Brandeston - A Brief History
Brandeston is a rural village situated in east Suffolk within the Deben Valley. It is green and attractive, with parkland and water meadows leading down to the river that winds around it. Brandeston is the kind of village which estate agents would describe as ‘sought after’.
Suffolk has been described as the most English of counties, and certainly its history exemplifies the history of the English as a nation. Brandeston takes its place in that history. Its first known mention was in the Domesday Book, when it was in the fiefdom of one Edric the Grimm and was described rather dismissively as having ‘forest enough for four hoggs onlie’.
Clearly then the village wasn’t highly thought-of, nor judging by the name of its liege lord did it have a lot of fun. (Since then we’ve tried to put that right.) But in the intervening centuries it has enjoyed a history of almost unbridled excitement.
Sutton Hoo, a few miles away from Brandeston, is the ceremonial burial place of the first English kings, who led their people through the misty marshlands of what is now the River Deben and established their first settlements on its banks.
So the Deben Valley has claim to a very special place in English history, and Brandeston – in the heart of that ancient countryside – typifies that history. The origin of the name is uncertain. It may come from Bran, the Saxon god king, whose head is said to be buried beneath the Tower of London. The legend has it that as long as the head stays buried then England will be safe, though a similar story was told of the mysterious three crowns of Anglia. One was known to have been at Rendlesham, a few miles from Brandeston, and a second was lost off the coast of Dunwich. The resting place of the third remains a mystery, though just perhaps a village named after the god king who was to keep England safe might know more than it’s saying.
An alternative and more prosaic explanation of the name comes from the Old Norse: brandr, meaning a kind of trade mark, and it is likely that the village was a crossing place (the site of the old ford still exists) which grew to become a market site, or a place where tolls were paid.
In the 14th century all of the villages to the south were wiped out by the plague, after which they were burnt. Monewden, an old plague village, lies only half a mile away across the fields – the plague came that close - but Brandeston still retains its old houses where other villages in the area were almost abandoned following the Middle Ages.
Still in the 14th century, the Black Prince – perhaps the most romantic figure in English history – used to hunt here. (His hunting lodge was reputedly deliberately burned down during the 1950s by its owner because it was old and draughty and difficult to heat, and people came from miles around to watch the event.)
The Black Prince hunted here with members of the de la Pole family, one of whom later sought refuge in the church following a charge of murder, before being given safe passage into exile in France.
During the 17th century the Witchfinder General hunted and terrified the populace here. He accused the unfortunate vicar, John Lowes, of being in league with the devil and had him hanged. His death is still commemorated on the village sign and was featured in the cult film of The Witchfinder General, based on the Brandeston story.
In the 18th century Suffolk’s most important business was smuggling, and Brandeston was close to the main route from Sizewell Gap to Hadleigh. The county’s most famous smuggler and best loved romantic heroine, Margaret Catchpole, lived here with her uncle. Her house is still here and the pond by the gate was said to be where Margaret and her colleagues hid their contraband.
But Margaret Catchpole was not the only smuggler. ‘The notorious George Crabbe of Brandeston’ (Ipswich Gazette) also lived here, and gangs of smugglers fought gun battles with the revenue men on the Easton road a mile away.
Much later in 1844 Brandeston Hall burned down, and Charles Austin, its owner, restored it as an exact replica. (It is now a school.) The Austin estate was later lost by the first Charles Austin’s son on the turn of a card, but apparently the winner refused to accept the deeds.
Lloyd George used to stay in Brandeston in the early 20th century and there are still people who remember him. They tend not to discuss it much though, since it was not clear what his relationship was with the lady with whom he lodged.
Only a few years ago the village lost a link to one part of our history with the death of its oldest citizen, Lady Jane Turnbull - a descendant of Lady Jane Grey - who gave talks to the Women’s Institute on her illustrious ancestor.
Throughout, Brandeston has gone about its business of being a quiet village in deepest rural Suffolk. Like all such villages its prosperity was based on farming and, like all such villages, that is no longer true. Although surrounded by farmland and countryside, almost nobody is employed on the land now. Instead they are more likely to work in IT or the professions, and one or two commute to London. Still though, Brandeston people remain aware of their history and interest in exploring and illustrating the village and its history has increased since the building of the new hall. We are fortunate in having a dedicated village historian and archivist, who has collated a vast array of material, documents and photographs. which are periodically brought out and assembled as a popular exhibition of part of the village’s heritage.