New insights into 900-year history of famous abbey

It is a history rich in rivalry and rebellion, restoration and renaissance. The story of how Wymondham gained first a Benedictine priory, then for 100 years an abbey, before Henry VIII's dismantling reduced that to what still remains one of Norfolk's grandest parish churches, is a famous one.

It is a history rich in rivalry and rebellion, restoration and renaissance.

The story of how Wymondham gained first a Benedictine priory, then for 100 years an abbey, before Henry VIII's dismantling reduced that to what still remains one of Norfolk's grandest parish churches, is a famous one.

But it is only now to celebrate the abbey's 900th birthday that the full, rich history has been revealed with some of Britain's most respected historians, archaeologists and archivists coming together to produce a comprehensive narration.

From the day William D'Aubigny, butler to Henry I, came to Wymondham in 1107 to pronounce it the base for a great monastery, to the time Henry VIII knocked it down 431 years later, new documents and new theories in the book bring the abbey's history to life.

For the first time, a treasure trove of new documents has been uncovered that show how the church developed in the 19th century, culminating in the great restoration between 1902 and 1905 when the abbey was returned to its previous splendour.

There are chapters exploring the furnishing of the church, the bells, the organs, the music and the monuments - giving the back-story to elements of the abbey the current congregation now take for granted.

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But the book is more than just a history of one building and the people most associated with it - it is a history of how the town itself developed alongside its famous church.

Chief archivist and editor of the tome, Paul Cattermole, said research had thrown up many interesting unknowns about the town - including evidence that fabled underground tunnels allowing monks access to Wymondham's pubs actually exists.

"There have been ever so many new findings and some of them are quite controversial," he said. "For example, Wymondham had two market places - that's something no one had come up with before.

"I discovered that the early-day monks were the equivalent of today's Mowlem contractors. There's a document in 1125 that confirms that the monks had no responsibility for maintaining the ditches they dug around a deer park. As civil engineers they were also responsible for making the River Tiffey navigable."

These findings were made despite the monastic documents from before the 1538 dissolution of the abbey being very sporadic. Only tax documents sent to London were unearthed.

"But we've been able to locate lots of bits and pieces about how Wymondham developed," said Mr Cattermole.

"Such as the water supply. It sounds boring but we've found documentary evidence of a lead pipe flowing below ground into a culvert that we think is the foundation for the legend of secret tunnels used by the monks for illicit excursions into the town."

The 309-page, beautifully-illustrated book has been the result of two years' hard work.

"It was an idea we had a couple of years ago at a meeting of the Friends of Wymondham Abbey," said Mr Cattermole. "It was originally meant to be 50,000 words but that went up to 80,000 because a lot of people came aboard, all of whom wanted to produce something really worthwhile.

"Most of the contributors are experts in their fields. A lot are professional archaeologists, landscape historians, art historians. Several are fellows of the Society of Antiquities, four or five have PhDs. All have written for nothing, which shows the level of affection both for this project and the abbey itself."

The book also features an introduction by Prince Charles, a patron of the Norfolk Churches Trust who regularly visits Wymondham Abbey on the quiet.

In it he states: "Wymondham Abbey is one of only three great Romanesque churches of Norfolk and its twin towers, indicating something of the dispute between town and church in the past, are an icon of the country's landscape.

"The book is full of new material which has recently come to light, providing a fresh insight into the abbey's construction and history.

"William D'Aubigny founded this abbey exactly 900 years ago. It is, therefore, a most suitable moment to explore its history and celebrate its splendour."

The dispute between town and church is one of the most interesting periods in the abbey's history - but new research for the book suggests the rivalry might have been exaggerated over the centuries.

The monastery had been built on the site of a parish church and for centuries the religious and secular communities lived side by side.

But in 1385 a wall was built down the middle of the church, splitting the two communities, and 15 years later a licence was secured from Pope Boniface IX that allowed the monks to appoint the parish priest directly, wrestling control away from the bishop.

By 1409 the rivalry had descended into violence, including a disturbance on St Bartholomew's Day when monks were beaten with clubs and threatened with daggers.

The rows came to a head over the ringing of bells, which culminated in parishioners building a north-west tower to rival the monks' south-west tower, the result of that rivalry dominating the landscape to this day.

But despite that, Mr Cattermole believes the schism between church and town was just a brief interlude in a long and prosperous relationship.

"One thing that comes up strongly from my research was that the belief that the town and monastery were always at war does not hold water," he said.

"The two institutions were interdependent. For 25 years after they built the wall there was enormous tension but by the time it became an abbey in 1449 the two sides were a lot closer than they had been before."

But by 1538 standards had once again slipped and, while there is no evidence to suggest the monks were particularly badly behaved, none of the historians charting the period in the book claim that the abbey at the time was a beacon of monastic piety and practice.

While little changed directly after the dissolution, it was from Wymondham that tanner Robert Kett led his great rebellion in 1549, taking over Norwich with the radical evangelical aim of securing the right for communities to choose their own priests.

Between 1550 and 1553 much of the abbey was pulled down, the bells and lead were sold off, the altars removed and the copes and vestments were disposed of. The abbey was relegated into a parish church, and continued to decline for centuries.

In 1879 a damning report was made on the condition of the building and a fundraising drive made to meet the £25,000 repair fees - equivalent to more than £1m in today's terms.

Lead on three roofs was recast and relaid, beams were restored, walls and windows repaired, the organ placed on a new gallery, floors relaid, bells rehung and augmented from five to eight - and there was new heating and lighting.

At the end of it all the Bishop of Norwich John Sheepshanks described the abbey as "the noblest remains we have of the ancient churches built by the zeal and piety of our East Anglian forefathers".

And since then it has improved further, with a gleaming gold altar screen dominating the east wall of the abbey, erected in 1922 as a war memorial and described as one of the most beautiful examples of 20th century church art in Britain.

Now celebrating its 900th anniversary, the splendour of the parish church and remains of the abbey will play host to a series of community events marking the birthday, of which tonight's book launch forms the first.

"Our aim has been to produce a book where the scholarship stands out but which will be readable by the average layman with an interest in the abbey," said Mr Cattermole.

"We were going to launch the book earlier but with all the scholarship that has gone into it that date had to be pushed back to March 24. We've subsequently realised that in the 12th century March 24 was the last day of the year, also known as Lady's Day, and traditionally was the day that building work started.

"There's no evidence to suggest this, but it would be nice to think that William D'Aubigny might have gone into the church this day 900 years ago and announced what he was going to do. Sadly, like so many things about this period, we'll never know for sure."