POCKET HISTORIES OF SUFFOLK PARISHES.
No. 197 SOUTH ELMHAM ST. CROSS.

Nine parishes, forming one township; such is how the various villages commonly called 'The Saints" were originally styled. This particular article, however, deals entirely with South Elmham St. Cross, as it is now called, although at one time in its history it was known as South Elmham St. George and South Elmham Sancroft, the latter name occurring through the fact that "anciently the noble family of Sancroft had an estate here."
But what of St. Cross at the present time? Is it a parish teeming with interest, a village with many attractive features, a place of an importance beyond the ordinary? To give a definite answer is impossible, but we can state with every regard to facts that the St. Cross of to-day, even despite its close proximity to a railway station and its excellent 'bus service seems to be situated in a district apparently remote from the outside world; a village, in very truth, lonely enough and unfrequented, with all around the spreading Suffolk countryside so apparently uninhabited that a wayside habitation is often the only sign of civilisation. And the village itself possess nothing but a number of farmhouses and a cottage or two, one at least in a tumbledown condition, and others sturdy and solid, weatherworn and firm, all of them, however, mostly old and stained by rain and years. As for the church here, this perpetuates the ancient name of the village - or at least one of the names through the fact that it is dedicated to St. George, and one way of reaching the building is by a bridge spanning a muddy stream, by whose banks bullocks are browsing, and by following the course of this stream the visitor eventually reaches the place of worship itself, passing, as he does so, the thatched cottages near by, and finding himself gazing upon fruitful cornfields and lush meadows.

According to most accounts, the church of St. George, which possesses chancel, nave, South porch and embattled Western tower, was erected somewhere towards the latter part of the 12th century, and a fine specimen of the Norman style of architecture can be seen in the inner doorway of the South porch. Originally, however, a North aisle was attached, and traces of this are obvious, especially in the blocked-up Norman doorway.

Whilst mentioning this, it is perhaps as well to deprecate the fact that so many of our ancient church entrances-in Suffolk, at any rate- have been filled in, for it seems somewhat peculiar that the restorers of different periods have found it necessary to perform such a task. A reason may of course, have existed, but such is certainly not apparent at the present time.

Of the interior of the church of St. George, one can truthfully state that it contains nothing of any particular note, that is, with the exception of the beautiful clerestory windows, for this, again, is one of those buildings which has suffered a considerable amount of renovation. For instance, the floor is tiled and the benches are new, but fortunately in the North wall can be seen one survival of the past, this being the staircase which formerly led to the rood-loft, and which in itself seems to lend that atmosphere of other days which invariably adds an appearance of dignity to any place of worship.

Just inside the South porch is a recess, which may or may not have been at one time a piscina, and an excellent example of the latter exists in the South wall of the chancel. Also, the pulpit is nicely carved, whilst on the font are the excellently preserved depictions of angels holding shields, and lions, whilst lions also support the stem.

Mention has been made of the renovation which has occurred, and in this connection we find that the building was thoroughly repaired, reseated and also enlarged in 1841, further restoration occurring nearly fifty years later.

Several monuments belonging to the seventeenth century can be noticed in the chancel, including one to Easter, wife of John Gleane, and whose death occurred in 1657. This bears the type of inscription fairly common to the period, and yet one which is ever fresh despite the passing of so many years, showing as it does in doggerel verse the sentiments of a husband who has lost not only a wife but a comrade:

"Whoever knowes or heares whose sacred bones
Doe rest within these monumentall stones,
How deare a Mother and how sweet a wief,
If he has bowells cannot for his life,
But on(e) her ashes must some tears distill,
For if men will not weepe the marble will."_

Surely an echo of human grief resounding through the ages!

But now it is time to leave the church of St George, and to wander some distance in search of another interesting item, and this we discover in the shape of what can practically be called a heap of ruins, and yet a mass of masonry pregnant with tradition. This particular survival, in fact, is all that remains of what is commonly known as the "Old Minster," and in this we apparently find a link with the days of both the haughty Roman and the ruder Saxon. For the “Old Minster” is built on a site which has associations with both of these old-time conquering races, at least, so tradition has averred, although in this particular instance radition has something more than mere supposition to support its theories.

First of all, however, it is as well to notice that the site of this building was formerly a Roman camp, and consisted of something in the region of three and a half acres, whilst the fact that it was erected a short distance from the road running between the great cities Dunwich and Norwich proves it to have been a place of strategic importance, to which faint traces of a moat lend a certain amount of colouring. But the conquering Romans had been withdrawn after centuries of occupation; their story, as far as Britain was concerned, had lost interest; their colonising efforts were a thing of the past when the building, which to-day is only recognised by a mass of creeper-grown ruins came into being.

For apparently it was a common practice for our Saxon forbears to seize upon a place where the Roman legions had encamped, had reared their earthwork, had set their guards, and to raise upon the old-time warrior site a religious establishment. And this is what happened at South Elmham St. Cross for undoubtedly the ruins now known as the "Old Minster" were erected by comparatively uncouth Saxon hands on the exact spot where the Roman soldiers had stood their ground in the years gone by.

But what exactly was this ancient place of worship? Certainly an imposing building, if ever one existed, for its measurements are stated to have been over a hundred feet in length and above thirty wide, with walls of from three to four feet in thickness, and the stones which provided these same walls were, naturally enough, of considerable size. Consisting of three parts, the building, according to one writer on the subject, appears never to have been completed, but, in any case, it was certainly a structure containing many magnificent and striking features. Also, apart from its general appearance, it possesses an extraordinary amount of interest, for here we find a link with the very beginning of Christanity in the Eastern Counties, or so, at least, is the story. For, as everybody knows, or should know, the man who first attained the dignity of becoming the Bishop of the East Angles was he who was known as Felix the Burgundian a brilliant missionary, if ever one existed, for it was Felix who, by his powers of eloquence, by his remarkable personality, by his steadfast, belief in the Faith, was able to convert the inhabitants of our own particular district. Because of this, Felix of Burgundy was afterwards recognised as an English saint, with his festival annually celebrated on the eighth day of March.And the connection of St. Felix with the “Old Minster” of South Elmham St.Cross is easily explained, for this is believed to perpetuate one of his first labours, as he is supposed to have been responsible for the erection of the original building. Also that it was a place of more than ordinary importance is obvious, for after Felix became the Bishop of the East Angles, and was seated at Dunwich, another Bishop was created, with his headquarters at Elmham.

Within a short distance of South Elmham St. Cross is South Elmham St. Margaret's, where there exists a building, now known as the Hall, and with which I hope to deal in a further article. Here, however, was anciently the residence of the Bishops of Norwich, and the fact that some of the ruins connected with this, although in the grounds of South Elmham St. Margaret's Hall, are yet within the boundaries of South Elmham St. Cross, brings them into the scope of this particular narrative. Extensive they are in very truth, pathetic somewhat in their neglected condition, and yet still retaining somewhat of that dignity, something of the imposing nature one associates with such places, and which never fails to make the heart beat faster and to stir the senses.

So this tiny village of Saint Cross possesses its compensations. Apparently miles from anywhere, well off the beaten track, unknown to many natives of Suffolk even, it can boast associations almost without equal. To-day, of course, it would be foolish to visit it with any idea of seeing something beyond the ordinary. Its general aspect is quiet enough and serene enough, and certainly lacking any striking features. Even the grey little church, by the side of the dawdling brook, has very few items, with the exception of its Norman workmanship, to invite attention, and yet its story is one with many strange interludes.

The "Old Minster," set within a few miles of one of the great roads of Roman Britain, can still thrill the senses and stir the imagination, always providing that imagination is allowed full rein. Before the newly converted Saxons, having cast aside their gods of wrath, erected on its site a mighty temple in honour of their new faith, swaggering Roman soldiery, lording it over a conquered race, made it a place of advantage against surprise attacks. Here they feasted, probably quarrelled amongst themselves, but always were ready for action, even although in their aggressive insolence they felt there was nothing to fear. Here, later on Felix of Burgundy, or so the story goes, reared that monumental temple, the ruins of which even today exist, and in the doing has left behind a memory, which, although, alas! almost dead, yet draws the attention of diffident eyes, if only for a second or two, and brings to notice the struggles of Christianity’s early pioneers, when the foundations of England’s future glories were being slowly but surely laid.

Yeoman
Reprinted from the Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury, October 10th, 1930


St Cross Directories