St Benet's Abbey

The Abbey of St Benet at Holme lies deep in the Broadland of East Norfolk, close to the meeting place of the rivers Bure and Ant. This was the only Norfolk monastery founded in the Anglo-Saxon period which continued in use throughout the Middle Ages – the only comparable ones in East Anglia were the royal abbeys at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Ely in Cambridgeshire. However St Benet’s, unlike Bury and Ely, was largely abandoned after the closure of the monastery in the 1530s, because of its inaccessible location.

The buildings have been thoroughly demolished except for the gatehouse and the wind pump later built onto it. The surviving ruins and earthwork remains are very interesting indeed, however. Visitors can see how the site was laid out, while much important evidence remains below the ground. The Trust bought the main part of the site from the Crown Estate in 2002, and the gatehouse and mill from the Diocese of Norwich in 2004.

As well as being of great historical interest, St Benet's is also very atmospheric. Standing in the depths of Broadland, away from roads and other settlements, it is a wonderful place to spend time surrounded by the wide open skies and away from the modern world. For over 200 years it has been a favourite spot for artists and photographers.

St Benet's location mapSt Benets reconstructionSt Benet's site planSt Benets air view from the westSt Benets air view from the northSt Benet's Abbey fishpondsSt Benet's gatehouseBishop of Norwich at St Benet'sSt Benet's gatehouse 1720sSt Benet's by Miles CotmanSt Benet's drainage pumpSt Benet's drainage pumpSt Benet's Abbey drainage pump

galleryclick on image above to open Gallery
 

St Benet's Abbey conservation and access project

St Benet's projectAn exciting two-year project is underway to conserve the standing remains of the abbey and mill, and to provide more information and better access to the whole site. During Summer 2012 the gatehouse and mill were covered in scaffold while vital conservation repairs were completed. This year the church ruins and perimeter walls will be conserved. The site remains open to the public.

The gatehouse and mill emerging from the scaffold after conservation works were completed in 2012

(Photo by Mike Page)


Volunteering

There will be many opportunities for people to get involved in the project through volunteering - from carrying out graffiti recording, archival research and wildlife surveys through to visitor guiding and events organising. Full training will be provided.

If you'd like to know more about how to get involved please visit the volunteering page or contact Caroline Davison (info@stbenetsabbey.org; tel. 01603 462987).

Volunteers surveying molehills at St Benet's Abbey

 


Stay in touch

TwitterTo learn more about what's going on at St Benet's, please visit the project blog.

You can also follow us on Twitter.

Stories from St Benet's: how to get involved

The Stories from St Benet's exhibition will be at the Norfolk Record Office from 12th May – 25th July. We would really love those of you who know St Benet's Abbey to take part in the exhibition by sharing some of your stories and experiences with us.

Ideas of Flight 2014: opportunity to join in with an award-winning, open access singing project

In May 2013 The Voice Project - a Norwich-based open access choir - performed a new song-cycle called Ideas of Flight at St Benet's Abbey. This was such a success we’ve asked The Voice Project back to the Abbey to mark the culmination of the two-year Conservation, Access and Community project in June 2014 -  and you can join in! 

New landscape drawing and painting 'taster' workshop at St Benet's Abbey

We are able to offer a FREE 5 week course of landscape drawing and painting half-day workshops this autumn.

Free guided tours continuing through September

Our volunteer guides have been enjoying meeting our visitors so much, they've decided to continue the programme of free guided tours throughout September.

'A Monk's Life' at St Benet's Abbey - Live history days

FREE Heritage Open Days at St Benet's Abbey September 13th - 15th - information update and download the programme

 

St Benets Project logos

Access and facilities

The site lies on the north bank of the River Bure in the parish of Horning. It is c. 3km south of the village of Ludham, on the A1062 Hoveton-Potter Heigham road.

  • by boat: this is the easiest way to reach St Benet’s. There is a public mooring place on the Bure a short distance west of the Abbey, and the route from there to the site is clearly marked.

  • by road: St Benet's is quite remote from main roads. From the A1062 (Hoveton-Potter Heigham) road, turn onto Hall Road (which is signposted to Hall Common) at the junction next to the Dog Inn, a short distance to the east of Ludham Bridge. About 900m along this road, a very minor road turns off to the right. This leads onto a long farm track extending across the marshes to the site. Car drivers must beware of cattle: livestock have right of way at all times! A site car park is due to be built shortly.

  • by bus: Ludham village is served by services 6 (Sanders Coaches, North Walsham-Yarmouth) and 12 (First Eastern Counties, Norwich-Stalham). Buses set down in the centre of Ludham village. From here it is a walk of 3km, following Staithe Road and Hall Common Road as far as the left turn to the farm track described above. For up to date timetable information, please visit http://www.travelineeastanglia.org.uk.

You can visit at any reasonable time. There are no toilet or other facilities at the site, and little shelter from the weather except within the standing remains of the gatehouse. There is a pub (the King’s Arms) and a tea room in Ludham, and another pub (the Dog Inn) on the A1062 closer to Ludham Bridge. At Ludham Bridge there is a shop, a cafe and public toilets.

The Trust has published a guidebook to the site by Dr Tim Pestell. This is available from local booksellers and from Ludham Church.

More information about St Benet’s Abbey

Origins

We do not know exactly when the first Benedictine monastery was founded here, but it may have been around AD 1020. King Cnut (who reigned 1016–1035) was an important benefactor, and this land may have been a royal estate.

The place may have been a religious site long before then. A 14th-century chronicle speaks of an earlier hermit named Suneman living in a chapel on ‘Cowholm’. This chapel was destroyed by the Vikings (perhaps in the 860s, when a Danish army caused havoc in East Anglia) but was then rebuilt.

St Benet's Abbey location map

Location of St Benet's Abbey, showing Horning Church, the earthwork bank, the causeway across the marshes and other features

We have no reliable evidence to support any of this. However, a remote ‘island’ site like St Benet’s could have been perfect for an Anglo-Saxon hermit. Many other early monasteries in East Anglia were in similar places. When the 11th-century monastery was founded, however, St Benet’s may not have been a truly isolated place. River traffic would have passed by. A massive bank and ditch (now levelled by agriculture) 2km to the west of the site, near Horning church, may have been built to mark the limit of a great estate – maybe even a royal property – bounded elsewhere by the rivers Bure and Ant.

The medieval abbey

Domesday Book (compiled in 1086) tells us that St Benet’s Abbey was well endowed by the time of the Norman Conquest, and held much land nearby. Clearly it was Norfolk’s leading monastery. One of its patrons, however, was Ralph Guader, Earl of East Anglia. Guader led a failed revolt against William I in 1075. St Benet’s itself could have been ‘tainted’ politically by this and Guader’s replacement, the loyal Roger Bigod, may have chosen to support new foundations at Thetford, Castle Acre and elsewhere because of this. By the end of the 13th century St Benet’s was still a wealthy establishment, with property in 76 parishes. In some ways, however, it may have struggled to compete. St Benet’s lacked the relics of an important saint – in the 12th and 13th centuries the abbey tried to promote the cult of St Margaret of Holm, supposedly killed at Hoveton in 1170, but this never prospered.

Reconstruction of St Benet's Abbey c. AD 1500 (Sue White)

Reconstruction of St Benet's Abbey c. AD 1500 (Susan White)

The first stone church was probably built in Cnut’s time by Abbot Aelfsige, replacing one ‘of mud’ (i.e. of wattle and daub). Many documents record the development of the building. The cloister, chapter house and dormitory are all mentioned in the 12th century, and a fine new choir and east end of the church was completed in 1274. The whole complex was surrounded to the south by the River Bure, and elsewhere by a ditch and an enclosure wall, the base of which can still be seen. The main surviving building, the west great gatehouse, dates to the 14th century. Visitors would have reached this grand entrance along a causeway over the marshes from Horning. This is still clearly visible today.

St Benet's Abbey plan

Plan of St Benet's Abbey, showing earthwork features and masonry remains

The number of monks varied – at a visitation in 1514 there were 23. The Order of St Benedict divided a monk’s time between work, prayer and spiritual study, but ‘lay brothers’ and servants would have done many manual duties on their behalf. The monastic estates would have produced much of the food needed by the community. Visitors can see the very well preserved medieval fish ponds, some of the best surviving examples in the country.

The Dissolution and afterwards

Two Acts of Suppression passed by Henry VIII’s government in 1536 and 1539 led to the closure of all English monasteries and the seizure of their property by the Crown – except for St Benet’s. Remarkably, to this day the Bishop of Norwich remains technically the Abbot of St Benet’s, even though there have been no monks here for over 450 years. He even holds an annual open air service at the site.

Bishop's annual service at St Benet's

The Bishop of Norwich arrives for the annual service at St Benet's (Susan White)

Less than a month after the death of Bishop Nyx of Norwich, early in 1536, the king secured an Act of Parliament allowing him to seize endowments of the bishopric. He seems already to have earmarked the abbot of St Benet's, William Rugge, to succeed Nyx. Rugge was consecrated bishop in June 1536 but continued as abbot and was to finance the bishopric out of the St Benet's estates. It was a move where all the advantage fell to the king. St Benet's was already hugely in debt and in no position to maintain the bishopric. Rugge was to retain a dozen monks at the abbey, but by 1545 the site was abandoned, and Rugge himself was forced into retirement five years later. Demolition of the buildings followed, and was complete by 1579. By 1585 only a single fisherman lived at the ‘utterly ruinated’ site. Perhaps his house was the former abbot’s lodging, by the Bure waterside. By the 19th century this building had become a well-known inn, the Chequers, but it was burnt down in 1891.

When the surrounding marshes were drained in the early 18th century, the precinct ditch was used as a part of the drainage system, with the new drainage dykes flowing into the old ditch. A drainage mill was first erected at the eastern outflow of the precinct ditch. This is shown on a map of 1702. No trace of this remains today.

St Benet's Abbey gatehouse and mill

The Abbey gatehouse from the west, showing the mill built upon it in the 18th century

Engravings of 1728 show the gatehouse without a windmill and the upper story of the gatehouse still partially preserved. In the later 18th century the eastern drainage mill was replaced by the present one, which was erected onto the front of the gatehouse. The upper floor of the gatehouse was then removed to provide room for the sails to turn. An engraving by Cotman of 1813 shows the windmill and gatehouse without the upper story. An engraving of 1833 of a painting by James Stark shows the scoop wheel in position to lift water from the dyke up into the river, proving that the mill indeed powered a drainage pump. A fine photograph of 1854 shows the mill with its sails, but these blew off in 1863. We are fortunate that Stark, Cotman, Crome and other artists of the Norwich School felt drawn to work at St Benet’s and to record its grandeur.

The importance of St Benet’s was recognised when it became one of Britain’s first Scheduled Ancient Monuments in 1915. Much of the 20th century, however, saw worry about maintenance and conservation. Eventually, the Norfolk Archaeological Trust bought most of the precinct in 2002. In 2004 the Trust bought the gatehouse too, thus bringing the site back under the management of a single body. Only the ruins of the church itself are still owned by the diocese, but they are leased to the Trust for 199 years. Much important conservation work has followed, including works to control erosion of the river bank by the wash from passing boats. The Trust is working on ambitious plans for developing visitor facilities and interpretation at the site.

Norfolk Heritage Explorer

For more information about St Benet's Abbey, visit the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website. www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/SingleResult.aspx?uid=MNF5199.


Further reading

Guidebook, published by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust.
Pestell, T., 2008. St Benet’s Abbey(Norfolk Archaeological Trust)

Other books
Aston, M., 2000. Monasteries in the Landscape (Stroud, Tempus)
Coppack, G., 2006. Abbeys and Priories (Stroud, Tempus)
Pestell, T., 2005. ‘Monasteries’, in T. Ashwin and A. Davison (eds), An Historical Atlas of Norfolk, 3rd edition (Chichester, Phillimore), 66–7
Pestell, T., 2004. Landscapes of Monastic Foundation: The Establishment of Religious Houses in East Anglia, c. 650–1200 (Woodbridge, Boydell)