Dutt’s Suffolk, 1927


Dunwich (4 m. S.E. of Blythburgh).-Many centuries ago this place was a town of considerable importance, possessing several monastic houses, hospitals, and churches, traces of nearly all of which have disappeared owing to inroads of the sea. That it was at one time the chief port on the Suffolk coast there can be little doubt; but the city whose complete destruction by the sea has been lamented by many romantic writers is hardly likely to have been of such magnificence and extent as have been imagined. It was, however,a port of some importance during the Saxon era, and in spite of what has been urged to the contrary, there is no sound reason for doubting that it was here that Felix of Burgundy established the see of East Anglia about the year 632.

That there was a Roman settlement here is indicated by the discovery of many Roman relics, most of which have been brought to light by the wasting of the cliffs. A Roman road has been traced from the heathlands which surround the present village to Burgh, near Woodbridge, and Dr Raven is inclined to place the Sitomagus of Antonine's "Itinerary" at Dunwich rather than at Thetford, Burgh, in his opinion, being Combretonium. There is an artificial mound or tumulus S. of the village, in the grounds of Grey Friars, the seat of the Barne family ; but there is nothing about it to suggest that it was ever utilised by the Romans.

There seems to be general agreement among writers who have dealt with the early history of this vanished port that soon after the time of Edward the Confessor, the town, in spite of sea encroachments, began to grow in size and importance. When the Domesday survey was made the number of burgesses of the " burgh " had increased from 120 to 236, and there were three churches where there had previously been only one. In the reign of Henry II. its rent to the Crown had increased from £50 in the time of the Conqueror to £120 13s 4d. and as an "aid" on the occasion of the marriage of the kings daughter the town paid £ 133, 6s 8d. That it was strongly fortified seems evident from an old MS. in the British Museum, which states that when Robert, Earl of Leicester, joined forces with the king's rebellious son Henry and tried to take the town, "the strength thereof it was terror and fear unto him to behold it, and so retired both he and his people." Traces of the besieger's entrenchments are said to have been visible W, of the town as late as the middle of the eighteenth century. In the reign of Edward I., Dunwich, according to its historian Gardner, "maintained, besides II ships of war, 16 fair ships, 20 barks or vessels trading to the North Seas, Iceland, etc., and 24 small boats for the home fishery." Meanwhile, the sea was slowly but surely gaining on the land. In the winter of 1328 its harbour was totally destroyed, and about this time 400 houses were destroyed by the waves. Before the middle of the sixteenth century, churches of St Leonard, St Martin, St Nicholas, and St John the Baptist met with a like fate, and soon after two of the town’s gates were broken down.

How severely the town had suffered is made very clear in a MS. written in 1573, possibly by Stowe. It is far too long to print here, but from it we learn that in addition to the before-mentioned churches there had been "two houses of friars, very fair churches and buildings . . . an ancient and very old church called the Temple (of Our Lady) . . . two hospitals, the one called St James .. the other was of the Holy Trinity . . . three chapels, whereof one was of St Anthony, and another of St Francis, and the third was of St Katherine, the which three chapels were put down etc. when all other houses of religion were put down." Mention is also made of the destruction of several "gates."

Gardner’s account of the havoc wrought by a storm which raged here in December 1740, is as follows :" The wind blowing very hard about N.E., with a continuance for several days, occasioned great seas, doing much damage on the coast during that time, by inundations, breaking down the banks, and overflowing many marshes, etc. The sad effects thereof were severely felt by Dunwich, when a great deal of its cliffs were washed away, with the last remains of St Nicholas's churchyard ; and the great road heretofore leading into the town from the key ; leaving several naked walls, tokens of ancient buildings, and from Maison Dieu Lane northwards, a continued scene of confusion. Part of the old key, built of stone, lay bare ; making canals cross the beach, through which the river had communications with the sea, to the hindrance of the people on foot travelling that way, for some days. . .The sea raged with such fury that Cock and Hen Hills, which the preceding summer were upwards of 40 ft. high, and in the winter partly washed away, this year had their heads levelled with their bases, and the ground about them so rent and torn that the foundation of St Francis' chapel, which was laid between the said hills, was discovered. ... The bounds of the cemetery were staked, within which the secret repositories of the dead were exposed to open view : several skeletons on the ouze divested of their coverings ; some lying in pretty good order, others interrupted and scattered, as the surges carried them."

In addition to the churches already mentioned there was a church of St Peter, which stood N.E. of the existing ruins of All Saints. It was visited by Dowsing in 1643,and went "down cliff" early in the eighteenth century. A Preceptory of the Knights Templars stood, according to Gardner, near Middlegate Street, having Duck Street (? Duke Street) on the N. and Covent Garden on the S. A Dominican priory was probably situated some distance E. of the existing ruins of the Franciscan house.

Dunwich returned two members to Parliament from 1296 until 1832, when it was disenfranchised. Its corporation was abolished in 1886. At the present time it is a rather picturesque little village, with a population of about 200. Except on its seaward side it is almost surrounded by heathlands broken up by plantations of firs. Apart from the ruins of its Franciscan priory, and the Chapel of St. James's Hospital, it now possesses few relics of its past importance.

The ivy-clad ruins of the Franciscan priory can be seen a little W. of the ruined church of All Saints, which stands on the edge of the cliff. From certain points of view they are rather picturesque, but interest chiefly attaches to two gateways in the wall which encloses the rest. These are both in fairly good preservation. The smaller gateway appears to have been a kind of side entrance in connection with the larger one, from which, however, it is some distance removed. Little is known of the history of this monastery, which was founded by Richard Fitz-John and Alice, his -wife, in the reign of Henry III. Subsequent to the Dissolution it was converted to secular uses, parts of it being used as a private dwelling, a corporation hall, and a jail. All saint’s Church after remaining in a ruined state on the verge of the cliff for many years has now gone "down cliff." The remains of the Norman apse of the Chapel of St. James's Hospital, standing in the churchyard of a modern church of St. James erected in 1830, should be seen.