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The Founding of a Norfolk Village

(An Abbreviated History of Litcham - ???-1412)

Distant Beginnings

The men who chose the site for their new village of Litcham were attracted by the stream which runs a leisurely course in the middle of a wide valley with gentle slopes.  Above the level of the highest flood-mark they cleared away thicket and scrub for their arable fields of loamy soil which yielded rye, wheat and barley, the former a staple food, the latter to make a favourite drink.   On the uplands they pastured their sheep, woods provided acorns and mast for swine while the river watered their cattle.

Radiating from the village there grew a number of paths, those leading to the common fields were worn by the feet of men on their way to daily toil, others were flattened out by the hooves of cattle searching out greener meadows on the further bank.

Where the gravelly soil was firm other pathways grew until they merged with similar paths from adjacent villages.  With use these became deeply rutted tracks, as G.K. Chesterton put it "The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English roads", although it is more likely that the lanes were shaped to avoid boggy ground.

The Weasenham, Wellingham and Tittleshall roads grew from ancient tracks to three shared arable fields on the higher ground, while parallel with the river ran the highway to Lexham, in the east, and westwards to Mileham.  The path fording the river to the South Common has developed into Dunham and Dereham roads and has long been bridged.

From the fifth century Anglo-Saxons invaders brought with them a co-operative agricultural system. Arable land was divided into three common fields that were in turn divided into acre strips, this being as much one man could plough in a day.  Each strip consisted of four roods (quarter of an acre) and each rood being one "furrow long" (from whence comes ‘furlong1) by one rod2.  These acre strips were separated not by hedges but by "baulks3" or pathways of unturned sod, the acres being grouped into "shots", the width of a furlong.

On stiff soil a full plough team was eight oxen, few, except the Thane or Lord owned this number, so villages pooled their resources  sharing the land and work between them.  A rule of thumb developed that meant the ploughman had the first strip, the second went to the owner of the irons, the third and fourth to the owners of the oxen and fifth to the driver.

This system, which lasted until the 19th century, meant all tenants shared in the good and bad land. The Litcham Inclosure map of 1760 gives the names of the three fields as High House, Tittleshall Field and Mileham Field.  The term "Dele" or ‘dole’ is another word that suggests a share of land.  Hence on record is East Whetland Dele furlong; Gallowe Dele furlong and Stonehill Dele furlong.

Invasion! Anglo-Danish  Litcham

From the ninth century Danish raiders started colonising parts of southern Britain so that by the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) Litcham had become an Anglo-Danish  village that had been  divided into two estates;

  • One owned by the Anglo-Danish Thane, Turchetal, (‘cauldron of thunder’) that later became known as Easthall Manor.

  • The second, the Manor of Netherhall, a corn farm that was part of Mileham and owned by Stigand, Anglo-Saxon archbishop of Canterbury.

So what was Litcham like 950 years ago when Turchetal, , was in charge?

The record in the Domesday Book gives us only the bare bones of the matter but luckily we have other evidence to add a little flesh.

Turchetal was the owner of more than 1000 acres in a dozen different estates in Norfolk and had a hall at Wirmegay besides his one here in Litcham.  In his manor of ‘Lecham’ he had 540 acres under the plough of which 360 were in this Parish; 120 in Rougham and 60 in Weasenham Torp.  Manors often extended into other parishes.  The watermill was his and he had a half interest in the church that was endowed with 4 acres of glebe land.

He owned eight oxen and a quarter interest in the Thorp market. He had one Free Tenant, Fulbert, who farmed 120 acres at Finchams Farm, Rougham and who owned half a plough team of oxen.  Fulbert was a priest who later on lived in Norwich.

Lord Turchetal had a labour force consisting of four geneats (later known as villeins by the Normans), four boors or bordars and four slaves  (thralls or serfs). For the ploughing of his acres he commanded two plough teams, consisting of 16 oxen, whereas his poor tenants ploughed co-operatively making do with one team of 8 oxen between them.  If he wished to, Turchetal could take any of his slaves and their womenfolk to Bristol where there was a flourishing slave market.  Many were “exported” to Ireland.  A good slave was worth keeping however, and a sound male slave fetched two pounds sixteen shillings in the days of Ethelred.  Although the chastity of the enslaved womenfolk was preserved and their right to live honoured, Turchetal had enormous powers over his men.

The church may have been built with timber like many other colonial churches or even flint, did it have a square tower like Dunham church or a round tower as at Lexham?  We may never know as the original was rebuilt as the village grew in importance giving us the present construction fashioned by 14th and 15th workmanship.

If we could go back and stand in Turchetals small church we would hear the mass intoned not in Latin but in the native tongue and our ear might even have picked out a few words of the Lords Prayer.

      “ Faeder ure, si thin mama ge halgod” - Father of ours, let thy name be hallowed

     ” Forgyf us ure gyltas” - forgive us our guilt, and so on till it finished with the words;

     ” si it swa”  -  so it shall be.

In fact the great king Alfred, who finding no one south of the Thames who could interpret the service since the Danish invasions, translated it into Anglo-Saxon.

Proceeding from the church (not All Saints) we would probably have seen a village that consisted of a wide street and central open area (market place?), around which lay a group of timber or wattle and daub huts (mud and straw) coloured by a wash of saffron or blue woad.  There would be wisps of smoke curling lazily through a central hole in each thatched roof and each house would have been set within an enclosure of up to an acre or so and surrounded by a flint or mud wall according to the owners status.

On a weekday we would have seen the villagers at work in the open fields and on the higher ground at the top of the village, ”swinking and sweating “ at their toil as they goaded the oxen in the Lord’s teams.  Later after the Lords land had been dealt with villagers worked on their own strips in the common fields that extended to the edge of the forest.

The Freemen of Litcham

It became the custom in Norman times for sons to inherit the same strips as their fathers had worked before them.  If the Lord proved a harsh tyrant a bondsman could escape to a walled  town, there to become a freeman if he could find employment and remain uncaught for a year and a day.

Many of these were the descendants of the Danes who resented the new oppressive regime and many of these were forced back from their freedom into the un-free class.  These independent free spirited types valued their freedom above all else and the Normans found them hard to control.

We know that just before the Norman Conquest there were just three Freemen living in Litcham. They worked the meagre strips of land they were lucky enough to own. Between them had a just four acres and they made do with just two oxen, sufficient for only light ploughing.  Compare this with the then ‘Lord of the Manor’, the Anglo-Saxon Thane Turchetal, who owned more than 1000 acres spread over a dozen different estates across Norfolk and who also had his hall at Wormegay.

Another estate in Litcham (a corn farm) was owned by Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury and was a sub-manor, dependant upon Mileham at the time.  Although these two estates were 60 acres smaller than Turchetal’s, they had more men and 9 plough-teams between them.

Although there was no hard and fast rule Free Tenants generally paid lower rents to the manorial Lord and were subject to fewer laws and ties than ‘villeins’.  Bond Tenants on the other hand were unable to leave the estate without the Lord's consent and on death their holding and loaned tools were returned to the Lord.  Any successors had to pay a fine or “heriot” to retain these; this would commonly have been their best ox.  In Litcham these fines were negotiable but in other manors they were often fixed, as was the case in Beeston where the heriot was set at a ploughshare and remained so for centuries.  Amazingly these manorial heriots were not abolishes until 1925.

The Founding of the Litcham Manors (or A Tale of Two Manors)

I  - Hermerus de Ferraris  and Easthall

After the Norman invasion the new King (William I) gave Turchetal’s lands to Hermerus de Ferraris, who historian George Munford described  as “violent and tyrannical” and noted that of all the invading Norman Barons he was probably “the largest unlawful invader of the lands of freemen in the country”.  There are 33 cases on record where Ferraris usurped freemen of their holdings including one in Lawingham (Longham).

His Litcham Estate now became known as the Manor of Easthall and and at the time of the Doomeday book, twenty years after the conquest the population was given as 265 souls, of which five were classed as Freemen working their own land.  The ‘Manor’, however, showed some deterioration since the invasion, as it seems to have lost one geneat or villein, one boor or bordar and one slave or servus.  (These three terms are references, first in Anglo-Saxon and then Norman, to lowly farm peasants).  Cattle had also dwindled from nine to three and there were now eight oxen less to plough and, according to the Domesday Book, the tenants had lost four of their nine plough. The only successful man appears to have been the shepherd who had increased his flock from 200 to 220.

The other thing that increased with the arrival of the Normans was taxation; up by 10 shillings to 50 shillings and the new King took a share of the market. 

Although both the Easthall and Netherhall manor houses no longer exist the former is commemorated in the name Easthall or Hasel Green, an area that lies to the east of the village to the south of the Mileham Road.  All but forgotten today and not marked on modern maps the name was still in use in 1830 when it is named as one of five commons owned by John Collison.

Three side of the moat at Netherhall still exist and it is marked on modern OS maps, just to the west of Church Street and as the name suggests, at the lower or ‘nether’ end of the village.  A third manor, Stanhowehall, was a sub-division of Netherhall.

II - Alain fitz Flaad, Mileham Castle and Netherhall

Initially William I kept a large swathe of land in Norfolk for himself, this included Hunstanton and Mileham which included as it’s sub-manor Netherhall.  The King’s Bailiff therefore took over Stigand’s at Mileham which this was now called the Manor of Netherhall and was included under Mileham for tax purposes.

In 1101 Henry I gave this land to Alan fitz Flaad, a Breton knight who was invited to England by the new King soon after he came to the throne to look after the troublesome Welsh border at Oswestry. Flaad spent some time improving the castle here spending over £2000 on among other things palisades and a well.

Flaad, also know as Fitz-Alan, decided to build a castle at Mileham, did he think Norfolk folk would prove as troublesome as the Welsh?

One of Norfolk’s the largest Motte-and-bailey castles, it was built astride the main Lynn to Norwich road, probably to raise revenue through tolls from travellers.  Unusually for the time the Motte is built up around a stone keep, prompting some to suppose that the mound was already in existence during Anglo-Saxon times and therefore the earthworks were settled enough to form the foundation for a heavy structure. The keep is complemented by two baileys and a banked area to the north of the road that may possible have been used for a market and which now contains Burwood Hall.  Little remains today except the ten foot thick foundations enclosing the subterranean dungeon. Holding Mileham as mesne-tenants were Flaads fellow countrymen and comrades-in-arms, our old friends the Le Stranges mentioned in the last article.

Alan, decribed in 1135 and as “valiant and illustrious man” was also responsible for founding the Benedictine Piory at Sporl.  He granted a small group of monks the Church of St. Mary’s ‘free of all claims’ and the land of ‘two ploughs’, (about 97 hectares) in both Mileham and Sporle.  The Priory is mentioned in records of 1123 as a possession of the Abbey of St. Florent, Anjou, France.

Alan’s younger son Walter did rather well for himself, he went to Scotland with exiled Scottish Lord, David of Hunstanton, and helped him lay claim to the Scottish throne.  Walter’s reward was to appointed ‘High Steward of Scotland’ by the new King, David I of Scotland.  The moniker ‘Steward’ transmogrified first into Stewart and then into the french form Stuart and eventually in 1190 we find Walter’s direct heir ascending to the Scottish throne as Robert II. (Please don’t tell the Scots this they like to think their Kings were direct descendants of very Scottish, but possibly mythical, Banquo).  Eventually, of course, the Stuarts became Kings of both England and Scotland under James I and II, but that’s another tale...

Despite being the Sherriff of Shropshire, Alain fitz Flaad is recorded as dying in Norfolk around 1114 , perhaps he preferred the quieter life among the less aggressive Norfolk folk, who were probably less like to set fire to his home?

A Le Strange Tale

Like the Danish Thane Turchetel, whose lands he had taken, Ferraris based himself at Wirmegay.  His extensive estates included the Litcham Manor of Easthall, which he gave to his grandchild Ela and her husband Ralf L’Estrange. Eventually due to a lack of male heir’s Hermer’s estates passed to the de Warrens and then the Bardolfs.  However, all this while the L’Estranges remained tenants, and thus Lords of the Manor, at Easthall.

Alain fitz Flaad, the overlord of Mileham, while busy looking after the Welsh at Oswastry, placed his Norfolk estates into the care of fellow crusader Roland Le Strange.  In turn these passed to ‘John Le Strange I’ of Hunstanton and Mileham’ who gave his interest in Netherhall to his third brother Ralf, he who married Ela de Ferraris.  Thus through a rather circuitous route the Litcham became united under one Lord.

Members of the Le Strange family continued as tenants of the Litcham Manors until the early 14th Century.  In 1260 John Le Strange III divided the Manors between his daughter Alice and son Robert, and a new sub-manor of Stanowehall was formed for Alice’s daughter Ela when she married Sir John Harvey of Stanhowe. It is mentioned in records of 1479 and is thought to have been in the vicinity of the current Litcham Hall.  John’s son, Robert, held Netherhall and like many of his generation he was making preparation to go on the Crusades in 1271, whether he went or not seems open to debate but there is general agreement that he died in 1276.

Although both the Easthall and Netherhall manor houses no longer exist the former is commemorated in the name Easthall or Hasel Green, an area that lies to the east of the village to the south of the Mileham Road.  All but forgotten today and not marked on modern maps the name was still in use in 1830 when it is named as one of five commons owned by John Collison.

Three side of the moat at Netherhall still exist and it is marked on modern OS maps, just to the west of Church Street in, as the name suggests, the lower or ‘nether’ end of the village.  

John Le Strange III died 1305 and was the last Le Strange of Litcham for when Robert’s son, also a Robert, arrived in 1297 to take up residence in Litcham he came bearing the name of Felton.

The Feltons

Robert took the name of Felton when Edward I knighted him and his brother William for their part in defending England's northern border.  Traditionally a knight would take his name from a nearby place and in our case they chose Felton, a smallish village near Alnwick in Northumberland.

The Feltons therefore bore the same coat of arms as the Le Strange family, of two Lions ‘passant’ on a red background.  Which, as was traditional, was derived from that of their over-Lord, Alan Fitz Flaad who’s coat of arms was a golden lion rampant also on a red background (the red background signifies a warrior).  His ‘vassal’, John Le Strange I, therefore chose two lions passant for his coat of arms and the somewhat aggressive motto ‘mihi parta tueri’ (I will fight for what is mine).  When Robert arrived in Litcham a helm had been added possibly to indicate his now elevated status.

Taking an interest in improving Litcham’s lot Robert was granted a weekly market in 1297 and a yearly Fayre on the ‘day and the morrow on the feast of All Saints’, he also had ‘the free warren’, that is the right to hawking and hunting in his domain.

Robert’s son, also as was usual a Robert, had, like his father, knightly duties to the King defending the realm which unfortunately led to his death at Bannockburn in 1314.

His heir John had a son, Thomas, who became very famous fighting the French.  Records show he was paid four shillings a day at the battle of Crecy and he was famously part of the 8,000 Englishmen who defeated 60,000 French at Poitiers 1356.  Now the English had reversed 1066!

Thomas Felton spent a lot of time in France and Spain and gained fame along with his kinsman, William, who was known as “Felleton Guilliam qui ot coeur de lyon” or ‘William the Lionheart’.  To this day their heroic deeds are remembered at Alvarez in Alava on a mound known as “Inglesmund” (the Englishmen’s Mound).  Sir Thomas bore for arms the familiar two lions but the helmet had now sprouted a pair of wings and a gold crown, the Feltons, it seems were still going up in the world!

Further French battles found him a captive, and it was his second wife, Lady Joan de Somery who ensured his release by using her influence with King Richard II.  Felton was made a knight of the blue garter in 1381 and his coat of arms, the same that grace the Litcham sign today, are still on view at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.

He died in May 1381 and the Feltons ceased in Litcham when Joan died in early 1400.

The Black Death

While at the beginning of 2012 we hear of a new strain of T.B. in India that is resistant to current drugs we can at least rest assured that we have an effective vaccine to prevent a repeat of the 100million plus worldwide deaths caused by ‘Yesinia pestis’ (The Black Death).  Beginning in 1340s in China and lasting three centuries with an estimated mortality rate of between 30% and 60%.

Apart from it’s well known progression in rat fleas via Marseille through the London ports, the plague also arrived here in Norfolk at Yarmouth and also Hunstanton where 63 men and 15 women died during the initial outbreak in September and October 1349, followed by a further 172 deaths in the following six months. 

In East Anglia and especially Norfolk the pestis coincided with two years (1347/8) of violent and prolonged rains.  The corn lay rotting in the fields and cattle died in droves resulting in crop failure and famine.  The weakened health of the peasant population was an easy target for the bacterium.  The illness took the form of egg sized boils under the armpits or groin, coughing and spiting of blood was accompanied with inflammation of the windpipe and a raging fever, ushering in death within a hours, 4 days at most. 

Whole families perished until there were too few to bury the dead or keep the Manorial Court Rolls.  Despite this one set of records was still maintained without fail, the the Diocesan Registers.  Thus, we know that in 1349 “New Parsons were instituted in no less than 21 out of 23 parishes including East and West Lexham, Gt and Lt Dunham, Kempston, Wellingham, Godwick, Rougham and Weasenham which surround Litcham.  At Brisley, Kempston, Wellingham, and Rougham, not only the parson died but also his successor! At Horningtoft three died; the last not being replaced until the following year.  In Litcham, Roger Godewyk, the rector was replaced by William Knyghtelee on October 6th 1349.” (Eric Puddy)

Some of the Parishes were filled with a new Parson in great haste even in those hellish days due to the dread of the Pope immediately filling the vacancy with an Italian Priest.  In the 14th Cent there was such a feeling of insecurity both among those who had the right of patronage and the candidates for benefices that a panic ensued to prevent any foreigners being sent from Rome.

This depopulation meant a huge shortage of agricultural labour and peasant villeins escaped their villages selling their labour to the highest bidder.  This was stopped by an Act of Parliament that fixed wages at a lower rate than those before the plague, sewing the seed of national discontent that culminated in Wat Tyler’s ‘Peasants Revolt’ of 1381. 

Rebuilding of All Saints Church, Litcham: 1400-1412

When Richard Rokel of Snettisham became the Rector of All Saints in 1379 thirty years had passed since the Black Death.  During Richard’s ministry a great restoration took place in the growing market village of Litcham.  Notably, he managed this a full seven years before the repairs to St. Nicholas at Lynn in 1419.

One of the reasons was the increasing importance of guilds, which alongside the new boom created following the great plague, became an important feature of town and village life.  The guilds were both religious and commercial in their character and as the guilds importance grew so they sought side-chapels where the guild’s chaplains could say masses for the souls of their faithful and departed members.  It was this need and desire for processions that led to the addition of side aisles in many churches around which the congregation could ‘process’.

Thus it was that soon after the turn of century William Hindley was engaged as a master mason to make substantial improvements Litcham All Saints.  A total of fourteen Free Masons set up their ‘Lodge’ against the wall of the church and lived there during the ten or so years it took them to complete their task.  Skillful and meticulous craftsmen the Mason’s had a strict quality-control system. Once a stone had been carved it was passed to the ‘Master’ or ‘Lodge Warden’ for inspection before the mason was allowed to add their individual ‘bencher’ or ‘masons’ mark, which showed not only the amount of work done but also who had done it.  Many of these ‘benchmarks’ may still be viewed in the church today.

We should not forget the work the rough masons, wallers, layers and setters, generally drawn from local craftsmen, whose highly skilled work is still evident to this day.

The church was rebuilt in the latest fashio, the chancel was rebuilt and the Church broadened by the addition of north and south aisles in which new windows in the perpendicular style we installed with Hindley’s imaginative trademark of St. Andrew’s cross in the head of each side light.

By 1411 the workers handed over to glaziers and carpenters and great celebrations were held by the band of Free Masons who roasted their pigs in the lodge, enjoying cakes and ale.  600 years on we look forward to celebrating ourselves when, on June 17th the bishop of Norwich, and again on the feast of St. Botolphs, will celebrate and give thanks for all those who through the years who have helped to keep All Saints preserved for us all.

The Litcham Cryptogram - A Holy Message From The Past?

Carved into a pillar in all Saint’s Church is one of the most puzzling examples of medieval graffiti, known as the Litcham Cryptogram it has been the subject of much debate and its’ true meaning remains a mystery to this day.  Since Eric Puddy wrote about this most intriguing feature of our church many experts have struggled to decipher it, originally thought to have been the work of a pilgrim on his way to Walsingham recent research has more or less dismissed this interpretation.

If it is a Holy message why disguise it with an inscription that makes no sense? It could be of course be that our fervent discussion and reference to it is exactly what was hoped for, so that we never forget, but who or what are we remembering?

The inscription is cut significantly deeper than surrounding graffiti and written in a late medieval hand (1300-1500). However the style is unusual as the letters are squashed together with one being used as the beginning of another making a definitive interpretation difficult.

It is usually interpreted as ‘mmwyke baumburgh’ with the letters ‘a s .j. m a y’ added later by another hand running above. Puddy, and others, suggest the upper letters translate as ‘anima salv. jesu. maria a yosephu’;- save  (my) soul Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  The lower line, starts with ‘mm’, which is thought be shorthand for ‘memento mori’ (in memory of the dead).

An Essex archivist wrote to Puddy reminding him that the Felton’s came from Northumberland close to the area of Bamburgh Castle, so perhaps the Cryptogram refers to an event that did not occur in Norfolk at all?  Oddly the derivation for the word Wyke and Felton are very alike. In the “Painswick Chronicle” wyke is described as a “dairy farm” while the old English derivation of Felton is fell tun or fell farm.  Sir William Felton took charge of Bamburgh castle in 1316 and in 1463, during the Wars of the Roses, Lord Montague and his elder brother Warwick attacked the castle with cannon fire (one of the first such attacks), many hundreds perished, adding to the estimated 100,000+ souls who died during this bitter war.  A nine-month siege followed which was ended by subterfuge in July 1464.

It should also be noted that it was Sir John Felton, governor of nearby Alnwick Castle who introduced Roger de Godwyk of Aylsham as the new rector of Litcham in 1319 at around the time of the Black Death.  The Rev’d Godwyk died in 1349, so here we have yet another possible reason to remember thousands of lost souls. 

The Holy message if interpreted as above may be prompting us to remember those who perished at Bamburgh Castle or maybe the millions who died in the Great Plague, perhaps prompting us to dwell upon our own mortality and be thankful (to God) that we are still on this earth, for the time being at least!.

Vicar or Rector, what’s the difference?

Have you ever wondered why do we find Rectories in some villages and Vicarages in others? A local example is Kempston, which for many years had a vicarage while Litcham boasted much grander Rectory. The answer is buried in our history…

When the great Earls founded religious establishments it became the custom for their relatives and vassals to make gifts (endowments) of land and manorial tithes and churches, to new foundations.  Alan fitz Flaald, Lord of Mileham and Netherhall gave Castle Acre Monastery land and an orchard in Kemistuna (Kempston) while John le Strange gave six acres in Litcham. Agnes, wife of Ralph l’Strange, following the example of her overlord William de Warren, who founded the Monastery, gave two shillings a year and William’s steward, Wirmer, gave the tithes and Church of Kemptston ‘in it’s entirety’.

The monks of Castle Acre therefore took on the responsibility of providing for the souls of Kempston, which they achieved by appointing a Vice-Rector or Vicar.  As the Monks received all of the tithes or benefices they were the Rectors (or rulers) and their priest at Kempston, who received a third of the tithes, was known as a ‘Vicar’ as his duties were discharged “vicariously” on behalf of the monks.

Litcham, All Saints was never given to any ecclesiastical body and therefore our priest remained a Rector, receiving all his tithes and living in a Rectory, whereas at Kempston the priest lived in a Vicarage.

The earliest priest we know in ‘Lucheham’ as it was known in 1157 is William who is referred to as a Chaplain.  The first recorded ‘rector’ (about 1299) was Nicholas de Durdant who gave Gilbert de Beaupre several villeins and their families to work the glebe land for benefit of the church and community.

From 1319 institutional books record every rector of Litcham right through to this day. We now live in an age of team ministries where the Rector, now known as the Priest-in-Charge has team which can include vicars or curates (trainee clergy) officiating at the several churches in their charge.  But still our priest lives in a Rectory, although it is not quite as grand as it once was.

To be continued...

Highlights from Eric Puddy’s 1957 book “History of a Mid-Norfolk Village”

Edited by David Sheppard, Chair Litcham Historical Society



  1. 1.From whence comes the term ‘furlong

  2. 2.1 Rod = 5.5 yards, also known as a ‘pole’ or ‘perch

  3. 3.Something left untouched, this led to the word's current meaning a hindrance or check.

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