North Elmham was a place of great importance in Anglo-Saxon East Anglia. At a time when there were few towns in what was a rural economy, this was one place in Norfolk where we can be sure that people gathered from miles around. North Elmham was never a town; it was not enough of a trading centre for that, but it had great ceremonial significance. It was here that the county’s cathedral stood. Before 870 it shared that honour with Dumnoc in Suffolk, but in that year the Danes destroyed both the kingdom’s cathedrals. When the bishopric was eventually restored North Elmham gained extra importance as the only cathedral for the whole of East Anglia.
After the conversion of the Wuffinga kings of East Anglia to Christianity early in the seventh century, the cathedrals of Norfolk and Suffolk became the centres of worship in the kingdom. There were few churches in the countryside to begin with, so the importance of the cathedral was even greater than it later became. There is no agreement as to where the cathedral in Suffolk was located, although Walton Castle near Felixstowe has a good claim to have been the site. Alternatively the cathedral may have been at Dunwich, but both places have long been swallowed up by the sea. In Norfolk the cathedral was definitely at North Elmham.
We may imagine a succession of East Anglian kings making their pilgrimage to North Elmham in the centre of Norfolk, to pray for good harvests, protection from their enemies or the good of their souls. Access to North Elmham was relatively good; it lies on the main Roman road which ran from east to west across the county, and the road from Dereham to Holt ran past the West End of the cathedral. It also had water access from the east along the river Wensum. It was centrally positioned so that all of Norfolk was accessible. This communication network in the middle of Norfolk had already made North Elmham a place of great religious significance in pagan times. Spong Hill in North Elmham was a huge burial site which must have seen funeral processions of high caste individuals coming from across much of Norfolk. Most of the burials were cremations, but there were over 50 inhumations, many of these being marked by barrows. The site is the largest Anglo-Saxon cemetery ever to have been discovered. It also contained the earliest Anglo-Saxon example of the artistic representation of a human figure, on a cremation pot lid – not quite large enough to be termed a sculpture.
After the death of King Edmund in 869 the cathedral lost it royal status, when the kingdom of East Anglia was absorbed into the fledgling kingdom of England. The Danish invasion and occupation of East Anglia that had led to the death of King Edmund resulted in a period of desolation around North Elmham cathedral. In spite of the nominal conversion of the Danish king Guthrum to Christianity, there was much heathen practice among the new rulers of the kingdom. We can tell this from some of the place-names and artefacts that they left behind. There was no bishop of East Anglia from 869 until several years after the defeat of the Danes in 917. The bishop of London took control of the East Anglian church until the cathedral was re-established at North Elmham around the middle of the tenth century. It remained the cathedral of East Anglia until after the Norman conquest, when it was briefly removed the Thetford and then to Norwich.
The ruins of the bishop of Norwich’s late 11th century chapel are to be seen to the north of the present church. I was at North Elmham that the bishop maintained his country retreat. The chapel was built on the site of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral. This would originally have been a wooden building, and may have remained as such until the cathedral was moved to Thetford. The ruins of the chapel which remain are of stone. They represent a building of substantial proportions, demonstrating that the importance of North Elmham remained even after the cathedral was moved.
After the rise of Norwich as both county town of Norfolk and the cathedral city of East Anglia, North Elmham went into a long, slow decline. The bishop eventually abandoned his residence there for more convenient places in Thorpe St Andrew and Whitlingham. To to the east the Roman road fell into disuse, and beyond Bawdeswell it is only to be traced here and there along farm tracks. The Wensum ceased to be used as a communications highway when many water mills were built across the river, thus stopping water traffic from progressing upstream beyond Norwich.
This loss of connection with the rest of the world was reversed by the arrival of the railway in 1849. This made it among the earliest places in Norfolk to get a railway line, and besides passenger trains it was a centre for grain and milk traffic. Passenger trains were withdrawn in 1964, but goods trains were still using the large grain warehouse two decades later. Although no trains currently run to the village station, it is proposed that the MNR will restore the Heritage Line to North Elmham by 2017. At the north end of the village County School Station was opened in 1886 to serve the public school of the same name that had been established ten years earlier, in the the adjacent parish of Bintree. This school for the sons of farmers closed in 1895 and the buildings were taken over by Watts Naval School. This was to prepare the orphaned Dr Barnardo’s boys for life in the Royal Navy. It closed in 1953 and the buildings were demolished. The line from North Elmham Station to County School has been lifted, but the long-term aim is to restore this section of line as well.
I first went to look round the Saxon cathedral over forty years ago with my father. At the time occasional trains still rumbled through North Elmham and County School Stations to Great Ryburgh, where they served the large maltings there. Although I already had a history degree, my knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon past was rudimentary; it is much better now. North Elmham is not many miles from where I now live, and during the summer months my wife and I sometimes go to the North Elmham village fête. The local musicians hold regular concerts in the church, and these too I have attended. I take visitors with an interest in history to the village to see the remains on the site of the cathedral, and some of them even buy me a drink at the Kings Head.