Patterns of Land ownership

The Domesday Book is a great land survey from 1086, commissioned by William the Conqueror to assess the extent of the land and resources being owned in England at the time, and the extent of the taxes he could raise. The information collected was recorded by hand in two huge books, in the space of around a year. William died before it was fully completed.
Domesday provides extensive records of landholders, their tenants, the amount of land they owned, how many people occupied the land (villagers (villans), smallholders, free men, slaves, etc.), the amounts of woodland, meadow, animals, fish and ploughs on the land (if there were any) and other resources, any buildings present (churches, castles, mills, salthouses, etc.). The whole purpose of the survey was to acertain the value of the land and its assets to the Royal treasury, before the Norman Conquest, after it, and at the time of Domesday. Some entries also chronicle disputes over who held land, some mention customary dues that had to be paid to the king. The land assigned to individuals and manors is not necessarily the actual land area being farmed but a notional measure of the tax liability.

Click here for the translation of how the Nine Parishes are described in Domesday.

From the Domesday survey it seems that the Nine Parishes comprised several well established manorial communities by the time of the Norman Conquest. Elmham was a multimanorial estate with six churches. From the amounts of taxable lands the relative economic values of Elmham:Homersfield: Flixton were in the approximate proportions of 13: 5: 1. Homersfield had two churches, one of which was shared with Flixton (a Flixton manor received tithes from one of Homersfield's churches: 'half a church with 12 acres'). The entry for Flixton refers to 'St Michael' holding the larger part of the parish in alms. The phrase 'held in alms' was often used in Medieval documents of post mortem inquisitions to record an association of land with a priory, abbey or hospital.

Domesday leaves the following questions unanswered.

Where was 'St Michael's' located?
When did St Mary's become the parish church of Flixton?
Which of the seven churches of South Elmham did not exist at Domesday?
Why was there no special mention of the St Cross 'minster'?

From the amounts of tax the Norman scribes related to cultivated land, it can be concluded that most of the large expanse of the South Elmham plateau was uncultivated at Domesday. Indeed, even today, South Elmham's villages are well known for their large commons. The last enclosure of clay commons was carried out in 1855 on Gresham Green, which consisted of over a hundred acres straddling the boundary between South Elmham St Cross and St Margaret.

Domesday states that there was land in South Elmham that belonged to the church of Rumburgh. At the time of Domesday this was the church of a priory newly founded jointly by the last Saxon Bishop of East Anglia, Ailmer, and the abbot of St Benets abbey in Norfolk. It was initiated by twelve monks and dedicated to saints Michael and Felix. The priory was endowed with the glebe lands of St Michael's South Elmham, and this was probably the 20 acres of South Elmham that was said to belong to Rumburgh church at Domesday. It is also logical to assume that the Flixton estate of St Michael's was also part of this endowment.

Fig 1 Modern map of the nine parishes and surrounding villages


As to why South Elmham was the centre of these 7th century missionary activities, we have to remember that here was a wild tract of inhospitable upland boulder clay with Homersfield offering a major bridgehead across the river Waveney into the land of the heathen 'North Folk'. This is brought out in a section of the modern map shown in Fig 1. The line of the Waveney Valley is followed by the A143. There is an ancient ridgeway route which can be traced from the Blyth Valley at Chediston through St James South Elmham to St Cross South Elmham (the minster). With most of the river valleys being impassible fenland it was these watershed tracks which formed the cross country routes when most people did not move far from where they were born. Indeed, the modern A144 which cuts north/south across the eastern portion this landscape was partly, at least, constructed by a Roman legionary task force to connect the Romanised South Folk with the northern naval base at Burgh Castle . The older ridgeway is very prominent as the northern boundary of the village of Chediston, which has been interpreted as Cedd's Stone . The remains of a large rare glacial eratic boulder can still be seen by the side of this track. This was probably the route taken by ecclesiastical parties travelling from Sigebert's court in Essex to its Christian outpost by the Waveney.

As to why the minster was not mentioned in Domesday, or indeed any contemporary documents, this was probably because then it no longer existed, although the significance of the site as a missionary base remained as a folk memory attached to the large earthwork that had contained its isolated founder community.

As to the missing church of South Elmham at Domesday, the most likely candidate is St Cross, of which the minster would have been the bishop's manorial church. Its saintly patron is actually St George, who was taken up enthusiastically by the English with news of the success of the first crusade, which was launched in 1095. The earliest church dedication to George, who was listed among the martyrs by Bede, is at Fordington, Dorset and mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great. Saint George and his feast day began to gain more widespread fame among all Europeans from the time of the Crusades. The flag of St. George, a red cross on a white field, was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Geonoese fleet during the later Crusades. The English Monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege. The earliest portions of the architecture of the Church of St Cross are Romanesque and said to date from the latter part of the 12th century. This was a period of church building in stone when parishes replaced original wooden structures with more substantial designs. Many of so-called Norman doors from this rebuilding survive in Suffolk churches.

The additional appellation of 'St Cross' is intriguing. Local people feel it came when the unusual high nave of the church was constructed. This provided an opportunity to raise a lofty rood spanning the chancel arch to carry a prominent image of Christ Crucified.

The Dream of the Rood is one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon poems, found in the tenth century Vercelli Book, although it is probably much earlier and possibly the oldest English poem known. It is the story of someone dreaming that he has a conversation with the wood (the rood) which became Christ’s Cross.

Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.

With dark nails they drove me through:
on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds.

I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together.

All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man's side, after ghost he gave up.

So it can be seen how the epic tale of Christianity is stamped into this small inconspicuous wide-skied land which was reinforced by the stones of its parish churches still in use today. The concept of the Nine Parishes is eloquent still, after centuries that have seen the local impact of Roman road builders, Viking incursions, Norman Conquest, religious Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries. A recent impact has been the advent of industrialised farming which has devastated a physical landscape heritage of small tightly packed fields of which only a dense footpath network tells of the social system it maintained.