Sixteenth-Century Girl’s love for Tudor Suffolk

Having grown up around streets called Anne Boleyn’s Walk and Aragon Avenue, Suzannah Lipscomb couldn’t become anything but a historian with a penchant for the Tudor period, could she? She tells STEVEN RUSSELL about her favourite Tudor spots in Suffolk

HENHAM Park, the sprawling estate off the A12 in north Suffolk, is becoming a second home for “celebrity historian” Suzannah Lipscomb. Last month she was there with Channel 4’s Time Team crew to dig for remains of a lost Tudor manor house that once belonged to the Duke of Suffolk, Henry VIII’s best mate. Next month she’s back for the Latitude music and art jamboree – talking about her latest book in her publisher’s tent.

So history is the new rock ’n’ roll, then? “It seems to be, doesn’t it?” she laughs. “That’s something to think about when all the festival-goers traipse over this amazing park: that, actually, this was the seat of the Duke of Suffolk and that under our feet are parts of these grand old houses.”

The county holds its own in her book A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England, which highlights palaces, castles, theatres, abbeys and other sites integral to a period of history that ran from the arrival of Henry VII in 1485 to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.

Locally, for instance, there’s The Church of St Mary’s at Bury St Edmunds – final resting place of Princess Mary Tudor: Queen of France, Duchess of Suffolk and Henry VIII’s younger sister.

“In Suffolk you do have a bit of an embarrassment of riches, don’t you?” she suggests, cheerfully. So many, in fact, that they don’t all make it into the book!

“One of my favourites is Butley Priory (near Woodbridge). I remembering going down there when Red Rose Chain (the Ipswich-based theatre company) were performing in the forest nearby. It’s a bit of a gem that Mary Tudor stayed at frequently with Charles Brandon (her husband, the Duke of Suffolk).”

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Another favourite is Otley Hall, north of Ipswich. “I’m just a bit of a sucker for gorgeous, brick, Tudor buildings! I know some people think that once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, but that’s a particularly impressive one.

“When you approach it, you have the timber-framed building with, very obviously, that magnificent chimney that reminds you about what life was like living in a hall like that and the difficulties of keeping warm. It’s evocative.”

The hall was home to the Gosnold family for 300 years. Bartholomew Gosnold sailed to the New World, in 1602 discovering Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.

In 1607 – more than a dozen years before the Mayflower arrived – he went back to found the Jamestown colony in Virginia. It was the first permanent English-speaking settlement. It’s often claimed that the two expeditions were planned by the fireside at Otley Hall.

Suzannah grew up near the site of one of Henry VIII’s palaces, in Surrey. “Its very name, ‘None-such’, conjured up a mythical, fabled palace without parallel,” she writes in her introduction. The roads bore names like Tudor Close.

“Hampton Court, with its profusion of twisted chimneys, was not all that far away. I remember as a child going to fairs, riding and even ice-skating in its shadow. Somewhere along the line, these childhood moments sowed the seeds of a lifelong fascination with the Tudors. I don’t think I’m the only one.”

Suzannah studied in Oxford, following Epsom College. After a double first in modern history and a distinction in her Masters in historical research she won a scholarship at Balliol College to read her D.Phil. in history.

From 2007 to 2010 she was research curator at Hampton Court Palace: one of the key figures responsible for a new visitor experience to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne in 2009.

In the autumn of 2010, Suzannah was appointed lecturer in early modern history at the University of East Anglia. (She lived in a tiny Norfolk village not far from Bungay at that time.) In 2011 she became senior lecturer and convenor for history at New College of the Humanities in London.

The Tudor period, she suggests, gave us some of the strongest characters in history and compelling stories, such as the tabloidesque saga of the powerful monarch and his six wives, the dissolution of the monasteries and the Virgin Queen.

It also laid some of the foundation-stones of the English identity, she argues. There was the establishment of the Church of England, for instance; the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the beginnings of a national navy; the translation of the Bible into English and the spreading of influence to the new world of America.

Little wonder Suzannah chooses “sixteenthCgirl” as a Twitter name and admits to “a strange addiction to Henry VIII”! Her historical knowledge has built an enviable media CV to complement teaching and writing. It includes presenting Bloody Tales of the Tower on the National Geographic TV channel and appearances on The One Show and BBC News.

She broadcast live from a studio at Buckingham Palace during last year’s royal wedding for Canadian TV and spent the Sunday of jubilee weekend commentating on the Thames river pageant.

The morning was devoted to BBC Radio 5 Live, being based at Battersea Park, close to where the flotilla gathered. Suzannah discussed what it means to be British and how that notion has changed over 60 years.

Then, in the afternoon, she joined James Whale on LBC for a four-hour stint at Westminster Tower, where they enjoyed a bird’s eye view. “A lot of people said this, but it was a modern-day Canaletto (the Venetian painter). It was stunning. It’s such a shame the weather was bad.”

Then there are the regular appearances on Time Team.

The recent filming saw the historian spend three days at Henham Park, looking for remains of the Tudor house built partly by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, “and we found some great stuff”. The house was near the 16th Century walled garden; so, very close to the existing house at Henham Park.

Henham’s website details how in 1440 the lordships of Wangford and Henham were held by the de la Poles, earls of Suffolk. In 1513 Edmund de la Pole, the leading Yorkist claimant to the throne, was executed by Henry VIII. Henham was given to Charles Brandon, the king’s oldest friend and recently made Duke of Suffolk. A large hall was built on the park in 1538.

Suzannah says the Tudor house later burned down – “a wonderful story involving a drunken butler in the late 18th Century. His master, the 6th baronet, was abroad, doing a grand tour or whatever, and he (the butler) went into the cellars to get himself a bottle of his master’s wine and took a candle and managed to burn the whole of the medieval house down.

“Twenty years later the 6th baronet, who became the first Earl of Stradbroke, managed to save up enough money – mainly by marrying terribly well . . . twice – to build a Georgian house. Which was then pulled down in the 1950s, at a time when manor houses were coming down all over the country I think at the rate of something like five a week, partly because of death duties.”

Before the Henham dig, Suzannah was on a Time Team shoot near Watford, looking for remnants of a house in the grounds of a school. It once was home to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – the son of an Ipswich butcher or wealthy cloth merchant (take your pick). Whatever the truth of his roots, he rose to become Lord Chancellor and Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

Wolsey carried out extensive building works when The Manor of the More (as it was known) fell into his hands. “It was famously described – it may be apocryphal – as being as impressive as Hampton Court,” says the historian.

He did like the good life, didn’t he, our Thomas . . .

“He did. He travelled with all the pomp and ceremony that you would expect of a prince of the church, which is what he was as a representative of the Pope in England. That meant he needed to display that magnificence and sumptuousness and luxury.”

Look at the tapestry-count, Suzannah suggests. Such decorations were effectively status symbols. They took ages to make and were expensive – often woven with threads of gold and silver. “You might expect a nobleman to have 50, or at most 150, tapestries, and Wolsey had 600 by the time of his death!”

The historian adds: “Actually, the interesting thing about the 16th Century is that there was no such thing as non-ostentatious consumption. If you want to display wealth in a subtle way these days you can, but in the 16th Century you couldn’t be subtle about it, and there was no sort of moral opprobrium to displaying wealth in that way. It was actually felt to be an essential quality of good lordship to be able to demonstrate that you had the resources necessary to fight wars or defend the country, or whatever it was.

“But, even so, Wolsey pushed the envelope! People were astonished by it.”

Those Time Team episodes are due to air next year.

There seems a thirst for history. Is that because we live in unpredictable times and find comfort and strength in understanding who we are and where we’ve come from?

“I think that’s at least half of it. I think people are more interested in history. It was in vogue in the ’90s and faded out, and now I think it’s in vogue again.

“That’s partly through a range of fresh ways of doing history, which are attracting a new range of people who might not have been interested in it before. I think there are also changes going on in the way heritage sites present themselves – National Trust; Historic Royal Palaces: places like that – and are now much more geared to providing for the needs of families and creating a much richer visitor experience.

“In the past, it had been much more a strong sense of areas being roped off and little pieces of paper to read, and it being quite dull. There’s a real move in heritage to get away from that: an opportunity to go out with the family and connect with places.

“I think another part of it is the consequences of the baby-boomers. We have more people nowadays who are older and, generally, support our cultural life – the ballet and the opera and so on. Some of the keenest people are those who have finished working and now have an opportunity to read up about these things.

“But I also think it’s what you say: about uncertainty and looking to roots to give us some sort of sense of who we are.”

A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England is published by Ebury at �12.99.

Web link:

Our Tudor ties

ONE of the Suffolk places in A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England is The Church of St Mary’s at Bury St Edmunds – final home of Princess Mary Tudor.

Her tomb, writes Suzannah Lipscomb, lies in “a beautiful and peaceful place” at the far eastern end of the church, next to the altar. “It seems an unassuming, even ignoble, grave for a woman who was daughter of a king, sister of a king, wife of a king and grandmother to a queen.”

Mary – graceful and good-looking – was the adored younger sister of Henry VIII. At the age of 18 she agreed to marry the “feeble and pock-marked” Louis XII, king of France. He was 52.

The extensive festivities that followed the marriage included jousting, “at which a visiting Englishman, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, excelled: a fact which did not go unnoticed by the young bride”.

Sadly, Louis XII died on the first day of 1515, after less than three months of marriage. The spark of romance between Mary and Charles Brandon, Henry VIII’s best friend, flared into a roaring fire and they married in a clandestine ceremony in the February!

Henry was initially furious, yet inevitably thawed and allowed them a second, public, wedding in Paris in March and a third in Greenwich that summer!

“He could no longer remain angry at two people whom he held so dear. He did, however, make them promise to pay the vast annual fine of �2,000 (the equivalent today of roughly �759,000) for twelve years.”

The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk largely retired from court and had four children. One, Frances, would become the mother of Lady Jane Grey.

Mary died in June, 1533, possibly of cancer. Her body went to Bury Abbey and six years later, after the dissolution of the abbey, was moved next-door to St Mary’s, “where just the top of her original tomb remains today; a simple, unadorned ledger slab.

“It was in 1784 – in the age of morbid curiosity – that her tomb was dismantled and reduced, her coffin opened and her embalmed body plundered for locks of her famously long fair hair.”

Meanwhile, Framlingham is the resting place of some of the most important Tudor figures, with members of the Howard family, the dukes of Norfolk, in the Church of St Michael.

But, Suzannah explains, the most important tomb there is deceptively plain, “though it is carved with a simple decorative frieze of Old Testament scenes, including Noah’s Ark.

“This is the resting place of Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lord High Admiral of England, head of the King’s Council in the North and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was also Henry VIII’s illegitimate son and, for years, his only male heir.” And the monarch’s only recognised illegitimate child.

Richmond could well have become king, the 1536 Succession Act having given Henry the right to choose his replacement, but died suddenly in the summer of that year. He was just 17.

Near St Michael’s is Framlingham Castle, which after the arrest of the third Duke of Norfolk in 1547 passed into the hands of Mary, Henry VIII’s daughter.

When her brother died, the Duke of Northumberland planned to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Mary fled to East Anglia, later securing herself at Framlingham. In July, 1553, she amassed armies willing to fight for her right to rule. However, Northumberland surrendered and the Privy Council in London confirmed her status.

“So, it was here at Framlingham that England’s first crowned Queen regnant discovered that she was indeed queen.”

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