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New play casts Edith Pretty as the visionary who 'saw the past' at Sutton Hoo

PUBLISHED: 19:09 24 July 2019

Kiara Hawker as  Edith Pretty looking out at the burial moiunds at Sutton Hoo  Photo: Al Pulford

Kiara Hawker as Edith Pretty looking out at the burial moiunds at Sutton Hoo Photo: Al Pulford

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The Sutton Hoo story is an integral part of our local and national heritage and yet without the vision of landowner Edith Pretty this ship burial would have remained hidden beneath the earth. Now a new play, to be performed at Sutton Hoo, explores her life and view of the world

Views from Tranmer house of the burial grounds , Woodbridge and the River Deben.Views from Tranmer house of the burial grounds , Woodbridge and the River Deben.

The story of the Anglo-Saxon royal burial at Sutton Hoo is a gloriously multi-faceted tale bringing in Raedwald, an ancient King, Basil Brown, a local archaeologist, interfering officialdom from the British Museum, the looming presence of the Second World War and the determination of the visionary landowner Mrs Edith Pretty.

It's a story which reveals new facts and information each time you tell it but above all else it's a human story, a historical narrative which forms an important part of East Anglia's social history - both then and now.

To mark the 80th anniversary of the dig which uncovered the country's best preserved Anglo-Saxon burial, Stuff of Dreams theatre company, working with the National Trust Sutton Hoo, are staging a site specific performance of a new play looking at the remarkable life and vision of Edith Pretty, the woman who commissioned Basil Brown to start digging on her land looking for the graves of ancient warriors.

The play, Edith in the Beginning, has been written and researched by playwright Karen Forbes, and explores the complex personality of Mrs Pretty, which has often been overlooked in the dramatic tale of the discovery of the Saxon long boat burial.

The portrait of Edith Pretty which now resides at the Sutton Hoo centre.; PICTURE CONTRIBUTEDThe portrait of Edith Pretty which now resides at the Sutton Hoo centre.; PICTURE CONTRIBUTED

The performance is being staged in the porch of Tranmer House, Mrs Pretty's home at Sutton Hoo which will allow audiences to look over towards the burial mounds which first attracted Mrs Pretty's attention.

The play is being staged by Stuff of Dreams, and outdoor theatre company, which specialises in dramatising local history, myths and legends.

Company founder and director Cordelia Spence said: "Mrs Pretty seemed to know that the ghostly mounds that surrounded her Suffolk home were hiding Anglo Saxon secrets. Once unearthed, she became synonymous with the Sutton Hoo discovery. But there are other aspects of Edith's life that deserve recognition.

"Edith was a woman ahead of her time, but she was also a woman who was held in the 'iron grip of society'. She was well-travelled at a relatively young age, she was climbing pyramids with her father as a young woman, she was well-read, well educated, she started a university course even though she couldn't be awarded a degree (because she was a woman), she served just behind the frontline as a nurse in the First World War, and she cared for her frail parents, putting her own life on hold.

Amateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack. Charles Philips showing Edith Pretty, right, and Princess Marie Louise documents relating to the dig Photo: The British MuseumAmateur photographs of the Sutton Hoo dig taken in the summer of 1939 by two visiting school teachers, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack. Charles Philips showing Edith Pretty, right, and Princess Marie Louise documents relating to the dig Photo: The British Museum

"Her husband, Frank, was very much the love of her life and although he was no longer there by this point in her life, he was still very much a strong presence in her story.

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"Her grief at his loss, her late motherhood and the discovery of the treasure at Sutton Hoo are important aspects of her life, but there was so much more to her character. She was a woman born in the Victorian era who overcame adversity and led a triumphant life."

Playwright Karen Forbes said that one of the reasons that she wanted to write the play is that Mrs Pretty was not only a formidable woman, she was also something of an enigma.

"It is understood that Edith's husband Frank proposed to her every year from her 21st birthday and she became a mother at 47 years of age. Most intriguing is her decision to decline the CBE from Winston Churchill - the reason for this remains a mystery to this day", said Karen. "I feel she had much to offer especially as a woman who was in her 30s when women were given the right to vote in Britain. But she was restricted by her social standing at a time when there were particular expectations of women in her circle. I have been inspired by her silent strength and determination to overcome difficulties and prejudices, and ultimately become her own person."

It's this integrity and stoicism that has also inspired Cordelia as director of the play. "By staging the performance in the porch means that the staging will be very evocative. It will be easy to imagine Edith standing their watching the dig going on in the distance.

"This is going to be a unique theatrical experience. The audience will be hearing the story in the very place where Mrs Pretty lived. They will see the same view that she saw every day and watch her story unfold with the famous mounds behind them."

She said that the production will have a very strong sense of place. But, it will be a human story, a story about people and friendships, rather than a dusty tale of an archaeological dig.

"It's the story of Edith and her friendship with Basil Brown, from Ipswich Museum. Even though class played an important part in life during that time and Edith and Basil were from different backgrounds, there was a strong bond of friendship there. They didn't always agree and they were known to argue but they liked and respected one another and it was Edith who insisted that Basil stay on the dig after the British Museum got involved, once they knew the scale of what they uncovered. She was very loyal and wanted someone she could trust on hand."

Cordelia said that there were so many facets to Edith's life: she nursed and was a quartermaster in the First World War, she then put life on hold to look after her parents and then became a magistrate. Duty played an important role in her life and yet there was also a thirst for knowledge and a spirit of adventure.

"We wanted to make Edith and all the people in this amazing story more than names in a history book. They were living, breathing people and we want to portray them in all their complexity."

Josh Ward, senior visitor experience officer at National Trust Sutton Hoo said, "It is an enormous privilege to be able to share the story of Edith's life here, in the grounds of her former home. It was her actions, an incredible decision made on the eve of war, that led to one of the most significant discoveries ever made in this country. She was a well-educated, strong woman and it's an honour to be able to explore her story in more depth in this year, the 80th anniversary of the discovery of the Great Ship Burial."

Edith in the Beginning, by Karen Forbes, will be performed at Tranmer House, Sutton Hoo, over August Bank Holiday weekend (24th, 25th & 26th) at 7.30pm. Tickets £15 (children £13). For more information and to book tickets ring 0344 249 1895 or online: stuffofdreamstheatre.com

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