Ipswich Icons: Was king’s gift of river the idea of Wolsey?

A sketch of Ipswich from the very early 16th Century. It is the earliest known illustration of the t

A sketch of Ipswich from the very early 16th Century. It is the earliest known illustration of the town. Picture: Ipswich Maritime Trust collection - Credit: Archant

A guest contributor, Andy Parker, tells how the people of Ipswich were granted ownership of the River Orwell.

The statue of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in St Nicholas Street, Ipswich. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The statue of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in St Nicholas Street, Ipswich. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The spring of next year will be the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII gifting the rights of the River Orwell to Ipswich Corporation. Back in 1519 the borough council didn’t exist; the Corporation, as it was called, consisted of merchants and port men who ran the town.

By being given these rights they had control of the river, including the rights of navigation, trade and commerce, as well as rights over-arching those that sailors had on the river. It is this that makes the Orwell unique in Britain, in that the river and riverbed are owned by the town of Ipswich, unlike nearly all other tidal rivers, which are owned by the Crown Estate.

However, these rights led to a long-running dispute with Harwich which mainly focussed on which town controlled the trade that flowed up and down the river. Similar rights have existed in some way since Ipswich was given a charter by King John in 1200 and were built on by subsequent Acts of Parliament and the charters granted by different monarchs.

The most significant is the charter conferred by Henry VIII and the Lord High Admiral which applies as far down the river as the Orwell Haven. The exact demarcation is not fully described, thus leading to the dispute with Harwich.


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But why was Ipswich granted these rights in 1519? This is something that requires much more research, but it probably comes down to three important factors. The first was the town’s important connections to the Suffolk wool trade, primarily as a shipping and distribution centre to London and Europe.

Calais in France had been a staple port for the wool trade since the late medieval period. Trade between Ipswich and Calais, while it was controlled by England, was important for the industry to flourish and Henry VIII fought hard, later, to keep Calais in English hands.

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Secondly, Ipswich was the location of a famous shrine. The site of Our Lady of Grace is in Lady Lane, at the back of the New Wolsey Theatre, and was a pilgrimage site before the reformation. It was visited by Catherine of Aragon in 1517. Henry VIII also visited the town several times, and visited the shrine around 1519. Henry also visited Harwich, which many believe was to plan his defences on the east coast.

The third factor, probably the most important, was that Ipswich was the hometown of Thomas Wolsey; in 1519 he was rising high at the court of Henry VIII.

All these factors played a part in the growth of the area, and with the town’s support for Henry VIII during the early 1500s more than likely resulted in the granting of these rights not by Henry himself but more likely by Wolsey under the auspices of Henry’s name. In 1519, Ipswich and its most famous son, Wolsey, were increasingly significant at court.

It was the building of Wolsey’s “Cardinal’s College” that brought the town to the peak of its fame. The immensely grand proposed college was to rival Oxford University, but the start of building was almost immediately followed by Wolsey’s fatal fall from grace, leaving us with just the college’s small Watergate.

The contemporary illustration shows Ipswich at the dawn of the 1500s, centred on the all-important St Peter’s dock beside Stoke Bridge. St Peter’s Church, at that time the college’s chapel, along with other medieval churches still standing today, is also shown. It is the earliest known illustration of the town.

Text of charter granted by Henry VIII

Grant, reciting patent 12 March 3 Hen. VIII., confirming a grant of certain liberties by king Edward [IV.], subject to a farm of 60l., and, inter alia, of the jurisdiction of admiral within the town. A place called Pollesheved, frequently inundated, being in dispute, to be included in the liberty of the town as heretofore. Also to have “wrek, fletson, and getson,” and the goods of felons-de-se, and deodands. None but freemen to trade with any stranger in the town. The bailiffs and burgesses to have power to amend the customs or ordinances. Del. Hampton Court, 3 March 10 Hen. VIII. n Andy Parker is a young and passionate local historian, born and raised in Ipswich, who works closely with the Ipswich Maritime Trust.

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