St Peter's Church, Sudbury
St Peter's Church, Sudbury

The historic market town of Sudbury stands near an ancient crossing of the River Stour, near the Suffolk border with Essex. The history of Sudbury goes back to the Saxon era, and the street pattern of the town centre still follows the 'Great Ditch', the earthwork defences erected to protect the Saxon town.

The first written record of Sudbury comes from AD 798, when an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the death of Bishop Aelthun in Sudbury. We can guess that the settlement was already a place of some importance if the Bishop was staying here.

The Saxon settlement continued to grow, and by the time of William the Conqueror's Domesday Book of 1086 it was recorded as having a market, a mint, and a church. That first church was St Gregory's, rebuilt in the 14th and 15th century, and a wonderful example of Perpendicular architecture.

The prosperity of Sudbury was built on the medieval wool trade, which made the town a busy market centre. In the late Norman period, the growth of the town made it necessary to build All Saints Church, near the main river crossing of the Stour to the south-west of the town centre. In 1200 a stone bridge was built to replace the ford, linking Sudbury with Ballingdon on the far bank.

In the following century Elizabeth de Burgh, granddaughter of Edward I, built the Market Hill as a centre for commerce. The wealth of the medieval wool merchants is reflected in some of the picturesque timber-framed buildings that can still be found on streets around the town centre.

A timber-framed building on Plough Lane
A timber-framed building on Plough Lane

Simon of Sudbury

One of Sudbury's most famous citizens during the medieval period was Simon Theobald, who rose to prominence in the Church, becoming first Bishop of London, and later Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England under Richard II. Simon and his brother founded a college of priests near St Gregory's church, on the site now occupied by Walnuttree Hospital. A gateway from the college still stands in the hospital grounds.

Archbishop Theobald was better known as Simon of Sudbury. He was blamed by the peasantry for implementing the highly unpopular poll tax, and was beheaded by an angry mob at the height of the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. His body was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, but his head was brought back to his native town, and is now preserved in the vestry of St Gregory's church.

Sudbury was loyal to Mary I in the crisis that followed the death of Edward VI, when Lady Jane Grey was put forward as Edward's heir. For the town's loyalty, Mary granted Sudbury the status of a royal borough.

Gainsborough's House
Gainsborough's House

Thomas Gainsborough

The most famous native of Sudbury was artist Thomas Gainsborough, who was born at 46 Gainsborough street in 1727. The house is now a popular museum, with perhaps the single best displays of Gainsborough's art in the world. A short stroll from Gainsborough's House Museum brings you to All Saints church, where a table tomb in the churchyard marks the burial site of the artist's family. Gainsborough himself is not buried with his family, but in a simple grave at St Anne's Church at Kew, London.

A statue of Gainsborough stands in the market place, in front of the redundant medieval church of St Peter. The church was begun as a chapel of ease for St Gregory's, but later became a church in its own right. Though some medieval features remain, it is most interesting for its Victorian restoration, with richly carved woodwork designed by William Butterfield.

Sudbury became a centre of trade again in the 18th century when the River Stour was dug out to form a Navigation, creating a direct transportation link to the sea. The town gained a reputation for electoral corruption in the 19th century, and novelist Charles Dickens used it as the model for his 'Eatanswill' in The Pickwick Papers.

Thomas Gainsborough statue in the market place
Thomas Gainsborough statue in the market place

You can explore the history of Sudbury at the Sudbury Heritage Centre and Museum, located on Gaol Lane, behind the historic Town Hall. This free museum is operated by the Sudbury Museum Trust.

I picked up an extremely useful pamphlet called 'Gainsborough's Sudbury' at the Gainsborough House Museum. The pamphlet maps out a trail linking the main historic sites around the town, from the three historic churches I've mentioned, to interesting examples of timber-framed buildings that remind us of the wealth of the town at the height of the medieval wool trade.

One of the features that the pamphlet does not cover are The Common Lands, the oldest continuously grazed pasture in East Anglia. The Common Lands encircle the town, but the easiest place to see them is the nature reserve on the west bank of the River Stour, which can be reached by a footbridge off Croft Road.

I came to Sudbury on a cloudy day in May. What I did not realise was that it was market day, and the town centre was jammed with people. I managed by chance to find a parking spot on a side street not far from the market place and set off to explore.

With the aid of the pamphlet I mentioned above I did a circular walking tour of the main historic sites, which were packed relatively close together, making for a lovely afternoon stroll punctuated by plenty of picture-taking as I passed another historic building. Beyond the town centre, Sudbury may suffer from the encroachment of modern life, but the centre of town is a delight, full of historic interest and picturesque buildings.

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About Sudbury
Address: Sudbury, Suffolk, England
Attraction Type: Town
Location: At the junction of the A134 and the A1071
Website: Sudbury
Location map
OS: TL870411
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

Gainsborough's House - 0.2 miles (Historic Building) Heritage Rating

Sudbury, All Saints Church - 0.2 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Sudbury, St Gregory's Church - 0.2 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Sudbury, St Peter's Church - 0.3 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Chilton, St Mary's Church - 1.2 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Newton Green, All Saints Church - 3.1 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Melford Hall - 3.1 miles (Historic House) Heritage Rating

Long Melford, Holy Trinity Church - 3.4 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

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