Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome local historian David Burnett to talk to us about ‘Chilton, The First Three Thousand Years'. The greater than 40 audience was enthralled with his account of the diverse nature of the history of this most unusual parish which lacks any defined centre and simply comprises the Hall, a church, a scattering of farms and a few houses and cottages.
David began by telling us that historically Chilton was regarded as little more than an extension of Great Waldingfield, whilst in modern times it has been under massive assault from the residential and industrial expansion of Sudbury, let alone the huge proposed development of Chilton Woods. He then explained that Chilton sits on a plateau above the valley of the river Stour, which provided a natural route for invaders to penetrate into the heart of East Anglia. As the valley bottom was marshy and prone to flood, early settlers tended to occupy high ground, living as hunter gatherers and leaving little trace of their passing, apart from ‘scatters of worked flints'.
After parts of the parish were zoned for industrial development in the last century, archaeological excavations in 1997 between Chilton Hall and Grange Farm discovered permanent farming settlements spanning at least 1,500 years, from the late Bronze Age into the Iron Age. A section of a curved ditch was found, some 3 to 4 metres wide and 1 to 1.5 metres deep, cut into the boulder clay; due to subsequent development only part of the ditch was uncovered, but was estimated to have enclosed an area of 1.6 hectares - about 4 acres. Excavations within the enclosure revealed a multitude of post-holes, indicating the wooden frames of dwellings and other structures; post-hole patterns indicated two or possibly three family roundhouses of about 6 metre diameter - possibly housing one extended family.
David then explained how the settlement uncovered by the archaeologists was unusual because the enclosure was surrounded by woodland; analysis of mollusc remains found in the ditch showed a high concentration of shade loving snails, whereas most contemporary settlements of this sort lay in open country. Some land in the vicinity had been cleared for farming, with evidence of wheat, oats and barley having been grown, dried in pits over heated flints and stored in raised four poster granaries, then finally ground into flour using stone querns. There was evidence of tool making, with fragments of a clay crucible and metal working waste to indicate copper and lead were smelted on site, along with evidence of jewellery making. It seems the site was abandoned in the late Iron Age, with no evidence of Romano-British occupation, although an area of Roman occupation was found south west of New Farm, subsequently confirmed 10 years later after a series of trial trenches were dug in advance of the Chilton Woods development.
David told us the 1997 excavation also revealed remains of a Saxon building to one corner of the Iron Age settlement, whilst the name of the village derives from its Old English (or Saxon) place name of Ciltona, usually translated as ‘the farm or estate of the young noblemen'. We were then told that Suffolk Archaeological Service records show that pioneering Victorian archaeologist Sir John Evans excavated a grave near Chilton Hall; Kelly's directory for 1865 notes a barrow (burial mound) in the parish, which may be where Evans discovered a magnificent copper alloy hanging bowl dating back to the 7th century. The large Coptic (i.e. made in the Eastern Mediterranean) bowl is some 37 cms (14.5 inches) across and 12 cms (nearly 5 inches) tall; it is also more complete than the one found at Sutton Hoo and now resides at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
During the Domesday survey, Chilton was a small part of the extensive estates of Count Robert Malet, son of William Malet Governor of York castle. They were among William the Conqueror's most trusted advisers / supporters and Chilton manor may have formed part of William's estates, or possibly part of Robert's reward for services during the conquest itself. On William's death both estates were merged, and by Domesday in 1086 Ciltona was a tiny part of Count Robert's territory of some 75,000 acres in Suffolk and Norfolk, stretching to the Midlands and into Yorkshire. Domesday records that ‘Walter, son of Aubrey holds Chilton from the Count', a Norman knight owing military service to Robert. There is no mention of a hall house (for further information on these, refer LWHS blog: https://littlewaldingfieldhistorysociety.wordpress.com/2013/11/) and it seems likely that Walter had his main residence further to the East, closer to his overlord Robert Malet's stronghold at Eye. To put everything into context, Robert Malet had an annual income of about £600 from his many estates, of which Chilton contributed just £2 - a mere pittance (to him).
In 1086 Chilton was a tiny settlement of perhaps 40 to 50 people; by the beginning of the 20th century all signs of it had disappeared, apart from the church, isolated in the middle of an expanse of arable fields - as historian Michael Woods oft remarks ‘the poor move invisibly through history'. It is not known why this happened, with the Black Death often being cited for the disappearance of the village. David observed that the explanation is likely to be more complex; the population of Suffolk was shrinking well before the arrival of the disease, whilst there was little to keep people in Chilton. By the late 14th century a flourishing cloth industry had grown up in both Great Waldingfield and in Sudbury, whilst the latter offered a range of other job opportunities. Both would have acted as magnets offering better paid work and more secure livelihoods - perhaps there was a gradual loss of population from the settlement around the church rather than a sudden event like the Black Death.
David then introduced the Cranes of Chilton Hall, an ‘ancient and knightly family' who, in the 15th century, owned lands around Stonham in central Suffolk. This review is not intended to cover everything in David's hour plus presentation, so we will skip to the fourth generation Crane Robert, who succeeded his father in 1562 and ultimately secured the succession by a long and extremely complex will of 1590. Of interest to LWHS is the fact that one of the executors was Thomas Appleton of Little Waldingfield, who did not personally benefit from the will, unlike the other, Dudley Fortesque, who both occupied the Hall and ran the local Crane estates. Perhaps not surprisingly, this seems to have created differences between the two, with legal challenges and other rumblings going on for some years.
Dudley Fortesque then commissioned a survey and map of the Crane estate, which was completed in August 1597. Surviving to this day in the British Museum it is an impressive piece of cartography for its day, with its large scale of 1:3,200 showing the Hall in perspective, with the church standing in isolation to the south-east. Robert Crane built Chilton Hall between 1550 and 1560, surrounded by a moat with an arched gateway to the south leading to farm buildings and a small enclosure to the west. The whole estate, including kitchen ground and orchard to the north (now arable fields outside the registered boundary), was inherited by Sir Robert Crane V who built the present walled garden.
The lands were divided on his death, in 1643, between his four surviving daughters, with the Hall and grounds passing to the daughter married to Edmund Bacon. At this time Chilton possessed a large deer park to the south-east of the present site (reference the 1597 Survey), and by the end of the 17th century the estate passed to the Wodehouse family, whose main seat was at Kimberley in Norfolk. During the 18th century and early to mid 19th century the Hall remained little more than a large farmhouse, until around 1800 when it is believed a fire destroyed much of it, leaving only the east wing. By 1839 the Tithe map showed the deer park had been turned over to arable.
According to Historic England, the east wing is constructed of red brick and is two storeys high, with attics and cellars. The south gable has a moulded brick parapet with ornate detail added in the 1920s. The south-west corner has an octagonal buttress and the south-east corner an embattled turret which was also embellished in the 1920s. A door in the east front is reached by a brick and timber foot bridge over the moat. In the late 18th century the west front was given a Georgian facade with one and two light double-hung sash windows, and a late 20th century conservatory room has been added on this front.
St Mary's church is described by the Church Monuments Society as one of Suffolk's best-kept secrets, now redundant and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. It is marooned in the middle of fields and usually locked, so presents a challenge to visit, yet it is worth persevering to get in, not least for the fine tombs to the Crane family, in particular the alabaster tomb monument commemorating Robert Crane and his wife, Anne Osgard, Lady Arundel, located between the sanctuary and the brick-built Crane chapel on the north side of the church. David told us that Robert personally chose how he wanted to be depicted on his monument because his will reveals he commissioned the tomb in his lifetime; a date in the early 1490s is confirmed by the fact the effigies are very similar to two other pairs in East Anglia, at Wethersfield (Essex) to Henry Wentworth and at Wingfield, to John de la Pole 2nd duke of Suffolk. When his widow made her will in 1508 she asked for burial ‘in the chapel annexed to Chilton Churche by the Grace of Robert Crane sumtyme my husband', thus proving that the Crane chapel was built by her husband in the late fifteenth century, possibly at the same time providing a chantry there.
Seen from the north or east, St Mary's church seems to sit in rural isolation, but sadly this is today an illusion. For centuries after the disappearance of the medieval village the church was completely isolated amidst a broad expanse of farmland, but in the late 20th century, Sudbury expansion led to much of the land around the church being zoned for employment and construction of the eastern bypass and Church Field Road. For the first time, worshippers and visitors no longer faced a long trek across muddy fields in winter, but by the late 1970s the tiny parish could no longer support its church. It was drawn into the parish of Sudbury St Gregory, declared redundant and left to its fate, and in the 1980s St Mary was vested in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.
The church tower is constructed in rich red bricks and heavily buttressed, with the massive stair turret providing additional support to the church on the south side. David told us, the growing use of brick for church towers and the homes of the gentry provided evidence of a local brick industry developing in the 15th and 16th centuries. Apparently the bricks for St Mary's and the Hall were made on site by travelling brickmakers, using local clay seams that were still being exploited in the 20th century. Peter Minter of the Bulmer Brick and Tile Company advises that ‘it would have taken many years to make sufficient bricks for the tower and then lay them'; he believes they would have been made in the summer months and laid after the frosts the following year, to ensure the lime mortar set properly. The bricks are unusually large and the 16th century workmen used a lime rich mortar containing small pieces of chalk, with Peter suggesting a construction date of between 1515 and 1520, putting it during the time of the third Robert Crane; in addition, it must have been completed before the reformation of the 1540s which put a stop to major church projects. Some damage was subsequently done to the three effigies on the Crane wall monument, with praying hands cleanly removed, although William Dowsing's journal makes no mention of any visit to Chilton.
Into the industrial age, digs and maps show a number of activities in the local area, including chalk and lime burning, brick making, flour milling, malting and mat making. Bringing the story more up to date, the face of East Anglia was transformed by the building of vast airfields for the USAAF, Eighth Air Force, with Chilton being one of sixty airfields. David told that a huge workforce of Irish labourers built runways, buildings and other facilities needed to house, feed and entertain 3,000 airmen and ground crew. Although it was common practice during the war for large private houses in the vicinity of airfields to be requisitioned for the use of officers, this did not happen to Chilton Hall. The reason was personal intervention by the then owner, Sir Thomas Crisp English, who had great influence in high places having saved the life of Winston Churchill in 1922, by diagnosing acute appendicitis and operating immediately. Sadly, before the Americans departed, they destroyed what they could not take, so food was buried, bicycles flattened by bulldozers, furniture and linoleum burnt on huge bonfires - effectively a ceremonial farewell to the young ‘Viking Fleet' from across the Atlantic.
To conclude his excellent talk, David sold a number of copies of his book ‘Chilton, the first three thousand years', which is very highly recommended to people interested in our shared local history.
Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:
15th March, when Geoffrey Robinson will tell the tale of Suffolk Pioneer Henry Adams Cupper, and take us on a transatlantic journey into the unknown.
19th April, when Ashley Cooper will tell us about the myriad connections between Suffolk and India.
Both are going to be great & we look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room.
Andy Sheppard 17th February 2017