St. Peter’s Hall at South Elmham looks totally different from other Suffolk houses of its size. Much of it is constructed of stone of the highest quality (from Caen in Normandy) and its larger windows resemble those of fifteenth century churches. Its main entrance on the north side, away from the moat, looks exactly like a two-storey church porch. The explanation is that these elements did indeed come from a former church building.
The earliest part of the house, the ‘back bar’ area, has been dated c.1280, and the west range (to the right facing the porch) is fourteenth century. The Toll family owned the property until about 1445 when it passed, perhaps by marriage, to John Tasburgh, but the house was still called Tollys. It was a third John Tasburgh, great grandson of the first, who in 1539 built the east wing with the present great hall in it. It was he who bought the materials already mentioned from a nunnery in the next parish of Flixton.
Flixton nunnery had been one of twelve small monastic houses granted to Cardinal Wolsey to finance his Cardinal’s College of St. Mary in Ipswich, a school to feed clever boys into his college at Oxford. Most of the school was built by 1528 but Wolsey fell from power and died before he had time to take possession of Flixton. The nuns were therefore given a short reprieve until the main Dissolution of Monasteries in 1537, when their church and convent was sold by the King to Richard Warton of Bungay, who dismantled the buildings for their materials.
The chance survival of hearings held before the mayor and aldermen of Norwich on Christmas Eve and Day 1539 reveal that John Tasburgh had hired masons from Norwich to work at his house the previous July. He had, it is clear, bought the building materials from Warton and was using them to extend his house – Caen stone was a valuable building material in a region without its own stone. One of the masons, Peter Vyknell of Pockthorpe, caused a stir when two of his colleagues sang a song against the Pope and he was quick to defend them. Since the Act of Supremacy of 1534 and the breach with Rome, Englishmen had learnt to give their allegiance to King Henry VIII both as sovereign and as head of the church. Vyknell, who was a foreigner, probably from Flanders, rashly said that ‘he would he were with the said bishop [of Rome] to show him what good hearts and good willers he had in England, … and that he might show him how Englishmen rail and jest on him’. Richard Doubleday, also a mason of Pockthorpe, was probably in charge of the men; he had become a freeman of Norwich in 1532. Under examination, he said that John Collett, another workman, immediately declared ‘is not this a bold word for a Frenchman, for if an Englishman should so have spoken such words, he should immediately be hanged at his own door’. The authorities heard of Vyknell’s comments and held an enquiry.
The ecclesiastical records of the hearings in Norwich gave us the evidence as to how St. Peter’s Hall came to look like a religious building and tell us that much of the structure was moved to the present site in 1539.
So, in summary, St. Peter’s Hall is a thirteenth and fourteenth century building which was extended in 1539 with earlier ‘architectural salvage’ taken from a nearby nunnery. It is surrounded by a tenth century moat. It is now home to a twenty-first century brewery.
Special Architectural Features of St. Peter’s Hall include carved work on the front façade of particular significance to a nunnery – including the wheel of St. Catherine (she was martyred on a wheel). These carvings are described in a later note. There is also a tombstone in the entrance porch; several scratch dials on the exterior; 17th Century graffiti on the front and left side of the fireplace; a magnificent ‘solar’ upstairs and the lovely ‘chapel’ above the front porch. (In fact it served as a ‘muniment room’ where the family kept their bible as well as farm records, title deeds etc., not as a chapel). The scratch dials are of course orientated towards the position of the sun when the structure stood in Flixton. Enthusiasts are trying to work out from the scratch dials the precise alignment of the building at that time.
The Moat at St. Peter’s Hall probably dates from the 10th Century and would originally have extended right around the house with a gatehouse on the site of the current brewery and a track running due north towards the Bungay-Flixton Road. We had it cleaned out and re-stocked with fish, mainly mirror carp, in 1997.
Moats are quite common in East Anglia and are variously thought to have been dug as a defence against the Vikings who raided the area well into the Eleventh Century, as a source of standing water for cattle, or as a source of clay for bricks. In fact, though earlier moats such as that at St. Peter’s were dug to repel Viking invaders, many later moats were dug merely because they had become fashionable – great houses and castles had moats so why not smaller houses?
The Furniture and Contents of St. Peter’s Hall are mainly 16th, 17th and 18th Century and include a splendid Brussels tapestry depicting Manna from Heaven, a set of French choirstalls and a fine ‘bishop’s’ chair. There is also a 17th Century painted leather effigy of a bishop, from Spain; a 16th Century stone shop sign from Switzerland depicting a butcher cutting up a wild boar and an intriguing carving of angels (devils?) on ostriches jousting, it would seem, with malt shovels over a beer or wine butt.
The Saints is the popular name for the South Elmham area, the part of North East Suffolk in which St. Peter’s Hall is located. It is so called because virtually every parish in the area is named after a saint – St. Cross, St. Margaret, St. Nicholas, St. James, St. Michael, St. John, St. Lawrence, St. Andrew, St. Peter and All Saints. In the Middle Ages East Anglia, and particularly Suffolk, was a major centre of wool production. Though some manufacturing was done locally, much of the wool was exported to Flanders through ports such as Dunwich (once hugely important but now mainly washed away). Suffolk was as a result massively wealthy and densely populated. Now what remains are some wonderful churches, minsters and priories and village and field plans which have changed little since the Middle Ages. The Saints is surely one of the most beautiful, historic and remote parts of England. (Note that while many of the local villages are ‘nucleated’ in the English pattern – ie built around the nucleus of a church, others follow a Danish pattern with the houses arranged around a large common. Clearly, two quite separate communities co-existed in the Saints prior to the Conquest.)
The Brewery at St. Peter’s Hall was built in the first half of 1996 to our own design. It produced its first brew in June 1996. It produces ‘real ale’ and now has a nominal capacity of almost 340 barrels/week (98,000 pints). Our bottling hall was constructed and equipped in 2002 and the equipment is specially adapted to handle our unique oval bottle. In addition to UK sales, we currently export over 45% our production to 32 export markets.
Published on July 30, 2012