Throughout history the settlement of Rendham was primarily a small rural community with a steady population of just a few hundred inhabitants. Its origins, and those of its pre-history settlers, are lost in those oft-quoted mists of time but archaeology suggests that there was human habitation here before the first century. It is easy to see why these early colonists chose Rendham: proximity to the river Alde provided not only fresh water but also a means of transport (and fish to eat), the gentle slopes of fertile valley soil were conducive to farming, and the heavy clay higher up the valley made ideal house building material.
If dramatic and nationally important events took place in Rendham no details have yet emerged. There is, however, one thing that has placed the village not only on the national map, but also on the international stage of Roman history. For this glimpse of accessible, tangible history we reach back to around AD60, some twenty years into the Roman invasion. The occupation was established in eastern England and, while Roman generals subdued the indigenous Trinovantes tribe (inhabiting approximately modern Essex) they were less successful with the Iceni (occupying what is now Suffolk). In AD60 the Iceni had a new, young queen who vowed resistance to Roman rule. Queen Boudicca raised a rabble army as she swept through the Iceni lands on her route to Camulodunum (Colchester), the regional headquarters of the occupying forces. It is thought likely that the army passed through Rendham and met with some resistance: the Battle of Pipney Hill is traditionally thought to have been between the Iceni and the Romans but it could as easily have been between the Boudiccan troops and locals who were coerced into its ranks.
Boudicca’s heroic stand ultimately ended in defeat and in the spring of AD61 the remnants of her army limped back to their villages. The Iceni spirit was broken and like the Trinovantes before them, they bowed inevitably to superior rule. Numerous Roman finds have been made in Rendham and there is aerial evidence to suggest that there was a villa here of some size and importance. Even stronger is the likelihood that men and women from the parish formed part of the Boudiccan army and were among those who stormed the Temple of Claudius at Camulodunum.
In 1907 two Rendham schoolboys (Arthur Godbold and Arthur Baxter) found what they thought was a football in the river Alde. It turned out to be a sculptured head and for some years it sat, whitewashed, on a post and was largely forgotten. The lads who had found the head tired of telling the tale until a schoolmaster from Benhall saw it and recognised its antiquity. He bought it from Arthur Godbold for the sum of five shillings. In due course it was identified as the plundered Head of the Emperor Claudius, torn from his bronze statue by Boudicca’s troops in AD60, perhaps brought back to Rendham by one of those who took part in the attack on Camulodunum. How it got into the river Alde will never be known but in 1965 it was sold for £15,500 at Sotheby’s to a London dealer acting on behalf of the British Museum. There was some annoyance in Rendham at the time, as no mention of the village was made in the national press. The original Head of Claudius is still in the British Museum and a copy can be seen in St Michael’s History Corner.
By the time of the next historic milestone, the Norman Invasion in 1066, the villagers were Anglo Saxon, with a dash of Danish blood (East Anglia was in the forefront of the Viking invasion). The Domesday Book of 1086 is, therefore, more a snapshot of the final years of the Anglo-Saxons rather than the Normans. In the reign of William I (1066-87) the men and manors of Rendham show the small community still rural but not particularly thriving under the new regime. Rendham appears as Rincha and Rimdham and this represents the first written record of the village as well as the first recorded spelling of its name. The king’s clerks had difficulty in pronouncing local names, hence the (phonetic) variations in spelling. The first element of the word is thought to derive from the Old English rymed meaning ‘cleared’, and ham ‘village, manor, homestead’ especially a low lying meadow near a stream.
In paragraph 6,43 of the Domesday Book, Edric’s manor comprises 1 carucate of land and 69 acres. Villagers and smallholders are listed, as are two slaves. The manor has six acres of meadow and woodland. There are 30 pigs, 1 cob, 18 sheep and 30 goats. Most importantly, a church with 24 acres is listed. That a Christian church existed in 1086 is proof that here was a successful village, operating within the prevailing bureaucracy and subject to the laws of the land. This church was built of wood and is thought to have stood roughly where the nave of St Michael’s is now.
The first recorded Vicar of Rendham was a Norman, Benedict le Henricus de Walpole, who commenced his ministry here from Sibton Abbey. It is not known precisely when the Abbot of Sibton first appointed the Rendham vicar but Benedict le Eyr de Walpole was ‘Chaplain’ here in 1302, while in 1291 Rendham was assessed in the List of Temporalities of Sibton Abbey prepared for taxation purposes at the behest of Pope Nicholas IV.
The Cistercian monks had their only Suffolk house at Sibton, founded in 1150 by William de Cayneto. Known as the White Monks, the Order was founded in Burgundy in 1098 and its constitution laid down that new houses, such as that at Sibton, were to be founded in places ‘remote from the habitation of men’, each with an Abbot and at least twelve choir monks (i.e. those in full monastic orders). It was also decreed that parish churches in their domain should be devoid of all ornament, which is one of the reasons for the plain appearance of St Michael’s.
Rendham was one of the later acquisitions of the Abbey and was the result of piecemeal additions acquired over several hundred years. The Abbot was given the advowson (the right of nomination or presentation to an ecclesiastical benefice) of Rendham Church in a Charter dated 1268 at Westminster during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272). The pre-Reformation history of Rendham is inextricably linked with Sibton Abbey, various lands having been given to the monks by parishioners over the years. Sibton Abbey was among the first of the religious houses to be closed by Henry VIII in 1536 (under the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries).
Lay brothers from the Abbey would have farmed the Order’s land in Rendham and a grange was eventually established (probably on the site of the modern Grange Farm) together with nearby Pypers (Hill Farm) and other small parcels of land. Thus the village continued until the middle of the 16th century, very much as hundreds of others did in medieval Suffolk. As recently as 2007 a small but emotive link with medieval Rendham was discovered by a metal detectorist in the form of two tiny silver pennies, which have since been authenticated by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. One was minted between 1299 and 1301, when Edward I (1272-1307) was on the throne, and the other from the reign of the Viking king, Cnut (1016-35), which bears an Anglo Saxon moneyer’s name, Aeofpoid.
Even after 460 years of academic discussion, the effects of the Reformation on different communities are still debated. Was the Dissolution of the Monasteries welcomed or opposed by the people at large? Henry VIII manipulated parliament into an almost bloodless repudiation of the universal Roman Catholicism and practically overnight the churches and chapel were stripped of the ‘trappings’ of the old religion. In Rendham, as in other parishes which had been under the domination of one or other of the religious orders, the events of 1548 might have been welcomed, though it is hard to imagine that the abrupt change in formal worship was not shocking to many. There was, however, no opportunity for dissent and St Michael’s church became a venue for the new Protestant Church of England, with Henry VIII as its sovereign head.
More religious upheaval was to follow in the 17th century and local support for the Puritan cause is well known. Indeed, Bishop Wren of Norwich suspended Revd William Powell (died 1666) from duty because of his Puritan leanings. The parish church, already plain and unadorned, does not appear in the diaries of the notorious William Dowsing who wreaked havoc in the county’s churches throughout 1643 and 1644. Because it belonged to Sibton Abbey until the Reformation, and there was no rich or powerful family to cover its wall with plaques or endow it with saintly images, Dowsing’s men would have had a thin time of it at St Michael’s.
Following the Restoration of the Monarchy (in 1660) those church ministers who would not conform to the 1662 Act of Uniformity were deprived of their livings. These Dissenters joined forces and operated covertly until the Toleration Act of 1689, giving freedom of worship to all but Roman Catholics and Unitarians. During the covert years Non-conformity found fertile ground in Rendham and Sweffling. A Congregational Chapel was founded, as many were at the time, as part of an existing cottage in Sweffling. In 1650 an extension was made to a thatched cottage called The Suffolk Kinsman and worshippers attended from miles around, some from as far afield as Debenham. By the 1740s attendance had grown to such an extent that the old Sweffling Chapel was no longer big enough and it was decided to build a new Chapel at Rendham.
Work began with the construction of the Manse (previously known as Wisdoms Hill). It was built from local brick (obtained from one of the seven sand pits in the parish) and taken to a kiln, probably situated where the aptly named Brick Kiln Farm now stands on the Peasenhall road. Building began in January 1731 and was completed in late 1732. The cost was £474 10s 5d. By 1750 the Chapel was also built. Dr Isaac Watts (1674-1748), one of the greatest hymn writers in the English language, made a donation towards its cost.
The building known as The Stables, just west of the Meeting House, is a conversion from the original stables that would have been erected around the time of enlargement (in 1834) to accommodate the increased number of attendants. (This was not, though, the earliest stable facility in the village as there are records dated 1504 showing the names of five farmers supplying straw for thatching ‘the long stable’, a much older building.)
In the 1860s, the landscape artist, Henry Bright (1810-1873) regularly attended Rendham Chapel from nearby Saxmundham where his father, Jerome Bright, was a prosperous jeweller and clockmaker. (Queen Victoria bought one of Henry Bright’s paintings).
In 1972 the Chapel became the United Reform Church and it was closed in 1977.
In 1704 Thomas Neal left a yearly rent-charge of £2 10 shillings for the support of a Free School at Rendham for poor children and 10 shillings a year to provide them with books. White’s Directory (1844) records that Thomas had married a Rendham girl and the revenue was to derive from his land at Manor Farm, Bramfield.
From the 18th century onwards, Rendham life was very much the same as that in other villages across the county. The church and chapel co-existed, a National School was opened in 1841 (extending Thomas Neal’s Free School) and is now the Village Hall, and most villagers were involved in agriculture in some way, either as farm workers, farmers or horticulturalists. The Boast family ran the wheelwrights (also acting as undertakers and general carpenters) and the White Horse provided not only a convivial watering place but also a venue for pub games and local entertainment.
Suffolk’s iconic poet, George Crabbe (1745-1832), was curate here and lived for a short time in Lady Whincup’s. While in Rendham he took notes and made observations that resulted in the classic work, The Borough (1810).
Theodore Francis Powys (1875-1953) also lived for a time in Rendham as the guest of local farmer Arthur McDougall (1849-1905), who lived at Rendham Court (then called Hill House). Powys was ostensibly a farm pupil but although he later attempted to farm on his own account he soon retired to devote his life to reading, contemplation and writing his novels and short stories.
The 1881 census (of which there is a copy in the History Corner of St Michael’s Church) provides a precise record of exactly where everyone lived in the village, details of the families, their occupation and place of origin. There were several farmers and farm workers, gardeners, a dairymaid, a grocer (and draper plus draper’s assistant), shoemakers, blacksmiths, a retired solicitor (and household, including a coachman) and many more besides.
During the 20th century all types of clubs were formed, including the Rendham, Sweffling and Bruisyard Good Companions Club, which flourished from 1969 to the late 1900s. It was organised by the Alde Community Council (link), which was inaugurated at Sweffling White Horse in 1969, largely at the instigation of Jack Godefroy, the Rendham shopkeeper. The Parish Council and Parochial Church Council (links) provided opportunities for men and women to participate in the running of local affairs and a link to the wider stratum of government. The most prominent social event in the Rendham calendar is still the annual Village Fete. It offers everything from a bouncy castle and fun races to the much-visited tea tent, book and bric-a-brac stalls and local bands, all supported by local businesses which both advertise in the programme as well as sponsoring prizes for the Grand Draw.
St Michael’s History Corner has a permanent display of village memorabilia, details of the 1881 Census and several photograph albums – all of which can be viewed whenever the church is open, which is most days, thanks to Paul and Lisa Boswell at the White Horse (www.whitehorserendham.co.uk/).
Carol Twinch is an author and local historian. She is the Custodian of St Michael’s History Corner and also compiled the official guide to St Michael’s Church. Her latest book is The History of Ipswich (ISBN 987 1 85983 625 5).
Iveagh MSS (1302) transcribed by John Munday
ADD MS 34560 Register of Sibton Abbey, Folio 16 (1325)
Denny, A H [M.A., Rector of Trimley St Martin, Suffolk]
The Sibton Abbey Estates: Select Documents 1325-1509
Suffolk Records Society Vol II (1960)
Twinch, Carol Great Suffolk Stories, pgs 196-206
Boudicca the Warrior Queen (2003)
A Rendham Project John Schofield (1978-1979) [unpublished]
Rendham Notes Miss Una Harrington (1992) [unpublished]
Bruisyard and Rendham: Two Suffolk Villages
in Victorian England 1837-1901
Rosalind Daniels (1995) [unpublished]
Record of Church Furnishings, St Michael’s Church, Rendham, Suffolk
(The National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Society 2001)
Millennium Book, Rendham 2000 compiled by Rod Goldsmith (2000)