‘Blythburgh. In the 15th century this was an extremely prosperous port, with a busy quayside full of ships engaged in the wool trade.’ This is one of many such published statements about Blythburgh’s history. Is it justified by the evidence? This note seeks to replace the uncritical repetition of conclusions about Blythburgh’s wealth, population, and trading activity, often presented as explanations for the building of its magnificent church, with a judgement based on documentary sources.
At the time of the Norman conquest Blythburgh was one of twelve market towns in the county and part of the royal estate. Its church was exceptionally well endowed, even for rich Suffolk. This church, with two unendowed daughter churches, may have been a Minster serving several communities but, if as seems likely, it was the church granted to the Augustinian canons in the twelfth century, it was not a predecessor of the present church - that could be descended from a daughter church.
Blythburgh was ranked 21st in Suffolk towns in a tax return of 1327, close to Newmarket and Stowmarket, but well below Dunwich and Orford. Blythburgh was still 19th in 1524, just below Southwold, but was suffering. The economic consequences of the Black Death of 1349, and its recurrences, had hit hard. In 1428, among taxes raised by Parliament to finance Henry VI’s war with France, was one levied on parishes with more than ten households. Blythburgh qualified. But in 1449 Blythburgh was one of the communities granted tax relief (compared with a 1334 assessment), indicative of depopulation and loss of wealth since pre-Black Death days. Walberswick was not granted relief. Perhaps Blythburgh's position on a main road meant a disproportionate loss of passing trade, in addition to the disruption of the local rural economy. The market is described as ‘decayed indeed’ and in 1490 there was only one stall.
Blythburgh Priory was also less wealthy than it had been. In the 1200s it enjoyed incomes from some 40 Suffolk parishes, but the value of its property suffered from the Black Death and coastal erosion, falling from £88 pa in 1291 to £48 in 1535. The value of the priory when it was suppressed in 1537 was a little over £8, including five horses and an old cart.
How can we account for the rebuilding of the church in the difficult 15th century? Clearly there was money around. However, the fact that the tower was not rebuilt may suggest a limit to the availability of local benefactions. The motivation for rebuilding in this period was linked to an intensification of communal identity and the concern of individuals with the fate of their souls. The primary aim of principal benefactors was to prompt the grateful prayers of the parish. As one author put it, this conspicuous expenditure was not an expression simply of bourgeois prosperity, but the use of wealth as post-mortem fire insurance.
We don't know how much money the Lord of the Manor, John Hopton (d. 1478), put into the church, beyond the evidence of his tomb and the founding of a chantry in 1451 for his first wife. But in any case, his generosity cannot be correlated with the wealth of the Blythburgh estate, for over 80% of his income came from ancestral lands in Yorkshire. And Blythburgh was certainly not a ‘Wool Church’. There were sheep in the parish - John Hopton’s flock was some 700 - (compare the 6,000 - 8,000 of Sir Roger Townshend in Norfolk at the same period) but, to the extent that the church reflected local prosperity, it was the product of mixed agricultural activity - by the 16th century north-east Suffolk could be described as ’butter and cheese’ country.
The evidence suggests that Blythburgh’s relative peak was in Saxon times, before the arrival of the Normans in 1066. It probably prospered during the next 250 years but the Black Death was a turning point. Blythburgh’s share of the new patterns of trade and influence as the population and economy recovered in the 1400s was much reduced. There is little evidence to justify references to a prosperous port even before 1350 (and there is always the possibility of ascribing to Blythburgh events in Walberswick, with which it formed one manor). By the fifteenth century, Blythburgh's relative prosperity was far behind it, whatever the physical evidence of the church may suggest.
Alan Mackley, Blythburgh, June 1999
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