Yeoman


Dunwich! A tiny village near the top of the cliffs which even to-day are trembling and crumbling through the force of the wild North Sea waves, which many a time in the passing centuries have battered away yet another fragment of an erstwhile mighty town. Dunwich! one time capital of all East Anglia, site of a King's Palace, the seat of a Bishop, possessing as many as nine churches, a mint, and other notable buildings, Dunwich! the place of a thousand memories, of countless legends and thrilling stories. The "Ruined City of the romancer-for truth to tell very few ruins remain-the name which conjures up a past of moment and visions of glories dead and buried, buried beneath the ever rolling legions hurled against the pitiable defences of this section of the East Coast by Neptune's Fierce and relentless hand.

dunwich_lost.jpg
Dunwich shore line 1280-2008. Blue area = land lost to the sea
Terrible it is indeed. For in this tiny village, picturesque-looking despite its comparative newness, practically nothing of the real Dunwich remains; even the ancient forest where in the time of the Conqueror the chivalry of England made sport with hound and hawk, has long been swallowed by the ever advancing waves. And as one small relic of the past there still exist portions of the old Franciscan monastery, ivy-encrusted and ruinous, whilst within its seven acres where monks once told their beads fowls are roaming to-day. But perhaps the most pathetic fragment of the greatness which was Dunwich is a buttress of one of its original Churches, rescued front the clutching hand of the sea in 1923 and placed in the new churchyard - an object which in its abject loneliness breathes of many a storm and whispers of many a story.

In this modern churchyard-modern, that is, considering the antiquity of the real Dunwich are also all that are left of the hospital chapel ruins - dank and grey from the storms of countless years. The present church of Saint James was built less than a century ago, and some fifty years later many alterations and improvements were made through the generosity of the late Frederick Barne, Esquire, formerly or the 12th Lancers, and whose name will go down to posterity as being the last member of Parliament for the Borough of Dunwich. There is monument to his memory - he died in 1886 - the North wall, and another of the family, Michael, who was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 7th Light Dragoons, and fought in two campaigns, is also commemorated being described; "a man of unwearied benevolence, of great liberality, and of genuine unpretending piety."

His death occurred in 1837, and he possessed the very signal honour of sitting for his native place in Parliament on four successive occasions. Two other members of the line - representatives of which are still the chief landowners--were killed in France during the Great War, and on the North wall is a monument in their honour.

But this building which does duty to-day as a religious edifice is scarcely of any account, historically speaking, compared with the churches which sheltered numerous worshippers in the palmy days when Dunwich prospered and was the home of the great and affluent. Apparently at one time a Roman station, Dunwich in the seventh century became a bishop’s see, which it remained for many years, and in the time of the Domesday the city is stated to have paid fifty pounds a year to the King and sixty thousand herrings - no mean tribute – whilst in the reign of Stephen, it was receiving toll from so large a place as Orford.

When one considers the freedom enjoyed today by rich and poor alike, despite the few insignificant restrictions which are certainly galling at times, it is strange to discover that many privileges we now accept as a matter of course were unknown to our ancient, forefathers, and there is no better illustration of this than a charter presented by King John - hardly a benevolent monarch-to the burgesses of Dunwich which gave them the right of disposing of their lands and houses as they wished, and- stranger still – allowed their sons and daughters marrying whosoever they pleased - a boon which was somewhat expensive to the inhabitants, as it cost them three hundred marks in cash alone.

It was during the reign of Henry the Third that the city seemed to have reached the most prosperous period of its existence, despite the fact that the sea had made considerable inroads. On New Year’s Day, in 1287, however, a terrible gale raged, and this, combined with an exceptional high tide, played havoc with many of the buildings, but even then Dunwich was in a fairly flourishing condition. For in the wars which raged between England and France this East Anglian seaport, played its part, its inhabitants providing at their own expense eleven ships of war, the majority of them carrying over seventy men for their crews. As a naval adventure, however, this was somewhat disappointing. Four of the ships were destroyed during an engagement off the French coast, whilst practically all the others met with the same fate, and - worse still - 500 men of Dunwich laid down their lives. Later on, the Port was removed from Dunwich towards Walberswick, and this also did much to bring the town into a state of comparative poverty}.

But the story of the decline of Dunwich is the story of the ravening sea snarling and tearing at its portals. The first attack occurred at an early date, and resulted in the destruction of the church of St. Felix and a cell of monks, whilst the effects of the storm which happened in the reign of Edward the First, and swallowed up a large part of the town, have already been noted. St. Leonard’s St. Martin’s, and St. Nicholas were the next churches to disappear, but despite all the tribulations which had afflicted the place, Dunwich was able to provide six ships and more than a hundred men for the Siege of Calais in 1359, whilst for the same cause Ipswich provided only double the force, and Orford half.

The next two centuries were undoubtedly a tragic period, for apart from the religious edifice already mentioned, the church of St. John the Baptist was demolished, besides various chapels, and two of the gates, so that only a quarter of the city was left. In connection with St John’s it is recorded that the remains of a man were discovered in a coffin in the chancel, and are believed to have been those of one of the early bishops.

Thus the story goes on – poignant tragedy of human effort battling sternly against the unleashed forces of Nature – and ever fighting a losing battle. Why this part of the coast should have been so much the sport of the elements is problematical, but it has been suggested that the absence of rocks is responsible, and the action of the wind and waves on the loose sandy soil has done the rest. But whatever the reason the sea has ever been at work, relentless and terrible in its cold ferocity. In the first years of the seventeenth century the road which led to the coast was destroyed and a new one cut; during the time of the first Charles, the building of the Knight Templars - afterwards St. James’s Hospital – suffered the same fate. By 1677 the sea had reached the Market Place, and three years later the houses North of a road called Maison Dieu – so named from a church attached to the Hospital – were also demolished.

Then, soon after, the church of St. Peter disappeared, although in this case most of it had been salvaged beforehand; and at the same time the Town Hall went the way of the church.

It is stated that “in 1715 the gaol was undermined; and in 1729 the farthest bounds of St. Peter’s Churchyard fell into the sea,” but Gardner’s description of the havoc which occurred in 1740 is probably one of the most interesting, as unlikely many of the stories circulated about the history of Dunwich the facts of its great chronicler are not only without that element of doubt which naturally clings around a number of older versions, but are also rendered doubly impressive by the stark simplicity of his writing. It is impossible , of course, to quote in detail, but a vivid idea of the fearful havoc wrought on that December day can be visualised by those who care to exercise their imagination. For several days, apparently, the wind had been “blowing very hard about North East,” and because of this mighty seas arose, “doing much damage on the coast...breaking down the banks and overflowing the marshes.” All that was left of the churchyard of St. Nicholas disappeared at that time, and also “the great road heretofore leading into the town from the Key,” and because of this ”a number of wells were discovered, obviously belonging to buildings which long ago had succumbed to the fury of the waves.” Arable land and pasture – it mattered not which – were smothered with the shingle thrown up from the beach, thus rendering them practically useless, whilst two eminences, designated for some reason the “Cock and Hen Hills,” which the summer before were over forty feet in height, were levelled to the ground, and through this the foundations of the ancient chapel of St. Francis were brought to light. To show how really ghastly the whole affair was – apart from the calamity which affected the living – Gardner states that the secret repositories of the dead were exposed to view,” and if this be not enough he elaborates the grisly tale by mentioning that many of these were “divested of their coverings.”

One can almost imagine the awe-stricken looks of the inhabitants as they gazed upon the fearsome scene. Skeletons which the earth had mercifully covered for years; roots of trees - probably part of the age-old forest - brought to light; coffins and ancient foundations - all once more made visible to the wondering eye of man - and, almost, as impressive and certainly significant, spade-marks of long ago in the newly-thrown up earth-earth which had for years been feet beneath the surface of the soil upon which turnips and corn had flourished so short a time before.

Mention has been made of the buttress of the last of all the churches of Dunwich. This belonged to All Saints, a building of flint and freestone, which was partially demolished some two centuries ago. The South aisle was taken down at the same time-presumably to save it from the sea-and contained some curious carved work, whilst the windows had a large amount of stained glass, although this was unfortunately destroyed in the demolition. Also,it appears that the majority of the gravestones had brasses which there was every intention of preserving – and how interesting they would prove at the present day! - but these were stolen by those employed on the work. Even after this, however, Divine service was celebrated occasionally, and interments took place in the churchyard so recently as a century ago.

Dunwich to-day is a clean, pretty village of indisputable attractlon, and, with its cliffs and the heath and woods around it, certainly presents a picture of old-world charm, soothed and softened by the gentle murmur of the sea breaking on the sandy shore. But to Dunwieh that sea is not an ally, throwing out a friendly, engaging hand, but a foe, bitter and rabid, foul and cruel. For the village of the present day is nothing - the real Dunwich is buried beneath the ocean, whose whispers scene so disarming to listening ears – the ocean, which time after time for centuries past has thundered at its doors; and when they opened before its mad precipitous onslaught has hurled much that is fine and magnificient to destruction. Beneath those treacherous waves mighty buildings have been submerged. Somewhere- far away now, denizens of the deep are swimming amongst the ruins of a King’s Palace – that is, if any of it remains.

The towers of ancient churches tottered and crashed, and now rest, hidden from mortal eyes, out where the dancing swell churns the ocean into foam. And – so the superstitious will tell you – the bells of those churches can sometimes be heard, mellow and resonant over the rolling wastes, by those who have ears to listen.

But Dunwich as a city is dead. The sea which it is Britain’s proud boast to rule has conquered her. Rumbling and roaring, smashing, foam-flecked against the cliffs when the screaming winds have whipped her into insensate fury, she has hurled this once proud city into utter oblivion – one little incident in the ever-waging struggle between Man and Nature. And in this case the victory is to nature!

Yeoman. December 2nd. 1927.