Site of St Helen's Church with adjacent earthworks and holy well


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


Ordnance survey map of Site of St Helen's Church with adjacent earthworks and holy well
© Crown Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
© British Crown and SeaZone Solutions Limited 2019. All rights reserved. Licence number 102006.006.
Use of this data is subject to Terms and Conditions.

The above map is for quick reference purposes only and may not be to scale. For a copy of the full scale map, please see the attached PDF - 1015257 .pdf

The PDF will be generated from our live systems and may take a few minutes to download depending on how busy our servers are. We apologise for this delay.

This copy shows the entry on 19-Oct-2019 at 19:14:38.


The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Breckland (District Authority)
Breckland (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TL 83982 87388

Reasons for Designation

A parish church is a building, usually of roughly rectangular outline and containing a range of furnishings and fittings appropriate to its use for Christian worship by a secular community, whose members gather in it on Sundays and on the occasion of religious festivals. Children are initiated into the Christian religion at the church's font and the dead are buried in its churchyard. Parish churches were designed for congregational worship and are generally divided into two main parts: the nave, which provides accommodation for the laity, and the chancel, which is the main domain of the priest and contains the principal altar. Either or both parts are sometimes provided with aisles, giving additional accommodation or spaces for additional altars. Most parish churches also possess towers, generally at the west end, but central towers at the crossing of nave and chancel are not uncommon and some churches have a free-standing or irregularly sited tower. Many parish churches also possess transepts at the crossing of chancel and nave, and south or north porches are also common. The main periods of parish church foundation were in the 10th to 11th and 19th centuries. Most medieval churches were rebuilt and modified on a number of occasions and hence the visible fabric of the church will be of several different dates, with in some cases little fabric of the first church being still easily visible. Parish churches are found throughout England. Their distribution reflects the density of population at the time they were founded. In regions of dispersed settlement parishes were often large and churches less numerous. The densest clusters of parish churches were found in thriving medieval towns. A survey of 1625 reported the existence of nearly 9000 parish churches in England. New churches built in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries increased numbers to around 18,000 of which 17,000 remain in ecclesiastical use. Parish churches have always been major features of the landscape and a major focus of life for their parishioners. They provide important insights into medieval and later population levels or economic cycles, religious activity, artistic endeavour and technical achievement. A significant number of surviving examples are identified to be nationally important.

The site of St Helen's Church has undergone little disturbance since the church went out of use in the medieval period, apart from limited excavations which examined only a small sample of the area of the church and the ground immediately surrounding it. The excavations have demonstrated that substantial remains of walls and foundations survive below the ground surface, and these and associated deposits within and outside the building will retain archaeological information concerning its construction and use, to an extent unlikely in churches which have remained in use into the modern period. They will also retain evidence relating to the date and manner of the church's abandonment and demolition. The archaeological and documentary evidence for an earlier, probably pre-Conquest church on the site adds to the interest of the monument, as does the reuse of Roman building materials. Such reuse, which is known in many early medieval churches, especially those predating the Conquest, suggests that there had been a substantial Roman building in the vicinity.

Most, if not all of the earthworks adjacent to the church appear to relate to it and probably define a part of the church precinct.

Holy wells are water sources with specifically Christian associations. The custom of venerating springs and wells as sacred sites is also known to have characterised pre-Christian religions in Britain and, although Christian wells have been identified from as early as the 6th century AD, it is clear that some holy wells originated as earlier sacred sites. The cult of holy wells continued throughout the medieval period. Its condemnation at the time of the Reformation (c.1540) ended new foundations, but local reverance and folklore customs at existing holy wells often continued, in some cases to the present day.

The holy wells sometimes functioned as sites for baptism, but they were also revered for less tangible reasons, some of which may have had origins in pre-Christian customs, such as folklore beliefs in the healing powers of the water and its capacity to effect a desired outcome for future events. Associated rituals often evolved, usually requiring the donation of an object or coin to retain the `sympathy' of the well for the person seeking its benefits. At their simplest, holy wells may be unelaborated natural springs with associated religious traditions. Structural additions may include lined well shafts or conduit heads on springs, often with a tank to gather the water at the surface. The roofing of walled enclosures to protect the water source and define the sacred area created wellhouses which may be simple, unadorned structures closely encompassing the water source, or larger buildings. At their most elaborate, chapels, and sometimes churches, may have been built over the well or adjacent well house. The number of holy wells is not known, but estimates suggest at least 600 nationally. They provide important information on the nature of religious beliefs and practices, and on the relationship between religion and the landscape during the medieval period.

St Helen's is a good example, not only of an association between a holy well and a church, but of a tradition and a dedication to the saint which survived locally long after the church had gone out of use. There is a recognised link in Britain between holy wells and dedications to St Helen, particularly in eastern England centred around the Humber basin. This is, however, the only known example of such an association in Norfolk and is thus of particular interest.

The chalk pit around the well, although largely if not wholly post-medieval in date, retains evidence for the later history of the well and is thus an integral part of the monument. The evidence for flint working within it is also of interest in the context of the post-medieval flint industry which was an important part of the economy of the Brandon area.


The remains of St Helen's Church stand on a promontary overlooking the River Little Ouse 70m to the south and more level ground to the west. The site lies on the modern parish boundary between Lynford to the west and Thetford to the east. The monument includes within a single area the buried remains of the church, earthworks which include a ditch and banks partly enclosing the west end of the church and the area beyond it, and a spring traditionally known as a holy well which is situated in an adjacent chalk pit.

The site of the church is marked by a roughly rectangular, grass covered mound with maximum dimensions of c.35m by c.10.5m, aligned on a WNW-ESE axis. The surface of the mound is uneven and rises at the eastern end. Limited excavations conducted by the Norfolk Research Committee in 1961-62 have demonstrated that the mound covers the lower walls and masonry footings of a church c.27.5m in length and c.8m in width, containing a nave, probably with a tower at the western end, and an apsidal chancel c.8m in length. The walls are c.1m thick except at the western end, where the foundations thought to have supported the tower are both wider and deeper, and at the eastern end they still stand to a height of c.1m and are rendered internally and externally with plaster. They are constructed chiefly of mortared flint rubble and chalk blocks, originally with dressings of Barnack stone, fragments of which were found in the excavations, in addition to impressions in the mortar where ashlar had been removed. The building has been dated to the early 12th century, but may overlie or incorporate remains of an earlier structure on the site. The site has been identified as that of a church recorded in the Domesday book in the 11th century, and it is thought that broken blocks of masonry containing reused Roman tile which were embedded in the foundations of the north wall may have come from this. There is a record of a market or fair here in 1347, but the church is thought to have gone out of use by the 15th century at latest. All Saints' Church, adjacent to Santon House c.1km to the west, is recorded as having been built in 1628 by Thomas Bancroft, then lord of the manor and sole parishioner, out of the ruins of an earlier chapel.

The part enclosure to the west of the church is defined by a ditch flanked by earthen banks c.0.75m in height and up to c.7m in width at the base, the ditch and banks together having a total width of up to c.18m. These earthworks extend eastwards for a distance of c.65m, from a point c.7m north of the west end of the church to the lower end of the slope, where the two banks merge and curve south westwards, decreasing in height and width. A small excavation across the ditch demonstrated that it has silted to a depth of c.0.75m.

To the north west of the ditch and banks and c.20m north of the east end of the church is a smaller rectangular enclosure defined on the north, west and south sides by banks up to c.5m wide and c.0.75m in height and with internal dimensions of c.14m NNE-SSW by at least 10m. On the eastern side is the edge of the chalk pit. The bank on the western side, which extends up to c.10m from the south west corner of the enclosure towards the church, is on the line of the present parish boundary, which is kinked around the west side of the chalk pit, but this part of the line is probably comparatively recent, since a survey of 1752 shows the boundary running straight, without any kink, c.75m to the east.

The spring, formerly known as Holy Well or Tenant's (a corruption of St Helen's) Well, rises c.65m north east of the church in the bottom of the chalk pit. The water is collected in a basin c.14m wide and c.1m deep cut into the chalk floor of the pit and is conducted southwards towards the river in a channel c.8m wide.

The chalk pit has been cut c.70m back into the natural scarp above the river and is c.16m deep and c.110m in width with steeply sloping sides. The bottom is uneven, with low, overgrown mounds of flint nodules and flint knapping waste as evidence that it was also used as a quarry for flint. Waste from the manufacture of gun flints has also been found c.20m to the north of the pit. The date of origin is uncertain, but it is known to have been worked in the 19th century. The church now stands at the edge of a railway cutting through the south side of the promontary, and a 19th century description of the site refers to exposed foundations and to detached fragments of wall which had rolled down the side of the cut.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Blomefield, F, An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, (1805), 156
Clarke, W G, In Breckland Wilds, (1925), 53,54
Clarke, W G, In Breckland Wilds, (1925), 53
Hunt, A L, The Capital of the Ancient Kingdon of East Anglia, (1879), 95-96
Martin, T, The History of the Town of Thetford, (1779), 29, 89
Martin, T, The History of the Town of Thetford, (1779), 29,89
Davison, A, 'East Anglian Archaeology' in Excavations in Thetford by B K Davison: The documentary record, , Vol. 62, (1993), 210
Ref. NRS 21391/37X, Skinner, T, Survey of the Parish of Santon, (1752)
Ref. NRS 21391/37X, Skinner, T, Survey of the Parish of Santon, (1752)
Typescript record in SMR file, Thetford St Peter/Santon: Site of St Helen's Oratory, (1962)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

Your Contributions

Do you know more about this entry?

The following information has been contributed by users volunteering for our Enriching The List project. For small corrections to the List Entry please see our Minor Amendments procedure.

The information and images below are the opinion of the contributor, are not part of the official entry and do not represent the official position of Historic England. We have not checked that the contributions below are factually accurate. Please see our terms and conditions. If you wish to report an issue with a contribution or have a question please email [email protected].