Episcopal chapel and fortified manor house on site of Anglo-Saxon cathedral


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Episcopal chapel and fortified manor house on site of Anglo-Saxon cathedral
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Breckland (District Authority)
North Elmham
National Grid Reference:
TF 98881 21640

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.

The ruined building at North Elmham is a rare example of an 11th century episcopal chapel, one of two in East Anglia which have documented associations with the Bishops of Norwich. The building in its later, converted form, and the moated platform constructed round it, with the associated outer enclosure to the east, are also a good example of a fortified manor which, unusually, can be dated precisely by the historically documented link with Bishop Henry Despenser. In the conversion to a manor house, much of the fabric of the church was retained, and since its abandonment as a residence in the 15th century, the building has remained unaltered by later activity.

The limited excavations centred on the building have contributed to the understanding of its origins and history, and also demonstrated the nature and quality of the archaeological remains which are preserved below the ground surface. The surrounding moated site, which has remained largely undisturbed since the medieval period, will contain evidence for other buildings and associated features relating to the organisation and life of the manorial household, and earlier soils and archaeological features buried beneath the raised platform within the circuit of the moat, including further parts of the Late Saxon/Norman cemetery, will retain information of much interest concerning the episcopal chapel, the Saxon cathedral which is thought to have preceded it on the site, and the local population in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The monument, being in the care of the Secretary of State and open to the public, is also a valuable educational and recreational resource.


The monument is situated to the north of St Mary's Church, on a spur of glacial sand and clay overlooking the valley of the River Wensum which runs some 650m to the east. It includes the ruins and buried remains of a medieval church, converted in the last quarter of the 14th century into a fortified manor house with surrounding earthworks, together with underlying remains of what is believed to have been the Saxon cathedral church of Elmham and part of a Late Saxon/Norman cemetery. The ruins of the medieval church and manor house, which are Listed Grade I, stand on a rectangular, ditched platform in the south west corner of a larger rectangular enclosure surrounded by a dry moat, to the east of which are remains of an adjoining outer enclosure which is also included in the scheduling. Associated with the manor was a medieval deer park, the site of which is approximately 1.25km to the west of the monument, beyond the later Elmham Park, created in the 18th century.

According to the documentary evidence, the See of Elmham was the head of one of two independent diocese in East Anglia. The Elmham referred to in the records is generally considered to have been North Elmham, although it has been claimed that South Elmham, in Suffolk, was the site in question. The See lapsed after AD 640 as a result of incursions by the Mercians, but was re-established in the mid-10th century, following the reconquest of East Anglia by the West Saxons. In 1075 the See was moved briefly to Thetford and then, in about 1090, to Norwich. An historical account of the foundation of Norwich cathedral and priory, probably written in the 13th century, refers to the Saxon cathedral church as having been a small wooden building. The manor of North Elmham was bought by Herbert de Losinga, the first bishop of Norwich, and given by him to the monks of Norwich priory, although there is documentary evidence that the Bishops of Norwich maintained a residence here, and the ruined church is identified as an episcopal chapel attached to that residence.

Excavations in the 1950s revealed some evidence below the stone church for one or more earlier timber structures on the same site, and it is thought that these remains, which have been dated not earlier than the late ninth century, may represent the timber cathedral church referred to in the post-Conquest history. Between 1967 and 1972, more extensive excavations in the area to the south west of the monument uncovered remains of a Middle Saxon (late seventh to early ninth century) and a Late Saxon settlement. During the 10th century this area was occupied by two large timber halls which had the character of high status buildings appropriate to a bishop's palace. Both excavations uncovered burials from a cemetery dated to the 11th and 12th centuries and apparently centred on this site rather than the parish church to the south.

The stone church itself has been dated to the late 11th century and was probably constructed for Bishop Herbert de Losinga, who also caused the parish church to be built. The ruined walls stand for the most part to a height of between approximately 2m and 6m, except at the extreme east end, which was demolished to ground level during the conversion to secular use, and they display remains of various original features. They are constructed of mortared flint rubble faced with large flints in the lowest four courses, and with coursed blocks of local ferruginous conglomerate above, with fragmentary remnants of freestone dressings. The building has an overall length of approximately 40m and includes an aisleless nave measuring approximately 20.75m by 6.1m internally, with an uninterrupted transept across the eastern end of the nave and a semi-circular eastern apse. The foundations of the apse were partly removed by the cutting of the surrounding 14th century ditch, but the original plan, projected from the surviving wall stumps, is outlined in concrete. In the external angles between the north and south walls of the nave and the west walls of the transept are the bases of two lateral square towers, and at the west end of the nave is the base of a larger square tower, characterised by thicker walls, with a semi-circular stair turret projecting from the external face of the south wall. The responds of the arches between the eastern apse and the transept, the transept and the nave, and the nave and the western tower, survive as projections on the internal faces of the walls. The masonry of the 14th century alterations is of mortared flint with dressings of limestone and brick, and is clearly distinguishable from that of the medieval church. The alterations include the subdivision of the interior of the church at ground floor level by the blocking of the openings at the east and west ends of the nave and by the insertion of partition walls within it, with steps to an upper floor which would have contained the main hall and private apartments. During the excavations in the interior, a series of circular pads were found along the axis of the nave, probably to carry timber posts to support the floor above. These various features are not all of one date, and demonstrate that the alterations were carried out in successive stages. Other additions include a semi-circular tower abutting the south wall of the nave to the east of the entrance, matching the original stair turret to the west of it. Immediately to the north of the building are the remains of a fireplace, and buried traces of an adjacent structure, perhaps a kitchen, were recorded in the same area.

The ditch of the inner enclosure surrounds the north and east sides of the converted church, the ends abutting the southern and western arms of the ditch of the larger moated site, which has maximum overall dimensions of approximately 132m east-west by 120m. The inner ditch is between 10m and 12m wide and has been shown to be about 4.5m deep, although now partly infilled. The inner edge was originally almost vertical, and revetted with flint masonry which is exposed around the north eastern angle. The moat ditch around the larger enclosure varies from 19m to 25m in width and has a visible depth of up to 5m on the north and east sides. On the west side, where it has been largely infilled, it is visible as a much shallower depression. Causeways across the northern and eastern arms of the ditch provide access to the interior, and a mound approximately 1m high adjacent to the eastern causeway may represent part of an entrance feature such as a gate.

The earth dug from the ditches around the manor house was banked up against the outer face of the walls to a height of approximately 3m above the ground surface, and although much of this bank has been removed, parts of it survive on the south and west sides. The surface of the surrounding enclosure was also raised by up to 3m. Irregularities in this surface are thought to represent remains of various features relating to the medieval occupation of the moated site, and include a rectilinear platform approximately 0.4m in height and 30m to the north east of the manor house, which probably supported a building. A prominent, terraced mound in the north west corner of the enclosure may mark the site of a defensive structure, although the terracing is thought to be a 19th century modification associated with a summer house which formerly stood upon it. A well head to the east of the inner enclosure and the manor house is marked by a modern concrete cap.

The ditch around the north and east sides of the outer enclosure which adjoins the moated site on the east side was recorded as a visible earthwork in a plan drawn in 1782, but much of it had been infilled by the mid-19th century and it now survives as a buried feature, the line of which has been traced by crop marks recorded on aerial photographs. A section of the eastern arm approximately 50m in length remains open as a depression up to 17m wide and 4m deep below the inner, western edge. The probable western end of the northern arm of the ditch is visible as a slight hollow in the ground surface opposite the north eastern angle of the adjoining moat ditch.

All modern fences, gates, paths, English Heritage signs and information boards, modern revetting of the bank to the south and west of the ruined building, and a service pole within the area of the outer enclosure to the east of the moated site are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.

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.

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Books and journals
Heywood, S, 'Journal Brit Archaeol Ass' in The Ruined Church at North Elmham, , Vol. 135, (1982), 1-10
Rigold, S, 'Medieval Archaeol' in The Anglian Cathedral of North Elmham, Norfolk, (1963), 67-108
Rigold, S, 'Medieval Archaeol' in The Anglian Cathedral of North Elmham, Norfolk, (1963), 67-108
Saunders, H W, 'Norfolk Record Society' in The First Register of Norwich Cathedral Priory, , Vol. 11, (1938)
Wade-Martins, P, 'East Anglian Archaeol' in Excavations in North Elmham Park, 1967-1972, , Vol. 9, (1980)
Ferne, J, NRO Rye Mss 17 North Elmham Vol VI, (1782)
Ordnance Survey, OS 72 300 192, (1972)
Published East Anglian Archaeol 9, CUCAP ZP 73, (1975)


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

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