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Thursday, April 15, 2010
St Benets Abbey is one of the most recognisable features in the Norfolk landscape. Isolated on an island in the marshes of the Broads, it has a number of claims to fame – as well as more than its fair share of supernatural connections.
Boaters on the River Bure will be aware of the iconic view of the ruined abbey gatehouse and later 18th century windmill bizarrely occupying the same site. It has inspired many artists over the years. Were not sure exactly how old the abbey is or even how it looked in its prime. Some say the first person to found a religious site there was a Saxon hermit called Suneman in the 800s, and it was extended by a character called Wolfric, who formed a cell there for his brethren. It would certainly have been a tempting target for any Viking marauders sailing along East Anglias waterways in search of loot; they would have been overjoyed at seeing such a ripe plum fall into their laps. But the Norfolk Archaeological Trust dismisses talk of a pre-Viking settlement as little more than hearsay but says there was probably a settlement there by the late 10th century. It was under King Canute in the early 1000s that it emerges into recorded history as St Benet-at-Holm. Despite its isolated position on an island surrounded by marsh, the abbey was reached by a land causeway from nearby Horning and Ludham. Soon it was one of the richest Benedictine foundations in the country.
In 1046 St Benets had 28 dependent churches as well as property in the surrounding area which would have provided rent. The monks also controlled the peat diggings that historians believe created the Broads as we know them, and had a finger in most economic pies, including agriculture. Its fishponds, which again would have provided income, have been described as among the most complex of any monastic house in England. Like the sites at Bury St Edmunds and Ely, it was one of few Anglo-Saxon monasteries that remained in constant use throughout the Middle Ages. The site awaits thorough excavation, and archaeologists believe it may contain some fascinating secrets. Its remote marshy location saved it from disturbance after it was abandoned; unlike places such as Ely no further building took place. Wealthy Norfolk knight Sir John Fastolf, said to be the model for Shakespeares Falstaff character, was buried there in a lavish service in 1459. A generous benefactor, he had spent 600 on the church.
The only remaining part of the building is the gatehouse. Some rubble about 150 yards away on higher ground is all that remains of the monastery proper but it must have been a large and impressive complex, complete with cloisters and a perimeter wall, the foundations of which can still be viewed along with the fishpond embankments. Its largely guesswork though; unlike such sites as Castle Acre and Binham, whose scale remains intact, this monastery was thoroughly taken apart. The gatehouse which survives today dates from the 14th century, but 200 years later St Benets was in terminal decline. Ironically, it was this very decay that enabled it to be the one monastery that got away from Henry VIII. When other religious houses were dissolved in the 1530s, proceeds from the sale going to the king, St Benets was overlooked. It ended up instead in the care of the Bishop of Norwich. But Bishop Reppes merely stripped the site, the last monk leaving in 1545. Most of the building material was taken away by boat, reputedly to be used for the Duke of Norfolks famous palace in Norwich (in modern-day Duke Street). St Benets was left in its lonely riverside setting.
By the 18th century, work was well under way draining the marshes. A drainage mill was recorded in 1702 at the eastern outflow of the precinct ditch, used to pump water from the fields into the river. It was later replaced by the structure we see today. John Sell Cotman, the great Norwich artist, was one of many inspired to record the scene his 1813 engraving shows that the upper storey of the gatehouse had been removed to make space for sails to turn.
As befits its atmospheric setting, St Benets boasts two ghosts. The first legend is that after 1066 William the Conqueror was struggling to take the abbey. He bribed a monk to open the great gate on condition he became the next abbot. The Conqueror, whose reputation for harshness was deserved, was true to his word. Once the abbey was taken he had the traitor dressed in full abbotly regalia and promptly had him hanged from the gate. The story goes that every May 25 the monks screams can be heard late at night. The other resident ghost is that of one Brother Pacificus, who has been seen quietly rowing across the river in a small boat accompanied by a dog.
Modern bishops of Norwich are rather more respectful to St Benets, and they still hold the title of abbot. Since 1939 they have preached at an open-air service there, now an annual event. In 2001 the foot-and-mouth outbreak meant it had to be cancelled. A tall oak cross was brought from Sandringham during the 1980s and placed over the position of the medieval high altar, and is now the focus of the service. The cross is inscribed with the word Peace highly appropriate for such a spot.
St Benets Abbey is best viewed from the water and the area is popular with boaters. You can walk there from nearby Ludham; it takes about an hour along a path that can get muddy. The 36-acre site is now in the care of Norfolk Archaeological Trust, which acquired it just four years ago.