East Anglia is the area within Britain first settled by the English people, in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire including Peterborough. The people were referred to as the east Angles. They migrated into England from Scandinavia early in the fifth century, settling firstly in the north of East Anglia. The north-eastern coastline had been commonly known by the Romans as the ‘Saxon Shore’. Early evidence clearly dates their settlement in the fifth century, succeeding the Roman civitas of Venta Icenorum.
The area primarily covered the counties of Norfolk occupied by the North Angle Folk and of Suffolk, the South Angle Folk. Wuffa founded the kingdom of the East Anglia in around 575 by uniting the North and South Folk. His tribal descendants are known as the Wuffingas (wolflings). There was a royal palace at Rendlesham (about four miles from Sutton Hoo) at the estuary of the River Deben, near Woodbridge, where the famous burial ship was discovered in 1939. Wuffa was the grandfather of Raedwald (son of Tytila) who was the fourth overlord of the southern English around 616-624.
East Anglia’s independence came to an end with the rise of Mercia under Penda at the close of the seventh century. The dynasty continued to issue coins during the eighth century. Eventually the East Anglians were able to overthrow Mercian control in the early ninth century with the help of Egbert of Wessex, by accepting his overlordship. When the Vikings came with a great army in 865, they wintered at Thetford. They were attacked by King Edmund of East Anglia who was defeated and killed. His martyrdom is widely famous and became sainted. Following an agreement with King Alfred of Wessex, the Vikings were able to settle and Guthrum their leader ruled East Anglia for a short while. It was taken back under Wessex by Edward the Elder in the campaigns of the early tenth century.
Development of East Anglia had begun under the Romans who had built Caister, a garrison in Norfolk that was later named Caister St Edmund close to what would become the capital town of Norwich. They also built a military station we call Burgh Castle, a strong fortress with a probable outpost at Caister-on-Sea. There had earlier been an old British fort known to the Romans as ‘Ad Taum’, its entrenchments of earth encompassed an area of 20 acres. An old rhyme is of interest – “Caister was a city when Norwich was none, Yet Norwich was built of Caister stone”.
The Roman’s interest had been to protect the Eastern coast known to them as the ‘Saxon Shore’. Another Roman military station stood a distance away at Brancaster, a few miles east of the Wash. Following the departure of the Romans several borough ports gradually developed along the coast that became important, particularly under the Norman regime and subsequent foreign trade.
Least known today is the ancient Port of Dunwich, the old capital town of East Anglia, all of which has now vanished under the sea. It was once a borough of independent means and a prosperity close to that of London. Very little remains today as the coastline has long eroded along with its many buildings and busy quays. An account by John Stowe, the 16th century annalist, referred to Dunwich ‘In ancient time’ as a city surrounded with a stone wall and brazen gates, housing fifty-two churches, chapels, religious houses and hospitals, a king’s palace, bishop’s seat, mayors’ mansion, and a mint.
The ancient Kingdom of East Anglia
The last remains of the ancient city of Dunwich
The Ancient Port and Capital Borough of Dunwich
Note of some interest: 1537, Peter Shelley was buried in the Church of St Peter, Dunwich. He ‘bequeathed an Alms house for poor people to dwell in’.
Much of East Anglia is ancient, but worthy of special mention is the old town of Thetford. The Castle Hill at Thetford is a high mound of unknown early origins that was adapted for defence in Norman times. In 870, Thetford was plundered and burned by Viking Danes, when Edmund, King of East Anglia lost his life and was martyred. For many years he was recognised as a patron saint of England.
In 1004, Sweyn , the invading king of Denmark, burned it along with other places. In 1010 it was destroyed when Saxon Earl Ulfketel suffered complete defeat. Thetford again rose from its ashes and by the time of the Dissolution had at least 19 churches and other religious and charitable foundations. The Castle Mound at Thetford rose nearly twice as high as any other artificial mound in East Anglia and remains a mystery. It is probably of Megalithic times and was augmented in Norman or Danish times.
Castle Mound, Thetford
The Roman, Akeman Street passes through this cathedral town. It is an ancient trading borough built upon a clay island 85 ft above the surrounding Fens. The city is sometimes referred to as the ‘Isle of Ely’ and the cathedral as the ‘Ship in the Fens’. Henry I, granted its first annual fair, and it has a weekly market since at least the 13th century (chartered c1224). The town was founded with its abbey in 673 under the protection of St Etheldreda, daughter of King Anna of the East Angles. The monastery became the second richest in England. The cathedral was rebuilt by the Normans after a collapse of its original nave and its octagonal shape is considered one of the wonders of the medieval world.
Ely Castle on Cherry Hill was of Norman construction and is similar to that of Cambridge Castle. It was built as a defence directed by William the Conqueror following the submission of the Isle from the rebellion of Earl Morcar (earl of Northumbria and lord of Sudbury) with Hereward the Wake c1070. That was the last battle against the Normans. Oliver Cromwell lived in Ely from 1636 until 1646.
NOTE: William Shelley, Yeoman, is recorded in the Register of Holy Trinity, Ely, in 1583 as he married Frances Butler on 9th June . He was buried there 18 Jan 1592-3.
Peterborough is ancient in origin; it was an early settlement on the fringe of East Anglia of a group referred to as the Middle Angles. It is renown as a cathedral city in the Fenlands. There is some evidence of an early Bronze Age settlement and subsequent Roman occupation. However, it is widely recognised for its 7th century foundation by Seaxwulf of the Angles as a monastery known as Medeshamstede. This was destroyed by Vikings and restored later in the 10th century as a Benedictine abbey.
During the reign of Ethelred II, the place became known as Peterborough for its St Peter’s Peterborough Abbey until the Dissolution by Henry VIII. It has been described as one of the greatest monasteries of the Mercian kingdom. The Cathedral Church remains testament to the borough’s importance.
King’s Lynn, Norfolk
Warehouses at Lynn
Until 1537, this capital borough was known as Bishop’s Lynn. Simply called Lynn it was one of England’s most important ports. This ancient town is situated at the mouth of the Great Ouse high on the Norfolk coast. The Domesday Book refers to Saltings at Lena (Lynn) and the borough was adopted by Herbert de Losinga, Bishop of Thetford and first Bishop of Norwich.
During the reign of Henry VIII, it was surrendered to the Crown, hence King’s Lynn. In the 14th century, Lynn ranked as England’s most important port. Sea trade with the Hanseatic League of ports and the transatlantic brought great riches to the burgesses of the town.
Today we can see similar transactions with shipping container traffic at Felixstowe and at Harwich.
Great Yarmouth (Gernemwa, Yernemuth)
This ancient port is close to the site of the Roman fort of Gariannonum at the mouth of the River Yare. The borough is much older than Norwich and the port had connections with the fleets of the Cinque Ports and their trade routes with Normandy. In 1101, the priory church of St Nicholas was founded by Herbert de Losinga, first Bishop of Norwich. In 1208, King John granted a charter to the burgesses according to the customs of Oxford.
NOTE: At Great Yarmouth, Shelley’s are recorded in the death register of the parish church, St Nicholas – 1652- Sarah, infant daughter of William Shelley, Yeoman.
Monastery ruins at Bury St Edmunds
Bury St Edmund formally St Edmundsbury, the capital borough town of West Suffolk.
The settlement originated in the Bronze Age. Romans adopted it as the Villa Faustina. It became a royal borough of the Saxons and King Sigebert of the East Angles founded a monastery in 633 which in 903 became the burial place of King (St) Edmund the Martyr.
Commonly referred to as Bury, the town is associated with Magna Carta in 1214. Parliaments were held in the borough 1272, 1296 and 1446. As with most of the eastern towns, Bury were supporters of the Puritan sentiment.
Gipeswick (Ipswich) The capital port borough of East Suffolk.
This ancient town is one of the oldest in England and the largest known Roman villa in Suffolk once stood at Castle Hill, north-west Ipswich. Also nearby was the Roman Fort at Walton near Felixstowe.
During the first quarter of the 7th century, the quayside settlement of Gipeswick became an important estuarine trading centre, receiving imported goods from surrounding markets and around the coast of the North Sea. The settlement is generally recognised as having been founded by the Wuffingas. It took another hundred years for the settlement to develop into a thriving town.
After the invasion of 869 Ipswich fell under Danish rule. The earth ramparts circling the early town were probably raised in around 900 creating a defended bor or Danish borough. Their liberty and customs were strongly maintained. King John granted the town with its first charter 1200.
It made most of its wealth from trading in cloth with the Continent including much from Sudbury. During the 14th to 17th centuries Ipswich was kontor (trading post) for the Hanseatic League and its port was handling goods to and from the Baltic.