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Mon 24 June 2019
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The Count of the Saxon explains the fluidity of Saxon religious belief as new archaeological discoveries suggest the East Saxons converted to Christianity, and back to Paganism again.

Of all the points along the Saxon Shore, it is the Kingdom of the East Saxons that remains the most beguiling, that mysterious land we now know as Essex. And recent archaeological finds from a roadside near Southend leads us to once more consider the truly enigmatic nature of English identity.

Photo credit MOLA

Artefacts excavated from an Anglo-Saxon burial chamber in the village of Prittlewell have gone on display this month. Remnants of a high-status tomb were discovered: a gold belt buckle, gold coins, a lyre, a sword and drinking vessels. All found next to where an Aldi supermarket now stands –a suitably Germanic symbol of abundance, reflecting the ancient transmigration of English culture from Northern Europe. One find was particularly intriguing: two gold foil crosses, presumably laid upon the eyes of the occupant of the grave, indicating that they died a Christian.

a photo of two thin golden crosses slightly bent
Photo credit MOLA

Initially the site was thought to be the last resting place of Saerberht, the first of the East Saxon kings to convert to Christianity after Augustine’s mission from Rome landed in Canterbury in 597 AD to enlighten our heathen ancestors. But carbon dating and various other tests suggest that the burial took place earlier than this, perhaps sometime around 580 AD.

We were a collection of tribes keenly aware of their migrant identity and diversity (Anglo-Saxon is already a multicultural term).

This challenges the Venerable Bede’s narrative of a seismic change in the culture of these islands when Pope Gregory sent his emissary Augustine northwards after taking a shine to a couple of pretty English boys in a slave market (‘not Angles, but Angels!’ he is said to have gasped in a comment that reflects a proclivity that haunts the Catholic Church to this day).

The received wisdom is that we were resolutely pagan before this time, but the gold crosses of Prittlewell suggest that there was more flexibility in the attitudes of the emerging English.

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We know that this nation came into being in a post-colonial period after the Brexit from a collapsing central superstate. We were a collection of tribes keenly aware of their migrant identity and diversity (Anglo-Saxon is already a multicultural term). And we had a deep pride in our pagan roots; four of our days of the week are still named after Norse gods, after all. But in Europe Christian kingdoms would have provided models of wealth and sophistication that we were aspiring to, and Rome remained an ideological authority long after its decline in military power.

The high-ranking occupant of the Prittlewell tomb might have been an East Saxon prince who was an early adopter of Christianity on pragmatic, rather than dogmatic, terms. This new creed might have given opportunities for trade and treaty status with the European mainland. Baptism might simply have been good for business.

What we learn from the Essex Man of Prittlewell is that it is possible to change one’s mind according to circumstances.

What we do know is that the East Saxons reverted back to paganism after the death of the later convert Saerbert. Bede bitterly laments how his sons returned to idolatory, ‘puffed up as they were with barbarian pride.’  Perhaps this, too, was a pragmatic decision.

For the kingdom of the East Saxons remains a time-proven bellwether of social and political meteorology; and the voting intentions of ‘Essex Man’ have long been seen as an indication of a greater mood in the country. And though the forthcoming election results might seem to reflect fixed attitudes the future is less certain. What we learn from the Essex Man of Prittlewell is that it is possible to change one’s mind according to circumstances.

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