Is Ipswich really England's oldest town? Experts give their view

A sign welcomes drivers to Ipswich on Norwich Road.

A sign welcomes drivers to Ipswich on Norwich Road. - Credit: Archant

Ipswich has a claim to being the oldest town in England, but so does Colchester.

In 2013, the debate even hit the national headlines.

Suffolk's county town appears to have been the first town founded by Anglo Saxons after the fall of Roman Britain.

Other towns, including close neighbour Colchester, were founded in the earlier Roman period.

But none of these towns are thought to have survived the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476AD — meaning the ancient and modern towns could be considered separate. 

We asked three local history experts to try and find an answer.

Mike Garland

News REP - JG
Gregg Brown 2/2/12
Pictured is Mike Garland, who is leading some Dickens walks arou

Mike Garland, leading a Dickens walks around Ipswich. - Credit: Greg Brown

Mike Garland, who runs tours with Ipswich Tour Guides, based out of the Suffolk Hold, said: "The key thing is continuous inhabitance. Other towns like Colchester are older — although Boudicca had different ideas about that when she burnt it down."

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"There's a Saxon poem named The Ruin, which is probably about the ruins of Roman Bath. It seems to show they were scared of the ruined towns — they avoided them.

"Some people ask about the Vikings, well Viking raids on Ipswich certainly created mayhem, but they didn't wipe out the entire community. The town continued to exist."

The tour of Ipswich churches about ready to set off from St Stephens church under the guidance of gu

Mike Garland leading a guided tour of Ipswich's churches - Credit: Simon Parker

"We've been able to dig here, so we know how old Ipswich is.

"There may well be a town where they haven't done the archaeology which could be older, although we do know that there are pre-Saxon barrows in East Anglia and Suffolk was a centre of population going back into prehistory.

"You only have to look at Grimes Graves up in Norfolk to figure that out."

Caleb Howgego

Local historian Caleb Howgego runs the Ipswichhistory.com website

Local historian Caleb Howgego runs the Ipswichhistory.com website - Credit: Caleb Howgego

Local historian Caleb Howgego is a little more confident about Ipswich's status:  "Ipswich is arguably the oldest continually inhabited town in England.

"There are towns and cities that were established earlier in Roman Britain, for example Colchester and London, but these settlements were abandoned in post-Roman Britain.

"After the Romans left groups of peoples from continental Europe — including the Angles and Saxons — arrived in what would one day become England. They chose to set up their own small communities rather than inhabit the ruined Roman towns.

"Ipswich appears to have been the first of these Anglo-Saxon settlements that actually developed into a place that a community was based the whole year round to work and trade.

"Interestingly, Ipswich seems to have formed organically as a good location for trade rather than for any political or tactical reason.

"The oldest parish in Ipswich is St. Peter’s. 

The Ipswich Hospital Band use the beautiful St Peter's Church as their rehearsal space.ES 13.6.1

St Peters is thought to be the oldest Parish in Ipswich, so this could have been where the earliest English town in Britain was - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

"So if Ipswich is the oldest continually inhabited town in England then that would make the area around St. Peter’s Church and Wolsey’s Gate the place where the first beginnings of a town in Anglo-Saxon England began — although this was before the country was even called England."

Andrew Phillips

Andrew Philips, who runs the Colchester oral history group, pictured here with his book, Colchester in the Great War

Andrew Philips, who runs the Colchester oral history group, pictured here with his book, Colchester in the Great War - Credit: Andrew Philips

Andrew Phillips, who runs the oral history group Colchester Recalled, comes close to agreeing despite his town's status as Ipswich's primary competitor for the title.

"The answer is: we don't know," he said. "We are talking about the period that was until recently called the Dark Ages. 

"We still don't know how extensively early Saxons came to inhabit this part of the county. 

"Colchester was a Roman city, and the first significant place we would think of as urban in the UK. 

"The Saxon's historical footprint was very soft. These people didn't build in stone, and burnt their buildings when they were unusable.

"The largest excavation in UK history — at Mucking on the northern side of the Thames estuary — found a Saxon settlement built on Roman ruins. 

"But I can't tell you if Saxons or local Britons were inhabiting Colchester between 410 and 650AD.

"Any evidence of early Saxon inhabitants will have been wiped out by the late Saxons and the Normans. William the Conqueror destroyed a lot of what was here before.

"There is some evidence of Saxon habitation in Colchester — three characteristic sunken buildings, the four main roads leading to the gates in the Roman walls, buildings using Roman foundations, broaches, odd bits of pots. 

"But odds are, prior to 650AD, Colchester was a ghost town."

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