The principal source for what little we know of King Anna of East Anglia (died circa 653) is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (AD 731). We are incredibly fortunate that the work of such a good historian exists for the early Anglo-Saxon period. He was a monk at Jarrow in Northumbria; he is known to have visited Lindisfarne and may have gone as far as York but he never left the northern Kingdom. Yet he recorded the history of the whole Anglo-Saxon world. By referring to the English people he realised their existence as a distinct group despite their political fragmentation. It would be two hundred years after Bede’s time that a unified kingdom of England was created, but he sowed the seeds. Besides the references to King Anna in Bede he is also referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Anna was king of the East Anglians in the middle of the 7th century (reigning from about 640 to 653 or 4). He was a Christian, unlike the warrior king Penda of Mercia who was his mortal enemy. Cenwalh King of Wessex was also a heathen to begin with, but this did not stop him being turned off his throne by Penda. Cenwalh was converted to Christianity by Anna while he was temporarily displaced from his kingdom and was living in exile at the East Anglian court, possibly at Rendlesham.
Blythburgh in Suffolk was probably a royal estate of the Wuffinga kings before the death of Anna. Being at the crossing point on the Blyth river it would have had a special significance, certainly in secular terms and possibly religious too. We may therefore take it as read that the road now known as the A12, which crosses the river here, is a very ancient highway. Before the Anglo-Saxons the Romans, and inhabitants right back to Neolithic times have left evidence of their occupation of Blythburgh. Anna and his son were killed by the heathen king Penda in 653 or 4 (both dates are given in versions of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle) near the village of Blythburgh where a battle took place. The body of the king was interred at Blythburgh and the tomb became a place of pilgrimage.
A pre-Norman monastery had existed at Blythburgh, but the Augustinian priory was established under the Normans. This became a large establishment, although by the time of the Dissolution it was sadly run down and the parish church was already coming to the fore. In the inventory made just before 1537 the priory had only one horse in its once well provided stable and one broken cart. The church suffered greatly in at the time of the Commonwealth. The stained glass was smashed but the angels which decorate the roof beams survived.
The river Blyth is still tidal at Blythburgh as you can see by the large expanse of water to the east of the village, which becomes an expanse of mud as the tide ebbs. These salt marshes had been reclaimed over the centuries but were flooded as an anti-invasion measure during the Second World War. What exactly this was meant to achieve is unclear. The demolition of the nearby bridge which formerly took the Southwold Railway across the river was also effected at the same time, for similarly obscure reasons.
Blythburgh is not very far from Sutton Hoo, a more familiar and extensive burial place for East Anglian royalty. Rendlesham was the main centre of the royal court at the time – again our information comes from Bede. Recent archaeological excavations seem to have confirmed that Rendlesham was of high status. With the end of the Kings of East Anglia and the growth of Norwich under the Vikings the centre of gravity of East Anglia seems to have swung north. After the Vikings destroyed the cathedral in Suffolk the East Anglian bishops were all based in Norfolk – first at North Elmham, then at Thetford and finally in Norwich.
We shall never know for sure exactly where Anna was buried, but it seems likely that the Saxon minster was on the same site as that later occupied by the Augustinian priory. A dig carried out by the TV programme Time Team uncovered Anglo-Saxon skeletons at the lowest levels of the ruins.