Now I did say this site would focus on naval topics so you may wonder what a post about a ‘city under the sea’ has to do with naval history. Well, please bear with me and I promise you all will become clear.

So, what city am I referring to. Is it the Atlantis of legend or some other mythological city? Nope. It is in fact Dunwich. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with English history let me introduce you to the city of Dunwich.

First of all, you may be wondering where is this ‘city under the sea’ and how did it end up there? Well, Dunwich can be found on the coast of East Anglia in England and yes, some of it is still above water. How long that will remain the case is hard to say (what with climate change and rising sea levels, plus coastal erosion it may have disappeared altogether in less than a century).

Dunwich Greyfriars, Suffolk
(Shiffard, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

You can visit the remains of Dunwich under the sea (if you have the right equipment) but unless you are a qualified diver and archaeologist as well, I doubt you will ever get the chance to visit the bit under the sea. If you want to visit what is left of the once important city then I suggest you do so in the next few years before it is completely swallowed up by the sea.

Now, I did promise to explain why Dunwich is relevant to a site about naval history, so here is the explanation. It is thought that back in Roman times a fort existed at Dunwich to guard the entrance of the Blyth River, an important and vulnerable estuary. If so, it would have part of a known chain of such forts that included Brancaster (Branodunum), Burgh Castle (Gariannonum), Walton (Portus Adurni, near modern-day Felixstowe) and Bradwell (Othona). It is true that no trace of such a fort at Dunwich has been found but that is not surprising given the amount of coastal erosion that has taken place on the East Anglian coast. It has been estimated that the coast in the area has been eroding at around 1 metre each year so that would mean the remains would now be a considerable distance out to sea! In fact in 1884 a piece of Roman masonry was dragged up from the sea bed about 3 1.2 miles out to sea.

After the Romans left Dunwich was still an important settlement and following the Christian ministry of Bishop Felix (died in 647 AD) there were a succession of Bishops at Dunwich. The diocese was then divided into two Sees, one at Dunwich and the other at North Elmham, with Dunwich thought to have been the more important one of the two.

Later on, the Danes (who ruled East Anglia under Danelaw) would have seen Dunwich as an important port with its good access inland via the navigable Blyth River. In the time of Edward the Confessor (1042 – 1066) Dunwich seems to have diminished in importance and the coastal erosion can only have contributed to this.However, good times lay ahead and come the reign of Henry II (1154-1189) Dunwich is quoted as being “a Towne of good note abounding with much riches and sundry kind of Merchandise”.

Such was the importance of Dunwich at this time that it is recorded it had a city wall with brazen gates, 52 churches, chapels, religious houses and hospitals as well as a King’s palace, a Bishop’s seat, a Mayor’s mansion and even a Mint! It is also recorded as having many tall ships and many windmills too. There was also a large forest outside the city walls, which was no doubt important not only for hunting by the King and others, but also for providing timber for shipbuilding and repairs.

So, you can start to see the importance of Dunwich from a naval history perspective, but there is more to the story. In 1173 Henry II had to deal with a rebellious son, Prince Henry, who attempted to dethrone his father. With the support of his mother, Queen Eleanor of France and his father-in-law, Louis of France, the Prince, together with Robert, Earl of Leicester and 3,000 Flemish soldiers, instigated a seaborne invasion of Dunwich! However, for whatever reason, the invasion fleet was unable to land at Dunwich and instead made landing at Walton and then marched on Dunwich. However, the good folk of Dunwich remained loyal to the king and in the end end the invading forces had to withdraw. Eventually, after much destruction and misery inflicted not only upon the ordinary folk of East Anglia but also Normandy and northern England, peace was declared, Henry forgave his son and even Robert, the Earl of Leicester.

Later on, King John (1199-1216) sent three galleys to Dunwich to oppose the French (conspiring with the Barons against John) in 1205 and in 1216, Nicholas of Dunwich was rewarded with the Manor of Westhall for paying the wages of the King’s galley men.

During the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) Dunwich possesed 80 ships. The King even paid for repairs to the port, so important was Dunwich as naval port. Not only was Dunwich a key naval port in terms of the defence of the realm but trade remained very important. Ships from Dunwich even traded as far as Iceland. However, the authorities had to constantly deal with the impact of coastal erosion and silting up of the estuary. Storms also caused much damage to the infrastructure of the port and a severe storm along the coast in January 1286 caused much damage along the east coast, including at Dunwich itself.

In Part II we will continue the remarkable story of Dunwich, the city under the sea.