Although it is now part of Norfolk, historically Burgh Castle was a part of Suffolk, along with Gorleston and all the villages to the east of the river Waveney. The move to make a part of Norfolk the district which looked to Yarmouth as its centre happened as recently as 1974, when the last major reform of local government tool place. Huntingdonshire disappeared as a county council at the same time, to become part of Cambridgeshire.
Burgh Castle was built as one of the Forts of the Saxon Shore by the Romans. These fortifications extended from Brancaster in North Norfolk to Portchester in Hampshire. Burgh Castle was started in about the year 260 AD. Three sides of the fort have survived with substantial walls remaining; on the fourth side the wall has fallen into Breydon Water in the distant past. Being far away (until recently) from later activity the walls have not been quarried for building materials to any great extent. Where there are gaps it is merely that the wall has fallen, and the debris is still there.
The other Saxon Shore forts in East Anglia have not fared so well. Brancaster has disappeared from view, although substantial foundations remain beneath the surface, while Walton Castle near Felixstowe has been washed away by the encroaching sea. During the conversion of the Saxons the old Roman shore forts became popular places for the Christian missionaries to set up their monasteries. St Felix established his in Walton Castle, the fort near the mouth of the river Deben, and his name is preserved in the town of Felixstowe, which means St Felix’s home. It is also highly likely that the Suffolk cathedral of Dommoc was there and not at Dunwich, despite the similarity of the words.
Bede (d.735), the first historian of the English church and people, said that in 630 AD Saint Fursey established another monastery in East Anglian at a place called Cnobheresburh, a Roman fort. The first person to identify Bede’s Cnobheresburh with Burgh Castle was the historian William Camden (1551 – 1623). This has been accepted by most people, although some suggest it was Caistor by Norwich. Since Bede tells us that the monastery was close to the sea there can little doubt that it was not at inland Caistor. The last syllable of Cnobheresburh remains as the castle’s modern name, which convinces me that it was here.
Fursey – or Fursa- was an Irishman, and he was given the site for his monastery by the king of East Anglia, Sigeberht. Among the priests with him were Fursey’s half-brother Foillán, Gobán and Dícuill. These names confirm that these colleagues had all come with Fursey from Ireland. Sigeberht was the first truly Christian East Anglian kings. He later retired to a monastery (perhaps this one) but was forcibly taken from it by his people to help defend them from the attacking Mercian king, Penda. Sigeberht refused to fight, holding just a stick as a weapon, and was killed. Fursey, fearing the attacks of the Mercians, had already moved to Gaul where he founded another monastery before he died. The monastery at Cnobheresburh only lasted about 20 years, and by 651 Burgh Castle was again deserted.
There was a dig carried out at Burgh Castle in 1958- 61 by Charles Green the Norfolk archaeologist, and he could find no trace of Fursey’s monastery. If I were to build a monastery in a Roman fort I would select a corner, because two of the walls were already there. I have no idea where Fursey built his monastery, but if he thought along the same lines, half the possible sites would have disappeared along with wall beside Breydon Water. So the fact that Charles Green drew a blank in searching for signs of Fursey’s monastery does not prove it was not there. The other two walls of his monastery would of course have been built of wood and thatch, according to Saxon architecture of the time.
After the Norman Conquest a wooden castle was built within the walls of the fort, but after that was abandoned the area reverted to agricultural use. After an eventful period in the early middle ages it fell into quiet centuries of peaceful forgetfulness when nothing remarkable happened.
I would not have added this picture of Burgh Castle if it were not such a good likeness of my mother and father. The horrible little brat making a silly face is unfortunately me. At least the picture gives you a good view of the southern wall, so you can see how complete the Roman ruin is.