"WANGFORD, is an ancient land division called a hundred in county Suffolk. It contains the parishes of Bursham, Beccles, Bungay Holy Trinity and St. Mary, North Cove, Ellough, South Elmham All Saints, South Elmham St. Cross, South Elmham St. James, South Elmham St. Margaret, South Elmham St. Michael, South Elmham St. Nicholas, South Elmham St. Peter, Flixton, Homersfield, Ilketshall St. Andrew, Ilketshall St. John, Ilketshall St. Margaret, Ilketshall St. Lawrence, Mettingham, Redisham, Ringsfield, Shadingfield, Shipmeadow, Sotterley, Weston, Willingham, Worlingham, and part of Henstead; comprising an area of 35,540 acres."

The group of nine parishes has been a discrete entity within Wangford Hundred since the Domesday survey, which states that the whole of the ferthing (a quarter of a Hundred) of 'South Elmham' belonged to William, Bishop of Thetford. This has been taken as evidence that this quarter hundred, now comprising the nine parishes, was land given four hundred years previously to endow the bishopric created for Felix, the Burgundian Christian evangelist of the Roman Church, by the newly converted Sigebert 'King of the East Saxons'. The brief history leading up to this begins when Sigebert was converted to Christianity through the influence of Oswiu of Northumbria, then his overlord, whilst exiled in Gaul. Oswiu, sent Cedd of Lindisfarne to evangelise Essex. His mission was so successful that Finan of Lindisfarne consecrated him bishop. Cedd worked especially in the neighbourhood of Bradwell-on-Sea. Most of what we know of Cedd comes from the writings of Bede. Bede also relates that the East Anglian apostle Saint Felix came to England from Burgundy as a missionary bishop, and was then sent by Saint Honorius Archbishop of Canterbury to assist Sigebert establish a Christian Kingdom in the land now included in the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Yet another missionary, Fursey arrived in East Anglia, with his brothers Foillan and Ultan (and other brethren) and bearing the relics of Saints Meldan and Beoan, around 633. He was welcomed by Sigeberht, who gave him a tract of land at Cnobheresburg, a Roman fort identified on flimsy evidence as Garianonum or Burgh Castle at Lothingland, in the precincts of which he built his abbey. Excavations of the fort have not been able to confirm this with archaeological evidence.

Sigebert established a school in his kingdom for boys to be taught reading and writing in Latin, on the model that he had witnessed in Gaul. Felix assisted him by obtaining teachers of the kind who taught in Kent. At some point before 635 Sigebert retired to a monastery and became a monk, handing over his kingdom to "his kinsman" Ecgric. When Penda of Mercia attacked East Anglia in 635, Ecgric insisted that Sigebert leave his monastery and join the royal army. Sigebert did so under protest but refused to carry any weapon. Both kings were killed in battle. It is recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 636 that Bishop Felix continued to preach to the East- Angles. He died 8th March 647.

Sigebert established the bishop's seat for Felix at a place named Dommoc, claimed variously as being the coastal site of Dunwich or Walton (Felixstowe). If at Walton the site of Dommoc may have been within the precinct of a Roman fort which formerly stood there. Such old fortified settlements were often reused as bases for early evangelical communities. However, the name Felixstowe is not recorded before the thirteenth century. Actually, the Domesday name for the Walton fort is Burch, a form of the word Burgh. A priory dedicated to St Felix was founded within the fort at Walton around the end of the eleventh century by Roger Bigod, 1st Earl of Norfolk, who invited monks from Rochester to establish themselves there. This seems to have been the origin of an association with St Felix. On these grounds it is unlikely that the name Felixstow denotes events that took place at Walton six centuries earlier.

According to Bede (HE IV, 5) the bishopric of Dumnoc was divided during the reign of King Ealdwulf (c.664-713) to form an additional see of Helmham. These dual East Anglian sees of Dommoc and Elmham ceased to exist during the Viking invasions, and only Elmham was restored and not, as far as evidence goes, much before 955. Henceforward there was only one bishop for the whole of East Anglia. The locations of the seats of these two early bishops after Felix is a matter of some controversy. The question is complicated by their being two Elmhams, one in Suffolk, encompassing the nine parishes (South Elmham), and the other a single parish in Norfolk (North Elmham). There is little doubt that, in the Late Saxon period the see was located at North Elmham in Norfolk, but there is still uncertainty as to whether North or South Elmham was the location of the Middle Saxon bishopric of Elmham. Also, the bishop appears to have had a Suffolk estate at Hoxne as well as one at South Elmham. For example, the manorial hall of South Elmham St Cross dates back to the 13th Century and was built by the Bishops of Norwich who held South Elmham at Domesday as part of the ancient East Saxon ecclesiastical estates.

What ever the truth of the matter, the East Anglian see was transferred from North Elmham to Thetford in 1071–2, and eventually around 1095 to Norwich. It is reasonable to assume that since the evangelists penetrated this pagan area in stages from the south, South Elmham was a stepping stone for crossing the Waveney into the territory of the North Anglians. The name North Elmham was in recognition of where this northern thrust came from. It is remarkable that after all of these moves, the church of South Elmham St George continued to form part of the revenues of the see of Norwich till the reign of Henry VIII..

Apart from the name South Elmham, evidence for the presence of Felix's mission in north Suffolk is the place name of Flixton (Felix's settlement) and a ruined church in South Elmham St Cross where part of a carved Anglo Saxon coffin lid was discovered under the foundations. The ruin, known as the Old Minster since the Middle Ages, is dated to c1050 but has a ground plan resembling the seventh century churches of Kent and Essex, which may indicate it occupies the exact site of a seventh century wooden building that was associated with Felix's mission to north Suffolk. There is an information board at the site of the St Cross ruin which attempts to resolve the mystery of the two Elmhams by identifying a likely builder as Herbert de Losinga the Norman bishop of Norwich 1091-1119. As well as founding the new cathedral at Norwich, Herbert left his mark on the older seats of the bishopric. He set up a small monastery at Hoxne, and at both North and South Elmham he built special churches. These two churches have a similar plan with unusual tower bases. By the 14th century the South Elmham minster had gone out of use and in the same century the current Bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser, obtained licence to crenellate the North Elmham site. He then fortified the latter church into a double-moated castle.

Sigebert's legacy is the area of land that made up the Deanery of South Elmham and was included in the Hundred of Wangford (Wainford) along with other miscellaneous parcels of land when it was created before the Norman Conquest. The extent of the northern penetration of Felix's mission along the coastal lands of the Waveney is marked by another Saxon community named Flixton that was established in Lothingland.

Because of the role of the East Anglian kings in the the spread of Christianity along the eastern seabord of England and its making of 'saints', the county of Suffolk has long been singled out as 'Holy Suffolk'. But why was this out of the way place of South Elmham, situated on a largely featureless intractable clay plateau, chosen for a significant northern thrust of Christianity from Kent and Essex? You can find some answers to this question at 'Holy Suffolk 2'.

As a footnote to these beginnings of Christianity we may contrast what happened when the new religion had matured into a set of hard dogmas for which Suffolk folk suffered in the Reformation. The following illustration of this comes from Rev. John James Raven, Vicar of Fressingfield in 1907, describing the local impact of Lollardism emmanating from the preaching of the reformer John Wycliffe.

"An assembly of notables was gathered at South Elmham Manor in the pleasant spring weather on the eve of the Feast of SS. Philip and James, 1399. Here was the lord of that episcopal estate, Henry Spencer, Bishop of Norwich, his temper perhaps a little cooled by age and disappointment, yet impatient of contradiction, and contemptuous of his social inferiors, as ever, and John Derlyngton, his Archdeacon. With them is a predecessor of my own parish at Fressingfield, John de Rykingale, a pluralist of the period, Master of Gonvile Hall at Cambridge, sometime Chancellor of the University, who was one of the delegates to the Council of Constance, and ended his days as Bishop of Chichester in 1430. I write these words probably on the very spot where his pen was in its day active.

Before them comes the well-known William Sautre, the first of the Reformation martyrs, to recant his opinions as to adoration of the Cross, transubstantiation, and other doctrines. Though all seemed to go well, the day's work was undone afterwards, and within two years Sautre, reverting to his old opinions, stood manfully the test of the flames in London.

Bishop Spencer died in 1406, and the diocese was ruled successively by Alexander de Totyngton, Prior of Norwich, and Richard Courtenay, of the noble house of Devon. Then came an Essex man, John de Wakeryng, the last years of whose episcopate were embittered by not entirely futile efforts to repress Lollardism on the Norfolk side of the Waveney Valley.

Religious opinions are, however, too volatile to be restrained by limits, natural or artificial, and it is not surprising to find the accused appearing before Bishop Wakeryng were the predecessors of a multitude both in Norfolk and Suffolk who came before William de Alnwyk and his Chancellor, William Bernham.

A certain ' Master Robert Beete of Berry' appears early as examined upon suspicion of heresy, and there is a list of abjurers in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs of 120 names or so, from which I extract these :

Nicholas Canon of Eye; Richard Fletcher, and Matilda his wife, John Reve, Baldwine Cooper, Richard Knobbing, Richard Grace, John Eldon, all of Beccles; John Spire of Bungay; and 'The herder' of Shepemedow.'

These local people were not of the stuff of which martyrs are made, and Foxe offers the best excuse he can for their defection, as they were constrained 'to protest otherwise with their tongues than their hearts did thinke.' It is hard to imagine how he could have known anything more of these people beyond what he seems to have found in the official record of John Exeter, ` Register' of the diocese.

From this register, however, Foxe has given some precious details, as of John Skilley of ' Flixon,' miller, who was 'injoyned for penance seven yeares imprisonment in the monastery of Langley,' and for the enormity of eating flesh on Fridays he was put on a bread and water diet on Fridays during his imprisonment, and when his time was up he had to put in four appearances at the cathedral, with the other penitentiaries, two on the ensuing Ash Wednesdays, and two on the ensuing Maundy Thursdays. Like St. Paul, these bold thinkers were often `in peril among false brethren'".