The A12’s bisection of Blythburgh could easily destroy any atmosphere this important village might retain. But walking down Church Road, a sense of expectation builds. Then the roar of traffic fades away and a shudder passes through you. Before you stands a church of unexpected grandeur and presence: Holy Trinity church is truly a cathedral of the marshes; it stands sentinel on high ground, overlooking the River Blyth; a church has likely occupied this site for 1,400 years. For me, this is Suffolk’s finest ecclesiastical site – a perfect mix of history, location, architecture and ‘spirit of place’.
Blythburgh itself was a flourishing settlement throughout the medieval era with a fishery, market, priory, court and jail – it’s quarter sessions (local courts held four times a year) served an area as far north as Beccles. Its fortunes floundered following the (literal) collapse of nearby Dunwich, plague, foreign wars and an extensive fire in the c. 17th. But this prosperity explains the size and grandeur of Holy Trinity church, relative to the village, even though it was constructed when Blythburgh’s decline was beginning in the c. 15th.
The original Anglo-Saxon wooden church is a strong contender for minster status; it sits less than three miles from the Blyth estuary and this seems to be a feature of early minsters in East Anglia. Iken (likely St Botolph’s Icanhoe) is similarly located on the River Alde, as is Burgh (probably St Felix’s Cnobheresburg) on the River Yare. There could well have been a church here at Blythburgh when the Christian Wuffinga king Anna – nephew of Rædwald – and his son Firminus were killed in battle by the pagan Mercian king Penda. It is thought the battle took place at Bulcamp Forest, one mile NW of the village, where 500 bodies were unearthed in 1763. Father and son were reputedly buried at the minster in 654AD, then translated to Bury abbey in the c. 11th.
Despite its grandeur, Holy Trinity was a victim of both puritan zeal and neglect. But following restoration in the c. 19th, the church can be enjoyed today for its truly awesome painted angel roof, brick floor, priest’s room with views across the marshes and carved bench-ends. The atmosphere is peaceful, welcoming and slightly other-worldly; the interior is dry and bright and, these days, far from neglected; in fact, the church houses a variety of modern artworks, which grant the place an exotic and affluent air.
Holy Trinity’s liminality is demonstrated by the legend associated with East Anglia’s devil-dog Black Shuck. Known across the region by a variety of names, a sighting of this red-eyed, chain-rattling beast presages ill fortune and death; he prowls the fens and swamps, much like Beowulf’s Grendel.
In 1577, it was recorded that a terrible storm passed over Bungay on Sunday 4th August. Following a crack of thunder, a giant black dog appeared amongst the parishioners of St Mary’s church, ran down the aisle and struck two of them, killing both. The same Sunday morning, the storm passed over Blythburgh. A bolt of lightning hit Holy Trinity church and, once again, the devil-dog appeared. It climbed onto the rood-beam, jumped into the parishioners, killing three of them, then clawed its way through the north door. Its claw-marks can still be seen in the door’s woodwork.