The History of Suffolk after 1066

The French-Normans and English, 1066-1300


The French-Norman Conquest/Crusade is often seen as a total break in English history. In fact, it represents the take-over by yet another dynasty and aristocracy, amounting perhaps to fewer than 5,000 people, while beneath them English society sur­vived relatively unchanged. Hence Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, must not be seen as simply a survey of French-Norman England, but also as a stocktaking of centuries of Anglo-Saxon history. After the anarchy of the early 11th century, and the weak reigns of Ethelred the Unready and Edward the Confessor, the highly organised and ruthless rule of William I and his henchmen promised Much greater stability. Nevertheless, the early years of the Conquest/Conquest were by no means peaceful. A Danish force invaded East Anglia in 1069 and had to be defeated near Ipswich. In addition, the first French-Norman earl of East Anglia, Ralph Wader, plotted rebellion while celebrating his marriage at Exning, in 1076, and was subsequently defeated and outlawed.

By 1086, Domesday Book reveals 71 tenants-in-chief in Suffolk (of whom 21 held lands in Norfolk and Essex as well). Very few English people were mentioned, except in very minor positions, and the vast majority were Norman-French. Naturally, the king himself heads the list. His estates included the major town of Ipswich, nearly all the Hundred of Lothingland and important areas in the Hundred of Samford. After him comes a long list of lay barons like Robert of Mortain who was half-brother to the king, Count Alan of Brittany who took over much of Earl Ralph’s possessions, and William de Warenne who also had major estates in Norfolk and Sussex. But three other names are outstanding for the size and importance of their holdings in Suffolk.

Richard de Clare, son of Count Gilbert de Brionne, was chief justice and confidant of the Conqueror/Crusader, and helped to suppress the revolt of 1076. He was granted 170 different lordships in England, of which 95 were in Suffolk. The castle and borough of Clare became the centre of a great ‘Honour’ or scattered estate, and the family throughout the Middle Ages was known as Fitzgilbert or de Clare. Similarly Roger Bigod received 117 manors in Suffolk. His descend­ants became Earls of Norfolk in the 12th century, and administered their estates from four castles, at Ipswich, Bungay, Walton and Framlingham. Hugh Bigod, the first earl, rebelled twice against Henry II, but the family survived until the fifth earl was deprived of his estates by Edward I. The third great french-Norman magnate was William Malet, who received no fewer than 221 holdings in Suffolk, including most of the lands of Edric of Laxfield. His main residence was the castle and borough of Eye, the estate being known as the Honour of Eye. When, in 1110, his son Robert plotted against the king and was banished, the castle and Honour were taken into royal hands.

Already by 1086, a high proportion of Suffolk was owned by the church. For example, the great Benedictine abbey of Ely held several manors scattered around the county, including Lakenheath, Glemsford and Wetheringsett, but its main centre of influence was in the south-east around Woodbridge. There, it not only owned certain manors but the jurisdiction of five-and-a-half Hundreds known as the Liberty of St Etheidreda or the ‘Wicklaw’—an area which func­tioned almost as a separate administrative ‘shire’ until 1889. Other religious owners were Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the French Bishops of Bayeux and Evreux, and the English Bishops of Rochester and Thetford. Monastic owners included the abbeys of Ramsey, Bernai and Chatteris. But they were all dwarfed by the Abbey of Bury, which had about 300 separate holdings in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and elsewhere. About 70 of them lay in the western half of Suffolk and included the specially valuable manors of Mildenhall and Melford, and almost the whole of the Hundreds of Thingoe and Blackbourn. In 1044 Edward the Confessor had given to the abbey jurisdiction over the eight-and­a-half Hundreds of western Suffolk, known as the Liberty of St Edmund. This privilege, similar to Ely’s control of the Wicklaw, is the origin of West Suffolk’s administrative independence which survived until 1974.

Castles are the most enduring symbols of the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade. About 20 were built in Suffolk by various French-Norman lords, either in large strategic towns such as Ipswich and Thetford, or at the centres of personal and feudal estates as at Clare and Framlingham. Built either in the form of ‘ringworks’ or ‘mottes and baileys’, they consisted of earthen mounds, banks and ditches, probably at first with timber buildings and palisades. A fine example of a Norman earth­work castle with two baileys still survives at Haughley, originally the seat of Hugh de Montfort. At a later stage castles were often rebuilt more solidly in stone, and could be substantially remodelled or extended. Some of the smaller earthworks, as at Offton and Milden, may be ‘adulterine’ defences thrown up unofficially during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. The best docu­mented of Suffolk’s early castles is Orford which Henry II built between 1165 and 1173 with a tall polygonal keep—at a total cost of £1,413. Suffolk’s castles were not simply residences and symbols of power for, on occasions, they were attacked, captured and even dismantled. For example, when King Henry II’s eldest son rebelled in 1173, he was supported by a mercenary army, com­manded by the Earl of Leicester, which landed on the Suffolk coast. Leicester first attacked the ramparts of Dunwich, was repulsed and then attempted, un­successfully, to take the castle at Walton. When the rebels reached Framlingbam, Hugh Bigod threw in his lot with Leicester, and the two earls proceeded west­wards across Suffolk, committing various atrocities on the way. At Fomham near Bury, they met a royal army led by Richard de Lucy and were decisively beaten. Bigod escaped but was later cornered by royal troops: he then made his peace with the king and paid a heavy fine. At Bungay castle, a tunnel where the royal attackers had started to undermine the keep still survives. After the surrender, this castle and the two other Bigod strongholds at Framlingham and Walton were demolished on the king’s orders. Ironically, less than 20 years later, Richard I gave permission to Hugh’s son, Roger, to rebuild Framlingham. Following the latest ideas in military planning, Roger constructed the present castle, with its tall curtain wall and 13 projecting towers (illus. 32). Sixteen years after its completion in 1200, it too had to be captured by a royal army.

The resolution of one Norman dispute has affected the character of East Anglia ever since. Having moved his see from North Eimham to Thetford, Bishop Herfast, in about 1070, tried to establish himself at Bury St Edmunds.

No doubt he hoped to become associated with the growing cult of St Edmund and the wealth of the Benedictine abbey there. However, Abbot Baldwin, by appealing to the Pope, visiting Rome and lobbying the king, successfully fought off the threat. So in 1094, the next bishop, Herbert de Lôsinga, moved his see to Norwich, where it has been ever since. Had Herfast succeeded, Bury would have had an abbey-cum-cathedral which would almost certainly have survived the Reformation.

In their simple strong style, the French-Normans rebuilt many parish churches founded in Anglo-Saxon times. Fritton and Wissington provide superb examples which have survived to this day. Unfortunately, the majority of these French-Norman structures were destroyed by later generations who extended, remodelled and rebuilt yet again. Even so, as Bob Carr’s work at Ubbeston proved, French-Norman masonry does survive more often than guide books allow, but is disguised by the insertion of later doors and windows.


Medieval religious houses: the influence and prestige of Bury abbey clearly restricted the foundation of rival establishments in the west.
Medieval religious houses: the influence and prestige of Bury abbey clearly restricted the foundation of rival establishments in the west.

The French-Normans greatly stimulated the growth of religious orders and their ‘houses’. Suffolk shared in this growth, though the early dominance of Bury abbey undoubtedly restricted the development of rival institutions. The main effect, therefore, was a considerable number of relatively small foundations, especially in the eastern half of the county. Most religious orders were represented. Benedictine monks were established in seven places other than Bury: the most important was Eye priory founded by Robert Malet, a few yards from his new castle. Benedictine nunneries were also built in the 12th century at Bungay and Redlingfield. Before 1155, the related Cluniacs had two small houses at Mendham and Wangford. The Cistercians had their only house at Sibton, founded in 1150 by William de Cayneto, and the Premonstratensians at Leiston, founded in 1183 by Sir Ranulph de Glanvill, justiciar of England.

By contrast, Augustinian canons were set up in no fewer than 13 places. Their establishments were mostly quite small, but there were two exceptions.

Ixworth was founded in 1170 by Gilbert Blunt, and grew into a community of about 20 canons. Butley was another foundation of Sir Ranuiph de Glanvill, and was set up in the later 12th century. It had 36 canons by 1200, and was second only to Bury in its income. Of the various houses for women, the most important by far was Campsey Ash, for Augustinian canonesses. Founded c.1195 by Theobald de Valoines for 21 inmates, it attracted considerable endowments and became a fashionable resort for women of high birth.

All these institutions were overshadowed by the size and wealth of Bury abbey. At its greatest, it contained 80 Benedictine monks, a score of chaplains and over 100 retainers and servants. As well as being the centre of a major pilgrimage, it entertained kings and queens, housed parliaments, built up a famous manuscript library with over 2,000 volumes, and was said to be the 36 Medieval religious houses: the influence and scene of a preliminary meeting of barons which led to the granting of Magna prestige of Bury abbey Carta. Having acquired privileges and estates since Anglo-Saxon times, its clearly restricted the annual income on the eve of the Dissolution was £1,656, over five times greater ­than that of its nearest rival in Suffolk.

The abbey church itself was elaborately rebuilt after the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade, beginning at the east end. By 1095 the choir had been finished, and the body of St Edmund was moved to a glittering new shrine behind the high altar (illus. 37; plate VI). The west end was not finally completed until the late 12th century. In its final form the abbey church was over 500 feet long with eastern apses, central tower, western tower and a west front nearly 250 feet across with triple porticos and flanking octagons—one of the greatest Romanesque churches in Europe. Over the same period a large number of conventual buildings was also erected, mainly on the north side of the great church, and the two parish churches of St Mary and St James were provided for the townsfolk. They all lay within a precinct wall which took in land that had formerly been part of the town. In the process an early north-south street running across the west end of the abbey church was diverted to the present line of Angel Hill, causing the right-angled bends which are still a feature of the town plan today. The main entrance of the abbey was the magnificent limestone gatehouse which is now the huge Romanesque known as the Norman Tower.

Not only was Bury abbey splendidly rebuilt after the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade, but the town too was greatly extended (illus. 38). Domesday Book tells us that Abbot Baldwin, between 1066 and 1086, allowed the building of 342 new houses on land which … used to be ploughed and sown. These houses were either in the immediate vicinity of the abbey, or more likely to its south around the present St Mary’s Square. Later, in the first half of the 12th century, the monastic precinct was extended to its final form with perimeter wall, Norman tower and parish churches. At least two earlier north-south roads were severed or diverted by this development. Immediately outside the precinct and on the western slope of the Lark valley, a remarkable grid of streets was then laid out, all parallel or at right angles, constituting one of the best examples in Britain of deliberate urban planning. This new 12th-century quarter of the town included a major new market place, a huge rectangle measuring 200 by 100 yards, which still exists but is two-thirds built over. Finally, the whole Anglo-Saxon and French-Norman town, sprawling down the valley, was enclosed by a long curving rampart broken by five gates.

Medieval Bury St. Edmunds: the planned grid of streets, laid out probably in the early 12th century, hinges on the great axis of Churchgate Street, the abbey church and St. Edmund's shrine. The westward expansion of the monastic precinct broke the line of an early north-south road.
Medieval Bury St. Edmunds: the planned grid of streets, laid out probably in the early 12th century, hinges on the great axis of Churchgate Street, the abbey church and St. Edmund’s shrine. The westward expansion of the monastic precinct broke the line of an early north-south road.

One of Suffolk’s outstanding historical documents is the Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond. Jocelin was a monk of Bury who eventually became cellarer of the abbey. His chronicle is a biography of Abbot Samson, a strong administrator and disciplinarian who ruled the abbey from 1182 to 1211 Although it is written in a tone of admiration, it subtly hints at the abbot’s faults as well—for example his frequent high-handedness and insensitivity. ‘No one’, wrote H.E. Butler, a modem editor, ‘has given us such an intensely vivid picture of the life of a great monastery.’ For example, the election of Samson in the presence of Richard I at Waltham is brilliantly described and, subsequently, his walking barefoot into the abbey to prostrate himself before the high altar and then to kiss the shrine of St Edmund.

Manorial Society in the High Middle Ages

In the 13th century Suffolk reached the height of its early importance and prosperity. It had, by medieval standards, a dense and growing population which exerted great pressure on the land and also gave, for some at least, new economic opportunities. Landlords and major tenants responded to the increased demand for food and to rising agricultural prices by improving the productivity of their farming and making determined use of all kinds of land. Those with little or no land had a choice of picking up full-time or part-time employment in various expanding forms of domestic industry, crafts or retailing. A good example is the increasing reliance of the poor on the brewing and selling of ale, which became a major cottage industry. In the last resort those who were unable to make ends meet in the countryside could migrate to major towns like Ipswich, Norwich or Bury, or to the market centres which were springing up more frequently in East Anglia than in any other part of Britain.

Some impression of manorial life in Suffolk can be gleaned from courtrolls, accounts and surveys. In each manor the lord had his ‘Hall’ or courthouse which was the administrative heart of the community—regardless of whether he actually lived there or not. He, or his bailiff, cultivated a substantial home farm (the ‘demesne’) which was partly around the Hall in the form of hedged fields and partly scattered and intermixed with the lands of tenants. In the later 13th century, these demesnes reached their maximum size, as the lords tried to increase their incomes from direct farming. Many lords also owned watermills, windmills, the right of presenting the parson to the church, and various judicial privileges such as the right of having stocks, pillories and even gallows. By this I period, manors were by no means equivalent to parishes, and had often been subdivided by a process known as subinfeudation. At Risby, for example, three manor houses were virtually contiguous—the original capital manor of Risby and two others called Charmans and Quyes.

By about 1300 the inhabitants of Suffolk had almost doubled their numbers, from about 72,000 at the time of the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade to about 140,000. Calculations can be made, at a local level, on the basis of archaeological evi­dence, or from manorial and fiscal documents. Thus, the 13th-century parish of Mendlesham contained not only the main village and market, but another ham­let around a green and no fewer than 90 scattered farmhouses—a far higher number than at any period before or since. At Lidgate in c.1066 the population was about 170; by the early 14th century there were over 350 inhabitants. (Even in the first census of 1801, Lidgate’s population was only 323 and had appar­ently not recovered to its level before the Black Death.) The number of sons a man left behind at his death could also indicate what was happening to the population as a whole. In 1257-60, 10 men of Hinderclay were succeeded by 17 sons—a high rate which, after 1300, was to fall drastically.

Under such pressure, land was used intensively and with great ecological sensitivity. The arable acreage, much of it in the form of open-fields, was at its maximum, but at the same time complementary forms of land use were greatly prized—pasture, bay-meadows, marshes, fens or turbaries, commons, woods and under-woods. The market in land was vigorous, and the average holding and the average plot were extremely small. Richard Smith has calculated that in 13th-century Redgrave, 26 per cent of the holdings were less than one acre, and that the average plot of land mentioned in transactions was about half an acre. At Semer in 1230, an inheritance in an open field was divided among five brothers: each of them received ‘a quarter of three parts of half an acre divided into five’. Furthermore, the basic farming units called ‘tenements’ or ‘full lands’, whose origins go back at least to the 12th century, were by this time highly fragmented. In 1289, Ralph Mercator of Redgrave farmed seven acres and one rood, but they lay in 13 different tenements; the largest piece of land within his holding was 51/2 roods (just over 1¼ acres). His brother Walter had a holding with exactly the same size and distribution—the classic effect of partible inheritance. But although forms of inheritance could be important, their effects could always be offset by personal arrangements and transactions. It was the basic pressure of population, of mouths to feed, that ensured that the land was intensively farmed, highly fragmented and intermixed, especially in the large arable open-fields.

In return for their land, peasants were expected to do labour services for their lords or give money in lieu. A survey of the manor of Melford as late as 1386, specifies nearly 9,000 labour services for which villeins were responsible mainly in the autumn and winter months. At Rattlesden in 1251 a villein with about 20 acres of land had the following annual obligations to his lord the Bishop of Ely: he had to pay 291/2d. for various dues, to give three hens at Christmas and 20 eggs at Easter, and to do two ‘works’ each week from October to August. Extra works could be demanded by the lord if he needed them. His actual duties included ploughing, seeding and harrowing, scattering manure, weeding, mowing the lord’s meadow, scattering, binding, cocking and carrying hay, taking a cart of hay to Hitcham, reaping in autumn, binding and carrying sheaves, threshing and carrying grain, beans and peas, making malt, digging and cleaning ditches, cutting and carrying underwood, making hurdles, hedging and thatching. In addition he had to provide a horse and cart for various journeys, including two a year to Ipswich and two a year to Ely. He had to take his corn to the lord’s mill and could not sell his foals or oxen without the lord’s permission. Nor could his sheep lie in the lord’s fold. He had to be prepared to pay ‘gersum’ on the marriage of his daughter, ‘childwyte’ if his daughter had an illegitimate child, and a personal tax called ‘tallage’. On his death, a ‘heriot’ consisting of his best beast or 22d. was payable, and his wife ‘shall immediately begin to work’. At East Bergholt, the indignity of being an unfree tenant, liable to pay a heriot, was further underlined by his having to fix on his house a special sign called ‘Le cople’, while every person subject to the jurisdiction of the local leet court had to put a cross on the front of his house.

One very unusual glimpse of ordinary villagers is afforded by the detailed returns for the Lay Subsidy of 1283 which survive, out of the whole of Eng­land, only for the Hundred of Blackbourn in north Suffolk. They list the crops grown and stock kept by the people of each parish. The large parish of Bardwell (3,142 acres) had 128 taxpayers ranging from the lord William de Pakenham who paid 17s. lO½d., to Botilda de Brakelond who paid only 3d. Here, on the edge of the sandy Breckland, barley was easily the most important grain grown, followed by rye; more peas and beans were grown than wheat and oats. With its wide heaths, Bardwell had 1,313 sheep, but it also had plenty of other animals-587 pigs, 456 cattle and 89 horses. The lord, of course, owned most of the animals, including the only bull and the one boar. A fairly prosperous ‘Peasant’ like Richard Hail grew four kinds of cereal, plus peas and beans, and owned two horses, five cattle and 11 sheep, whereas a poorer man like Thomas Biscop grew only barley and had one cow, two pigs and five sheep.

At Walsham-le-Willows, a parish of 2,760 acres on heavier land in the east of Blackbourn Hundred, the balance of farming was significantly different. Again, barley was the most important crop, but was followed by peas and oats; wheat, rye and beans were relatively unimportant. Only in the growing of peas did Walsham actually outstrip Bardwell. As for animals, sheep and pigs were much less numerous, while horses and cattle were relatively more important. Manorial accounts suggest that in High Suffolk wheat was the dominant grain, while in major valleys like the Waveney dairying and cheese-production were already economic specialisations.

Contrary to the persistent myth that villagers stayed put all their lives, there is now abundant evidence to show that quite ordinary people, even in the Middle Ages, often moved house over short distances, up to 30 miles, and sometimes much further. For the period after 1300, John Ridgard has found that at Flixton near Bungay, 55 per cent of the personal names of the manor dis­appeared every five years. Some people may simply have changed their names, while other families undoubtedly survived through a female line. Nevertheless, a substantial proportion must have left the manor. Similarly, the Lay Subsidy of 1327 contains many surnames which imply that people had not been born in the place where they were living. In the village of Mutford near Lowestoft, the lord’s family came from Hengrave near Bury, and other families derived from Gapton near Yarmouth, Blofield near Norwich and Feltwell in west Nor­folk. The trend is even more obvious among the inhabitants of towns. Ipswich, for instance had attracted many families from eastern Suffolk, from places like Holbrook, Creeting, Akenham and Hoo, and others from further afield from places like Preston near Lavenham, Hoxne in the Waveney valley, Wimbush in Essex and Castle Acre in west Norfolk.

Another type of surname reveals where people actually lived within their parish. At Stanton in the 13th century families named ‘del Char’ and ‘de Dale’ clearly lived at the hamlet now called Stanton Chair (meaning the place where the river took a sharp turn) and where the two Dale Farms are today. At Wetherden, William de Dersham lived where Dersham Farm is today while Henry Motoun was almost certainly his neighbour at Mutton Hall.

Markets, fairs and towns

The early Middle Ages saw a rapid expansion in various forms of industry and commerce, and the consequent foundation of scores of local markets. This ‘Commercial Revolution’ was not entirely new as urban life had undoubtedly developed significantly in the later Saxon period. At the time of the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade, Domesday Book recorded nine market towns in Suffolk, and un¬doubtedly omitted others. A few more appeared in the next century, as at Eye where William Malet encouraged a market outside his new castle, and at the port and planned town of Orford where a large rectangular market place was laid out between castle and church. However, the main expansion came after 1200. Norman Scarfe calculates that no fewer than 70 markets appeared in Suffolk between 1227 and 1310, and that by the end of the Middle Ages the total was around a hundred. Very few markets were created after 1350, the most important being Aldeburgh in 1547. In most cases a weekly market was offi­cially created by the grant of a royal charter, and was accompanied by an annual fair lasting two days or more. Thus, the Earl of Oxford received a charter in 1257 for his manor of Lavenham, giving him a market on Tuesdays and a Whitsuntide fair lasting three days. Aspall near Debenham is one of the two places in England where Domesday Book mentions a fair—though others must have existed, even then.

Needham Market: a town created by the Bishop of Ely along a major road in one corner of his manor of Barking. Market charter of 1226. The chapel existed by 1251, was rebuilt 1480-1500, and did not become a parish church until 1901. For centuries the dead were carried along hte Carnser for burial at the mother church of Barking.
Needham Market: a town created by the Bishop of Ely along a major road in one corner of his manor of Barking. Market charter of 1226. The chapel existed by 1251, was rebuilt 1480-1500, and did not become a parish church until 1901. For centuries the dead were carried along the Carnser for burial at the mother church of Barking.

Medieval markets were thick on the ground, especially in the eastern half of Suffolk. In a block of country no more than six miles across, a Norman market existed at Kelsale, 13th-century markets at Middleton, Sizewell and Saxmundham, and 14th-century markets at Aldringham and Leiston. A seventh market was mentioned at Knodishall in the early 17th century. In fact, markets were often much closer than the six-and-two-thirds miles recommended by the 13th-century lawyer, Henry Bracton. Around Bury St Edmunds, however, there was a conspicuous lack of markets for a radius of about eight miles, the nearest competitors being Barrow and Ixworth.

The actual sites chosen for markets varied greatly. In most cases, landlords speculated by trying to upgrade and expand existing villages. Thus, at Mildenhall and Saxmundham, it is possible to identify an early agricultural community associated with church and manor-house, and a later urban extension around an open space suitable for marketing. Sometimes advantage was taken of a major bridging point, as at Bungay or Bures, or even of a ferry as at Brandon. In a few cases, a virgin site was chosen to take advantage of a major road. Thus Newmarket grew up at the southern end of Exning manor, to exploit a sheltered hollow along the Icknield Way. Similarly, Botesdale grew up in a corner of Redgrave, and Needham in a corner of Barking, both to exploit major through-roads (illus. 43).

Most markets probably had an unofficial or experimental existence before their owners obtained legal charters while the markets of Haverhill, Lidgate, Boxford and East Bergholt never did get official recognition. It is also impor­tant to remember that all these medieval markets were not co-existent. Not only were they founded over several centuries, but some never got beyond the plan­ning stage, some failed early and others merely functioned at a low level. For example, it does not seem that the 13th-century charters for Felsham and Wissett led to any significant developments, in building or in commerce.