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Dunwich – The medieval town lost at sea

Greyfriars, Dunwich - Image Credit - Mrs Airwolfhound - CC License 2.0

Dunwich is a quaint seaside village in Suffolk, England that can boast a fine pub, tea room and small beach popular with holidaymakers. But underlying this picture postcard setting, Dunwich hides a unique history of a medieval town that succumbed to ruin by the elements.

The story of Dunwich starts in the Roman period, with scant but suggestive evidence of a large settlement.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Bede referred to “Dunmoc” as a “Civitas”, with archaeological discoveries including a Roman tumulus and masonry trawled from the nearby seabed.

The Roman document, ‘Notilia Dignitatum’ even refers to a late Roman fort or station in the area, but due to the continual coastal erosion, any surviving remains of the fort or settlement would be hundreds of metres out to sea.

Chapel of St James’ Leper Hospital, Dunwich St James’ Hospital was a C12 leper hospital located just to the west of the medieval coastal town of Dunwich.
Greyfriars, Dunwich was a Franciscan friary in the lost town of Dunwich in the English county of Suffolk.

By the Anglo-Saxo period, Dunwich had become a major port standing at the mouth of the River Blyth, navigable as far inland as Halesworth. In 630 CE, King Sigeberht returned to East Anglia where he later anointed the missionary Felix to the status of Bishop (the first Bishop of the East Angles). This made Dunwich a religious centre for the region and the seat of the bishops of Dommoc till the Danelaw befell Suffolk around 870 CE.

Over the centuries the prosperity of Dunwich grew, even being described as a “Towne of good note abounding with much riches and sundry kind of merchandise”.  This is thanks to the extensive trade network that connected the town with ports across Europe, reaching as far north as Iceland.

     
The lost town of Dunwich – Image Credit : Dunwich Museum – Find out more

In 1154 CE the town was granted a Royal Demesne and boasted nineteen churches/chapels, two monasteries of the Greyfriars and Blackfriars order and two hospitals,  St. James and the Maison Dieu. This building boom extended the town a mile from north to south, covering an area similar in size to even London.

But from the year of 1286 CE, Dunwich’s fate would start to take a downward path…  A massive storm, followed by repeated storm surges began to erode the coastline and change the course of the River Blyth, resulting in a loss of the town’s harbour in 1328 CE.

This was an economic catastrophe for the port and Dunwich became largely abandoned during the 14th century. Without the means or revenue to maintain coastal defences, long-shore drift erosion proceeded in progressively invading the town, wiping virtually every trace of Dunwich off Suffolk’s coast.

Although Dunwich’s name mostly faded from history, the town’s legacy remains in the surviving ruins of the Greyfriars Franciscan friary, the leper chapel and the material evidence of the people who lived throughout the town’s history.

But the story doesn’t end there… an acoustic imaging study by the University of Southampton and Touching the Tide project has revealed the ruins of churches, shipwrecks and hundreds of medieval buildings, submerged up to 10 metres beneath the waves.

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Header Image – Greyfriars, Dunwich – Image Credit – Mrs Airwolfhound – CC License 2.0

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