A Short History of Blythburgh by Alan Mackley
Blythburgh is a small village in northeast Suffolk, just under 100 miles from London and four miles from the North Sea at Southwold. It is set in a landscape of outstanding natural beauty with tidal river, marsh, heath, small woods, pasture and arable fields. Its magnificent medieval church commands the valley of the river Blyth and acts as a beacon for travellers on the A12 trunk road that links London and Yarmouth. The 300 or so inhabitants are either clustered close to the main road and church, or live in scattered cottages and farmhouses in the fields. Visitors keen to enjoy the cultural and recreational possibilities of the area swell the residents' numbers: artists, birdwatchers, music lovers, and others come seeking relaxation in a rural environment. Yet Blythburgh's modest state today belies its past importance.
The surrounding landscape is rich in archaeological sites dating from Neolithic to Roman times. Blythburgh itself is an Anglo-Saxon foundation. Christianity came to Suffolk early in the seventh century and Blythburgh was one of its most important centres. Indeed, it may have been the location of the Anglian Episcopal seat generally assumed to be at Dunwich. By 654 Blythburgh had a church to which, according to tradition, the bodies of the Anglian King Anna and his son Jurmin were brought after they fell at Bulcamp in battle with the Mercian Penda. The church could have been one of King Ælfwald's Minsters (he died in 749). The finding of an eighth-century writing tablet in Blythburgh suggests a literate Christian presence at that time. Certainly Blythburgh was for centuries the local centre of authority. Major criminals were punished there and, for all the commercial importance of Dunwich, its merchants had to go to Blythburgh to change money.
At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 Blythburgh was part of the royal estate. It was one of Suffolk's twelve market towns, and its church was especially rich, worth ten times the average for Suffolk, one of the richest counties in England. There were two unendowed daughter churches. Blythburgh must have had considerable wealth and influence.
Around 1120 Henry I granted Blythburgh church to the Augustinian canons of St Osyth's Priory in Essex. This was presumably the rich Minster church and not one of its unendowed dependents. The present parish church probably descended from one of these. There were canons at Blythburgh by 1147. The priory was never very large but by the end of the thirteenth century it owned land or rents in about 40 Suffolk parishes. In 1407, when the priory was in decline, there were seven resident brothers, including the prior. Before 1350 the number could have been in double figures.
The start of decline
Blythburgh, located within a rich agricultural area and on an important road at the lowest crossing on the river Blyth, no doubt continued to prosper through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries into the beginning of the fourteenth. Whether Blythburgh was ever a significant port is doubtful. It is easy to confuse such activity at nearby Walberswick (in the same manor and closer to the sea) with Blythburgh itself. Even Walberswick had to reach agreement with its powerful neighbour Dunwich, in its heyday in command of the mouth of the river, before it could fish and trade with its own ships. In any case sea-going vessels of any size would probably have been unsuited to the narrow twisting channel leading upstream to Blythburgh.
Nevertheless, in 1327 the community was the 21st richest in Suffolk, ranked below Beccles and Dunwich locally, but above Lowestoft, Southwold, and Halesworth. The Black Death, which reached East Anglia in 1349, was a turning point. The impact of the loss of population and the social and economic disruption that followed can be seen in the tax returns of 1449. Blythburgh, like many other Suffolk communities (but not Walberswick) was granted tax relief because it was less populous and prosperous than it had been more than one hundred years earlier. Perhaps Blythburgh suffered more than its neighbour because it was a thoroughfare town enjoying an income from passing travellers. Decay is also evident from the accounts of the Lord of the Manor, John Hopton, who succeeded in 1430 and died in 1478. Living at what is now Westwood Lodge, he had a flock of 700 sheep, took 1000 rabbits annually from his warren, and fattened bullocks. But of his annual income of about £300, only £40 came from his Suffolk estate and his tolls from the local market had dwindled to almost nothing. By 1490 there was only one stall.
Paradoxically, in this period of apparently straightened circumstances, Blythburgh church was rebuilt. The prior obtained a licence to rebuild in 1412 and by 1480 the project was complete. The great new church, which retained an existing fourteenth-century tower, does not reflect either a large or especially rich community. It is not a 'wool' church - John Hopton's flock was not particularly large and east Suffolk played only a minor role in cloth production - if anything, apart from fishing, it was butter and cheese country. Clearly, there was money around, although the slow pace of building meant that spending could be spread over many years. We don't know how much John Hopton contributed but his was Yorkshire rather than Suffolk money. The church's size, its extensive stained glass (now almost all gone) and its furnishings, reflected less the wealth of the community as a whole than the deliberately conspicuous expenditure of individuals who wished to be remembered after their deaths. They relied upon the prayers of the living to speed their souls through purgatory to salvation: their spending was, as one writer has put it, a form of post-mortem fire insurance.
The sixteenth century brought great changes. The early years may have been ones of optimism. The White Hart inn was built (or perhaps rebuilt). Its fine moulded ceiling survives in the bar although much of the building's timber frame has gone, to be replaced at one end by a red brick 'Dutch' gable (high fashion when it was added in the seventeenth century), and by a nineteenth-century façade facing the road. Blythburgh held its position in the table of Suffolk communities' taxable wealth - listed at 19th in 1524, although the possibility that those assessments lagged behind reality, as they had done in the fifteenth century, must be remembered. But great changes were imminent. The suppression of Blythburgh priory was authorised by the Pope in 1528 to contribute to the foundation of Cardinal College, Ipswich, by Cardinal Wolsey, although his disgrace and death brought a reprieve until 1537. Then King Henry VIII suppressed the priory. The prior received a small pension but the handful of remaining priors got nothing. The priory was by then poor, worth a little over £8 including £2 for five horses and an old cart. Its properties had suffered after the Black Death and some had been lost to the sea by coastal erosion. In real terms the institution was less wealthy at its suppression than it had been 250 years before.
There were also dramatic changes to the parish church. With the Protestant ascendancy and royal edict came, from the late 1540s, the removal of altars and images, the whitening of walls, the smashing of glass (although much stained glass is known to have survived in Blythburgh until at least 1660), and the surrender to the King's commissioners of the accumulation of generations of pious benefactions. A powerful storm in 1577 added to the discomfiture of worshippers. During a service the church was struck by lightning, killing two people and damaging the spire.
At its suppression the priory's properties were granted to Walter Wadelond of Needham Market and in 1548 reverted to the Hopton family, being combined with the Blythburgh manor they already owned. The Hoptons' time in Blythburgh was however approaching its end. In 1592 they sold the Blythburgh, Walberswick and Westleton manors to Alderman Robert Brooke, a successful London grocer. He also bought the Hoptons' Yoxford estate with Cockfield Hall. This became the seat of his son, also Robert, from 1602. From that date Blythburgh's major landowner lived outside the parish. Westwood Lodge park was immediately let and the house followed in 1614. Later in the same century the estate passed to the Blois family (they had been Ipswich mercers and chandlers - like the Brookes founding a landed family on a sixteenth-century trading fortune) through the marriages of Sir William Blois (1626-75). His first wife was Martha Brooke, and his second Jane, widow and heiress of his brother-in-law, John Brooke.
In the seventeenth century Blythburgh's physical and economic decline gathered pace. William Dowsing visited the church in April 1644 and with puritan zeal smashed crosses and carvings, figures and glass. Blythburgh's patron, Sir Robert Brooke, who also had puritan inclinations, no doubt supported this action. The story that Cromwell's soldiers tethered their horses in the church and peppered the angels in the roof with shot from their muskets is however less credible. Studies of the lead shot, of a type not known in Dowsing's time, and noting payments by the churchwardens many years later for the shooting of jackdaws in the church, provide a more likely explanation for the damage. The Archdeacon's parochial visitation of 1663 found a church falling into disrepair and disuse. There had been no communion for the past twelve years. The scourge of windswept timber and thatch towns - fire - also visited Blythburgh. That of 1676 was especially damaging. Some inhabitants, unable to or thinking it not worth rebuilding their properties, moved elsewhere. Few village buildings of before that calamitous date now survive. In 1754 there were only 21 households and a population of 124.
Decay in an expanding world
Symbols of burgeoning economic development and prosperity in the eighteenth century passed through Blythburgh rather than involved it directly. The Blyth navigation between Southwold and Halesworth was completed in 1761. The drainage of the adjacent marshes continued apace and grazing cattle replaced wildfowl and wader. A new turnpike road carved its way through the centre of the village in 1785, some of the remaining fabric of the priory being used in its foundations. The old main road that had meandered past the church was thus bypassed, and became a quiet backwater. The site of the old market place between the church and the new road was forgotten. A more forbidding symbol of population increase, unemployment and grinding poverty, was the opening in 1766 of Bulcamp House of Industry, designed to house 400 paupers from 46 parishes and one township in the Blything Hundred. It became a feared workhouse in the nineteenth century, with over 550 inmates in the 1820s. Even in the twentieth century, after it had become a hospital, some old people still dreaded the thought of going there.
Blythburgh's population rose rapidly, peaking in 1851 at 1,118, including the workhouse. Farming in Blythburgh had a high reputation. In 1813 Westwood Lodge was described by the agricultural commentator Arthur Young as 'without exception the finest farm in the county'. For the Suffolk farm labourers the picture was less rosy. Children worked in the fields from the age of six and wages were very low in comparison with other counties. In 1850 an adult's wage was only 73% of the English county average. Educational opportunity arrived relatively late in Blythburgh, even for Suffolk, whose clergy and landed gentry were castigated by a contemporary writer for their indifference and neglect. Blythburgh had had a Dame school but the village school only opened in 1875, finally closing in 1964.
If Blythburgh's population worshipped at all, the majority were to be found at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Dunwich Road, built in 1837. The neglected parish church continued to moulder into decay, completing the destruction of the medieval glass started by the sixteenth and seventeenth-century iconoclasts; many of the church records were burnt in the church stove. In 1881 the Bishop of Norwich deemed the fabric to be unsafe and closed the church.
The decay of Blythburgh church is not surprising. The raison d'être for its great size and lavish display ended in the sixteenth century with the Reformation and new attitudes to purgatory and the saving of souls. The poor populations of the eighteenth and nineteenth century could not afford to reverse the depredations of the iconoclasts and years of neglect, even if they had wished to do so. The non-resident patrons also had problems of their own. Cockfield Hall was in the hands of trustees in the late eighteenth century while gambling debts were settled, and in the nineteenth century the miserly eighth baronet had twelve expensive children coupled with an agnostic attitude towards religion.
Although Blythburgh church came close to sharing the fates of Covehithe and Walberswick whose equally imposing structures fell into ruin and were drastically reduced to suit their small congregations, poverty and indifference were ultimately the saviours of Blythburgh's medieval fabric. Given leadership and money, the church would no doubt have been heavily restored in the nineteenth century. It took a national campaign in the 1880s to repair and reopen the church but a controversy over the extent to which it should be restored was long and heated. A scheme drawn up by the architect G. E. Street, favoured by the local building committee, led by the determined incumbent, Henry Sykes, appalled the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, founded by William Morris. Morris had many highly placed supporters, and the ear of the patron, and argued for preservation not restoration. But he failed to impose his ideas upon Blythburgh and the SPAB eventually walked away in disgust. Nevertheless, by influencing potential benefactors against the local plans, the SPAB may have made it more difficult to raise money and so stayed the hands of over-zealous restorers.
The local building committee included some prominent artists, reflecting the long established attraction of the Blyth valley to painters. The Royal Academicians Ernest Crofts and Sir John Seymour Lucas had homes in the village. They considerably altered and extended modest buildings, probably of the seventeenth-century, to create their picturesque houses 'The Green' and 'The Priory'. Thus the invasion of the area by incomers, seeking weekend or retirement homes, that became obvious in the late twentieth century, had its origins almost one hundred years earlier.
The Southwold Railway, opened in 1879, gave Blythburgh a station and a hump-backed bridge to carry the main road over its tracks. For fifty years the railway provided access to the main line at Halesworth in one direction and the sea at Southwold in the other. Blythburgh never had cause to complain about its communications. But the national rail network dealt a mortal blow to the river navigation. By the start of the twentieth century commercial traffic had ceased. And the river flooded back over the marshes downstream of Blythburgh to recreate a wildlife habitat later designated as a National Nature Reserve.
As twentieth-century society became more mobile, and the pattern of employment in agriculture changed, local services declined. In the nineteen-twenties Blythburgh still had, in addition to the White Hart, an off-licence, a post office, a general store, a shoe maker, a shoe-repairer, a dairy, and a carpenter/wheelwright/decorator who could also provide you with a coffin and bury you. By the end of the century only the White Hart remained, together with the post office, soon to be rehoused in a rejuvenated village store. The Reading Room had also gone - the coup de grâce administered, it has been said, by the first transmissions of Independent TV. The abandoned Primitive Methodist chapel was a forlorn sight. The village hall, however, once the domain of the Women's Institute and now transferred to the community, was to be restored to maintain and improve its attraction as a focal point for Blythburgh's active societies. The onetime Bulcamp workhouse was in the process of conversion into expensive private dwellings. And the church still commanded the valley, as it and its predecessors had done for over 1,300 years. However, it now looked upon a very different village and landscape.
The list of useful sources is quite long. They are given in "Writing about Blythburgh history. A select bibliography" in the Blythburgh Society’s series of Blyth Valley History Notes featured on the Blythburgh History Pages.
Blythburgh, September 2001.
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