Hermits Religious hermits may have lived here as early as the 9th century.
The earliest reference to settlement at Cowholm – the old name for the site - is in a 13th century manuscript, which records the death, in 870/871, of a group of hermits led by a man called Suneman. They may have been killed by Viking raiders.
Vikings In the 9th century the site was vulnerable to attack from invaders.
At this time the Vikings had the upper hand in East Anglia which was under ‘Dane law’. Gradually the invasions which began with violence and destruction were replaced by peaceful trading, and Viking settlers were absorbed into local communities. The Danish influence is still apparent in many place names locally. The first hermits at the Abbey site may have been murdered by Viking invaders, but by the late 10th century a monk called Wulfric was able to settle here with seven followers and live peacefully.
King Cnut In 1019 King Cnut, who ruled Denmark as well as England, granted land and property to the hermits at St Benet’s, and the Benedictine monastery began its long life.
During the late 11th century – over 1000 years ago - the community occupying the site replaced their mud and timber church with one built of stone. Over the coming centuries this was extended and developed, though we cannot be sure exactly how the church looked. Our interpretation is based upon the few documentary sources, the archaeological remains, and other East Anglian buildings of similar significance.
The growing Abbey Once established, the Abbey was given more and more land by wealthy donors who believed that this would guarantee them quick entrance into heaven.
Among these was Edith Swan-neck, the wife of King Harold who lost his life and throne to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings. By the time of the Norman invasion (1066) St Benet’s was already nearing the peak of its powers.
Domesday 1085-86 By the time of the Domesday survey, St Benet’s Abbey owned sizeable areas of land in north-east Norfolk and was the dominant landowner.
The monastery spent money on grand buildings decorated in a manner befitting a powerful economic and religious institution. It also made improvements to its estate. It is thought that the Abbey may have been responsible for changing the course of the Ant and Thurne rivers to improve drainage and prevent flooding on its land. A raised causeway was built across the marsh to allow access by foot.
Hospitality The causeway linked St Benet’s Abbey with St James’ Hospital – the chapel of the hospital still stands in the grounds of nearby Horning Hall (private) on the other side of the Ant.
This building would have provided hospitality for visitors and pilgrims to the abbey as well as caring for the sick. From the hospital site the track carried on to St Benedict’s Church in Horning.
The making of the Broads The abbey held rights to dig peat in several parishes in the area – a right called ‘turbary’.
Peat was an important source of fuel and was sold by the Abbey, adding to its wealth, but also changing the landscape. The peat pits gradually filled with water to form the Broads.
The Abbey as Landlord By the late 1200s St Benet’s Abbey had property in 76 parishes – most of them in the surrounding area.
As was the case in all medieval manors, peasants had to pay rent or offer services to the Abbey landlord. Each peasant family was allocated land to farm for themselves but they also had to work on the Abbey’s land for little or no pay, depending on whether they were Villeins or Freemen. The amount of work tenants were asked to do was decided by the Abbey. It was often 2-3 days a week.
The Peasant’s Revolt 1381 Sometimes resentment against this feudal system sparked rebellion.
In England, the most organised and systematic of these uprisings took place in 1381 and is known as the Peasants’ Revolt. Though Richard II suppressed protesters in London, the rebellion spread across East Anglia and reached St Benet’s Abbey in June 1381.
Riots at St Benet’s Abbey The local rising reached a head on the night of 20 June 1381 when a group of local people marched along the causeway to the Abbey gatehouse.
Their aim was the destruction of documents which they saw as ‘instruments of subjection’, the tools which enabled the Abbey to demand free labour from them. The frightened monks readily gave up the documents, which the mob burnt in front of the gateway.
Three nights later around 400 armed local peasants crossed the causeway and advanced on the Abbey. There are no reports of injuries or deaths. It is thought likely that the monks kept quiet inside the Abbey, with the knowledge that the wider uprising was being ruthlessly put down by Henry le Dispenser, the ‘Fighting Bishop’ of Norwich. The rising, which had lasted less than a fortnight locally, was finally ended at the Battle of North Walsham with victory for the Bishop’s forces.
Defeat After the revolt, St Benet’s Abbey soon restored order and those who had taken part were punished.
Tenants were made to ‘swear fealty’ by taking a legally binding oath before God agreeing to the terms of their tenancy. They were fined for their part in the troubles and the ringleaders paid with their lives.
The Rules The Rule of St Benedict, written in the 6th century, sets out in detail how a Benedictine monk should conduct his life.
It is a handbook for Benedictine monasteries and the daily rituals and routines which would have taken place at the Abbey in the middle ages.
The Rule of St Benedict is divided into 73 chapters, dealing with two kinds of wisdom: spiritual and administrative. The former outlines how to live a Christian life on earth; the latter, how to run an efficient monastery, like a family, with the monks as brothers and the abbot their father figure.
The vows Three vows had to be sworn: poverty, chastity and obedience.
The aim, wrote Benedict, was, ‘to become a stranger to the world’s ways’. This helps to explain why remote spots like isolated marshland were selected as suitable places to establish monasteries.
A Monk’s Life First and foremost the monk’s life was about praising God. Prayer was extremely important in medieval society. This was how souls were saved, and it was considered that everyone’s soul required saving. A timetable of prayer throughout the day and night was observed. The monks’ sleep was frequently disturbed and the rules instructed them to sleep in their habits to avoid being late for prayers.
The monks did perform other tasks, but their chief job was to pray and they employed others to help with domestic chores like food production and preparation. The wider St Benet’s Abbey site would have provided employment for local people and some would probably have lived within its wider precinct.
Poverty v. wealth As the monasteries grew in size and power, so did the conflict with at least one of the Benedictine vows: poverty.
Benefactors donated wealth to the monasteries to enable the vital work of prayer to be carried out, and guarantee their place in heaven. But this meant that monasteries found it difficult to stay poor. For example, we know that St Benet’s Abbey was granted permission to build a perimeter wall to encircle the whole site in 1327. The cost was £583, which at today’s value would be well on the way to half a million pounds.
Tudor monks behaving badly St Benet’s Abbey was regularly inspected to check that a religious lifestyle was being maintained, and the results were reported back to the Bishop of Norwich.
In 1494 some of the monks complained they were overburdened with recitals and that the prior was often absent. There were also reports that silence was not maintained in the choir and that the younger brethren were rude to the elders.
Moving into Henry VIII’s reign, inspection records became yet more damning. William Stapleton, a monk of St Benet’s, was said to have left the religious community to seek his fortune ‘treasure hunting’ with the aid of ‘magic’ books and the invoking of spirits!
In 1532 a complaint was raised about the Prior’s hunting dogs who ate the scraps which should have been given to the poor. St Benet’s was apparently ripe for reform.
A local celebrity In the late middle ages St Benet’s Abbey had the equivalent of its own celebrity patron, underlining its status as a significant religious community.
Sir John Fastolf was one of England’s most famous knights and military commanders. He was born in 1380 not far from St Benet’s on the coast at Caister.
His final resting place was a chapel in St Benet’s Abbey church which he had previously built for himself and his wife Millicent.
A brave knight John Fastolf made his name during the Hundred Years War and spent over thirty years in the service of his country under three kings; Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI.
In this period he served all over Ireland and France, even fighting at the Siege of Orleans in direct conflict with Joan of Arc.
On April 22 1426 he was awarded the Knight of the Garter and assumed the title ‘Sir’. His fighting exploits had enabled him to amass large sums of money and land so that on his return he became a man of vast property in Ireland, London and Norfolk. In the 1430s Fastolf paid for and had built his chapel at St Benet’s in preparation for his death. His castle at Caister was completed in 1432 and he lived there until he died at the age of seventy-nine in 1459.
Death Sir John was given a magnificent funeral with military honours.
His body was taken from Caister Castle, probably by barge along the river, for burial in the church at St Benet’s where estimates put the attendance at some four hundred people. He had given instructions that his tomb be made of marble, inlaid with brasses, and placed before the altar of St Edmund. Nobody knows what happened to this tomb.
A betrayal In return for the wealth he had given the Abbey, Fastolf expected the monks to remember him in prayer and engage in a spiritual battle on his behalf – but they did not keep their side of the bargain.
Fastolf’s secretary, William Worcester (1425-1482) revisited St Benet’s in 1472 and noted that ‘Fastolf is very soon forgotten by the Monks’.
Shakespeare’s knight Today most of the church is long gone, but Fastolf’s name lives on through Shakespeare, who borrowed it to create one of his most popular characters, Sir John Falstaff.
Shakespeare’s drunken knight may bear little resemblance to the real Fastolf, but a more appropriate legacy exists in the shape of Magdalen College, Oxford. This was built in 1470 with money endowed in Sir John’s will and, together with the Paston letters, secures his place in history as ‘Our Norfolk Knight’.
Stephen Cooper, The Real Fastolf, (England 2010).
Jessie Crosland, Sir John Fastolf, a medieval man of property, (London 1970).
The Fastolf Society, Magdalen College, Oxford.
The end of monastic life Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon broke the connection with the Roman Catholic Church and brought with it an end to the monasteries in England – often called the ‘dissolution’ of the monasteries.
Hungry for their enormous wealth, the king closed the monasteries down and seized their buildings, land and valuables. Nearly 1000 years of English monastic life came to an end. Urban and rural landscapes were transformed as the imposing monastic structures were dismantled.
All except one Remarkably, St Benet’s was the only monastery in the land not to be ‘dissolved’, though its days as a monastic community were numbered.
The story of how St Benet’s escaped dissolution was made complicated by the political infighting and intrigue of the times. 1534 was the year in which Henry VIII finally split with Rome and made himself supreme head of the church in England. It was also the year in which the Bishop of Norwich, Richard Nykke, fell out of favour with the Crown. He was prosecuted by the King’s Bench, fined and imprisoned. Nykke died soon afterwards and Henry took control of the Bishop’s manors and looked for a successor.
By 1536 the suppression and closure of the monasteries was gathering pace. The Abbot at St Benet’s, William Rugge, defiantly refused to renounce the Pope and also found himself in prison. Yet, oddly, Rugge was chosen to become the next Bishop of Norwich.
Bishop and Abbot As part of a deal with the Crown, Bishop Rugge handed over all the ancient and lucrative properties which belonged to the Norwich Diocese, in exchange for St Benet’s Abbey and the role of Abbot.
What may have seemed on the surface a dramatic return to favour for Rugge was, in reality, a very mixed blessing. The Abbey was heavily in debt and the deal was weighted in favour of the King.
Nevertheless, in the 1530s the position of St Benet’s Abbey was truly exceptional. There was even an Act of Parliament which required Abbot Rugge to keep at least twelve monks on the site and to maintain the divine service.
Ruin The political and religious climate left the monastery remote and isolated and the Abbey was unable to thrive - by 1545 the last remaining monks had gone.
Bishop Rugge had amassed even more debts and by 1550 these were so large he was forced to resign. The wholesale destruction of St Benet’s Abbey church followed shortly.
Still, Rugge’s place in history as the first Bishop of Norwich, who was also Abbot of St Benet’s, is assured. The link between the two titles remains to this day. The Diocese of Norwich still owns the Abbey church ruins and the Bishop of Norwich visits annually to conduct an open air service.
Demolition With the monks gone, the full scale dismantling of St Benet’s Abbey began.
Instead of the busy round of services and prayer, the Abbey became the centre of a salvage operation that was to continue for decades.
Wooden panelling was stripped from the site to be re-used in the Bishop’s palace in Norwich – now in the vestry at Norwich Cathedral. Stone, even some from tombs of former Abbots, was taken or sold for other buildings. Some was used in the building of the Duke of Norfolk’s Norwich palace and much must have been re-used locally in the villages of the surrounding area.
We can assume that the grandest buildings - the church, chapter house and cloisters at the Abbey’s heart - were constructed from the most valuable materials, which is probably why they disappeared first. By 1579 Bishop Edmund Freake reported that the site was ‘down’ and uninhabitable. He had a new house constructed at nearby Ludham Hall for his country residence, a situation which was continued by later bishops for some years.
Life after the monastery Before the end of the 16th century a survey described the church as ‘utterly ruinated and wasted’ - all that remained on site were an uncovered gatehouse, a decaying barn and one house.
The house could have been the Abbot’s former riverside lodging, but the 1594 survey notes that it was occupied by a fisherman. It is possible that this fisherman used and extended the medieval ponds to farm fish commercially.
Back to the land The Ludham Hall estate, which included St Benet’s Abbey, was leased to a succession of local farmers.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the site had a number of advantages from an agricultural perspective. The arable land on the ‘uplands’ supported a range of crops including wheat, barley and root vegetables, while the extensive marshlands were ideal for rearing cattle. These natural assets were coupled with easy access to navigable water, where keel boats and wherries provided the goods haulage of the day.
The 1702 map of the site shows a cottage (later the Chequers Inn), barn and stable as well as the gatehouse all surviving. There is no sign yet of the mill which was constructed on top of the gatehouse though there is a small timber drainage mill in the far eastern corner of the precinct.
In the early 1720s three drawings of the 2-storey gatehouse, each from a different perspective, were produced and later published by the Society of Antiquaries. Shortly after this, the upper storey was removed to allow a brick tower windmill to be built into the remains, making the most of the firm foundations in the marshy terrain.
The mill A map of 1731 includes an illustration of the mill and shows it had a two-storey building attached and a wet ‘dock’ nearby which would have allowed trading vessels to load and unload easily.
It was almost certainly built to process colza or rape seed which at that time was used for lighting and lubrication. References to an ‘Oylman of St Benet’s’ appear in the Ludham parish registers from late 1725 and throughout the 1730s.
The oil production process was complex, hot and smelly. The oil-bearing seeds were crushed by stones and the resulting pulp was heated in pans before being bagged up and placed in ‘stamps’ to press it and extract the oil. The residue was crushed and pressed again to produce oil cake, sold as cattle feed. The stamps made oil mills deafeningly noisy and they were known as unpleasant places to work.
As a former oil mill, the mill is of considerable rarity and interest. The likely build date of 1725 also makes it Norfolk’s second oldest windmill. But from 1740 onwards any references to the mill are only to it as a drainage mill. Perhaps it was constructed with a dual purpose in mind, or perhaps it was adapted to take over the drainage function of the earlier mill on site.
A 19th century attraction In the early 1800s, the strange sight of a working windmill within the medieval monastic ruins attracted a number of artists collectively known as the ‘Norwich School’.
Their pictures provide us with evidence of its early nineteenth century appearance. In the 1850s at least three different photographers also captured images of the mill when it was still working to drain the marsh.
The Chequers Inn The ‘oylmen’ and later, ‘marshmen’, who operated the mill lived in the cottage on the site which for much of the nineteenth century also functioned as The Chequers, a wherryman's inn.
The mill was reputedly damaged in a gale in 1863 which ended its working days and the last marshman to run both The Chequers and operate the mill, William Grapes, left the site in 1867.
By the 1870s the former Chequers had been divided into 2 cottages and was known as a stopping place for eggs and butter for the emerging holidaymaker trade. The building fell into decline and became the victim of a fire in the early 1890s. From then onwards the St Benet’s Abbey site has been uninhabited.
Roy Gregory, The Industrial Windmill in Britain (Phillimore: 2005)
Richard L. Hills, Power from Wind: A History of Windmill Technology (CUP: 1994)
Harry Apling Norfolk Corn Windmills and Other Industrial Windmills (Norfolk Windmills Trust: 1984)
The Norwich School of painters The nineteenth century witnessed a rise in a romantic interest in wild places and ruins and, in Norwich, the first regional school of painting was set up by John Crome.
Its members, mainly self-taught working class artists, were inspired by the wild Norfolk landscape. Wind-swept St Benet’s was a source of inspiration and was painted many times. Indeed the Norwich School tended to choose coastal subjects or scenes on the Yare and Wensum rivers, but considered St Benet’s sufficiently alluring to tempt them along the Bure.
This group of painters never enjoyed the recognition given to the Suffolk artist John Constable, perhaps because much of their work was bought by the local mustard manufacturer J. J. Colman and retained in Norwich.
Nevertheless their paintings did attract admiration and the atmospheric beauty they captured at St Benet’s broadened its appeal. Perhaps without their attention the early photographers of the 1850s would not have ventured to such an isolated spot to find their subject.
The arrival of tourists The growing awareness of St Benet’s Abbey charms, through the circulation of romantic images of the gatehouse and mill, coincided with the birth of the tourist industry on The Broads.
People grew curious about the world around them and in the late Victorian era a number of societies concerned with history and nature were spawned- for example, the Great Yarmouth and District Archaeological Society, formed in 1888. A group photo from the early 1890s proves that St Benet’s Abbey was already a site of interest for them.
Graffiti Evidence of the enduring fascination of the site remains in the form of many hundreds of graffiti inscriptions that can still be seen within the gatehouse.
Amongst the heavy mass of inscriptions can be found names, dates, faces, horses and even the occasional Norfolk wherry boat. The inscriptions, some dating back to the 18th century, form a very tangible record of the beginning of the modern story of St Benet’s as a tourist attraction
Rebirth of a holy place The dawn of the 20th century found St Benet’s Abbey recognised as a holy place as well as a tourist attraction, and an important archaeological site.
For centuries this fragile medieval ruin had suffered a battering from the elements and had been the object of attention from curious cattle. The precious remains were in danger unless something was done to protect them.
Ancient monument In 1915 St Benet’s was placed on a list of nationally-protected archaeological sites and recorded as ‘Norfolk Ancient Monument No 6’.
In the 1920s the Ecclesiastical Commissioners paid for major repairs to the gatehouse and for some to the church.
At this time the love of boating on the Broads really took off. St Benet’s Abbey features in local tourist guides of the 1930s as well as in many personal records kept by visitors. The Norfolk Record Office retains several copies of individuals’ hand-written accounts of their trip, often accompanied by sketches. Inevitably, more trippers meant more heavy-footed visitors and the site remained vulnerable. The church authorities tried unsuccessfully to persuade the government to take responsibility for the Abbey but it was not until 1977 that a management committee was set up by the Bishop of Norwich to oversee essential work.
A Queen’s gift In 1987 a large oak cross was commissioned from the royal estate at Sandringham in West Norfolk to mark the spot where the Abbey’s high altar would have been.
The landmark is a reminder of the centuries of prayers which have been said there and many visitors still find time for a moment of quiet reflection.
The Bishop’s service Each year on the first Sunday of August, St Benet’s church experiences a very particular spiritual awakening - an open air service, attended by the Bishop of Norwich and held amid the church ruins.
The services, which began in 1939, are conducted by the Prior of St Benet’s, who is also Vicar of Horning. The Abbey remains within the Parish of Horning, reflecting its ancient ties across the old causeway. The service is assisted by the Brethren of St Benet’s, a group of local men formed in 1989 who meet for study and prayer at St Benet’s Hall in Horning. Their commitment, and the growing number of pilgrims from Norfolk and further afield, who make the journey to St Benet’s, demonstrates the ongoing Christian life of this sacred place.
New beginnings in the 21st century In the early 2000s the Norfolk Archaeological Trust bought the site with a commitment to ensure its conservation, and improve and maintain public access.
The ownership of the site had been divided in the 1920s when the Church Commissioners sold off most of the land, but kept the gatehouse and windmill and the ruins of the church. Later the Church Commissioners passed these on to the Norwich Diocese.
The main enclosure containing the earthworks was purchased by the Trust from the Crown Estate in May 2002 while the gatehouse and mill were bought from the Diocese in 2004. The church remains in Diocesan ownership but is leased to the Trust.
The Trust commissioned a Management Plan in 2004 which identified the need to build a new riverbank to stop medieval walls falling into the water, caused by the wash from river cruisers. The Environment Agency funded the works as a part of their flood prevention scheme. Since then the Archaeological Trust has invested heavily in further conservation work and the site's future looks assured. Numerous historical, artistic and wildlife events have taken place, a Friends of St Benet’s Abbey group and has been set up and this website has been established to help people learn more about this special place and to encourage further study.a.