Ipswich: England’s oldest town was a wealthy centre of commerce in medieval times
AS you walk around the historic streets of Ipswich, you are walking in the footsteps of our English ancestors, the 50 generations or more of people who have inhabited the town since Anglo-Saxon times.
There is a continuity of history that makes Ipswich the oldest English town.
The footsteps include those of kings, queens, great merchants, artists, writers, adventurers, churchmen, philanthropists and the ordinary men and women who made their homes here.
It is not impossible that King Raedwald himself might have inspected the new port. King Edward III and his daughter, Princess Elizabeth; Henry VI; Henry VIII; Queen Katherine of Aragon, King Edward; Queen Mary I; Queen Elizabeth I; Charles II; Queen Elizabeth II are among the documented Royal visitors to the town. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was born in the town, Geoffrey Chaucer’s family owned a tavern there; Thomas Gainsborough resided there.
On the next page you can see the sites of its five priories, its existing 12 medieval churches and the remaining great houses as well as the locations of other merchants’ mansions which once existed.
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There are also a number of historic landmarks marked and a time line that traces the history of Suffolk’s County Town.
On the page that follows, a map shows Ipswich’s Anglo-Saxon “horseshoe” of streets, marked with the main features and buildings of the town.
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The town has been lived in for around a millennium and a half, and its fortunes have varied. It was once one of the most important and wealthiest towns in the realm. Abundant with churches and priories, Ipswich was once a place of pilgrimage and a centre of commerce. Merchants built mansions and, with a weather eye on their places in Heaven, endowed the town with almshouses, educational establishments and funded public works.
The Anglo-Saxon heart of the town, centred on Tavern Street, Buttermarket, Dogs Head Street and Falcon Street remains tacit in the street plan today although, of course, the buildings that stood in Gipeswic are long gone, replaced over the years by the business communities who dwelt here from medieval times to the present day.
The Ipswich Star has launched a campaign, to designate Ipswich “England’s Oldest Town”, attracting visitors to experience the atmosphere of its ancient pathways, the glory of its medieval churches, the pleasure of exploring its museums while also enjoying the vibrant waterfront with its restaurants and cafeteria, looking out over the river that Ipswich was founded on and traded on.
In medieval, Tudor and Stuart times, in fact, the townscape had so many churches, priories and grand mansions it left little space for markets, shops and ordinary dwelling houses.
Up river from the docks, to the west of Stoke Bridge, and to the south of the river, surrounding land was marshes and meadows. They belonged to the Corporation which, in 1587-8, gave the rents from the land towards the Armada campaign.
The town’s arteries have spread outwards until today they extend over the marshes, meadows, arable fields and pasture that enclosed its early boundaries.
And yet, despite the development that has taken place, Anglo Saxon Ipswich largely remains in its road patterns.
In 2013 the town still tantalises historians and archaeologists, who are determined to uncover more of its extraordinary past. Notably, Dr John Blatchly, former headmaster of Ipswich school, scholar and author has done much to restore Ipswich to its rightful place among England’s most important towns. The restoration of the St Lawrence bells and recognition of Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Ipswich-born Cardinal Sir Thomas Wolsey with a statue on Curson Plain, St Peter’s Street have done much to raise its profile.
Archaeologist and author Keith Wade, who has provided the Anglo Saxon map’s annotation, has been instrumental in surveying what lies beneath the surface of our town and preserving and recording its heritage.
With so many centuries of town life behind it, there is still much to discover.