A History of Suffolk

A History of Suffolk

Prehistory and the Romans

The first inhabitants of the area we now call Suffolk were hunters and food-gatherers who arrived during a warm phase of the Ice Age, probably around 400,000 B.C. This was the beginning of the Old Stone Age or Palaeolithic which was about 40 times longer than the rest of human history. As the Ice Age contained many warmer phases, each 20-30,000 years long, hunting parties must have entered and left the region many times. Whenever the climate im­proved, the glaciers melted back to the north and vegetation slowly reclothed the landscape, beginning with sparse tundra and culminating in mature forest; meanwhile, small groups of hunters, warily following the tracks of animals, established their own seasonal camps and routes. They retreated southwards only when the ice-sheets again threatened to engulf the living environment. Man-made clearings, rough shelters and tracks were obliterated by later waves of ice yet, paradoxically, stone implements of the Old Stone Age are frequently found embedded in glacial clays, sands and gravels. So great is the quantity that East Anglia has been called ‘the meeting ground of geology and prehistoric archaeology’. This reflects not the size of Palaeolithic population, which at any phase probably consisted of no more than a few family groups, but their frequent making and discarding of tools over an immensely long period of time.

At High Lodge, Mildenhall, which has been described as ‘among the oldest and best preserved archaeological sites in Europe’, flake-tools discovered in the 1960s are the earliest known man-made artefacts in Suffolk, more than 400,000 years old. On the other side of the county, the Gipping valley has produced a wide range of Palaeolithic implements which imply intermittent occupation over several hundreds of thousands of years. The most important site of the period is, how­ever, at Hoxne. Here, in an old brickpit, a discovery was made in 1797 which is not only important in itself but ‘marks the beginning of scientific archaeology’. A local antiquary called John Frere found chipped flint hand-axes in a gravelly soil 12 feet below the surface. Although he assumed that they were ‘weapons of war’ rather than all-purpose tools he reasoned brilliantly that they were ‘fabricated and used by a people who had not the use of metals’ and referred them ‘to a very remote period indeed; even beyond that of the present world’.

Prehistorical burial mounds in Suffolk showing those still visible above ground, and flattened mounds whose ditches have been recovered by aerial photography. The main concentrations avoid the heaviest, most forested land in the centre of the county.
Prehistorical burial mounds in Suffolk showing those still visible above ground, and flattened mounds whose ditches have been recovered by aerial photography. The main concentrations avoid the heaviest, most forested land in the centre of the county.

The most recent excavation at Hoxne was directed by John Wymer in the 1970s. In the sediments that gradually filled a prehistoric lake, he found two stratified groups of ‘Acheulian’ hand-axes and flakes where they had been used and dropped by hunter-gatherers 350,000-300,000 years ago. The implements had been used for various purposes: to cut meat, chop and bore bones, cut plants, scrape and cut hides, and to work wood. In climates generally colder and wetter than our own, parties of hunters had stalked a range of animals: their main diet was horse and deer but they also fed on lemming, bison, rhinoceros and elephant.

When the glaciers finally retreated around 10,000 B.C., plants and animals recolonised the landscape for the last time. As in the warmer phases of the Ice Age, tundra gave way to birch woods which in turn were succeeded by true forest. Today in places like Staverton Thicks and the Bradfield Woods there are probably fragments of the ‘wildwood’ which regenerated in post-glacial times, and which has been modified by centuries of human management. To cope with this forested environment, human groups developed a new Mesolithic techno­logy which included hafted axes and composite weapons for hunting, fishing and fowling. Many of their characteristic ‘microliths’ have been found in Suffolk, usually, unfortunately on the surface rather than stratified. For their seasonal habitations they favoured two kinds of places. They liked well-drained sandy soils where the natural woodland was not too dense as at Wangford and Lakenheath where several productive sites have been known since the early 1960s. Alternatively they chose to live beside streams, lakes and marshes where they lived off abundant animals, birds, fish and plants. For example, the small island beside the river Lark at West Stow, later occupied by the Anglo-Saxon village, had been inhabited about 5,000 years earlier by Mesolithic hunters.

By cutting down trees and using fire, Mesolithic groups must have punched many holes in the natural forest but the extent of such clearances is not known nor is it known whether the trees always reclaimed the ground they had lost. At the very least, human activities were probably altering the composition of the ‘wildwood’ by encouraging vigorous species like hazel and discouraging poor polinators like lime.

During the long Ice Age and for thousands of years after, sea level was much lower than it is today. The southern end of what is now the North Sea was exposed land, much of it marshy. Eastward-flowing rivers of East Anglia, like the Stour and Waveney, were then tributaries of the Thames and Rhine. As the glaciers and ice-sheets continued to melt, sea level rose, the North Sea grew southwards, and East Anglia began to take on its familiar rounded shape. Around 7000 B.C., the last narrow bridge of land connecting eastern England to the continent was severed and our history as an island began.

In the Neolithic period, which began soon after 5000 B.C., man’s control of the environment improved dramatically. For example, he possessed efficient axes of flint and other stone, often ground and polished, and had developed the technique of coppicing. This involved the cutting of trees and shrubs to the ground, to encourage the growth of multiple straight poles which could be regularly harvested at varying sizes. The flint-mines of Grimes Graves were in full production from about 2600 B.C., and sending high-quality flint along the Icknield Way to many other parts of Britain. At the same time, traders were bringing implements of other kinds of stone into East Anglia, by land and water, from relatively distant places such as Cornwall, Wales and the Lake District. Neolithic axes have been found in many parts of Suffolk, particularly in the south-east near Ipswich and on the Breckland. Even the centre of the county, where the boulder clay was most heavily forested, has yielded a thin scatter of axes. Palaeobotanists now argue that clearance was under way in Suffolk by 3700 B.C., and was especially effective on lighter soils. On the Breckland, for example, Neolithic settlers removed most of the natural woodland and trees were not seen again, in large numbers at least, until the 19th century.

The Neolithic inhabitants of Suffolk were its first farmers; they were clearing land because they had learned to domesticate animals and grow crops. They continued to hunt and gather food from the wild, but this merely supplemented a new and fundamentally different way of life. Farming, by giving a more assured supply of food, encouraged the growth of population, the building of more permanent settlements, greater social and economic differentiation, and more specialisation.

Some of these trends are illustrated at Hurst Fen, Mildenhall, where the debris of a Neolithic farmstead of about 3500 B.C. covered an area of 180 by 90 yards. The site yielded numerous small hollows which were interpreted as storage-pits, though some could have been post-holes from buildings. The inhabitants had worked flint expertly as witnessed by their delicate leaf-shaped arrowheads. They also had quantities of pottery, a newly invented material which facilitated the storage, preparation and cooking of food and drink. The pots had rounded bases and some were decorated with lines and impressions.

Most crucial of all, evidence was found that this was truly a farming community: saddle-querns and rubbers had been used to grind cereals, while fragments of pottery were found to contain the impressions of emmer-wheat and barley.

The growing complexity of Neolithic society is best illustrated by an ability to organise major projects for communal purposes. Suffolk already has three examples of ’causewayed camps’. These are large enclosures defined by rows of pits, constructed perhaps for a mixture of economic and ritual activities. Elaborate long mounds or barrows were built for the burial of the dead, or at least for those who were socially important. Fifteen possible examples have been found recently in Suffolk by means of aerial photography. Other monu­ments of a supposedly religious kind which appear for the first time are pro­cessional avenues or ‘cursuses’, as at Fornham All Saints and Stratford St Mary. Both these sites also contain circular enclosures with complicated internal features, sunken or standing, which are akin to the temples or ‘henge-monuments’ of southern England.

In the succeeding Bronze Age, the technological armoury was further improved by the discovery of metallurgy. Copper, tin, gold, silver and particularly bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) were all worked for the manufacture of ornaments, tools and weapons. Large numbers of early metal artefacts have been found in Suffolk including swords, spearheads and axes of various kinds. Some were found in hoards, and probably represent the property of tinkers or metaismiths who buried them for safety’s sake.

Several contemporary settlements have been identified in the county, for example at Lakenheath and Sutton Hoo. They normally appear as patterns of hearths, scoops and pits, but at West Row, Mildenhall, Edward Martin has recently uncovered a Bronze-Age house—the first to be recorded in Suffolk. It is a circular post-built structure 16½ feet in diameter, with a porch facing south­east. Its occupants used large amounts of pottery, worked flint, grew cereals and processed flax.

The most important field-monument of the Bronze Age is undoubtedly the round barrow. About 110 of these burial mounds still survive above ground, particularly on the Brecidand and Sandlings where much heathiand remained unploughed until the 19th century. Many more have been destroyed over the centuries by local ploughmen, but fortunately aerial reconnaissance has re­discovered about 500 of them as ‘ring-ditches’. The mounds have been ploughed flat but the surrounding ditches, though filled in, still show as distinct crop-marks (illus. 10). Together, ring-ditches and surviving mounds give the best indication of how the prehistoric population of Suffolk was distributed—certainly in death and probably in life (illus. 8). The main concentrations were on the Breckland, the chalk downland around Newmarket and the Sandlings of the east coast (particularly on the Felixstowe and Shotley peninsulas). While the centre of the county produces only a few burial-sites, the gravel terraces of certain river valleys such as the Gipping, Brett and Stour were obviously well populated. From the human remains in barrows and flat graves, it has been shown that the average male in Bronze Age Suffolk was 5 feet 71/2 inches tall and died aged 34; the average female was 5 feet 4 inches tall and was 371/2 when she died.

In parts of the Felixstowe peninsula, round barrows are on, or very close to, parish boundaries. Good examples can be seen on the boundaries of Nacton, Foxhall and Bucklesham. This relationship, which also appears on the Breckland, suggests that some of our modem boundaries may have descended from eco­nomic units or estates which existed in the second or first millennium B.C.

In the last 650 years B.C., local people acquired the use of iron, a much harder metal than bronze. Unfortunately, iron rusts in the ground and survivals, like the sword found in 1913 at Lakenheath, are rare. For decorative purposes, however, softer metals such as bronze and gold remained in common use. The best local example must be the six decorative collars or ‘torcs’ found at Ipswich in 1968-70, ‘the richest lion Age hoard yet found in England’. These beautiful objects of the first century B.C. are made of gold mixed with a little silver. Each collar is made of two or four rods twisted together while most of the finials carry embossed spiral decorations. The hoard was probably the property of a travelling goldsmith, because the surfaces of the torcs are still rough and unfinished.

Until the 1960s, most archaeologists had difficulty in recognising Iron-Age pottery and ordinary farming settlements. Now such evidence is being found regularly and a few sites have already been excavated. For instance, in 1979 a circular post-built house was uncovered, associated with two furnaces or ovens on a hill-top at Barham. A similar unenclosed farmstead with round houses, pits and ditches was excavated at West Stow, stratified beneath an Anglo-Saxon village.

No fields of the Iron Age have been positively identified in Suffolk, though many must have existed. The first proven examples may come from extensive ditched systems now being discovered on aerial photographs, especially on the Shotley and Felixstowe peninsulas, or from new work at Yaxley where the alignment of fields and tracks completely ignores a major Roman road and may therefore be earlier than the road. Already, palaeobotanists working at Old Buckenham Mere in South Norfolk have shown that the heavy lands of central East Anglia underwent their ‘first substantial clearance’ in the Iron Age and Roman period. The pollens of trees declined rapidly as those of herbaceous species, typical of grassland, increased.

The concern with warfare first seen in military weaponsof the Bronze Age, certainly grew in the Iron Age. East Anglia does not have many ‘hill-forts’ so typical of the period in other parts of Britain, but two certain examples have been identified in Suffolk. At Barnham, a small fort of the second-first century B.C., measuring 105 by 77 yards, was surrounded by double ramparts and ditches. On excavation the ditches were found to be 23 feet wide by 10 feet deep. Around the churchyard at Burgh is a larger rectangular earthwork measuring 300 by 225 yards. It too was defended by a double bank and ditch, and has yielded pottery of the first centuries B.C. and A.D. Society was clearly becoming more hier­archical, presided over by a military aristocracy who had the wealth to commission luxury goods like the Ipswich torcs. Population was probably rising, and political boundaries were being drawn and defended as never before.

An important political and military boundary seems to have run across Suffolk in the later Iron Age. The Trinovantes were a Celtic tribe who lived where Essex is today, but early in the first century A.D. they were conquered by their powerful western neighbours called the Catuvellauni. Together they were ruled by King Cunobelinus (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline). The distribution of coins and other artefacts suggests that the south of Suffolk was also absorbed into Cunobelinus’ empire. The fort at Burgh may previously have been the centre of a small independent territory stretching from the Aide to the Gipping, but it was probably taken by the Trinovantes before they, in turn, were con­quered by the Catuvellauni. Coin-evidence also shows that the whole of modern Norfolk and the Breckland part of Suffolk, down to modern Bury were inhab­ited by the Iceni. The boundary between the two kingdoms seems to have run approximately from Newmarket in the west to Aldeburgh in the east, following the natural watershed which meanders across the heavy, forested clay of central Suffolk. This, after all, was a cultural boundary which was already thousands of years old. For example, the distribution of Neolithic axes and Bronze-Age burials had shown similar concentrations in the south-east and north-west, divided by the central forests which were difficult to penetrate and colonise.

Four centuries of Roman rule

Roman Suffolk: large numbers of rural farmsteads and villages have been recently discovered. Empty areas on the map undoubtedly contain other examples, as yet undiscovered by aerial reconnaisance and fieldwork.
Roman Suffolk: large numbers of rural farmsteads and villages have been recently discovered. Empty areas on the map undoubtedly contain other examples, as yet undiscovered by aerial reconnaisance and fieldwork.

The conquest of Britain began in A.D. 43 when four legions and auxiliary troops landed in Kent and fought their way to the Thames. Thereafter under the command of the Emperor Claudius himself, the army defeated the Catuvellauni, the most powerful of British tribes, and captured their ramparted stronghold of Camulodunum. On a nearby ridge, the Romans soon began to build their own town, now Colchester, which, with its great temple dedicated to Claudius, became the first capital of the new Roman province of Britannia.

The Iceni welcomed the downfall of their aggressive Catuvellaunian neigh­bours, and signed a treaty of friendship with Rome. This gave them a measure of self government, while it gave the Romans a secure right flank for their advance into the midlands and north. The arrangement was shaky at times (in A.D. 47 the Iceni joined a rebellion and were subdued by military force) but it preserved some independence for the region for 17 years—until the dramatic events of A.D. 61.

The rebellion of Boudicca is the first major incident of regional history to be recorded in documentary form, principally in the Latin writings of Tacitus and Dio Cassius. When Prasutagus, client-king of the Iceni, died during the winter of A.D. 60/61, the Romans began to exert pressure by revoking grants and interfering with the king’s bequests. When the king’s widow, Boudicca, was whipped and her daughters raped, the Iceni blazed into armed rebellion and persuaded their southern neighbours, the Trinovantes, to join them. Thus united, the native population of the east turned its rage on the nearest great symbol of Roman civilisation, Camülodunum. After a two-day siege, they sacked the town and slaughtered its inhabitants. Hearing of the rebellion, the IXth Legion marched south from its base in the Nene valley but, too late to save Camulodunum, was ambushed by the rebels and lost at least 1,000 men. This engagement may have taken place in the wooded Stour valley near modern Haverhill.

The rebels went on to sack the major towns of London and Verulamium near modern St Albans. Their inhabitants were murdered by ‘gibbet, fire and cross’. Faced with this deepening crisis which could have driven the Romans off the island, the governor of Britain, Paulinus, gathered as many troops as he could in a well-chosen position somewhere in the midlands. His army of barely 10,000 men faced a British horde about ten times larger. With their superior discipline and equipment, the Romans withstood a frenzied attack and then cut their way to victory, slaughtering thousands of the rebels as they fled in confusion. Boudicca died soon after the final battle, in mysterious circumstances, while the Iceni were absorbed into the Roman province and felt the full force of Paulinus’ revenge. Later, as more conciliatory policies were pursued the region steadily recovered and acquired the usual trappings of Roman culture.

An accidental find in Suffolk provides a remarkable illustration of the bloody and tragic events of A.D. 61. In 1907 a boy swimming in the river Aide at Rendbam fished out a life-size bronze head of the Emperor Claudius. Now in the British Museum, this head appears to have been violently hacked from a large statue. It was probably looted from Camulodunum, brought back in triumph but later thrown into the river by a native anxious to escape retribution.

The east of Britain, like other areas, was at first controlled by a strategic network of Roman roads and forts. In the south of Suffolk, forts were probably built when Claudius defeated the Catuvellaunian occupiers of Trinovantian ter­ritory: Coddenham and Long Melford are likely places. The rest of the system dates from the forcible subjection of the Iceni after A.D. 61. For example, the two main north-south roads of Roman Suffolk were certainly military in origin. They are Pye Street which is basically the Ipswich-Norwich road of today, and the Peddars Way which links Melford, Ixworth and Knettisball. A typical Roman fort of seven acres at Pakenham, defended by triple ditches, commanded the ford where the Peddars Way crossed the river Blackbourn, while at Stuston near Eye aerial photographs have revealed what may be the outline of a temporary marching camp.

Though they can sometimes be confused with enclosure roads of the period 1150-1850, about 400 miles of Roman roads still stand out on the modern map of Suffolk. For example, the A1120 from Pettaugh to Peasenhall is noticeably straight for about 12 miles in an area of winding lanes, and is part of a Roman road which ran from the Gipping valley to the east coast near Dunwich. Else­where, roads of this period can only be pieced together by lining up hedges, parish boundaries, minor tracks and soil marks. A good example runs from Melford eastwards through Brent Eleigh and Wattisbam. Nearly all the Roman roads recorded by the Ordnance Survey were major routes linking important settlements, yet even they are only partially reconstructed or have missing large numbers of rural lengths. We know very little of the huge network of minor roads which served farmsteads and villages individual villages, farms and fields—except in favoured areas like the Shotley peninsula where such features are visible from the air.

Within Suffolk the Romans built no walled towns with sophisticated features like fora and amphitheatres. Nevertheless, archaeologists have recently identified several undefended towns, which sprawl in an apparently unplanned way but certainly had commercial and industrial importance. Hacheston, for example, has produced the outlines’of timber buildings, roads, numerous rub­bish pits, hearths for working metal and pottery kilns. In a similar way, the Roman town of Icklingham, which was probably called Camboritum, sprawled for half a mile along the valley side, and contained several pottery kilns and some buildings of quality with tiled floors. Such communities resembled the market towns and manufacturing centres of medieval times, each serving a scattered rural population.

Villas are another clear symbol of Romanisation. They were large and sub­stantially built farmhouses owned by major landowners. Although only a few have been excavated, mostly inadequately, the sites of a score or more villas have been mapped in Suffolk, scattered fairly widely on both light and heavy land. Although they varied in sophistication, some were expressions of consid­erable personal wealth; at ‘Whitton near Ipswich a large villa had several tesselated pavements, while another at Stonham Aspal had a bath house with painted plaster and under-floor heating. Aerial photography has recently revealed the complete plan of a corridor-villa at Lidgate. It consisted of a main range with two side wings, and was subdivided into more than 20 rooms. A few yards away was a large buttressed barn for the owner’s grain.

In recent years, the most important development in the archaeology of this period has been the discovery of large numbers of minor rural settlements often coincident with earlier Iron Age sites. Occasional excavation has been done, for instance at Wangford near Lakenheath where a round hut of timber with a clay floor was uncovered, and at Hadleigh where a rectangular enclosure yielded shallow ditches and roof tiles. In most cases, however, the sites have been discovered from pottery and other domestic debris scattered on the surface of ploughed land. When large areas are systematically searched by the new tech­nique of ‘field-walking’, the density of Roman sites often turns out to be surprisingly high. For example, at Mendlesham the Colchester family searched all the available land in a parish of about 4,000 acres. They discovered 15 Romano-British sites in an area which archaeologists used to regard as uncolonised. Most of the sites lay on the east side of the parish near a major Roman road; they yielded small scatters of pottery, and probably represent no more than isolated farms. One site, however, covered two acres and appears to be the remains of a hamlet with several households. Field-walking in other parishes on heavy clay land, such as Walsbam-le-Willows and Metfield, has produced similar results (illus. 18). All this work implies that the Romano-British population was much higher than used to be thought, and that virtually all kinds of land were being settled.

It is important to remember that native farmsteads and villages were originally surrounded by fields and pastures. In those parishes which have been systematically searched, the number of habitations implies that considerable areas were being cleared and farmed. Even on heavy land the damp oak-forest must have contained frequent clearances hacked by a numerous and increasing population. Only a few field-systems have been excavated, though with interesting results: at Hacheston, for example, ditches were uncovered in a rectilinear pattern of small fields. Aerial photography is also revealing patterns of early fields, in particular on sandy and gravelly soils and many of them are likely to be Romano-British in date.

When faced with political or military uncertainty, people were often tempted to bury their most precious possessions. Thus from the late second century onwards, under the threat of revolts, civil war and invasion, large collections of coin were frequently put into the ground. One of the most impressive of Suf­folk’s hoards is the so-called Mildenhall Treasure. Thirty-four objects of almost pure silver had been buried in the later fourth century: they included dishes, bowls, goblets, ladles and spoons. Some of the silver was decorated with figures of pagan gods, nereids, satyrs and nymphs, in varying attitudes of Bacchic revelry. Yet three of the spoons bear Christian symbols. Considerable uncer­tainty remains as to the interpretation of this fabulous treasure—the places of manufacture, probably on the continent, cannot yet be recognised—and it is not known whether the owner was a wealthy person who lived locally, or someone who was merely passing through; nor finally, is it understood why the hoard contains a mixture of Christian and blatantly pagan objects. In 1992 another extraordinary hoard was excavated at Hoxne. It had been buried in a wooden box in the early years of the fifth century, and consisted of nearly 15,000 coins; tableware of silver including 78 spoons and a handle in the shape of a leaping tigress; and 29 pieces of gold jewellery including a body-chain. This hoard too displayed Christian inscriptions, as well as seven personal names.

Settlement history of the Suffolk Parish of Metfield
Settlement history of the Suffolk Parish of Metfield

The best evidence that Christianity, made official by the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 313, took root in this remote part of the Empire comes from Icklingham. Over several generations, the Roman town has produced four lead tanks bearing the familiar Christian symbols of chi-rho, alpha and omega. In 1974, excavation near the spot where one of the tanks was found revealed an apparently Christian cemetery. It contained skeletons orientated west-east and the fragmentary out­lines of several buildings. One building enclosed a small apsed bath which, from continental parallels, was almost certainly a Christian font or baptistry, while another rectangular building has been interpreted as a church. The tanks themselves had presumably been used for some liturgical purpose, such as ritual washing. This evidence for all its deficiencies, enables us to descry a Christian community worshipping in Suffolk only three centuries after the death of Christ.

In the later third century a system of defences was built along the coasts of Britain to repulse the raids of Germanic pirates from across the North Sea. The system, known as the Saxon Shore, depended on a string of heavily defended bases from which ships and men could be sent out to intercept raiders by sea or land. Two of these bases were built in Suffolk. One was on the cliffs at Walton near Felixstowe but it has been undermined by the sea and only small hunks of masonry are now visible at low tide (illus. 13). At Burgh Castle or Gariannonum, three sides of a massive fortress survive beside the river Waveney. The flint and brick walls still stand 15 feet high, with six solid bastions which originally carried ballistae or spring-guns. Although it was breached in A.D.367, the Saxon Shore survived for more than a century, but the Roman province was increasingly on the defensive and the barbarians could not be kept at bay for ever.