Our history lies before us. Suffolk County Council’s Heritage Explorer website
is going from strength to strength. Not only an excellent interactive map to spot ancient monuments, listed buildings, archeological explorations and so on, but a series of illustrated online talks circling around the subject of the Rendlesham Anglo-Saxon palace.
After twelve years of extensive metal-detecting and archaeological investigation, the site of the early East Anglian royal settlement has been identified at Rendlesham, first mentioned in the 7th century by The Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. An internationally important site. Specialist subject areas are introduced by experts and researchers in these talks, which are freely available using the above link. From an Ipswich point of view, a key presentation in November 2020 was Anglo-Saxon Ipswich given by our own Keith Wade, for many years the Suffolk County Archaeologist.
The talk served as a timely reminder of just how extraordinary and unique is the story of our home town – a story which was revealed only by modern archaeological excavations (as exemplified by the article on page 9), most notably The Origins of Ipswich Project, 1974 to 1990. Ipswich is one of a handful of towns in north-west Europe with origins in the seventh century. By the eighth century it was a major craft production centre engaged in international trade. The most dominant was the distinctive pottery which came to be known as Ipswich ware which was mass-produced south of Carr Street and traded across the south-east of England and beyond.
This founding of Ipswich as an international port and craft production centre in the early 8th century appears to coincide with the sudden decline in activity at Rendlesham; the two things must surely be connected. Many of the functions performed at Rendlesham and other royal vills in the seventh century are transferred to Ipswich where a truly market-based economy develops. Rendlesham was more of a central place for exchange with some craft production. As studies continue it is likely that this model of the founding and development of towns in other parts of the country can be established.
Ipswich was the only one which continued on the same site. It continued to thrive during the Danish occupation and was in the top ten towns in the country until the Norman Conquest. By the mid-twelfth century Ipswich had dropped to number 21 in the town rankings as it had to contend with competition from other Suffolk and East Anglian towns. Never again would it recapture its Middle Saxon importance.
Incidentally, one of the follow-up questions to Keith elicited the progress on his book about Anglo-Saxon Ipswich. He said that one would have thought that the 2020 extended period of lockdown would have been the ideal opportunity to continue the research and writing of the text. However, this prolonged uncertainty mingled with health and other worries acted as a disincentive to work as normal – something that many people will have experienced, I would hazard. However, I believe that the text is more or less complete and illustrative material is now being drawn and assembled. Exciting times ahead.