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The Legacy of Tudor and Jacobean England: Part One: Princes, Prelates and Popes   Leave a comment

Henry Tudor reigned for twenty-four years, established the power of the monarchy over the nobility, kept England out of foreign conflicts and passed on a full treasury to his son. He also left a Suffolk churchman close to the throne, a man who was to dominate affairs of state for most of the next reign.



Thomas Wolsey was the son of a grazier, a supplier of wool and meat to the clothiers and townsfolk of Ipswich, where a half-timbered house in Silent Street is still claimed as his birthplace. He entered the Church and used it as a pathway to royal service. He so impressed Henry VIII with his capacity for hard work and his grasp of state matters that the young King was soon happy to leave these matters in Wolsey’s hands. The rise and fall of the great Cardinal are part of national history, but Wolsey never forgot his origins, and the town never forgot him. There is even a stained glass panel of him in the County Library. He himself built a college at Ipswich which, had it survived his downfall, might have established Ipswich as England’s third university city, completing a neat triangle with Oxford and Cambridge.

At these universities, emancipated scholars with Renaissance ideas were challenging the accepted beliefs and traditions of the Church. Like the Lollards before them, they found allies in a growing number of less educated people who shared their disillusionment with contemporary society, though they were not always clear about what they wanted to put in its place. Most of this disenchantment and discontent expressed itself in attacks on the religious establishment. This was strongly represented throughout East Anglia, particularly through the great abbeys which, through the trade in pilgrimage and its control of land, dominated both town and countryside, from Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk to Walsingham in Norfolk. In previous centuries, the simmering resentment of peasants and citizens alike could suddenly blaze up out of control, into white-hot rage, and anti-clericalism was by no means restricted to small urban areas, as the Peasant’s Revolt and the growth of Lollardy had demonstrated.

005Neither was anti-clericalism the only cause of discontent at this time. It was closely linked to social and economic causes, especially to the effects of enclosure in increasing poverty and vagrancy in Tudor times. The growing wealth of the trade in wool and woollen cloth was leading both to the growth of the newly enriched ranks of the gentry and to the dispossession of people on their lands in favour of sheep. The monks of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire enclosed whole manors which came into their possession, in order to convert the huge acreage into grazing for sheep. The Golafres of Gnosall in Staffordshire had also married into the Knightleys of the same county, who by the fifteenth century had moved to Fawsley Hall in Northants, from where they married into the Spencer family of Althorp. The effects of early enclosures by the gentry were being felt at this time. In 1498 an inquest jury recorded that sixty villagers had been evicted from the Althorp estate, and left ’weeping, to wander in idleness’ had ’perished in hunger’. New wealth, with no great affinity for the feudal responsibilities as well as rights of landholders was spreading across the countryside seeking out new property. Tudor government was soon to help them acquire it, by taking it from the monks at Coombe Abbey (above) and giving it to the likes of Sir John Harington.

 Many Suffolkers resented the parish priests to whom they paid burdensome tithes, however marginal their surplus harvest might be. Many of these priests were no more virtuous than themselves and, by contrast with thrifty, hard-working merchants who re-built the churches they said mass in, they were often less so. The standard of education among the parish clergy was often abysmally low, especially in Latin, which was the language of all church services. They mumbled their way through these, hardly understanding a word themselves, yet they were supposedly performing the miracle of transubstantiation at the mass, saying the words which turned the wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ. They also had to hear the confessions of their flock, mediating between them and God, and imposing sanctions on them for moral misconduct.

King Hal seemed, at seventeen, a paragon of the Renaissance Prince – handsome, athletic and intelligent, as at home in religious disputation and debate as in jousting and hunting. Yet, even then, something happened to him which made him doubt the efficacy of the rites and rituals associated with his faith. All his children by Catherine of Aragon had died in infancy, except for Mary, and on the birth of yet another infant son he made the pilgrimage to Walsingham himself to pray for the baby. However, the boy died like all the others, and Henry, enraged within his grief, had the monks expelled, and the beautiful buildings of the priory, all except the east end of the Church, and its healing wells, were destroyed, plundered for their stone, and fell into ruins over the centuries.



By the 1520s, heresies like those of John Wycliffe began to reach Suffolk again, this time from northern Europe via Cambridge, which had become the academic centre of the English Reformation. The teachings of Luther had set Germany alight, and rapidly spread through its cities and territories, along its trade routes, so that the international mercantile community became one of the principal agents in this spreading of unorthodox ideas and new doctrines to western Europe and into East Anglia. Books by German Protestants and English heretics in exile were smuggled in bales and barrels and then sent out along the pack-horse routes to wealthy clothiers, patrons among the gentry, yeomen farmers and merchants in the towns. One book in particular, Tyndale’s English New Testament, was to make a revolutionary impact on the towns and villages of East Anglia. One of the most remarkable of the itinerant preachers of   the Word was known as Little Bilney, whose simple and earnest style impressed many, but whose denunciation of idolatry and superstition enraged the local clergy. He was eventually burnt at the stake in Norwich in 1531. Three years later, the chronicler of Butley Priory wrote that

the charity of many people grows cold; no love, not the least devotion remains in the people, but rather many false opinions and schisms against the sacraments of the Church.

Within four years his beloved priory had been stripped of all valuables, its lead roof removed, its coloured glass smashed and its deserted walls left open to the weather and those seeking free building materials. Henry VIII’s attack on the monasteries began in 1535 when royal commissioners made a lightning tour of all religious foundations in order to discover reasons, or excuses, for closure. However, it had been Wolsey himself who had inadvertently added to the vulnerability of the smaller monasteries. In 1527 he had been casting around for funds for his colleges at Oxford and Ipswich. He had obtained papal bills for the suppression of a number of small religious houses whose numbers had dwindled in size. Many of them were in his native county, including the priories of Snape and Rumburgh, and St Peter and St Paul in Ipswich. The lesson was not lost on the King or on Wolsey’s young secretary, Thomas Cromwell.



The middle years of the sixteenth century were tumultuous times. In the 1380’s, John Wycliffe had been denounced as a heretic for his translation of the Bible from Latin into English, the Angel not the angel speech, as one contemporary commented. He went on, and so the pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine. So Wycliffe and his dissident Lollard movement had been rigorously suppressed. The orthodox view was that to make the Bible accessible to the common people would threaten the authority of the Church, and lead the people to question its teaching. Similarly, when William Tyndale published his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek in 1525, he entered into a conflict that eventually brought him to the stake (see inset above). Translating and publishing God’s word in the language of the people was a revolutionary act. However, in 1534, the English Reformation reached its turning point when Henry VIII defied the Pope and broke with the Roman Church. The following year, Coverdale, Tyndale’s disciple, published his vernacular translation of the Bible (see picture above). This was the turning point in the history of the English language. Between 1535 and 1568 five major versions were printed, including Cranmer’s Great Bible, which had Henry’s official seal (on the right is the title page, in which King Henry VIII is pictured giving copies to Archbishop Cranmer and Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, who in turn distribute them to the people, loyally shouting ‘Vivat Rex’.

All were immediate bestsellers, and were the most widely read texts of the sixteenth century in English, with an enormous influence over the spread of the language as well as the egalitarian ideas contained within them. In 1536 all small religious houses were closed down. A few were in a state of decay, but the majority were simply valued at less than two hundred pounds. This was the reason why the nuns of Campsey Ash and Bungay were turned out, as were the Benedictine monks of Eye who had been established there at the time of the Conquest. The dissolution of Leiston Abbey also dates from this time (see the photos of the ruins below). After the suppression the king bestowed the abbey on his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. A farmhouse was built into the corner of the nave and north transept and the abbey ruins were used as farm buildings, the church itself being used as a barn.



The Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, had his eyes on the lands of the Cistercian Abbey of Sibton, and used his patronage to install William Flatbury as Abbot in 1534. Flatbury then acted as the agent of Cromwell and Howard in persuading his brothers to surrender the Abbey in return for assured pensions. Thus, although Sibton was worth more than two hundred pounds in 1536, it was surrendered to the Duke in 1536.

The Northern Rising, or Pilgrimage of Grace, against the religious changes was quickly and savagely put down in 1536, with Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, playing a major role. He had succeeded to the title in 1524 upon the death of his father the 2nd Duke. One of the last of the old nobility, Howard found an early enemy in Cardinal Wolsey, whose destruction he helped to effect. He was active in battle and diplomacy throughout the whole of the reign of Henry VIII. He was present at Flodden; at the suppression of the `Prentice Riots’ in 1517; in the varying skirmishes against the Scots; in Spain and France; and in Ireland where he was Viceroy for about two years.

Norfolk rebuilt the huge family mansion at Kenninghall, near Norwich, because Framlingham, like other castles had become outdated as a domestic residence. Norfolk’s private life was disturbed by contentions with his second wife, Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of the 3rd and last Duke of Buckingham. He first married Anne, daughter of Edward IV, who died childless in 1512. Howard seems to have been as cruel and uncompromising in his dealings with his relatives as he was with his enemies in and out of Court. Though he promoted two of his nieces, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, to be Queens of England for purposes of family advancement, he felt able to abandon them (and indeed pass sentence of death on Anne) in their time of need. His treatment of the Catholics during the Pilgrimage of Grace was the subject of an apology from the King himself.

015 (2)

However, Howard’s cruel crushing of the rebellion enabled Henry and Cromwell to move against the larger monasteries. Early in 1538 the Keeper of the King’s Jewels, Sir John Williams, arrived in Bury with a party of workmen. They marched into the great church and set to work with picks, hammers and chisels on the shrine of St Edmund. Henry and Cromwell had decided that the new religious ideas were right insofar as they complained of the superstitious influences of pilgrimages. With some difficulty, they removed the gold, silver, emeralds and various other precious stones, but left the Abbot very well furnished with plate of silver.By this time the royal strategy for the Dissolution had proved almost total successful in Suffolk. The friaries had all disappeared in 1537-8 and, of all the ancient monastic establishments, Bury St Edmund’s Abbey stood alone. Abbot John Reeve resisted until November 1539. Then, in return for an enormous pension, the highest granted to any abbot, he surrendered his office. From a nearby house, he watched the carts carry away the Abbey’s vestments, silver plate, books, bells, and rolls of lead from the roof, while crowds of townspeople cheered before falling upon the ruined buildings to see what they could scavenge and to cart away loads of stone for their own use. This was too much for the old Abbot, and he died at the end of March 1540, without drawing a penny of his pension. Most of the newly acquired church lands were disposed of through the Court of Augmentations in the form of grants to royal servants and sales to land speculators. By far the largest beneficiary was Charles Brandon, now Duke of Suffolk, after the execution of the last of the de la Pole Duke.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries swept away the active life of many of the holy places of the Middle Ages. The monks and nuns were expelled from their monasteries and convents and pensioned off, apart from those executed for active or suspected resistance to Henry VIII’s designs. The shrines and sites of pilgrimage were largely destroyed, together with venerated images and relics. The lands and buildings of the abbeys passed first into Henry’s possession and then into the hands of established and up-and-coming families. This wholesale expropriation gave rise to the biggest territorial and social upheaval in British history. In a prosperous county like Suffolk, there were many men able and willing to compete for monastic land. Neither was it just church land which came onto the market, but a large number of manors, estates and parcels of arable land, which gave opportunities for men of all degrees from great magnates to yeomen farmers to exchange, buy and sell property in order to consolidate their holdings. Yeomen farmers found it easier to consolidate their holdings in Suffolk than elsewhere where the feudal strip systems continued to complicate the land tenure. By 1536 many small freeholders had built up farms which could be simply and efficiently operated. Now they could add to these holdings by purchase, exchange and marriage.

However, it was the official publication of the English Bible in 1539 which brought religious discord out into the open. In 1545, Henry VIII himself was driven to complain that, that most precious jewel, the Word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same. Priests and objects of superstition were attacked. Preachers, licensed and unlicensed, wandered from church to church, market to market, and from one village green to another, planting new conviction in the hearts of some and confusion in the minds of many. The Lady Chapel of Ely is a superb example of the most ornate fourteenth-century church architecture, richly decorated with hundreds of stone carvings of saints and holy figures. In 1539 every face was smashed by religious zealots in one of the earliest acts of desecration done in defiance of the established church.

Alice de la Pole (granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer) had retained direct control of the family seat of Ewelme in Oxfordshire until her death in 1475, when the manor passed to her son John (d. 1492), Second Duke of Suffolk and brother-in-law to both Edward IV and Richard III. The last surviving legitimate male Plantagenet claimant to the throne, the Earl of Warwick, had died on the scaffold in 1499. The Second Duke was succeeded by his second son Edmund, who was demoted to the rank of earl by Henry VII and fled abroad in 1501, prompting the seizure of his estates. Formally attainted in 1504, he was imprisoned from 1506 and executed in 1513. However, the Poles did not give up their claim to the throne until 1525, when the younger of the two surviving brothers was killed at the Battle of Pavia. The fact that the Yorkist cause lived on for forty years into the Tudor dynasty shows how fragile the Tudor royal line really was, descended through the illegitimate child of John of Gaunt. Ewelme was one of several manors vested in trustees for the life of Edmund’s widow, but it was controlled by the Crown and granted to the new Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, in 1525. Henry VIII took it back in 1535, when he also obliged Brandon to exchange most of his Suffolk estates for lands in Lincolnshire, so that, after 1536, Grimsthorpe in that county became the principal seat of the Dukes of Suffolk.

Meanwhile, a paranoid Henry VIII carried on a vindictive campaign against the Pole family after the son of Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury’s son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, penned a stinging attack against the King’s divorce, from exile in Italy. This resulted in the execution of one of his brothers in 1539 and the suicide of the other. Margaret, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, was an old woman in 1541, once the governess to Mary Tudor, whose mother’s betrothal to Arthur, Prince of Wales, had caused the execution of her brother, Edward Plantagenet, the rival claimant to the throne. Despite this, she became a loyal Tudor courtier. However, because she was also a Neville, she was accused of complicity in the Northern Rebellion, and sent to the Tower without trial. From there she was executed in May, after ten or eleven blows of the axe. When Mary became Queen, her son became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and she herself was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. Her granddaughter became a close friend of Elizabeth I. Perhaps by coincidence, in 1550 Ewelme was among the estates settled by Edward VI on the Princess Elizabeth. It remained in royal possession until 1628.


At the end of Henry’s reign, when the succession was of doubtful continuance in the light of two daughters having been declared bastards and an only son who was sickly, inter-Court rivalry reached a peak over the protectorate of Edward VI. On the one hand were the Seymour brothers, Edward’s uncles, and on the other, the Duke of Norfolk and his son the Earl of Surrey. Surrey acted rashly in the matter of armorial bearings and charges of treason were successfully, if unreasonably, pressed. Surrey lost his head and his father would similarly have died had not the King himself died during the night prior to the day fixed for Norfolk’s execution. Howard spent the next six years in the Tower.

In the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, under the guidance of Archbishop Cranmer, an episcopalian Protestantism with an English liturgy was established as the state religion. When, in 1553, the boy king died, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the de facto ruler of England from 1549, tried to exclude his sister, Mary, the Catholic daughter of Catherine of Aragon, from the succession by setting Lady Jane Grey on the throne. She was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, and Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. The Commons of England were almost unanimous in rejecting Northumberland and his protégé, and the people of Suffolk soon had an opportunity to demonstrate their feelings in a practical way.

Mary was at Hunsdon, near Hertford, when the news of this attempted coup d’etát broke. She moved away northwards towards Cambridge when a messenger from London caught up with her and demanded her urgent return to the capital, advising her that the East Anglian ports had been blocked, rendering escape impossible. Mary sojourned at Sawston Hall, south of Cambridge, and then turned into Suffolk. She attracted support from nobles and commons alike, and received a royal reception at Bury, but Northumberland’s forces were already on the road, so she could not remain there in safety. She made her temporary headquarters at the Duke of Norfolk’s house at Kenninghall near Thetford, where she summoned all the local nobility and gentry to come to her aid with men and arms. She also ordered the release the old noble, also keeper of Framlingham Castle, the Duke of Norfolk, from the Tower of London. He was aged eighty, and died at Kenninghall within the year. His was a momentous life. He has been called a cruel man, but one who lived in cruel times. For over thirty years he had been one of the most powerful and active men in Tudor England, and perhaps his greatest triumph was that he survived in his important offices so close to a despotic King, dying in his bed and not upon the block. His magnificent tomb, and that of two of his wives, is in Framlingham Church (pictured right).


DSC09612By the time she set out for Framlingham on 14 July, Suffolk had committed itself. A sizeable army encamped around the fortress under the leadership of the Sheriff, Sir Thomas Cornwallis, Sir William Drury and Sir William Waldegrave. Two days later, Northumberland’s men, on reaching Cambridge, heard rumours that Mary commanded thirty thousand men in arms. Their refusal to advance to Framlingham sealed the Duke’s fate. Mary was proclaimed Queen and quickly selected a council from among her supporters, emptied the prisons to swell her army, and secured the support of the main towns and east coast ports.  All opposition to Mary becoming Queen collapsed totally and swiftly.

As she made her way slowly through Suffolk and Essex a few days later it was at the head of a triumphant procession, not a cautious army. Towns and villages greeted the rightful heir to the throne who would, they felt, heed their petitions, and deliver them from self-seeking landlords. Yet this mood of celebration was soon replaced by one of disillusionment and hatred. Queen Mary could do little to re-establish the monasteries whose lands now belonged to families professing Catholicism on whom she depended for support, and the landlords, old and new, remained in power. The clothiers continued to keep as large a gap as possible between wages and prices, and destitution and vagabondage increased. Added to all these ills was a religious persecution of unparalleled savagery. Examinations and imprisonments began in 1554. Parish clergy were expelled from their livings for refusing to reinstate Catholic rituals. Women were encouraged to denounce their neighbours, and houses were searched for Protestant books. Heretics were cajoled, bullied, threatened and bribed into submission and recantation. There were many who would not recant, and so, in February 1555, the burnings started.

006Among the first to suffer martyrdom was Dr Rowland Taylor, the incumbent of Hadleigh. Ever since the time of Little Bilney, Hadleigh had remained an important centre of Protestantism. Taylor was appointed rector in 1544, and many of his parishioners became exceedingly well learned in the holy scriptures, so that a man might find among them many who had often read the whole Bible through…so..that… the whole town seemed rather a university of the learned, than a town of cloth-making and labouring people. Taylor was openly hostile to the religious policy of the Marian government, and therefore attracted a great deal of support from the ordinary people of Essex and Suffolk. When the Bishop was sent to say mass in Taylor’s church, he was turned away. Taylor was then called to London, where he was subjected to many trials and repeated examinations. He defended himself cheerfully, and refused to recant, so he was condemned to the stake and degraded from his orders. He was brought back to Hadleigh for his execution, and crowds of parishioners thronged the town to encourage him in his ordeal. So, the first Suffolk martyr perished on Aldham Common on 9 February 1555, where a stone monument marks the spot. A further seventeen men and women from the county died for their faith, and many more suffered ill-treatment, harassment and torture.

008 (2)He was soon to be followed to the stake by his Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, who was, of course, the architect of the English Protestant Church. He was born at Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, and educated at Cambridge. He was a quiet scholar, but was summoned to Canterbury following the advice he had given on Henry’s divorce. He was well-respected by Henry throughout his turbulent reign, as the picture showing the course of the English Reformation demonstrates, with Henry pointing to his son and successor, with the Archbishop standing beside him as advisor. Cranmer was a godly man, Lutheran in theology, well read in the church Fathers, a gifted liturgist with a superb command of English. He was sensitive and brave, but cautious and slow to decide in a period bedeviled by turbulence and treachery. Cranmer preferred a reformation by gentle persuasion, rather than by force.

Like Luther, he believed in the role of the godly prince, who had a God-given task to uphold a just society, and give free scope to the gospel. He was responsible for the Great Bible and its prefaces; the Litany of 1545 and the two Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552.

The driving force of Cranmer’s life was to bring about a restoration of the Western Protestant Church to the Catholic faith. When the Church of Rome refused to be reformed, Cranmer took it upon himself to reform his own province of Canterbury. He sought an ecumenical council with the Lutherans and Calvinists on the continent. He also sought to restore a living theology based on personal experience and the mission of Christ. From this doctrine came his belief in justification by faith and of Christ’s presence in the sacraments. His third doctrine was that of the Holy Spirit, which lay behind his high view of scripture and tradition, and the meaning of union with Christ. At the end he experienced a long solitary confinement, and was brain-washed into recanting. But at his final trial in 1556 he put up a magnificent defense, and died bravely at the stake. He first thrust into the fire the hand that had once written the recantations. The Martyrs’ Memorial at Oxford commemorates his death, together with those of Latimer and Ridley, whose deaths he had witnessed from prison in the previous year.

Bloody Mary died childless in November 1558, but her persecution of Protestants did lasting damage to the Catholic cause, ensuring that, in future, no Catholic monarch would accede to the throne. Her attempt to impose an English Inquisition had failed, and made earthly life intolerable for many English Catholics in successive generations, when even the private practice of their faith was barely tolerated, if at all. The young Queen Elizabeth made her first progress through Suffolk five years later, but the Marian counter-Reformation had left their mark on the people and clergy alike. Although well-received by the nobility, gentry and burgesses of Ipswich, the behaviour of the local clergy made her indignant. The Protestantism which had taken root in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI had been nourished with the blood of the martyrs and had grown into a strident Puritanism. Clergy refused to wear the surplice, were dissatisfied with the remnants of popery in the Anglican services and disliked the Prayer Book. Angrily, Elizabeth ordered them to conform. Some of them did so, at least outwardly, but a royal dictat in matters of religion was no longer going to make either the clergy nor the congregations of Suffolk conform against their consciences.

On the other hand, the new Queen continued to face the threat from resurgent Catholicism on the continent, which encouraged the resistance to conformity among the Catholic gentry at home. The association of the Golafre name with the plots and rebellions of the early Tudor period may have been one reason why the other members of the family were glad to adopt more anglicised and ’gentrified’ versions of the name. Interestingly, the Golafre family were closely related, through the marriage of Beatrix Golafre of Satley, Warwickshire, to the Arden family, through which the writer William Shakespeare was descended. Beatrix’s grandson, Robert Ardern of Park Hall (b. 1413), was the son of a Worcestershire gentleman, who had been one of the claimants to the Fyfield estate, following the death of Sir John Golafre. In 1452, he had been executed for taking part in the uprising of Richard, Duke of York. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Ardens were continually suspected of being first rebels and then recusants throughout the Tudor Period, and one of them, Edward Arden, was executed in 1583 for plotting against Elizabeth I. He was a close relative of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, who had lived near Stratford at a gentrified farmstead in Wilmcote before moving into the town.

It has often been strongly suggested that Shakespeare himself was a Catholic, hence his determination to prove his loyalty, first to Elizabeth and then to James, at a time when Midland gentry families fell under suspicion of harbouring Jesuits in priest holes, such as at nearby Baddesley Clinton, and of plotting against the Protestant monarchy and cause. They were seen as ’the enemy within’ and heavily fined for not attending their parish church and for having private masses said in their homes. The Jesuit priests who ministered to them were ’flushed out’ before and after the 1605 Rebellion, but their confessions in the state papers have left historians with detailed descriptions of the Catholic gentry of Northants, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and of their extensive conspiratorial network across the three counties. The Margaret Golafre, or Gollafor, who had married into the Hodington (Huddington) family was probably from a prominent gentry family herself. There does appear to be a link with the older, aristocratic family, however, in that her descendents, the Huddington heiresses, Joan and Agnes, married Robert Winter and William Strensham. By these marriages, both the Winters of Huddington and the Russells of Strensham were entitled to bear the Golafre arms. The brothers Robert and Thomas Winter (Wintour), were executed (hung, drawn and quartered) in 1606 for their part in the Gunpowder Plot and Midland Rebellion of the previous year. They had both grown up at Huddington Hall.


Religious unrest in Suffolk, as elsewhere in England, continued throughout   Elizabeth’s reign. As her government and bishops pursued its via media (middle way), extremists at both ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum were periodically pressed to conform.   A number of Catholics were fined and imprisoned if they did not attend the parish church, otherwise the government turned something of a blind eye to private masses in manor houses owned by the gentry. A show of unity, or uniformity, in public was what was essential, since the Virgin Queen’s reign was continually beset by plots and planned invasions, even after the defeat of Philip II’s Spanish Armada in 1588. Puritanism was much more of an everyday problem, however, because parish clergy, as well unlicensed preachers could easily stir up their congregations against all religion that was not pure. The Bishop of Norwich’s officers often brought offenders before the magistrates only to find, on many occasions, that the JP himself was sympathetic to puritans, if not to nonconfomists. Many of the leading county families were, by this time, of a Puritan persuasion. They patronised preachers, appointed radical clergy to their parishes, where the livings were in their gift and not that of the bishop, and even opened their houses to separatist meetings.

004However, as with the Catholics, it was not, at this stage, the separatists who met in isolated congregations, mostly secretly, who posed the biggest threat to the authorities, but those who were forming themselves, however loosely, into an organised grouping or party, both within the county and at the national level, in Parliament. In 1582 there was a meeting held at Cockfield, of…

three score ministers, appointed out of Essex, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk… to confer of the Common Book, what might be tolerated, and what necessarily refused in every point of it; apparel, matter, form, days, fasting, injunctions, etc.

The rector of Cockfield, John Knewstub, was a leading light among the Puritans in West Suffolk, with others in the important centres of Hadleigh, Ipswich and Beccles. Puritanism therefore went from strength to strength in East Anglia and it is no coincidence that the first group of separatist pilgrims intending to settle permanently in the New World, or at least New England, were from Old Anglia, and that the distinctive dialect of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk can still be detected in much of the eastern seaboard they settled, remaining distinct from the Midland English which predominates across most of the United States.

018 (2)The Reformation may be seen as the triumph of the venacular over the old international Latin culture of Western Catholicism. Religion became a matter of the word rather than the image, of the sermon rather than the sacrament. In England the new liturgy remained much closer to the old forms it replaced and so most churches required few changes to their interiors. Churches and college chapels continued to be built and decorated in the late Perpendicular Tudor style of Gothic. Wealthy London merchants came to live in Suffolk, men like Sir Thomas Kytson at Hengrave, who built a splendid new house for himself. Local clothiers also put their wealth into land, buying themselves into an expanding gentry class. Both men and women established charities as memorials, as well as setting up elaborate tombs and monuments in brass, marble and stone in the parish churches. The history of Woodbridge has been substantially influenced by the life of its greatest benefactor, Thomas Seckford, who crowned a brilliant legal career when he became Master in Ordinary of the Court of Requests. In 1587 he decided to donate a measure of his wealth to Woodbridge by endowing charities which still pay for the hospital, almshouses, dispensary, lending library and grammar school (see photos). He was also a Tudor statesman and in 1550, 1563 and 1572 was elected to parliament by the burgesses of   Ipswich.


At St Mary’s Parish Church in Woodbridge, besides the tomb of Thomas Seckford (d. 1587) on the north wall of the sanctuary, there is the interesting Pitman monument on the south side of the chancel, in fine ornate marble (above far right). It commemorates Jeffrey Pitman, a tanner and haberdasher and Churchwarden in 1596 and 1608. He was also High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1625 and left a considerable amount of money for the repair and maintenance of the church. His monument also contains figures of his two wives and his two lawyer sons. In St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham, besides the magnificent tombs of the Dukes of Norfolk, there is the tomb of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, which was given into the keeping of the Duke of Norfolk by his father (see above right).


Printed Sources:

Derek Wilson (1997), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford

David & Pat Alexander (eds.)(1997), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury

The Lives and Times of the Chaucers… Part Two   Leave a comment

The Earls and Dukes of Suffolk and the later Chaucers

003 (2)The Earldom of Suffolk was first created in 1336 for Robert de Ufford, a great landowner in the east of the county and, of course, a close attendant of the king, but the Ufford line failed after only two generations and, in 1385, the title was revived for Michael de la Pole. Despite their name, the de la Poles were not soldier-landowners of Norman stock; they were merchants from Hull, originally named Poole, who had added the French prefix in order to become landowners. They rose to prominence by lending money to Edward III. Michael’s father had bought land in Suffolk and married his son into the great local family of Wingfield. Michael won the confidence of the ten-year old Richard II and used his position to extend and consolidate his Suffolk estates. At Wingfield he built an impressive, new, fortified manor house (see above). Still standing, it is the oldest castle in England to have been continuously occupied to this day. However, in 1387 he was hounded out of office by jealous rivals and had to flee to France disguised as a peasant. His son waited eight years to succeed to the title and then held it only for five weeks, before perishing during Henry V’s Agincourt campaign of 1415. The de la Poles were part of the small army which seized Harfleur, but the elder Earl died of dysentery a few days later. His son, the third Earl, then became one of the few English aristocrats to be killed at the Battle of Agincourt. His cadaver was returned for burial at Wingfield.

The lands and dignities of Suffolk now passed to the third Earl’s nineteen-year-old brother, William. As fourth Earl, he played a leading part in the power struggle which broke out at the accession of the infant Henry VI.

William became constable of Wallingford Castle in 1434. In 1437 the Duke constructed the God’s House at Ewelme, a reminder of the de la Pole’s Catholic devotions. William married Thomas Chaucer’s only daughter Alice, by whom she had a son John in 1442 (who became 2nd Duke of Suffolk in 1463). Alice could be both ruthless and acquisitive in pursuit of her son’s inheritance. She was a lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Anjou in 1445, and a patron of the arts.

William worked his way into a position of almost supreme power,  bringing about a marriage between the King and Margaret of Anjou, whom many believed to be his mistress, and dominating the pious, weak-minded Henry. His only strong opponent was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He removed that obstacle in 1447 by summoning a parliament to meet at Bury St Edmunds, a town which the Earl could easily pack with his own supporters. When Gloucester arrived he was arrested and confined to his lodgings. The following morning the Duke was found dead. Lands, offices and tithes were now de la Pole’s for the taking, and he became the first Duke of Suffolk in the following year.

William was steward of the household to Henry VI, and from 1447 to 1450 was the dominant force in the council and chief minister to the king; as such he was particularly associated with the unpopular royal policies whose failures culminated in the anti-court protest and political violence of Cade’s Revolt in 1450. Drunk with power, de la Pole had pursued his own policies, accrued further wealth, harassed his enemies and was quite open in his contempt for public opinion, which was running strongly against him. He was accused of usurping royal power, committing adultery with the Queen, murdering Gloucester, despoiling men of their possessions, giving away lands in France and plotting to put his own son on the throne.

By 1450 Suffolk’s opponents were strong enough to force him to stand trial and William was impeached by the Commons in parliament, but Henry VI intervened to exile his favourite rather than have him tried by the Lords. Instead, he was banished for five years. Dissatisfied with this, his enemies had him followed to Calais. On his way across the Channel his vessel was intercepted by The Nicholas of the Tower whose crew subjected him to a mock trial, after which the Duke’s head was hacked off by an inexpert sailor with a rusty sword and his body was thrown overboard, a scene made even more gruesome by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part II, in which the bard also makes fun of the name of the great family. William’s remains were recovered from a beach at Dover, and Alice had her husband buried at the Carthusian Priory in Hull, founded in 1377 by his grandfather, Michael de la Pole, first Earl of Suffolk.

After William was killed, his properties including the castle and Honour of Wallingford and St Valery passed to Alice. She lent the Crown 3500 Marks and the king spared the fate of attainder of title. She survived many challenges to her position, including a state trial in 1451. Whilst Alice had benefited from Lancastrian connections, she switched to supporting the House of York during the Wars of the Roses. In 1455 she was custodian of the Duke of Exeter at Wallingford Castle. After her husband’s death, Alice had become even more ruthless and took back many of her friend’s Margaret Paston’s manors in Norfolk, with dubious title deeds. The Pastons now grew to loathe the Yorkist family, notorious for their corruption. William’s heir, John, was the greatest landowner in Suffolk and Norfolk and kept an army of retainers to enforce his will. The Paston family were among those who fell foul of the second Duke on more than one occasion. In 1465 de la Pole sent men to destroy the Pastons’ house at Hellesdon. Margaret Paston reported the incident to her husband:

There cometh much people daily to wonder thereupon, both of Norwich and of other places, and they speak shamefully thereof. The duke had better than a thousand pounds that it had never been done; and ye have the more good will of the people that it is so foully done.

024The second Duke of Suffolk could afford to upset farmers, merchants and peasants. He was married to Elizabeth, the sister of King Edward IV (right). His mother, Alice, remained castellan at Wallingford until at least 1471 and possibly until her death in 1475. In 1472 she became custodian of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron. A wealthy landowner, Alice de la Pole held land in 22 counties, and was a patron to poet John Lydgate, no doubt playing a role in having his poetry printed by William Caxton, along with her grandfather’s works.

005 (2)At a time when unscrupulous men like the Dukes of Suffolk held sway and when feuding, rustling and brigandage were common, householders had to take greater care in protecting their families and property. Given the turmoil of the Wars of The Roses, it is therefore not surprising that, by their end in 1487, with the defeat and death of the second Duke of Suffolk’s son, also John de la Pole, the Earl of Lincoln, at Stoke Field, there were over five hundred moated houses throughout Suffolk alone. At the upper end were stone fortresses like Framlingham and Wingfield, but a great many were timber-framed farmhouses of quite modest proportions, like Gifford Hall, Wickhambrook (left). The majority were probably built on traditional defensive positions occupied almost continuously since Saxon times. As well as providing security they had a good, well-drained base, important for building in clayland areas. Solid and functional to begin with, they are now picturesque gems and probably the most typically Suffolk items in the county’s architectural treasury. These include Parham Moat Hall and Little Wenham Hall, England’s oldest brick-built house.

The Wool Trade


027The dynastic struggle which engaged the energies of the nobility had little to do with the real history of Suffolk, and indeed that of much of southern England. However, warfare did provide the catalyst for the rapid industrialisation of these parts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Edward III’s reign, the government realised that the flourishing trade in wool with the continent could be used to raise money to fund its wars with France as well as an economic weapon in them. It levied swinging taxes on markets and customs duties on ports. The results were dramatic: English merchants quickly turned to more profitable trade and foreign merchants sought more valuable markets. Wool exports, standing at 45,000 sacks in 1350, were halved in thirty years and continued to decline.

010In some wool-producing areas the result was catastrophic, but in Suffolk it was the opposite. The decline in the trade in cheap wool brought about a decline in the Flemish textile industry and the migration of weavers from their depressed homeland. Many of them made use of their contacts in Suffolk and settled there, where the drop in wool exports and cloth imports was already invigorating the local cloth industry. The county not only had sufficient sheep to produce the quantities of wool required, but it also had the skilled labour and the trading network. It also acquired the technical expertise of the Flemish master craftsmen and weavers. Within a generation Suffolk, Essex and parts of Wessex had taken over as Europe’s principal exporters of fine cloth.

Suffolk became a boom area, with insignificant market towns and villages, like Lavenham, being put on the map. Ipswich and Sudbury became busy, populous towns. Over the county as a whole average wealth increased fourfold in the century after 1350. In the centres of the new industry the growth of personal prosperity was much more marked. Lavenham’s assessment for taxation in this period increased eighteen-fold. The annual export of cloths increased throughout the fifteenth century. However, industrial growth was not steady and there were setbacks.

The intermittent upheavals of the Wars of the Roses created difficulties. The Earl of Oxford and the Duke of Norfolk were leading figures in the conflict and this meant that the East Anglian tenants of these great landowners were regularly pressed into fighting for either Lancaster or York. But the real history of the region during this period was being woven on the looms of Lavenham, Clare and Sudbury.

Church-builders, Martyrs, Pilgrims and Puritans

023The evidence for much of this wealth is still to be seen in the merchants’ half-timbered town houses and guildhalls and, above all, in Suffolk’s magnificent wool churches. The lynchpins of the cloth trade were the entrepreneurs, the clothiers, men like Thomas Spryng of Lavenham whose tomb is in the church to which he contributed so heavily, so that it became the finest church in the county. Carved on its south porch, and repeated many times throughout the building, are the boar and molet, the heraldic devices of the de Vere family. They remind us that the rebuilding of this magnificent church was begun as a thanksgiving for the victory of Henry Tudor over Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was Henry’s captain-general and largely responsible for the successful outcome of the battle. When the earl returned shortly afterwards to his manor of Lavenham he suggested to the great clothiers and other leading worthies that a splendid new church would be an adequate expression of gratitude for the new dynasty and era of peace it was ushering in. The shrewd merchant community may well have been sceptical about this. For half a century Yorkist and Lancastrian forces had chased each other in and out of power. There was little reason to suppose that the latest victor would not, in his turn, be removed from his throne. Two years later, a rebellion led by Richard’s nephew, another John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, almost succeeded in doing just that.

053Besides Lavenham, there are also many less well-known, but very fine examples of churches begun in the fifteenth century, the building of which was financed by rich merchants. St Mary’s Woolpit was built on the site of a Saxon church given to St Edmund’s Abbey by Ulfcytel, Earl of East Anglia. The first Norman abbot had the timber church pulled down and a new church built. By the thirteenth century, Woolpit had many well-to-do farmers and prosperous merchants who were organised into two guilds. They collected and distributed alms, caring for the poor and needy, and supervised the upkeep of the church fabric. Early in the fourteenth century the guilds, the patron and the rector agreed that Woolpit needed a new church. Preserving little but the foundations of the Norman building, they rebuilt in the prevailing Decorated style using Barnack stone from Leicestershire and Suffolk oak for the roofs and doors. They added side aisles, partly to accommodate two chantry chapels. In the Mary Chapel, the statue of the virgin became a famous object of devotion, attracting pilgrims from a wide area. The decoration of the new church was completed with a profusion of stained glass, and a variety of wall paintings covering almost every free surface.

001In the fifteenth century, the parishioners, perhaps spurred on by the Perpendicular splendours of nearby Rattlesden, subscribed to extensive alterations in the latest style. They installed a magnificently intricate rood screen and loft, surmounted by a carved canopy, which is still in place. This meant raising the height of the nave which now gained a clerestory and a new roof. The superb double hammer beams with their angels were well illuminated by new windows and originally glowed with poly-chromatic splendour. The north aisle was rebuilt at the same time and, to add the finishing touches to the new church, a beautiful south porch was added with statues of Henry VI and his queen above the doorway.





DSC09849The parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Woodbridge was begun in about 1400 when Woodbridge was an extremely prosperous port. It rises high on a hill overlooking the town, close to the old market place, with its group of medieval houses. The church suffered desecrations at the time of the Reformation and in the Civil Wars, but the beauty of the original fine craftsmanship can still be viewed. It has an impressive tower which is lavishly patterned in flushwork flint and stone and stands 108 feet high. It was completed in about 1453 when perpendicular architecture was at its zenith.The parapet is considered to be one of the finest in Suffolk. The eight bells inside the tower were originally hung on a massive timber frame with louvred windows, which deflected the sound down over the town.

The magnificent porch was begun in 1455 with a bequest by Richard Gooding and donations by other rich townspeople. Inside, there are fine traceried panels and emblems from the period. In the baptistery there are fourteen preserved panels of the fifteenth century rood screen, which originally comprised as many as thirty-four panels, stretching the entire width of the church.

DSC09854The growth of trade, especially in woolen cloth, the building of stone castles, moated manor houses and magnificent churches, have all shaped the townscapes of much of central and southern England. The growth of important centres of pilgrimage also contributed to the concentration of population in towns and, as had been proved in the case of Bury St Edmunds in the first part of the thirteenth century, it was now impossible for feudal law and custom to apply in urban communities proudly seeking their independence from powerful magnates, be they temporal or spiritual, and no matter how good or bad they seemed.

021002It was not one of the ancient shrines that brought pilgrims from all over Christendom to England, but the drama of the quarrel between Henry II and his former friend and Chancellor, Thomas á Becket, which culminated in Becket’s murder in his own cathedral at Canterbury. It was the starting point for other tales of the performance of many miracles in his name, or by his spiritual intervention. These led on to the canonisation of the martyr. The story of their quarrel and of Becket’s death is full of contradictions and mysteries, belonging to the period of the re-establishment of order after the anarchy of the civil war between supporters of Stephen and those of Matilda, in which Becket was one of Henry’s chief aides. Part of this new order was the founding of an English legal system, the split between the two men coming over whether a cleric committing a crime should be tried in a civil court, or whether he could only be held to account by an ecclesiastical court, with its milder forms of correction, as Becket demanded. This conflict, as at Bury St Edmunds, was one which regularly played itself out in real life. For many then, as now, it seemed that no man, not even a king, could place himself above the law of the land, but in pre-Reformation England, clerics and nuns were set aside through the rites of ordination from their lay brothers and sisters. They were sacramentally different, owing their chief allegiance to the Catholic Church, which alone had the power to judge them. Although this was a mid-twelfth century quarrel, it was one which was not settled four another four centuries, after it had claimed the lives of many more martyrs on both sides.

 003In 1174, four years after Becket’s murder, in the year of Henry II’s penance at Canterbury, a great fire destroyed the choir of the cathedral which had been built by Prior Conrad earlier in the century. Rebuilding started almost immediately and in 1220 the choir was finished, the body of the saint being transferred from the crypt to its new home in a great ceremony in the presence of King Henry III. There it became a treasury of gold and precious stones donated by kings, emperors and nobles. The approach to the high altar and the shrine was by means of a series of steps up from the old Norman nave. In the fourteenth century this was made more magnificent by the rebuilding of the nave and the redesigning of the transepts. With its huge aisle windows flooding the interior with light and its immensely high vaulting, Yevele’s nave is one of the masterworks of the later Gothic in England.

DSC09542The final addition, that of the central tower, Bell Harry, was begun in 1496. By this time, generations of pilgrims had made their ways, by various means, from Portsmouth, Southampton, Winchester, Farnham, Sandwich and, of course, from London, taking the route of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, down the Roman road known as Watling Street. The pilgrims would travel together for companionship, for safety, and out of a spirit of common devotion. Other holy places and hostelries (left) en route provided rest and consolation for them on their journeys. Those coming from Southampton would travel via Winchester where the shrine of the Saxon saint, Swithin, had been restored in the thirteenth-century retrochoir within the Norman cathedral. Nearer Canterbury they would sojourn with the Carmelites at Aylesford. The route from London by way of Greenwich and Deptford led to Rochester Cathedral, where the tomb of the Scottish pilgrim, saint William of Perth, murdered on his way to the Holy Land, attracted special veneration. In 1420, a hundred thousand pilgrims visited the shrine.

012The attraction of St Thomas’ shrine was for people of all classes and nations. Among the early Hungarian visitors was the Emperor Sigismund (1387-1437), the Holy Roman Emperor. His sister, Anne of Bohemia, married Richard II at the instigation of Michael de la Pole, the first Earl of Suffolk. She arrived in England in a light-weight covered carriage, or Kocsi (named after the village in Hungary where it was invented), and its relative comfort made it popular with ladies, giving English the word coach, one of the few Hungarian words in English, but one still used frequently both as a noun and a verb. Though the marriage, which took place in 1382, was unpopular at the English Court, for financial reasons, there is evidence that Anne became more popular with time, especially with the ordinary citizens of London, for whom she interceded with her husband. Anne of Bohemia died of plague in 1394, aged only twenty-eight. She is known to have visited Norwich, where a ceiling in a hospital was dedicated to her, and in All Saints Church, Wytham, in Oxfordshire, there is a late-fourteenth century stained glass window depicting royal saints, thought to be likenesses of Anne and Richard. Golafre, like his illegitimate cousin before him, had begun his career in the service of Richard at court, and he paid for the windows to be made in Oxford. Like Richard, Golafre was a great lover of Gothic art forms from across Europe. The church also contains a memorial brass and stone to Julianna Golafre, who married Robert Wytham, probably given by their grand-daughter, Agnes Wytham, who was named by John Golafre as his heir, though she died soon after him in 1444.

009017Anne of Bohemia took a great interest in the writings of John Wycliffe, the reforming cleric from Lutterworth, and in the Lollards, his itinerant preachers. She is said to have introduced Wycliffe’s work to Prague, where it had a strong influence on the Bohemian reformer, Jan Hus. By the end of the fourteenth century, Wycliffite heresies had taken firm root in Suffolk, as they had throughout much of the East Midlands and East Anglia. In villages and towns throughout the county there were groups of Wycliffites, or Lollards who met in secret to study the Bible in English, the well-worn, often-copied tracts which condemned transubstantiation, the orthodox doctrine of the mass, pilgrimages, veneration of images, relics and other superstitions. Beccles and Bungay were centres of vigorous Lollardy, but there was also intermittent activity in Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury, and numerous towns and villages along the Essex border. These probably drew their inspiration from the Lollard group in Colchester, which was, for more than a century before the Reformation, a persistent centre of heresy.

018The Lollards were reacting, in part,to the revival of what they felt were superstitious rites and cults within the church, such as the cult of the Virgin Mary. Only one English shrine equaled that of St Thomas of Canterbury in international fame, that of Walsingham in Norfolk, though St David’s Cathedral in Wales, St Mungo’s in Glasgow Cathedral and St Brigid’s at Kildare in Ireland all attracted pilgrims down the centuries, in addition to serving as centres of holiness and learning.

Walsingham’s fame was based on a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1061 in which the lady of the manor was carried in the spirit to Nazareth and shown the house where the Archangel Gabriel had appeared to Mary. She was told to build an exact copy of the house at Walsingham. She then employed skilled joiners to construct the Holy House of wood, a task which they completed (apparently) with the help of a further intervention by Our Lady and her angels.


004In 1169, the Holy House and the stone church which had been built around it came into the possession of Augustinian canons. They popularised the legends still further and pilgrims began to come from many directions. As with the routes to Canterbury, sojourns were made for them along the way. At Houghton St Giles, a mile outside town, on the road from London known as Walsingham Way, there is a charming,
small chapel, known as the Slipper Chapel (see photo above). Here the pilgrims would hang up their shoes before walking the remaining length of winding road into Walsingham to receive their blessing in the ruins of the abbey and in the shrine where the cult of Mary had been revived.


In Chaucer’s pilgrims, whether on their way to Canterbury or Walsingham, and Wycliffe’s Lollards in Suffolk, we have two distinct pictures of mixed gatherings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These centuries were still about great castes and manor houses, cathedrals and abbeys, but as the language and literature of the English developed, we are able to trace the lives of a greater range of classes and characters.

In the following century, these competing cultures of pilgrimage and the itinerant preaching of the word were destined to come into open conflict with each other, sometimes violently, but also creatively, especially in poetry, drama and music.

Printed Sources:

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Robert McCrum (1986), William Cran, Robert MacNeil, The Story of English. London: Penguin.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury

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