Dunwich’s very English apocalypse

Dunwich, once a bustling medieval city, was swept under the waves in a series of storms. Little now remains of this English Atlantis.

Greyfriars, the remains of a 13th-century Franciscan priory at Dunwich.
Greyfriars, the remains of a 13th-century Franciscan priory at Dunwich. Credit: Shiffard, CC

It always struck me as being a very English apocalypse. Dunwich met her end not courtesy of fire and brimstone but by wind and sand and rain, lots and lots of rain. Starting in 1287 a series of storms lashed Dunwich. The final and most severe was in January 1362 which resulted in Dunwich’s final destruction; it was known by the Dutch, whose coastline it completely reshaped, as De Grote Mandrenke, ‘the Great Drowning of Men’. If the tenth largest city in the country (Sheffield, for those of you wondering) were to disappear, it would be front page news for months and talked of for centuries, but Dunwich is scarcely mentioned now, and even then only by anoraks or in vague whispers. A very English apocalypse indeed.

I visited Dunwich for the first time during one of those brief and blissful hiatuses between the months of lockdown. It has long fascinated me; indeed ever since it received a passing mention, in one of those vague whispers, in a school geography class many years ago, I have wanted to visit – in part to prove to myself that such a strange English Atlantis exists, or rather, existed. So it was arranged by some dear friends, to have this unconventional childhood dream come true. As we drove up to the small car park at the edge of present day Dunwich (a cluster of houses with barely 100 souls between them), one of those vast East Anglian vistas appeared, where sea and sky fuse in a beautiful blue-grey. As the expanse opened out, an unlikely snatch of Jules Verne – prophet of the modern and the mechanical – popped into my mind; ‘the sea is everything’. Now, at Dunwich, everything is the sea.

Well, not quite everything. There remains the monastery of the Greyfriars, now but a silhouette in stone but once a great Franciscan foundation at the city’s Western gate. Its location might have saved it from Dunwich’s submission to the sea but not even the blessings of geography could rescue it from Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners. So it sits a dissolved ruin – testament to a parallel history that the rest of Dunwich was denied by the sweep of the waves in the 13th and 14th centuries. Perhaps we ought to believe, as the monks doubtless did, that her apocalypse was ultimately an act of Divine mercy. Dunwich was spared the fires of Reformation and Counter Reformation that burned especially fierce in East Anglia, she did not suffer the attentions of Suffolk’s Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, the Kaiser’s fleet passed her by and shelled Felixstowe and Lowestoft instead, she knows nothing of Brexit fishery negotiations. Happy are the dead that die in the Lord.

However, other signs of Dunwich’s parallel lives, or rather deaths, do exist. At the edge of the monastery grounds is a solitary gravestone, itself once in the furthest corner of the adjoining churchyard of All Saints. It is marked by its own special sign, which informs us, with a melancholy poetry, that, whilst this is the final tomb standing, ‘old bones still occasionally weather out of the cliff face’ after a whipping by the wind. It belongs to Jacob Forster, buried there in 1796, in the yard of a church whose last Rector had left it to collapse 40 or so years earlier. I had a pang of sympathy for Jacob as I looked out over the cliff – where better place to wait the final doom than the scene of a previous one?

The Twenty-First Century thus far has been a reminder that those hallmarks of Dunwich’s world – religious and political violence, visitation by plague, and apocalyptic climate events – did not come to an end whenever it was we emerged into modernity. Indeed this century looks set to have more of these ‘medieval’ characteristics than any we have seen since Dunwich slipped into the sea. It is a truism to observe that this year in particular has seemed closer to the apocalyptic than most, but alongside the panic and the paranoia, more serious thought has been given over to endings than has been the case for some time. The sea is a good place to gather such thoughts; as the psalmist wrote: ‘they that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters, these men see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep’. All Dunwich’s business is under those great waters now, her monasteries, markets and other wonders are in the deep and are danced in by shoals alone, leaving you and I and Jacob Forster politely awaiting the next apocalypse, beneath the great expanse of the East Anglian sky.


Fergus Butler-Gallie