Priory holds clues to foundation of what we know as Felixstowe
PUBLISHED: 11:00 06 October 2015
The clues are there. The odd street name – Priory Road - and place name – Abbey Grove – are the only reminders that Felixstowe was once home to a group of monks.
Retired English and drama teacher Phil Hadwen is passionate about Felixstowe’s forgotten history.
He said: “Much of Felixstowe’s early history is shrouded in the mists of time, partly because much of its records were destroyed in the peasant’s revolt of 1381.
“A chap called John Battisford of Bucklesham led a mob that attacked various buildings in the area and the priory was among them.”
The history of Walton Priory is closely linked to the Bigod family who were important political leaders and landowners in the years following the Norman Conquest.
Phil said: “The Bigod family owned land in the area and had built Walton Manor. In 1097 Roger Bigod and his eldest son William founded a small religious community in the grounds of the old Roman fort near to what is known locally today as ‘the dip’.
“We know this because of documents that still exist relating to the time of William II.”
Phil said the priory returned some of its lands back to the Bigod family in 1146.
He added: “The Bigods used the site to build Walton Castle, probably on the site of a Roman fort. In exchange the monks were given a parcel of land behind what is now Walton Church known as the bredinge, the area is still known today as Abbey Meadow.”
At very low tide remains of Walton Castle – effectively now a pile of rubble – can still be seen off the coast of Felixstowe.
Phil said: “We know that the priory which existed then near the castle enlarged its facilities in 1187 and included a dormitory, refectory and a guest house. But the encroachment of the sea forced the priory to relocate to the parcel of land behind Walton Church in 1307.”
Phil said the priory, before its move, had a prior and 13 monks, but was downgraded to just three or four monks plus a warden following the move further inland.
He said: “It wasn’t particularly wealthy, but it carried on surviving for some time. In 1528 Henry VIII decided to close it and seize its assets.
He gave it to Cardinal Wolsey who used its wealth to help pay for the college he was building in Ipswich.”
But Cardinal Wolsey soon fell from royal favour. Phil said: “When Wolsey fell from grace Henry gave the land to Thomas Howard the Duke of Norfolk who in turn gave it to a priory in Thetford.
“The priory in Thetford was later dissolved by Henry VIII during the English reformation and the land at Walton fell into crown hands.”
In 1576 the records show that Elizabeth I sold the land to lawyer Thomas Seckford.
Phil said: “Eventually the land came into the hands of Felixstowe Urban District Council which developed the area. Nothing visible is left of the priory.”
Today the former site of the priory is in Walton’s Ataka Road and it is a quiet residential area.
Phil said: “Excavations in 1968 and again in 1971 found evidence of an early timber building, but also found stone footings which were probably the old manor house.” Phil is also vice-chairman of the Felixstowe Society and regularly speaks on local historical topics.
He said Priory Road in the modern day Old Felixstowe area of the town was probably named after fish ponds in the area which were owned by the priory.
He added: “It is fascinating to discover how Felixstowe developed, it is a relatively modern town, but with this side to its older history and heritage that people are often unaware of. It developed as a hamlet of Walton which was the main settlement.
“The monks were licensed to hold a fair and Walton Priory was also referred to as Fylthestow, which is Saxon for place of felled trees where hay grows.
“This name was given to the area up until the 16th Century. This developed into Felixstow and the “e” was added later by 19th Century developers of the town.”
Phil added that road names and other place names often hint to previous occupants or past land uses.
He added: “The one thing I can’t find out is why Ataka road is called Ataka Road. It is a mystery.”