Monday, July 26, 2010

North Elmham



I’d come to North Elmham pursuing a mystery. Did the Bishops of Elmham from Bedwinus in the 7th century to Herfast in the 11th have their cathedral in Norfolk or  Suffolk?  North or South Elmham?

I’d followed a circular walk I’d found in the  Norfolk Health Heritage and Conservations Walks  leaflet (You can get hold of one from Norfolk County Council or on-line at www.countrysideaccess.norfolk.gov.uk .)  It took me through parkland,  along quiet lanes and ended up at the parish church  (Well worth a visit in its own right!)

My final destination was indicated by a brown tourist sign. Uncompromisingly it asserts “Saxon Cathedral”! But when you get to the ruins and read English Heritage’s helpful interpretation boards there’s no certainty at all.  What you see are earthworks and  ruins of a castle built by Henry Despencer,  the fighting Bishop of Norwich. He was famous for putting down the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. A man not without enemies, Henry had obviously felt the need of protection!  To make his  castle he converted a church built by Herbert de Losingia the first Bishop of Norwich. Herbert’s  11th century church may have been built on the site of the former cathedral.

Now here the mystery deepens,  Herbert’s church had  an unusual floor plan. It is the  twin of  a church he built at South Elmham!  Whatever the explanation, it’s a fair bet that North Elmham was an important Christian centre in the early days of the conversion of East Anglia. It is next door to the largest known Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill! Dr. Sam Newton ( see the Wuffings website) argues for both Elmhams being mission stations established by St. Felix. Maybe both were cathedrals.

Cathedrals or not,  the Herbert’s churches in North and South Elmham lie in ruins today. Birds sing where once monks chanted  psalm and prayer.  Standing amidst Cow Parlsley and listening to the Blackbird’s song  I found myself singing the Te Deum. “All creation worships you the father everlasting”! 

How different were these three bishops - St. Felix, Herbert and  Henry  - an evangelist, an empire builder and a war lord!  And today’s bishops?  More like Felix than the others I hoped.  The conversion of  East Anglia  started long ago has yet to be achieved!  The descendants of Spong Hill Man need to hear the gospel!

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