The Royal Burial at Prittlewell

When driving around Southend, near Priory park, just before you get to Cuckoo Corner there is a small mound. It’s a strange place for one and unless you know the area and its history you don’t really know what it was. The mound is a burial mound of a man who died thousands of years ago, most likely about 600-620 AD. This is the story of Southend’s so called King of Bling.

Back in 2003 a burial chamber was uncovered when work was going on to widen the road nearby. Inside the chamber was found drinking vessels, cooking utensils, weapons and personal possessions – 110 objects in total. There were no body remains but it was clear this was a burial mound and that the remains have eroded away with time. Who was this luxurious mound for? I say luxurious as this was someone of some importance as some of the objects such as a Coptic bowl and flagon were items imported from Europe – items that only really those in royalty could afford.

An artists impression of what the burial chamber would have looked like

It is believe that the person who was buried in the mound was a King Saebert. He was a Saxon king from around AD604 and died in 616AD. Sabert, king of Essex or East Saxons was the first king of the East Saxons to convert to Christianity and it is this piece of information, along with dating some of the items which makes historians and archaeologist think that this burial chamber may be him. The reason is that two small gold foil crosses were found within the tomb. They would have been placed over the eyes and were a sign that this person was an early Christian. Seabert converted to Christianity in 604 and was christened by St Mellitus (who was a friend of St Augustine, who introduced Christianity to England). His sons who succeed him stayed pagans. His Grandson, however, Siegeberht the Good also converted and is also considered to be a candidate for the tomb.

a map of the Kingdoms of England at the time of the burial

The Museum of London described the find as “the most spectacular discovery of its kind made during the past 60 years” and on a par with that of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial found in the 1930s. The 110 objects, which were uncovered, were in an amazing condition considering their age. They were lifted out of the burial mound in two phases over a period of 10 days, some being block lifted with the soil they had become embedded in. The burial chamber was 4 metres square and is the largest chambered tomb ever discovered in England.

This burial however is located within what was once a medieval (and even passable a Saxon) graveyard (located in 1923). The reason it has stayed unnoticed for so long is the mound which usually identifies some kind of tomb being present seemed to have collapse hiding from view for hundreds of years. Other burials have been found nearby (the chamber is located very near Prittlewell Priory).

The burial mound today (Laura Adkins)

In 1930 when working on the railway three female bodies were found with jewellery and pottery in the area. In two of the graves were found gold pendants and pottery vessels. In the third, three beads and a pair of gilded brooches were found. All these pieces of jewellery were most likely of Kent origin from the 6-7th century and indicate that Essex must have had strong links with its neighbouring country, perhaps the inhabitants were of Kent origin? Other archaeology found with the area was a large range of weapons including spears and swords. All from the period of 500-700 AD. 

In Anglo Saxon England, there was no one set way of burying their dead. The was much variation when they laid their dead to rest, from the type of burial – cremation to burying the body in a mound or cemetery through to differences in regional location and what beliefs they had. These variations of burials can be found near one another into he same locations. However, what they all had in common was the corpse being accompanied by various grave goods. The types of grave goods could include food, jewellery, and weapons and in some cases an animal or even human sacrifice. It is believed that the goods, which were buried, would have had meaning to those who were buried and were for use in the next life.

Once Christianity was firmly established in England the burial practices would become the sole form of burial with the location of the cemetery being near Christian churches.

The practice of barrow burials in England was adapted around the late 6th century. The practice had been adopted by the Merovingian dynasty in France in the fifth century. Eventually through links of marriage and trade in Kent, the practice was soon adopted and would spread across England. It has also been suggested that the practice may have been adopted from the native Britons. This is further backed up by the fact that borrows have been found in England from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman periods.

The excavation of the ‘King of Bling’ burial mound was carried out by the museum of London under Atkins ltd.

Sources:

Hirst, S. M (2004) The Prittlewell prince: the discovery of a rich Anglo-Saxon burial in Essex. London: Museum of London Archaeology Service.

Tyler, S, ‘Essex Arch & Hist.’ in The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Prittlewell , Vol. 19, (1988), 91-116

Burial in Anglo Saxon England – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burial_in_Anglo-Saxon_England Accessed 15/6/18. Last edited 20 April 2018

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