Fire and plague – two of the medieval world’s greatest threats – put paid to Creake Abbey. A modest little place, it never had the best of luck and could not recover from these natural disasters.

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But small can be beautiful. . .

It was founded in the early 13th century as an almshouse for the poor. For 300 years this was its main function, something common to most abbeys and monasteries. Although it gained the backing of aristocratic patrons, it was never large or rich enough to make such an impact as other Norfolk abbeys did. Today it stands in an exceptionally peaceful rural spot, by the River Burn about a mile north of the village of North Creake. Well cared for and surrounded by farmland, it is in a particularly beautiful part of the county. Perhaps this part of Norfolk did not look that much different in 1206 when a small chapel was founded in a meadow of 40 acres near the village a few miles north-west of Fakenham. A church was built at the same time attached to the hospital and almshouse, called St Mary of the Meadows next to Burnham. Sir Robert and Lady Alice de Nerford (he had been principal warder of Dover Castle) promptly re-established the house as a hospital dedicated to Saint Bartholomew, patron saint of tanners. They gave instructions that 13 local poor men should receive shelter, food, clothes and care from a master, William de Geyst, four chaplains and lay brothers. Endowments made between 1206 and 1230 meant there was enough cash to turn the house into a priory; the master became a prior and the chaplains became canons. Although it adopted the Augustinian rule, there were no monks there all the brethren were priests who could hear mass in their own right. Pope Gregory IX confirmed them in the possession of the great meadow round the monastery, the vills of Receresthorp and Ilveston, in Lincoln diocese; various houses, lands, mills, woods, and rents in Norwich diocese; a messuage in the city of London and bestowed on them several privileges and immunities. After her husbands death Lady Alice transferred her right to appoint the prior to the Crown, but when, in 1231, Henry III raised the priory to abbey status he gave it the right to elect its own abbot.

Surely that was the cue for expansion?

Despite this and the bonus of some more endowments four fairs were held at the abbey, at the Annunciation, the Translation of St Thomas, and the festivals of Saints Bartholomew and Nicholas while the abbey held land in Gedney, Lincolnshire there were only ever seven canons at Creake, so it never became a large establishment. Contrast this to a Benedictine monastery such as Castle Acre, which had more than 30 monks at its peak, not counting lay servants, or Binham, another far larger establishment. Despite being close to the pilgrim route to Walsingham, almost literally next door, Creake never attracted the wealth created elsewhere. At Castle Acre the monks provided lodgings and services for hungry travellers, helping make money to aid the abbeys growth. By 1291 tax returns showed Creake Abbey earned just under 60 a year plus tithes paid from its affiliated churches. Perhaps the fact Creake was never attached to a larger monastic institution, as Castle Acre was to the great Benedictine house at Lewes in Sussex, held it back.

At least it avoided any kind of scandal

Unlike neighbouring Binham and other monasteries with a large and sometimes divided population, Creake never suffered from eccentric abbots, embezelling priors or disputes with the neighbours. In 1484, though, it had problems enough. A terrible fire wrecked much of the church; the whole structure was almost destroyed and half of it was never rebuilt. The nave and transepts were demolished leaving only the inner bay to either side of the crossing. Despite this the ruins of the church that we see today have walls still close to their original height. Students of architecture will admire their traditional Norfolk flintwork. A new abbot, Robert Walsingham, was appointed in 1491. Plans were afoot to rebuild the abbey, and landowner Robert Calthorp of Burnham Thorpe had already pledged 74 towards the building of the quire and presbytery along with general repairs. Another local man, Walter Aslake, meanwhile willed the abbey some generous lands plus a pension to each of the canons in return for them saying prayers for his soul after his death an important matter for medieval people who wanted to be sure of a place in heaven. Clearly there was plenty of hope for and interest in the abbeys future.

So what went wrong?

In the early years of the 16th century a new disaster struck. Plague, possibly one of the many reoccurrences of the Black Death that afflicted the country for centuries following its first outbreak in the 1340s, killed off all of the brothers. The last survivor was the abbot, Giles Shevington, who finally died of the disease on December 12, 1506. And that was that really for Creake. It was given to Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, and left by her to her foundation at Christs College, Cambridge. At the Reformation Creake Abbey escaped Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwells commissioners as it was no longer functioning, but it would doubtless have been one of the smaller houses picked off early in the 1530s. Decay soon set in. The church was adapted as a farm and the east range of the cloister, including the chapter house, was converted to a house. Creake Abbey is an atmospheric site and, although little else survives apart from foundations, there are some fine carved details in the window arches and doorways.

The farmhouse still stands next door, and you can see that much of it is built with the same materials as the abbey.

The site is now in the care of English Heritage, and freely accessible to the public.

Websites:

www.english-heritage.org.uk
www.british-history.ac.uk

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