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Debenham is close to the source of the River Deben and appears to derive its name from Old English words meaning the village in a deep valley.
There is evidence of early settlement in the area with Roman and many other pre-Conquest coins found in and around Debenham. According to Dr Sam Newton, historian of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, Debenham was on the most important route of their realm. Kings included Rædwald who died around 625 and is thought to have been buried at Sutton Hoo.
Blood Field, to the west of the Eye road beyond the speed restriction, is by tradition the site of a great battle. It has been speculatively associated with a battle with the Danes about 870 after which King, later Saint, Edmund was killed.
Debenham is mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086 and seems to have had two churches, the present St Mary's and St Andrew's. Among those with property rights in the area were King William, his brother Odo Bishop of Bayeaux and William Malet whose family built Eye Castle.
William White's Directory of Suffolk (1844) says, "In Saxon times the Kings of East Anglia occasionally held their courts here and tradition says the Deben was then navigable up to the town…." Charters from the reign of Henry III, refer to Monday and Friday markets and a fair.
Debenham was a centre for dairying. Arthur Young, who surveyed agriculture , put it at the heart of the "great dairying region" of Suffolk in 1786. A memorial in the church records the death of Jonathan Davie, a cheese and butter factor, in 1750. The change to grain growing around Debenham was then underway. Maps of Ulveston Hall show that between 1723 and 1843 the farm had changed from predominantly pasture to being mostly arable. James Cornish, son of a 19th century vicar, wrote of trees being felled and hedges removed until "our district was entirely grubbed up and transformed into corn land".
Fire frequently burned thatched buildings and in the Great Fire of 1744 houses from Coopersfield to the Wash were destroyed. In 1814, £110 was subscribed to buy a fire engine.
A policeman was appointed in 1839 and the old police house in Water Lane, which still has its cells, is said to be one of the earliest purpose-built police stations in the country.
A family business is still serving the village after nearly three centuries. The enterprise Timothy Abbott set up in 1707 continues with the hardware store. Another family business is Bloomfield and Sons, agricultural engineers, founded in 1912 by Malcolm Bloomfield.
The Sir Robert Hitcham endowed school was established in 1668 in the converted Market Cross and in 1835 a National School was opened and still flourishes as Sir Robert Hitcham's primary school. The 20th century saw the building of the high school, the community and leisure centre and youth centre (Community Education Centre).
In 1970 the centre of Debenham was declared a conservation area and in 1975 the village, described as “unspoiled without being a showcase”, was chosen to represent East Anglia in a festival of villages.
Further Reading on the History of Debenham: A Short History of Debenham, Samuel Dove's Debenham, and James Cornish's Debenham. (All can be purchased from Webster Newsagents, Debenham)