Markshall has been a part of the parish of Caistor St Edmund for over 300 years. It lies just to the south of the city of Norwich but most people rush past on their way to Ipswich without even realising it is there. This is not surprising as it only consists of a farmhouse and a few cottages, and nothing announces its presence. It has not always been so insignificant however.
The bridge over the river Tas at MARKSHALL has a mill stone in the river beside it; a pretty good bit of evidence that a watermill once stood here. But there is no reference to a mill in Markshall or Caistor in any written documentation or map. The tiny hamlet of Markshall lies across the river to the north of Caistor, and since 1695 it has been incorporated into that village. Besides the farmhouse just across the river bridge there are only a handful of cottages in Markshall – perhaps four or five. In the past it was a much more substantial village, with both a church and a chapel within the parish. The positions of the dwelling houses that must once have housed the congregation of the church have disappeared. The remains of a medieval building close to the west bank of the river Tas (MAP REFERENCE TG235 049) were originally identified as Markshall Church. This building only exists now as a few stones above the surface of the ground, down a long farm track and near the new southern bypass.
This identification of this ruin as church was made in the 1st edition of the 6 inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map, published in 1885. Before the 1840s there was another medieval ruin in Markshall, on top of Chapel Hill (TG 228 047), half a mile to the west. It would seem be sensible to identify this as the free chapel which we know existed in medieval Markshall, from the name of the hill if from nothing else. The remains of this ruin were completely destroyed by the construction of the Norwich to Ipswich railway line in 1847, and our knowledge of it is therefore rather hazy. However, as the result of some rather confused reasoning by both amateur and professional archaeologists of the the first part of the last century, this vanished building is now known as the site of Markshall church. The site of the chapel is given as ‘unknown’.
The ruined building that was known as the church in the OS map of 1885 is now called a farm. Markshall church – wherever it was – had been abandoned since the end of the 17th century. It appears that the chapel was abandoned rather earlier, before the Reformation. By the early nineteenth century both buildings would have been in ruins, but the local inhabitants would surely have known the position of both.
The site of the building by the river Tas which at one time was thought to be Markshall church was excavated in 1949. By then its origins as a church had been dismissed on the grounds that it was too near the river. Needless to say this was an entirely mistaken view, as a look at Trowse church, a few miles downstream, will demonstrate. Trowse church lies only a few yards from the river bank with its frequent danger of flooding during heavy rain. In the archaeological report following the 1949 dig it was written up as a ‘Late Medieval Farmstead’. Incidentally this building also incorporates mill stones in its construction, further evidence of a mill having been in Markshall. I suggest these date from a period after what I maintain is the real church had become a domestic building, and the mill stones appear to have been used as fireback in the east end of the building. By the 18th century it was indeed a farmhouse, but earlier on, had it been a church?
The possibility that this ruin was once the remains of Markshall church was not even considered in 1949, despite the excavator himself stating that it was not in plan a normal medieval farm house. What he did not state is that in plan it is very much like a medieval church, and not only in plan but also in orientation, with its long axis running from west to east. It is true that walls were relatively insubstantial for a church building, but this merely suggests that the church was small and inexpensively built.
I think it likely therefore that Markshall church was indeed where the original map makers stated it was, and that the chapel was about a mile away on Chapel Hill. Long after 1850, by when the railway line to London had demolished whatever ecclesiastical structure had once stood on Chapel Hill, local directories all state that the ruins of the church still remained. The church was relinquished in 1695, and has left some remains (John Marius Wilson, Markshall, Imperial Gazetteer of England, 1870-72). This suggests that the ruins of the church still existed in the last quarter of the 19th century, not long before the map makers arrived. I also think it likely that locals would have informed the surveyor of the 1885 map that the ruin was that of Markshall church. With the accelerating depopulation of Markshall this ancient folk memory had been lost by 1900. One way to make sure would have been to find human remains buried by the existing building, the location of the churchyard if that was what it was. Rather unfortunately the excavation of 1949 did not even look for any graves and left the land undisturbed, so convinced were they that this was a farmhouse.
This map is worth a look for its features from the Roman Camp of Venta Icenorum, which lies in the bottom left, and from Woodhenge in the top right. This area was the focus of the whole of what was later called East Anglia from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. It must have been a place of religious ceremony, bustling trade and official administration. Today the area in the map is a strange mixture; virtually no one lives in Markshall and only a few in Caistor. Much is peaceful rural Norfolk. Yet the area is crossed by the railway lines to Ely and London and the dual carriage way Norwich Southern Bypass cuts across the northern part of Markshall. The A 140 to Ipswich skirts the western edge of the map.
One fact that I have so far omitted to mention is that the church at Markshall was dedicated to St Edmund. So is the church in Caistor. To have two churches in such close proximity named after the same saint is highly unusual, but in the case of St Edmund it is not unique. The adjacent villages of Costessey and Taverham both possess ancient churches with this patron saint. These are over a dozen churches dedicated to St Edmund along the Yare/Wensum/Tas river system and they all lie very close to the banks of these rivers. In the case of Caistor/Markshall those who have read my blog on Caistor St Edmunds (3) will know my theory as to why this is. For now I just wish to stress that the original church as marked on the 1885 map was on the bank of the river Tas. Chapel Hill is a mile or so away from the water course and at the top of a prominence. Bearing in mind the watery nature of almost all the other St Edmund churches I think this lends weight to my contention that the 1885 map does indeed show Markshall church. In fact is was this feature which first drew my attention to the ecclesiastical buildings in Markshall.