Iken is the name of a hamlet on the river Alde in Suffolk. It is a place-name of great antiquity dating back to Roman times and beyond. In the opinion of Eilert Ekwall, the expert who wrote the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names it probably derives from the Iceni. This was the Celtic tribe who inhabited East Anglia before the Romans arrived, and therefore the name goes back over 2000 years to the Iron Age. There are other theories on the meaning of the name, but I choose to ignore them.
In Anglo-Saxon times the place which held the shrine of the East Anglian saint St Botolph (Botwulf in Anglo-Saxon) was known as Ikanho. Although it is not certain, the obvious similarity of the name, together with the dedication of the parish church of Iken to St Botolph makes Iken the obvious place to have been his shrine. St Botolph was a popular saint in the middle ages, and he has many churches dedicated to his name. There were over 60, predominantly in East Anglia but by no means exclusively so. There is a St Botolph’s church in the City of London and the remains of St Botolph’s Priory in Colchester; the most famous is probably the parish church of Boston in Lincolnshire, with the tower known as Boston Stump.
Very little is known of the life of St Botolph except that he was a man of remarkable learning and ‘full of the grace of the Holy Spirit’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that he started to build his church at Ikanho in the year 653. He died in about 680 and was interred at Ikanho. His brother Athwulf, also a saint (about whom even less is known), was buried in the same grave. Later the two saints’ bodies were translated to Thorney in Cambridgeshire. St Botolph’s emblem consists of dogs’ heads, although we have no idea why. It is interesting to speculate and I like to think that perhaps he was fond of dogs. Maybe the heads are those of wolves and merely represent his name Bot-wolf. In 1977 the archaeologist Stanley West discovered a Saxon cross built into the tower of Iken church which showed dogs’ heads carved into it, clearly referring to St Botolph.
When we first went there on our annual holiday to Southwold in 1958 much of the surrounding countryside (just above the marshland) was covered in purple heather, bracken and golden gorse. Heathland is not a natural environment, requiring human intervention and management to retain the eco-system; is quite credible that this had been maintained for two millennia since the Iceni dwelt here. It was therefore a shock to return a couple of years later to find the open heath had been ploughed up for cereal growing. Just a few sprigs of bracken growing by the road gave a hint of what it once was just a few years before. Some arable land had been lost to the floods of 1953 but that was low lying fenland, not heath.
Iken is a very small village on the estuary of the river Alde. There are a number of barns and the Old Stables near the church that have been converted to holiday cottages, but there is nothing like a pub or a village shop. The nearest place of refreshment is the Plough and Sail in the nearby village of Tunstall. The promontory of land where the church stands called the Anchorage was once an island in the river Alde. This remoteness is still a feature of Iken church, although it is now connected to river bank. It has never been populous, and may well have been chosen by St Botolph for its secluded nature.
FOR THOSE OF YOU interested in Anglo-Saxon history may I recommend my booklet St Edmund’s Norfolk? It is available on Ebay and all sums raised go towards the maintenance of Themelthorpe church.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA