Parish Summary: Fakenham

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

Fakenham is a small market town on the north bank of the River Wensum. The town is located in the North Norfolk district and is just north of Pudding Norton and south of Barsham. The town name derives from Old English and probably means 'homestead of Facca', although it has been previously interpreted as meaning 'fair place' or 'place on a fair river'. The town has Saxon origins as suggested by the Old English name, and is mentioned at length in the Domesday Book. It was held by King Harold before 1066 when ownership was taken over by King William of Normandy. The manor must have been relatively large as it also held most of the surrounding villages including Pudding Norton and Thorpland that have now been deserted. There was activity in the area, however, before the Saxon period and there is considerable evidence for the presence of prehistoric populations in the area.

The earliest evidence is a number of Neolithic worked flints. These include several Neolithic axeheads (NHER 7094), a Neolithic arrowhead (NHER 15355) and Neolithic blade and flake (NHER 36334). A Late Neolithic or Beaker period arrowhead (NHER 17630) worked into a straight edge has also been found. These worked flints demonstrate that there was activity in the landscape, but no clear concentrations or settlement can be identified. The flint tools of the Neolithic were gradually replaced by metal ones in the Bronze Age. Two Bronze Age copper alloy socketed axeheads (NHER 7096) have been recovered in the parish. The earliest evidence for monuments in the landscape are two possible Bronze Age ring ditches (NHER 29569) that can be seen on an aerial photograph. These may be all that remain of large burial monuments. We have less evidence for the Iron Age in Fakenham. It is likely that the recorded findspot of two iron Age electrum torc terminals (NHER 21197) is inaccurate. The presence of a possible prehistoric trackway (NHER 2134) does however, suggest that the parish was on a routeway. This may suggest the absence of prehistoric finds is due to a lack of systematic fieldwalking and recording by archaeologists rather than a lack of data.

There is little evidence for Roman occupation. Roman coins (NHER 2132, 7099 and 19730) have been recovered by accident and by metal detectorists and a hoard of Roman coins (NHER 7097) was discovered in the 19th century. This hoard contained over 1500 coins and was probably deposited between AD 340 and 370. Very little Roman pottery (NHER 7098 and 31968) has been recovered, however, and this suggests this was not an area of settlement in Roman times. The hoard may have been buried some distance from settlement in order to prevent it from being stolen, or perhaps it was placed in a special sacred place away from occupation. The Roman shale spindle whorl (NHER 15761) found during archaeological evaluation is more indicative of domestic life, but may have been redeposited since the Roman period. This movement of objects away from their original resting places is shown on a larger scale in the parish where reused stone, reputedly from Brancaster Roman fort (NHER 1001) was used in the construction of a 19th century barn (NHER 2143) .

It seems likely that the settlement at Fakenham began to grow in the Saxon period. The earliest finds include an Early Saxon burial (NHER 2133) with several brooches and buckles and a fragment of Early or Middle Saxon pottery (NHER 34742). A lovely Early Saxon green glass bead (NHER 7100) with white trail decoration has also been found. An important find is an unusual Middle Saxon coin (NHER 29705) of the East Anglian king Beonna. This was recovered somewhere near Fakenham and when it was found was the only known example. The inscription also records the name of the man who minted it - somebody called EFE. There is more evidence for occupation in the Late Saxon period. The site of a Saxon watermill (NHER 18815), one of three recorded in the Domesday Book, is known. This building was demolished in the medieval period. There have also been several finds of Late Saxon pottery (NHER 15761 and 16520). A metal detectorist found a 10th century Borre style Late Saxon brooch (NHER 28965) with a delicate interlacing design and complete with its catch-plate.

The tower of St Peter and St Paul's Church, Fakenham, seen from Hempton.

St Peter and St Paul's Church in Fakenham seen from the neighbouring village of Hempton. (© NCC.)

There may have been a Saxon church on the site of SS Peter and Paul Church (NHER 7123). The oldest parts of the present building date to the 13th century, but there is much reused stone in the construction suggesting that an earlier church on the same site may have been demolished before this one was built. The unusually tall tower of the church was built in the 15th century and documentary records exist recording the raising of funds and building of the tower. The Rectory (NHER 11595) is a 17th century building, but old maps suggest that it may be on the site of an earlier, medieval moated site (NHER 33469). Excavations behind Oak Street (NHER 37143) in 2004 found this moated site and confirmed that the probable timber framed house within it was protected by a ditch and a later defensive fence or palisade. The excavations also discovered evidence for medieval dumping and attempts to raise the ground surface to prevent flooding from the River Wensum. The evidence for medieval occupation is not limited to the immediate Fakenham area. At 16th century Thorpland Hall the ruined church of St Nicholas and earthworks and cropmarks visible on aerial photographs are evidence for the medieval settlement that existed at the site. Thorpland (NHER 2142) is listed as a village that falls into the manor of Fakenham in the Domesday Book. The hamlet had as many as 90 parishioners in the 13th century but by the 16th century it had been seriously depopulated. Now only the hall remains. The site of a medieval cross (NHER 15477) on the parish boundary is similarly forgotten. The medieval archaeological finds recovered from the parish suggest that it was a thriving market town. The town was granted a market in 1250 which may have been held near the church. Medieval pottery (NHER 19917, 7101 and 32154) and medieval coins (NHER 18984, 25903 and 35251) have been recovered in the town. Some have come from far afield before being deposited at Fakenham. For example a medieval Irish coin (NHER 2137) of Henry III by Ricard of Dublin and a medieval French jetton, or token (NHER 20186), both of which were found in the parish.

Some of the post medieval buildings of the town were very grand. Baron's Hall (NHER 18325) was a large E-shaped building that was built in 1593. We only have a few illustrations to help us remember its magnificence. The earliest surviving building in the town is the 16th century L shaped building at 21 Tunn Street (NHER 11601). The extension of this building along Swan Street was added in the 17th century. Local historians suggests Cromwell's troops were billeted here in the Civil War although it is unclear what evidence there is to support this notion. Legend suggests that Oak House (NHER 18324) is even earlier and contains part of a 14th century timber frame, but our survey says this is incorrect and the earliest wooden structures within the building date to the 17th century. The Star Inn (NHER 11594) on Oak Street also dates to the 17th century. A well was discovered here in 1984. Excavations behind Oak Street in 2004 also found evidence for a post medieval street frontage. The other main focus for post medieval growth of the town was the Market Place. The market cross and sessions hall (NHER 33360) was built here in 1650 and were later replaced by the Corn Hall. Barclays Bank (NHER 11596), the Red Lion (NHER 11752) and the Wooden Horse (NHER 40837) all retain some 17th century features although the buildings have been considerably developed and altered since they were built. Further afield a watermill (NHER 7124) on the River Wensum was built in 1620, and some evidence suggests that it was later converted into a steam mill. Grove House (NHER 11600) was also built in the 17th century. The fires of 1660, 1718 and 1738 in the town destroyed many buildings and probably explains the scarcity of older structures and the predominance of Georgian architecture. It may also explain the unusual town plan, with 'islands' of buildings around the Market Place.

Many of the buildings in the Market Place date to the 18th century (NHER 40834, 40835 and 40836). In the other parts of the town the medieval rectory was replaced by an 18th century building (NHER 11595) and a post mill (NHER 15163) was constructed in 1781. A second post mill (NHER 18814) was constructed in 1837. The continued growth of the town led to the building of the Corn Hall (NHER 33360) in 1855. This replaced the earlier sessions house and contained a library and reading room as well as a magistrates court. The town continued to be a popular shopping centre and several 19th century shop fronts (NHER 40833, 40834 and 40837) still survive in the Market Place. In 1812 Baron's Hall was demolished and a new Baron's Hall (NHER 18325) was built. In 1825 the new hall and the rest of Fakenham benefited from the building of a town gasworks (NHER 13651). This provided heat and light for the town from 1825 to 1965. The gas works are unique in Britain being the only town gasworks to survive with all the equipment intact. The building is now open as a museum of local history and the gasworks and gas holder have been restored. It is now raised and lowered by air rather than gas! The town continued to grow in the 19th century and although the agricultural market continued to be of importance the maltings (NHER 11597), brickworks (NHER 2135 and 36190), a possible pottery production centre (NHER 19570) and the print companies brought about gradual changes to the local economy. The railway reached the town in 1848.

Fakenham was not untouched by the two World Wars either. The Corn Hall was a local headquarters for the Home Guard (NHER 33360) in World War Two, and a tank trap was built nearby and a statue converted into a defensive position. Pillboxes (NHER 33360) were also used to defend the town. Baron's Hall (NHER 18325) became the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) headquarters. The town has seen many changes from its Early Saxon origins, through medieval growth and development, three fires destroying many buildings and leading to the unusual town plan with ‘islands’ of buildings and the modern adaptations brought about in order to defend the population at times of war. The archaeology of the town allows us to track and understand these developments and understand the past of the town more clearly.

Megan Dennis (NLA), 15 November 2005.


Further Reading

Baldwin, J., 1982. Fakenham. Town on the Wensum (Cromer, Poppyland Publishing)

Brown, P. (editor), 1984. Domesday Book, 33 Norfolk, Part I and Part II (Chichester, Phillimore)

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

Norfolk Norwich Tourism, 2005. 'Fakenham, Norfolk'. Available: Accessed 19th November 2005

Poppyland Publishing, 2005. 'Fakenham, Norfolk'. Available: Accessed 19th November 2005

Rye, J., 2000. A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place-names (Dereham, The Larks Press)

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