The two huge oaken Southwold Rudders form a dramatic new centrepiece to the Southwold Museum collection. They were originally found close to Southwold in the 1980s. The smaller one was trawled up in a fishing net in 1981 while the larger was washed up on the beach at Easton and found by a fisherman after a storm in 1986. For a long time they simply lay on the riverbank at Blackshore, Southwold Harbour. Then the National Maritime Museum found them and took them away to be conserved.

In 2007, the National Maritime Museum became satisfied that the modernised Southwold Museum was capable of giving the rudders a suitable home and agreed to offer them to us on extended loan.

It is likely that the rudders were used during the century between 850 and 950 AD. (Radiocarbon dating has been used to find out how old the rudders are but this method does not give an exact date.)

The rudders came either from ships belonging to the Anglo-Saxons who lived here at the time, or from ships of the Viking fleets which raided the coasts.

The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings had similar ships. They were clinker-built (made from overlapping planks), were pointed at both ends and had a single mast with a square sail. Some of them were equipped with oars as well as sails. Because of the shape of the stern, these ships were steered with side-rudders. Rudders were not fixed to the stern of ships until later in the medieval period.

How the rudders worked

The rectangular holes nearest the tops of the rudders held tiller bars. If the helmsman pushed forward on the tiller, the ship would turn to port (left) and pulling back would make it turn to starboard (right). The rectangular holes lower down, just above the rudder blades, contained iron fittings for attachment to the pivot on the side of the ship. All the Viking Age rudders found in Scandinavia have round holes for attaching them with rope but sailing trials with replica ships have shown that rope is dangerously weak. The Southwold rudders seem to have been better designed.

Model of a Viking ship showing the placement of the rudder at the stern on the 'steer-board' side

At the very top, one rudder has a peg and the other has a notch to hold a control line to prevent the rudder blade from being pushed backwards by the flow of the water when sailing. There are also small holes through the blades for lifting lines.

The right side of a ship is named 'starboard' from the Anglo-Saxon word for a rudder – ‘steer-board’. When the ship was in port it would the left side that would lie alongside quay, so as to avoid damaging the rudder. That's why that side is still called the 'port' side.

Where did they come from?
Because of their difference in size, the two rudders could not have fitted the same ship.

Were the rudders lost at sea or were they abandoned in an inlet that has been eroded away? Are the ships they came from still lying under the sea? Surveys of the seabed using side-scan sonar and a sub-bottom profiler have not yet provided the answers. But watch out for new discoveries!

We are grateful to Gillian Hutchinson of the National Maritime Museum for the information in this article and to Caroline Munn who took the photos on the day the rudders were delivered and installed in their purpose-built, temperature- and humidity-controlled display case.