Blaxhall’s History between 1066 and 1699

The natural place to start with our look at post Battle of Hastings Blaxhall is of course the Domesday Book; This unique and priceless record of land and livestock ownership was the result of William the Conqueror’s desire to discover just exactly what he’d got his paws on 20 years earlier, a necessity at the time, not least due to the pressure to raise taxes in order to pay the Danegeld (a fund to keep those feisty Norsemen at bay), as well as the onging cost of fighting Anglo Saxon resistance, which continued for many years after the his victory at Hastings. The entries for Blaxhall involve 6 different landholders; Count Alan, Robert Malet, Roger Bigod, Roger de Poitou, Walter Giffard, and The Abbey of St Æthelthryth, with around 350 acres of land between them, occupied by some 40 tenants - including among their number such magnificent names as Wulfric, Brothir, Eadric Grim, Huna and Ulf. We can use the 40 Freemen in question to estimate a rough idea of population; Common practice for the period is to apply a multiplier of 4 or 5 to each man in order to allow for wives/children, etc, by which method we arrive at a total figure of 160 - 200 residents, a very healthy number indeed when the whole population of Britain was only around 1½ million - (but then Suffolk was the most densely populated county in England at the time). This figure is of course very approximate with many potential variables, but at least it gives us an idea. The big question, of course, is where they were all living; we can’t, in all honesty, be sure; the wood framed wattle and daub buildings common at the time leave little trace of their whereabouts, but popular village tradition is that the main settlement was centred around the church in early medieval times, with this population then virtually wiped out by the plague in the 14th century, and the remaining inhabitants dispersing to supposedly cleaner/safer areas across the parish. A slightly different twist on the story has the surviving population living in the church, before eventually emerging to burn down the old infected houses and start afresh down the road, while another version of the narrative says that a group of gypsies took the opportunity to take over the empty properties and land, eventually mixing with the original survivors - indeed folklore has it that you can still spot those with gipsy blood today!

There may, or may not, be some truth in the legend above, but one can’t help imagining the wonderful picture of bustling groups of medieval houses clustered around the church knoll, dotted about church field, and even lining the old Holy Gate Path. While several medieval artifacts have been found in the village however, including daggers, brooches, buckles, a 14th century key, and the wonderful Boy Bishop Coin (the first example found not to be issued from Bury, Ely, Sudbury or Ipswich), their locations don’t really do much to confirm or deny the legend, (if anything the current medieval evidence suggests several widely spread farms rather than a tight cluster of houses).

Returning to the Domesday book, it is interesting to note that Beversham has its own separate entry, showing an area of 60 acres under the ownership of Hervey de Bourges and occupied by 3 Freemen, seemingly adding weight to the another trusty old Blaxhall tradition of there once being a village on Beversham marshes.

Accurate land use, like population, is difficult to ascertain, but one clue comes from the number of ploughs recorded. A plough was a plough team made up of eight oxen and generally considered capable of ploughing one acre of land in one day. The Domesday book records 9 ploughs in Blaxhall, a large number for the given area, suggesting a high percentage of arable land use; this picture seems to be backed up by the mention of less than 10 acres of meadow land and no record at all of livestock.

We have little to report for the next 150 years or so, but we do know that one Thomas de Weyland was recorded in 1280 as owning most of the manor of Blaxhall. Thomas was born around 1245 in Brandeston, the son of Sir John de Weyland; he became Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and gained infamy, as well as the wrath of Edward II, for intervening to protect two of his men from a murder charge. He abjured the realm in 1289 and is believed to have died two years later in France. The manor was taken into the hands of the King, but Thomas' son John recovered it in 1290 and was granted "free warren" in 1304 (free warren gave the holder exclusive hunting rights over a specific area, the principal quarry being hare, coneys (rabbits), partridge & pheasants). Following Thomas' death in 1313 the manor passed to his brother Richard, whose daughter Cecily de Weyland, born in Blaxhall in 1316, is alleged to be a direct ancestor of US president George W. Bush, through her marriage to Knight of the Garter Sir Bartholomew de Burghersh. Their daughter Elizabeth (who inherited the manor in 1409) married Edward le Despenser (great grandson of Edward I), and their daughter Margaret's descendants lead all the way to down to Dubya. Margaret's brother Thomas also has an unfortunate legacy, he joined the conspiracy against King Henry IV and was seized by a mob and lynched in Bristol in 1399, aged just 27.

Getting back to matters parochial, St Peter’s Church made its appearance during the 14th century, or at least most of it did, the narrow lancet window in the north wall is probably 13th century, while the west wall of the nave contains a 12th century fragment of carved stone. The tower, porch, magnificent West Door and elaborate font all followed in the 15th century. This was a popular period for church building and expanding, with much money being spent by the extremely well-heeled church authorities, who were engaged in raising cash left, right and centre, employing a wide variety of means from selling beer (a very popular beverage, alongside the staple diet of porridge, peas and bread) to holding numerous festivals. The congregation had good reason to regularly attend their resplendent new houses of worship, since they were constantly assured in no uncertain terms that absolute piety was essential if eternal damnation, or at least a hefty period of purgatory, was to be avoided. On a lighter note religion did have its upside, Christmas for example meant a full 12 days without working! The 14th century also provides us with our next population count, a record of taxpayers from 1327; curiously, this figure of 29 (including part of Tunstall) suggests a population drop since Domesday, even allowing for non taxpaying members of the community the total figure is unlikely to be much more than 100-150, and that’s 20 years before the decimation of the plague in 1348-50. This particularly painful disease decimated up to 60% of Suffolk’s population, the heavy death toll meaning that labourers to work the land were in short supply, a state of affairs that probably hastened the already rapidly growing wool trade that would make Suffolk one of the richest counties in England over the next two centuries. No doubt this new trade and prosperity helped to boost the population once again, by 1524 Blaxhall was already above its pre-plague figure, with 30 lay subsidy payers suggesting a total population of 160-180.

The year 1500 brought with it the birth of one of Blaxhall’s most famous residents, William Bulleyn. The former Marian refugee, kinsman to Anne Boleyn, and student of both Oxford and Cambridge, was rector of Blaxhall for several years, but rapidly removed himself to Durham in 1553 when Mary Tudor arrived on the English throne. The 37 year old monarch was determined to return England to Catholicism, and in the habit of incinerating anyone who disagreed, as a result of which many members of the Protestant clergy saw a bright future in a policy of putting as much distance between themselves and Mary’s London court as they possibly could. While up north Bulleyn continued his educative hobby of medicine, and inspired by the plague epidemic of 1563 he published his famous volume Dialogue Against the fever pestilence in 1564. In reality it contained as much Protestant propaganda as medical wisdom, but it was a step in the right direction. Bulleyn’s fortunes took a turn for the worse shortly afterwards with the death of his friend Sir Thomas Hilton; Bulleyn naturally attempted to make use of his expertise when Hilton went down with a vicious fever, but when all attempts at cure went pear-shaped and Sir Thomas died, his unenlightened relatives turned on Bulleyn and his new fangled medicine, effectively accusing him of murder. William decided upon a tactical retreat to London, now free of Queen Mary, but the rapacious relatives were in hot pursuit and eventually had Bulleyn thrown in jail for unpaid debt to the Hilton family. There was, however, a silver lining, as William used his time behind bars to write several splendid medical works, paying off his debts in the process. Upon release he was made a member of the illustrious Royal College of Physicians.

Another of Blaxhall’s best remembered rectors, The Rev. Thomas Garthwaite, held the reins from 1620 until his death in 1653; born in Richmond, Yorkshire, in 1578, Garthwaite attended both Oxford and Cambridge Universities (a prerequisite for Blaxhall clergy?), before spending several years teaching in Lincolnshire. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1604 and turned up serving as the Vicar of Copdock in 1617 before being appointed to the post at Blaxhall. He is best remembered today for the charity he set up with his wife Elizabeth, leaving the Red Cross Inn in Woodbridge to provide clothing and other relief for the poor men, women and children of the village. The charity, albeit in altered format, survives to this day, while the good Reverend is the subject of a memorial tablet in the church.

One further event worthy of note in the 16th century was the possible planting of the first grapes in England. It is suggested by some sources, including an 1829 book, that this event took place in 1552, on the site of what is now Blaxhall Hall farm.

Our earliest current map, from 1601, shows only the very edge of Blaxhall, but intreaguingly appears to reveal a windmill located on the common to the east of the village and a now vanished wood to the south. Amazingly, most of the visible roads seem to have hardly changed at all in the 400 years since the map was made, while one or two of the field occupants are names are still familar to the area too, such as Osbourne, Gooding and Brightwell.

By 1638 ownership of the manor had passed to one William Saunders, (who was possibly a descendant of the Francis Saunders 1549-1618 commemorated in the church). From this time it stayed with the Saunders family until passing to Robert Warren, who in turn sold it to John Bence. 1603 hands us another chance to check the number of residents, a figure of 96 adults is very healthy indeed - pointing toward a total population well in excess of 200, and probably nearer 250. One of those residents was to come to a probable sticky end in 1646 however, when the infamous "Witchfinder General" Matthew Hopkins arrived in the village. Francis Wildes was the unfortunate soul that Hopkins decided to pick on, quite possibly on the strength of an accusation by another villager who had a grudge or score to settle; For evidence the sadistic puritan Hopkins needed nothing more than a wart, mole, or any other bodily feature that could be coined a "third nipple" where the witch’s "familiar" or evil spirit suckled. A quick session of subtle torture would usually result in a variety of false confessions after which the invariably innocent victim was usually hanged or burnt. Francis Wildes’ fate is unknown, but the likelihood is that he become one of the 200 people to die as a result of Hopkins 18 month rampage across East Anglia. The Withfinder General wasn’t the only person peddling misery through Suffolk at the time; 1643/44 witnessed William Dowsing’s whirlwind tour of destruction, as he stormed through the county’s churches oblitering everything that offended his puritan beliefs. There is no record of his visiting Blaxhall, although Snape, Farnham, Eyke, Sudbourne and Tunstall all fell victim - the latter being particularly hard hit, but even without Dowsing our own church evidently didn’t escape the puritan cleansing, as it no longer displays any more catholic colour & regalia than those mentioned above.

Ten years after Hopkins’ visit the growing population apparently decided that their church tower would benefit greatly from the addition of several hundredweight of bronze, as a result of which John Brend of Norwich was approached to do the business. The Brend family had been casting church bells for at least 3 generations, and Blaxhall was supplied with 5 excellent examples in 1655. It seems however that this may have been a rather improvident act, since 20 years later the parishioners were firing out petitions in a desperate attempt to raise money for St Peter’s church & steeple, which they described as being "so ruinous that they are in great danger of harm when they attend divine service". The mere fact that our old edifice is still there seems to be adequate proof that the £250 (£22,500) required was successfully raised, and it seems possible, indeed probable, that this major repair resulted in the red brick crown so long associated with St Peter’s tower. The closeness of the dates perhaps begs the question of whether the sudden arrival of 1½ tons of bronze lurching around may have come as something of a shock to the 200 year old tower, especially when combined with the structural impact of the four large windows intended to let the sound out; could the stress of these changes have accelerated the need for repair?

Another problem for our stoic ancestors was the return of the plague, the dreaded Black Death raged through Suffolk several times during the 17th century, the last major outbreak coming between 1664-1666. Unconfirmed legend has it that the virus was brought to Blaxhall by a local rector, and the number of victims so large that a mass burial pit became necessary, reputedly located beside the current path in the churchyard. A headcount in 1674 reveals that the plague had indeed taken its toll, the hearth tax tally of 26 households indicating a population of around 150-180, although, rather strangely, everyone seemed to be getting married - the 1660s-70s were regularly witnessing as many as 16 or 17 marriages anually, while 80 years later in the 1750s there were gaps of 3 or 4 years with no weddings at all! Pestilence, poverty and wedding schedules notwithstanding our unflappable forebears were still pressing on regardless, and the 17th century brought with it the erection of our earliest remaining buildings (save the church); The Gorse and Glebe farmhouses both date from the early to mid 1600s, while Tudor Cottages, Fir Tree Farm, and the rear end of The Rectory all followed close behind, probably between 1650-1700. They were evidently here to stay, and intent on entering the next century in style.

Written by Shane Pictor 2003/04