Parish Summary: North Elmham

This Parish Summary is an overview of the large amount of information held for the parish, and only selected examples of sites and finds in each period are given. It has been beyond the scope of the project to carry out detailed research into the historical background, documents, maps or other sources, but we hope that the Parish Summaries will encourage users to refer to the detailed records, and to consult the bibliographical sources referred to below. Feedback and any corrections are welcomed by email to

The large mid Norfolk parish of North Elmham is situated to the east of Brisley and to the west of Billingford. Elmham comes from the Old English for ‘elm homestead’, and the parish has a long and important history. It was certainly well established by the time of the Norman Conquest, being held as a manor by Bishop Aelmer, and its population and productive resources, including four mills, are detailed in the Domesday Book of 1086.

The earliest dateable evidence of human activity so far discovered is a fine example of a Palaeolithic flint handaxe (NHER 17849) found in a garden on Station Road in 1981. Mesolithic flint finds include an axehead (NHER 25075) and blade (NHER 24179), and examples of Neolithic objects include polished axeheads (NHER 2900, 14584 and 16311), a chisel and arrowhead (NHER 1066) and a knife (NHER 31374). Important evidence of Mesolithic and Neolithic occupation has been recorded at Spong Hill (NHER 1012). 

Drawing of an unusual Iron Age brooch from North Elmham.

An unusual Iron Age brooch from North Elmham. (© NCC and S. White.)

The remains of the earliest structures in the parish, ring ditches, or the flattened remains of Bronze Age barrows, have been tentatively identified from aerial photographs, though little can be seen from the ground. Examples are a group on Broom Green (NHER 11838) and another in Old Park (NHER 1121). Finds from the period include pottery fragments (NHER 1065), copper alloy axeheads (NHER 1100, 2925, 2926 and 11376) and a spearhead (NHER 2925). A hoard of forty eight Bronze Age copper alloy objects (NHER 1123), including socketed axeheads, sword and spearhead fragments and ingots, was excavated near Foxburrow Farm in 1970. Metal detecting east of Station House in 2002 recovered an important Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age brooch (NHER 38164).

Iron Age finds currently consist of pottery fragments (NHER 1065, 1100, 1121 and 31374). The Romans also left pieces of pottery (NHER 1065, 1066 and 1121), but also coins, (NHER 1121, 12636 and 17419), brooches and urns (NHER 15373) and an important fragment of a black burnished mortarium (NHER 31374). Part of the Fen Causeway (NHER 2796), an important Roman road, ran through the parish. 

Photograph of

"Spong Man" an Early Saxon cremation urn lid. NWHCM:1994.192.1:A (© NCC)

Some of the most exciting finds in the parish come from extensive excavations at Spong Hill (NHER 1012). A site of national importance, this is the largest pagan cemetery of the Early Anglo-Saxon period in England to have been completely excavated, with over two thousand cremations and fifty seven inhumations. Sporadic finds of cremation urn fragments had been made since the early 18th century, but the threat of ploughing and gravel extraction led to a complete excavation between 1972 and 1984.This showed human activity from the Mesolithic period onwards. By the Iron Age, there were ditches and a Late Iron Age or Early Roman enclosure. In the Roman period the area was part of a farmstead, with evidence of iron smelting and pottery manufacture. After the Romans left, the Early Saxons used the land as a cemetery, the sheer size of which indicates that it served as the main burial place for perhaps half of the Launditch Hundred until the sixth century AD. Next to the cemetery they established a contemporary settlement, with several post-built structures and sunken-featured buildings. Interestingly, a similar arrangement of an Early Saxon cemetery and a settlement on a hill nearby (NHER 37159) has been recorded to the east of Spong Hill in the parish of Hoe. Perhaps the most famous object found during the excavations is ‘Spong Man’, a Saxon urn lid in the form of a seated figure, unique in being the only surviving figure of a Saxon man in England. He is now on display at Norwich Castle Museum. Further north at NHER 25848, metal detecting from 1990 to 2006 recovered a wide range of Roman, Saxon, medieval and post medieval objects. A concentration of Early Saxon finds in one area suggests an inhumation cemetery of that period. Beneath the ruins of the well-known medieval chapel and manor house (NHER 1014, see below) are the remains of a Late Saxon timber cathedral and cemetery. Associated with this is a Late Saxon settlement (NHER 1013) in North Elmham Park. Excavations here in the late 1960s and early 1970s revealed traces of buildings, boundaries, a road and a timber-lined cistern. Saxon metalwork and fragments of pottery were also recovered. Saxon finds from elsewhere in the parish include pottery fragments (NHER 1065, 1100 and 42842), brooches (NHER 1100), a coin (NHER 39709) and an elaborately carved ivory plaque (NHER 2905). 

Ruins of chapel/manor house at North Elmham.

The medieval ruins on the site of the Late Saxon cathedral at North Elmham. (© NCC)

The medieval period has left the two oldest surviving structures. The ruins of an early 12th century chapel (NHER 1014) are a popular tourist destination, standing on the site of the pre-Conquest timber cathedral and cemetery referred to above. The chapel was incorporated into a fortified manor by Bishop Hugh Despenser in 1388, with a moat, curtain wall and inner and outer bailey earthworks, and the remains of the two phases of building are intermingled. 

St Mary's Church showing west tower and part of nave.

St Mary's Church in North Elmham. (© NCC) 

Just to the south is St Mary’s (NHER 1119), an impressively large and ornate church. The chancel is basically Norman, altered in the 13th century when the nave arcades were built. The arcades were raised and aisles re-fenestrated in the 14th century. The tower, south chapel, and new windows were made in the 15th and 16th centuries. Inside is magnificent and important set of carved bestiary bench ends and an important rood screen.

The Shettles (NHER 16283) on Holt Road is a former farmhouse, the south end of which was originally a late medieval open hall house, to which a grand north cell was added in the early 17th century. At the same time the older section of the house was underbuilt and a cellar added. A further north extension was put on in the 18th century, but re-using beams of about 1500.

Other medieval structures have not survived, such as Woodford and Guist water mills (NHER 11846 and 16313) a stone cross (NHER 16315) and a Prior’s house (NHER 14546), and we know of them only through documentary references. The entire medieval village of Dunham (NHER 14364) has disappeared, and only its approximate location is known.

Examples of earlier post medieval buildings include Old Farmhouse (NHER 2930), Cornerways (NHER 13643), Hurdle Cottage (NHER 14246), College Farm (NHER 14248), The Old Homestead (NHER 17419) and Black Hall Farm (NHER 32797), all of which are 17th century in origin. Holt Road has a very pleasant selection of 18th and 19th century buildings, examples being The Lodge (NHER 46215) and The Vicarage (NHER 46218). South of The Lodge is a cast iron plaque (NHER 46533) of about 1830 set in a wall, indicating distances to London, Dereham and Holt. Space does not allow for mention of each individual property in the parish, and the detailed records should be consulted. Elmham Park (NHER 30437) dates from the 18th century onwards and 19th century Sennowe Park (NHER 30487) is the only Edwardian Italianate garden in Norfolk.

There was a landing ground (NHER 13623) in the parish during World War One, but its exact location is uncertain. World War Two survivals are an underground bunker (NHER 29547) on Foxburrow Hill and a spigot mortar base (NHER 32448) still in its original pit, a rare example.

Pieter Aldridge (NLA).


Further Reading

Brown, P., (Ed.), 1984.  Domesday Book 33 Norfolk (Chichester, Phillimore & Co)

Rye, J., 1991. A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place Names (Dereham, The Larks Press)

Hills, C., 1977. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Part I, East Anglian Archaeology Report No. 6

Hills, C & Penn, K., 1981. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Part II, East Anglian Archaeology Report No. 11

Hills, C., Penn, K. & Rickett, R. The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Part III; Catalogue of Inhumations, East Anglian Archaeology Report No. 21

Hills, C., 1980. Anglo-Saxon chairperson, Antiquity Vol. LIV No. 210

Heywood, S. 1998. The Site of the Anglo-Saxon Cathedral and the Bishop's Chapel at North Elmham



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