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History of Herringfleet and St. Olave's
- part 2 - Saxon times


Over a thousand years ago, the tidal waters of the River Waveney lapped the highway now the Herringfleet Road. Recent excavations for a cow slurry revealed stratified layers of sand of different shades.

At sometime towards the end of the 10th. Century AD, a Viking family arrived in their long boat(s) having come through Breydon Water, and settled at Herringfleet. For a century after the Great Army of the Danes had marched and counter-marched across England 865-878 AD (St. Edmund was martyred 870) the Danes and Vikings continued to come. In 868 Lothbrock (leather-breeches) and his family were at Caistor and Reedham and he gave his name to the whole area of Lithingland - fighting, plundering, and pillaging. They were tough, cruel, enterprising, disciplined, fighting folk, but in the wake of these came more peaceable folk, driven out of Northern Europe and their ancestral homes by Germanic tribes putting on the pressure from the south. But this later wave of Vikings came not to fight, plunder, and then sail off with their booty, but were peaceable settlers. They had heard that there was good land to be had for the taking. The lack of unity among the Danish and Viking invaders spreading along the shores of the North Sea made settlement easy. And so, the Viking Blund settled at Blundeston, the Scandinavian Haddr settled at Haddiscoe (Haddr's Shogr or Wood), the Viking Sumarlithi settled at Somerleyton, all giving their names to the respective area. The family of Herela sailed up the Waveney (Wafenu = troubled waters) and found an unoccupied area along the river - and so we get "Herela-ing-flet". "Flet" = an area bordering a river, particularly a tidal water, "ing" = the sons, family, of --and "Herela" the proper name of the leader.

The name Herela was well known in Saxon times. A Herela was one of the heroes in the Anglo-Saxon Song "Widsith and Deor" the Minstrel. A branch of the family with the same name were to turn up at East and West Harling some 50 miles to the west - no doubt on stolen horses, and the name appears in Harlington (Beds), Harlton (Cambs) and on the Continent as Herrlingen.

And so the Herela family arrived - their long boat(s) about 70ft long, 16ft broad and with the draught of some 5 or 6ft, with a sail at right angles measuring some 75ft across, striking terror into the hearts of what few locals there were in these parts, with the cry still lingering in the air "From the fury of the Norsemen, Good Lord deliver us" a frequent litany of the peasants in their little timber churches of that day. If you stand with your back to the church looking across the river you will see the two possible landing places for Herela - to your left, Marsh Lane, or within the Gorge behind the old School to your right, with a strong preference for the former since at the top of Marsh Lane stood the old Saxon Manor by now impoverished or even abandoned. The Vikings were not builders, and the origin of the site is more or less proven by the fact that the Vikings' earthworks were usually of the type that cuts across a spit of land for defence and did not normally consist of a perimeter moat which was a frequent feature of Saxon settlements.

By Domesday (1086AD) the area is known as 'Herelingaflet', in the Feet of Fines (1202AD) we find 'Herlingefleth', in the Norwich Valuation of 1254 'Herlingflet' and in a Bodleian MS of c. 1255AD 'Heringflete' and so to the present 'Herringfleet' which has

nothing to do with the romantic view of herrings.


Originally built up to the second string course and thatched conically, the church tower is the oldest building remaining in the parish. With local forced labour, the foundation was dug probably to a depth of some 20ft or more and the flint courses laid,

capped by a top rim of large stones from the river bed. Not all the iron-pan found in the tower was used in this first stage, since there is a greater abundance of it in the top or second stage, suggesting that there was a pile of it standing just off site. Iron-pan was formed by geological deposits hardened on beds of sand between 20ft-27ft below the surface. When something hard was required for bonding the flints or strengthening the second structure, iron-pan was used.

The purpose of the tower may have been as a watch tower and as a stone for swords, helmets, and axes, to prevent the local peasantry from getting ideas about staging an attack upon the new arrivals. It stood on the most prominent land-rise in the parish and overlooked the river. It may also have been used as a store for locally looted silver, ornaments etc. and so became the local treasury. Domesday suggests that the whole area was impoverished but Viking raids covered a fairly wide area. To support the view that the Tower was built to its present height at two different times i.e. 980AD and 1080AD you will see that the Haddiscoe Tower is tapered with a large perimeter base tapering up to the top, the larger base to stand the weight of the completed tower. In the case of Herringfleet it is cylindrical, more or less the same diameter all the way up and without heavy quoining.

Round towers were not a new feature in the West. They appeared in Italy and Ireland as early as the 7th. Century or before. It is in the second stage of the tower that we find interesting Saxon work. More than 70 of the 170 round towers of East Anglia show evidence of Saxon work in their structure. At Herringfleet, note the double spaded windows at N.S.E.W. positions with two single round arched openings at the SW and SE positions typical of Saxon double belfry openings. With this genuine Saxon work with much billet ornament note the earliest type of Norman ornament to be introduced into England and used in Anglo Saxon settings. The double spaded windows have Saxon balusters lozenge pattern and an overhanging arch Norman fashion. The dating of this second stage is difficult but probably c. 1080AD, the probable dating of the Norman chancel and present south doorway. The Saxon stone-mason was probably itinerant. This second stage may have been used to house the bell in consequence of Athelstan's Law (King of Wessex) c. 937AD which required all thanes to erect bell towers on their estates. The Danes and Vikings had by now become largely Christianised - heathenism in settlement was yielding to a vigorous Christian Church, and there was something of a status symbol here, for any freeman with 500 acres and a church and a bell was entitled to the legal ascription 'Thane'.

We now come to the dating of the church complex - the 'traditional view' being that the lower tower was the first building free standing in the Irish/Lombard fashion. They were not necessarily adjuncts to churches - quite often it was the other way round, for the tower has specific functions and retained personalities of its own quite independent of the (sometimes) architecturally inadequate church added to them later. It is possible therefore that there was a Saxon Church in wood some distance away, to the East, and this was replaced c. 1080AD by the Norman chapel on the site of the present chancel. Perhaps the Norman slit window on the north side is original. This would account for the Norman opening on the east side of the Tower, facing directly the entrance to the Norman Chapel at its West end, and this may originally have contained the Norman doorway which is at present at the porch entrance on the south side of the nave, with its altire crosses in the abacus and a zig-zag arch. By the time of the Fitz Osberts (1216 onwards - they were great builders) there was an early English nave, the old Norman doorway being removed from the west of the Norman chapel to its present site. The tower doorway is earlier than the Fitz Osbert period in origin though conveniently incorporated into the nave later, serving as an entrance for the bellringer to do his duty, and as a vestry for silver and vestments. The bell was not only used for service times but to summon any meeting of the people, in times of emergency, and even as a clock for the peasantry to start or stop their labours. As the tower was near the highway, this made for an easy assembly point from all sides.

This 'traditional view' of the dating of the church complex has recently been challenged with the view that the flat East side of the tower losing some 3" from its thickness as compared with the West wall of the Tower, indicates that the Nave was built before the Tower and that the Nave was before 1000 AD - which means that the tower at its first stage was not freestanding. I remain, however, unashamedly unconvinced!


Chancel: width 14'7"; length (including sanctuary) 31'8"

Nave: width 17'9"; length 35'10"

Tower: height 47'; with first floor at 17', second floor 17' above that to the bell frame

which is 5'6" high; from the bell frame to the parapet 8'6".

Diameter of the first floor 11'9", at ground level 10'10"

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This page first posted on 20 April 1999