Here is a mystery story. Just north of Dereham you will see signposts for North Elmham Cathedral. Yet the ruins you see in this quiet spot are those of both a private chapel and a fortified castle – one of many confusing aspects of this intriguingly atmospheric place.

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So which is it; cathedral or castle?

To get anywhere near understanding the story you have to go back to the early days of Christianity in this country. Theres an awful lot of possibly and perhaps connected to most of the pre- Norman information. We do know that in 597 Saint Augustine landed in Kent, in 616 King Raedwald of East Anglia converted, possibly as a political expedient, as he stayed semi-pagan. His son, Sigbert, was a genuine convert and it was he who invited St Felix, the Burgundian monk, to evangelise East Anglia. Felix travelled across the area, most likely by boat, and eventually established himself at what became the coastal town of Dunwich or, perhaps, at the Roman Saxon shore fort at Walton Castle, near Felixstowe. Both sites have now been washed away. By the latter part of the seventh century Christianity was well-established. It seems likely there were at least two other administrative areas, known as sees, established; one at South Elmham in Suffolk, the other near what is now Dereham at North Elmham in Norfolk.

What was there?

Were not sure. Most of the records of this time, which could have told us exactly what happened and why, were to be destroyed by Viking raiders in the ninth century. As Christianity was reestablished the see was revived in 955 after a gap of almost a century, but any sacred building there was likely to be of wood, and has not survived in any form. Stone buildings were not common before the Normans. There was however clearly a thriving community at North Elmham. A nearby cemetery has been discovered, and some houses have been excavated, showing there was a village there. All were rectangular with foundation trenches holding wallposts fairly closely together. The places between the posts were filled with wattle and daub. There was a central hearth and often a small room opened off the main one. The discovery in 1786 of a little copper-alloy hanging censer (a small dish used for burning incense in a religious ceremony) probably from the mid ninth-century, is evidence this was an ecclesiastical site before the Danish invasion.

What happened when the Normans came?

In 1071, after the Norman Conquest, the East Anglian see was moved to Thetford. It did not stay there long. Herbert de Losinga was controversially appointed bishop of East Anglia. Controversial because he already held other church offices, which comprised the sin of simony, and was considered corruption. As a penance he went to Rome, and there promised the pope he would build a new cathedral. On his return to England he did just that, demolishing churches and houses in Norwich to make way for the magnificent construction which still dominates the city. Along with the Norman castle already being built, it sent out the message that a new era had begun and that Norwich was very much the political, economic and religious capital of East Anglia. The Saxon practice of placing sees in the geographical centre of an area was pushed aside. But North Elmham was not abandoned. Bishop Herbert built a stone chapel for himself near the original site, next to a new parish church, and had a palace nearby. He was not afraid to spend money on the chapel; carefully-cut limestone was specially imported from Northamptonshire to dress the building which had a locally-sourced flint core. So this late 11th century construction very much like a traditional church, with transept, nave and tower is the foundation of the ruins we see today.

So, it wasnt a castle?

North Elmham would have stayed in the private ownership of the bishops of Norwich. In 1381 the Peasants Revolt broke out. Although it is best known for what happened in Kent and London (Wat Tyler and all that) in Norfolk a man named Geoffrey Litster led a failed rebellion. One of the leading figures in its suppression was the bishop himself Henry Despencer. After helping defeat the rebels he gave them absolution before the survivors were executed. Perhaps unnerved by what had happened he decided to fortify North Elmham, digging a deep moat and constructing a turreted entrance at a higher level. The remains of a kitchen fireplace outside the original chapel wall point to an enlargement of Herbert Losingas chapel. As things settled down after the revolt this may have become a pleasant retreat for the bishop and his guests.

But it fell into decay.

By the 16th century the site was no longer in use. As usually happened, much of it was demolished for use in local building works. Today this cathedral/chapel/castle with such a chequered history is in the care of English Heritage and managed by North Elmham Parish Council. It sits right next door to the current parish church. Visitors can see illustrations imagining what it looked like in its heyday.
North Elmham Cathedral is six miles north of Dereham on the B1110.

WEBSITES

www.english-heritage.co.uk

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