Bede tells us that King Radwald of the East Angles was a man of noble origins but ignoble actions. For the famous monk of Jarrow this meant essentially that Radwald had thrown up the Christian faith for his pagan roots; but Radwald, in these few short paragraphs which are, apart from a couple of mentions in other works, the only historical record of him, gives the impression of being either a complex man or a very simple one. According to Bede, this king was baptised in Kent not long after the Augustinian mission, but persuaded by his wife and a number of advisers he apostatised from the Christian faith. He then made an error that was an abomination to Bede but which may seem to us entirely understandable. He set up altars to both Christ and his other gods. We might make several guesses why he did this but we shall never know for sure. It seems reasonable to surmise that Radwald was not the only pagan king who might have come up with this solution.
Bede does not give us the queen’s name, anymore than he will indulge us with details of Anglo-Saxon pagan rituals or the gods they may have worshipped, but we catch a glimpse of a woman who was influential. I have called her Ealhhild, a name that appears in the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith, and her fictional character in the book is only a beginning. More than the novelist of classical or later times, the writer balancing on a timeline through Dark Age Europe enjoys freedom and suffers frustration in equal measure. The Rune Of Ing is fictional in every episode but is built on the few bones thrown to us by Bede, on discoveries at Sutton Hoo, West Stow, and Ipswich (Gipeswic), and on critical studies of Old English literature.
The key political component of the novel at the time and place it is set is the expanding influence of Christian Europe, particularly that of the Merovingian kings of Francia. This is the Zeitgeist to use a journalistic term, behind the fictional Kentish mission to the kingdom of the East Angles which informs the drama of The Rune Of Ing. I have imagined this mission as taking place at some point after Radwald’s apostasy in say the year 605 but before Athelbert of Kent’s death in around 616. At this time the Kentish king was still overlord of the kingdoms closest to him but his hegemony over East Anglia seems to have been far from secure. These struggles between the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms together with a later shared concern regarding the Viking invasions would eventually result more than two centuries later in the formation of England. The kings involved are often described as ‘petty’ which is an accurate but also loaded word. Few I’m sure would have the courage to describe Radwald as such if they were to meet him. The trappings of Sutton Hoo show clearly that by the time of his death at least, he was a man of considerable wealth and power. The marriage of Athelbert to the Frankish Bertha, who was already a Christian, and the subsequent Augustinian mission to Kent in the year 597 must be one of the most significant events in English history.