulf is a renowned warrior from Geatland (now named Götaland, a regional area in modern-day Sweden). He and a band of fellow Geats travel to Denmark to help King Hrothgar and his Danish subjects to fight the monster Grendel who has been attacking the mead hall at Heorot. Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel after cutting off his arm. Following the monster’s death, Grendel’s demonic mother also assaults the mead hall and is likewise bested by Beowulf. He subsequently returns home to Geatland, where he is crowned king of the Geats and reigns for fifty years until he is fatally injured after defeating a dragon in combat. His faithful subjects pay their respects by burning his body on a ceremonial pyre. After the funeral, a tomb tower is built in his memory to signify his prestige as a warrior.
The date of the poem’s publication is highly disputed, but it is possible to have been during the 8th century within Ælfwald’s palace walls at Rendlæsham. Despite being written in Old English, the piece appears to be a very Scandinavian affair as it features no Anglo-Saxon characters and locations. However, the tale hints at a Scandinavian connection to the East Anglian bloodline as there are ancestral nuances that link the Wuffingas with the fictional ‘Wulfings’ (‘wolf clan’) of East Geatland. Thus, it would appear that the writer of Beowulf is subtly affirming Ælfwald’s eminence and pedigree as king of East Anglia. A rudimentary but non-the-less shrewd example of propaganda during the early medieval era.
Compared to other Anglo-Saxon royal lines and kingdoms, the Wuffingas and East Anglia still had a close traditional affiliation with Scandinavia. Another reliable indicator of this connection (aside from the creation of Beowulf) is that the East Anglians performed a ship-burial rite, like the ship burials of Sutton Hoo (Woodbridge, Suffolk) and Snape cemetery (Aldeburgh, Suffolk). Though such customs are comprehensively considered Germanic, the practice is more associated with Northern Germanic (Nordic) culture. In Pagan lore, boats play a crucial role in funeral rites by representing a safe voyage into the afterlife on the same vessel that aided the deceased’s journey through life.
Like many other incredible journeys, the journey of the Wuffingas had to come to an end eventually. The death of Ælfwald in 749 also marked the end of a prominent dynastic timeline that spanned nearly three hundred years. Ælfwald could have had an heir, but we can not know for sure. As the last true Wuffingas king, Ælfwald had ruled the realm for 36 years, a good kingship spell for the time. Though he failed to match his father’s impressive length of rule, he did manage to replicate a period of prosperity and security in East Anglia. Not an easy feat to achieve in a time of warring rival kingdoms and deadly omnipresent diseases!
East Anglia would continue to survive despite being conquered by the Mercians in 794. In 869, the realm would later be incorporated into the Danelaw area following The Great Heathen Army invasion. It ceased to be an independent kingdom in 918 when Edward the Elder amalgamated the region with the rest of England. Though the Wuffingas exist in name only, it would be remiss to believe that their successors sacrificed East Anglia’s past for the sake of England’s future. Instead, it would be better to see the Wuffingas legacy as an embellishment to English history and culture for years to come.
Author: Thomas Davies
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