Tuesday 28th June. Up early. Breakfast. Packed lunch. Kit up. Catch bus into Norwich. And another out. I’m heading upriver—the Yare that is. First port of call: Hellington, where I get off the bus. I’ve never been there before. I’m in for a surprise.
Cute, I thought. Castle or church? Though I’d already seen what it was, marked on the map.
I’m so used to seeing late medieval fancified churches (English Perpendicular etc), receipts of the wooltrade lavished upon them, that this, by comparison seemed simple, uncluttered, clean. I found it quite delightful. And then I entered the porch.
and . . .
Wow! I mean, wow! But this is only a small parish church.
But having taken the photos I went on my way. Only my brain kept harking back to that arch. It seemed so out of place for a small backwater village. I mean, for all that Norwich cathedral has some interesting Romanesque features, including ornate arches around its doors, I do not remember seeing any quite the equal of this—and I did thoroughly interrogate Google Images when I returned home, but it failed to deliver.
I was on the outskirts of Surlingham already before the cogs really started to turn.
Earlier this week—for reasons best known to myself—I was looking up various placenames of the old Norfolk hundred of Henstead on the Nottingham University site, Key To English Placenames and I noticed, just over the border in the old Loddon hundred, Hellington. Ah, I thought, that’s where I need to get off the bus when I go to Surlingham on Tuesday. And I wondered of its origin and meaning.
Answer: Anglo-Saxon, Helgheton, Helgi’s farm.
So now I’m thinking, Helgi’s farm, Helgi’s farm: why is that ringing a bell? Ah, yes, of course: because it’s remarkably similar to Haegel’s farm. And Haegel’s farm is better known as Hægelisdun—where, according to Abbo of Fleury who wrote ‘the life and martyrdom of Edmund’, St Edmund was killed.
Edmund, alias Edmund the Martyr, was king of East Anglia from circa 855 till his death: 20 November 869. But not a lot is known about him—basically, only what Abbo of Fleury tells us, and he was writing 100 years after the reported events.
But it’s not unusual to know next to nothing about East Anglian kings. It’s possible more is known about Boudica, the Iceni queen who led the blood-curdling revolt against the Romans in AD 60, than the majority of East Anglia’s subsequent kings. Everything has to be gleaned from Bede’s Ecclesiatical History of the English People, and various saints’ lives, or from the alliances and warfare with the neighbouring dynasties, e.g. Offa of Merca, and his ilk who found favour with the composers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (who seemed to be blinkered when it came to East Anglia).
One informative document is the ‘Textus Roffensis’, a C12th manuscript which contains what I think of as ‘Ælfwald’s Tally’ but is usually tagged as ’the East Anglian genealogical tally’.
Part of a 12th century manuscript, the ‘Textus Roffensis’,
now kept in Strood at Medway Archives.
(source: Wikipedia, public domain)
Since the tally stops at Ælfwald (elf-ruler) who reigned in East Anglia 713-749, it’s fair to assume it was compiled during his reign.
In transcription the tally reads:
- Caser Wodning
- Tyttman Casering
- Trygil Tyttmaning
- Hrothmund Trygling—It is thought that Hrothmund is the same King Hrothgar whose magnificent mead-hall is foully beblooded by Grendel in Beowulf. He is usually taken as the first actual king of East Anglia, the probable founder of the Wuffinga dynasty—but not, as most commentators would have it, based only at Rendlesham in Suffolk. As was usual in this age, as well as long after, there would have been regnal estates scattered throughout the land, each to be visited, with his retinue, on rotation.
- Hryp Hrothmunding
- Wilhelm Hryping—The Helmings were probably a rival dynasty. Their name appears in ‘Helmingham’.
- Wehha Wilhelming
- Wuffa Wehing
- Tyttla Wuffing (yes, I know we tend to give ‘-y-’ an ‘-i-’ sound, but here it is pronounced as a long –o-, Tootla—just to confuse us.)
- Eni Tyttling
- Ethilric Ening
- Aldwulf Ethilricing
- Ælfwald Aldwulfing (whose list this is; first ‘recorded’ king 713-749)
Note: This is not a kings list but a genealogy—because, as is the nature of Man, Ælfwald was concerned with his own ancestors only. He—or his priestly compiler—omitted the following kings who, although of the same dynasty, were not on the pathway to Ælfwald:
- Rædwald, reigned 599 to c.624, son of Tyttla Wuffing and eldest brother of Eni; believed to the king buried at Sutton Hoo.
- Eorpwald (Erpenwald), son of Rædwald, reigned 624-627/632
- Ecgric reigned 632-636, co-king with Rædwald’s son Sigebert. Although of the Wuffingas, Ecgric’s exact relationship is unknown. He may have been brother or cousin to Anna/Onna; or perhaps he was aka Æthelric (Ethilric Ening), father of Ealdwulf (Aldwulf Ethilricing)—see below
- Anna/Onna, one of 3 sons of Eni Tyttling, reigned c.636-653. He fathered a family of saints (Jumin, Seaxburh, Æthelthryth, Æthelburh and, possibly, Wihtburh).
- Æthelhere, brother of Anna/Onna, and his successor (653-655).
- Æthelwold another son of Eni, reigned 654-664.
- Ealdwulf (Aldwulf Ethilricing) reigned 663-713
And so we return to Ælfwald Aldwulfing, first of many East Anglians to be hooked on tracing his roots.
But it seems his kingdom was then divided, for we find him succeeded by three kings, each of whom are given 749 as the start-date of their reign:
- Alberht/Æthelbert, heir of the ‘Wuffinga’ Ælfwald, reigned 749-760
- Beonna, reigned 749-760; possibly with a strong Mercian connection
- Hun, reigned 749-???—though, as argued in wiki’s article on Beonna, the name ‘Hun’ may have belonged to Beonna, as in Hunbeonna. Hun was a common component of the Germanic diathematic names.
Æthelred I follows: described by the wiki article as ‘semi-historical’, which means that, lacking coinage, even less is known of him than the others. He reigned 762-779
Æthelberht II, son of Æthelred I (so I guess Æthelred must have existed) reigned 779-794. He became a saint when Offa of Mercia deceitfully cut off his head. Since he was, at the time, on a mission to meet his future wife we can take it he wasn’t succeeded by his son.
And here we come to a hiatus in the East Anglian kings. For here Offa of Mercia, having lopped off head the last East Anglian king firmly planted his foot on his land.
When East Anglian kingship resumes it is with Æthelstan, reigned c.821-840s.
As with the other kings of East Anglia, there is very little textual information available . . . this endlessly repeats through these wiki articles on the kings of East Anglia.
Æthelweard, reigned 840s-854. He was succeed by his fourteen year old son . . . .
Edmund, reigned 843-869. Though to be honest, as befits an East Anglian king, his origins are somewhat obscure, his light but a glimmer straining through that devastation of East Anglian monasteries subsequent upon the Viking incursions.
He is thought to be of East Anglian origin. But he’d been dead several years before anything ever was written of him. His association as son of Æthelweard is even later. In that story he was born 841. Another story makes him the son of Alcmund, a Germanic king. His ‘saint’s life’ has him crowned on 25 December 855 at (probably) Bures St Mary in Suffolk, and makes of him a model (Christian) king. All of which is probably fictional garbage. Even the details of his martyrdom are questionable. But, let’s go for it.
At its briefest, in 869 the Great Heathen Army invaded East Anglia and, encountering King Edmund, killed him. That much is probably true.
There is less certainty about the manner of his death. Was he slain in battle, defending his people and land as a good king should? Or, as his ‘saint’s life’ has it, did he refuse to renounce his God, and refused to fight,and thus invited the consequences in true martyrdom form? Regardless of how, he is portrayed as wearing a ‘porcupine coat’ (shot full of arrows) and beheaded. The arrows bestow on him an iconography remarkably similar to that of Saint Sebastian, while his beheading echoes that of both Saint Denis and his (possible) ancestor, the other East Anglian saint, King Æthelberht—whose iconography seems to lack the post-decapitation scene.
According to the main source of the story of Edmund’s martyrdom it was Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba, sons of Ragnor Lodbroc, who were responsible for Edmund’s death. But considering the account was written a hundred years after I, for one, wouldn’t hang my breath on it. Though, in fairness, its author, Abbo of Fleury, did spend two years in England (985-967), and that at Ramsey monastery in Fenland. But generally his focus was Paris and all things French.
Edmund’s remains (decapitated body, disembodied head) were found some considerable time later perfectly preserved in quaggy water. I have seen a suggestion that this was an Iron Age bog-body such as occasionally are found in peat-diggings. Edmund’s supposedly freshly fleshed remains were taken to Bedrichesworth (today’s Bury St Edmunds) there to be interred, in 903, in the monastery founded c.633, by the aforementioned Sigebert, son of King Rædwald.
One assumes by then the monastery was back on its feet after its ruination by the Vikings. Perhaps the East Anglian Danelaw king, Guthrum, baptised as Æthelstan, repented the damage and ensured its survival. King Cnut certainly contributed to it in the next century.
There is little doubt that the presence of the remains of the martyred King Edmund—in a wondrous state of preservation—did much to spread the fame of the abbey of Saint Edmundsbury, not to mention attracting great wealth. Miracles occurred at his shrine. The abbey became a site of pilgrimage. A town grew around it.
Unsurprisingly, a number of East Anglian churches were given St Edmund for their devotion. One such was at Caister, near Norwich,, built within the old walls the Roman Venta Icenorum.
Another was at Costessey, where I grew up.
I have always thought it likely that the St Edmund dedication here came from the Domesday holder of the manor, the Breton count Alan Rufus. During his life Alan was very close with Baldwin, abbot of Saint Edmundsbury, and at his death was initially buried there (before his brothers moved his remains to St Mary’s abbey in York).
But, back to Abbo’s account. As I said, he places Edmund’s death at Haegelisdun. But where is Haegelisdun? Two places have been put forward. Hoxne (pronounced Hoxen), and Hellesdon.
Hoxne is wonderfully rich in archaeology, but so far nothing to suggest it was the scene of Edmund’s death. The association comes from a charter of Bishop Losinga, in 1101. And it helps with it being associated with the abbey of St Edmundsbury.
Personally, I have always favoured Hellesdon. It is recorded as Hægelisdun in a document of c.985, and that looks pretty close to the name given by Abbo. Moreover, Hellesdon lies adjacent to two villages with St Edmund churches (Costessey and Taverham.) But now there was another contender. Helgi’s farm: Hellington.
There is another factor in identifying Hellington as Hægelisdun. For there is another story concerning the death of Edmund. This I found in Francis Blomefield’s Toppgraphical History of Norfolk, vol.11, pp121-132 [Reedham]:
“Lodbroc, said to be a Danish king, but supposed by Sir John Spilman to have been King of Zeland, hawking among certain little islands, in a boat, was by a sudden tempest carried out to sea, and drove ashore here, and brought to Edmund, King of the East Angles, then residing at Castor in Flegg, who being pleased with his behaviour, fortune, and great skill in hunting, Bern, the king’s falconer, envying him, murdered him privately in a wood. Lothbrok’s dog was observed in a day or two, to come to the King’s house, half famished, and as soon as fed to be gone again, and being on the King’s command watched, brought them to the body of his dead master.
Bern being found guilty of this murder, was condemned to be put into the boat that Lothbrock arrived in, and committed to the mercy of the sea, without provision or tackle. This boat being providentially driven on the same place it came from, and known, Bern was seised, and to save himself, declared that Lothbrock, on his arrival into England had been killed by order of King Edmund.
“Hingar, and Hubba, the 2 sons of Lothbroc, swearing revenge, invaded with 20,000 men, Edmund’s kingdom of the East-Angles, attended by Bern the traitor, and by them Edmund was barbarously murdered, in the year 870.
“The truth of this tradition may be justly called in question, on many accounts. It is not to be credited, that Lothbroc, in his great distress, would have passed by Yarmouth, at the mouth of the river Yar, and gone up in search of another port or place, especially as Yarmouth was at that time, and long before, a port, and a place of fame in the time of the Britons and Romans.”
I have quoted the passage in full. Blomefield was man of his times (C18th) and wasn’t aware of the deeper history of Yarmouth: that, while the sand bar was there in 870s it would have hosted, at most, a small summer settlement of fishermen. Perhaps there was a seasonal market, too; perhaps the Danes attended. But I particularly like this account for it puts King Edmund at a place other than Rendlesham, the supposed only seat of the Wuffingas. It also puts him in an area later marked by the Norfolk Broads.
As I remarked, above, that wonderfully preserved saint’s body might have been a bog-body. And just look at this map, taken from my own redrawing of Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk.
See how close Hellington is to Rockland, Wheatfen and Surlingham Broads (oops, belatedly realised that Faden included only Rockland Broad! Therefore see ‘Surlingham Fen’ and the OS inset)—and neither is it far from Reedham. The Norfolk Broads aren’t natural formations. They are the flooded remains of peat diggings! By the time Faden surveyed for his map many of the flooded pits were overgrown with fens. They have since been cleared and returned to their former extents as havens for holidaymakers and wildlife alike.
As I sat by the river to eat my lunch, my thoughts turned again to that carved Norman arch. To me, that suggested the presence of important history. Was it, I wondered, a Norman rebuild of an early ‘minster’ church.
Minster churches were kinda like monasteries but without the monks. They served as HQ for a gaggle of priests who then would take their pastoral care out into the surrounding communities. Most were founded on royal or comital land, in the Middle Saxon period. Later, in C10th, they were absorbed into the parish system which did much to organise the growing numbers of smaller churches. I’m having to chose my words with care, for villages didn’t exactly exist, at least not in most parts of Norfolk. There was, instead, a fairly dense scatter of farmsteads and hamlets. So, no village church.
One of the marks of the minster churches is that today they tend to be encircled by a plethora of parishes, as of their previously dependent churches, like petals formed around the heart of a daisy. Although not as magnificently be-petalled as e.g. North Walsham with its 14 surrounding parishes, Hellington does have a good few:
- Rockland St Mary immediately to north
- Claxton to northeast
- Ashby St Mary to east
- Thurton to southsoutheast
- Bergh Apton to south
- Alpington and Yelverton to southwest
- Holveston to west
- and Bramerton to northwest.
So it seemed to me that Hellington was a place of some importance—a potential minster with an outstanding Norman arch. Thus I was convinced I had found the real Haegelisdon. After all, what was the dedication at Hellington church? Oh, only John the Baptist. A coincidence that he’s another who lost his head?
Besides, how else to explain that this one-time wooden church in an otherwise unremarkable parish had not only been rebuilt in stone c. late C11th/early C12th, but had been embellished with that totally unnecessary stone carving the artistry of which must have cost a bomb. But let me explain this further.
Disregarding its abundance of high quality black flint (and the red limestone known as carstone found around Hunstanton on the North Norfolk coast), Norfolk has no native building stone The limestone used on this church, as with that of Norwich cathedral, had to be imported, probably from Caen in France. That took money. And someone cared enough to employ a stone mason skilled in the carving of Romanesque arches. At this point I was willing to bet I knew who.
Two men held land at Hellington in 1086. One was Godric, royal steward, formerly steward to the Breton family of earls of East Anglia, Ralph the Staller under William I until his death in 1071, and his son, Ralph de Gaël until his rebellion and consequent exile in 1075. And Roger Bigod, sometime sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, father of Hugh Bigod, 1st earl of Norfolk in the reign of King Stephen.
Although the Bigod’s most famous castle, is without doubt Framlingham in Suffolk, this was not their only one. But Henry II confiscated the lot in a general countrywide purge on private-held castles when he came to power in 1154.—though he kept Framlingham for himself. The others were dismantled. One such was at Bungay in the Waveney valley, not a million miles from Hellington. (While there is still a castle at Bungay—or ruins of—it is not the original as built by Roger Bigod c.1100).
By now I was on the bus, slowly trundling homewards. But I was impatient. I wanted to get on the internet. I needed to check out a few things. Such as churches at Ashby St Mary and Claxton, also on land held by Roger Bigod in 1086. I expected their doorways to be Romanesque in outline, yes, but otherwise decoratively plain. I expected to find that Hellington shone out, a lone star.
In that I was disappointed . . .
Thurton, too, has an equally outstanding Romanesque arch—plus a dedication to that other East Anglian king, Saint Æthelbert.
BTW, the church at nearby Mundham has the same dedication to St Æthelbert, but is now a ruin much hidden by a vegetational scramble.
I knew without looking that Loddon church would have nothing Norman remaining. Its generous size advertises its later rebuild. But its close neighbour Chedgrave is another matter.
So my wonderful theory regards Saint Edmund came tumbling down amid a surfeit of decorated Norman arches.
But their origins still puzzles me. It was not the Bigods who built them—or not the Bigods alone since Roger didn’t hold all these vills. More likely what we see here was the result of a competitive spirit amongst the local freemen, each kin-group working their butts off to outdo the other, saving their profits, clubbing together to afford the best materials and craftsmen.
The Norfolk Domesday Survey is heavy with freemen who, pre-1066, had held their land off no one, but now were subjugated to often absent landlords, some of whom hadn’t yet got their heads around the situation and thought of the men and their land as their own personal possessions. To invest in a church was to display ownership, a visible mark of their independence.
There were probably many—loads—more of these ornate door-arches. But, alas, so many Norfolk churches were rebuilt in the latest fashions in later times, the Black Death being an impetus to refocus on the survival of the soul in the hereafter. The priests invested in new chancels, the parishioners in new naves. And the old styles were rubbished. These few remaining—and in truth I don’t know how many more—exist simply because no later parishioner could afford to replace them. I’m pleased about that. And yet it is sad.
Oh, and to prove I did get to the river at Surlingham and Bramerton here’s a shot of a yacht . . and some ducks (but strictly speaking they’re drakes).
(Not always ‘still life’s)