North Elmham ruins and Gressenhall Rural Life Museum
May 2022

We visited the site of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral at North Elmham.  This was
a critically important site because it started life as a wooden cathedral built in Anglo Saxon
times and was the seat of the diocese of East Anglia (before it moved to Thetford and then Norwich).
The ruins were clearly explained by Peter Wade-Martins who had led the dig in the nearby Anglo Saxon
Christian burial site over the road.  As was common, the Normans built a replacement church or chapel
of flint and conglomerate stone.  The bishops moved away in 1071.  The chapel was converted into
a domestic residence and fortified as a house in 1387 by Bishop Henry Despenser.  The Bishop has a
colourful record.  A former soldier before he joined the church, Despenser led a failed crusade in Normandy,
was involved in plotting and supporting kings and pretenders, but he was most famous for suppressing the
peasants' revolt at North Walsham in 1381.  This was the revolt which included the murder of Wat Tyler. 
At North Walsham Despenser led the attack in hand to hand fighting on the peasants' army and personally
supervised the leader's execution afterwards - one Geoffrey Litster a dyer.

Peter suggested to us that the Bishop would have needed somewhere safe to sleep at night because of
his lack of popularity.  The chapel was fortified with massive earthworks (still there) and two strong towers
either side of the gateway in the South door.  Amazingly, Despenser died peacefully here in 1406 and was
buried at the high altar in Norwich Cathedral.  He was the Bishop of Norwich when Martham church was built.

Pat continues...


The weather was superb for our first outdoor event this year.  We were off to the Saxon Cathedral in North Elmham where we were met by Dr Peter Wade-Martins who was to be our guide around the remains of what would have been a truly magnificent cathedral.  There were plenty of information boards around if you want to visit.  The ground is owned by the diocese, but the site is English Heritage. The parish council is responsible for grass cutting but fortunately they hadn’t done so recently so there was cow-parsley plus in abundance.  So many said that they didn’t know this site existed.  A real gem.


We then went to their village hall where Peter’s wife Susanna greeted us with coffee and biscuits – she was to be our guide around the church.  On sale in the hall was their book “A History of Norfolk in 100 Places”, at a much reduced price it was quickly snapped up and more ordered!


At the church Susanna gave us an introductory talk and then we were able to take time to explore this ancient place of worship – so much to see – the remains of a wall painting, the painted panels in the rood screen and fascinating carvings on the pew ends.


Our coach then took us to Gressenhall. If you haven’t been, it is a great insight into what life was like in the workhouse – a very strict regime but we concluded that life for the very poor was still better in the workhouse than it would have been outside.

Consulting the map we were given on arrival – to the little row of shops - a trip down memory lane for the elderly – I remember my mother using a blue bag to whiten her washing!  There was the chapel, and the schoolroom with desks with inkwells – who remembers being the ink monitor?

I didn’t get to see the exhibition of needlecraft but apparently it was well worth a visit.

On to outside to see the farm animals – the grounds are quite extensive so we had a ride on the tractor-drawn trailer to save our legs!  Well, it was hot.

What we needed next was a cup of tea (and a little cake) and a chat in the cafe, before boarding the coach home.


Pat Mitchell


Ruins of bishop's chapel
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(Above: ruins at North Elmham)