The Great Estuary: A Celtic Cradle of East Anglian Christianity

Where Great Yarmouth now stands, was once a sandbank!  Where traffic speeds to and fro along the Acle Straight and trains traverse the grazing marshes, there was open water.   Halvergate was a port!  Reedham,  Wickhampton,   Tunstall,   Acle,   Stokesby and Herringby were all seaside places and Broadland’s rivers flowed into a Great Estuary which was open to the sea.GreatE

Over the years, changes in sea level, silting of rivers, embanking and draining have created a landscape of Water, Mills and Marshes.   And all that is left of that Great Estuary are the inter-tidal mudflats of Breydon Water!

Iconic red brick towers of  Broadland’s wind pumps (The Mills) mark out a line where  flood banks separate Water and Marsh.  The outer edge of the Marsh is marked by another line of towers.  Towers that belong to heritage churches built on rising  ground.

Church distribution around the Great Estuary (in Green)

The conversion of East Anglia began in this way:

In the year 630, or thereabouts, a new king, Sigeberht by name, returned from exile in Gaul bringing with him a group of monks.  Felix, their leader, had been consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury (in the Kingdom of Kent) to be East Anglia’s first bishop.  Trained in the Celtic tradition and following the rule of St. Columbanus,  the monks’ first base is thought to have been within the walls of Walton Castle.  Now lost to the sea, Walton, was a Roman Fort close to Felix-Stowe (i.e. Felix’s- Meeting Place) ;  Sutton Hoo,  the site of King Raedwald’s (?) spectacular ship burial;  and the royal vil at Rendlesham.

In those days,  the royal court moved from place to place, and some of the monks moved with them.   In the south of the kingdom,  Felix founded a church in Soham,  close to the royal vill at Exning.   Later, the double monastery at Ely,  was established just across the water from Soham; and, a further monastery was established by St. Botolph at Iken, close to Rendlesham.

The pattern of early monasteries established close to royal vills is known in other places too.   In Northumbria,  the juxtaposition of the royal vill at Bamborough, St. Aidan’s monastery on Holy Island and St. Cuthbert’s hermitage on the Farne Islands is widely known and celebrated.  And there were many connections between the kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumberland.  Famously  Etheldreda, the daughter of Sigeberht’s successor, King Anna, was Queen of Northumbria before becoming the first abbess of Ely.

Several sources record that St.Felix founded two churches on the shores of the Great Estuary – at Reedham and Loddon.   Like Rendlesham and Exning,  Loddon was royal vill.  Felix’s original church was almost certainly made of wood.   Subsequent stone buildings built over it,  have masked the archaeological record;  but,  in all likelihood,  the present church occupies the same spot in the landscape, overlooking the marshes  and the River Chet.

h Holy Trinity Church, LoddonReedham is a little over 3 miles,  as the crow flies or the boat sails,  from Loddon.  Recent archaeology has confirmed that the present-day church was built over a Roman fort in which Felix had established his base.  7th Century missionaries favoured abandoned Roman buildings!

St.John the Baptist Church, Reedham

Felix was not alone in his missionary work,  help was at hand.  St.Fursey and his brothers established their base at Burgh Castle,  the Roman Saxon Shore Fort,  a little over 3 miles to the south-east of Reedham.   7th Century missionaries favoured abandoned Roman buildings!   We can imagine missionary monks from both of these waterside monasteries using the Broads’ river system to take their message up-river.

Burgh Castle

Close to Reedham and across the river from Loddon,  Limpenhoe church, is  dedicated to St. Botolph,  who we have already encountered at Iken.   A local tradition claims that the church was founded by Botolph,  who famously founded churches elsewhere –  in Boston in Lincolnshire and and as far afield as Sussex and Yorkshire.  The pattern of churches dedicated to him in east Norfolk suggests it was one of his chosen mission areas.  In which case,  Limpenhoe,  close to the royal vill at Loddon,  would have provided a convienient home from home.

Romanesque south door of St. Boltolph, Limpenhoe

Like Felix and Fursey,  Botolph was a monk of Celtic tradition and his name suggests he was related to the East Anglian royal family.  He had trained at the Frankish Monastery of Faramoutiers; which,  much like Ely and Hild’s famous monastery at Whitby,  was a double monastery,  with separate houses for monks and nuns.  It had close links with the East Anglia.  Two, royal sisters of Etheldreda of Ely were nuns at Faramoutiers and succeeded one another as abbess.

The inter-connections between the royal families and monastic houses of the Merovingian kingdoms of Europe,  East Anglia,  Northumberland,  Kent and,  later,  Essex were many and various.   Hild’s sister,  Hereswith,  married into the East Anglian royal family and would have been known at Loddon.   Her son,  Ealdwulf,  reigned as King of East Anglia, between 664 and 714  and was a contemporary of Botolph.

So,  emerges a picture of The Great Estuary, connected by sea lanes to the east coast of kingdoms of England and Christian Europe beyond by sea lanes; and to the interior of East Anglia by the  Broads’ river system.  The Celtic Cradle of Norfolk’s Christian Faith.  (to be continued.)

A Prelude to the Conversion of East Anglia

Copyright © Richard Woodham 2018

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