The East Anglian ceremonial county of Suffolk enjoys a long and varied history. The first widespread settlement in the area was by the Anglo-Saxons who left behind one of the most famous archaeological sites in Britain, the extraordinary Sutton Hoo burial ground.
However, the area offers much more history besides, with ruined friaries, painted churches and even a former nuclear testing site making the area a worthwhile visit for any history enthusiast.
From Cardinal Wolsey to John Constable to Ed Sheeran (who wrote a song about the 12th-century Framlingham Castle), those hailing from Suffolk have left their mark on our historical consciousness.
Here’s our pick of 10 historic sites not to miss when making a road trip through the area.
Through excavations that began in 1939, a complete Anglo-Saxon ship burial was discovered at Sutton Hoo, near the town of Woodbridge. It is one of the most coherent and significant finds of artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon period.
Although it took some time to understand what these finds were, and what they meant, the discovery would prove to be an Anglo-Saxon royal burial of incomparable richness and it would revolutionise our understanding of early England.
The land where the discovery was made, and nearby Tranmer House, have been owned by the National Trust since the 1990s. There is now a large exhibition hall, cafe and a shop near the site, with a viewing tower currently being built to look over the mounds.
Saint Mary’s as it appears now looked largely the same by 1300, when the tower was added to the existing nave and earlier chancel. The font is original, as are many features within the church. The porch dates to the late 15th century, with image niches, Marian monograms and a dedicatory inscription in the flushwork.
The church contains a number of well-preserved paintings which make the structure the subject of much interest. The most prominent of these are the 15th-century figures of St Christopher. While he is depicted in countless other East Anglian churches, St Mary’s boasts an exceptionally regal portrait.
Today, the church is both a place of worship and the subject of media attention, since a collection of early graffiti was recently discovered. Alongside relatively common compass-drawn and ‘daisy-wheel’ motifs, other graffiti subjects include ships, heraldry, hands and feet and full-length figures.
Orford Ness is a shingle spit on the Suffolk coast. The area has witnessed its fair share of history as a Napoleonic war defensive front, a military experimentation site during World Wars One and Two and a Cold War atomic bomb research establishment.
A large section of Orford Ness was purchased by the War Department in 1913, with the whole of the site acquired soon after. It was used as a closely-guarded military testing site. Top secret experiments were conducted across both World Wars and into the nuclear age. Some of the most interesting remnants are two test labs – the so-called ‘Pagodas’ – which are well known coastal landmarks. The exact work still remains a secret, though more information may be made available over the coming years.
The site is also an internationally important location for nature conservation, since it contains a significant portion of the European reserve of vegetated shingle habitat.
Orford Castle in Suffolk is a striking medieval castle once used to assert royal authority in the area. With its keep still largely intact, it provides an intriguing look into the world of medieval Britain. Orford Castle was originally built in 1165 under the orders of King Henry II and was an impressive fortified stone structure surrounded by a curtain wall and several defensive mounds.
Exploring Orford Castle is a fascinating experience, with its labyrinth of halls and rooms virtually intact from the medieval period. This includes the upper hall, chapel and the well featured in the basement.
The exact date of the first Framlingham Castle’s construction remains unknown, however the earliest records of its existence date to the year 1148. In the 16th century, Mary I used Framlingham Castle as a refuge following Edward VI’s death, raising an army of supporters to bolster her claim to the English throne and pressure the Privy Council to accept her rule over Lady Jane Grey. In 1553 she was proclaimed Queen of England inside its walls.
After Framlingham’s decline as a noble residence, in the 17th to the 19th centuries, a workhouse operated inside the castle, providing the nearby town’s paupers with work and lodgings.
Today, Framlingham Castle is under the remit of English Heritage and is open to the public. Visitors can walk around its imposing curtain wall which allows for wonderful views over the site, in particular its numerous chimneys – which are the oldest 12th century and Tudor chimneys in the country.
Dunwich Friary was founded before 1277. However, it was originally located in a different location owing to the older friary being dissolved due to coastal erosion and subsequently moved inland in 1289. Records indicate that the original site was home to 20 friars. However, it was later extended in the late 14th or 15th century, as a refectory and gateways were added. The site would have been generally much-loved by villagers, who could seek refuge, healthcare and religious instruction from the friars.
Only a small section of the original buildings, which would have been significant, remain. Many were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, with remaining buildings being used as a house, town hall and jail at various times.
A church has existed on the site since Saxon times when it was under the patronage of Blythburgh Priory. Most of the current structure dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, though it suffered badly under the Parliamentarians and William Dowsing during the English Civil War: windows were smashed, angels were removed from the roof, and the organ, altar and pulpit were removed.
The church today is famous for the extraordinary Wenhanston Doom painting which was discovered in 1892 when the chancel was undergoing restoration work. The rest of the interior is similarly striking, with the chancel roof being decorated with carved bosses, colourful Victorian glass decorating the east window and 18th-century marble monuments to the Leman family being prominently featured. The church is open daily to visitors and is a popular place of worship.
8. Holy Trinity Long Melford Church
Constructed between 1467 and 1497, the Church of the Holy Trinity is a magnificent structure built in the Perpendicular Gothic style. It’s a noted example of a Suffolk medieval ‘wool church’ which was founded and financed by wealthy wool merchants.
The cathedral-like proportions, distinctive style, and many original features which survived religious upheaval in the 16th and 17th centuries make the church especially famous. Today, it is a popular attraction for worshippers and history fans alike.
9. Melford Hall
Melford Hall in Long Melford, Suffolk, was constructed in the 16th century and incorporated parts of a medieval building of Bury St Edmonds which had been in use since 1065. From 1786 it was the seat of the Parker Baronets.
The hall was first opened to the public in 1955, then passed to the National Trust in 1960. The owners host a Guy Fawkes Night event as well as the annual LeeStock Music Festival.
Located just a stone’s throw from the northern border of Suffolk in Norfolk, England, Grime’s Graves is the only Neolithic flint mine open to visitors in Britain. Partially excavated in the 19th century, the extraordinary site is now a popular attraction.
Grime’s Graves was first named ‘Grim’s Graves’ by the Anglo-Saxons. However, it was not until the site was excavated in 1870 that it was first identified as a flint mine which was dug more than 5,000 years ago. During the Neolithic period, flint was widely used for making polished stone axes. It was later used for building and as strikers for muskets.
Today, a small exhibition area illustrates the history of the fascinating site. Incredibly, visitors can descend 9 meters by ladder into an excavated shaft to see the jet-black flint.