The Mystery of the Two Elmhams


Just north of East Dereham in Norfolk is the 'Saxon Cathedral' site at North Elmham, which was the seat of the Bishops of East Anglia during the late Anglo-Saxon period until Herfast, first Norman Bishop of Elmham, moved to Thetford in 1075.  His successor, Bishop Herbert de Losinge, later moved the seat to the newly built Cathedral in Norwich.

The surviving earthworks and ruins at North Elmham are protected now by English Heritage. These are currently thought to be mostly the remains of Bishop Herbert de Losinge's late eleventh-century episcopal church which the notorious Bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser converted into a double-moated castle in the latter part of the fourteenth century.

The pre-Norman cathedral on the site appears to have housed the episcopal throne of the Bishops of East Anglia from around 955, when the church was being re-established in the kingdom following  the Danish invasions of the previous century. There are also indications that there was an episcopal seat here before the Danish conquest.

The central Norfolk countryside around North Elmham was certainly settled early in the Anglo-Saxon period, as the extensive pre-Christian cemetery at nearby Spong Hill indicates. The apparent re-establishment of the East Anglian bishop at North Elmham in the tenth century would imply that it had been an episcopal centre in the pre-Danish period. The discovery in 1786 of a little copper-alloy hanging censor dated by its style to the mid ninth-century, certainly suggests that this could have been an important ecclesiastical site before the Danish invasions.

North Elmham is thus one of the two likely sites of East Anglia's second See, that of Helmham, founded during the reign of King Ealdwulf (c.664-713) according to Bede (HE IV, 5). The other is at South Elmham in Suffolk, where there is also a curious ecclesiastical ruin associated with Bishop Herbert de Losinge. The question remains open as to which of the two Elmhams was the original seventh-century foundation.

South Elmham is located in what appears to be an ancient nine-parish block of territory, the Ferding of Elmham, which Norman Scarfe has suggested may represent a seventh-century endowment by the Wuffing kings to the Church. Mike Hardy's diligent field-walking research suggests that an important seventh-century church may have stood on the higher ground to the east of the romantic eleventh-century ruins of South Elmham minster.

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The remains of South Elmham minster (author's photograph)


The present indications would seem to point to both North and South Elmham as possible seventh-century foundations.  Perhaps the Bishopric of Helmham a twin-seat from the start, which, along with the See of Dommoc, was intended to serve all of East Anglia? If Dommoc was, as some believe, located within the walls of the Roman Saxon Shore fortress at Walton Castle, Felixstowe, then these three possible seventh-century episcopal seats would appear to have been evenly spaced across the kingdom (South Elmham just over thirty miles from North Elmham and just under thirty miles from Walton Castle).  As such, they would have been well sited to serve the kingdom.

© Copyright Dr Sam Newton, Blotmonaž AD 2000

Further Reading

R.Rainbird Clarke, East Anglia (London 1960).
Norman Scarfe, The Sufolk Landscape (London 1972), pp.110-111, 116-128.
Peter Warner, The Origins of Suffolk (Manchester 1996), pp.127-133.
D.Whitelock, "The pre-Viking Church in East Anglia", Anglo-Saxon England, 1 (1972), pp.1-22, p.8.

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