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Title: Dunwich  
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Subject: Dunwich (UK Parliament constituency), Sir Charles Blois, 1st Baronet, Henry Bedingfield (judge), Rungholt, Suffolk Coast and Heaths
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Dunwich, view down St. James Street; to the right is the local museum.
Dunwich is located in Suffolk
 Dunwich shown within Suffolk
Population 804 (2001 census)
OS grid reference
Civil parish Dunwich
District Suffolk Coastal
Shire county Suffolk
Region East
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district IP17
Dialling code 01728
Police Suffolk
Fire Suffolk
Ambulance East of England
EU Parliament East of England
UK Parliament Suffolk Coastal
List of places

Dunwich is a village and civil parish in the English county of Suffolk. It is located in the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB around 92 miles (148 km) north-east of London, 9 miles (14 km) south of Southwold and 7 miles (11 km) north of Leiston on the North Sea coast.

In the Anglo-Saxon period, Dunwich was the capital of Kingdom of the East Angles but the harbour and most of the town have since disappeared due to coastal erosion. At its height it was an international port similar in size to 14th-century London.[1] Its decline began in 1286 when a storm surge hit the East Anglian coast, and it was eventually reduced in size to the village it is today. Its population at the 2001 census was 804.[2]


The former leper hospital, Norman window detail

Since the 15th century, Dunwich has frequently been identified with Dommoc – the original seat of the Anglo-Saxon bishops of the Kingdom of East Anglia established by Sigeberht of East Anglia for Saint Felix in c. 629–31.[3] Dommoc was the seat of the bishops of Dommoc until around 870, when the East Anglian kingdom was taken over by the initially pagan Danes. Years later, antiquarians would even describe Dunwich as being the "former capital of East Anglia".[4] However, many historians now prefer to locate Dummoc at Walton Castle, which was the site of a Saxon shore fort.[5]

The Domesday Book of 1086 describes it as possessing three churches.[6] At this time it had an estimated population of 3000.[7]

The loss of "a busy port to ... 14th century storms that swept whole parishes into the sea"[8] is a classic (dis-)urban myth. It appears [9] that the port developed as a sheltered harbour where the Dunwich River entered the North Sea. Coastal processes including storms caused the river to shift its exit 4 km north to Walberswick, at the River Blyth. The town of Dunwich lost its raison d'etre and was largely abandoned. Sea defences were not maintained, and coastal erosion progressively invaded the town.

On 1 January 1286,[10] a storm surge reached the east edge of the town and destroyed buildings in it. Before that, most recorded damage to Dunwich was loss of land and damage to the harbour.[11]

This was followed by two further surges the next year, the South England flood of February 1287 and St. Lucia's flood in December. A fierce storm in 1328[10]also swept away the entire village of Newton, a few miles up the coast. Another large storm in 1347 swept some 400 houses into the sea. The Grote Mandrenke around 16 January 1362 finally destroyed much of the remainder of the town.[12]

Seal of Dunwich, cast (French National Archives, Paris)

Most of the buildings that were present in the 13th century have disappeared, including all eight churches, and Dunwich is now a small coastal "village", though retaining its status as a town. The remains of a 13th-century Franciscan priory (Greyfriars) and the leper hospital of St James can still be seen.[13] A popular local legend says that, at certain tides, church bells can still be heard from beneath the waves.[14]

By the mid-19th century, the population had dwindled to 237 inhabitants and Dunwich was described as a "decayed and disfranchised borough".[15] A new church, St James, was built in 1832, after the last of the old churches, All Saints, which had been without a rector since 1755, was abandoned. All Saints' church fell into the sea between 1904 and 1919, the last major portion of the tower succumbing on 12 November 1919.[16] In 2005 historian Stuart Bacon stated that recent low tides had shown that shipbuilding had previously occurred in the town.[17]

As a legacy of its previous significance, the parliamentary constituency of Dunwich retained the right to send two members to Parliament until the Reform Act 1832 and was one of Britain's most notorious rotten boroughs.[18]

Marine archaeology

The beach at Dunwich

The Dunwich 2008 project funded by English Heritage and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation was intended to collate all reliable historic mapped data on the same coordinate system and combine this with aerial photography and an underwater survey.[19][20] New digital maps were produced by Prof. David Sear of Southampton University, marine archaeologist Stuart Bacon and the Geodata Institute. The survey also used multibeam and sidescan sonar to map the seafloor across the entire area of the town. These surveys identified a series of ruins which were confirmed by divers who recovered stones with lime mortar still attached. The lime mortar matched nearly perfectly with medieval mortar in existing churches on the coast. In 2009 Wessex Archaeology working with Professor Sear, captured the highest resolution sidescan images of the town site including the ruins found in 2008. Further work in 2010 with BBC Oceans and the BBC One Show used novel acoustic imaging cameras (DIDSON) to film the ruins through the turbid water. These clearly showed the jumble of ruined blocks and worked stone associated with medieval church and chapel sites. A large survey and updating of the mapped data was commissioned by English Heritage in 2011 and reported in 2012. This compiled all previous survey data and enhanced the historical map and coastal pilot charts for the site. The results have produced the most comprehensive survey of the Dunwich town site - the largest medieval underwater site in Europe. Data from these surveys including maps and images explaining the different technologies are displayed in Dunwich Museum which is accredited by the Museum Archives Libraries Council. Details of Dunwich's 800 year battle to protect against coastal erosion are also displayed in the museum and it is hoped more work will be done in future.[20] A database of references to Dunwich "designed to aid academic researchers, family historians and students" is available online.[21]

In June 2011, at the invitation of Prof David Sear and the Dunwich Town Trust the Anglo-Saxon and medieval archaeology of Dunwich was the subject of an episode of archaeological television programme Time Team.[22]

Further work to explore new sites using DIDSON and diver surveys and a campaign of land based archaeology is scheduled for 2013-15 funded by the "Touching the Tide" Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership Scheme. This work hopes to confirm the date of the town ditches and roads and explore the record of environmental change in the marsh sediments. Altogether this work has identified the ruins of St Peter's and St Nicholas's churches, a chapel most probably St Katherine's, and ruins associated with Blackfriars friary and the town hall. The location of the Knight's Templar church and All Saints' church are known from the digital mapping but remain buried beneath an inner sandbank. The early town is buried under 1-3m of sand to the east of the ruins found by Bacon and these later surveys.[23]

Churches and other notable structures

  • Greyfriars: Franciscan priory in the southwest of the city. Being so far west it is one of the few significant parts of ancient Dunwich still visible. It was founded on a site nearer the sea in 1277, moved to its current position in 1290 and survived to the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. The priory was originally enclosed by a stone wall, much of which remains. The most impressive structures still standing are part of the refectory and the 14th-century gateway which would have been the main entrance to the monastic buildings.
Remains of Greyfriars Priory
  • St Bartholemew's and St Michael's were both chapels of ease that had been built by the end of the 11th century.[24]
  • St Leonard's: was a parish church that fell to the sea in the 14th century.[24]
  • St Nicholas: was a cruciform building to the south of the city. Lost to the sea soon after the Black Death.
  • St Martin's: built before 1175, it was lost to the sea between 1335 and 1408.
  • St Francis Chapel: beside the Dunwich River, was lost in the 16th century.
  • St Katherine's Chapel: in the parish of St John, lost in the 16th century.
  • Preceptory of the Knights Templar: thought to have been founded around 1189 and was a circular building similar to the famous Temple Church in London. When the sheriff of Suffolk and Norfolk took an inventory in 1308 he found the sum of £111 contained in three pouches - a vast sum. In 1322, on the orders of Edward II, all the Templars' land passed to the Knights Hospitallers. Following the dissolution of the Hospitallers in 1562 the Temple was demolished. The foundations washed away during the reign of Charles I.
  • St Peter's: similar in length to the church at nearby Blythburgh. It was stripped of anything of value as the cliff edge drew nearer. The east gable fell in 1688 and the rest of the building followed in 1697. The parish register survives and is now in the British Library.
  • Blackfriars: Dominican priory in the southeast of the city. It was founded during the time of Henry III by Roger Holish. By 1385 preparations were made for the Dominicans to move to nearby Blythburgh as the sea front drew nearer, although prematurely, as the priory remained active and above sea level until at least the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. The last building fell to the sea in 1717.
The ruins of All Saints' Church in Dunwich, here in a postcard of 1904
  • All Saints' Church: last of Dunwich's ancient churches to be lost to the sea. It was abandoned in the 1750s after it was decided the parishioners could no longer afford the upkeep, although burials occurred in the churchyard until the 1820s. The cliff edge reached All Saints' in 1904 and the tower (at its west end) fell in 1922.[25] One of the tower buttresses was salvaged and now stands in the current Victorian-era St James' Church. One of the last remaining gravestones, in memory of John Brinkley Easey,[26] fell over the cliff in the early 1990s. A large block of masonry could still be seen at the water's edge at low tide in 1971. A single gravestone still remains (as of 2011) around 15 feet from the cliff edge in memory of Jacob Forster who died in the late 18th century.

RAF Dunwich

During the Second World War, RAF Dunwich was one of the Chain Home Low stations which provided low level radar cover for the central East Anglian coast.[27]

Bicycle Ride

The Dunwich Dynamo is an annual semi-organised, through-the-night bicycle ride from London Fields park in Hackney, London, England to Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. The distance is approximately 120 miles (193 kilometres).

See also


  1. ^ "Secret streets of Britain's 'Atlantis' are revealed". ScienceDaily. Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  2. ^ 2001 Census data. Retrieved 2012-01-02.
  3. ^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Ch.15 (accepitque sedem episcopatus in ciuitate Dommoc), who stipulates Felix's mission in relation to Sigeberht's rule.
  4. ^ Mee, Arthur. The King's England: Suffolk. pp. 124–128. 
  5. ^ Richard Hoggett, (2010), The archaeology of the East Anglian conversion, pages 35-40. Boydell & Brewer
  6. ^ Gardner, Thomas (1754). An historical account of Dunwich, antiently a city, now a borough;: Blithburgh, formerly a town of note, now a village; Southwold, once a village, now a town-corporate; with remarks on some places contiguous thereto .... London: Printed for the author, and sold by him at Southwold, in Suffolk; and also by W. Owen, at Homer's Head near Temple-Bar. p. 6. Retrieved 18 November 2010.  (Archived by Oxford University, 6 March 2009).
  7. ^ "Abandoned Communities...Dunwich". Retrieved 18 November 2011. 
  8. ^ Alexandra Harris, Guardian Review, 15.02.14
  9. ^ Dunwich museum displays
  10. ^ a b Simons, Paul (2008). Since Records Began. London: Collins. pp. 175–6.  
  11. ^ "Dunwich - The search for Britain's Atlantis - Dunwich Coastal Change". Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  12. ^ "'"Dunwich underwater images show 'Britain's Atlantis. BBC. 2013-05-10. Retrieved 2014-01-23. 
  13. ^ "All Saints, Dunwich". Retrieved 19 November 2010. 
  14. ^ Parker, Rowland (1979). Men of Dunwich: the story of a vanished town. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. p. 10.  
  15. ^ Leader, R. (1844). William White History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Suffolk. Sheffield. 
  16. ^ "St James, Dunwich". Retrieved 18 November 2010. 
  17. ^ "Low Tide Reveals Lost City Find". BBC News (British Broadcasting Corporation). 10 October 2005. 
  18. ^ Philbin, J Holladay (1965). Parliamentary Representation 1832 - England and Wales. New Haven: Yale University Press. 
  19. ^ "Underwater city could be revealed". BBC. 14 January 2008. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  20. ^ a b Dunwich museum plaques viewed 26 April 2012
  21. ^ "Dunwich Museum Research". Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  22. ^ "Visualising Coastal Change at Dunwich". Time Team. Channel 4. Retrieved 11 September 2012. 
  23. ^ "Dunwich - The search for Britain's Atlantis - Publications". Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  24. ^ a b Simon Knott (September 2009). "All Saints, Dunwich with an account of Dunwich's other lost churches". The Suffolk Churches Site. Retrieved 10 October 2012. 
  25. ^ Comfort: The Lost City of Dunwich: Churches and Chapels, pp 99–102
  26. ^ "'"Thomas Hinde: 'The Domesday book: England's heritage, then and now. Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  27. ^ "Chain Home Low Stations". 11 Group Stations of the the [sic] Battle of Britain. RAF. 16 February 2005. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 

Further reading

  • Ancient Dunwich: Suffolk's Lost City, Jean Carter and Stuart Bacon. (Segment, 1975)
  • The Lost City of Dunwich, Nicholas Comfort (Terence Dalton, 1994), ISBN 0-86138-086-X
  • Men of Dunwich, Rowland Parker (Alastair Press, 1978), ISBN 1-870567-85-4
  • A Suffolk Coast Garland, Ernest Read Cooper (London: Heath Cranton Ltd, 1928).
  • Memories of Bygone Dunwich, Ernest Read Cooper (Southwold: F. Jenkins, 1948).
  • The little freemen of Dunwich, Ormonde Pickard
  • "By the North Sea" and Tristram of Lyonesse, Algernon Charles Swinburne, in Major Poems and Selected Prose, Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 189-202, 206-312.
  • Dunwich: A Tale of the Splendid City, James Bird, 1828.
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Saxon Chronicles, Book 5 - The Burning Land

External links

  • Saxmundham Community website
  • Dunwich, UK (New Scientist article)
  • Reconstructed map of Dunwich town
  • Coastal change at Dunwich
  • Google Earth view of Dunwich
  • Dunwich at
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