Walton Castle, Felixstowe, possible site of St Felix's Minster of Dommoc. 

If you go to the cliffs of Old Felixstowe when the low tide mark is around its seasonal extreme, you should be able to view some of the seaweed-shrouded remains of the walls of the Roman Saxon Shore fortress known as Walton Castle. I took the picture below from the cliff-top at very low tide looking northeast towards the mouth of the Deben and Bawdsey.  Part of the remains can be seen in the centre of the picture in the water about fifty yards out beyond the end of the groynes. More tumbled masonry lies deeper and further out beneath the waves.

Surviving descriptions from the twelfth and eighteenth centuries indicate that the fortress was sited on a ridged promontory extending out to the north-east of the present cliff and rising up to a hundred feet above the sea. Over the centuries, this ridge has been eroded away by the waves. The deep valley now known as The Dip, which ran into the sea just north of the site, must have formed one side of this ridge.

Walton Castle is identifiable as one of the late Roman fortresses of the Saxon Shore, forming part of a chain of major defensive bases for naval and cavalry forces protecting the island of Britain from seaborne attack.  It was strategically sited to guard the approaches to the Deben and Orwell estuaries, the latter’s entrance being originally further to the north than it is today.

The site’s strategic significance was not overlooked by the Normans and the fortress was reused as the bailey for a castle built there by one of the Bigod earls, probably Roger I [died 1107].  Hugh Bigod, Roger's second son, appears to have greatly strengthened the castle, possibly with a tower keep like that he also built at Bungay. It was confiscated and garrisoned by King Henry II [1154-1189] and it successfully withstood siege when Hugh and his ally Robert, Earl of Leicester, attempted to retake it  in 1173. The King had it dismantled in 1175/1176, for his new castle at Orford by then had become the main royal base in the area.  It seems that only Hugh Bigod's fortifications were demolished at Walton, for the Roman walls were still standing on the cliff top when they were undermined by the sea in the eighteenth century.

The strategic importance of the Walton Castle site continued, however, and during the Napoleonic Wars Martello Towers were built nearby, two of which can be seen just to the north. During the First World War, a fortified coastal defence battery named Brackenbury Fort was built on what was then left of the very cliff on which Walton Castle had once stood. Brackenbury formed part of the defensive network around Harwich harbour in both World Wars. In 1942, it was provided with a forward defence in the shape of a sea-fort of the type called Churchill Towers. This was an offshore gun-platform built on two columns standing on the submerged offshore sandbank of Rough Sands. In clear weather this can still be seen from the shore. The guns at Brackenbury Fort were removed in 1952 but the fort itself continued as a bulwark against coastal erosion until Felixstowe Town Council regrettably demolished it with difficulty in 1969.

Here is a view of the site of Brackenbury looking south-west from the water at the eroded stump of the cliff.

Today, all that can be seen to remind visitors of the strategic importance of this now quiet corner of England are the Churchill and Martello towers - that is, except at very low tides, when the sea reveals that it has yet to complete the destruction of the massive walls of Walton Castle.

Despite all the power of waves, kings, and earls, the walls of the fortress can still be seen, still keeping at least a part-time watch over the still vital approaches.

Walton Castle is also the focus of interest in Wuffing Studies because it is identifiable as one of the possible locations of Dommoc, named by the early eighth-century historian Bede [Historia Ecclesiastica, II, 15] as the site of the first East Anglian episcopal minster, given to St Felix by King Sigeberht (ruled c.630-635).

The widely held view is that Dommoc was located at another now offshore site further up the Suffolk coast at Dunwich, although this has never been convincingly demonstrated.  Nothing is visible at Dunwich - even at the lowest tides - and there is no compelling evidence that it was a particularly important place before the rise of its prosperity as a port during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

If St Felix sited his episcopal seat within the Roman walls of Walton Castle, he would have been following a clear pattern of the early Christian re-use of important Roman sites. There are many examples of this re-use, including both neighbouring fortresses in the Saxon Shore defence line; at Burgh Castle, Suffolk, to the north, guarding the estuary of the Yare, where St Fursey was probably established also in the early 630’s; and at Bradwell, Essex, to the south, guarding the estuaries of the Colne and the Blackwater, where St Cedd was established in the 650’s.

There appears to have been a church dedicated to St Felix within the walls of the Walton Castle in the twelfth century, when it was granted to Rochester Priory by the Bigods. This rare dedication, along with some interesting field names, and perhaps even the place-name Felixstowe itself, considerably strengthen the case for Walton Castle as the site of Dommoc, as Tim Pestell has emphasised in his recent thesis on early minsters in East Anglia. Perhaps Rochester Priory sought to re-establish some of the earliest known Christian sites in the area.

Certainly Walton would have been within the heartland of the Wuffing kingdom of south-east Suffolk, the territory which seems to correspond to the later grouping of Hundreds known as the Wicklow or the Liberty of St Etheldreda. It was also close to its main arteries, the three rivers now called the Orwell, the Deben, and the Alde.

If St Felix had stood here on the elevated position of Walton Castle in the early 630’s, he may even have been able to see the royal burial-mounds of the Wuffings at Sutton Hoo.

© Copyright Dr Sam Newton, Blotmonaž AD 2000

Further Reading

J.A.Newman, "The True Provenance of the Woodbridge Sceatta 'Hoard' " The British Numismatic Journal, 65 (1996), pp.217-218.
S.J.Plunkett & J.Fairclough, "Drawings of Walton Castle and Other Monuments in Walton and Felixstowe" Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 39 (2000), pp.419-459.
S.Rigold, "The Supposed See of Dunwich", Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 24 (1961), pp.55-59.
---------, "Further Evidence about the Site of Dommoc",  Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 37 (1974), pp.97-102.
Peter Warner, The Origins of Suffolk (Manchester 1996), pp.127-133.
D.Whitelock, "The pre-Viking Church in East Anglia", Anglo-Saxon England, 1 (1972), pp.1-22, p.4.

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