Lidgate in Suffolk has achieved an accolade placing it on equal footing with such historically important sites as the Tower of London. Following a summer of research by Lidgate Archaeology Group, Historic England has agreed to widen the Scheduled Ancient Monument site of Lidgate Castle, in recognition of the national importance of the remains of a medieval town known as a ‘planted borough’ that began to grow up in its foothills, as well as its historic importance as a 12th Century defensive site.
With its Roman villa at one end and the C12th Castle site at the other, as well as beautiful medieval St Mary’s church and many Listed dwellings, Lidgate offers archaeologists and historians a treasure trove of opportunities to understand our past. Now thanks to this announcement by Historic England the almost uniquely undisturbed area around the one of Suffolk’s few castles will be better protected.
The Scheduling has now been enlarged to include the whole of the Inner and Outer Bailey as well as the wider earthwork remains of the later C16th fortified manorial complex including the Bailey Pond. This re-assessment of the extent and importance of the castle remains has been made possible by various investigations including topographical survey, trial trenching, geophysical survey, LiDAR (remote sensing method used to examine the surface of the Earth), map regression analysis and aerial photography, the latter helped by this year’s wonderful dry summer.
Data gathered strongly suggests that the surviving remains of the Castle extend far beyond the previous scheduled area. Parts of the external banks of the inner and outer castle bailey, the banks and ditches defining the C16th remodeled fortified manorial complex, building platforms and terracing south of the church and the Bailey Pond all lay outside the previous protected area.
According to Historic England, “All these features have a high level of archaeological potential to further improve our understanding of the castle and the social and economic context in which it functioned.”
Commenting on the importance of the site, Professor Mark Bailey of the University of East Anglia, one of the world’s leading authorities on medieval England, said:
“Lidgate represents the only example in the county – and one of the few examples in the country – of an undisturbed medieval market place and planted borough inpristine archaeological condition. All other medieval boroughs in Suffolk still exist as towns and so their archaeological record has been mostly lost through constant rebuilding. This makes Lidgate a site of first rate importance.”Professor Mark Bailey, University of East Anglia
Lying on the ancient trade route between Clare and Exning, as a natural defensive site, a settlement may have existed at Lidgate during the Bronze Age or even earlier. There are hints of Roman occupation of the area and the village was said to have been laid waste along with Thetford and Cambridge by the Vikings as they invaded in 865 AD. The Castle may have been re-fortified in its surviving form during the civil war between the Empress Matilda and King Stephen in 1140s. St. Mary’s Church, located within the inner baileys, is famous for its outstanding medieval graffiti, including rebuses (rare coded musical graffiti) and a signature almost certainly that of the famous medieval poet John de Lydgate**.
In the 13th Century, Lidgate’s ambitious baronial owner Henry de Hastyngs attempted to develop the village into a wealthy town similar to nearby Long Melford or Lavenham, investing in establishing a market place, defensive ditches, laying out terracing for housing around the market and what appears to have been a substantial lake at the foot of the castle hill (of which the village Bailey Pond is the only remnant today). The fortified Castle site with a newly laid-out fledgling town in its foothills may have been used by him as a garrison during the turbulent Barons’ War uprising against King Henry III. However, de Hastyngs had backed the wrong side, though he was pardoned by the King, and he died shortly after the final fall of the barons at Ely in 1267. The castle was soon abandoned, and trees enveloped its site covering the once imposing ditches and mounds, though Lidgate market remained active until at least the 14th Century (C14). By the C15 the effects of long-term economic decline following the Black Death meant the market and town fell into disuse, and Lidgate has remained a small rural village to this day.
** John de Lydgate, c1370-1450: who, with Chaucer, was regarded as one of the most popular and important poets of his day, with patronage for his literary work at the royal courts including that of Henry V of England. He coined the phrase ‘needs must’.