Sigeberht of East Anglia

Sigeberht of East Anglia

Sigeberht of East Anglia (also known as Saint Sigebert) was King of East Anglia from c 629 to c634. He was the first English king to receive a Christian baptism and education before coming into his regnal power, and the first to abdicate in order to enter the monastic life. He played a most important part in the establishment of Christianity in his kingdom.

Family, Exile, Conversion and Education

The most reliable source for him is The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (produced 731). Bede states that he was the son of Rædwald (r.c 599-624), but William of Malmesbury describes him as the stepson. The latter is indicated because the name Sigeberht is unlike any in the East Anglian Wuffinga dynasty, but closely resembles the name fashions of the East Saxon royal house. If that identification is correct, Rædwald's wife had previously been the wife of an East Saxon prince or ruler. Rædwald's own principal heir was Raegenhere (a youth of warrior age in 616, when he was slain in battle) and his second heir was Eorpwald, slain by the heathen Ricberht in c 627. (There is no ancient record that Ricbert was a son of Rædwald's, nor that he was a king.)

Eorpwald, despite his father Rædwald's personal conversion and baptism before 616, and the existence of a Christian altar in Rædwald's temple, was not himself a convert at the time of his accession in c 624. Since it is known that Rædwald's Queen (also Sigeberht's own mother) did not become Christian, Sigeberht received limited encouragement in the Faith. He was exiled in Gaul for a long time during the lifetime of Eorpwald, 'while fleeing from the enmity of Rædwald' (says Bede, iii.18). This supports the stepson theory, if Rædwald was protecting Eorpwald's succession against a possible claim by a son not of the Wuffing line. While in Gaul Sigeberht was converted and baptized, and became a very Christian and a very learned man. He was strongly impressed by the religious institutions and schools for the study of reading and writing which he found in Gaul.

igeberht's Accession

After the interregnum prompted by Eorpwald's assassination, Sigeberht was recalled from Gaul to become ruler of the East Angles. It is likely that he gained the kingdom by military means, because his prowess as a military commander was later remembered. During his reign part of the Kingdom was governed by his kinsman Ecgric, the relationship described by the Latin term "cognatus". This may mean that Ecgric was a son of Rædwald. However some authorities consider Ecgric to be the same person as AEthilric, named in the East Anglian tally (in the "Anglian Collection") as a son of Eni, Rædwald's brother. Whoever Ecgric was, Sigeberht had equal or senior power while he ruled, because the influence of his religious patronage was felt both in eastern and western parts of the kingdom.

Sigeberht's Christian conversion may have been a decisive factor in his achieving royal power, since at that time Edwin of Northumbria (616-632/3) was the senior English king, and only he and Eadbald of Kent were Christian rulers. Eadbald certainly had contacts with the Frankish rulers. After Dagobert succeeded Clothar II in Francia in 628, Sigeberht's emergence helped to strengthen the English conversion upon which Edwin's power rested. Sigeberht is likely to have encouraged the conversion of Ecgric, if he was not already Christian. Edwin's encouragement took shape in the marriage of his grand-niece Hereswith, sister of Saint Hilda, to Aethilric, Rædwald's nephew. Hereswith and Hild were under Edwin's protection and were baptised with him in 626. This marriage held the presumption that Aethilric was, or would become, Christian, and probably also that he should at some time become King of East Anglia.

Foundation of the East Anglian bishopric - Saint Felix

Bede relates that the East Anglian apostle Saint Felix came to England from Burgundy as a missionary bishop, and was sent by Saint Honorius Archbishop of Canterbury to assist Sigeberht. William of Malmesbury has the later story that Felix accompanied Sigeberht to East Anglia. In either case, this dates Sigeberht's accession to c629-630, because Felix was Bishop for 17 years, his successor Thomas for 5, and his successor Berhtgisl Boniface for 17 - and Berhtgisl died in around 669. Sigeberht established the bishop's seat of his kingdom for Felix at Dommoc, claimed variously for Dunwich or Walton, Felixstowe (both coastal sites in Suffolk). If at Walton (as Rochester claimed during the thirteenth century), the site of Dommoc may have been within the precinct of a Roman fort which formerly stood there.

Foundation of the East Anglian School

Sigeberht also established a school in his kingdom for boys to be taught reading and writing in Latin, on the model that he had witnessed in Gaul. Felix assisted him by obtaining teachers of the kind who taught in Kent. Paulinus of York was from 633 to 644 bishop of Rochester on the Medway, then the nearest bishopric in Kent to East Anglia. Paulinus had (according to the Whitby Life of Gregory the Great) been connected with the court of Rædwald during the exile of Edwin.

The Irish Mission to East Anglia - Saint Fursey

The allegiance of Felix to Canterbury determined the Roman basis of the East Anglian Church, though his training in Burgundy may have been coloured by the teaching of the Irish missionary Saint Columbanus in Luxeuil. In around 633, perhaps shortly before Saint Aidan was sent to Lindisfarne from Iona, the Irish royal hermit and missionary Saint Fursey came from the Athlone area with his priests and brethren to East Anglia. Sigeberht granted him a monastery site in an old Roman fort called Cnobheresburg, usually identified as Burgh Castle near Yarmouth. Felix and Fursey both effected many conversions and established churches in Sigeberht's kingdom. Bede records that Archbishop Honorius and Bishop Felix much admired the work of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne. Therefore it is likely that they also appreciated of Saint Fursey, whose community also lived according to the ascetic principles of Irish Christianity.

igeberht's monastery and his religious abdication

Not long afterwards Sigeberht, who had built a monastery for his own use, abdicated his power to Ecgric and retired there to conduct a religious life. Bede does not say where, but later sources name it as Beodricesworth, afterwards called Bury St Edmunds. If that identification is accepted, the likely site was in the original precinct of the mediaeval Abbey Bury St Edmunds, probably the 'worth' or curtilage of Beodric after whom it was originally named. The site occupied a strong position on the upper reaches of the Lark valley, which drains north-west into the Great Fen through important early settlements at Icklingham, Culford, West Stow and others. This was a line of access towards Ely, where a foundation of Saint Augustine may already have existed, and towards Soham (Cambridgeshire), where Saint Felix is thought to have founded a monastery.

The much later formation of West Suffolk and East Suffolk (distinct counties until 1974) reflected the topographical distinction between the eastern watershed draining towards the sea, with its power centre at Rendlesham and trade capital at Ipswich, and the western rivers draining to the Fen, of which Bury became the county town.

A Mercian attack: Sigeberht's martyrdom in battle

In 636 East Anglia was attacked by the armies of Mercia, and Ecgric was obliged to defend it with a much smaller (though not negligible) force. The East Angles appealed to Sigeberht to leave his monastery and lead them in battle, hoping that his presence and the memory of his former military exploits would encourage the army and make them less likely to flee. Sigeberht refused, saying that he had renounced his worldly kingdom and now lived only for the heavenly kingdom. However he was dragged from the monastery to the battlefield where, unwilling to bear arms, he went into battle carrying only a staff. Sigeberht, Ecgric, and many of the East Angles were slain and their army was routed. In this way King Sigeberht of the East Angles won the palm of martyrdom. Bede (HE iii,18) indicates that the leader of the Mercian assault was Penda, and Sigeberht is among the names of the kings who, according to an ancient proverb, were avenged by the slaying of Penda in 654.

Penda never accepted Christian teaching, and made war against the powers associated with it, seeing himself as the rightful representative of Anglian custom, rule and identity. However, the Christianity which Sigeberht had done so much to establish in East Anglia was strongly maintained and developed in the reign of his successor, King Anna. As a royal martyr Sigeberht's feast day was observed variously on 16 January or 27 September.

ee also

*Wuffing dynasty family tree


*Bede, Ecclesiastical History, iii.18.
*D.H. Farmer, "The Oxford Dictionary of Saints" (Oxford 1978). ISBN 0-19-282038-9.
*D. P. Kirby, "The Earliest English Kings" (Unwin Hyman 1991). ISBN 0-04-445691-3.
*Steven Plunkett, Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times, 2005 (Tempus, Stroud). ISBN 0-7524-3139-0.
*A. Williams, A.P. Smyth and D.P. Kirkby (1991), "A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain" (Seaby 1991). ISBN 1-85264-047-2.

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