The only way is Essex: Southend Pier
Once upon a time I witnessed a scattering of ashes at the end of Southend Pier. An elderly man dressed in the sort of tweed suit that only elderly men from a now passing generation wear unscrewed the lid of a modest burial urn and then upended the urn over the railing. The wind caught at the dust and threw some back in his face. Most of the ash was lost against a prison wall sea but the rain kept off if I remember rightly which I probably do not. The incident was like a melancholy scene from a black and white television play. The feeling it gave me was the absolute reverse of those one hundred and one comedies where the ashes of the dead are sucked up into a vacuum cleaner. The end of the pier was not crowded on that particular day. There were the inevitable fishermen and a couple of people looking out over the estuary. As a coda to the ritual the man replaced the urn in the small brown leather bag from which he had only a few minutes before produced it. He spent a short while with his face fixed in the direction of Kent and then exited the scene with strange purpose.
Assuming the ashes were those of a friend or family member who had loved the pier at Southend it was obvious that this modern rite made some gesture towards an idea that the dead somehow like to spend eternity near to earthly places they have loved while alive. It seems connected with haunting and a more pagan feeling about the dead. When the choice is no longer the village churchyard for most of us but the municipal crematorium I am not surprised that many wish to remove a loved one from that place to one they feel is more fitting.
The Prittlewell Burial
Today, here in the West at least, sometimes I think we are coming full circle. I have met several people who do not believe in God but their faith in ghosts and who knows what else is unshakeable. The supernatural rather than science is in vogue again. The idea that one does not require fairies at the end of a beautiful garden seems strangely outdated. The Prittlewell burial of an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, discovered on the ancient fringes of Southend-on Sea at the beginning of this century shares a similar ambiguity with regard to faith and ritual.
A King with the common touch: the Prittlewell Prince was buried at the edge of a Anglo-Saxon folk cemetery
Although more circumspect in ceremony than the ship burial at Sutton Hoo this chamber grave was found to contain several priceless objects including a plain gold belt buckle, two Merovingian gold coins, a Byzantine silver spoon, and coloured glass drinking cups, in addition to more utilitarian objects such as a copper flagon, cauldrons, bowls and buckets, and a large iron braced wooden tub. Bone gaming pieces and the remains of a lyre were also discovered. Clearly this grave burial (or ‘inhumation’ as the archaeologists like to say) was of a high status warrior and included the expected sword and shield as well as a tall iron object that may have been a royal standard. There was also an iron folding stool which might have served as a temporary throne. It was the first of its kind to be discovered in an Anglo-Saxon context
A gold tremis dating to the early 7th century; note the unusual anchor shaped cross on its reverse
Unique in Britain to this Essex burial were two gold foil crosses. From a confusion of faiths perspective these delightful crosses make this burial particularly interesting because unlike the Mound One burial at Sutton Hoo where the presence of Christian artefacts in the grave is not necessarily or even probably indicative of the faith of the man buried, here at Prittlewell these foil crosses are most definitely associated with Continental Christian burials of the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Indeed they may even have been custom made for funereal attachment to clothing or a veil. And yet our man, who is contemporaneous with Rædwald of the East Angles, and most likely met him, was well prepared for a journey that one suspects was not meant to end at the foot of the Cross.
The delicate gold Christian foils
A team from the Museum of London Archaeological Service (MOLAS) was in charge of the dig. I saw the exhibition several years ago when it was at the Southend Museum. As is customary with Anglo-Saxon studies of this period there is little choice but to turn to the Venerable Bede to put some historical meat on the archaeological bones. It seems most likely that the Prittlewell Prince was none other than King Sabert of the East Saxons, the nephew of Ethelbert of Kent. Bede tells us that he ruled the region as a Christian after the overlord Ethelbert had built a church dedicated to St Paul in the city of London. At Sabert’s death we are told that the kingdom slid back to its old pagan TOWIE ways banishing Bishop Mellitus to boot.
The hypothesis advanced by the MOLAS team in the little book I bought at the time seems as good as any: that it is the burial of a Christian king by sons who were not Christian. Perhaps Sabert would have preferred to have lain in his London church; but once you are gone your remains are at the mercy of your folk. Assuming though a certain degree of flexibility in the spiritual plane I’m sure Sabert can go hang out in Londonwic churches any time the ghost moves him. Incidently, most of the information in this post comes from that little book which is a nice summing up and memento of the exhibit. I am no expert on the Prittlewell Prince so you know where to go to find out more. Speak to the organ grinders at MOLAS not the monkey.