The Anglo-Saxon Horseman's Grave in Suffolk
by Ben Levick
Details of the Grave
"Then Hrothgar's thegn leaped onto his horse and, brandishing a spear, galloped down to the shore:... Then the guardian of thegns ordered that eight horses with gold-plated bridles be led into the courtyard; onto one was strapped a saddle, inlaid with jewels, skillfully made. That was the war-seat of the great king, Healfdene's son, whenever he wanted to join in the sword-play... Hrothgar's horse, his stallion with plaited mane, was saddled and bridled, ... Then twelve brave warriors, sons of heroes, rode round the barrow, sorrowing; they mourned their king, chanted an elegy, spoke about that great man:they exalted his heroic life, lauded his daring deeds; it is fitting for a man, when his lord and friend must leave this life, to mouth words in his praise and to cherish his memory."
Extracts from Beowulf
On the 7th October 1997 the BBC reported the discovery of an unusual Anglo-Saxon burial dated to the late sixth century. A warrior was excavated with his horse in a graveyard in Suffolk. The pagan burial ground under the US Airbase at RAF Lakenheath yielded more than 200 graves of the 6th to early 7th centuries. The excavation was carried out before a new dormitory is built on the site.
Jo Caruth, project officer for Suffolk County Council's Archaeological Service said: "The site is in very good condition. It has hardly been touched at all. It contains a good cross section of the settlement - men, women and children. We are getting some human bones, which often doesn't happen because they are destroyed by sand.
"The site is incredibly secure. It's history as an air-base also means it hasn't been ploughed since the war."
Burials of warriors with their horses are known from Scandinavia and the Frankish kingdoms, but are rare in Britain. The excavations at Sutton Hoo in 1991 revealed, under mound 17, a horse that had been buried in a grave, next to the grave of a man, both of which were covered by a barrow. (If anyone has more detailed information on this please email us, but burials like this one are almost unknown in Anglo-Saxon contexts, and the few others that have been found had generally been looted or carelessly excavated in the 19th century, when vital material was lost.
The grave was surrounded by a ring ditch and was possibly originally covered by a burial mound, although this grave is unusual in having a rectangular ring ditch.
Another grave on the site, of similar date, also had a man buried with a pattern-welded sword, a spear with a very large spearhead and a shield with decorative mounts. This grave was in the middle of a clear area, so it too may have originally been covered by a burial mound, although no sign of a ring ditch was found. Other graves contained brooches, beads, arrows, shields and tools, implying people of reasonable wealth and status. About 50-60% of the graves contained goods, and 15 or 16 contained shields, an unusually high number.
Decorative shield mount and woman's brooch from other graves
(Images from Suffolk County Council pages about the find)
There is another Anglo-Saxon cemetery on the site, under the hospital which was excavated in 1959 and contained 34 graves. It was very close to the current graveyard, but was not as richly furnished as the new graveyard, so the archaeologists assumed the new graveyard would be ordinary. However, it is not uncommon for Anglo-Saxon graveyards to be divided into richer and poorer areas.
The warrior, who was probably quite young, had a sword by his left side and a shield on his body (only the metal boss and grip now remain). There was also a spear next to the man (this is the same equipment shown being used by the mounted warrior on the Sutton Hoo Helmet). The man is not far short of 6 feet tall. Alongside him in his coffin were the bones of a sheep, possibly placed as an offering to provide sustenance in the next life.
Textile remains on the sword are possibly from a cloak. The sword appears to have a copper alloy pommel, and may have a bead associated with it, although these details (and whether it was pattern welded) cannot be ascertained for certain until it is conserved.
Decorative helmet plate from the Sutton Hoo helmet showing a rider with a fallen warrior. The light areas are restorations based on continental versions of this scene, probably following Roman gravestones
Next to the coffin lay the horse, which had apparently been sacrificed. The horse's legs and neck were bent to fit into the plot. An iron bound wooden bucket, probably full of food, was buried by the horse's head. The skull shows a depression between the eyes where a blow can kill a horse.
The horseman's grave, photograph and plan (from Suffolk County Council pages)
A significant aspect of the find is that the horse was buried wearing it's decorative harness. The bridle was decorated with gilt bronze ornamentation, and organic remains (wool and felted wool) and rivets near the body are probably from a saddle (although there don't appear to have been any stirrups. The girth buckle, bridle straps and snaffle bit seem remarkably similar in size and function to those still used in Britain today. It is also the first real chance archaeologists have had to reconstruct Anglo-Saxon horse harness.
Gilt bronze harness mounts from the burial (Suffolk County Council images)
At first the archaeologists thought the horse was huge for this period, standing almost 16 hands high. This is now thought not to be the case "after closer examination of the bones, it now appears more likely that the horse was about 14 hands (and therefore a pony) rather than the 16 hands that the USAF veterinary surgeons unable to make detailed measurements, at first estimated." (A Mallinson, in a letter to the Times, 11th Oct. 1997)
Plan of the grave taken from the Daily Telegraph article 'Grave of Anglo Saxon Nobleman and his Horse is uncovered at RAF Base' by Tim King
The dating of the grave is based on the style of the gilt-bronze harness mounts and the type of shield boss, both of which date to the mid sixth century.
The Horse in Early Germanic Culture
The horse was an important animal to the early Germanic peoples of Europe. Finds from the North German peat bogs show that horses were sometimes sacrificed and their skins were hung on poles over the bog. For the first several hundred years AD horse offerings were important in pagan Germanic religious ceremonies. Piles of horse bones have been found in many North German bogs and burials. Remains of the head, the lower part of the legs and in some cases the base of the tail are usually found. The ritual perhaps demanded that the Gods received the skin with the head, legs and tail whilst the rest was eaten by the participants in the ceremony. (Note 2)
The horse was also used by the early Germanic warrior. The Roman author Tacitus, writing in the first century AD, tells us:
"The horseman asks no more than his shield and spear, but the infantry have also javelins to shower, several per man, and they can hurl them to a great distance; ... Their horses are not distinguished either for beauty or for speed, nor are they trained in Roman fashion to execute various turns. They ride them straight ahead or with a single swing to the right, keeping the wheeling line so perfect that no one drops behind the rest. On general survey, their strength is seen to lie rather in their infantry, and that is why they combine the two arms in battle. The men who they select from the whole force and station in the van are fleet of foot and fit admirably into cavalry action." Also, a number of sets of horse-harness have been recovered from the German and Danish peat bogs, dating to the first few centuries AD.
As we can see from this, the idea of a cavalryman was not unknown to the Germanic warrior, but it was not usual for the Anglo-Saxons to use cavalry.
Contemporaray finds of warriors buried with their horses are well known from the pre-Viking cultures of Scandinavia, and at Vendel and Valsgärde many of the ship burials contained horses and horse-harness. Mounted warriors are also commonly shown in contemporary art, most notably in the decorative foils used to ornament helmets.
Burials of riders with their horses are also known from the Merovingian Frankish, Thuringian and Allemannic kingdoms. Burials with horses are also found in Viking Age Scandinavia.
One of the most famous
horse-burials is that of Childeric's grave in Tournai (c. 482AD).
Childeric had taken over the role of the defender of the dying Romanitas in the Merovingian realm, but he was also a Germanic pagan ruler. His burial belongs to the category of "Fuerstengraeber" (pincely graves). This phenomenon of graves that are rendered prominent is well known from the early Merovingian period, but vanishes at the end of the 6th century.
Childeric's grave was under a burial mound, and current research shows
that the Frankish world used again the tumulus. Tumulus-graves are found mainly
in the Alammanic area, but West of the Rhine
they are an exception. These graves are meant to contain very important
personalities; they are one of the criteria for Germanic ethnic identity and a
definite proof of paganism. Childeric's grave was situated near a Roman road at
the edge of a contemporary graveyard. Three horse-burials are situated at the
edge of the burial mound (containing a total of 21 horses!!!) and they are
thought to be connected with Childeric's burial, although this thesis cannot be
proven with certainty. However, several arguments exist for connecting the
horse-burials with Childeric's burial, especially since there is evidence for
those graves being contemporary with Childeric's. The arguments are:
*All graves belong to the end of the 5th century (which can be proven by
*The horse-population is very homogenous: geldings, horses for battle, outnumber
*It is most implausible that the horses died because of an epidemic - especially not at this place.
*The graves can be clearly understood as such and their place
in the graveyard hints at cult/ritual significance.
*The occurrence of horse graves in the Merovingian period shows clearly that this custom stayed an exception between the Rhine and the Seine, while it was well known in the middle of the 5th century in Thuringia and later on the Elbe, Rhine and Danube.
Therefore it can be taken for sure that the horse graves are connected to the king's grave and its magnificent burial-rite.
The horse skull, that was found within Childeric's grave, belonged without doubt to his personal riding horse, while the other horses, that had been sacrificed at the time of his burial, probably came from his own stables.
The participation of horses in important ceremonies was widespread and popular, as the report about the arrival of the Frankish prince Sigimer into Lyon makes clear. The discovery in Tournai explains the special appreciation of horses in Frankish society of the 5th century and the ritual significance that they had concerning burial rites of a pagan king.
Text by Raymond Brulet from: Die Franken - Wegbereiter Europas, "Tournai und der Bestattungsplatz um Saint Brice", pp. 166-170,
translated and summarised by Nicole Kipar MA
Other burials of this type are known from Beckum, Frankfurt am Main-Praunheim and Wulfsen. There are also many Frankish and Allemannic graves containing horse harness, although without the horse itself
The Horse in Anglo-Saxon England
Only a few people in early Anglo-Saxon England had horses and they were very valuable animals. The quotes from Beowulf above show that a horse was considered a kingly gift, and this is further borne out by Bede when he is writing about King Oswin around 644AD:
"He had given an excellent horse to Bishop Aidan so that, although it was his custom to walk, he could ride it when he had to cross rivers or some other urgent necessity arose. Not long afterwards Aidan was met by a poor man begging for alms, and dismounted and ordered the horse, complete with it's royal trappings, to be given to the beggar; for he was a man of great compassion and a friend of the poor, and like a father to those in need. When the king was told of this, he said to the bishop as they were going to dinner: 'My Lord Bishop, why did you want to give this royal horse (Note 3) to a beggar? It would have been better for you to keep it as your own. Did we not have many less valuable horses, and other things which would have been good enough to give to the poor, without giving away the horse I chose especially for your own use?'"
The Anglo-Saxon attitude to horses, in a religous/cult sense, was noticably different to the continental one. In England all the archaeological evidence (even that of the cremations) suggests that the horse was not butchered and eaten as on the continent, but was interred whole. What little evidence there is for eating horseflesh is devoid of any noticeable religious contexts. However, the symbolic role of the horse-burial rite is made clear by the fact that they seem only to accompany adult male burials. It seems likely that in Anglo-Saxon England the religious significance of the horse may have been somewhat different to that on the continent.
We know for certain that there were stud farms in Anglo-Saxon England by the tenth century because they are mentioned in wills, but it is likely that kings and rich nobles had them around much earlier. As well as the clue in the quote from Bede (above), there are many hints from later charters and accounts. By the early11th century all military men were required to have several horses by law!
1. Stirrups do not appear to have been used in England until about the ninth century and were probably adopted from the Franks.
2. This could also account for the early Christian ban on the eating of horseflesh.
3. This distinction between 'royal' horses and ordinary ones could suggest that the unusually large size of the horse in the burial at Lakenheath could represent a royal horse. Perhaps this warrior had been rewarded with a fine horse by the king?
If anyone has any information on this burial, or other horse-burials, please email us.
Thanks to the following people for their help and information used in updating this page:
John Newman, Suffolk County Council Archaeological