Twenty? Forty? Sixty? You’re Mr Average in Bronze Age Suffolk. How long do you think you’d live?
PUBLISHED: 18:10 25 September 2018
A drunken king. A ‘tax’ on pregnant daughters with illegitimate children. Ferocious football… Book ‘The Little History of Suffolk’ has facts aplenty – many weird and funny
One thing you really didn’t want to be in Bronze Age Suffolk was a laid-back procrastinator. The clock ticked quite loudly as soon as you were born, so best crack on with life. “The average age of death for men was 34, whereas for women it was 37½,” says Sarah E Doig. (Still, on the plus side, no worries about pension deficits…)
It was a short existence in more ways than one. “Their average height was smaller than modern-day man at 5ft 7½in and women at 5ft 4in.”
These are just a couple of the intriguing facts that pepper Sarah’s new book: The Little History of Suffolk. She hopes her selection “stimulates the mind, and leaves you more informed and interested than you were before picking up the book”.
Works for me. Here are a few more nuggets of intrigue plucked from the pages. See what you think.
The Little History of Suffolk is published by The History Press on October 8, at £12 (hard cover) and £5.99 (Kindle).
No Wi-Fi but nice porch
Speaking of the Bronze Age, there is little surviving evidence of settlements from that era, but sites have been excavated at West Row Fen, near Mildenhall.
“These have revealed post-holes that tell us that some of the earliest known Suffolk houses were circular, about 5m in diameter, with square porches to protect the entrances,” Sarah tells us.
‘Fined’, if daughter has illegitimate child
The good news in the late 1200s was that the local lord might let you farm a parcel of land. There was, of course, a catch.
“At Rattlesden, for example, a tenant with 20 acres of land was expected to pay twenty-nine and a half pennies in dues, plus three hens at Christmas and twenty eggs at Easter.
“He also had to do two ‘works’, such as ploughing, mowing, cleaning ditches or making hurdles each week from October to August.”
“There were further requirements, including a personal tax, as well as an additional sum of money if his daughter married or if she had an illegitimate child. In fact, a manorial tenant’s life was dominated by his or her obligations to their lord, and many eked out a very meagre existence.”
Football… but not as we know it
Football was a popular game among Elizabethan England’s working classes – especially in the eastern counties, says Sarah. But to our eyes it would probably seem more like modern rugby than soccer.
“The earliest reference found so far for a Suffolk game is in Hollesley in 1320, when four pairs of men were ‘involved in bloody assaults’ while ‘playing’. Often known as ‘camping’ or ‘camp-ball’ in the Tudor era, football was a far more violent game than its later incarnation.”
As drunk as a… king
Sarah tells us that Charles II stayed at Saxham Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, at least four times. And it seems he liked a tipple.
On one visit, Lord Arlington – a member of the King’s Privy Council –wrote “I could not speak to the king at Saxham, nor until today, by reason of the uncertainty of his motions.”
Famous diarist Samuel Pepys was also there with the king in 1668 and was told the monarch had been drinking.
Sarah adds: “Indeed, in Pepys’ original diary manuscript there are several blank pages with no entries between 29 September and 11 October 1668, some think because there was so much drunkenness and debauchery during the visit that Pepys could not bring himself to record it.
“More likely, though, that the diarist had been visiting family in the neighbourhood.”
People 1, King nil
Henry VIII (don’t you just love him?) was one for trying to fleece his people, wasn’t he?
He got Suffolk textile workers’ backs up when he and fixer-in-chief Cardinal Wolsey (himself a Suffolk boy) unveiled the “Amicable Grant”. It was, of course, a national tax – designed to help pay for the king’s war against France.
The Suffolk textile workers weren’t happy. In 1525, the cloth industry was struggling and prices were rising. Discontent spread.
“The largest protests were in the south-west of Suffolk, in the cloth-making region, with Lavenham as its centre. Around 4,000 people gathered to demonstrate against the grant, but although they outnumbered the army led by the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk sent to quell the uprising, the rebels were defeated,” Sarah tells us.
“More than 500 of the ringleaders were indicted and imprisoned in London. In the end, however, Henry VIII relented and did not collect the tax, aware how much the support of his subjects mattered.”
Store wars not new phenomenon
The rapid growth of industry in Suffolk sparked an equally brisk rise in local markets.
“Domesday Book (which recorded life in the late 11th Century) lists just nine market towns, but between 1227 and 1310 it is believed royal charters were granted for around seventy markets in the county.”
It wasn’t all peaches and cream.
“Understandably, there was much competition between neighbouring markets, and a thirteenth-century lawyer had even recommended that a distance of at least 6.6 miles be maintained between markets,” says Sarah.
“Despite this, there was a cluster of six markets in the east of Suffolk in an area just 6 miles across.
“In central Suffolk, Hoxne struggled to compete with the market in nearby Eye. In Norman times, both had held markets and both originally on a Saturday. Hoxne had therefore been forced to move its market to a Friday, and in 1227 a charter moved the market day again, to a Wednesday. “This may have been due to the fact that, almost at the same time, neighbouring Stradbroke and Laxfield were also given permission to hold markets on Friday and Saturday respectively.”
Mr Suffolk: number one
“Well, of course, we don’t actually know, although humans were certainly here before the Ice Age…” writes Sarah.
“In 2000, the base of cliffs at Pakefield, near Lowestoft, yielded up some human-worked flints that have been dated to about 700,000 years ago” – then, the earliest evidence of humans in northern Europe.
“Since then, however, slightly older evidence has been found on the north Norfolk coast. Nevertheless, Suffolk can still lay claim to some of the country’s earliest settlers…”
Sarah: Suffolk at heart
Sarah Doig was born in Hertfordshire but counts herself a Suffolk girl: she was only a year old when she moved with her family to Mildenhall and, later, Bury St Edmunds.
She went to school there, left for university, travelled the world during 20 years with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and came back to Suffolk in 2010. Sarah now works as a freelance local history researcher.