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Drama celebrates 1,000 years of St Benet's Abbey

PUBLISHED: 18:47 12 June 2019 | UPDATED: 18:48 12 June 2019

The 1,000-year history of St Benet's Abbey, near Ludham, is told in the community drama A Time to Gather Stones   Picture: Rowan Mantell

The 1,000-year history of St Benet's Abbey, near Ludham, is told in the community drama A Time to Gather Stones Picture: Rowan Mantell

Archant

A thousand years of pilgrimage to St Benet's Abbey, near Ludham, is being marked by open-air community play A Time to Gather Stones

The 1,000-year history of St Benet's Abbey, near Ludham, is told in the community drama A Time to Gather Stones   Picture: Rowan MantellThe 1,000-year history of St Benet's Abbey, near Ludham, is told in the community drama A Time to Gather Stones Picture: Rowan Mantell

A thousand years after King Canute gave monks an island in the marshes for an abbey, a summer of celebrations has begun.

Last weekend audiences arrived at St Benet's Abbey, near Ludham, by boat, for performances of A Time to Gather Stones, which told the story of St Benet's - from Viking raids through riches, ruin, devotion and betrayal, to the 21st century.

The first two performances began on the staithe at Horning and continued in front of the Abbey ruins, starring a cast of local people, the stunning landscape - and two horses.

There are three more, free, performances, at Ludham Village Hall, and continuing outside on the grass, weather permitting, on Thursday June 13; Horning Village Hall and Recreation Ground on Friday June 14; and outside Neatishead Victory Hall on Saturday June 15, all at 7pm.

Monks greet the audience arriving at St Benet's Abbey, near Ludham, for the community drama A Time to Gather Stones    Picture: Rowan MantellMonks greet the audience arriving at St Benet's Abbey, near Ludham, for the community drama A Time to Gather Stones Picture: Rowan Mantell

The 1,000th anniversary celebrations will continue in and around St Benet's Abbey throughout the summer.

Magnificent larger-than-life-size monks, and their dog, woven from willow, will watch over the site from mid July until mid August.

Flowers, art and a model of St Benet's Abbey are part of the 1,000th anniversary celebrations at Horning church from 10am-5pm from July 6-14.

The audience joins in the community drama A Time to Gather Stones at St Benet's Abbey   Picture: Rowan MantellThe audience joins in the community drama A Time to Gather Stones at St Benet's Abbey Picture: Rowan Mantell

An open air communion service for St Benedict's Day will be led by the Prior of St Benet's (aka the vicar of Horning), at the abbey, on Thursday July 11 at 6pm, with the annual open air service, normally led by the Abbot of St Benet's (aka the Bishop of Norwich) on Sunday, August 4, at 3.30pm. It will be led by the Bishop of Thetford.

St Benet's Abbey is owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust. Its 1,000th anniversary celebrations are being led by the Friends of St Benet's Abbey and supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Fund. A Time to Gather Stones was created by the people of local villages, working with Parrabbola and the Friends of St Benet's Abbey.

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THE STORY OF THE ABBEY

In 1019 King Canute gave a marshy, reed-fringed islet alongside the river Bure, to a group of monks.

They built the first St Benet's Abbey midway, by water, between Ludham and Ranworth.

It had already been a holy place for centuries. There are haunting stories of Christian hermits slaughtered by Viking raiders. But gradually the Viking invaders converted to Christianity and the abbey became rich through gifts of land and property. The isolated site attracted legends and ghost stories too, including the tale of the traitor monk who agreed to open the abbey door to Norman invaders, in return for being made the next Abbot. They made him abbot - and then hanged him.

One of the greatest benefactors was 15th century Norfolk knight Sir John Fastolf, of Caister Castle (and the inspiration for Shakespeare's Falstaff) who is buried there.

Less than a century later St Benet's Abbey became the only monastery in England to survive Henry VIII's destruction. He gave the Abbot of St Benet's the position of Bishop of Norwich, in return for land held by Norwich Cathedral. It meant the Abbey was never officially dissolved and the Bishop of Norwich is the Abbot of St Benet's to this day.

However the abbey was abandoned and most of the buildings demolished, with just the gatehouse remaining.

Today a wooden cross, made from trees uprooted by the 1987 storm on the Sandringham estate, marks the site of the medieval high altar and a ruined 18th century wind pump fills the gatehouse to what was once one of the richest churches in the kingdom.

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