Sailing into the river Deben and past The Ferry the river is between four and five hundred metres wide at High Water. After about a kilometre, and where the river begins to narrow, there is an inlet on the port side and, behind the sea wall, a piece of water that stretches inland for over two kilometres. This water is called Kings Fleet.
Tradition has it that the name connects this stretch of water to Edward III, who used the River as an assembly point for his boats during his expeditions to Flanders, between 1338 and 1340. There may be some truth in this connection, but this is only part of the story.
Kings Fleet is all that is left of the port of Goseford. It was one of the most important ports on the East Coast in medieval times.
The name Goseford means “goose ford” and dates from Anglo Saxon times. The importance of the area was recognised by the Romans who built a fort to guard the entrance to not only the River Deben but also the River Orwell.
From the eleventh century, the Bigod family had a Manor in what was then called Walton. The manor was important because it was situated on high ground and equidistant between the Ports of Orwell and Goseford. In 1306, on the death of Roger Bigod, the fifth Earl of Norfolk and Suffolk, the manor reverted to the Crown and for a period of time became a royal manor. All that is left of the manor today are a few fragments in the corner of the sports ground between Dellwood Avenue and Colneis Road, in what is now Felixstowe.
Bawdsey was not part of the Port of Goseford. It is unclear why this is the case; but it is possibly because at one time Bawdsey was on a separate island. That it was regarded as a separate place, certainly in the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, is shown because the king issued writs specifically to the bailiffs of both Goseford and Bawdsey.
And what of the King’s Fleet?
In 1337 Edward III claimed the throne of France and thus began the so called Hundred Years War. The East Coast ports became important gathering places for ships bound for the continent but they were also important for anchorages for ships protecting the coast.
1338,1340,1341,1346 and 1385 were all years when armadas of ships gathered at the Ports of Orwell and Goseford, ready to transport soldiers and supplies to Flanders.
In 1343, boats from Bawdsey were ordered to sail with the King to Britanny. They did so, but then left the port of Brest without the King’s permission. The King ordered that the bailiffs of Bawdsey arrest the ships la Burmayde, la Eleyne, la Katerine, la Magarete, la Godyer, la Geffrey, la Isabelle, la Barthelmeu, la Savage and la Scot and their masters. Their masters included Hugh Baldry, John More, William Rede and William Wallere - names not unknown on the River today.
In his book, Suffolk Estuary (Norman Adlard & Co. Ltd., 1950), W. G. Arnott suggests that the increase in the size of shipping, the need for deep water ports, changes in the banks at the mouth of the river, the reclamation of land, and the growth of Woodbridge as a ship building and agricultural trading centre meant a reversal of fortunes for Goseford. The building of larger ships meant that the deep water ports of Orwell and Harwich, as well as easier navigation to Ipswich, provided competition that Goseford could not compete with. Certainly by the end of the fifteenth century, little is heard of this ancient port, and Kings no longer issued writs “to the bailiffs of Goseford”.
Sailing the lower reaches of the river today, it is difficult to imagine the vast expanse of water, the activity one would have seen seven hundred years ago, or the boats with names such as la Gerlund, la Katerine or la Isabelle.
To see Kings Fleet for yourself, consider the picturesque Bawdsey Ferry and Falkenham walk, directions for which can be found here!Sources : Calendar of the Close Rolls; Calendar of the Patent Rolls; W. G. Arnott, Suffolk Estuary (Norman Adlard, 1950) and The Place names of the Deben Valley Parishes (Norman Adlard, 1946); Ian Mortimer, The Time Travellers Guide to medieval England (Bodley Head)
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