Parish Summary: Brisley

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

Brisley is a small parish in the northwest of the county. Modern settlement is focused on the village of Brisley, which is dominated by its green, the largest surviving common in Norfolk, and the hamlet of Potthorpe.

There is little evidence for prehistoric occupation in the parish, but some prehistoric flakes (NHER 34110), a prehistoric burnt mound (NHER 7181) and a Bronze Age dirk (NHER 30291) have been found.

The course of a Roman road (NHER 11358), running from Billingford to Toftrees is preserved as an earthwork on Brisley Green, another Roman road forks off from this one, and is visible in hedge lines and on aerial photographs. There is some evidence for Roman settlement in the parish, the site of a possible Roman building (NHER 28564) has been found, and pottery and architectural fragments have been recovered. Roman coins have also been found throughout the parish (NHER 33233, 32595).

Brisley is first recorded in 1105, the name coming from the Old English, meaning a ‘clearing infested by gadfly’s’. Perhaps in the early medieval period the parish may have held little attraction as a place to live! An Early Saxon sleeve clasp (NHER 31935), an Early Saxon nail (NHER 32595), and a Late Saxon strap end (NHER 40853) have been found in the parish by metal detecting. The Old Hall (NHER 2929) is an early manorial site, under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of North Elmham; the house itself is partly built with reused masonry from North Elmham Cathedral, and Late Saxon pottery has been found within the moat.  St Bartholomew’s Church (NHER 2936) dates mainly to the 15th century, but incorporates earlier masonry, suggesting that a Saxon church may have stood on, or near, the present site. Although there is little other archaeological evidence for Saxon settlement in the parish, it seems likely that settlement would have been focused around the church and the manorial site of the Old Hall.

Medieval settlement grew up around the edges of Brisley Common, around the moated sites of Brisley Hall (NHER 2937) and the Old Hall (NHER 2929). Brisley Hall (NHER 2937) is also a medieval moated site, and the present hall dates to the early 17th century, with later alterations. Rose Cottage (NHER 12174) and Weavers Cottage (NHER 19962) are both 17th century buildings. Brisley was never the subject of an enclosure act, hence the survival of its large common, which has been encroached upon; small strips of land have gradually been enclosed around the edges of the Common. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the crypt of the church (NHER 2936) was used as a holding cell for prisoners being taken to the Norwich assizes. 

A World War Two pillbox on Elmham Road

World War Two pillbox in Brisley. (©NCC)

Despite being a small parish, Brisley has its share of famous inhabitants. Richard Taverner was born in Brisley in about 1505, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Henry VIII for his religious writings, including one of the earliest translations of the Bible into English. He was released, and enjoyed royal favour under both Henry and Elizabeth before his death in 1575. One of the greatest English cricketers of the 19th century, Fuller Pilch, grew up in Brisley, although he was born in the nearby parish of Horningtoft. More poignantly, Brisley is the site of a crashed Bristol Blenheim (NHER 41322), which crashed in June 1942, with the loss of its three young crew members. A memorial now stands on the site of the crash.

Sarah Spooner (NLA), 17 August 2005.


Further Reading

Bagshawe, R., 1977. 'A Roman Road between Brisley and Terrington St. Clement', East Anglian Archaeology 5

Brown, P. (ed.), 1984. Domesday Book: Norfolk (Chichester, Phillimore)

Mills, A.D., 1998. Dictionary of English Place-Names (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

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

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