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Site of St Helen's Church with adjacent earthworks and holy well

A Scheduled Monument in Santon Downham, Suffolk

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Latitude: 52.4535 / 52°27'12"N

Longitude: 0.7063 / 0°42'22"E

OS Eastings: 583989.789272

OS Northings: 287388.318487

OS Grid: TL839873

Mapcode National: GBR QBG.5CW

Mapcode Global: VHKC5.6L7J

Entry Name: Site of St Helen's Church with adjacent earthworks and holy well

Scheduled Date: 25 April 1962

Last Amended: 5 March 1997

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1015257

English Heritage Legacy ID: 21426

County: Suffolk

Civil Parish: Santon Downham

Traditional County: Norfolk

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Suffolk

Church of England Parish: Thetford St Cuthbert

Church of England Diocese: Norwich


The remains of St Helen's Church stand on a promontary overlooking the River
Little Ouse 70m to the south and more level ground to the west. The site lies
on the modern parish boundary between Lynford to the west and Thetford to the
east. The monument includes within a single area the buried remains of the
church, earthworks which include a ditch and banks partly enclosing the west
end of the church and the area beyond it, and a spring traditionally known as
a holy well which is situated in an adjacent chalk pit.

The site of the church is marked by a roughly rectangular, grass covered mound
with maximum dimensions of c.35m by c.10.5m, aligned on a WNW-ESE axis. The
surface of the mound is uneven and rises at the eastern end. Limited
excavations conducted by the Norfolk Research Committee in 1961-62 have
demonstrated that the mound covers the lower walls and masonry footings of a
church c.27.5m in length and c.8m in width, containing a nave, probably with a
tower at the western end, and an apsidal chancel c.8m in length. The walls are
c.1m thick except at the western end, where the foundations thought to have
supported the tower are both wider and deeper, and at the eastern end they
still stand to a height of c.1m and are rendered internally and externally
with plaster. They are constructed chiefly of mortared flint rubble and chalk
blocks, originally with dressings of Barnack stone, fragments of which were
found in the excavations, in addition to impressions in the mortar where
ashlar had been removed. The building has been dated to the early 12th
century, but may overlie or incorporate remains of an earlier structure on the
site. The site has been identified as that of a church recorded in the
Domesday book in the 11th century, and it is thought that broken blocks of
masonry containing reused Roman tile which were embedded in the foundations of
the north wall may have come from this. There is a record of a market or fair
here in 1347, but the church is thought to have gone out of use by the 15th
century at latest. All Saints' Church, adjacent to Santon House c.1km to the
west, is recorded as having been built in 1628 by Thomas Bancroft, then lord
of the manor and sole parishioner, out of the ruins of an earlier chapel.

The part enclosure to the west of the church is defined by a ditch flanked
by earthen banks c.0.75m in height and up to c.7m in width at the base, the
ditch and banks together having a total width of up to c.18m. These earthworks
extend eastwards for a distance of c.65m, from a point c.7m north of the west
end of the church to the lower end of the slope, where the two banks merge and
curve south westwards, decreasing in height and width. A small excavation
across the ditch demonstrated that it has silted to a depth of c.0.75m.

To the north west of the ditch and banks and c.20m north of the east end of
the church is a smaller rectangular enclosure defined on the north, west and
south sides by banks up to c.5m wide and c.0.75m in height and with internal
dimensions of c.14m NNE-SSW by at least 10m. On the eastern side is the edge
of the chalk pit. The bank on the western side, which extends up to c.10m from
the south west corner of the enclosure towards the church, is on the line of
the present parish boundary, which is kinked around the west side of the chalk
pit, but this part of the line is probably comparatively recent, since a
survey of 1752 shows the boundary running straight, without any kink, c.75m to
the east.

The spring, formerly known as Holy Well or Tenant's (a corruption of St
Helen's) Well, rises c.65m north east of the church in the bottom of the chalk
pit. The water is collected in a basin c.14m wide and c.1m deep cut into the
chalk floor of the pit and is conducted southwards towards the river in a
channel c.8m wide.

The chalk pit has been cut c.70m back into the natural scarp above the river
and is c.16m deep and c.110m in width with steeply sloping sides. The bottom
is uneven, with low, overgrown mounds of flint nodules and flint knapping
waste as evidence that it was also used as a quarry for flint. Waste from the
manufacture of gun flints has also been found c.20m to the north of the pit.
The date of origin is uncertain, but it is known to have been worked in the
19th century. The church now stands at the edge of a railway cutting through
the south side of the promontary, and a 19th century description of the site
refers to exposed foundations and to detached fragments of wall which had
rolled down the side of the cut.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

A parish church is a building, usually of roughly rectangular outline and
containing a range of furnishings and fittings appropriate to its use for
Christian worship by a secular community, whose members gather in it on
Sundays and on the occasion of religious festivals. Children are initiated
into the Christian religion at the church's font and the dead are buried in
its churchyard. Parish churches were designed for congregational worship and
are generally divided into two main parts: the nave, which provides
accommodation for the laity, and the chancel, which is the main domain of the
priest and contains the principal altar. Either or both parts are sometimes
provided with aisles, giving additional accommodation or spaces for additional
altars. Most parish churches also possess towers, generally at the west
end, but central towers at the crossing of nave and chancel are not uncommon
and some churches have a free-standing or irregularly sited tower. Many parish
churches also possess transepts at the crossing of chancel and nave, and south
or north porches are also common. The main periods of parish church foundation
were in the 10th to 11th and 19th centuries. Most medieval churches were
rebuilt and modified on a number of occasions and hence the visible fabric of
the church will be of several different dates, with in some cases little
fabric of the first church being still easily visible.
Parish churches are found throughout England. Their distribution reflects the
density of population at the time they were founded. In regions of dispersed
settlement parishes were often large and churches less numerous. The densest
clusters of parish churches were found in thriving medieval towns. A survey of
1625 reported the existence of nearly 9000 parish churches in England. New
churches built in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries increased numbers to
around 18,000 of which 17,000 remain in ecclesiastical use. Parish churches
have always been major features of the landscape and a major focus of life for
their parishioners. They provide important insights into medieval and later
population levels or economic cycles, religious activity, artistic endeavour
and technical achievement. A significant number of surviving examples are
identified to be nationally important.

The site of St Helen's Church has undergone little disturbance since the
church went out of use in the medieval period, apart from limited excavations
which examined only a small sample of the area of the church and the ground
immediately surrounding it. The excavations have demonstrated that substantial
remains of walls and foundations survive below the ground surface, and these
and associated deposits within and outside the building will retain
archaeological information concerning its construction and use, to an extent
unlikely in churches which have remained in use into the modern period. They
will also retain evidence relating to the date and manner of the church's
abandonment and demolition. The archaeological and documentary evidence for
an earlier, probably pre-Conquest church on the site adds to the interest of
the monument, as does the reuse of Roman building materials. Such reuse,
which is known in many early medieval churches, especially those predating the
Conquest, suggests that there had been a substantial Roman building in the

Most, if not all of the earthworks adjacent to the church appear to relate to
it and probably define a part of the church precinct.

Holy wells are water sources with specifically Christian associations. The
custom of venerating springs and wells as sacred sites is also known to have
characterised pre-Christian religions in Britain and, although Christian wells
have been identified from as early as the 6th century AD, it is clear that
some holy wells originated as earlier sacred sites. The cult of holy wells
continued throughout the medieval period. Its condemnation at the time of the
Reformation (c.1540) ended new foundations, but local reverance and folklore
customs at existing holy wells often continued, in some cases to the present

The holy wells sometimes functioned as sites for baptism, but they were also
revered for less tangible reasons, some of which may have had origins in
pre-Christian customs, such as folklore beliefs in the healing powers of the
water and its capacity to effect a desired outcome for future events.
Associated rituals often evolved, usually requiring the donation of an object
or coin to retain the `sympathy' of the well for the person seeking its
benefits. At their simplest, holy wells may be unelaborated natural springs
with associated religious traditions. Structural additions may include lined
well shafts or conduit heads on springs, often with a tank to gather the water
at the surface. The roofing of walled enclosures to protect the water source
and define the sacred area created wellhouses which may be simple, unadorned
structures closely encompassing the water source, or larger buildings. At
their most elaborate, chapels, and sometimes churches, may have been built
over the well or adjacent well house. The number of holy wells is not known,
but estimates suggest at least 600 nationally. They provide important
information on the nature of religious beliefs and practices, and on the
relationship between religion and the landscape during the medieval period.

St Helen's is a good example, not only of an association between a holy well
and a church, but of a tradition and a dedication to the saint which survived
locally long after the church had gone out of use. There is a recognised link
in Britain between holy wells and dedications to St Helen, particularly in
eastern England centred around the Humber basin. This is, however, the only
known example of such an association in Norfolk and is thus of particular

The chalk pit around the well, although largely if not wholly post-medieval in
date, retains evidence for the later history of the well and is thus an
integral part of the monument. The evidence for flint working within it is
also of interest in the context of the post-medieval flint industry which was
an important part of the economy of the Brandon area.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Blomefield, F, An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, (1805), 156
Clarke, W G, In Breckland Wilds, (1925), 53,54
Clarke, W G, In Breckland Wilds, (1925), 53
Hunt, A L, The Capital of the Ancient Kingdon of East Anglia, (1879), 95-96
Martin, T, The History of the Town of Thetford, (1779), 29, 89
Martin, T, The History of the Town of Thetford, (1779), 29,89
Davison, A, 'East Anglian Archaeology' in Excavations in Thetford by B K Davison: The documentary record, , Vol. 62, (1993), 210
Ref. NRS 21391/37X, Skinner, T, Survey of the Parish of Santon, (1752)
Ref. NRS 21391/37X, Skinner, T, Survey of the Parish of Santon, (1752)
Typescript record in SMR file, Thetford St Peter/Santon: Site of St Helen's Oratory, (1962)

Source: Historic England

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