Blythburgh Priory attracted national interest in 2008 when it was featured on the popular Channel 4 show Time Team.
Today there are few remains of the priory visible above ground, but the site has a fascinating history. The Priory is reportedly built on the site of a battle in AD 654 between King Anna, nephew of King Raedwald (thought to be the subject of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo) and King Penda of Mercia. Anna was killed and buried on site, either in the Church of the Holy Trinity or in the Priory area. His tomb became a destination for pilgrimages at least until the 12th century.
The Church was granted to the Canons of St Osyth’s Priory in Essex in 1120 by Henry I and from then on was developed into a successful Augustinian monastic complex. In the 13th century the Priory would have been a magnificent structure. At the time of the Time Team excavation Bob Carr, architectural historian, stated ‘It’s big, it’s a special building. It must be the best bit of 13th-century in the region, fantastic!’
The Time Team excavation involved digging into the garden of the Haward family, who had no idea that there was a church at the bottom of their garden. However there had been early indications that the site of their house held historical importance when they found human bones in one of the garden sheds! The Blythburgh Priory is also of note to those interested in Suffolk’s supernatural history. In Joan Forman’s Haunted East Anglia (Fontana, 1976) she discusses local rumours of footsteps heard on the back and front stairs of the old house and in a passageway.
Like so many of Suffolk’s historical sites, Blythburgh Priory cannot be explained by archaeology alone, though the Time Teamers and subsequent archaeologists have gone a long way to interpreting the monastery’s lay-out. Suffolk’s folklore and traditions also have an important part to play in understanding the Cathedral of the Marshes.
Blythburgh’s ‘Cathedral of the Marshes’ is its Church of the Holy Trinity. Built in the 15th century and large enough to rival the grandiose churches at Southwold and Covehithe, Blythburgh’s church was one of East Anglia’s most impressive. Sadly the parliamentary decree in the 17th century for the removal of superstitious ornaments meant that some of the church’s greatest treasurers were destroyed or lost forever. After falling into ruin (the church lacked a roof some time) a Victorian restoration project in the 19th century created the church we see today. With impressive vaulted ceiling and whitewashed walls, the church is another testament to Suffolk’s great and affluent history.
Photo Credit: bobba_dwj