The Secrets of Dunwich: East Anglia's lost capital

All Saints Church in 1919

All Saints Church, Dunwich, in 1919, just before it fell into the sea - Credit: Dunwich Museum

When you think of the important towns and cities of East Anglia, your mind jumps to Ipswich, Norwich, Lowestoft, or Bury St Edmunds, not to the tiny village of Dunwich, nestled on the coast between Sizewell and Southwold. 

However in the Middle Ages this now minuscule village was probably the largest town in the county, and a busy port linking Suffolk to the continent.

Now, the former town, sometimes known as Suffolk's Atlantis, lies under the sea inspiring myths of church bells ringing underwater on a stormy day. 

We spoke to an expert, who told us the story of Suffolk's lost capital. 

Dr Francis Young is one of the foremost experts of the history and folklore of East Anglia

Dr Francis Young is one of the foremost experts on the history and folklore of East Anglia - Credit: Francis Young

Dr Francis Young, a Cambridge historian, and specialist in the folklore and belief of East Anglia said: "We think the town was originally Saxon. 

"There's a big debate about whether Dunwich is the same place as Dummoc, which was mentioned in Bede's 7th century Ecclesiastical History of the English People as the site where Saint Felix founded the first East Anglian cathedral.

"The idea that Dunwich is East Anglia's lost capital comes from the theory that Dunwich was Dummoc, which had a cathedral.

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This seems to have been a source of pride in the medieval town.

"A seal of the bishop of Dummoc has been found in Eye whose monastery controlled the monastery in Dunwich, which helps support this theory, although others argue Dummoc was, in fact, Walton Castle, which has sunk into the sea at Felixstowe."

Speaking about the significance of the town, he added "Dunwich was the obvious place to build a port. We know Dunwich had eight parish churches, which makes it comparable in size to contemporary Ipswich. 

All Saints Church in Dunwich which fell into the sea in 1919, photographed in 1903

All Saints Church in Dunwich which fell into the sea in 1919, photographed in 1903 - Credit: Dunwich Museum

"The churches weren't the only religious institutions: the Dominicans and the Franciscans both had friaries on the site and the Knights Templar had a chapter house. 

"While it was never formally incorporated as a city, for the Middle Ages Dunwich was a very large town.

"The Domesday Book of 1086 records a population of 3,000 people, and it probably peaked at around 6000 people in the 12th century.  For comparison, Bury St Edmunds had only reached 6,000 people by the 18th century. 

"The town would have had all of the things that go on in a major port: fishing, merchants warehouses, shipbuilders, people who made ships tack — A place of this size would have had everything."

The Kirby Map is a unique record of Dunwich in the 17th and 18th centuries. The museum bought it through crowdfunding.  

The Kirby Map is a unique record of Dunwich in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was bought by the Dunwich museum after a crowdfunding campaign last year. - Credit: Dunwich Museum

However, having everything just meant the town had more to lose.

Dr Young continues: "In the 12th century Dunwich was hit by a storm surge known as the flood of Marcellus in which the harbor was destroyed, and the river changed course north, damaging the town's access to navigable rivers, which were vital to medieval commerce.

"This was comparable to the surge which occurred in 1947, which caused massive damage on the Essex coast. East Anglia has this sandy coastline that isn't held together by anything. A big surge that hits the cliffs can drag a lot of earth away. 

"There are no sources on if anyone died, with people mostly complaining about the loss of buildings and property.

"We mostly rely on financial records for this period, and they show people were very concerned. The Benedictines in particular were worried about their priory, while the Dominicans moved to Blythburgh.

"The flood led to the commercial impetus behind the town going away, but the destruction of Dunwich was gradual, not overnight."

A drawing of the medieval town of Dunwich superimposed on a modern photograph

A drawing of the medieval town of Dunwich superimposed on a modern photograph - Credit: Dunwich Museum

"It remained a fairly big town in the 16th century. The temple church survived the initial flood and was taken over by the hospitallers. There's a map dating from 1587, which shows half a city. The last church only fell into the sea in 1919."

In the early modern period, Dunwich held a different significance: "Parliamentary constituencies tended to be decided by ancient tradition. 

"In the Middle Ages, Dunwich was what was called a free town. As a free town, Dunwich had a mayor and a corporation of Aldermen who were in charge. This also meant Dunwich returned 2 MPs to the House of Commons. 

"As the population decreased, the town kept this right so that by the 18th century, whoever owned the now minuscule village of Dunwich essentially owned 2 seats in the house of commons. While this was happening, massive cities such as Manchester, which had sprouted up after the middle ages, had no representation.

"This was finally solved by the Reform Act of 1832, and the institution of a census in 1841, which led to the constituency boundaries being redrawn."

Dr Young believes if the town had survived it would have led to the county being quite different today.

He said: "I think it would have detracted from the importance of Bury St Edmunds. 

"East Suffolk has always had a bit of tension between the central agricultural belt and the coast. A major urban and religious center would have brought the center of gravity of the county to the east, and potentially have led to more links with Europe."