In 1539, all monastic property was transferred to the control of King Henry VIII, including great tracks of land across the county of Suffolk.
Whilst Suffolk’s abbeys were not amongst the largest in the country, the three wealthiest at Bury St Edmund’s (second only to Glastonbury in power in the whole kingdom), Butley Priory, near Woodbridge and Sibton, just 11 miles from the coast at Aldeburgh and Southwold, had, until that time, controlled some of the best arable land in Suffolk.
Sibton Abbey, an early Cistercian abbey just a mile from Yoxford in Suffolk, was founded in the mid 12th century by William de Chesney, High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk with a compliment of just 13 monks. It was the only Cistercian abbey in East Anglia.
By 1325, Sibton Abbey’s lands extended through Cookley, Linstead, Peasenhall, Rendham and Sibton. Seventy five percent of the land was devoted to arable farming, much of which was enclosed. Due to the challenges of transport – farm carts could be expected to travel little more than 10 miles a day - farms tended to be compact and geographically concentrated, with field sizes varying from around 15 to 51 acres.
The monasteries and abbeys could manage such large tracks of land, only because of their reliance on villains (workers without freedom who owed an onerous range of obligations to the abbey).
In 1385-6 there are records of wheat being sold to the Duke of Norfolk at Framlingham.
In the early 14th century, an unusually high proportion - around 90% - of the tenant population of Sibton Abbey were villains or serfs; throughout the county just 20% of the population were villains.
The serf status was inherited through the male line. The serf and his family were personally obliged to his lord, in this case the Abbot of Sibton, and were unable to migrate from their home manor without his lord’s permission.
The high proportion of serf labour coupled with the very fertile soil of the area around Sibton – known as the ‘Garden of Suffolk’ – led to some remarkably high yields.
By now the numbers of monks and lay brothers had increased, and the Abbey had grown rich, owning lands across southeast England, including estates in Norfolk, Suffolk and on the borders of Cambridgeshire, as well as within 10 parishes of the city of Norwich.
Sheep farming was important and Sibton Abbey did in part grow rich on proceeds from the wool trade, which built so many grand English churches. Although Suffolk wool wasn't of the finest quality, "often stained with tar or grease", it was nevertheless in great demand, particularly in East Anglia, which had many Flemish weavers anxious to convert it into exportable cloth.
By 1377 Sibton Abbey’s farming ventures included a considerable herd of cattle (herd sizes varied from around 30 – 130 head of cattle. Milk output was high in the eastern regions of Suffolk and cheese routinely featured in tithes and other gifts and Suffolk hard cheese (which had a excellent shelf life) was considered to be some of the best in the country being sold as far afield as the markets of London and even abroad.
Unlike other areas of farming, dairy production was usually managed by women and in 1510 Sibton’s dairy herd was looked after by 5 women under the leadership of Katherine Dowe. Records of production for the year show the production of 80 wheys of cheese and 330 gallons of butter, making a profit of £45.00 for the year.
Amazingly, despite the work involved in dairy farming at this period, Katherine Dowe’s team are also recorded as spinning wool and flax.
Only the very highest status landlords were able to produce scarce and valuable crops such as timber. Matured for 25 to 100 years, the woodlands of Suffolk produced not only mature timber, but coppice, faggots and fodder.
In East Suffolk around both Sibton and Butley Abbey oak, hornbeam, elm, poplar, maple and elder were grown and there are records of around 143 acres of woodland around Sibton and Peasenhall split into 10 separate woods, the largest Falshamhall Wood, known as the ‘great wood’ being 33 acres, the smallest at Rendham just 3 acres.
There are records of faggots being sold in Westleton, Wenhaston, Kettleburgh and Bruisyard whilst the valuable mature timber was often marketed much further afield.
By the middle of the 15th century the majority of tenants in Suffolk were free and many of the local granges had been leased off, although the north grange at Sibton Abbey was retained to keep the household supplied. Sibton Abbey's overall income was now over £250 a year. In 1536 the nuns and monks of Sibton Abbey were pensioned and the lands passed to the Crown.
It’s fate repeated at Butley Abbey in 1538.
Much of the information for this article was taken from Medieval Suffolk, An Economic and Social History, 1200 - 1500 by Mark Bailey obtainable from Browsers Bookshop, Woodbridge