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Suffolk is one of the largest and most beautiful of shires and its greater distance from London has saved it from some of the ravages inflicted on its southern neighbour Essex. The ‘south folk’, from whom the county took its name, formed part of the kingdom of the East Angles, which survived from the 6th cent. until overrun by the Danes in the later 9th cent. The county boundary to the south is the Stour, to the north the Little Ouse and the Waveney. The twin pivots of the county are Bury St Edmunds, described by Leland as ‘a city more neatly seated the sun never saw’, and Ipswich, in Camden's words ‘the eye of the county’. The division between east and west is of long standing and in 1888, the two sections were given separate county councils. They were reunited in 1972.

In Roman times, Suffolk was part of the territory of the Iceni, and the Icknield Way cuts across the county from Thetford to Newmarket. In ad 61 Boudicca's rebellion slaughtered thousands of Romans and their allies and burned Colchester, Verulamium, and London. Burgh castle, defending the port of Caistor-by-Yarmouth, is one of the most impressive Roman remains in the country. By the 7th cent. the kingdom of East Anglia was of importance. The Sutton Hoo ship-burial, near Woodbridge, dating from c.630, is almost certainly the grave of one of their kings, probably Raedwald, who died c.625 and claimed, as bretwalda, sovereignty over the other English kingdoms. A diocese was established at Dunwich, c.630, later shared with North Elmham.

By the 8th cent. East Anglia was experiencing difficulty in fending off Mercia and Wessex. The area suffered severely from Danish raids from 861 onwards. In 870 King Edmund was martyred, allegedly transfixed with arrows, and his body taken eventually to Beodricsworthe, to be known in future as Bury St Edmunds. The region fell under Danish rule from 878, when the treaty of Wedmore allotted it to Guthrum, but was recovered by Edward the Elder in the 920s. Dunwich lost its episcopal status to Thetford, and then Norwich.

The shire of Suffolk, now taking shape, was not an administrative unit, though treated separately in Domesday. There were two large liberties in west and east, the former belonging to the abbot of Bury, the latter to the prior of Ely. The rest was ‘geldable’ land, paying taxes directly to the king. Even this was further divided into an Ipswich district and Beccles in the north. The geldable area contained so few hundreds that, until the reign of Elizabeth, it shared a sheriff with Norfolk.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Suffolk was dominated by the two liberties and the many other religious houses. Strife between the abbot of Bury, one of the greatest of all foundations, and the townsfolk was sustained. In 1327 the town rioted and burned much of the abbey: in 1381, during the Peasants' Revolt, the lord chief justice and the abbot were beheaded. At the dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey was soon ransacked, though Camden wrote in the 1580s, ‘the very carcass of its ancient greatness hath something of beauty’. The estates went mainly to the gentry and nobility, and a number of their towns were given parliamentary representation—Orford in 1512, Sudbury 1559, Aldeburgh and Eye in 1571, and Bury, belatedly, in 1614. In the 18th cent. the gentry began improving their estates, and Suffolk contains splendid examples of the work of William Kent at Euston, ‘Capability’ Brown at Ickworth and Heveningham, and Repton at Glemham Hall and Henham Hall.

Suffolk's prosperity was built on sheep, corn, and fish. The cloth trade, in the later Middle Ages, produced the profits for the fine churches at Long Melford, Framlingham, Lavenham, Eye, and Bury. In the absence of mineral resources or heavy industry, population grew slowly. Dunwich's decline, due to erosion, was evident by the 14th cent., but Ipswich remained a busy port and Lowestoft became a major fishing harbour, particularly after the advent of the railway in 1847. But in the villages there was a steady drift from the land in the later Victorian period: of 531 parishes in the 1901 census, more than 400 had lost population since 1851. Felixstowe developed as a seaside resort in the 19th cent. and after 1945 became a substantial container-port, dealing with Europe.

J. A. Cannon


views updated May 11 2018

Suffolk County in e England, on the North Sea coast; the county town is Ipswich. The land is mainly low-lying and flat, rising in the sw. The principal rivers are the Orwell, Stour and Waveney. The economy is mainly agricultural, growing cereal crops and sugar beet, and rearing sheep, pigs, and poultry. Fishing along the coast (especially at Lowestoft, Britain's easternmost point) is in decline. Industries: food processing, farm machinery, fertilizers, finance. Area: 3807sq km (1470sq mi). Pop. (1997) 674,600.

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