The Prittlewell Prince

The Royal Saxon tomb in Prittlewell is a high-status Anglo-Saxon tomb excavated at Prittlewell, north of Southend-on-Sea, in the English county of Essex. In the autumn of 2003, in preparation for a road-widening scheme, an archaeological survey was carried out on a plot of land to the north-east of Priory Park in Prittlewell. The archaeologists were lucky in the placement of their trench and uncovered a set of Saxon remains”. Thus begins the Wikipedia article titled “Royal Saxon tomb in Prittlewell”, following a Google search on “Prittlewell Prince”. While perhaps less accurate, this is popularly referred to as the “Saxon King”.

At this time, the findings are being researched by experts. The general consensus is that this is a highly significant discovery that throws considerable light on life in the Southend area, especially around the seventh century. Of particular interest to me and others, is this provides valuable insights into our local Christian heritage, and the fear is the understanding of which may get lost or diluted when deciding what to do next. Already there has been significant controversy around how to proceed, especially around presenting the findings to the public. In the days shortly following the discovery, environmental protestors (Camp Bling) occupied the site in order to thwart the Council plans for a road widening scheme that would have obliterated the site. The campaign that went on for several years could be deemed to be successful for the road widening scheme is no longer happening and the site presently remains undisturbed, although there is little to see and the Saxon contents have virtually all been removed.

One of the Council plans, which may or may not happen, is to build a museum on the site of the cliff slippage opposite Southend Pier, to host the findings. Besides making good use of a prominent space that is currently an eyesore, this has  the additional attraction of further regenerating the sea front area along with other dynamics: what to do about the Pier, the rapid expansion of the town’s higher education provision, the decline of other areas of the economy e.g. offices, the success of the local airport, the building of nearby hotels on the expectation there will be more visitors to the town and local aspirations to build on an already significant cultural presence, and could make sense as the town plans, as it must, for the future. The down side is the scheme will be costly, it is too far from the original site, the more serious nature of the proposal is not what usually attracts people to the sea front, although this does provide a captive audience, especially if the weather is bad, and there is a general perception that what has been forward thus far is at best half baked and does not give enough prominence to the historical, academic and Christian heritage aspects.

In a recent letter to our local newspaper (Southend Echo), one writer suggested expanding the provision of the local museum, although it has been argued there are severe restrictions as to what can be done and it may not give the findings the prominence that is merited. A particularly active and knowledgeable environmental group campaigning for a worthy solution for preserving and promoting this aspect of the local heritage is Saxon King in Priory Park (SKIPP), which frequently provide interesting and informative press releases, which can be found on their Facebook page. On the “About” section they state: “SKIPP campaigning for a Saxon Great Hall Museum and Village in Priory Park to house the Treasures of King Seabert. Since its founding SKIPP has become involved in many of the political issues which affect Southend”.

Their proposal is “to facilitate the return of the artefacts discovered within the burial chamber of the Prittlewell Saxon King, plus the other previous and future finds to a site in close proximity to the discovery site, so as not to break the ‘connection between grave goods and burial chamber’. In order to achieve this, SKIPP proposes the construction of a ‘Saxon Hall Style’ Museum on the Priory Park ‘Brownfield’ site currently occupied by the Council’s Works Depot. We believe this will be cost effective, achievable in a relatively short time scale and create an iconic internationally significant museum for Southend to be proud of”.

Like the two previously mentioned schemes, there are no doubt advantages and disadvantages. The ideas put forward by SKIPP have obvious merits, such as cost effectiveness, the idea of a museum focusing specifically of the local Saxon heritage and the proximity to the site of the findings. While the distance from the original site is less than two hundred yards, it is separated by a busy road and one wonders how, without some incredible piece of creative thinking, what access if any could be made to the site, which might make the idea more attractive. There are also issues around access to the Park and parking, as well as eating into more of the park green space. It appears that SKIPP’s relation with some members of the Council is not good, likely and partly given that some SKIPP members caused the Council considerable embarrassment and inconvenience when they were part of Camp Bling. But in my view, these are people who care and understand and they need to be listened to, along with other local residents, especially those with insight and an interest.

I have gone on record saying that the Culture section of my local Council has done a lot of good things, going back to the day when I helped set up a garden project (Growing Together) when the Parks department, which nowadays comes under Culture, were more than helpful – and this despite their budgets being cut over several years – invariably among the first victims when there are austerity measures. I believe part of the future of Southend may well entail increasing its cultural provision, which is already significant and happens to be one of the town’s strengths, and increasingly doing so in partnership with the voluntary sector, including accommodating the findings of the Prittlewell Prince in a befitting manner.

I don’t have a view on what is the best site, but when I do it will be based on evaluating all the arguments (which have yet all to be convincingly made) and upon understanding the bigger picture, i.e. the future direction of the town’s economy. But the time has come to stop procrastinating and pontificating and instead act in order to forge the future for the town that is so much needed.

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