The Land holds the memories
that people forgot,
but when we rediscover
how to speak to the earth, trees and sky,
we’ll see that nothing is ever really lost.
Returning to spend time in the town of my childhood, Stowmarket in mid-Suffolk, after 3 decades away, I am discovering an ancient connection in the land here that is transforming my relationship with my roots. Growing up here in the 1970s-early 80s I formed an impression of Suffolk as a sleepy backwater county, which was historically important but now more the target of mockery (eg Slow-Stowmarket was a butt of Terry Wogan’s Radio 2 jokes): ‘Silly Suffolk’ was a common term, but we didn’t know that the phrase originated in medieval times as ‘Selie Suffolk’, meaning ‘Holy Suffolk’ due to the large number of religious institutions in the county and also due to the reverence felt for St Edmund, the Saxon king killed by the Danes (and for a long time the patron saint of England), centred at his shrine in Bury. In fact Suffolk had been a hot spot of pagan religion too, going back thousands of years: Wikipedia’s History of Suffolk page starts its story with the 5th century Angle kingdom, which was divided into ‘Suthfolc’ and ‘Norfolc’, but I am finding that in order to get a feel of the true spirit of Suffolk there are deeper, older layers to explore.
Certainly the original indigenous culture of this region was lost through a thousand years of invasions and cultural mingling with Roman armies, Anglo-Saxon then Viking tribes. But that culture had deep roots – it had been developing over several thousand years prior to the Roman invasion, and during that long period through the Stone and Bronze Ages the people here had already known contact via the sea with the European mainland, though it seems not so much during the Iron Age (from c600 BCE), when it seems ‘Pretannike’ – the land of the painted people, as Britain was called by Greek explorer Pytheas in the late 4th century BC – became a place feared by continental peoples a mysterious land of fierce tattooed warriors and abode of the dead. Fishermen on the Brittany shores told tales of being guided at night to ferry boat loads of dead souls across the Channel.
It is now thought by archaeologists that the mingling of proto-British and Celtic populations from the mainland over many centuries from the mid 5th millennium BCE was largely peaceful, though DNA studies suggest the original inhabitants of the British Isles, those talented beings who built so many funeral tombs and stone circle monuments from the Orkney Islands to Stonehenge during the Neolithic era (the Late Stone Age), were replaced entirely by the new Europeans. Legends of the Stone Circles being built by giants, our great, powerful ancestors were all that remained – and some of their bones.
During the late Neolithic, at the same time as Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill were being built in the west country, extensive flint mines were opened up at Grimes Graves near Thetford and the region went on to develop into a major centre of metalworking during the Bronze Age, 2000-700 BCE. Stone and Bronze Age settlements in Suffolk have been unearthed at Woodbridge, Barham, Felixstowe, Saxmundham.
Bronze Age Britain was an age of increasing wealth and abundance in which the Druids rose to the fore as powerful spiritual leaders. The Druids of Gaul even told the Romans that their craft originated in Britain and that it was to Britain that men and women went for intensive training in the magical arts. Roman writers reported that the Druids taught that the soul reincarnates, which belief made the Celts fearless warriors in battle, even fighting naked to show their lack of fear (and to intimidate the metal clad Romans) . Gradually the British land became home to several well-established tribes, which we know about through Roman records. These tribes built hill forts and developed fighting talents as resources became more scarce in the Iron Age.
East Anglia was a busy region in the centuries leading up to the Roman invasion, as evidenced by the Bronze Age remains found at Flag Fen (where sacrificial offerings of swords, spearheads and gold jewellery were given to the water over 1200 years) and Snettisham (a hoard of over 70 complete and many broken precious metal torcs from 1st century BCE found here). The Iceni tribe in the north of the region were a rich and well established tribe when the Romans arrived in the 1st century CE, the Trinovantes lived to the south, centred on Essex. The dividing line between the two tribes lay in Mid Suffolk, in the Stowmarket area, the River Rat was a a border.
Baker and historian of the adjacent village of Haughley, Kieron Palmer, in a booklet about Haughley Church records that evidence of Druidic worship has been found at the western side of the village and that the west wall of the Church was discovered to be “underpinned by gruesome alleged Druidical sacrificial burials when restored in the 1950s”. Recent archaeological digs at a building site in Haughley have turned up evidence of human activity here ever since the late Paleolithic period (11,0000-10,000 BCE), with the majority of the finds dating to the early Neolithic (4000-3000 BCE). Beaker pottery also turned up in early Bronze Age pits (2500-1500 BCE) and a later field system in use late Bronze into the Iron Age (1500-400 BCE).
Stowe was an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘meeting place’ or ‘special place’, and it seems that this point in mid-Suffolk was once an oak-filled centre of Druid activity, occupied for many centuries (evidence of settlement from the Neolithic era has also been found in Needham Market on the other side of the town to Haughley) prior to the arrival of the Romans, who situated their army camps at sites where the Druids held their power. Making a suitable stop point on the Roman road leading up into the Norfolk lands, Haughley was the site of a Roman settlement (a Roman well and and Roman tiles have been found in the area), possibly the place chosen for their army to set up a base from which they could easily suppress Druid activity.
It seems that once the Romans left around 410 CE people in the east enjoyed a fairly peaceful century until the arrival of Angles, Saxon and Jutes from northern Germany. Although many tales of their fierce invasions were told, they soon settled down to administer wealthy kingdoms (as evidenced by the archaeological finds at Sutton Hoo, near to Rendlesham which was their royal capital in Suffolk) For the locals perhaps the Anglo-Saxons brought something of a return to the old gods and rituals of their ancestral past. The Romans had brought their own deities and practices with them, and, unlike in most lands taken under the umbrella of the massive empire, they were not willing to accommodate the practises and presence of the ancient British Druidic tradition. Eventually Christianity arrived also along the Empire’s trading routes and was widespread by the time of the Roman withdrawal. The Angles and Saxons destroyed the Churches and brought polytheism back – for a time, just until the 7th century mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great, which succeeded over half a century in securing most of southern Britain for Christianity. Where the Druids had once operated and the Romans had settled their army the Angles set up their stowe thornea – a place to meet to worship Thor.
Reverend Hollingsworth in his 1844 History of Stowmarket recorded that the name Stow Thorney, as the town is called in the 1086 Domesday Book, was a reference to the area being the special meeting place of the god Thor. Hollingsworth records that relics of offerings to Thor had been found in the churchyard. (He also refers to very large bones found there which he says “are supposed vulgarly to be the bones of our gigantic fore-fathers, who are thought from such evidences to have been men of vast length and strength of limb” – the Stone Age Circle builders?). The hill between Stowe and Haughley/Old Newton was, the Rev says, known as Thor’s Hill. The extensive green in Stowupland (once much more extensive, as the Rev was already saying back in the 19th century) is called Thorney Green, for the same reason. Used as a rallying point and meeting place during medieval and early modern times, it seems that the Saxons were there on the Green also holding their ceremonial celebrations, reigniting the spirit left by the Druids in the previous millennium/millennia.
The Viking invasions in the 9th century involved several battles in the land of the East Angles, Hollingsworth records that in 870 a “ large marauding army marched from Lincolnshire into Suffolk, burning every church, and murdering every religious person in their progress. King Edmund met them near Hoxne, as was there defeated, taken prisoner, bound to a tree, as he would not become a idolater, and shot to death with arrows. In after years, his body was carried to Bederickeworth, a small village, and a sumptuous church erected to his honour, which gave the name of St Edmund’s tun, to that before insignificant place.” Bury St Edmunds was born.
The Reverend goes on to tell us,- “In Old Newton, on the boundary of Stowupland, at the foot of Columbine-hall wood, which winds peacefully up to Gipping-hall, and through whose green meadows the stream forming the head of the river creeps along, there exists a spot of ground, marked as a battle-field, between the Saxon and Dane, and called Stone Bridge. Bones of men and horses in great abundance have been found for many years in that place…The relicts of this ancient period of warfare lie in heaps four or five feet below the surface, and are circumscribed, as if collected together in shallow pits. Bones of horses and men broken and entire are intermingled with spurs without rowels; bits of sword blades two or three inches broad; pieces of the heads of spears; scraps of armour; horses’ shoes of great breadth… Some of the human jaw bones are of vast size.” He records that in contrast to the Saxon invaders, the Danes continue to cause destruction and chaos even after they have subdued the land.
During the medieval era Suffolk held a famous reputation as a centre of spiritual power – hence ‘Selie Suffolk’, which in age of waning belief has become ‘Silly Suffolk‘. By the 13th century large areas of land were controlled and farmed by monastic houses and religious orders of lay brothers – there were 76 monasteries in the county. Stow Thorney was under the patronage of St Osyth’s monastery in Essex, which is why we have the Abbots Hall in the centre of town here. Hollingsworth recorded that the St Osyth abbey was the oldest in England and that it had began as a convent established by St Ositha daughter of king Frithwald, married to Sighere king of the East Saxons. She lived a religious life there but was martyred by the Danes in 653 during a raid. In the early 12th century the Bishop of London set up an Augustinian monastery at the site, naming it after Ositha. Henry I granted the parish lands of the Church of St Peter and St Mary in Stowe to the abbey. The Reverend says the monks “were considered the living memorials of her piety and wisdom”. And regarding Stowmarket, he says “the fortunes of this parish and its hamlets, as a royal manor and borough, is closely bound up with the monastery for several hundred years.”
Nearby Bury, the burial place of St Edmund, the Christian Saxon king defeated in battle by the invading Danes in 869, grew to become one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in Christendom. The Benedictine abbey there was one of the richest in England until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. This act of Henry VIII must have brought big changes to the lives of people in Suffolk, whose whole existence had been so engaged with the Roman Catholic holy orders. Perhaps the void left here in the spirit of the county made it a prime location for the paranoia and cruelty of the witch craze of the mid 17th century. Wise women and wizardly men who had been accepted during the Merry England of the Middle Ages were suddenly under suspicion. In 1645, when Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General set to work in the county, over 100 women and 17 men of Suffolk were sent to trial.
By the late Middle Ages Suffolk was the most populous county in England, from 14 – 17th centuries it was the centre of the cloth industry, and after that the land’s agricultural potential was increasingly engaged to feed the ever growing population of London.
Its sacred sites desecrated by the Protestant Reformation, and its pagan roots under attack, Holy Suffolk fell asleep, gave its spirit instead through produce from its prime farmland, serving the needs of the ever growing nation, whose centre of power had shifted elsewhere.
My reason for sharing this splash of East Anglian history is because the English are in the throes of a massive identity crisis, which might open the way to some new ‘angles’ on our national soul, and its many parts. England is named after the Angles of northern Germany, because they became the dominant force in the post Roman centuries, but the people of this country have for many thousands of years been formed from diverse gene pools coming from the Celtic, Iberian, Germanic and Norse cultures. Perhaps there is a parallel with the USA here, this island was the original destination for those who felt the drive to GO WEST, and we continue to be an ever evolving nation formed of multi-racial mix of beauty and originality, as genes from people conquered by the British Empire are absorbed into the British soul.
So perhaps to be English in the 21st century might even become an aspiration to live beyond attachment to national identity, to become instead a citizen of the world (since being a citizen of the European Union no longer applies). The English lost their original native cultures (those of the Stone Age circle builders and of the Bronze Age Druidic times) under the yoke of invaders beginning two thousand years ago. That spirit of empire building that the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Danes bred into us became stronger than ever in the English people: Scotland, Wales, Ireland were brought under English control and then we built the largest empire in world history.
The decline of Empire happened very quickly in the mid 20th century, and Britain has been struggling for some decades to find peace with a new identity and role in the world. Celtic nationalism has grown in Wales and Scotland but the face generally shown by English nationalism is confused and sometimes brutal. I don’t think this face reflects the English majority at all, I know that at our best we are one of the most liberal, creative and ‘good time’ people on the planet. Most of the free thinking English people I know had already allowed any sense of Englishness to merge into a much broader European reality before Brexit came along. Note that Scotland, Northern Ireland and cosmopolitan London all voted to remain in the European project, it was the English regions leading the Brexit charge, the areas where a sense of nationhood feels under threat.
Spending time back in the English countryside in Suffolk, I sense how identity is bound up deeply with the land we walk on, the history in it and the memories it holds. Far from being totally convinced by Christianity, the English people long kept their awareness of our own pagan ways alive in various ways, for example Maypoles were still commonly erected everywhere in the 17th century, and a raucous pagan party would ensue. (Actually we were dancing round the maypole at my primary school, Kingsmead in the centre of Stowmarket in the 1970s, perhaps triggering soul memories in us kids!) The persecution of the witches took hold because the old ways were still around, and increasingly feared. Pagan ritual went underground, but witches continued to be known in Suffolk, popping up in newspaper reports and indeed inquests in the 19th century. Faeries too were much spoken of in the county, Stowmarket had a reputation for sightings, some of which the Reverend Hollingsworth recorded in his History, and the River Gipping was associated with mermaids.
In the 1950s the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, which had first become law under Henry VIII, released the pagan British spirit and led to the formation of Wicca, which has become one of the fastest growing ‘religions’ in the world, and which plays a crucial role in the reclaiming of the native, pre Christian, shamanic spirituality of old Europe. The returning ‘Celtic’ paganism speaks the same fundamental language as the nature based spiritualities of all the other people of the world, and helps open the way to deeper understanding of our human relationship with nature and the spirit realms. For me the difference between monotheistic religion and paganism is the former tells u what to believe and how to behave via hierarchy of male priests, the latter empowers us to make our own relationship with spirit, to find our own answers, and anyone can be a priest. Religion is exercise of power over others (and the earth), pagan spirituality teaches the practice of power with, of co-creation and cooperation.
So as well as our rich history, I think we English, in order to have any hope of grasping a healthy national identity for the 21st century, could gain much from reconnecting to and celebrating once more our true native spirituality, and make that identity one that transcends rather than reinforces the warlike and xenophobic history of nationalisms. For the ancient Druids and before them the builders of ancestral tombs and stone circles were in touch with a deep spiritual reality. Being back in Suffolk I am discovering a land of witches, faeries, druids and gods, of magic, mystery, history and holiness. Bring it on! Bring it back! Let’s dance round maypoles and rave like Saxons, let’s weave spells like Druids and cast circles like witches! Let’s engage the secrets held in the land, for in the 21st century we badly need some new ANGLES on being English.
http://www.quovari.co.uk/HalesworthHistory/v2-1-silly.html “Silly Suffolk”
The History of Stowmarket, by Rev AGH Hollingsworth, originally published 1844. 2002 Edition by Mike Durrant.
Haughley Castle & Notes on ‘the Ancient Town of Hawley‘, Kierson WRV Palmer