Ipswich is one of England's oldest towns, if not the oldest. At its core Ipswich was and is the oldest still continuing town to have been established and developed by the English. It has an unbroken history of community as a town since early Anglo-Saxon times. Under the Roman empire, the area around Ipswich formed an important route inland to rural towns and settlements via the rivers Orwell and Gipping. A large Roman fort, part of the coastal defences of Britain, stood at Walton near Felixstowe (13 miles, 21 km), and the largest Roman villa in Suffolk (possibly an administrative complex) stood at Castle Hill (north-west Ipswich).
The modern town took shape in Anglo-Saxon times (7th–8th centuries) around the Ipswich docks. As the coastal states of north-western Europe emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire, essential North Sea trade and communication between eastern Britain and the continent (especially to Scandinavia, and through the Rhine) passed through the former Roman ports of London (serving the kingdoms of Mercia, the East Saxons, Kent) and York (Eoforwic) (serving the Kingdom of Northumbria).
Gipeswic (also in other spellings such as Gippeswich) arose as the equivalent to these, serving the Kingdom of East Anglia, its early imported wares dating to the time of King Rædwald, supreme ruler of the English (616–624). The famous ship-burial and treasure at Sutton Hoo nearby (9 miles, 14.5 km) is probably his grave. The Ipswich Museum houses replicas of the Roman Mildenhall and Sutton Hoo treasures. A gallery devoted to the town's origins includes Anglo-Saxon weapons, jewellery and other artefacts.
The seventh-century town was centred near the quay. Towards 700 AD, Frisian potters from the Netherlands area settled in Ipswich and set up the first large-scale potteries in England since Roman times. Their wares were traded far across England, and the industry was unique to Ipswich for 200 years. With growing prosperity, in about 720 AD a large new part of the town was laid out in the Buttermarket area. Ipswich was becoming a place of national and international importance. Parts of the ancient road plan still survive in its modern streets.
After the invasion of 869 Ipswich fell under Viking rule. The earth ramparts circling the town centre were probably raised by Vikings in Ipswich around 900 to prevent its recapture by the English. They were unsuccessful. The town operated a mint under royal licence from King Edgar in the 970s, which continued through the Norman Conquest until the time of King John, in about 1215. The abbreviation Gipes appears on the coins.
King John granted the town its first charter in 1200, laying the medieval foundations of its modern civil government. Thenceforth Ipswich strongly maintained its jurisdiction over the so-called Liberty, a region extending over about 35 square kilometres centred on the town.
In the next four centuries it made the most of its wealth, trading Suffolk cloth with the Continent. Five large religious houses, including two Augustinian Priories (St Peter and St Paul, and Holy Trinity, both mid-12th century), and those of the Ipswich Greyfriars (Franciscans, before 1298), Ipswich Whitefriars (Carmelites founded 1278–79) and Ipswich Blackfriars (Dominicans, before 1263), stood in medieval Ipswich. The last Carmelite Prior of Ipswich was the celebrated John Bale, author of the oldest English historical verse-drama (Kynge Johan, c.1538). There were also several hospitals, including the leper hospital of St Mary Magdalene, founded before 1199.
During the Middle Ages the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Grace was a famous pilgrimage destination, and attracted many pilgrims including Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. At the Reformation the statue was taken away to London to be burned, though some claim that it survived and is preserved at Nettuno, Italy.
Around 1380, Geoffrey Chaucer satirised the merchants of Ipswich in the Canterbury Tales. Thomas Wolsey, the future cardinal, was born in Ipswich in 1473 as the son of a wealthy landowner. One of Henry VIII's closest political allies, he founded a college in the town in 1528, which was for its brief duration one of the homes of the Ipswich School. He remains one of the town's most famed figures.
During the 14th to 17th centuries Ipswich was a kontor for the Hanseatic League, the port being used for imports and exports to the Baltic.
In the time of Queen Mary the Ipswich Martyrs were burnt at the stake on the Cornhill for their Protestant beliefs. A monument commemorating this event now stands in Christchurch Park. From 1611 to 1634 Ipswich was a major centre for emigration to New England. This was encouraged by the Town Lecturer, Samuel Ward. His brother Nathaniel Ward was first minister of Ipswich, Massachusetts, where a promontory was named 'Castle Hill' after the place of that name in north-west Ipswich, UK. Ipswich was also one of the main ports of embarkation for puritans leaving other East Anglian towns and villages for the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1630s and what has become known as the Great Migration.
The painter Thomas Gainsborough lived and worked in Ipswich. In 1835, Charles Dickens stayed in Ipswich and used it as a setting for scenes in his novel The Pickwick Papers. The hotel where he resided first opened in 1518; it was then known as The Tavern and later became known as the Great White Horse Hotel. Dickens made the hotel famous in chapter XXII of The Pickwick Papers, vividly describing the hotel's meandering corridors and stairs. The hotel now houses a branch of Cotswolds
In 1797 Lord and Lady Nelson moved to Ipswich, and in 1800 Lord Nelson was appointed High Steward of Ipswich.
19th and 20th centuries
In 1824 Dr George Birkbeck, with support from several local businessmen, founded one of the first Ipswich Institute reading room and library. The building, at 15 Tavern Street, has been the site of the library since 1836.
In the mid-19th century coprolite (fossilised animal dung) was discovered; the material was mined and then dissolved in acid, the resulting mixture forming the basis of Fisons fertiliser business.
The first unit of the Queensland Volunteer Rifle Brigade was formed in March 1860 by one of Ipswich's pioneers, Edred Heady Blunt. An Imperial commissioned soldier by the name of Donald Bethune, instructed the volunteers who were the country's sole defence force at this time.
The Tolly Cobbold brewery, built in the 18th century and rebuilt in 1894–96, is one of the finest Victorian breweries in the UK. There was a Cobbold brewery in the town from 1746 until 2002 when
Ridley's Breweries took Tolly Cobbold over. Felix Thornley Cobbold presented Christchurch Mansion to the town in 1896. Smaller breweries include St Jude's Brewery, situated in an 18th-century coach-house near the town centre.
Ipswich was subject to bombing by German Zeppelins during World War I but the greatest damage by far occurred during the German bombing raids of World War II. The area in and around the docks were especially devastated. Eighty civilians died by enemy action in the Ipswich county borough area during the latter war. The last bombs to fall on Ipswich landed on Seymour Road at 2 a.m. on 2 March 1945, killing 9 people and destroying 6 houses.
The Willis Building is a glass-clad building owned by Willis. Designed by Norman Foster, the building dates from 1974, when it was known as the Willis Faber & Dumas building. It became the youngest grade I listed building in Britain in 1991, being at the time one of only two listed buildings to be less than 30 years old.
In September 1993 Ipswich and Arras, Nord Pas-de-Calais, France, became twin towns, and a square in the new Buttermarket development was named Arras Square to mark the relationship.
Ipswich has experienced a building boom in the early part of the 21st century. Construction has mainly concentrated around the former industrial dock which is now known as the Ipswich Waterfront. Regeneration to the area has made it a hub of culture in Ipswich, the area boasts fine dining restaurants, a boutique hotel, and the new regional university, the University of Suffolk. The new high rise buildings of the Regatta Quay development has topped the list of the tallest buildings in Ipswich. The mixed-use high rise building, the Cranfield Mill, is currently the tallest building in East Anglia.
Ipswich remains a 'town' despite a few attempts at winning 'city' status. The town does not have a cathedral, so the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich is based at Bury St Edmunds, the former county town of West Suffolk.
On 13 March 2007 Ipswich was awarded the cleanest town award.