East Anglia

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Windmill in Norfolk

East Anglia is a region of eastern Great Britain, named after an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the Kingdom of the East Angles. It is a vernacular name with no fixed definition but East Anglia is traditionally deemed to consist of three counties:

Sometimes Huntingdonshire is added or even Essex.

East Anglia is geographically and culturally distinct. It is the easternmost part of Britain; the easternmost point of the United Kingdom is at Lowestoft Ness in Suffolk, but more than that is was, until the draining of the Great Fen, separated physically, for the Great Fen marked its western edge, allowing entry to East Anglia only from the south or from the sea. The accent of East Anglia remains distinctive.


Clare, Suffolk

The name "East Anglia" is not ancient but is from the name of the East Angles. "Anglia" alone is mediaeval Latin for England. In Old English the kingdom of the East Angles was Eastengla rice and other references to the land use the form “amongst the East Angles”; on Eastenglum. William Camden in his Britannia uses East Anglia in his original Latin work, but it becomes East-England in the English edition.

The Angles themselves (Engle) were originally a tribe from northern Germany, where the name Angeln remains. Bede wrote that the Angles founded three of the great kingdoms of his age: East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria, and he writes also of the Middle Angles, whose lands became part of the Kingdom of the Mercians.

The name of East Anglia has apparently caused puzzlement in some quarters. An artificial name "West Anglia" has appeared; the "West Anglia Main Line" is a railway line in western East Anglia and other clubs and institutions have adopted it too. "Mid Anglia" appears frequently too but with no relation to the ancient lands of the Middle Angles in the Midlands. Neither term has any tradition nor meaning.


The Sutton Hoo helmet
Coin of King Eadwald

The Romans were here, and they built a number sea barriers to restrain flooding, and it may be they who dug the first lodes in the fen, but much of East Anglia remained a land of marshland and bogs until the 17th century.

The Kingdom of the East Angles is believed to have been formed in about 520 in a union of the North Folk (Norfolk) and the South Folk (Suffolk). It was ruled by a dynasty known as the Wuffingas, descended from Wuffa himself of an ancient house, the Icelingas descended from Icel who had been king of the Angles in Germany, and from whom the Mercian kings descended also. (Accordingly, Her Majesty the Queen is herself descended from Icel of Angeln.) As the English lands coalesced, East Anglia was one of the seven famous kingdoms known to later ages as the "heptarchy".

Though it was not the richest nor most regarded of the kingdoms of the English, East Anglia stood fairly secure; the fenland guarded most approaches and the hills marked the south. Across the gap between the hills and the fens two great ditch and bank defensive works were dug which are still impressive today; the Fleam Ditch and Devil's Ditch (or Dyke), in Cambridgeshire.

For one a brief period, in the reign of King Rædwald, the East Angles were the pre-eminent kingdom; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Rædwald won a victory over Northumbria in around 616 and was recognised by all the English kingdoms as overlord or Bretwalda. It is thought that the richly ornamented ship burial at Sutton Hoo may be the burial place of Rædwald himself, though we will never know.

East Anglian dominance over the English did not last beyond Rædwald's death and over the next forty years, East Anglia was defeated by the Mercians twice, and it continued to weaken relative to the other kingdoms until in 794, Offa of Mercia had its king Æthelberht II killed and took control of the kingdom himself. The East Angles regained their independence by a successful rebellion against Mercia (825–827), in the course of which two Mercian kings were killed attempting to crush it. In 869 however the Danes fell upon the coast and on 20 November 869 their king Ivar the Boneless (known in English chronicles as Hinguar) slew King Edmund and took his kingdom for himself. It was reconquered only in 920. Canute the Great, the Danish king who became king of England in 1016, gave East Anglia as a fiefdom to Thorkell the Tall, who was made Earl of East Anglia in 1017.

During the 17th century the alluvial land was converted into arable land by means of systematic drainage using a collection of drains and river diversions. In the 1630s thousands of Puritan families from East Anglia settled in the American region of New England, taking much East Anglian culture with them.[1] East Anglia, with much of its earnings based on wool and textiles, was a rich area of England until the effects of the Industrial Revolution moved manufacturing to the Midlands and the North.

During the Second World War, the RAF and the United States Air Force constructed many air bases in East Anglia for the heavy bomber fleets of the Combined Bomber Offensive against Nazi-occupied Europe. East Anglia was chosen because it had considerable open space and level terrain and it was relatively close to mainland Europe, thus shortening flights and allowing for greater bomb loads. Remnants of some of these bases are still visible.


Fleam Dyke, Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire
The River Dove in Suffolk

East Anglia is distinctive for its flat landscape. Parts of East Anglia are characterised by the flatness of the land, partly consisting of fenland and reclaimed marshland, though much of Suffolk and Norfolk is gently undulating.

The East Anglian cities are Norwich (Norfolk) and Cambridge and Ely (Cambridgeshire). Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds (Both in Suffolk) are major towns. Outside the cities and great towns, most of East Anglia consists of small villages.

Although water plays a significant role in the fenland and broadland landscapes, the area is among the driest in the United Kingdom. During the summer months, tinder-dry conditions are frequently experienced, occasionally resulting in field and heath fires.

Major rivers include Suffolk's Stour, running through country beloved of the painter John Constable, and the Nene. The River Cam is a tributary of the Great Ouse and gives its name to Cambridge. The Orwell and its source the Gipping together find the sea at Ipswich.

The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads form a network of waterways between Norwich and the coast and are popular for recreational boating.

The supposed flatness of the Norfolk landscape is noted in Noël Coward's Private Lives— "Very flat, Norfolk" — and the history of its waterways and drainage forms the backdrop to Graham Swift's novel Waterland. The region also figures in works by L.P. Hartley, Arthur Ransome and Dorothy L. Sayers, among many others.

Agriculture has always been important in this fertile region. The Fens in particular, now drained, have half of the Grade A farmland in Britain. The landscape of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk has been heavily influenced by Dutch technology, from the use of red clay roof tiles to the draining of the Fens.

The region has a wide range of small-scale holiday resorts ranging from the traditional coastal towns of Felixstowe and Lowestoft in Suffolk and Great Yarmouth in Norfolk to small fishing villages like Aldeburgh and Southwold in Suffolk. Other tourist attractions include historic towns like Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham, Cambridge and Ely.

Symbols of East Anglisa

The Flag of East Anglia
The three crowns in Saxmundham's parish church

The arms attributed by tradition the Kingdom of the East Angles is Azure three ancient crowns or, or in plain speech three open crowns on a blue shield. This is the same as the arms of Sweden.

The origin of the traditional arms is unknown; certainly heraldry as we know it today was unknown in the days of the Wuffingas dynasty, but it does appear to be more ancient than many of the symbols used anachronistically to represent early English kingdoms. The suggestion has been made that the symbol of three crowns unites Sweden and East Anglia because of their ancient connection; the decoration in the Sutton Hoo burial suggests a conscious dynastic link with the Geats, who are celebrated in Beowulf, an epic poem which might have originated in East Anglia. Nevertheless, though the symbol is ancient, tracing it as far back as Beowulf is fraught with difficulties and unlikelinesses.

The three crowns appear, carved in stone, on the baptismal font (c.1400) in the parish church of Saxmundham, in Suffolk.[2] They appear as the arms of East Anglia on Saxton's map of the Heptarchy. The crowns also appear in the arms of the Diocese of Ely and the borough of Bury St. Edmunds, where the crowns are shown pierced with arrows to represent the martyrdom of St Edmund the King.

From these traditional arms is derived the Flag of East Anglia: a St George's cross defaced with the shield of East Anglia. The flag as it is known today was invented by George Henry Langham and adopted by the London Society of East Anglians. It was first mentioned in print in 1900 and was flown locally in various places in Norfolk. It has since been enrolled in the UK Flag Registry by the Flag Institute.


  1. Fisher, David Hackett Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America Oxford University Press, 1991
  2. Saxmundham Parish Church