Notes on Medieval Flegg and Broadland, in Norfolk, East Anglia.

Above image copyright of  Modified to show local districts of Broadland and Flegg.

Flegg is a district of two hundreds, consisting of a total of 22 parishes, set in Broadland, in the east of the East Anglian county of Norfolk.  It is thought that with the higher sea levels of the Roman period, that it would have effectively have formed  an island bordered by reed beds, marshes, river valleys on the west and south, and the North Sea in the east.  As sea levels decreased slightly during the Anglo-Saxon period, and drainage systems advanced, so Flegg became better connected to the "mainland".

Roman East Norfolk showing Flegg as an island:

The name "Flegg" is Anglo-Danish in origin, as are many of it's parish names such as Ormesby, Rollesby, Hemsby, Stokesby, Filby, Scratby, Mautby, Thrigby, Billockby etc.  No other district in East Anglia, a region that formed a part of the 10th Century Dane-Law has such a concentration of Scandinavian place-names.

In this post I want to record some transcriptions taken from some studies in my book collection, that relate to Flegg, or to the wider area of Broadland (East Norfolk), during the earlier Medieval period.

The Origins of Norfolk.  Tom Williamson 1993.  Manchester University Press.  ISBN 0 7190 3928

Topography and environment.

"But there are also districts of deep, extremely fertile and easily worked loams, especially on the former island of Flegg.  The whole area is dissected by the wide lush valleys of the Wensum, Bure, Ant, and their tributaries.  The medieval settlement pattern was dispersed, with common-edge hamlets and many isolated churches."

The Norfolk Broads - A landscape history.  Tom Williamson.  1997.  Manchester University Press ISBN 0 7190 4801.

The uplands and islands.

"The Broadland fens and marshes are nowhere so extensive that the traveller loses sight of the 'upland'.  Even in the middle of the Halvergate marshes the higher ground can be seen, low on the horizon, often picked out by the lines of woodland growing on the relict 'cliffs' of the former estuary.  Some of the higher land once comprised islands: Flegg covering some 78 sq km, between the Bure and the Thurne.".
The Anglo Saxon

"During Middle Saxon times - roughly the period between the mid-seventh and late ninth centuries - the local population probably increased once again, and more complex forms of social and economic organisation developed.  The Broads area became a part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, which was roughly coterminous with the modern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.  It is possible that the uplands here were more densely wooded than most parts of Norfolk at this time, in spite of the excellence of much of the local soil.  Certainly, many place-names in the area seem to refer to woodland: Acle for example was the ac leah, the oak wood; Fishley, 'the wood of the fisherman'; while both East Ruston and Sco Ruston incorporated the term hris tun, 'the settlement among the brushwood'.  It is possible that, remote from the main centres of power in East Anglia, and exposed to the threat of continued sea-borne raiding, the district was relatively sparsely settled, principally used for grazing.  The importance of the latter in the local economy is again suggested by place-names: Horsey was 'the horse island'; Woodbastwick and Bastwick both incorporate the element wic, 'a grazing farm, ranch'; while the names of Winterton and Somerton - the winter settlement and the summer settlement respectively - suggest the practice of transhumance, the seasonal movement of livestock to distant pastures.  Extensive areas of seasonal grazing must have been opening up in the form of low-lying fens and marshes as the estuaries here began to silt up.  The role of Broadland as an area specialising in grazing and the exploitation of woodland - complementing the arable specialisms of other parts of the East Anglian kingdom - is also perhaps indicated by a particularly noticeable feature of the area at the end of the Saxon period.  Domesday book shows that a very large proportion of the population here was classed not as bondmen - as villeins, sokemen or bordars - but as free men, liberi homines.  Such individuals were very thick on the ground both in Flegg, and on the uplands bordering the south of Broadland, and the power of manorial lords in these areas was correspondingly circumscribed.  There are many views on the nature, and significance of such men: but one interpretation is that they were the descendants of Middle Saxon peasants whose main role had been that of herdsmen or shepherds, and whose obligations to king and nobles were thus less servile or onerous than those of arable producers."

"Elsewhere in Norfolk and Suffolk free men were more thinly spread, although they were almost everywhere a more prominent feature than in other areas of England.  Like other distinctive aspects of East Anglia's social and tenurial structure, they are often interpreted as a consequence of the settlement here, during the ninth and tenth centuries, of immigrants from Scandinavia.  While in reality, the origins of Norfolk and Suffolk's medieval idiosyncrasies are much more complex than this, a Viking elite clearly did come to dominate the East Anglian kingdom around 869 when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 'The host went from Cirencester into East Anglia, and occupy that land, and share it out.'

In restricted areas there also appears to have been large-scale peasant immigration from Scandinavia.  One of these was Broadland.  Viking place-names - especially those featuring the suffix -by, 'farm, settlement' - are densely clustered on the island of Flegg (a name itself derived from a Scandinavian word meaning reeds), widespread in Lothingland, and scattered more thinly along the upland margins of the Yare and Waveney."

"Whatever the nature (and extent) of Viking settlement in the area, there is no doubt that by the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 the upland parts of Broadland were no longer a sparsely-settled landscape of woodland and pasture.  They were now - together with the neighbouring clayland areas to the south and west - one of the most densely settled and intensively farmed regions in the whole of England.".

The Middle Ages

"The region's dense population, and complex social structure, are manifested in another way: in the small sizes of parishes, and thus in the large number of parish churches.  Indeed the upland areas of Broadland have one of the highest densities of parish churches in Britain.  Many of these (although not the present structures) were already in existence by the time of Domesday: their proliferation reflects not only the comparative wealth of this fertile region, and the need to house large congregations, but also perhaps the confused tenurial structure of the locality.  Families of freemen may have been keen to endow churches in order to establish their status: church-building was the mark of the lord, rather than the peasant."

"In East Anglia, in contrast [sic to the classic "great open fields" elsewhere in medieval English parishes - PB] medieval agricultural systems were much more flexible and individualistic: seldom were the strips widely scattered across two or three great 'fields' but were instead more closely clustered in the vicinity of the peasant's homestead, and individual farmers had more freedom of choice about what they grew and when.  In the west of Norfolk, such freedoms were somewhat limited by the institution of the 'fold course' - the right of the manorial lord to graze sheep across the tenants' land for much of the year.  In Broadland however - where the power of manorial lords was more circumscribed - fold courses were rare and tenants enjoyed almost complete freedom over how they organised their cropping, and rights of grazing over others' land were often limited to the period after the harvest."

Medieval Flegg.  Two Norfolk Hundreds in the Middle Ages East and West Flegg, 1086 - 1500.  Barbara Cornford.  2002. Larks Press.  ISBN 0 948400 98 6

p14. "Until recently the A149 road from North Walsham crossed the river Thurne by the medieval bridge at Potter Heigham"

p 16. "Flegg farmers have always distinguished between the upland and the marsh (The upland in Flegg is all land over five feet above sea level)."

p20. "Yarmouth has always been the market town and urban centre for Flegg.  In the Middle Ages corn from Flegg fed the town.  For centuries Flegg farmers and small-holders have sold their livestock, vegetables and fruit at the Wednesday and Saturday markets."

p22. "The Danish settlement of East Anglia began after 880 AD, when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Danes occupied the land and shared it out.  They must have come to Flegg in considerable numbers for they gave names to thirteen out of twenty-two villages in Flegg."

p22 "The name Stokesby, which is Saxon in its first element and Danish in its second, is an interesting one.  Not only does it suggest the mingling of the two groups, but it may also explain why the Danes found the Muck Fleet valley virtually empty.  The Saxon word 'stoc', pronounced with a long 'o', was used to describe an 'outlying pasture near water where cattle are kept for part of the year'.  If this is true of Stokesby, then the Danes may well have found only cattle-minders in the valley, with perhaps small and scattered settlements around the heath to the west."

p23. "Most of the Danish village names in Flegg incorporate a personal name, such as Orm (Ormesby), Malti (Mautby), or Hrodulfr (Rollesby).  Dr Sandred believes that these are the names, not of warrior chiefs, but of free farmers, more interested in acquiring land than pillage and warfare."

p24-25. "Danish words have survived in Flegg as they have generally in Norfolk.  Holme means an island and is applied to an area of dry ground in the marsh, often a gravel bank.  Winterton and Somerton Holmes are sufficiently well drained to be ploughed and contain farms.  Medieval field-names include 'gate' for a road, 'wong' for a furlong or collection of strips in the open fields and the 'syk', a marshy strip of land by a stream.  These words are still used.  Ferrygate and Damgate are roads in Martham, villagers go 'over the wongs' from the church to the hamlet of Cess, or through the 'syk' meadow, marshy ground, which was once a navigable stream, marking the boundary between Martham and Bastwick.  One Danish name has vanished.  The hamlet of Sco, mentioned in the Domesday survey, lay where Martham, Bastwick, and Rollesby meet around the present Grange Farm (OS TG 437 172), but Sco never became an ecclesiastical or civil parish.  The word is Danish, from skogre, a wood, and is appropriate for a settlement at the bottom of Speech Oak Hill."

Chapter 2.  Flegg in the Time of the Domesday Book

p29-30. "A few words of explanation are needed about the terms used in the extract.  The hide was a Saxon measurement of land, which notionally contained 120 acres.  In Norfolk, the Danish word carucate, also 120 acres, was used instead of hide.  The carucates and acres recorded are not very accurate measurements but they give a rough idea of the size of a manor dmesne ir a freeman's farm.  The demesne was the home farm of a manor and its produce went to the lord of the manor for his use.  Villeins and cottars, or bordars as they are called in Norfolk, were attached to the manors and provided much of the labour force on the demesne.  Serfs, possibly slaves, were present in small numbers on a few manors.  Freemen and sokemen were always regarded as free tenants.  The number of ploughs is always recorded on manors and on the freemen's and sokemen's holdings.  The word 'plough' includes a team of eight oxen."

p31. "The two Flegg Hundreds, along with others in East and South Norfolk, were the most densely populated in the county.  The freemen, villeins and other tenants were heads of households with dependant families.  I was surprised to see how close the number of Domesday households were to returns from the first Census of 1801.  Many readers will have some idea of what life was like in Norfolk two hundred years ago in the days of Nelson, Parson Woodeford and the Agricultural Improvers.  It is important to remember that Norfolk was probably as busy a place in the late eleventh century, as it was several hundred years later."

"Over two thirds of the inhabitants of Flegg were freemen and sokemen, that is men and women of free status, but it is not always easy to define their position in society.  Sokemen are almost always attached to manors and on some manors had specific services to render to their lords.  On manors belonging to St Benet's Abbey they were often employed as ploughmen.  In theory at least, freemen were free of all feudal control, but most had commended themselves to a powerful lord in order to gain protection.  These freemen, in commendations only, as Domesday says, had minimal obligations to their lords.  They could sell their land, often without even consulting the lord.  They had the right to attend the Hundred Court and to take part in its deliberations.

Freemen and sokemen were numerous all over Eastern England, their numbers declining towards the west.  Historians have thought that it was a Danish origin or influence which enabled the freemen to maintain their independence from feudal pressures.  A more likely cause is now thought to have been the general economic prosperity of eastern England that helped the freemen to withstand the pressures of the feudal lords."

p33."Villeins and bordars account for only a third of the tenants.  Whatever their exact legal status, they were certainly under close control of their manors on which they lived and where they provided most of the labour on the demesnes.  They had their own farms, but the size of their holdings is nor recorded.  A  hundred years later the usual villain holding in Martham was about twelve acres, but there were wide variations.  Bordars had smaller holdings, perhaps about five acres.  Bordars are particularly numerous in west Flegg where the small manors sometimes relied entirely on them for labour.  Only twelve serfs are recorded in Flegg."

p36. "Corn was not the only valuable commodity produced in Flegg.  Both salt production and sheep farming brought in extra income.  The spring tides up the river Bure flooded pools in the estuary with salt water that gradually evaporated in the summer sun and wind.  The resulting brine was taken to earthenware pans on the marsh edge where the brine was heated until the salt crystallised.  At the time of Domesday, Flegg was the centre of salt production in East Norfolk."

p53. "In the twelfth century the introduction of windmills gave the landlords other sources of income.  By 1200 windmills at Herringby and Rollesby had been recorded and by 1300 windmills were common in all Flegg villages.  At the same time the use of horses for ploughing meant that the lords were less dependent on the ox-drawn ploughs of their freemen and sokemen to cultivate the demesne.  By 1245 ploughing was done by horses on the Abbot of St Benet's manor of Ashby and no doubt on most other manors."

p91. "At Martham, as was usual in East Norfolk, a tenant's holding was not a block of land, but a collection of strips in the open fields, usually in the fields nearest to the tenant's home, although some holdings were scattered more widely in the village."

p138. "The Black Death arrived in Norfolk in the spring of 1349 and spread up the river valleys from Yarmouth.  It was particularly severe in South Norfolk, along the Yare and the Bure valleys and on the coast."

p139. "The Inquisition Post Mortem taken after the death of Thomas de Essex in 1351 for his manor of Runham states that all the tenants were dead.".

p144. "It is surprising that Flemings left the Low Countries to work in England after the Black Death.  Flemings were employed in many places in East Norfolk in the 1350s.  In 1355 a Fleming was hired to cut and harvest five acres of wheat in Martham for which he was paid 3s. 4d.  This separate entry suggests that perhaps he worked away from the other harvesters.  The next year a Fleming was employed for eleven days to thresh seven quarters of wheat at 3d. a quarter, which is considerably less than the usual rate of 5d. a quarter.  I have found Flemings mentioned at Rollesby, Ashby, and Scottow.  St Benet's Abbey employed twelve Flemings for the harvest of 1356.  Perhaps these men went round in a gang hiring themselves wherever they were needed.  It is difficult to understand why they came across the North Sea to seek farm work.  It has been suggested that the Black Death did not claim so many lives in the Low Countries where the standard of living was higher and resistance to the disease greater than in most of Europe."

I'm stopping there.  I could take it through the Peasant's Rebellion and the Late Medieval.  I highly recommend Barbara Cornford's little book.  She in particular, has dissected the manorial records of Martham, Norfolk.  She successfully brings the Medieval in that manor to life.  Not so alien.  People were still clearly very much people as we know them.


On a personal, genealogical level, I have many, many Broadland ancestors on my mother's side recorded over the past 400 years or so.  However, their main cluster area was immediately to the south of Flegg, along the Yare valley in Broadland.  But tracing back - some of the lines there had moved down from the general region of Flegg - Moulton St Mary, Acle, South Walsham, Stokesby, Repps-with-Bastwick, Herringby, Rollesby, Ormesby, etc.  Therefore on a personal level, I've enjoyed researching this history, as I most likely had many ancestors on Flegg a few centuries earlier, during the Later Medieval at least.

I don't have very many photographs taken on Flegg.  Once I've completed the Wherryman's Way long distance trail, I need to explore the churches and landscape of Flegg.

On a Population Genetics Level - 3 points.

  1. The 1348 Black Death.  It killed a lot of families.  At least one third of the population died, in addition to a famine and hard times that preceded the disease for several years before the outbreak.
  2. Once again, I find evidence of admixture in East Anglia, from the Low Countries.  The long term link across the North Sea to the Lower Rhine Valley.
  3. Movement during the 15th Century.  As Feudalism gradually collapsed over the 150 years following the Black Death, more and more people started to move around England - away from their ancient manors and parishes.  Cornfield noted three brothers from Martham during the 15th Century.  One ended up in Ely, Cambridgeshire, another in Halesworth, Suffolk, and the third in London.  Should any of the brothers had returned to the manor they would have owed money to their lord.  They didn't, people were moving around by then.

Flegg doesn't yet have a great landscape history of the Late Prehistoric.  It does have an importance during the Romano-British, with the Fort of Caister etc.  The current story picks up during the Middle Saxon, where we currently get the impression that this last wild landscape of East Anglia was picked up - vulnerable to sea raiders.  It's natural resources at first exploited for woodland materials, then more so as grazing land and pasture.  It's almost bizarre concentration of Danish place-names and words from the Late Saxon period.  I cannot think other than that an Old Danish-speaking people - at the very least, a significant immigration, settled here, and finally founded villages and farmsteads with names.  It's not the traditional story of raiding, marauding Vikings, but of the immigration of farmers.

By Domesday it's full of people and production.  A centre, an agrarian hub.  The imposition of feudal pressure by Norman lords being resisted for centuries by local freemen farmers.  They say that Norfolk does different.  Flegg certainly did, with it's proto-capitalism and relatively (to the West Midlands for example) free labour markets.

Worth recording and appreciating.

Thurne Mill.

My Anglo-Saxon Mother (Moder)

This is a follow on from my last post, concerning the mapping of my paper ancestry over the past three centuries.  A noticeable cluster of ancestry (on my mother's side) appeared on the maps from three generations ago, in Broadland or East Norfolk, including the villages of Reedham, Limpenhoe, Cantley, Freethorpe, Stokesby, Beighton, Postwick, Hassingham, Buckenham St Nicholas, Halvergate, Tunstall, South Burlingham, Moulton, and Acle.

That this cluster is so firmly entrenched, suggests that I have had ancestry in that locality for a long time.  I have already postulated that this area would have acted as a prime settlement district for immigrants from between the fourth and eleventh centuries, from across the North Sea.  I thought that I would play on this idea a little more.

The map below shows East Norfolk as it would have appeared during the Fourth Century, with slightly higher sea levels than we enjoy today, and previous to any substantial engineered drainage:

The red dappling, outlines the main cluster of my mother's paper ancestry, that provenances there during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Such a strong cluster would suggest deep roots in that zone.

Very different to the present day Norfolk Broads and Coast.  Great Yarmouth and Breydon Water are replaced by a Great Estuary.  Reedham literally faced the North Sea at the head end of the estuary.  Indeed, 20th Century works in the parish church of Reedham, revealed hidden herringbone decorations made from Roman bricks.  it has been hypothesised, that these bricks may have come from a nearby Romano-British lighthouse.

Revisionist historians and archaeologists have for many years, argued that the Roman forts of the Saxon Shore, were in fact not defensive, defending the province from attack by marauding Anglo-Saxon pirates, but were instead used to control and tax North Sea trade with the province.  Some have even gone so far as to suggest that areas like this were already being culturally influenced by the North Sea Anglo-Saxon world.

The collapse of Roman administration, and the disintegration of much of Roman society, and the Roman way of life, made it easy for Continental adventurers to cross the North Sea from outside of the old Empire, and to settle in Eastern England.  Some of them may have been escaping exploitation from the elites that were gathering power in their homelands.  They knew how to live with a rural barter-economy, without the niceties that the Empire had offered the British.  A recent study of human remains in the Cambridge area, noted that within a very short time, even the local British were adapting the customs and artifacts of Anglo-Saxon culture.  Not only that, but those remains that were genetically profiled as of being of local British origin not only aped the new immigrants, but their burials were higher status and richer.  The poorer graves mainly profiled as newly arrived immigrants from the Low Countries or Denmark.  The researchers suggested that in the case of immigration (rather than invasion), this is what we should expect to see.  The immigrants had to settle for whatever they could get, which would often be poorer land.

I'm going to restate my view.  I support a number of recent genetic surveys, also backed up by many archaeologists, that the 5th Century AD Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Britain was exaggerated in it's ferocity by Gildas and Bede, rather like the Daily Mail exaggerates present day immigration and it's "damaging effect".  It was certainly a very major migration, but it appears to have left the lowland British genome with no more than 20% to 40% of it's DNA share.  It seems from recent genetic studies, that the present day ethnic English, inherit more DNA from prehistoric British populations, than they do from Continental Anglo-Saxons.  Not only that, but the immigrants seem to have married into British society, rather than slaughter it.  It was during the later Sixth Century, that emerging elites of the lowland British kingdoms started to claim ethnic identification, and descent from heroic Angles and Saxons.

In this post, I'm not going to particularly distinguish between the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the 5th/6th Century AD, from the hypothesised Danish settlement of the 9th/10th century.  Perhaps we should see them as waves of North Sea immigration, but perhaps not so entirely divorced from each other.  The earlier may have originated more from Frisia and Angeln, and the latter from a little bit further north in Denmark, but the cultures don't seem to have been that much different.  When I was a boy, travelling through the loam soils of Broadland to see my relatives in Cantley, I was always struck by the big Dutch barns on the landscape.  I was told that the Dutch had long had connections to the area.  Maybe my parents underestimated how far back these links across the North Sea went.

This 20% to 40% Anglo-Saxon DNA spreads across all of England.  Even the Welsh and Cornish have a percentage of it.  However, I was intrigued by a comment in Stephen Oppenheimer in his book Origins of the British 2007, when he did just remark that the highest marker was from an East Norfolk sample!

When I look at the above maps, and in relationship to Frisia, Saxony, Angeln, and Denmark, it appears to me that the Great Estuary must have seemed like a magnet to the boat loads of new settlers.  Rivers opening up from the North Sea, to rich arable soils and lowlands.  A recently closed shore fort - tax, customs, and immigration control free!  I can't help but imagine the first boats beaching or mooring at Reedham, Cantley, Halvergate (-gate, another Norse place-name) etc.

Not only that, but during the 6th and 7th centuries, the sea levels dropped.  Desperate settlers could easily create new land with simple drainage methods.  This appears to be particularly relevant to the East Norfolk district of Flegg.  An island surrounded by new marshes, with the sea waters draining away.  Almost every parish on Flegg, finishes with the classic place-name suffix of Danish settlement - Fil-by, Stokes-by, Rolles-by, Ormes-by, Hems-by etc.  That the later settlers left so many place-names must reflect a great land grab by immigrant families.  The settlers had to fit in where they could.  their ability to exploit a drop in sea levels, and to perhaps make use of their engineering skills at draining land, must have been an advantage at settling in this area.  The drained salt-marshes proved top quality grazing land.  The marsh grasses of the Halvergate Triangle were used to fatten sheep, cattle and other livestock for centuries after. The marshes are dotted by small medieval man-made islands known as holmes (from the Old Norse holmr).


I've basically been making claims here, of direct descent from the North Sea Settlers that arrived in the eastern extremes of East Anglia between the 4th and 11th centuries.  I'm daring to suggest that my mother's established deep links with that area, may indicate that she has a heightened percentage of their DNA.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Perhaps there was more shuffling of genes across Britain into and out of that district during the medieval.  Perhaps the POBA 2015 survey was correct in dismissing any Danish settlement.

Why does it matter to me anyway?  I am equally proud of my Romano-British ancestry as I am of my Anglo-Saxon (or perhaps Anglo-Danish) ancestry.  The Romano-Britons seem to have largely descended from late prehistoric Britons - the people that erected all of those round barrows across Britain, that went on to build wonderful hill forts, the people that rebelled against Rome during the 1st Century AD.  However, I'm also proud of having North Sea settler ancestry.  They were the go-getters of their day, that uprooted to look for adventure.  Hard working migrants and pioneers.  Perhaps similar in some respects, to the Europeans that uprooted to settle the Americas, or dare I suggest, to the present day EU immigrants of Britain.

Years ago, I read a fascinating landscape history on this area, called The Norfolk Broads, a landscape history.  By Tom Williamson, 1997.  Unfortunately, I lent the book out.  I really would like to read this again now.