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Newsletter, July 2014 (Issue 196)

Thingstead: the Viking roots of Ipswich


What is Thingstead? It is a song by Finnish heavy metal band, Adramelech. If you listen to it, it sounds very like the music of Ipswich's own metal band, Cradle of Filth. Perhaps this is not so much of a coincidence.

Thingstead is also a Scandinavian word for a neutral meeting place. Perhaps with an element of Judging. Perhaps a sacred place under the watchful eyes of the gods. Usually at a prominent geographical location like a little hill or large forest clearing. Different groups could discuss problems out in the open.

Ipswich has a Thingstead. There are a lot in Scandinavia, but I cannot find another Thingstead in Britain. There are a handful of "Thing" place names, such as Dingwall (Thingwall) in Scotland, and these places are all associated with Viking settlements. So it started me wondering if Ipswich was a major Viking settlement.

The location of Ipswich's Thingstead is unknown, but there has been a bit of speculation where it might have been. I had a bit of luck when I was reading an old dusty book in the Suffolk Record Office, Gatacre Road. There was a contemporary Tudor account. It appears the townspeople were processing up Bolton Lane to go to the Thingstead. As they passed the back of Christchurch Mansion, Edmund Withypoll sent out his retainers who appeared from the back of the Mansion and fell about the townspeople; a great fight ensued. It appears the Thingstead was on Withypoll's land and he did not want them to "trespass" any more. Of course, there are two Bolton Lanes but after consideration I concluded that it was the Bolton Lane to the east of the mansion and that the Thingstead was probably on the high bit of ground near the old putting green next to the ice cream parlour. Mind you, as I have got to know more about the unpleasant Edmund Withypoll, I think he would have done something to spite the townspeople - such as putting a bowling green on the Thingstead. My latest guess as to its location would be the children's play area in the middle of Christchurch Park.

Keith Wade (Suffolk County Council Archaeology) found by excavation that things suddenly changed in Ipswich in the middle of the ninth century. The size of the dwelling plots changed, and the diet of the inhabitants changed. They suddenly were eating a lot more fish. That sounds rather Scandinavian to me. It is known that the Great Viking Army of AD 865 came into East Anglia by sailing up the Orwell. Some language experts say Harwich is a Scandinavian name meaning "The Army's safe harbour". As the Vikings proceeded across England they made large defensive fortifications that they could retreat into if things got difficult. Alfred the Great copied this tactic, with great success, some years later when he established fortified Burghs to defend against the Vikings.

So, I suggest that the Great Viking Army sailed up the Orwell in AD 865 and landed at Ipswich. In order to create a secure bridgehead they made a massive fortress: earth ramparts with ditches and a wooden palisade. The medieval walls of Ipswich were actually the walls of this Viking stronghold, probably one of the largest Viking campaign forts ever built. So large that no-one has noticed it! A bit of arithmetic: the wall of old Ipswich runs for about 3,000 metres. If there were 25 cubic metres of soil in every metre of rampart, and a Viking warrior could move 2 cubic metres of soil in a day (a very conservative estimate), then 40,000 Viking warriors could have done the earthworks in a day, and perhaps a couple of more days for the woodwork. There are estimates that the Great Viking Army of AD 865 numbered between 1,000 and 60,000. I favour a large number. After the perimeter was secure they would have probably pulled most of their ships out of the water, turned them upside down and - with a bit of turf work - used them as shelter. Perhaps about 538 of them! The river would have been choked with empty vessels with no crew, and for the port to work this would have been a good solution to provide safe and useful storage of the boats.

So I suggest that Ipswich became a Viking town. The main port of entry and supply base for the Viking army in East Anglia. People and supplies were coming and going all the time. Ipswich ware pottery became Thetford ware. The Vikings making pots in Ipswich used the same clay as the Anglo-Saxons but had access to better technology. As the Vikings had a large base at Thetford, it is hardly surprising that large quantities were found there.

The Viking armies came and went and I suggest that some Viking warriors "married" English women and settled down to create the Viking Settlement of Gypeswich, a hybrid settlement that became more English as time went by. It is about this time that I think the Thingstead would have been instituted in order to negotiate with the surrounding Anglo-Saxon communities.

By the time of the reconquest of East Anglia in AD 917 the original Viking warriors would have been in their seventies. The reconquest of East Anglia was more by peace treaty rather than by battle, acknowledging that the Viking settlements had become part of the wider community. I am sure that the treaties would have protected the customs and practices of the settlements as part of a negotiated peace.

And now we come to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which some experts think is a political rewriting of history. I think some entries are just lies. The Chronicle states that in AD 991 Olaf and Swein landed at Ipswich and destroyed the town. Yet in AD 996 the Book of Ely states that Ipswich is a good place to do business, because it is in the Danelaw and Danes are more Honest and Straightforward (than Anglo-Saxons). The Chronicle states that in AD 1010 Thorkill the Tall landed at Ipswich and destroyed the town. The Chronicle states that in AD 1016 Cnut landed at Ipswich with his army and destroyed the town. Yet Keith Wade has found no archaeological evidence for any destruction at these dates. I suggest these destructions are fallacious propaganda. These Viking armies came to Ipswich because it was still a safe harbour, and they would receive a friendly welcome.

However Keith Wade found evidence of destruction in AD 1080ish. I suggest the forces of William the Conqueror destroyed Ipswich after the revolt in the East led by Ralph Wader, Earl of Norfolk. And so in the Domesday Book Ipswich is described as in an impoverished state. In the Town's Charter of 1200 the townspeople are allowed to rebuild the town walls and mention is made of their customs and practices. I suggest Ipswich still had a hint of Danish remaining, and the Thingstead continued in folk memory until Edmund Withypoll got rid of it.

Louis Musgrove

    Front cover of issue 196 Cover, issue 196

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