Suffolk’s historical surprises

Lavenham, Suffolk.

Looking for a historical getaway? Look no further than England’s hidden gem, the county of Suffolk.

With good transport links to and from London, as well as other places around the UK, Suffolk has a host of great sights and attractions for those looking to delve into British history. Visit Suffolk has put together some of the top historical places to visit in the region if you’re thinking of a trip this coming year. Check out these top things to see that might surprise you about the region


Bury St Edmunds Abbey

What was once one of the richest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England, Bury St Edmunds Abbey is now a complex of extensive remains. In 903, the Abbey held the remains of the martyred King Edmund and became a place of religious pilgrimage. It also played host to a secret meeting in 1214 where a group of barons came together to sign the Magna Carta.

During its rich history Bury St Edmunds welcomed and hosted various royals, including Henry VI and Henry VIII. The Abbey site now includes substantial ruins, the impressive 14th century Great Gate and Norman tower, as well as the altered west front of the church which has post-medieval houses built into its walls.

The gardens adjacent to the ruins are vast and beautiful, the perfect place to sit down and take in the history of the surroundings with a drink, before you venture into the rest of the town to experience independent businesses galore.

Abbey Ruins in autumn Credit: Shawn Pearce

Ipswich’s Historical Gems

When you first think of Ipswich you’d be forgiven for just imagining a modern townscape with a beautiful marina, but Ipswich is actually the oldest Anglo-Saxton town in England. Granted a royal charter in 1200, it has links to the discovery of the Americas, and with historical powerhouse Cardinal Wolsey.

Cardinal Wolsey was born in Ipswich in 1498 and began his rise to prominence as one of Henry VIII’s principal advisors in 1509. During the 14 years he was in a position of power, before losing favour with the King, Wolsey organised reforms across finance, taxation, educational provisions (including the creation of Cardinal College, Oxford, now Christ Church College) and justice.

Wolsey’s Gate is a standing monument of what might have been. Wolsey had intended the gate to lead to his legacy, a feeder college to Cardinal College in his hometown of Ipswich. The gate was built and all the timber, stone and lead was onsite, but after Wolsey’s fall from grace all the materials were requisitioned by the King and taken back to London.

Continue around Ipswich and you’ll find another Tudor structure, The Tudor Christchurch Mansion. This impressive house has over 500 years of history and is now a museum with period rooms as well as an art gallery where you can see some of John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough’s finest works.

The waterfront in Ipswich is now a bustling leisure hub, but also boasts a strong history. The bend of the River Orwell had been used for trade since the 8th century but Ipswich’s ‘biggest enclosed dock in the kingdom’ at the time was completed in 1842 after Royal Assent from Queen Victoria. It was highly expensive for road travel at the time and so sea travel was extremely important to transport grain and other supplies; the dock became a hive of industry up until the 1970s.

Constable country

Royal Legends

For those history lovers who enjoy being in the great outdoors, Suffolk is full of great walks. One top walking route is set in the Shotley Peninsula and takes visitors alongside the River Orwell, and then heads inland to the village of Erwarton, where a royal legend thrives.

The infamous second wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn had family in this village – her uncle Sir Phillip Parker lived at Erwarton Hall – and she would often visit in her youth. Legend has it that Anne and Henry would come and stay with her uncle in the village, and that Anne loved the village so much that she asked for her heart to be buried in the local church when she passed away.

In 1838 renovations began on St Mary’s Church in Erwarton and a heart-shaped casket, with no inscription was discovered – many believe this is Boleyn’s heart, buried here by her uncle after her execution at the Tower of London in 1536. Visitors to the church can decide for themselves, as they gaze upon a drawing of Queen Anne Boleyn by Holbein which resides on the church organ.


A Town of Kings

Newmarket is well-known for its four-legged residents and their racing prowess, but did you know that the Home of Horseracing was also home to royal palaces? Palace House, Newmarket now houses a National Gallery of Sporting Art as part of the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, but its history is vast.

King James I was the first royal to visit Newmarket frequently, travelling to the town to undertake sporting pursuits like hare coursing and hawking. He liked it so much that he had a royal palace constructed where he could hold court. This building was in a different location from the current Palace House site, and after James I died, his son Charles I spent much of his time at this residence until his imprisonment and execution during the English Civil War.

During the 1650s Charles II had been in exile Europe but in the 1660s the monarchy was restored and Charles II took over as King. He came to Newmarket soon after, spending his time with mistress Nell Gwynn (who held a residence opposite the palace), sporting pursuits and altering horseracing to what we know today. He decided to buy and extend a property, which was on the site where Palace House stands today.

You can now stroll through the King’s bedroom, which now houses artistic masterpieces instead of royalty, and you can look through the oldest surviving sash window in the UK, the very same window Charles II would have looked out of in the 1660s. The window, dated 1670 was found in Palace House between two walls when refurbishment was being made on the building.

These are just some of the amazing historical elements waiting to greet you when you take a visit to Suffolk. Come and discover more.