Medieval buildings · Medieval history

Suffolk: A Medievalist’s Paradise

The end of last year was a whirligig of activity, with teaching, freelance web-editing, and thesisising all featuring heavily on the agenda. Plus a pinch of socialising, of course. Thankfully this year has already started to bear the fruits of my endeavours – including an exciting new job! But more on that another time. So whilst I’m wrapping up my freelance work and preparing for a new role, I have a moment to reminisce and finally write a post about a holiday I took with my mum last September (I really have been that busy!). Join us on a tour of medieval Suffolk via some of its key monuments and locations – it is a fantastic place to visit if you’re interested in the Middle Ages, and here are just a few reasons why…

map of Suffolk
Suffolk

Suffolk has an undeniably rich and impressive history. Its location on the south-east of England and the continental connections that this location afforded – first for Anglo-Saxon settlement and later for wool trading – as well as its proximity to London, ensured the continued importance of this area throughout the Middle Ages. Its extensive and prestigious history can still be seen in the monuments and coastline of this picturesque county.

Orford Castle

Orford Castle
Orford castle’s dramatic keep

A striking figure bounded by sea, gentle green countryside, the quaint village of Orford, and shimmering Orford Ness – all that remains of twelfth-century Orford Castle is its impressive keep. Built in the 1160s-70s by King Henry II of England, the castle served as a reminder to the rich and occasionally troublesome nobles of Suffolk and Norfolk of royal power and authority – particularly those pesky Bigods. According to English Heritage the castle cost £1,413 to build, and as the entire royal revenues were less than £10,000 a year, this is a testament to the importance of the project. The keep is visible for miles around. Big Brother was definitely watching the Bigods.

View from the top of the keep over Orford Ness
View from the top of the keep over Orford Ness

The round keep comprises several levels – a lower hall and upper hall encircled by several rooms and private chambers, as well as a cellar and a roof. It was a multi-purpose building – defensive and governmental, along with serving the requirements of an itinerant king and court.

Orford castle keep floor plan
Orford castle floor plan – From English Heritage’s Orford Castle Teacher’s Kit. Copyright © 2000 English Heritage. Revised 2002, 2008. Image © English Heritage Photo Library

If the outside of the keep and its now lost castle were intended as a display of royal power and authority, the inside echoes and recreates the hierarchical ideals of twelfth-century England on an architectural scale. Each level served a different purpose, and was intended to be used and accessed by a different set of guest or resident – the lower hall was probably a court or council room, and stone seating runs around the circumference of the room. The upper hall was intended for grander use, including the king’s visits, and has its own small side kitchen for preparing food and keeping it warm.

Lower hall fireplace of Orford castle's keep
Lower hall fireplace of Orford castle’s keep

The fireplace on one side of the round entrance hall provided heat to all the chambers behind and above it, running along its length up that side of the building – these would have been occupied by important figures such as the king, queen, and constable, and are incredibly cosy, with small windows and thick walls to protect inhabitants from weather, and any attacks. There is also a small chapel where Anglo-Norman decorative stone-carving is still visible, complete with a listening hole for people outside in the hall to also hear services. The roof houses a bakery – the ovens with their original medieval tiling are still extant – whilst the cellar has a well and space for food storage. Everything has been considered for comfort and convenience – the constable’s room even has a personal urinal in the wall just outside his door!

The constable’s urinal - Orford castle keep
The constable’s urinal – Orford castle keep

It really is a wonderful, characterful building, and with its extraordinarily clever and compact design and gorgeous surviving original features, it makes for a wonderful afternoon of exploration. Every time I visit I like to imagine Henry sitting in court, with his notoriously terrible wine and ordinary clothes, and Eleanor his queen beside him, in all her Aquitanian finery, enjoying this remarkable space.

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Orford Castle: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/orford-castle/

Framlingham Castle

Approaching Framlingham castle’s front gate
Approaching Framlingham castle’s front gate

Travel inland from the coast, head north-west towards the Suffolk-Norfolk border, and you’ll reach Framlingham castle. Built by the Bigod earls that Henry II was so concerned with keeping under control, the castle passed back and forth between Bigods and Crown in the wake of revolts against the king, and subsequent changes in monarch. Framlingham is a very different structure to Orford in the sense of what was originally constructed, as well as what has been left behind.

Internal view of Framlingham castle
Internal view of Framlingham castle – note the Tudor chimneys on each turret!

The castle had no keep, but a thick curtain wall protected the inner courtyard and its buildings, including a hall and chapel. The castle was surrounded by the Great Park – used for hunting and recreation – and lakes, which were added in the later Middle Ages. In 1476 the castle passed to the Howards. It remained an actively used building through the Tudor period, and it was the Howards who modernised parts of the castle and added the highly ornate chimneys that were so fashionable during the sixteenth century, and which characterise the castle so dramatically today. When Mary Tudor seized power in 1553, she did so from Framlingham Castle.

One of the Tudor chimneys at Framlingham
One of the Tudor chimneys at Framlingham

In the seventeenth century the castle was left to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and a poorhouse was built within its walls (below). The best way to see Framlingham Castle is by walking around the top of these curtain walls, and English Heritage provide an excellent audio guide which even highlights holes in the stones of the crenelated battlements where shutters could be lifted to fire arrows.

View of the poorhouse from Framlingham castle walls
View of the poorhouse from Framlingham castle walls

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Framlingham Castle: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/framlingham-castle/

St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham

St Michael’s Church, Framlingham
St Michael’s Church, Framlingham

Framlingham’s church is also worth paying a visit. It has undergone several phases of development and redevelopment, from the twelfth century (the capitals of the chancel arch date from this point), to the late nineteenth-century renovations that uncovered fifteenth-century murals on the walls.

The interior of St Michael’s Church
The interior of St Michael’s Church

The ceiling is particularly impressive, dating from about 1521, with intricate fan tracery, concealing hammer beams. It feels like standing in the hull of a vast ship.

The church ceiling
The church ceiling

The church also has an interesting collection of tombs. They include those of the Earl of Surrey and his wife, Frances de Vere, as well as two of the wives of Thomas, 4th Duke of Norfolk. But my favourite is that of Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset , the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, and his mistress Elizabeth Blount – one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. By all accounts, Fitzroy was a fine young man of whom Henry was inordinately proud – especially as he was his only son except Edward to survive infancy. However, he died of consumption when he was only 17.

The tomb of Henry Fitzroy – Henry VIII’s illegitimate son
The tomb of Henry Fitzroy – Henry VIII’s illegitimate son

For information on the church’s history and how to visit, see the website: http://stmichaelschurch.onesuffolk.net/welcome-to-st-michael-s-framlingham-website/

Leiston Abbey

Leiston Abbey
Leiston Abbey

Easily missed, tucked away down little lanes in the Suffolk countryside, are the ruins of Leiston Abbey. An abbey of Premonstratensian canons, it was moved, stone by stone, from its initial swampy location elsewhere in Suffolk in the fourteenth century to its current location – meaning that the newer fourteenth-century structure also contained elements of the original Anglo-Norman structure.

Colourful stones in the walls of Leiston Abbey
Colourful stones in the walls of Leiston Abbey

The ruins make for a pleasant hour or so of exploration. Its remote location means that, despite the pleasant day, we were the only visitors. Having a whole abbey to yourself is a peaceful experience, and many of the original structures remain, including a refectory, abbey church, and cloister.

Rambling around the ruins
Rambling around the ruins

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Leiston Abbey (entry free): http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/leiston-abbey/

Aldeburgh Moot Hall

Aldeburgh Moot Hall
Aldeburgh Moot Hall

My mum and I stayed in Aldeburgh during our visit to Suffolk, using it as a base for our medieval explorations. It really is a wonderful little place – great pubs and restaurants, quaint boutique shops, an extensive seafront, and a sixteenth-century hall. The Moot Hall – which wasn’t called this until much later – was a central building used for several purposes – prison, town hall, council chamber, market centre. It now houses the Aldeburgh Museum, which tells the story of the hall, the town, and the local region. Amongst the tales are those of seven unfortunate ‘witches’ imprisoned in the hall. The Museum’s website offers a chilling glimpse of the witchfinding hysteria that swept through East Anglia during the seventeenth century:

“Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch Finder General, and widow Phillips, his search woman, were employed by the Burgesses to find out witches in Aldeburgh. Seven women were incarcerated in the Moot Hall’s prison in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. They were prevented from sleeping and watched for proof of their guilt – that is for the coming of their familiar spirits. Eventually, cold, hungry and exhausted, they must have confessed. They were all hanged in February 1646.”

The walls of the Moot Hall
The walls of the Moot Hall

The hall now stands in fairly close proximity to the beach, with no buildings between it and the sea. This wasn’t always the case. The map below shows the hall – the red-coloured structure – in 1594 in the centre of the town, with two sets of buildings quite securely wedged between it and the sea.

The Moot Hall in 1594 – Credit: http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk/
The Moot Hall in 1594 – Credit: http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk/

The Moot Hall houses Aldeburgh Museum, which is open to the public. See the website for details: http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk

Lost places and the sea

The Moot Hall’s perilous position by the ever-encroaching sea is emblematic of the story that has been playing out along the Suffolk coastline for centuries. Harbours silt up and move – such as the one at Orford Ness – and villages and towns change, and even disappear.

The retreating coastline of Dunwich – Credit http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk/
The retreating coastline of Dunwich – Credit http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk/

Aldeburgh owes its earlier affluence to this process. The harbour town of Dunwich, pictured above, was a wealthy, prestigious settlement – the capital of the kingdom of the East Angles in the Anglo-Saxon period, and in the High Middle Ages it was an international port. But repeated storms silted up its harbour, and opened one up near Aldeburgh. As you can see in the image above, the sea has attacked Dunwich aggressively since the Middle Ages – leaving little of the town uncovered by water. There is still a small town there, more like a village really, but very little remains of the medieval grandeur of this settlement.

Other places like Slaughden, a village just along the coast from Aldeburgh, have disappeared completely. The last resident was born there in 1922 and the sea swept it away completely in the 1950s. You can read an interview with this last resident here: https://holdingbackthetide.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/the-last-child-of-slaughden-interview/. There’s something very haunting about these sunken towns. There is a myth that in Dunwich, as in many other lost places in the British Isles, church bells can be heard ringing beneath the waves on stormy nights.

These are just some of the places that we managed to squeeze into one week – but there are so many other sites in Suffolk to entice medievalists, including Ipswich, Sutton Hoo, and a plethora of medieval churches and monuments. Visit this year – you won’t regret it!

The Lyonesses by Orford Ness
The Lyonesses by Orford Ness

Further Reading and Links

Mark Bailey. Medieval Suffolk: An Economic and Social History, 1200-1500. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007.

Orford Castle: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/orford-castle/

Framlingham Castle: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/framlingham-castle/

St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham: http://stmichaelschurch.onesuffolk.net/welcome-to-st-michael-s-framlingham-website/

Leiston Abbey: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/leiston-abbey/

Aldeburgh Moot Hall: http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk

Note: Unless stated otherwise, all photos on this blog post are my own and should be credited Rebecca Lyons.

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