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Prittlewell, Southend, 13 june 2005

The name of the king

As part of the King of Bling programme, Time Team assembled a team of experts to try to put a name to the Anglo-Saxon chief or king buried at Prittlewell. These included the historian, Sam Newton, who was asked to produce a royal family tree from every available archive source (principally the writings of Bede, often referred to as the 'father of English history', the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies) to give list of possible candidates for the burial. He focused on the early 7th century, which is the period indicated for the tomb by the combination of objects found there.

The 7th century is at the very beginning of written English history, however, and records are scarce. So identifying the occupant of the tomb was never going to be an easy task. Even the most revered text of early English history, the work of the 8th-century monk, Bede, was written a century later, in 731. And this contains just one brief entry that mentions the existence of a Saxon king in Essex in the early 7th century. It establishes his family links to the powerful King Aethelbert of Kent:
'In the year of our Lord 604, Austin Archbishop of Britain, consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus. He sent Mellitus to preach the gospel to the kingdom of the East Saxons, which is separated from that of Kent by the river Thames, and bounded by the sea to the East, having for its metropolis the city of London, situated on the banks of the said river, which is the general emporium of many nations, constantly resorting to it both by sea and land. Sabert, the nephew of King Ethelbert, by his sister Ricula, reigned there at that time, though he was tributary to his uncle, who, as we before observed, had command over all the English nations as far as the river Humber.'

Sabert's name also appears in the East-Saxon royal genealogies, which show him to be the son of Sledd, who was married to Aethelbert's sister, Ricula, and ruled from 587.

Sabert himself ruled until his death in 616. He had three sons, Saeward, Seaxred and Seaxbald, who were killed in battle against the West Saxons in 623.

Sabert is reputed to have converted to Christianity in 604, but after his death his sons expelled the Christian bishop, Mellitus, as part of a revolt against Kentish domination, and returned to their traditional pagan ways. Sigeberht 'Sanctus', the son of Saeward, who died in the 650s, returned to Christianity, but his death is probably too late for the tomb to be his.

The presence of Christian symbols in the tomb (principally the gold foil crosses and the silver spoon inscribed with a cross) makes Sabert the most likely candidate for the burial. (Sam Newton noted, however, that Sabert's brother, Seaxa, cannot be ruled out as another possibility).

This seems to fit with the way the tomb was arranged. It is likely that the body was placed in a coffin, rather than being on display, with just a few objects accompanying it. These would have included the gold belt buckle and the gold foil crosses, which may have been placed over the eyes. This would be compatible with a Christian burial, while the wider display of objects in the tomb would be closer to what might be expected of a high-status pagan burial. It was possible, said Time Team's experts, that the treatment of the body in the coffin was in deference to Sabert's Christian conversion, while the rest of the tomb was more in keeping with his sons' pagan convictions.

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Related links

spacerThe Dark Ages and Anglo-Saxons
spacerWho were the Anglo-Saxons?
spacerFurther reading
spacerOther websites
Family tree
Raysan's reconstruction of the burial chamber
Raysan's reconstruction of the burial chamber
Faith Vardy's reconstruction of the burial chamber
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