South Elmham Minster


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1017675

Date first listed: 17-Jan-1935

Date of most recent amendment: 23-Feb-1998


Ordnance survey map of South Elmham Minster
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Suffolk

District: Waveney (District Authority)

Parish: St. Cross, South Elmham

National Grid Reference: TM 30738 82668


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

A medieval chapel is a building, usually rectangular, containing a range of furnishings and fittings appropriate for Christian worship in the pre- Reformation period. Chapels were designed for congregational worship and were generally divided into two main parts: the nave, which provided accommodation for the laity, and the chancel, which was the main domain of the priest and contained the principal altar. Around 4000 parochial chapels were built between the 12th and 17th centuries as subsidiary places of worship built for the convenience of parishioners who lived at a distance from the main parish church. Other chapels were built as private places of worship by manorial lords and lie near or within manor houses, castles or other high-status residences. Chantry chapels were built and maintained by endowment and were established for the singing of masses for the soul of the founder. Some chapels possessed burial grounds. Unlike parish churches, the majority of which remain in ecclesiastical use, chapels were often abandoned as their communities and supporting finances declined or disappeared. Many chantry chapels disappeared after the dissolution of their supporting communities in the 1540s. Chapels, like parish churches, have always been major features of the landscape. A significant number of surviving examples are identified as being nationally important. The sites of abandoned chapels, where positively identified, are particularly worthy of statutory protection as they were often left largely undisturbed and thus retain important information about the nature and date of their use up to their abandonment.

South Elmham Minster is an early medieval chapel of a form which at this date is very rare in England; the distinctive feature of a massive western tower with an external stair turret is thought to be one of only three examples in the country, one of the other two being at North Elmham in Norfolk, and all three are associated with episcopal manors. The ruined building is thus of particular interest, and the monument as a whole will retain archaeological information concerning its construction and use, in addition to that obtained from the limited excavations carried out on the site. It will also contain valuable information relating to the construction and function of the surrounding enclosure. The recorded evidence for both pagan and Christian Saxon cemeteries on or adjacent to the site gives it further interest.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument, which is situated 2.6km south east of the River Waveney, on the north east facing slope of a small valley, includes a rectangular earthwork enclosure containing the standing and buried remains of a church known since at least the 14th century as the Minster. The moated site of a medieval bishop's palace lies 450m to the north and is the subject of a separate scheduling. The site of Greshaw Green, enclosed in 1853, but a focus of settlement between the 13th and 16th centuries, is 250m to the west.

The ruined church, which is Listed Grade II and is dated to the 11th century, is aligned north east-south west and stands slightly south west of the centre of the surrounding enclosure. Limited excavations around the walls, carried out in 1964 and 1965 by staff of Ipswich Museum, revealed various details of the structure and its buried foundations. The building above ground has overall dimensions of approximately 30.7m by 10.8m and includes a nave 11.6m in length internally, with a slightly narrower apsidal chancel to the east and, at the western end, a rectangular vestibule (narthex) which originally formed the base of a tower. A semi circular foundation abutting the external face of the south wall of the tower and thought to be the base of a stair turret was recorded during excavation, but is not visible above ground. The walls stand in places to a height of more than 4m, although at the eastern end only the footings survive. Those of the nave are about 1m in thickness, offset above foundations up to 1m wider; that of the eastern apse is slightly thinner, and those of the western compartment are about 1.4m thick to support the weight of the tower above. They are constructed of mortared flint rubble, coursed on the outer face where this survives, and display evidence of various architectural features, including internally splayed window openings in the north and south walls, the sill of a doorway in the north wall towards the western end of the nave, and remains of a round headed arched doorway in the west wall at the base of the tower. The angles of the walls were originally dressed with stone quoins which remain in place below the ground surface but not above, although the regular scars where the stone has been removed from the rubble matrix are visible in places. Between the nave and the eastern apse is a masonry sill which probably supported a triple arcade, and a part of the respond of the arch on the south side still projects from the internal face of the south wall. The wall between the nave and the western compartment is pierced by two openings. Putlog holes (sockets to support the horizontal members of scaffolding) of unusual, triangular form, are also visible in the walls.

The earthwork enclosure may pre-date the church within it. It has maximum overall dimensions of about 130m square and the alignment of the axes is similar but not identical to that of the church. It is defined by a ditch up to 10m wide and with a visible depth of up to 2m, with an internal bank constructed of earth quarried from the ditch. At the south western end of the enclosure, where the ground level of the interior is similar to or slightly lower than that outside the ditch, the bank stands to a height of about 1.5m. On the opposite side, the level of the interior is about 1m above the external ground level immediately beyond the adjoining ditch, probably as a result of soil movement down slope caused by natural erosion or by cultivation within the enclosure, and here the visible height of the bank is about 1m or less. Causeways across the ditch and bank on the north west, north east and south east sides provide access to the interior, although it is possible that none of them is an original feature.

There is documented evidence for late Roman and Saxon occupation on or near the site. Several sherds of Roman pottery were found in 1964-65 in trenches dug across the enclosure ditch, on the surface of the adjacent field to the south, and in small-scale excavations conducted in 1984 to the south of the church. There are also early 19th century records of urns filled with burnt bone and ash, probably from a pagan Saxon cemetery, being turned up when the enclosure was ploughed, and when the buried footings of the south east corner of the nave were exposed during the excavations of 1964-65, a weathered fragment of late Saxon grave slab was found built into the wall, perhaps obtained from a Christian cemetery nearby. At the date of the Domesday survey in 1096, the manor of South Elmham was held by the bishop of Thetford, it was purchased shortly afterwards by Herbert de Losinga, first Bishop of Norwich. It is likely that the Minster was built by de Losinga, who is thought to have been responsible also for the construction of a similar church at his manor of North Elmham, and that it served as an episcopal chapel, although there is also documentary evidence that the site of the bishop's palace nearby may, for a time, have been occupied by a small monastic foundation.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


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

Legacy System number: 21447

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Scarfe, N, The Suffolk Landscape, (1987), 116-124
Suckling, A I, The History and Antiquities of Suffolk, (1846), 209
Taylor, H M, J, , Anglo-Saxon Architecture, (1980), 231-233
Heywood, S, 'Journal Brit Archaeol Ass' in The Ruined Church at North Elmham, , Vol. 135, (1982), 7-9
Ridgard, J, 'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in References to S Elmham Minster in the Medieval Account Rolls .., (1987), 196-201
Ridgard, J, 'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in References to S Elmham Minster in the Medieval Account Rolls .., (1987), 196-201
Smedley, N, Owles, E, 'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in The Excavation of the Old Minster, South Elmham, (1970), 1-16
Smedley, N, Owles, E, 'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in The Excavation of the Old Minster, South Elmham, (1970), 1-16
Wade-Martins, P, 'East Anglian Archaeol' in Excavations in North Elmham Park, 1967-1972, , Vol. 9, (1980), 188
West, S E, Barrett, D, 'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in Archaeology Iin Suffolk, 1984, (1985), 52
West, S E, Barrett, D, 'Proc Suffolk Inst Archaeol' in Archaeology Iin Suffolk, 1984, (1985), 52
SEC 001, (1984)

End of official listing