The South Folk of the East Angles

The South Folk of the East Angles

At this period we can, for the first time, talk legitimately of Suffolk. The word applies to those ‘folk’ who lived at the southern end of the new Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. The boundaries of this folk-area were broadly defined by two major valleys. To the north, the double valley of the Waveney and Little Ouse divided Suffolk from the related ‘North Folk’, while to the south the Stour divided it from the kingdom of Essex, the East Saxons. Although the name Suffolk is first recorded in a document of c.1045, it was surely current much earlier.

The Anglo-Saxon period presents considerable historical difficulties. First, it is over 600 years long (the same length of time by which we are separated from the Peasants’ Revolt of the 14th century). Secondly, the evidence is varied, scanty and difficult to interpret. Any reconstruction has to rely on archaeo­logical excavation and fieldwork, reinforced by the study of place-names, buildings and a few documents. Nevertheless, the period is less ‘dark’ than it used to be, because of major achievements since about 1960.

Who were the East Angles, who migrated to this region and settled it from the fifth to the seventh centuries? They appear to have been a mixed Germanic population who included Saxons, Frisians and some Franks, but were under the control of Angles. They came from various parts of northern Europe, from the Jutland peninsula, northern Germany and modern Holland. Their cemeteries have been found in large numbers and form the greater part of our archaeo­logical evidence for the early period. Being true to their native gods, they buried their dead with grave-goods, ranging from domestic pottery to weapons. These hint at interesting social differences. For example, a few men were buried with swords while a larger number had spears; on the other hand, many burials had no weapons at all. These pagan cemeteries are found mainly at the western and eastern ends of Suffolk, and are related to estuaries and rivers flowing either into the Wash or into the North Sea. One of the best studied is at Lacklord in the Lark valley, where a large cemetery of the sixth century occupies a sandy spur just above the river. At least 1,000 cremations in globular urns, accompanied by numerous brooches, combs and personal objects, lie beside a large Roman settlement.

Archaeologists are now beginning to find the dwellings of these pagan people, and the emphasis has swung from how they died to how they lived. At West Stow on the Breckland, a pagan village of national and international importance was excavated by Stanley West in the years 1965-72. It is sited on a small sandy hillock beside the river Lark, and was occupied from the fifth to the early seventh century. Its accompanying cemetery, about 400 yards away, had been found in the 19th century. The most common buildings on the site were over 70 small timber huts constructed over excavated pits. The huts appear to have been used variously for storage, domestic industries like weaving, and for living accommodation. For every seven to ten small huts, there was a larger hail which West interprets as the main dwelling of a family. The village appar­ently consisted of three or four extended families who eventually defined their properties by digging ditches. So far, all the pagan settlements which have been identified lie on the lighter soils of the Breckland and Sandlings, and they all appear to have been abandoned in the seventh century as families drifted away one by one. This certainly suggests a major change of life-style, which may be connected with the acceptance of Christianity.

But while the new immigrants established themselves in Suffolk, what was happening to the native Romano-Britons? The traditional view was that, once the military and political system of the Roman province collapsed, most of them were either killed or fled to the west. No longer does this seem feasible, and it is currently assumed that an appreciable number of Celtic people sur­vived but fell increasingly under the control of the invaders.

This change of interpretation depends on the following arguments. First, although the total population may have declined seriously as the result of warfare and disease, the sheer number of Romano-British settlements in every part of Suffolk makes it extremely unlikely that all the natives were extermi­nated or driven out. One of the best resources available to the conquerors was an established labour-force on organised estates which were still capable of being farmed. It made no sense to destroy this agrarian economy, any more than was absolutely necessary to take control. Secondly, certain linear earthworks such as the Black Ditches on Cavenham Heath or the War Banks at Lawshall may represent defences across the Roman roads, thrown up by British commu­nities holding out temporarily against the invaders. Thirdly, it is possible to exaggerate the numbers of immigrants. In fact, the Anglo-Saxons built up their population slowly over two to three centuries; each cemetery therefore contains several generations, drawn perhaps from more than one village.

The argument about British survival is no more than the balancing of pos­sibilities, and is complicated by the archaeological ‘invisibility’ of the Romano-Britons from the early fifth century onwards. Nearly all their settlements were abandoned sooner or later, but they themselves could have survived in some numbers. Whatever the relative balance of the two races, British and Germanic, there is little doubt that the latter took total political and military control. The dominance of Anglo-Saxon place-names, often incorporating the name of the ‘head man’, is one of the striking legacies of the period on our modem map.

A new kingdom and religion

By about A.D. 550, the conquest was complete and a new united kingdom had emerged, known as East Anglia. The ruling family, who significantly claimed descent from both Woden and Caesar, were called the Wuffingas. According to the Venerable Bede, their most distinguished king was Redwald who ruled from 599 to 624/5. He was eventually acknowledged as overlord by other English kings and helped to depose a king of Northumbria. Redwald’s successors were less accomplished; four of them died in battle, and East Anglia became increas­ingly dominated by more powerful neighbours, particularly the Mercians. The famous Devil’s Ditch across Newmarket Heath is almost certainly a boundary of East Anglia, established in the sixth or seventh century, to guard the main landward approach from the west and south-west (illus. 24).

The main seat of the Wuffingas was, we are told by Bede, at Rendlesham. This, curiously, is in the extreme south-eastern corner of the kingdom, and presumably represents the original home of the family and their early sphere of influence. Nearby at Sutton Hoo, on a bluff overlooking the river Deben, lay a cemetery of about 15 earthen mounds. Here, in 1939, the famous ship-burial was unearthed. A wooden ship, 80 feet long and 14 feet wide with places for 38 oarsmen, had been hauled up from the Deben and lowered into a rectangular pit. In a cabin amidships were the traces of a human burial accompanied by the magnificent treasure which can now be seen in the British Museum. It contains antique silver from eastern Europe, late classical spoons and magnificent goldwork by East Anglian craftsmen. The latest opinion is that the burial was for Redwald himself. Sutton Hoo provides a wonderfully instructive contrast to West Stow: the latter reveals the lives of peasant farmers who must have existed all over the region and provided an essential base for the economy, while the former represents the political power and wealth of a ruling class, able to commission the finest craftsmanship of the day.

Another vital theme of Anglo-Saxon history is the adoption of Christianity. On a visit to King Ethelbert of Kent, Redwald was persuaded to introduce Christianity into East Anglia, but he did so in a half-hearted way. In his hall at Rendlesham, he set up his Christian altar beside a pagan one—trying to serve both Christ and the ancient gods. After another period of heathenism, his son Sigebert proved a far more committed Christian. He founded a monastery at Bedricsworth (later Bury St Edmunds) to which he retired, and invited two important figures into the kingdom. The first was St Felix, a Burgundian, who became the first bishop of the East Angles with his seat at Domnoc (usually interpreted as Dunwich, though Felixstowe has also been suggested). The second was St Fursey, an Irish monk and mystic who built a monastery on a site given by the king, in the old Roman fort at Burgh Castle. Charles Green’s excavations in the 1960s revealed parts of Fursey’s primitive monastery. Thus, East Anglia had representatives of both the Roman and Celtic forms of Christianity.

From the death of Felix until the Danish Conquest of 869, the bishops of East Anglia encouraged the foundation and building of new monasteries and churches. Missionary churches or ‘minsters’ were established at places like Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds, while dedications to saints such as Gregory, Helen and Ethelbert (an East Anglian king martyred in the eighth century) may well indicate churches founded before the Danish invasion. Particularly influential was a monastery founded in 654 by St Botolph, ‘a man of unparalleled life and learning’. It lay at a place called Icanho, which can now be confidently identified as Iken, a remote spur overlooking the Aide estuary. Here in 1977 Stanley West found a commemorative cross-shaft of about 900, and excavated a timber-framed building of Middle Saxon date, underlying the present Norman church.

St Edmund and the Danes

The most important incident connected with Suffolk’s early Christianity is undoubtedly the martyrdom of St Edmund in 869. Edmund was king of East Anglia but little is known about his reign—except its end. When his kingdom was attacked by a Danish army, he reluctantly led his forces into battle at a place called ‘Haegelisdun’ and was defeated. He was taken prisoner, cruelly put to death, and buried nearby at ‘Sutton’. Several claims have been made about the identity of these places: for example, that Hellesdon near Norwich was the scene of the battle, and that the burial place is Sutton near Sutton Hoo. Further­more, the inhabitants of Hoxne have believed since the early Middle Ages that Edmund was martyred there. However, a new theory advanced by Stanley West seems the most acceptable of all. In the parish of Bradfield St Clare, he has found a field called ‘Hellesden’. One mile to the south is Sutton Hall. Both places are within five miles of Bury, to which the sacred body was moved in the early 10th century.

Well within living memory of Edmund’s death, special memorial coins were being struck and were circulating widely in eastern England. Furthermore, within two generations of his death, he was accepted as a saint. The cult of St Edmund grew very quickly, not just because he died a saintly death but also because he was a patriotic hero who symbolised East Anglian ‘resistance’ to Danish oppression.

The Danes had begun to attack eastern England in 841 and, after the defeat of Edmund and his army, they ‘shared out the land’ of East Anglia. Unfor­tunately, the size of their army is not known, nor is the size of the civilian population which undoubtedly followed them from Scandinavia. The impact of the Danes on place-names was certainly not very great, apart from a few suf­fixes like -by and -thorpe. However, two things are certain: the Danes formed, for a time at least, yet another aristocracy imposed by conquest on native society, and they were fairly quickly absorbed. Guthrum, the first Danish king of East Anglia, who is said to have been buried in 890 at Hadleigh, became Christian and was a godson of King Alfred of Wessex. In 917, after a bloody siege at Colchester, East Anglia was rapidly re-conquered by Edward the Elder and the Danish army of East Anglia capitulated and gave allegiance to him. From this time onwards, East Anglia was absorbed into the kingdom of Eng­land, united under the crown of Wessex.

Country and town

Meanwhile, from the seventh century onwards, the landscape had changed in two significant ways. First, the old ‘pagan’ settlements appear to have been abandoned in favour of new sites which usually show a much closer association with medieval and modem villages. Thus, pottery of the Middle and Late Saxon periods has been found in the present village of West Stow, over a mile from the ‘pagan’ village. At Brandon, beside the Little Ouse, one of the most important Middle Saxon sites in England, has been excavated by Bob Can. It lies on a sandy island, and was occupied from the seventh to ninth centuries. It con­sisted of sophisticated timber buildings, one of which was aisled and another is probably a church. Normal construction was of close-set planks, occasionally set in shallow trenches. In some cases, post-holes contained actual wood which can be scientifically examined. The excavators have found considerable num­bers of artefacts, including abundant ‘Ipswich Ware’, Merovingian pottery imported from the continent, coins, and a gold plaque inscribed with the eagle and name of St John the Evangelist. Indeed, so spectacular are the finds that the site can hardly be accepted as an ordinary village; it may be an aristocratic establishment or a religious community.

Anglo-Saxon Ipswich: recent discoveries have established the large size of this industrialised town of A.D. 650 - 850. The churches marked were possibly founded in that period.
Anglo-Saxon Ipswich: recent discoveries have established the large size of this industrialised town of A.D. 650 – 850. The churches marked were possibly founded in that period.

The other major feature is the sudden appearance of Ipswich as a town, indeed as the first known town in Britain since the Roman period. It was thriving commercially and industrially long before the emergence of Thetford, Dunwich or Norwich. Excavations and chance finds have shown that the Middle-Saxon town covered 125 acres—which is 50 times bigger than the average contem­porary village and roughly the same size as the later medieval town of Ipswich (illus. 27). It is now claimed by Keith Wade as ‘the largest known early trading community in north-west Europe’. Its inhabitants were dealing with Belgium, Holland and the Rhineland, as well as practising the crafts of weaving, fishing, metal-working and, above all, the making of a distinctive, if uninspiring, pottery which was sold widely over eastern England. Such rapid economic development strongly suggests that the town was under the special patronage and control of the East Anglian kings, whose palace was at nearby Rendlesham.

Anglo-Danish Suffolk

In the late Saxon period, historical sources are more numerous, and tell us in greater detail of political and military events. Towards the end of the 10th century a second wave of Danish attacks assailed East Anglia. In 991, Olaf landed with 93 ships, over-ran Ipswich and defeated Ealdorman Brihtnoth at the celebrated battle of Maldon. In 1010 Ipswich again suffered, this time at the hands of Thorkel. The heroic efforts of Ulfketel, earl of East Anglia, were unavailing, for in 1016 King Edmund of Wessex was decisively defeated by Canute at Ashingdon in Essex and ‘all the nobility of England were there destroyed’, including UlIketel himself. Canute assumed the crown, and for a time Suffolk, and England, became part of a large Scandinavian empire.

Meanwhile, life in the countryside was changing significantly. A steady growth of population meant that villages were expanding, new virgin sites were being occupied, the land was being intensively farmed, and large parishes were frequently subdivided into smaller units (hence, for example, the frequent Magnas and Parvas mentioned in Domesday Book). At the same time, the church made a speedy recovery from the ravages of the first Danish invasions. The bishopric of East Anglia was restored in the early 10th century, monastic life was revived at Bury St Edmunds and, above all, new parish churches were founded all over the county by lay lords and groups of freemen. Norman Scarfe has shown, from Domesday Book, that four-fifths of the medieval churches of Suffolk were already in existence by the time of the Norman Conquest. In some cases, the partial fabric of these early churches still survives, as at Claydon, Debenham and Fakenham Magna.

Also, by the 11th century, at least 10 places other than Ipswich were acquiring some kind of urban status. Domesday Book records markets at Thorney (Stowmarket), Kelsale, Beccles, Hoxne, Eye, Clare and Haverhill. Six places already contained burgesses, which means that their inhabitants had acquired political and commercial privileges from their lords. These towns were Ipswich, which by this time had a mint; Dunwich, which is the only coastal port; Eye, Beccles, Clare, and Sudbury. Bury St Edmunds had also developed commer­cially after the cult of St Edmund took root in the early 10th century, and had acquired its present name before the Norman Conquest.