Whissonsett is the high ground of central Norfolk and it is deep countryside. Down a quiet and deserted lane is the tree covered area with the quaint name of Normans Burrow Wood. But do not imagine this has anything to do with rabbits and their burrows or even with the Norman invaders after 1066. This name dates from about 150 years before the Battle of Hastings, for in its original form it reads as Norseman’s Barrow Wood.
Pagan Vikings invaded Norfolk after 869 when they killed the king Edmund, and they have left a mark on the country, not only in the place-names such as Normans Burrow Wood and Bloodgate Hill but in the archaeology of the district. There is was a Thor’s Hammer discovered at Great Witchingham and a statuette of a Valkyrie not far away at Bylaugh. The Wensum valley, where Whissonsett is near the source and Bylaugh and Great Witchingham are riverside villages further downstream, seems to be particularly redolent of heathen practices of the Danes. None of this appears in the written history of the time as there is none. The Vikings did not use any form of writing except runes. We must pore over maps of the area to try to build a picture of what it may have been like to live in those distant times.
The next village to Whissonsett is Horningtoft and that has a church dedicated to that same king we have already mentioned, Saint Edmund. All round the country, wherever Danes and Saxons fought as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, there is a good chance of finding a church dedicated to St Edmund; East Mersea, The Isle of Wight, Exeter and Nottingham. These are all places where we read of Viking battles, and each has at least one church dedicated to St Edmund nearby. Elsewhere there are very few dedications to the saint. Almost every St Edmund church has this connection with the Vikings, either in the written record or in the place-name evidence. In the case of Norfolk we have only what we can deduce from maps, but in other parts of the country we have the added advantage of written history.
In Horningtoft we have Normans Burrow Wood just a couple of miles away. What can we imagine of the past relationship of Dane and Saxon, the one resolutely pagan and erecting a barrow to their dead leader, the Christian natives defiantly building a church to their murdered king in the next village. It is all so peaceful today, but over a thousand years ago it was anything but.
It was a cold autumn day when I visited Normans Burrow Wood. There you can see the banks of the barrow that remain, although admittedly these appear most plainly of the OS map than on the ground. How I would love to imagine that a magnificent Viking funeral had taken place there and the corpse and his treasure still lie undisturbed in Whissonsett wood. I wonder how long the trees have stood guard over this noble grave of the follower of Odin and Thor?
I should add that Norfolk Heritage Explorer, the official archaeological website for the county, although it correctly identifies ‘burrow’ as a barrow makes no mention of Norsemen or Viking. Instead and in my opinion rather perversely it seems to prefer the derivation from ‘no-man’s’ barrow wood. It can also see no trace of a barrow, although it does find evidence of of a medieval extraction pit. Could this have been the site of the barrow, and the pit made by grave robbers?
If you wish to read more of this period of Norfolk’s history may I recommend my book, St Edmund’s Norfolk. Email me if you want to read it and I can let you have a digital edition of the book. It is about 20 pages long. The hard copy version is available on Ebay, with the proceeds going to Themelthorpe church.
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